Dating Deception: When Sex Is On Our Minds, Lying Comes Naturally

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New study reveals what most of us probably already know: People will say just about anything to get laid.


ROCHESTER, N.Y. — First impressions are important, especially when it comes to dating. We all want to be seen in the best light by a potential new romantic flame or sexual partner, but at what point does embellishment turn into an outright lie? If you’ve ever felt like your date or that mysterious stranger you met in the corner of the party isn’t being completely honest with you to better their chances for some bedroom action, a new set of research suggests you were probably right.

When the possibility of a sexual or romantic encounter reveals itself, the study finds people are very likely to present themselves in a deceptive manner in order to appear as attractive as possible to their potential new mate. According to scientists from both the University of Rochester and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, as our “sexual systems” are activated in the presence of an attractive stranger, it is common for people to embellish, conform, change their attitudes regarding certain topics, and outright lie all to make a good first impression.

To be clear, what the research team have dubbed “the activation of the sexual system,” doesn’t actually entail physical sexual arousal. Instead, it refers to when our brains first become aware that we are attracted to someone nearby and begins to formulate sexual thoughts and inclinations.

Reis and his collaborative team hypothesized that people naturally lie and embellish when sexually activated, so they conducted a series of four experiments to test out their theory. A total of 634 heterosexual students at an Israeli University with an average age of 25 (328 women and 306 men) took part in the study. Across all four experiments, one group of students were exposed to sexual stimuli (sexually suggestive videos) and another group was exposed to non-sexual content. Then, both groups were prompted to interact with a member of the opposite sex.

The first experiment asked pairings of men and women to debate a fictitious situation face-to-face, with each participant being assigned a specific stance to take. The results revealed that students who were exposed to sexual stimuli beforehand were much more likely to openly express agreement with the member of the opposite sex they were supposed to be debating with compared to the control group that did not view any sexual stimuli before interacting.

The second experiment set out to determine if participants would flat out contradict a stance or opinion they had literally written out all to appease a sexually attractive individual’s ideals. First, each student was asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding some of their dating preferences, for example, “To what extent does it bother you to date someone who is messy?”

Then, they were exposed to either a subliminal sexual picture or a neutral image. Next, each participant was told they would be engaging in an online chat with an attractive individual, and were given a profile of their chat partner that included some of their supposed opinions and preferences. Sure enough, participants who had been exposed to a momentary sexual image were much more likely to conform their tastes to that of the individual they were about to chat with, and in many scenarios those tastes directly contradicted what they had originally recorded in the initial questionnaire.

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“The desire to impress a potential partner is particularly intense when it comes to preferences that are at the heart of establishing an intimate bond,” the study reads. “Such attitude changes might be viewed as a subtle exaggeration, or as a harmless move to impress or be closer to a potential partner.”

The third and fourth experiments focused on whether or not students would lie about their number of past sexual partners. Researchers theorized that many participants would reduce their actual number in order to appear less promiscuous and more selective. Just like the other experiments, one group of participants were exposed to sexual stimuli, while another group was not. Then, each participant was asked to talk about their sexual history with an attractive “study insider,” before being asked to document their sexual histories once more with an anonymous questionnaire. As predicted, students who had been exposed to sexual stimuli beforehand were much more likely to lie and report lower numbers to the attractive interviewer than they indicated in the anonymous questionnaire.

For what it’s worth, both men and women tended to report lower falsified numbers of sexual partners in the presence of an attractive individual, and on average the most common false statistic given was seven previous partners.

“People will do and say just about anything in order to make a connection with an attractive stranger,”  says study author and social psychologist Gurit Birnbaum in a release. “When your sexual system is activated you are motivated to present yourself in the best light possible. That means you’ll tell a stranger things that make you look better than you really are.”

However, study co-author Professor Harry Reis also adds that these findings don’t necessarily mean that everything you’re hearing from a potential new love interest is an all out lie.

“A lot of it is not necessarily what you’d call a bald-faced lie. Even though it’s clearly not the truth, it’s a way of people finding ways to emphasize different parts of how they see themselves,” he adds. “I think there’s some degree to which it is finding ways to shade one’s perception of the truth. It still counts as a lie, there’s no question about that.”

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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