“In quite a few cases I observe people talking in a café or among a close circle of friends, and suddenly questions arise,” says Gurit Birnbaum, a researcher at the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. “And I ask myself if the interaction reflects a pattern characteristic only of those particular people, or whether it’s a broad phenomenon. In many cases I am amazed to discover that there are no adequate answers in the professional literature, and then I think how to translate the questions into a series of research designs.”
The breakthrough studies in sexuality and close relationships conducted by Prof. Birnbaum, a leading light in these fields, tend to resonate worldwide. From 1997, when she published her first article, on the association between divorce and mental health, her research has featured prominently both in professional journals and in such leading newspapers as The Guardian, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Her 2018 Ted Talk, “When Sex Is More Than Just Sex: Why Humans Make Sex So Complicated,” has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and she has become one of the most in-demand speakers in the field of sexuality and close relationships.
Among other achievements, Birnbaum, 51, was one of the first to identify how the use of contraceptive pills affects the desire for current and alternative partners, to understand the effect of erotic fantasies on romantic relationships, and to talk about the way sexual desire can influence how people behave on a first date. In her latest series of published studies, based on observations and other experimental means, she demonstrated that the sexual urge influences not only our perception of the object of our desire, but also the degree to which we think he or she desires us, irrespective of what happens in reality.
“In a lengthy series of studies, we understood that the sexual behavioral system serves us not only for purposes of ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ but that it’s also overlaid with complex psychological needs. In our research we provide evidence that sex, in addition to its historical role, is also meant to create the emotional bond between two people who initially were strangers.”
So sex is never just about sex.
Birnbaum: “Exactly. When we are sexually aroused, we are behaving in a relationship-initiating way. We are not only looking for a sexual partner, but behaving in a way that will make it possible to create true intimacy with a stranger. In one of my studies, for example, we showed that sexually aroused people, consciously or not, tend to reveal more intimate information about themselves when facing attractive strangers. In another study, we showed that they will also be more responsive to the other person’s needs. When they are in a state of sexual arousal, they will respond with intimacy and warmth, will be oriented toward the needs of the other side and will tend more to offer them help. In the latest study, we discovered that sexual arousal affects the way we perceive the other.”
In what way?
- What your sex fantasies reveal about you
- Sex and the locked-down city: Intimacy in the age of coronavirus
“When someone turns me on, I need to decide whether there is a chance that he will want me. Here, two opposing forces act on us: one that makes us want to initiate a relationship, in the face of a desire to protect ourselves against possible harm. If I think he's out of my league, for example, I’ll be afraid to get close to him from the outset. At this stage, we wondered in the laboratory whether the sexual behavioral system also has a role in helping overcome that fear of rejection.”
And does it?
“Yes, it happens in two ways. That system renders the other person more attractive in our eyes, both outwardly and in terms of the positive character traits that we attribute to him. It also induces us to project our desires onto him. From the moment I am sexually aroused, I will think that the object of my desire wants me more than he really does. In other words, the sexual behavioral system creates in us a distorted perception and impels us to be sufficiently bold to start up with the object of desire.”
To test these hypotheses, Birnbaum and her team conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked total strangers to embrace for half a minute and then to conduct a short get-acquainted conversation. In the second, they first showed the participants erotic films, and immediately afterward a get-acquainted clip – of the sort used by dating services – of an attractive person of the opposite sex. The participants were then requested to film a similar self-introductory clip of themselves that would be sent to that man or woman (the study was conducted among heterosexuals only, for reasons of sample integrity).
The conclusions were similar in both experiments: In the wake of sexual arousal, the participants ranked the other as more attractive in terms of both personality and appearance, expressed willingness to continue to be in touch with them and also thought he or she desired them more in comparison to a control group.
In the third experiment, the participants carried out a decision-making task online, such as choosing between two colors, foods or music. At the same time, without their being aware of it, erotic (not pornographic) pictures were flashed rapidly on the computer screen.
“The pictures were screened so fast,” Birnbaum explains, “that even if I had taken part in the experiment, knowing exactly when the pictures appeared, I would not have perceived them. It’s a speed that enables images to be received in the brain without rising into one’s consciousness, and thereby, actually, to activate the sexual behavioral system unconsciously and sidestep the defenses.”
Following the completion of the task, the participants held a short social-media chat with the person of the opposite sex. “Here, too, we discovered the same pattern. When the system is aroused, we become more interested in the other person and think that he is more interested in us.”
Sexually aroused people, consciously or not, tend to reveal more intimate information about themselves when facing attractive strangers.Birnbaum
Sounds like this has the potential to be a comedy of errors.
