Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Feb 19, 2020

People Convey Less Authentic Impressions of Themselves to Potential Romantic Partners after Thinking about Sex

by Gurit E. Birnbaum and Harry T. Reis
Couple on date

When people want to make a good impression on a potential romantic partner, they usually have two goals. On the one hand, people want to show who they really are, strengths and shortcomings alike, in the hope of finding a compatible partner who accepts them as they are. On the other hand, people also want to put forward their best face in order to maximize their immediate appeal.   

In our recent research, we investigated the possibility that when sex looms, people may be more likely to “put their best foot forward” in order to impress a prospective partner. In other words, we explored whether sexual desire lowers concerns about authenticity and instead makes people try to make the best possible impression on potential partners.

To test the effects of a sexy mindset, we conducted four studies in which we first had participants look at either sexual (but not pornographic) stimuli or neutral stimuli. Next, the participants interacted with a stranger of the other sex. In the first study, participants tried to resolve a dilemma in a face-to-face conversation with a person who held an opposing position. After the discussion, participants indicated the degree to which they had agreed with the other participant’s position during the discussion. Participants were more likely to report that they had agreed with the other participant after viewing the sexual pictures. In other words, rather than stay true to themselves, they tried to look like they agreed more with the other person.

In our second study, we wanted to take this idea even further. In addition to saying they agree with a stranger's views (as Study 1 showed), would people actually change their own preferences to conform to the other person’s preferences? Participants completed a questionnaire that asked about their preferences in various life situations (such as “to what extent does it bother you to date someone who is messy?” or “do you like to cuddle after sex?”). Then, they were shown either a sexual or a neutral set of pictures.

We then told our participants that they would take part in an online chat with another participant, who in reality was an attractive opposite-sex member of the research team. We gave participants an online profile that purported to describe this person’s preferences on various subjects—but we designed these preferences so that they differed from the participants' own preferences. After viewing the profile, we asked participants to create their own profile, telling them that the other person would see their profile before beginning their chat. Note that participants had already rated themselves on these items earlier in the experimental session, so we knew what their actual preferences were. We found that participants changed their online profiles to conform to the other person’s views more than to their own actual views. In other words, participants presented themselves in ways that matched what they thought the good-looking partner would want – not what they were actually like.

In Studies 3 and 4, we explored whether participants would lie about the number of lifetime sexual partners they had had in order to impress a new acquaintance. We set up a situation in which we asked participants to talk with an attractive person of the other sex (who again, was actually a research assistant) about their total number of sexual partners.  But first, to provide an accurate indication of their actual number of partners, we asked them about their previous partners on an anonymous questionnaire. As we expected from our earlier studies, exposure to sexual cues, but not to neutral cues, led participants to lie about their sexual experience. In this case, they reported a smaller number of partners so as to appear more selective—or less promiscuous—and thus as more desirable to a potential partner.

Overall, our results demonstrate that a sexually-tinged mindset leads people to present themselves more favorably—conforming to a stranger's views and reporting fewer prior sexual partners—over authenticity.  In everyday life, the sexiness of a potential partner or the sexy ambience of a first date may encourage people to convey inauthentic personal information to create a positive impression.  However, this kind of self-disclosure is risky because inauthenticity can undermine relationship satisfaction in the long run. 

For Further Reading

Birnbaum, G. E., Iluz, M., & Reis, H. T. (in press). Making the right first impression: Sexual priming encourages attitude change and self-presentation lies during encounters with potential partners. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Birnbaum, G. E., Mizrahi, M., Kaplan, A., Kadosh, D., Kariv, D., Tabib, D., Ziv, D., Sadeh, L., & Burban, D. (2017). Sex unleashes your tongue: Sexual priming motivates self-disclosure to a new acquaintance and interest in future interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 706-715.

Birnbaum, G. E., Mizrahi, M., & Reis, H. T. (2019). Fueled by desire: Sexual activation facilitates the enactment of relationship-initiating behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(10), 3057-3074.

Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 87-98.


Prof. Gurit E. Birnbaum works at the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya (Israel).  Her research focuses on the underlying functions of sexual fantasies and on the convoluted role sexuality plays in the broader context of close relationships.

Harry T. Reis is Dean’s Professor at the University of Rochester (USA). He studies close relationships, with an emphasis on responsiveness and the formation of intimate bonds.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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