How often do men really think about sex?

Every seven seconds? Probably not. But rather than wonder about whether this is true, Tom Stafford asks how on earth you can actually prove it or not.

We’ve all been told that men think about you-know-what far too often – every seven seconds, by some accounts. Most of us have entertained this idea for long enough to be sceptical. However, rather than merely wonder about whether this is true, stop for a moment to consider how you could – or could not – prove it.

If we believe the stats, thinking about sex every seven seconds adds up to 514 times an hour. Or approximately 7,200 times during each waking day. Is that a lot? It sounds like a big number to me, I’d imagine it’s bigger than the number of thoughts I have about anything in a day. So, here’s an interesting question: how is it possible to count the number of mine, or anyone else’s thoughts (sexual or otherwise) over the course of a day?

The scientific attempt to measure thoughts is known to psychologists as “experience sampling“. It involves interrupting people as they go about their daily lives and asking them to record the thoughts they are having right at that moment, in that place.

Terri Fisher and her research team at Ohio State University did this using ‘clickers’. They gave these to 283 college students, divided into three groups, and asked them to press and record each time they thought about sex, or food, or sleep.

Using this method they found that the average man in their study had 19 thoughts about sex a day. This was more than the women in their study – who had about 10 thoughts a day. However, the men also had more thoughts about food and sleep, suggesting perhaps that men are more prone to indulgent impulses in general. Or they are more likely to decide to count any vague feeling as a thought. Or some combination of both.

The interesting thing about the study was the large variation in number of thoughts. Some people said they thought about sex only once per day, whereas the top respondent recorded 388 clicks, which is a sexual thought about every two minutes.

However, the big confounding factor with this study is “ironic processes”, more commonly known as the “white bear problem“. If you want to have cruel fun with a child tell them to put their hand in their air and only put it down when they’ve stopped thinking about a white bear. Once you start thinking about something, trying to forget it just brings it back to mind.

This is exactly the circumstances the participants in Fisher’s study found themselves in. They were given a clicker by the researchers and asked to record when they thought about sex (or food or sleep). Imagine them walking away from the psychology department, holding the clicker in their hand, trying hard not to think about sex all the time, yet also trying hard to remember to press the clicker every time they did think about it. My bet is that the poor man who clicked 388 times was as much a victim of the experimental design as he was of his impulses.

Always on my mind

Another approach, used by Wilhelm Hoffman and colleagues, involved issuing German adult volunteers with smartphones, which were set to notify them seven times a day at random intervals for a week. They were asked to record what featured in their most recent thoughts when they received the random alert, the idea being that putting the responsibility for remembering onto a device left participants’ minds more free to wander.

The results aren’t directly comparable to the Fisher study, as the most anyone could record thinking about sex was seven times a day. But what is clear is that people thought about it far less often than the seven-second myth suggests. They recorded a sexual thought in the last half hour on approximately 4% of occasions, which works out as about once per day, compared with 19 reported in the Fisher study.

The real shock from Hoffman’s study is the relative unimportance of sex in the participants’ thoughts. People said they thought more about food, sleep, personal hygiene, social contact, time off, and (until about 5pm) coffee. Watching TV, checking email and other forms of media use also won out over sex for the entire day. In fact, sex only became a predominant thought towards the end of the day (around midnight), and even then it was firmly in second place, behind sleep.

Hoffman’s method is also contaminated by a white bear effect, though, because participants knew at some point during the day they’d be asked to record what they had been thinking about. This could lead to overestimating some thoughts. Alternately, people may have felt embarrassed about admitting to having sexual thoughts throughout the day, and therefore underreported it.

So, although we can confidently dismiss the story that the average male thinks about sex every seven seconds, we can’t know with much certainty what the true frequency actually is. Probably it varies wildly between people, and within the same person depending on their circumstances, and this is further confounded by the fact that any efforts to measure the number of someone’s thoughts risks changing those thoughts.

There’s also the tricky issue that thoughts have no natural unit of measurement. Thoughts aren’t like distances we can measure in centimetres, metres and kilometres. So what constitutes a thought, anyway? How big does it need to be to count? Have you had none, one or many while reading this? Plenty of things to think about!

This is a BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

The best way to win an argument

How do you change someone’s mind if you think you are right and they are wrong? Psychology reveals the last thing to do is the tactic we usually resort to.

You are, I’m afraid to say, mistaken. The position you are taking makes no logical sense. Just listen up and I’ll be more than happy to elaborate on the many, many reasons why I’m right and you are wrong. Are you feeling ready to be convinced?

Whether the subject is climate change, the Middle East or forthcoming holiday plans, this is the approach many of us adopt when we try to convince others to change their minds. It’s also an approach that, more often than not, leads to the person on the receiving end hardening their existing position. Fortunately research suggests there is a better way – one that involves more listening, and less trying to bludgeon your opponent into submission.

