Saturday, October 17, 2009

What’s My Line?

Ever think about sex? I have and I bet you have. In fact, while I don’t fathom how researchers can accurately study such a thing, it seems widely believed that people think about sex a lot. Add a sex-charged culture, and I don’t see how anyone avoids thinking about something related to the subject fairly often. In this post, I’m writing about sex and pre-commitments. The last two posts have been about the concept of pre-commitments and their effects on behavior. Recall that pre-commitment means this: Deciding ahead of time—before a situation or circumstance—what you intend to do. Research shows that pre-commitments make it more likely that we will do what we intended to do when the time comes.

Two posts ago, I mentioned a book that I think is pretty fascinating, called Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. (Click on the book title to go to Amazon page for that book.) Ariely covers many interesting topics. His specialty is analyzing how people behave under various conditions. I highly recommend the book with a word of caution. Since I know that some portion of my readers of this blog tend to have more traditionally religious values, it’s worth noting that some of his experiments are, shall we say, something you likely would not yourself conduct or participate in, such as the one I’m going to focus on today. The results, however, are important, and I am going to talk about his study on sexual arousal.

He conducted this study with male college students. He advertised for volunteers on the campus in this way: “Wanted: Male research participants, heterosexual, 18 years-plus, for a study on decision making and arousal.”

He first got the young men’s opinions on questions like this (and many more):

Q: Could having sex with someone he hated be enjoyable?

Q: Would he tell a woman that he loved her to increase the chance that she would have sex with him?

Q: Would he encourage a date to drink to increase the chance that she would have sex with him?

Q: Would he keep trying to have sex after a date had said “no”?

Q: Would he use a condom even if he was afraid that a woman might change her mind while he went to get it?

These are just a sampling. Some of the questions were about what is arousing. Some questions were about how far the men would go to have sex with a woman. Some were about the subject of “safe sex.”

I’m going to skip over the methodology. Let’s just say that what Ariely did was get the opinions of the young men while there were not aroused, and then asked the questions again while they were in a state of high sexual arousal.

What did Ariely find? I will quote him:

“The results showed that when Roy and the other participants were in a cold, rational, superego-driven state, they respected women; they were not particularly attracted to the odd sexual activities we asked them about; they always took the moral high ground; and they expected that they would always use a condom.”

“In every case, the participants in our experiment got it wrong. Even the most brilliant and rational person, in the heat of passion, seems to be absolutely and completely divorced from the person he thought he was.”

Essentially, the values and predictions about what the young men would do or where they would draw lines sexually changed dramatically from non-aroused “cold state” when in an aroused, “hot state.”

By the way, while this study is on college males, it’s undoubtedly just as valid a result for college females—in fact, for people, period. It’s just that this particular study was more likely to be something you could get college males to do.

In this study, Ariely shows how much—and it’s a lot—a person’s beliefs and values can change when sexually aroused. Beliefs and values do not perfectly predict behavior, partly exactly because of phenomena like what Ariely was studying. The context one is in greatly affects behavior, and apparently, beliefs and values as well. That’s why part of being who you want to be in life is related to choosing who you hang around and where you put yourself. If that sounds a lot like situational ethics, it is because it is related. While many people do not like this notion, the fact is this: A gazillion (a really big number) of well designed experiments show that context greatly affects what people will actually do. Maybe I’ll do a whole blog on that. I should, and depending on circumstances, I will.

Does all this mean that one’s values and ethics do not matter? Not at all. Your values and beliefs are the starting point of what you bring into a situation. Let’s use that nifty notion of “sliding vs. deciding” again. Unless you are different from almost everyone else (this is not likely, I hope you realize), your values are like a set point from which you may slide given the circumstances you are in. I am suggesting—and I hope this does not offend any of you—that people do slide at times, and so do you.

Taking the idea of pre-commitment full circle, the question is this: where do you want to plant flags about how you will behave in certain circumstances? I think it’s fair to say that without planting any flags at all, one’s behavior will be much more determined by circumstance alone than anything else. There is nothing else if there are no flags planted. Planting flags is like deciding what territory you want to defend so that, if pressures do push you to slide, you know where you are at and where you might start to slide from. With flags, you know what you are trying to work toward when circumstances are bearing down on you—including your own emotional or sexual arousal.

This is all another way of asking the question, “What’s my line?” Especially for those in the dating mate-searching scene, where do you want your line to be about things such as sex? You’ll be tempted to slide from your line, but deciding ahead of time that you have a line that you are making a commitment to makes it a lot more likely that you’ll be able to hang around where you planted your flag.