Myth vs Fact, Sex Ed

Do Men Really Take More Risks And “Show Off” In The Presence Of Sexy Women?

December 7, 2015 by Justin Lehmiller

Several studies have found that when heterosexual men are around attractive women, they become prone to engaging in risky behaviors and spend their money more freely than usual. For instance, one study reported that when male skateboarders performed in front of a female observer, they attempted more dangerous stunts that increased their likelihood of crashing [1]. Other studies have found that, when primed with photos of sexy women, guys are willing to spend more money on luxury goods (e.g., cars and watches) [2].

Some scientists have argued that there’s an evolutionary reason for these effects: the presence of an attractive women stimulates men’s testosterone levels, thereby leading guys to engage in sexual displays that “demonstrate their value.” In other words, these behaviors are thought to convey a man’s status in such a way that he will attract more female mates.

Although several studies have appeared over the years that would seem to support this theory (often referred to in the literature as “romantic priming”), a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has called this whole phenomenon into question and suggests that previous researchers may have overstated the effects [3].

The authors of this paper reached their conclusions by first conducting a meta-analysis of the research in this area to date, followed by 8 new studies that attempted to replicate the effects.

The meta-analysis included previous 15 studies that were identified through popular scientific search engines. When reviewed together, the findings from these studies did not make sense statistically. To state things as simply as possible (because I know that not everyone in my audience is a statistician) the results did not “hang together” in the way that would be expected if we were dealing with a true effect.

On the basis of their observations, the authors concluded that there was “strong evidence of either publication bias or p-hacking (or both).” In other words, the authors suggest that past results likely emerged because (A) there was a bias in favor of publishing only those results that were statistically significant, and/or (B) that previous researchers engaged in common, but less-than-sound scientific practices that led them to obtain false positive results (e.g., “peeking” at data while it is being collected and arbitrarily stopping only when you find the result you’re looking for, as opposed to establishing the cut-off point in advance).

Next, the results of 8 new studies were presented that, together, included over 1,600 participants. The methods varied across studies, but each involved some type of romantic priming (e.g., reading about a romantic vs. neutral scenario or viewing photos of attractive vs. neutral persons of the other sex), followed by a measure of sexual displays (e.g., willingness to take sexual or social risks, amount of money you would be willing to spend on consumable goods and services).

So what did they find? Nothing.

That’s right—there were no effects of so-called “romantic priming” across any of the 8 studies. Whether presented with a romantic scenario or a photo of a sexy stranger made no difference; neither manipulation made guys more inclined to take risks or to part with their cash on luxury purchases.

In the words of the authors: “our results suggest the real possibility that romantic primes have no meaningful effect on decision-making behaviors.”

I think it’s important to point out that these weren’t “exact replications” and that no such thing really exists anyway—there are always going to be at least some small differences between the original study and any attempt to repeat it that could potentially influence the outcome (e.g., when, where, and by whom the studies were conducted). However, the suspicious findings from the meta-analysis combined with 8 failed replication attempts should be enough to give us pause as to whether this effect really exists.

Thus, it does not seem to be the case that men have evolved to do risky things or to “show off” every time they see someone attractive.

That said, if guys are feeling sexually aroused, that might change the equation. For instance, a different line of research has found that when people (both men and women) are sexually aroused, they do indeed take more risks, including those of both a sexual and non-sexual nature.

In this sexual arousal research, participants were actually shown X-rated video clips to induce arousal, which was very different from the text-based descriptions and photos of strangers used in the romantic priming studies. This suggests the intriguing conclusion that while so-called “romantic priming” isn’t really a thing, sexual priming is.

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[1] Ronay, R., & von Hippel, W. (2010). The presence of an attractive woman elevates testosterone and physical risk taking in young men. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1, 57–64.

[2] Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J. M., Sundie, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Miller, G. F., & Kenrick, D. T. (2007). Blatant benevolence and conspicuous consumption: when romantic motives elicit strategic costly signals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(1), 85-102.

[3] Shanks, D. R., Vadillo, M. A., Riedel, B., Clymo, A., Govind, S., Hickin, N., … & Puhlmann, L. (2015). Romance, risk, and replication: Can consumer choices and risk-taking be primed by mating motives? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(6), e142-e158

Image Source: Nechaeva

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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