Suppose you’re at dinner with someone you just started dating. You’re reading the menu and you see a meal you would just love to have – in my case, it would be baby back ribs. You can almost taste how great those ribs will be, in all of their fall-off-the-bone glory. The server then passes right by you with the food for the table next to you, and wouldn’t you know it – they ordered ribs! But then you remember how messy ribs are to eat. And then you think about how disgusting you will look holding the bone and pulling the meat off like you’re an animal. What will your date think of you? So rather than indulge yourself, you order the beet salad instead. You want your date to think of you as sensible, healthy, and civilized, right? Here’s the rub…There’s a downside to ordering the salad for dinner. Later that night, you will be less likely to control your sexual impulses than if you had embraced your carnivorous ways and indulged yourself with the ribs.
Say what? Does eating ribs result in giving you some kind of mental chastity belt? Hardly. What happened is that eating the beet salad required you to control your impulses, and research consistently shows that the ability to control your impulses is a limited resource. We can exert self-control and be relatively successful (in my case, eating the beet salad instead of ribs), but this weakens our ability to control our impulses later. In one clever study, researchers had individuals participate in a “taste perception” study.1 All participants sat at a desk with two plates in front of them – freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and radishes. Some of the participants were asked to eat a few cookies but no radishes (like this would be hard for any of us!), but others were asked to eat a few radishes but to not touch the cookies whatsoever (are you serious?!?!). Later, the researchers observed that the participants who had to control their impulses (the radish-eating group) spent less time working on a difficult puzzle than the group who was allowed to indulge their impulses (the cookie-eating group). When working on a difficult puzzle – actually, it was an impossible puzzle, but the participants didn’t know this – the impulsive thing to do is just quit. And this is exactly what the radish-eating group did.
So how does this relate to controlling your sexual impulses? In another set of studies, researchers had half of their participants engage in a self-control task (similar to eating radishes) whereas the other participants did not have to control their impulses (similar to eating cookies).2 Participants who had to control their impulses, compared to participants who did not have to control their impulses, were more likely to unscramble a set of letters (N I S E P) as a sexual word (PENIS) than a non-sexual word (SPINE). When asked to imagine their likelihood of cheating on a romantic partner, the impulse-control group reported being more likely to cheat than did the no-impulse-control group. Finally, the researchers allowed dating couples to go to a private room and express some sort of physical intimacy immediately following a task of self-control. Later, the couples self-reported “how far” they went while expressing physical intimacy. For the couples who were relatively inexperienced sexually (that is, they typically did not engage in many sexual behaviors with each other), the impulse-control group “went further” during the intimacy task than the no-impulse-control group. For the couples who were typically more physically intimate, this effect disappeared. Essentially, the sexually inexperienced couples had been controlling their impulses to “get it on,” but once their ability to control their impulses was taken away from them, it was an all-out love fest!
What’s the moral of this research-story? The next time you’re on a dinner date and you really want to eat ribs but you also want to make a good impression, consider the potential consequences. Eating the ribs means you’re more likely to keep your pants on. Eating the salad means you may have less control over your lustful desires. So if your date is a consenting adult, ask yourself this: Do you want to get lucky, punk? Well, do ya?
1Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.
2Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Self-regulation and sexual restraint: Dispositionally and temporarily poor self-regulatory abilities contribute to failures at restraining sexual behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 173-186.
Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.