The Social Psychology of Sexual Decision Making

This is an excerpt from a social psychology test I recently submitted. I analyze the situation described in “You can’t improve upon perfection,” using concepts from our social psychology text book, “The Social Animal.”


In case you are wondering, the test question was: “Now thinking about your own life, consider an incident or situation that raises important or interesting social psychological questions for you. Very briefly describe it and state the question (or questions) the incident raises. Briefly sketch how you might answer the questions using existing theory or by conducting research like the research presented in the book.”


Also, in case you are an editing nerd, let me inform you of the convention in psychology journal articles: decision making as a noun is unhyphenated (i.e., the psychology of sexual decision making) and decision making as an adjective is hyphenated (i.e. the psychological decision-making processes). 


The Social Psychology of Sexual Decision Making:


One of the topics in social psychology that interests me the most is sexual risk-taking behavior, specifically why people who are educated engage in it. Aside from the sections on AIDS in the text book that cite denial (specifically the fact that those who are at greatest risk are in the most denial) and the fact that condoms are inconvenient and remind people of disease, I have read a lot of literature that cites low self-esteem, low self-efficacy, and poor relationship-negotiation skills. Although compelling, I find this literature somewhat disappointing because it fails to describe my behavior. I do not mean to imply that I engage in unsafe sexual activities, but only that sometimes I find myself in situations and wonder why I am even there. I could refer to such situations as unwanted but consensual. My behavior is somewhat puzzling to me because I have especially high self-esteem as pertaining to sexual activities, I am assertive, I favor sincerity to faux flattery (I am especially suspicious of self interest and influence), and I make a point of not being pushed around by men. Although, as the Milgram and Asch studies demonstrate, no one is immune to social influence, I am not a prime candidate for sexual persuasion. Typically, those with low self-esteem are especially susceptible to persuasion, as they do not value their own opinions and seek approval from others. It seems, then, that there is another force at play.


Those with high self-esteem are especially susceptible to self-justification, because they have a greater stake in maintaining a certain self-image—they have more to lose. It comes in handy that I am excellent at rationalization in general, whether or not it pertains to me. I will give an example of my progression of thought over an evening to illuminate how I managed to convince myself, through tactics of persuasion and self-justification, to engage in an unwanted but consensual experience.


Over the summer, a friend introduced me to one of her friends whom I found to be cocky, arrogant, and unoriginal. He was the kind of guy who attends law school, not because he wants to make a difference or has a particular passion for the subject matter, but because he believes that to be a successful Jew one must be a doctor, lawyer, banker, or dentist. In one word, he is a tool. However, he did have one quality that I fancy: red hair. I am not above admitting that certain physical attributes—not just compatibility of levels of attractiveness—make or break my interest in a guy. Although I do not require that my sexual partners are Jewish (or relationship partners, much to my parents’ dismay), red-haired Jew is a particular draw, as they are hard to come by. I saw him as a novelty. When he visited the city for winter break, he asked me out for drinks. I saw the date as a mere formality and I assumed he felt the same way.


Upon seeing him, I felt like he had pulled the old bate-and-switch on me; since I had seen him last, he had grown an ugly, overly-manicured beard. I considered this an affront to his head hair. He had turned into a different person! I was mildly irritated by the fact that I wasn’t informed of his change in physical appearance, and being privy to basic tactics of persuasion, I refused to fall for this trick! I could have gotten over the beard, as I felt somewhat cognitively committed to the idea of his coming home with me; after all, that was the purpose of our date. However, he was such a bore. After fifteen minutes of conversation, I decided that there was no way I could ever make him a more intimate acquaintance of mine. It was a mere matter of ending the date politely. To illuminate what my intention was at the time (too bad even well-intentioned attitudes are not predictive of behavior), fairly early on in the evening I asked him how he was getting home to Long Island and at what time the last train of the evening would depart. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t stuck inviting him over out of a sense of obligation for someone who would otherwise be sitting in Penn Station alone all night.


