Poor Judgment? Decision-Making and Sexual Arousal

The "tunnel vision" of arousal allows temporary denial of consequences

Posted Jan 04, 2013

A frequently quoted study regarding the impact of sexual arousal on decision-making was published in 2006.  25 male undergraduates students were instructed to masturbate to erotic photographs displayed on a computer screen, and, after achieving a very strong level of sexual arousal, answer questions about sexual practices. Some questions asked subjects to assess the lengths they would go to procure sex, including whether they would encourage a date to drink, slip her a drug, take her to a fancy restaurant, tell her they loved her (when they in fact did not), and if they would try to have sex even after she said ‘‘no.’’ Other questions examined sexual risk-taking, including the likelihood of using birth control.[i]   

Researchers for the study concluded, “[S]exual arousal acts as an amplifier of sorts. Activities that are not perceived as arousing when young males are not sexually aroused become sexually charged and attractive when they are, and those activities that are attractive even when not aroused become more attractive under the influence of arousal…the increase in motivation to have sex produced by sexual arousal seems to decrease the relative importance of other considerations such as behaving ethically toward a potential sexual partner or protecting oneself against unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.”[ii]

Sexual arousal, in sum, hijacks the brain leading to a focus on immediate pleasure and gratification.  Typically, after ejaculation occurs, a male then begins to consider (and often worry about) the consequences of his sexual involvements.

A 2012 study is an informative bookend.  In this latter study, first-year college students received a web query on 28 different days as to whether they had engaged in vaginal sex on these days.  Those who answered in the affirmative were then asked a series of questions about what they thought the interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences of the activity were.[iii]  In short, “You had sex earlier today.  What are you thoughts now regarding this sexual activity?”

The researchers offered the participants a list of positive and negative consequences from which to choose.

Negative intrapersonal consequences included:

  • Worrying about pregnancy
  • Worrying about a sexually transmitted infection
  • Worrying that parents might find out
  • Feeling that one has gone against his/her morals and ethics
  • Experiencing pain
  • Not enjoying the experience

Positive intrapersonal consequences included:

  • Feeling physically satisfied
  • Feeling more attractive
  • Feeling cheered up

Negative interpersonal consequences included:

  • Worrying that a partner wants more commitment
  • Worrying that the relationship is moving too fast
  • Worrying that another partner may find out
  • Worrying that one has harmed his or her reputation

Positive interpersonal consequences included:

  • Feeling closer to one’s partner
  • Feeling one avoided angering or annoying a partner
  • Feeling one has enhanced his/her reputation

Participants reported at least one positive consequence on the vast majority of days they had sex, and negative consequences were reported far less frequently.  Still, many students reported worrying about at least one negative consequence of sex.  In the interpersonal domain, the most commonly reported positive consequence was feeling closer to a partner, and the most common negative consequence was worrying a partner wanted more commitment.  In the intrapersonal domain, the most commonly reported positive consequence was feeling physically satisfied, whereas the most reported negative consequence was worrying about pregnancy.  The researchers were particularly struck that there were few gender differences between males and females regarding perceived positive and negative consequences of sex.

This study demonstrates that we tend to have positive thoughts following a shared consensual sex act.  Yet, simultaneously, negative considerations and even guilt may occur.  Often, in the “heat of the moment,” we are able to minimize or ignore complications that may arise from sex until after the act occurs.  Or, as the authors of the 2006 study concluded, “[S]exual arousal seems to narrow the focus of motivation, creating a kind of tunnel-vision where goals other than sexual fulfillment become eclipsed by the motivation to have sex.”[iv]


[i] Dan Ariely and George Lowenstein, “The Heat of the Moment: The Effect of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Decision Making,” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making19 (2006).

[ii] Ariely and Lowenstein: 95.

[iii] Sara Vasilenko, Eva Lefkowitz, and Jennifer Maggs,  “Short-Term Positive and Negative Consequences of Sex Based on Daily Reports Among College Students,” Journal of Sex Research 49, no. 6, (2012).

[iv] Ariely and Lowenstein: 95.