A little over a decade ago Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil from Yale University suggested that in many instances people believe they understand how something works when in fact their understanding is superficial at best. They called this phenomenon “the illusion of explanatory depth“. They began by asking their study participants to rate how well they understood how things like flushing toilets, car speedometers and sewing machines worked, before asking them to explain what they understood and then answer questions on it. The effect they revealed was that, on average, people in the experiment rated their understanding as much worse after it had been put to the test.

What happens, argued the researchers, is that we mistake our familiarity with these things for the belief that we have a detailed understanding of how they work. Usually, nobody tests us and if we have any questions about them we can just take a look. Psychologists call this idea that humans have a tendency to take mental short cuts when making decisions or assessments the “cognitive miser” theory.

Why would we bother expending the effort to really understand things when we can get by without doing so? The interesting thing is that we manage to hide from ourselves exactly how shallow our understanding is.

It’s a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to teach something. Usually, it only takes the first moments when you start to rehearse what you’ll say to explain a topic, or worse, the first student question, for you to realise that you don’t truly understand it. All over the world, teachers say to each other “I didn’t really understand this until I had to teach it”. Or as researcher and inventor Mark Changizi quipped: “I find that no matter how badly I teach I still learn something”.

Explain yourself

Research published last year on this illusion of understanding shows how the effect might be used to convince others they are wrong. The research team, led by Philip Fernbach, of the University of Colorado, reasoned that the phenomenon might hold as much for political understanding as for things like how toilets work. Perhaps, they figured, people who have strong political opinions would be more open to other viewpoints, if asked to explain exactly how they thought the policy they were advocating would bring about the effects they claimed it would.

Recruiting a sample of Americans via the internet, they polled participants on a set of contentious US policy issues, such as imposing sanctions on Iran, healthcare and approaches to carbon emissions. One group was asked to give their opinion and then provide reasons for why they held that view. This group got the opportunity to put their side of the issue, in the same way anyone in an argument or debate has a chance to argue their case.

Those in the second group did something subtly different. Rather that provide reasons, they were asked to explain how the policy they were advocating would work. They were asked to trace, step by step, from start to finish, the causal path from the policy to the effects it was supposed to have.

The results were clear. People who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been before the experiment. Those who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues. People who had previously been strongly for or against carbon emissions trading, for example, tended to became more moderate – ranking themselves as less certain in their support or opposition to the policy.

So this is something worth bearing in mind next time you’re trying to convince a friend that we should build more nuclear power stations, that the collapse of capitalism is inevitable, or that dinosaurs co-existed with humans 10,000 years ago. Just remember, however, there’s a chance you might need to be able to explain precisely why you think you are correct. Otherwise you might end up being the one who changes their mind.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

Using rational argument to change minds

I have a longer piece in the latest issue of Contributoria: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds? Here’s a few snips from the opening:

Are we, the human species, unreasonable? Do rational arguments have any power to sway us, or is it all intuition, hidden motivations, and various other forms of prejudice?

…the picture of human rationality painted by our profession can seem pretty bleak. Every week I hear about a new piece of research which shows up some quirk of our minds, like the one about people given a heavy clip board judge public issues as more important than people given a light clip board. Or that more attractive people are judged as more trustworthy, or they arguments they give as more intelligent.

…I set out to get to the bottom of the evidence on how we respond to rational arguments. Does rationality lose out every time to irrational motivations? Or is there any hope to those of us who want to persuade because we have good arguments, not because we are handsome, or popular, or offer heavy clipboards.

You can read the full thing here, and while you’re over there check out the rest of the the Contributoria site – all of the articles on which are published under a CC license and commissioned by members. On which note, a massive thanks to everyone who backed my proposal and offered comments (see previous announcements). Special thanks to Josie and Dan for giving close readings to the piece before it was finished.

Edit: Contributoria didn’t last long, but I republished this essay and some others in an ebook “For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds” (amazon, smashwords)

 

Research Digest posts, #1: A self-fulfilling fallacy?

This week I will be blogging over at the BPS Research Digest. The Digest was written for over ten years by psychology-writer extraordinaire Christian Jarrett, and I’m one of a series of guest editors during the transition period to a new permanent editor.

My first piece is now up, and here is the opening:

Lady Luck is fickle, but many of us believe we can read her mood. A new study of one year’s worth of bets made via an online betting site shows that gamblers’ attempts to predict when their luck will turn has some unexpected consequences.

Read the rest over at the digest, I’ll post about the other stories I’ve written as they go up.

What’s the evidence for the power of reason to change minds?

Last month I proposed an article for Contributoria, titled What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Unfortunately, I had such fun reading about the topic that I missed the end-of-month deadline and now need to get backers for my proposal again.

So, here’s something from my proposal, please consider backing it so I can put my research to good use:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes seem like people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures (Dan Ariely “Predictably irrational”, David McRaney “You Are Not So Smart”). This piece will be 3000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.

All you need to do to back proposals, currently, is sign up for the site. You can see all current proposals here. Written articles are Creative Commons licensed.