“If we were to think constantly about protecting ourselves, we would never get off the sofa. The sexual system propels us into action, and it’s clear that along the way we take a few beatings. Projecting our wishes and desires on the other is liable to lead to mental anguish. But that’s part of life, and it’s precisely boldness, in many instances, that reaps the fruit. The bottom line is that the moment the sexual behavioral system is activated, it becomes a potent force that impels us to act, not necessarily in order for there to be sexual interaction, but to create a connection in general. And yes, we need to be cognizant of the fact that once we are sexually aroused, we are liable to kiss plenty of frogs on the way to the prince.”
Maybe that’s our chance to get to know them better.
“There’s a great deal of research on the subject. In many cases, casual relationships and long-term relationships look similar at the start, and it’s only at a later stage that people decide what they really want. We get involved in a one-night stand, we think the other side isn’t serious or isn’t suitable for us – and suddenly we discover that we have a common language and that we want more. As a rule, I don’t know many cases in which people meet someone and say, ‘He will be my husband’ or ‘She will be my wife.’ In most cases, they simply meet someone whom they like and get to know.”
Did you discern differences between the sexes?
“We found no difference. At the same time, generally speaking, there are differences in men’s and women’s sexual urges, which we have seen in previous studies.”
“Men, in general, report more sexual desire on average, which is not surprising, partly because men don’t have a problem admitting it. When a man sees an attractive women and he’s asked, on a scale of one to five, how much he would like to sleep with her, he’ll reply ‘five.’ When a woman is asked the same question, she will likely reply ‘three.’ In general, women don’t feel comfortable admitting that they desire sex.
“In that context, there are studies that show that the threshold of men and women regarding a one-night stand is very different. If it’s only a one-night stand, men will not care as much about the intelligence level of the person with them, for example. For women, in contrast, it will be important that the man with them is intelligent, even if it’s only sex. When women get into bed with a man, they unconsciously make the calculation that it might develop into something else.”
For one, I always had the feeling that men are capable of having a sexual interpretation of completely nonsexual situations, and that they tend to think that women desire them far more is the case in practice. Prof. Birnbaum chuckled when I shared this conjecture with her.
“It’s true. Studies show that men quite systematically read women’s intentions as more sexual and see something sexual in places where it doesn’t necessarily exist. If she was nice and helped a man find some street, there’s a high chance that he’ll think she desires him and that in another minute she’ll be in bed with him. It’s a general bias that men have, whose purpose, apparently, is to minimize missed opportunities.”
'A personal interest'
I won’t lie: I have a personal interest in this topic. You could say that I am presently in a period of being “between relationships.” My last real relationship was at the end of 2017, and I’d be delighted to find the next real one soon. Being a thorough sort of person, I went to an expert. Recently, Birnbaum published another series of studies, which conclude, overall, that in order to find a relationship, we all need to play harder to get.
“After all, when do you become addicted to someone?” she asks. “Think about a situation in which you’re standing in front of a vending machine, and pound it over and over until a can of cold soda comes out. If one never comes out, you’ll stop pretty quickly. If one comes out every time you pound it, you’ll probably go to it only when you’re thirsty. If a can comes out sometimes but doesn’t at others, you’ll keep pounding until it comes out. This is operant conditioning: a principle that creates a situation in which you will continue to stubbornly try, until you get what you wanted.”
Is that what’s behind the recommendation to play hard to get?
“Yes. When you meet someone and he or she, on the one hand, does not make himself or herself completely available to you, but on the other hand, shows a certain interest, you are likely to experience an intense desire for this person.”
At the start of a romantic relationship, it’s best to show some interest, but at the same time, to play it so the other person needs to make an effort to win your heart.Birnbaum
The whole difference between hard to get and unattainable.
“Definitely. The moment we receive negative signals, our natural inclination will be to close the gate. But when we play the game and try to be hard to get, we actually do not reject the other person but cause him to make an effort, and that creates the ‘Ikea effect’ in the world of relationships.”
The Ikea effect?
“If you buy an armchair at Ikea and it demands that you put in an effort to assemble it, you will value it and become more attached to it, to the point of developing a feeling of true fondness – assuming, that is, that you were successful putting it together. This is an effect that’s exemplified in a range of fields; for example, when we want to be accepted into an elite [military] unit or hired for a coveted job. When we invest in a process, we think the achievement is even more valuable. Accordingly, at the start of a romantic relationship, it’s best to show some interest, but at the same time, to play it so the other person needs to make an effort to win your heart.”
So all this boils down to the fact that we like to make everything difficult for ourselves?
