Bikinis and other sexy stimuli can make men more prone to seek immediate gratification — leading to blown diets, budgets and bank accounts, new research suggests.
In the study, detailed in the Journal of Consumer Research, men alternately fondled t-shirts and bras (which were not being worn during the test). After touching the bras, men valued the future less and the present more, said lead researcher Bram Van Den Bergh of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Viewing ads with women in bikinis had the same effect.
It wasn't that the men were simply distracted by their sexual arousal, which caused them to choose more impulsively. On the contrary, they exhibited improved cognition and creativity after exposure to sexy stimuli.
The researchers conclude that there is one common appetite system in the brain monitoring our desire for a host of pleasures from sweets to pretty faces, alcohol to lotto winnings. When it is stimulated by, say, a sexy picture or the smell of baked goods, we experience a general craving for anything pleasant. "Basically, you just want to be rewarded," explained Barbara Briers, a researcher at HEC Paris School of Management. Briers, who has conducted related research, was not involved with this study.
Van Den Bergh and colleagues rendered the bikini-effect powerless by satiating the stirred appetite with a different type of reward — financial security.
A sense of personal wealth depends largely on what we perceive to be the society standard. The researchers manipulated this perception to make male subjects feel relatively rich or relatively poor. When a questionnaire suggested the average income in society was very small — smaller than most of the subjects' incomes — the men felt rich in comparison. Conversely, when the average income was implied to be very large — dwarfing that of the male subjects — most of the men began looking at their own earnings as piddling.
When the men felt well-off, the bikinis lost their influence. But if they considered themselves among the have-nots, they were likely to seek immediate gratification after seeing women running in bikinis. (Among other sexy stimuli, the study used a commercial for Lynx body spray, which features thousands of women running in bikinis.)
The study was funded by a research division of Aegis Group, a marketing company.
Evolution at work
Evolutionarily speaking, Briers hypothesized, unfulfilled sexual arousal could trigger a subconscious belief that one's reproductive status is at stake. Rendered fearful, men reach out for other "resources" — a quick payoff, fast food — to better their chances for survival. In modern, more splurge-friendly times, this may be a maladaptive tendency.
The bikini effect does vary in strength from person to person, Van Den Bergh said. While most men are vulnerable to subtle types of stimuli — like sexy ads and touching lingerie — others may need to see a woman nude before feeling impulsive. No matter, Van Den Bergh warned, "being exposed to a sexy girl may influence what stock you invest in or what candy bar you buy."
While her own research also indicates a common reward pathway, Briers cautioned that some studies suggest more specific reward responses (for example, new mothers respond differently to a baby's smell than childless women). Taken together, all this research, she said "is the beginning of something fascinating."
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Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.