Back the proposal: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Full disclosure: I’ll be paid by Contributoria if the proposal is backed

Update:: Backed! Thanks all! Watch this space for the finished article. I promise I’ll make the deadline this time

What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Contributoria is an experiment in community funded, collaborative journalism. What that means is that you can propose an article you’d like to write, and back proposals by others that you’d like to see written. There’s an article I’d like to write: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Here’s something from the proposal:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes seem like people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures (Dan Ariely “Predictably irrational”, David McRaney “You Are Not So Smart”). This piece will be 2000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.

If the proposal is backed it will give me a chance to look at the evidence on things like the , on whether political extremism is supported by an illusion of explanatory depth (and how that can be corrected), and on how we treat all those social psychology priming experiments which suggest that our opinions on things can be pushed about by irrelevant factors such as the weight of a clipboard we’re holding.

All you need to do to back proposals, currently, is sign up for the site. You can see all current proposals here. Written articles are Creative Commons licensed.

Back the proposal: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Full disclosure: I’ll be paid by Contributoria if the proposal is backed

Update: Backed! That was quick! Much thanks mindhacks.com readers! I’d better get reading and writing now…

Why Christmas rituals make tasty food

All of us carry out rituals in our daily lives, whether it is shaking hands or clinking glasses before we drink. At this time of year, the performance of customs and traditions is widespread – from sharing crackers, to pulling the wishbone on the turkey and lighting the Christmas pudding.

These rituals might seem like light-hearted traditions, but I’m going to try and persuade you that they are echoes of our evolutionary history, something which can tell us about how humans came to relate to each other before we had language. And the story starts by exploring how rituals can make our food much tastier.

In recent years, studies have suggested that performing small rituals can influence people’s enjoyment of what they eat. In one experiment, Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota and colleagues explored how ritual affected people’s experience of eating a chocolate bar. Half of the people in the study were instructed to relax for a moment and then eat the chocolate bar as they normally would. The other half were given a simple ritual to perform, which involved breaking the chocolate bar in half while it was still inside its wrapper, and then unwrapping each half and eating it in turn.

Something about carefully following these instructions before eating the chocolate bar had a dramatic effect. People who had focused on the ritual said they enjoyed eating the chocolate more, rating the experience 15% higher than the control group. They also spent longer eating the chocolate, savouring the flavour for 50% longer than the control group. Perhaps most persuasively, they also said they would pay almost twice as much for such a chocolate.

This experiment shows that a small act can significantly increase the value we get from a simple food experience. Vohs and colleagues went on to test the next obvious question – how exactly do rituals work this magic? Repeating the experiment, they asked participants to describe and rate the act of eating the chocolate bar. Was it fun? Boring? Interesting? This seemed to be a critical variable – those participants who were made to perform the ritual rated the experience as more fun, less boring and more interesting. Statistical analysis showed that this was the reason they enjoyed the chocolate more, and were more willing to pay extra.

So, rituals appear to make people pay attention to what they are doing, allowing them to concentrate their minds on the positives of a simple pleasure. But could there be more to rituals? Given that they appear in many realms of life that have nothing to do with food –from religious services to presidential inaugurations – could their performance have deeper roots in our evolutionary history? Attempting to answer the question takes us beyond the research I’ve been discussing so far and into the complex and controversial debate about the evolution of human nature.

In his book, The Symbolic Species, Terrance Deacon claims that ritual played a special role in human evolution, in particular, at the transition point where we began to acquire the building blocks of language. Deacon’s argument is that the very first “symbols” we used to communicate, the things that became the roots of human language, can’t have been anything like the words we use so easily and thoughtlessly today. He argues that these first symbols would have been made up of extended, effortful and complex sequences of behaviours performed in a group – in other words, rituals. These symbols were needed because of the way early humans arranged their family groups and, in particular, shared the products of hunting. Early humans needed a way to tell each other who had what responsibilities and which privileges; who was part of the family, and who could share the food, for instance. These ideas are particularly hard to refer to by pointing. Rituals, says Deacon, were the evolutionary answer to the conundrum of connecting human groups and checking they had a shared understanding of how the group worked.

If you buy this evolutionary story – and plenty don’t – it gives you a way to understand why exactly our minds might have a weakness for ritual. A small ritual makes food more enjoyable, but why does it have that effect? Deacon’s answer is that our love of rituals evolved with our need to share food. Early humans who enjoyed rituals had more offspring. I speculate that an easy shortcut for evolution to find to make us enjoy rituals is by connecting our minds to that the rituals make the food more enjoyable.

So, for those sitting down with family this holiday, don’t skip the traditional rituals – sing the songs, pull the crackers, clink the glasses and listen to Uncle Vinnie repeat his funny anecdotes for the hundredth time. The rituals will help you enjoy the food more, and carry with them an echo of our long history as a species, and all the feasts the tribe shared before there even was Christmas.

This is my latest column for BBC Future. You can see the original here. Merry Christmas y’all!