If the economy continues to slump for years to come, it could trigger trouble with sexual fidelity.
A KU professor's recent research suggests that when survival is threatened, men have a subconscious need to preserve their genetic line and therefore seek out more sex partners.
"Men basically are more prepared or inclined to have sex when they are threatened with their own death," said Dr. Omri Gillath, Associate Professor of Social Psychology.
Gillath said that statement is part of the already established "Life History Theory," which has been around for more than 50 years. That theory, however, is based on correlation only, based on observation of environmental circumstances and the sexual behaviors and developments that coincide.
Gillath's study took one of the theory's key ideas and put it in a laboratory setting.
"We brought it into the lab," Gillath explained, "and said, 'let's talk about causality.'"
He primed the participants with subliminal messages flashed during an otherwise meaningless survey.
The control group got the word "pain." The target group got the word "death." He measured their heart rates and other physiological responses when they looked at different images, some erotic, others non-sexual but still "exciting," images like thrill rides.
"We trick people to think they're about to die or that the environment is dangerous and see if that makes them want to have sex more," explained Gillath.
The answer was yes for men, no for women.
The men primed with the thought of pain showed no difference in how they responded to the sexual images compared to the non-sexual. The men primed with the thought of death showed distinctly heightened responses from the nudity.
The obvious question would be how he can make a conclusion about what the economy has to do with it when the test used the phrase "death," and why, if he wanted to connect the data to economic factors, he did not use a priming word like "unemployment."
Gillath has several responses.
First, Life History Theory already indicates that extended poverty has the same effect as thoughts of death. That theory explains younger age of pregnancy in poorer neighborhoods, for example, as connected to the same survival instinct that inclined early hunters and gatherers to reproduce.
"So if you grew up in a poor neighborhood where your chances of long-term survival are low," Gillath said, explaining one of the theory's key premises, "this is when you are going to engage in a short-term strategy." That short-term strategy would be to copulate quickly before you die.
Second, he points to his intention, to build on an existing body of work with the first lab test on the topic. In that environment, he said, it is important to start with the most extreme example and then move outward with future studies.
"Poverty is an index for potential death, so why not go ahead and go straight into death and see if that has the effect?" Gillath explained. "If we do find it, as we did, then we can go back and try to look at poverty, long-term poverty, short-term poverty. This is where we are going to go with that."
He said his lab results have not yet borne out in reality, perhaps because the slump has not gone on long enough. He cannot say how long will be long enough, but he did say, as a psychologist, that partners can temper the impact by easing the fears, anxieties and insecurities that create the connection between economic struggle and subconsciously perceived imminent demise.
"You need to know your partner might be stressed out," he said. "If they lost their job and they're in a situation where they cannot provide anymore, you might want to try to help them.... Talk about that. Tell them you still love them, still care about them. You can deal with that together."
His study will be published in November in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
As for why women were not influenced by the trigger presented in his study, he explained the result with another theory: Sexual Selection Theory.
"If we both know we are going to die in 15 minutes," Gillath said, "I (a man) can find the nearest woman and attempt to spread my genes. But for you (a woman) it won't help, because you will be dead before it will have the same effect."
Gillath said his test did not account for gender preference in sexuality. He did not ask participants to identify themselves as gay or straight and showed erotic images of women only to his male sample and those of men only to his female sample.
For an abstract of the study with more detail, click here.
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