An experimental study conducted in Germany investigated how the accuracy of responses to visual cues is affected when various emotional images are displayed in the background. The findings revealed that participants made the most mistakes when exposed to sexual imagery, suggesting an increase in impulsive reactions. This effect was notably stronger in men than in women. The study was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Feelings are strongly associated with actions. When a person is happy, he/she will tend to move around, approach other people, dance, sing, or perform a number of other actions we associate with happiness. On the other hand, when they are sad, people will tend to be withdrawn and much less active. This correlation between emotion and behavior is not only evident in humans but also manifests in mammals and many other animals, with clear similarities.
Events happening around a person are important determinants of that person’s emotions, but so are thoughts a person can have. Studies have shown that thinking about sex or seeing pictures and events associated with sex (e.g. sexual pictures or being with a person one is sexually attracted to) initiates a series of physiological changed preparing us for sexual activity, but also leads to strong emotions that change how people behave. For instance, both men and women are more likely to partake in sexual activities after viewing sexually arousing content.
Study author Julian Wiemer and his colleagues wanted to explore the effects of various emotional stimuli on inhibition or disinhibition of human behavior. They expected men to be more affected by sexual stimuli and stimuli inciting negative emotions than females. They surmised that sexual stimuli would likely increase activity and reduce inhibitions, whereas negative stimuli would have the opposite effect, resulting in increased inhibition.
For their experiment, the researchers utilized 48 images designed to elicit emotional responses. These images were categorized into four groups: neutral, sexual, positive, and negative. Images classified as negative featured people who were sick or injured. The positive category included images of joyful individuals engaged in high-arousal activities, such as sledding in the snow, riding carousels, or celebrating at sporting events. The sexual images were of a pornographic nature, displaying a man and a woman in the act of sexual intercourse with their entire bodies visible. The neutral images depicted individuals engaged in low-arousal activities such as playing chess, reading, working in an office, or walking.
Participants were 37 men and 38 women selected from a control group of participants from a larger study. These participants were sourced using the university’s online registration system for psychological studies. Participants completed a go/no-go task on a screen while pictures from the set were shown in the background. Periodically, a blue square or another object would be superimposed on the background picture. Participants were supposed to press a button as quickly as they could if a blue square or circle were displayed, but to not react if something else is shown. The researchers recorded the participants’ responses and monitored their pupil dilation throughout the tasks.
In addition to the primary task, participants completed several assessments to gauge tendencies such as the use of force or verbal coercion in sexual encounters, aggression, impulsivity, and emotion regulation style. These assessments included the Sexual Experience Survey (Short Form Perpetrator), the Aggression Questionnaire, the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS-15), and the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire.
The results indicated that participants made the most mistakes in the go/no-go task when sexual images were present, compared to both neutral and negative images. This tendency was significantly stronger in men than in women. Furthermore, men (but not women) made more errors when viewing positive images than when viewing negative or neutral ones, although this effect was less pronounced than with the sexual images.
“The present findings of increased impulsivity in the presence of sexual stimuli are in concordance with an increased approach motivation and/or reduced inhibitory capacities in men,” the study authors concluded. “The increased approach motivation might trace back to a more positive value of visual sexual cues to men, the capture of attention by sexual cues or a more efficient integration of sexual stimuli into response selection processes. These findings of (hyper-) responsiveness in the presence of sexual stimuli might in part help to explain risky or transgressing behavior in real life, but future studies will still have to examine their correlation.”
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding the links between emotions and behavior. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study focused exclusively on visual stimuli (pictures). Effects on other types of stimuli might not be the same. Additionally, the study sample was very small.
The study, “Sexual Stimuli Cause Behavioral Disinhibition in Both Men and Women, but Even More So in Men”, was authored by Julian Wiemer, Stefen Kurstak, Florian Sellmann, and Kerstin Lindner.