Do you believe these statements?
- College students today care more about hooking up than forming meaningful relationships.
- Hooking up on college campuses is rampant.
- Millennials are part of a “hook-up culture” that did not exist in the past.
I mean, they sound perfectly reasonable, especially based on what you’ve likely seen in the media about Millennials (i.e., those born in the 80s and 90s). However, just because it feels true doesn’t mean it is actually true. Let’s see if these statements are correct by examining what the most recent science has to say. (For a primer on “hooking up,” click here.)
Do College Students Care More about Hooking Up than Forming Meaningful Relationships?
To answer this question, researchers surveyed over 200 college students and asked them which of the following they preferred for themselves: 1
- Traditional dating: “one person asks another person to do something together on a date, and this may or may not turn into a committed relationship.”
- Hooking up: “a sexual encounter, usually only lasting one night, between two people who are strangers or brief acquaintances. Some physical interaction is typical and may or may not include sexual intercourse.”
In response to the prompt “All in all, everything being equal, I would prefer…” both men and women reported that they would rather have a traditional dating relationship than simply a hook-up. This shows that when given the general choice, men and women both prefer traditional dating, though women prefer it more than men. Similarly, when men and women stated they were specifically looking for a long-term partner, both would rather date than hook up. The science here suggests that the perception that college students would rather hook-up is simply wrong.
Is Hooking Up on College Campuses Rampant?
As part of the same study, researchers asked college students about the types of relationships they were actually having, hook-ups or first dates. The answer: Students reported having twice as many hook-ups as first dates over the past 2 years. Though this statistic sounds shocking, it is important to realize that first dates are more likely to turn into committed relationships and thus greatly limits the number of other first dates that person could have over that time period. For example, in a given 6 month period, a person who goes on a date that results in a serious relationship only has 1 first date over that time, while a person who isn’t dating could easily have several hook-ups during that same time period. Today’s young adults also have a harder time knowing when something is actually a "date," which may contribute to the discrepancy between the hook-up and dating numbers. As we’ve discussed in a previous article, over 70% of college students report having “hooked up” at least once.2 What we do know, based on these data, is that college students report hooking-up more. But we also know that there are important explanations that help account for the discrepancy in the dating vs. hook-up numbers.
Regardless, the fact that college students hook-up more than they date, and that a majority of students have hooked up does not prove that today’s college students are necessarily a “hook-up generation.” To draw that conclusion, you would need data (not simply beliefs) that today’s college students are hooking up more than previous generations of college students.
Are Millennials Part of a “Hook-Up Culture” That Did Not Exist in the Past?
Think of this as the omnipresent “kids today are different” stereotype. Although a common narrative, do the data support the notion that today’s young adults are “hooking up” more than previous generations? In short…no. A sociological study using the General Social Survey comparing hook-up rates among today’s students with students from a decade ago found that both groups reported similar rates of hooking up.3 Specifically, 31.9 % of students from 1988-1996 reported having more than one sexual partner in the past year, whereas 31.6% of today’s college students reported having more than one sexual partner in the past year. (You can read more about this study on The Psychology of Human Sexuality.) When the study’s lead author, Martin Monto, was asked to respond to media reports about the "rampant" hook-up culture, he replied: “This implies that the college campus has become a more sexualized environment and that undergraduates are having more sex than in the past. We were surprised to find this is not the case.” So, the science (at least so far) does not support the commonly held belief that Millennials are part of a “hook-up culture.” Instead, the data indicate that college students are hooking up, but that this has been true of college culture for decades.
Why Does The Perception of the “Hook-Up Generation” Exist?
College students themselves may be partially to blame for the persistence of this belief. That is, if you ask college students about the prevalence of hooking up, they demonstrate pluralistic ignorance -- or the belief that others are doing something more than is actually true.4,5 Specifically, college students not only overestimate how often their fellow college students hook up, but also overestimate how comfortable they are with hooking up.6 But is really isn’t entirely college students’ fault. The definition of what constitutes “hooking up” is vague (e.g., is it kissing someone or does it have to be more?; does it count if it’s with a friend?) which only makes hooking-up seem more common. Finally, if college students buy into the media’s portrayal of hook-ups being common,7 it could lead them to pay more attention to instances that match these beliefs (a phenomenon known as confirmation bias), which can also lead to ignoring contradictory information such as all of the college students who are in long-term committed relationships.
Ultimately, the data reviewed above indicates that Millennials are not part of a “Hook-Up Generation” any more than previous generations. Though today’s college students hook up more than they date, so did yesterday’s college students. As we say at Science of Relationships, “the important things in life deserve data.” So the next time you hear something about relationships that sounds true, wait until you see what the data say before you believe it.
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1Bradshaw, C., Kahn, A. S., & Saville, B. K. (2010). To hook up or date: Which gender benefits?. Sex Roles, 62(9-10), 661-669. doi:10.1007/s11199-010-9765-7
2Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 161-176.
3Monto, M., & Carey, A. (2013). A new standard of sexual behavior? Are claims associated with the “hookup culture” supported by nationally representative data? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.
4Lambert, T. A., Kahn, A. S., & Apple, K. J. (2003). Pluralistic ignorance and hooking up. Journal of Sex Research, 40(2), 129-133.
5Reiber, C., & Garcia, J. R. (2010). Hooking up: Gender differences, evolution, and pluralistic ignorance. Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 390–404.
6Barriger, M., & Vélez-Blasini, C. J. (2013). Descriptive and injunctive social norm overestimation in hooking up and their role as predictors of hook-up activity in a college student sample. Journal of Sex Research, 50(1), 84-94.
7Chia, S. C., & Gunther, A. C. (2006). How media contribute to misperceptions of social norms about sex. Mass Communication & Society, 9, 301–320.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.