Does Thinking About Sex Make You Stupid Or Smart?

The word "sex" written on an index card and placed on top of a model brain

Conventional wisdom holds that thinking about sex makes us dumb. Sexual thoughts distract us and make us do stupid things, right? According to Fox News, which recently ran the headline “It’s a Fact, Sex Makes Us Dumb,” it would certainly seem to be the case. However, a recent set of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin  found that thinking about sex may do just the opposite under certain circumstances. That’s right—thinking about sex can actually make you smarter in some ways.

In the first study, participants completed a series of creative and analytical tasks while thinking about different things. In the sex-primed condition, participants were asked to imagine having casual sex with someone attractive. In the love-primed condition, participants were asked to think about a romantic partner they love very much. In the control condition, participants were asked to imagine taking a walk all alone.

Results for the creative task indicated that participants who thought about love did the best, while participants who thought about sex did the worst, with the control condition falling in the middle. Thus, in terms of this particular outcome, thinking about sex would appear to make us dumber by sapping our creative abilities. However, on the analytic thinking task, participants who thought about sex did the best, while participants who thought about love did the worst, with the control condition falling in between. So when we need to rely upon our logic, thinking about sex can actually make us smarter.

The second study replicated the exact same pattern of results. The only thing that differed was that instead of explicitly asking subjects to think about different things, subliminal priming was used instead. That is, before completing the cognitive tasks, a few words were briefly flashed on a computer screen for a fraction of a second each. In the sex condition, words such as “eroticism” and “sexuality” appeared. In the love condition, words such as “love” and “loving” were used instead, while in the control condition, the words were replaced with random letter strings (e.g., XQFBZ).

The authors’ explanation for this pattern of results is that reminders of love stimulate global thought and encourage us to focus on long-term goals. In contrast, thinking about sex stimulates a shorter term, “here and now” perspective that focuses on concrete details. It has been well-established in previous psychological research that thinking at a very broad, global level (i.e., seeing the forest through the trees) enhances creative abilities, while thinking about more concrete and immediate details (i.e., seeing the individual trees instead of the forest) enhances analytical abilities.

So there you have it—while sex may make us stupid in some ways, it makes us smarter in others. I suppose the take-home message is that if you need to be creative, let the love of your life be your inspiration, as so many artists have done for centuries. However, if you need to be logical, engage your sexual fantasies instead.

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To read more about this research, see: Forster, J., Epstude, K., & Ozelsel, A. (2009). Why love has wings and sex has not: How reminders of love and sex influence creative and analytic thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1479-1491.

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