Something changed as the evening progressed. He got more and more insufferable. I was not only subjected to his bragging about sexual conquests and derogating his law school classmates; I was also subjected to his sexism. On New Year’s, he had decided that his short-term goals were passing the bar exam and being more positive. To make conversation, I asked about his long-term goals, expecting something equally generic and possibly equally trite. He answered, “Having sons.” I cannot think of a goal more repulsive in its blatant omission. I asked him, “What about daughters?” and he looked absolutely puzzled. Even worse, he hemmed and hawed and came up with an answer that implied that he wouldn’t be devastated God forbid his wife produce a girl, but it certainly wasn’t something he would consider a goal. Had he said his long-term goal was acquiring a trophy wife, I would have been unfazed, because I expected as much. I had previously seen him as a benevolent sexist, who assumed that women should be so lucky as to have his paternalistic protection—that they needed it as they could never make anything out of themselves or be complete without a man—and that they would make lovely arm-candy. Now it seemed he was blatantly admitting to hostile sexism—that women are inferior and have no use to him.


The night winded down and I could have said goodbye and never seen him again. Recalling my evening, I was unsatisfied. I used two tactics on myself that I didn’t recognize until later. In attempt number one to convince myself to invite him back to my place, I thought “I have suffered through two and a half hours of his self-aggrandizing bullshit; I think I have earned the sex.” It seems bizarre that one would consider this a reward, but if you look one step further in my thought process, it illuminates my logic. The next thing I thought was that I couldn’t possibly justify spending two and a half hours with this creep and considering sleeping with someone so detestable was even more embarrassing than actually doing it—sex explained itself away. Aha! Cognitive dissonance. As someone with high self-esteem who feels fairly sure of herself sexually, having had sexual thoughts about someone who I didn’t actually want to have sex with caused me to experience a great deal of dissonance. I didn’t want to admit that I had considered an unworthy candidate in error, so instead I accepted said candidate. Furthermore, I was justifying my effort. I had worked very hard to attain a goal—I had suffered through the conversation—and so I minimized my negative feelings about achieving it. This is similar to how people feel when they have pledged a fraternity only to find out that their frat brothers are jerks. Because I had reservations about the intrinsic value of our encounter, I needed to apply my own extrinsic reward. There is no need for internal justification if external justification is adequate, for example, if you are getting paid handsomely to write a counter-attitudinal essay.


In the second step of my convincing myself of my decision, I thought, “I knew I disliked him when I agreed to the date and my cognitive stance on him has not changed much.” I used the foot-in-the-door technique on myself. It is true that I had initially considered him to be unlikable and each thing he said made him only a little more unlikable; however, in the slippery slope of justification, even if it is not clear exactly where to draw the line, it was clear at the end point (and, in fact, about fifteen minutes into our date) that I did not want him. Just as signing a petition is not obtrusive, but putting a sign on your lawn is clearly obtrusive regardless of the successive steps you took to get there.


I will not reveal the rest of the evening, partially because it is not appropriate for this exam and partially because the cognitive processes I employed throughout the rest of the evening are somewhat repetitive. I will only say that I was given a few minutes to think and realized how much I was self-justifying. I had the epiphany that if I had to convince myself so thoroughly, I probably did not want to be in the situation in the first place. I got myself out of it before anything too drastic happened and he left politely. I wish I could have ended the date politely hours earlier, if only because I didn’t want to be there. I don’t care much for cognitive commitment.


And thus is the answer to how I manage to get myself into situations I do not want to be in, despite my high self-esteem and despite the immediate lack of especially persuasive external forces. Ironically, if I was not interested in him sexually, but he was more pleasant company, I probably wouldn’t have ended up having him over. The intrinsic reward of pleasant company would have been enough; I wouldn’t have needed to introduce an externally (and purposefully) imposed reward to justify the time I spent with him.


Post Script:


I will mention one more tactic of persuasion I used against myself: the false dichotomy. Once we are hooking up, I thought, “What we are doing now is so repulsive, maybe doing more would be less repulsive.” But I excluded the implicit third option, which, of course, was not doing anything at all. When I realized the logical fallacy I was committing against myself (in addition to realizing how much I didn’t want to be there, upon visually inspecting my body language from a third-person perspective), I was able to see myself out of the situation, free myself from the confines of persuasion and self-justification. 

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