September 28, 2013
Stronger Sexual Impulses May Explain Why Men Cheat More Than Women
Men succumb to sexual temptations more than women (such as cheating on a partner) because they experience strong sexual impulses, not because they have weak self-control, according to a new study from The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.
Prior studies have revealed that men are more likely than women to pursue “off limits” romantic partners. Until now, however, the mechanism behind this difference was largely unexplored.
Two possible theories to explain this difference have been proposed. In the first, scientists theorize that men experience stronger sexual impulses than women do. The second theory hypothesizes that women simply have better self-control than men. The current study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, supports the former explanation and provides new insight into humans’ evolutionary origins.
“Overall, these studies suggest that men are more likely to give in to sexual temptations because they tend to have stronger sexual impulse strength than women do,” says Natasha Tidwell, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University. Tidwell worked with Paul Eastwick, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
“But when people exercise self-control in a given situation, this sex difference in behavior is greatly reduced. It makes sense that self-control, which has relatively recent evolutionary origins compared to sexual impulses, would work similarly — and as effectively — for both men and women,” Tidwell said.
The new study was conducted in two parts: first, to determine how the sexes reacted to real-life sexual temptations in their past and, the second, to pick apart sexual impulses and self-control using a rapid-fire reaction time task.
For the first portion of the study, 218 participants (70 male, 148 female) were recruited from across the US.
Study participants were asked to recall and describe an attraction to an unavailable or incompatible member of the opposite sex. Afterwards, they answered survey questions designed to measure strength of sexual impulse, attempts to intentionally control the sexual impulse, and resultant behaviors.
“When men reflected on their past sexual behavior, they reported experiencing relatively stronger impulses and acting on those impulses more than women did,” says Tidwell.
Men and women, however, did not differ in the extent to which they exerted self-control.
“When men and women said they actually did exert self-control in sexual situations, impulse strength didn’t predict how much either sex would actually engage in ‘off-limits’ sex,” added Tidwell.
“Men have plenty of self-control — just as much as women,” says Eastwick. “However, if men fail to use self-control, their sexual impulses can be quite strong. This is often the situation when cheating occurs.”
For the second portion of the study, the team recruited 600 undergraduate students (326 men, 274 women) to participate in a “Partner Selection Game” to measure the strength of sexual impulse relative to the strength of impulse control.
The subjects were very briefly shown images of opposite-sex individuals. Each of the images were tagged either “good for you” or “bad for you.” Based on the computer generated “good for you” or “bad for you” prompt, subjects were asked to accept or reject potential partners. In one scenario, participants were asked to make acceptance and rejection choices based on the computer-generated tags despite the desirability or undesirability of the photographed individual. Another scenario asked participants to accept desirable and reject undesirable individuals; while in a third, participants were asked to go against their inclinations by rejecting desirable individuals and accepting undesirable individuals.
Men experienced a much stronger impulse to “accept” the desirable partners rather than the undesirable. The researchers suggest that this impulse partly explained why men performed worse on the task than women did. The same procedure, however, also estimates an individual’s ability to exert control over their responses. In that respect, men did not demonstrate a poorer ability to control their responses relative to women.
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