Merely thinking about sex encourages self-disclosure, study finds

Sexual arousal encourages people to open up about themselves, according to research recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The three-part study of 245 undergraduate students found that exposure to sexual stimuli led participants to reveal more personal information about themselves. In their experiments, the researchers exposed participants to either erotic or nonsexual images or videos before having them talk to an opposite-sex stranger.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Gurit E. Birnbaum of the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Birnbaum: I have developed a model delineating the functional significance of sexual desire in relationship formation and maintenance and wished to test its predictions. The model postulates that although desire influences the development of attachment bonds, the contribution that it makes varies over the course of relationships. Specifically, sexual desire is an especially strong predictor of exertions to deepen and maintain the relationship at those stages (and in those circumstances) in which the relationship is highly vulnerable or precarious, such as when the individual does not have much information about how the partner feels about the self or when the relationship is under threat.

The model suggests that sexual desire is, all else equal, particularly important as a relationship-promoter in the earlier stages of relationship development. In these stages, other aspects of the relationship, such as intimacy and commitment, only start to emerge and their effects on the fate of the relationship are less strong. Focusing on initial encounters, I sought to explore whether activation of the sexual system would indeed encourage the use of strategies that allow people to become closer to potential partners, thereby fostering relationship initiation.

What should the average person take away from your study?

People should not necessarily be cognizant of the sexual stimuli to be affected by it. Merely thinking about sex, even without being aware of it, encourages self-disclosure. Sexy ambiance on first dates may thus make people more talkative and more open to future interactions. One cannot get to know another person and become intimate with him or her without revealing personal information and observing his or her reaction and without relying on cues of interest. Thinking about sex leads people to self-disclose more and that may indicate heightened interest in initiating a relationship. And, vice versa, when someone self-discloses more, it may indicate heightened sexual interest in the interaction partner.

Increased openness might therefore make dates go better. People tend to reciprocate to such advances and that initiates a positive cycle of intimacy. Disclosing personal information makes the other person like you more, thereby motivating him or her to reciprocate. Consequently you get the impression that this person likes you, and you react by liking him or her more — we tend to like people who like us — and behave accordingly, for example by being nicer, flirting or complimenting. Overall, sex starts a positive cycle of getting closer to a stranger that may eventually build emotional connection between previously unacquainted people.

Of course, self-disclosure should be reciprocal and gradual. Otherwise, it may backfire. Exposing too much, too soon may deter the other person. If the other person does not reciprocate and self-disclose, it may indicate that this person is less interested in getting closer. Hence, people should pay attention to cues of their partner’s responsiveness, which are crucial to developing an authentic sense of intimacy.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Our research suggests that sexual activation increases interpersonal intimacy, such that when two strangers meet, sexual interest will determine the extent to which personal information will be revealed during their interaction: Enhanced sexual interest in a prospective partner is likely to increase self-disclosure, whereas lack of sexual interest is likely to inhibit it. However, heightened self-disclosure tendencies in a sexually arousing context do not necessarily reflect the desire for a long-term relationship with a prospective partner. Some people, for example, may use self-disclosure manipulatively to obtain sexual favors.

It thus remains unclear whether self-disclosure in this context is motivated by long-term (e.g., pursuing a committed relationship) or by short-term (e.g., engaging in casual sex) relationship goals. Another limitation of the study is that it took place in a fairly artificial context and did not follow the course of actual dates. This makes it hard to be sure that people would behave in the same way if they were left to their own devices.

The study, “Sex Unleashes Your Tongue: Sexual Priming Motivates Self-Disclosure to a New Acquaintance and Interest in Future Interactions“, was also co-authored by Moran Mizrahi, Ayelet Kaplan, Danielle Kadosh, Dana Kariv, Danielle Tabib, Daniella Ziv, Lihi Sadeh, and Daniella Burban. It was published March 16, 2017.