“Not everything. Beyond valuing something that doesn’t come easily even more, there’s also a matter of selectivity here. We all want to feel special, to know that the person across from us chose us from among everyone else. That feeling – that something singular is happening – is one of the strongest and most alluring feelings in the romantic context.”
I always have the feeling that there are people who were born to play the game.
“A recently published study shows that people who are deterred by intimacy know naturally how to regulate the distance in relationships and to play hard to get. They like to live with the feeling that they are the ones who control the relationship. It’s part of their personality complex. Paradoxically, they will be attracted precisely to people who suffer from serious fears of abandonment.”
What’s the connection?
“Separation anxiety is caused because significant others, usually parents, didn’t respond to the needs that produced such anxiety during childhood. When we meet those who avoid intimacy they recall that primary rejection and reenact the hurt, and that situation is liable to lead to difficult relationships. If the relationship becomes obsessive, it will reach a situation of pursuer and pursued: one side that feels rejected and the other feels they’re not being given room to breathe.”
A horror scenario.
“According to the theory of Harville Hendrix [a popular American writer about relationships], we learn from those who took care of us in infancy how to love, how to treat others and how to love ourselves. The problematic traits of our parents, Hendrix says, left us with bleeding scars that accompany us into adulthood. When we encounter a behavioral pattern that recalls those traits, it will look familiar to us and we will fall in love with what ‘activates’ the scar. Those people possess healing abilities for us, but only if they are an upgraded version of our parents [i.e., with similar but less harmful traits]. Indeed, in couples therapy people are asked to write a list of the negative traits of their parents and of their partner, and the traits will overlap. One way or the other, I have described here the extremes of the phenomenon. There are many less dramatic cases.”
More than ‘the one’
The family meals of the Jewish holidays are approaching, and if there’s no lockdown, the families of singles across the country will likely talk a lot about their dating people whom there’s no chance that they’ll be attracted to physically even in another 100 years. What’s really important, the family will say, is personality. Birnbaum doesn’t agree with this approach.
“It’s clear that we won’t choose a partner only on the basis of physical attraction, but attraction is a critical indicator that can attest to deeper suitability,” she says. “If it’s a person whom you can’t imagine yourself being attracted to in any way, I would give him an hour of date time and move on. Likewise, if the passion between a couple is completely extinguished, that’s a sign that the relationship will likely not work anymore. In the end, desire is something basic and animalistic, and if it doesn’t exist from the outset, that’s a problem. At the same time, if the recoil from the other person isn’t due to lack of attraction but to problematic behavior on the first date, it’s worth giving it another chance.”
“We need to remember that a first date is a stressful situation for most people. Many times you see at later encounters how people lower their defenses and are revealed to be completely different from how they seemed on the first date, where much of what they said derived from anxiety, for example.”
What do you do, in fact, when the person across from you doesn’t stop talking or, alternatively, doesn’t talk at all?
“Reassuring him and telling him you want to see him again is likely to reveal to you a different side of him. Another thing that it’s important to pay attention to is the synchronization. Usually, when the person who is with us does not talk much, a need is created in us to fill the vacuum with conversation – and that’s a mistake that could drive him away. If the person who’s with us does not self-disclose, it’s best to stay calm and try to adjust oneself to his level of exposure.”
But how much should we self-disclose?
“That’s a question many people ask themselves before a date, and we’re driven here by contradictory urges. On the one hand, we want our true self to be seen; on the other hand, we want to succeed in captivating the person who’s sitting across from us. In another study we conducted, we found that people on a first date, especially when they are sexually aroused, will do a great deal so as to captivate the other, even lie to him, and that the tendency to try to enchant someone will be far more dominant than the tendency to be authentic.
“In this context, there is a difference between men and women. Men like to be listened to on the first date. Responsive listening makes the woman feminine and attractive to them, and contributes to her being perceived as a potential partner. Women, in contrast, speak with horror about men who assume the role of the psychologist on the first date. They take a very dim view of that sort of behavior, they become suspicious and try to understand whether it’s a manipulation with the aim of bedding them or the act of a desperate man.”
So there’s no guaranteed way to win, and I’ll never find “the one.”
“There’s no need to take things to extremes. In the end, it comes down to a dialogue in which both sides need to feel comfortable. There are many people who can be suitable for us at different levels, and to talk about ‘the one’ is a mistake. There are people who are suitable for us at a particular stage in life, and others who are suitable at a different stage. It’s dynamic. The anticipation of finding a person whom I can rely on to satisfy all my needs generates unrealistic expectations that lead to distress.”
What do you suggest?
“To enjoy it as long as it lasts.”