The Subtle Science of Sex in Consumerism and Everyday Life

Showtime's new Masters of Sex presents the science of sex as graphic and physical. However, the modern science of sex is much subtler. And this is important. Because if we think of sex as just a single type of physical action, then we miss how sex or "mating motives" as many scientist call it now days, affects our larger lives.

At the Association for Consumer Research conference in Chicago this week, a group of researchers have come together to discuss new findings on how the subtle influences of sex creep into daily life. They have discovered how Victoria Secret and that attractive co-worker might affect how people work, buy, and feel about themselves.

The following are four interconnected findings from the conference that weave together a story of how sex and sexual motives affect our daily lives.

Some of the findings are unsettling. They make even me uncomfortable and I am a scientist at this conference. I don't like the idea that my mind and body are driven by such basic needs. I don't like the idea that businesses can use sex to sell to me or even change my mental state. But that personal uncomfortable feeling is in part why I wrote this.

It is important for us to look at the truth of human nature, even if it's uncomfortable. If we truly want to be more than just animals, we need to know about the animal inside of us and learn when to give in to, resist, and manage the animal.

Finding #1: Who Flaunts It and Why?

Sex and being sexy is important to people. It is especially important to attractive people. Furthermore, attractive people are often willing to use their sexiness for personal gains.

Researchers Carlos Torelli, Chiragg Mittal, and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota find that attractive women use their sexuality to feel better about themselves. They find that attractive women use sexual products and endorse the use of "sexual leveraging" when they personally feel powerless. This use of sex allows them to regain a feeling of power.

Rather than sex being something people do in the bedroom, for these attractive few sex can be part of their daily behavior. The conclusion is that if you've got it, you do indeed flaunt it.

Finding #2: Responding to Flaunters

With all these people flaunting their sexuality and the prevalence of sex in the media around us, how might this affect those of us with eyeballs?

A common belief is that sexual thoughts lead people to lose control and live destructive lustful lives. However, this common belief is not always correct. Instead the opposite may often occur.

Researchers Chen Rui, Zheng Yuhuang, and Juliet Zhu find that exposure to sexual content increases men's self-control, because men want to show off their self-control powers--a very desirable trait. Sexual content drives men into a "mating motive" to prove themselves. Instead of sex making a man crazy, it can actually lead him to put his nose to the grindstone and keep working hard.

Finding #3: Sex and Reward Focus

The reason men put their nose to the grindstone may stem from the same reason that sexual content can also drive people to risky behavior and monetary craving moods in different situations.

Sexual content tends to activate a general reward mindset. That's what a team of researchers lead by Anouk Festjens of the University of Leuven, Belgium found. When participants in their experiments touched sexual content (e.g. underwear), it activated monetary craving and reduced the general feeling of loss aversion that most humans have.

The researchers found that touch was very important for this minor sexual content (e.g. underwear). Without the touch, the sexual content did not prime up the reward network. Victoria's Secret should take note. It may want to get its customers touching the fine silks and garments when they walk in. Not only will it prime up thoughts of sex, it might put customers in an entirely different "reward" mindset that may affect their purchasing.

Finding #4: The Hot Topic of Ovulation

Sexual motives may not only be driven by touch, an attractive person, or a need for power, but also the time of the month. The influence of the ovulation cycle has become a popular scientific topic lately and has even been show to affect preferences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. As reported at the Association for Consumer Research conference, the newest finding shows that ovulating women have an increased preference for variety in their consumer purchases. Ashley Rae and Kristina Durante of the University of Texas at San Antonio, found ovulating women's increased variety seeking is caused by an increased desire for new men.

Recently, Target infamously proved that they know when some women are pregnant. So you can imagine that in the age of information, knowing when women customers are ovulating seems quite easy for a big corporation. Ovulation-targeted marketing may be just around the corner.

However, one spectacular feature of the Association for Consumer Research and other scientific conferences is that all the research is made publically available. This means that the public can educate themselves about the secrets of science and in this case sex, and recognize what companies might be up to and decide for themselves whether they like or dislike certain marketing tactics. Many psychologists at the conference describe themselves as "working first for the consumer and the individual."

Troy Campbell is a researcher at Duke University and Indecision Blog's lead reporter for the 2013 Association for Consumer Research conference.