It’s a lonely Saturday night, and your significant other is away for the weekend. Your libido kicks in, and you decide to head to a party with some friends. An attractive specimen brushes up against you on his or her way to the kitchen, and you start weighing the pros and cons of striking up a conversation. It might lead to something, you tell yourself, but you’re so lonely, and a little chatting couldn’t hurt, right?
Actually, it could, at least according to a new study conducted by the Kellogg School of Management. Results of the study about how and why people give in to temptation were published in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The article, titled “The Push and Pull of Temptation: the Bidirectional Influence of Temptation on Self-Control,” describes how thinking longer about your decision can actually lead you to make the wrong one.
This research challenges the notion that humans are wired to make rational, thoughtful decisions in every situation and only fail to do so when their passions or urges pull them in the opposite direction. Instead, researchers found that it all depends on our visceral state. If a person is dieting and sees a tempting piece of chocolate cake while hungry, impulse is more likely to take over. But if the individual isn’t hungry, he or she will exercise self-control.
Eileen Chou, along with Kellogg assistant professor Loran Nordgren, found that when people are in a hot or visceral state they are more likely to give in to their impulses rather than exercise self-control. “It’s almost as if you have one devil on each shoulder,” Chou says. “When you’re in that visceral state, you should go with your gut and not think about whether you should or not, because the time you take to deliberate will make you even more likely to give in to your temptation.”
Nordgren and Chou tested this concept on romantic relationships by tracking how long 49 heterosexual males in committed relationships gazed at photographs of attractive women. In phase one of the study, the cold or nonvisceral state group spent 10 minutes watching a female fashion show, while the sexually aroused group watched a 10-minute erotic film. The men then examined five photographs of women. In phase two, these steps were repeated, and both sets of participants were told that the women in the photographs were incoming international students. By making these women available in the near future, the researchers hoped to heighten temptation.
When the results of the study were analyzed, the aroused men spent more time examining the phase two photographs when they thought they had a possibility of meeting the women. In contrast, the nonaroused spent marginally less time examining the photographs when they believed they could meet the women. Sexual arousal heightened the desire for possible impulsive behavior — infidelity — whereas nonarousal actually promoted self-control. “It is the visceral state that takes over the person’s way of thinking, their motivation and their cognitive processes,” Chou says.
Laura Stuart, sexual health education and violence prevention coordinator at Northwestern, says the study only tells part of the story of the temptation of infidelity. “Typically I would say it’s not just a physical arousal thing,” she says. “I’m sure that whether people are physically aroused does have an impact on whether or not they have sex with someone, but I also think that for most people there’s something else going on emotionally or psychologically.”
So what does this mean for college students who are perceived to have high sex drives? When you add alcohol to the picture, it’s possible to see how the lines of fidelity become blurred. “People do dumb things when they’re horny, and people do dumb things when they’re drunk,” says Jai Broome, a Weinberg junior and member of SHAPE, Northwestern’s Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators. “Sex is a fundamental desire, and it makes sense that people might do things they’ll regret later when they’ve been drinking.”