Study finds sexual priming encourages deceptive self-presentation during encounters with potential partners

In a world of seemingly abundant mating opportunities, competing for a partner has become a challenging endeavor.  In this climate, people do the best they can to attract desirable partners.  Investing effort in making the right impression plays a key role in the success of their pursuit.  When considering the impression they wish to leave on prospective partners, people are simultaneously motivated by the competing desires of authenticity and impression management.

On the one hand, people may wish to present their authentic self with all its shortcomings in the hope to find a compatible partner who will accept them as they truly are.  On the other hand, they may feel pressured to put forward their best face in order to maximize their appeal to desirable partners.

Research1 published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has investigated when the latter motivation would prevail, pushing people to impress a potential partner even at the cost of engaging in deceptive self-presentation. Specifically, my colleagues and I examined the effects of activation of the sexual system on deceptive self-presentation during initial encounters.

Prior research has demonstrated that when the sexual system is activated by exposing participants to erotic photos (vs. neutral photos), people tend to engage in strategies that help initiate a relationship with potential partners (such as disclosing intimate personal information to potential partners or helping them).

More intense sexual activation (i.e., masturbation) has been shown to increase the willingness to behave unethically toward a potential sexual partner to increase the chance of having sex (such as expressing love for this partner or slipping this partner a drug). Regardless of whether the individual wishes to build a meaningful relationship or merely desires to obtain sexual favors, the motivation to have sex apparently creates a type of tunnel vision that reduces the importance of considerations other than relationship/sexual initiation.

Building on these findings, we hypothesized that activation of the sexual system would heighten impression management efforts and self-presentational deception.  Four studies examined this hypothesis.  In all studies, participants were exposed to sexual stimuli (versus non-sexual stimuli) and then interacted with an opposite-sex stranger.

In Study 1, participants tried to resolve a dilemma faced by a third individual (accepting a job offer and moving abroad vs. rejecting the offer and staying with family and friends) in face-to-face interaction while each represented opposing positions.  After the discussion, participants rated the extent to which they outwardly expressed agreement with the other participant’s position during the interaction.

The findings indicated that compared to participants in the control condition, participants in the sexual activation condition were more likely to outwardly express agreement with a contrary opinion advocated by an opposite-sex participant, presumably as a strategy to make a favorable impression with the stranger and thereby increase the likelihood of becoming closer to this stranger.

In Study 2, we wished to examine whether participants would not only explicitly agree with a stranger’s views but actually change their declared preferences to conform to the preferences of the stranger.  For this purpose, participants were led to believe that they would be participating in an online chat with another participant, actually an opposite-sex confederate (a member of the research team), and were asked to complete a questionnaire that assessed their preferences in various life domains (such as “To what extent does it bother you to date someone who is messy?” and “Do you like to cuddle after sex?”).  Participants were then subliminally exposed to either a sexual or a neutral picture prime.

Following this priming manipulation, participants viewed an online profile that presented the confederate’s preferences in various life domains.  The confederate’s preferences had been manipulated to differ from participants’ ratings on the same items.  After viewing the confederate’s profile, participants were requested to create their own profile, which would be emailed to the other participant, and asked to complete their profile by rating the same items that had been presented in the confederate’s profile (and were rated by themselves at the beginning of the session).  The finding demonstrated that even a primed, nonconscious sexual stimulus led participants to conform to a potential partner’s preferences in various life domains.

In Study 3, we explored whether participants would lie about the number of lifetime sexual partners they had had.  This hypothesis was based on the assumption that participants might lie about the number of lifetime sexual partners they had had so as to appear more selective or less promiscuous in choosing mates and thus as more desirable to a potential partner.  To do so, participants were asked to report their number of lifetime sexual partners during a chat with a potential partner and then again in anonymous questionnaires.

In Study 3, both questions about the number of lifetime sexual partner occurred after the sexual priming manipulation had taken place.  Thus, it was unclear whether sexual priming made participants over-estimate the number of their lifetime partners or whether participants in the sexual priming group had more sexual partners than participants in the control group to begin with.  In Study 4, we better controlled for the possibility of preexisting differences between experimental groups in the anonymous report of number of sexual partners.

Participants reported the number of lifetime sexual partners in an anonymous questionnaire and then viewed a profile of a potential partner.  After viewing the profile, participants were exposed to either a sexual or an intimate but not sexual prime and were asked to build an online profile by reporting various characteristics, including their number of lifetime sexual partners.  Studies 3 and 4 revealed that following sexual priming, participants were more likely to lie to a potential mate about their number of lifetime sexual partners.

In conclusion, exposure to sexual cues, which activates the sexual system and induces sexual arousal, may initiate a process of endeavoring to become more attractive to a stranger; a process that may eventually build an emotionally and sexually satisfying connection between previously unacquainted people.  In everyday life, the attractiveness of a potential partner or the sexy ambience of a first date may lead people to disclose personal information about themselves in order to initiate a potential relationship with a desired mate.

Our research suggests that the content of this disclosure is less likely to reflect the true self following sexual activation, as sexual arousal may make people more focused on saying what needs to be said to create a positive impression while being less cognizant of the potential long-term costs of this tendency.

As our research indicates, this principle appears to hold true for both men and women.  Activation of the sexual system motivates human beings to connect, regardless of gender.  It does so by inspiring interest in potential partners and motivating men and women to impress prospective partners.  To be sure, missing desirable mating opportunities is costly for men and women alike, in the sense that when such opportunities arise, both genders, and not only men, tend to use deceptive self-presentational strategies.

Prof. Gurit Birnbaum works at the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya (Israel).  Her research focuses on the underlying functions of sexual fantasies and on the convoluted role played by sexuality in the broader context of close relationships.