How Far People Will Go to Impress a Potential Partner

Thinking about sex encourages self-presentation lies during initial encounters.

Posted Apr 01, 2020

Frank Kovalchek/Wikimedia Commons
Masked lovers
Source: Frank Kovalchek/Wikimedia Commons

How do you make the best first impression on a desirable possible romantic partner? It may depend on your goal. On the one hand, people want to show who they really are, strengths and shortcomings alike, in the hope of finding a compatible partner who accepts them as they truly are. On the other hand, people want to put forward their best face in order to maximize their immediate appeal to desirable partners. 

In our recent research, we investigated the possibility that when sex looms, people may be more likely to “put their best foot forward” in order to impress a prospective partner. In other words, we explored whether sexual desire minimizes concerns about authenticity and instead makes us do our best to look our best to potential partners.

In four studies, to test the effects of a sexy mindset, we first exposed participants either to sexual (but not pornographic) stimuli or to neutral stimuli. Next, all study participants interacted with a stranger of the opposite sex. In the first study, participants tried to resolve a dilemma in a face-to-face conversation in which each person had opposing positions. After the discussion, participants indicated the extent to which they had agreed with the other participant’s position during the discussion. We found that participants were more likely to report that they had agreed with the other participant after being shown the sexual stimuli. In other words, rather than stay true to themselves, they took on the persona that they thought the other person would like.

In our second study, we wanted to see if we could take this idea even further. In addition to saying they agreed with a stranger's views (as Study 1 showed), would people actually change their own preferences to conform to the stranger’s preferences? We first had participants complete a questionnaire that asked about their preferences in various life situations (such as “To what extent does it bother you to date someone who is messy?” or “Do you like to cuddle after sex?”). Then, as in the earlier study, they were shown either a sexual or a neutral set of pictures.

We then told our participants that they would take part in an online chat with another participant, who in reality was a confederate—an attractive opposite-sex member of the research team. We gave participants an online profile that purported to describe the confederate's preferences on various subjects—but these preferences had been manipulated to differ from the participants' own preferences. Next, after viewing the profile, we asked participants to create their own profile, which we would give to the confederate before beginning the chat. Note that these profiles included the same items that had been introduced in the confederate's profile (and had been rated by participants themselves earlier in the experimental session). What did we find? We found that people changed their online profiles to conform to the confederate’s views more than to their very own views. In other words, participants presented themselves in ways that matched what they thought the good-looking partner would want – not what they were actually like.

In Studies 3 and 4, we took this idea one step further, exploring whether participants would lie about the number of lifetime sexual partners they had had in order to impress a new acquaintance. To test this hypothesis, we set up a scenario requesting participants talk with an attractive confederate about the total number of sexual partners in their past experience. But first, to provide an accurate baseline, we asked the same question in anonymous questionnaires. As we expected from our earlier studies, exposure to sexual cues, but not to neutral cues, led participants to lie about their experience—in this case, reporting a smaller number of partners so as to appear more selective—or less promiscuous—and thus as more desirable to a potential mate.

Overall, our results demonstrate that a sexually tinged mindset leads people to favor desirable self-presentations—conforming to a stranger's views and reporting fewer prior sexual partners—over authenticity.

Our research suggests that, in everyday life, the sexiness of a potential partner or the sexy ambience of a first date may encourage people to reveal inauthentic personal information to create a positive impression. This kind of self-disclosure is risky because it neglects the long-term costs of inauthenticity to relationship satisfaction.   

Here's my TEDx talk on why humans make sex so complicated. 

This post was coauthored with Harry T. Reis and also appeared here.

Facebook image: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock


Birnbaum, G. E., Iluz, M., & Reis, H. T. (2020). Making the right first impression: Sexual priming encourages attitude change and self-presentation lies during encounters with potential partners. Journal of Experimental Social PsychologyResearch Gate

Additional reading:

Birnbaum, G. E., Mizrahi, M., Kaplan, A., Kadosh, D., Kariv, D., Tabib, D., Ziv, D., Sadeh, L., & Burban, D. (2017). Sex unleashes your tongue: Sexual priming motivates self-disclosure to a new acquaintance and interest in future interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 706-715. Research Gate

Birnbaum, G. E., Mizrahi, M., & Reis, H. T. (2019). Fueled by desire: Sexual activation facilitates the enactment of relationship-initiating behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(10), 3057-3074. Research Gate

Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 87-98.