Are Men Less Into Sex Than They Think?

By Neuroskeptic | June 29, 2013 7:19 am

Over the last month, how interested were you in sex?

According to a really thought-provoking new study, your answer to that question is likely to be an overestimate – especially if you’re male: Accuracy of 30-Day Recall for Components of Sexual Function and the Moderating Effects of Gender and Mood

The authors, a Duke University team led by Kevin Weinfurt, took 200 people who were in a sexual relationship. Every day for one month, they were asked to complete a detailed online diary about the past 24 hours of their sex lives (with email reminders for any slackers). Then, at the end of the month, the volunteers were each asked the same questions over again, about the previous 30 days as a whole.

This deceptively simple methodology allowed Weinfurt et al to work out how accurate people’s memory for sex was, simply by comparing their past-month answers to the total (or the average) of their previous daily answers.

It turned out that people’s memory is far from perfect.

Most strikingly, people remember being a lot more interested in sex than they actually were: on a 5-point scale, answers to the past month recall question were almost one full point higher than average daily answers (the question was “How interested have you been in sexual activity?”). This bias was stronger for males.

The correlation coefficient between someone’s 30-day interest rating, and their average daily score, was r=0.70. This is strong, but by no means flawless. As the authors write:

A correlation of 0.70 suggests that about half of the variance in the 30-day recall is based on something other than what actually happened during the preceding month.

People’s memories of actual sexual activities were not biased overall, but the strength of the correlations were in some cases quite low. So people often misremembered how many times they did things, but the mistake was equally likely to be in either direction. But for masturbation, men overestimated how often they did it, while women’s memory bias was in the other direction.

It’s easy to conclude that people were applying gender stereotypes (e.g. men are more interested in sex and masturbate more) to their own memories -

In the absence of a perfect memory trace for some experience, people may “fill in the gaps” using some theory about what their experiences should have been, given who they are.

Finally, and most interestingly from my perspective, was the effect of mood. Mood at the time of completing the 30-day recall questionnaire was associated with memory biases: relative to their own daily reports, people in a good mood over-reported having sex, under-reported masturbating, and over-reported their sexual function (erectile and/or orgasm quality.)

This is a striking demonstration of the fragility of memory and the problems with ‘self report’ and surveys. It’s humbling to think how easily a spurious finding about (say) depressed people having less sex could emerge from such a mood bias.

Weinfurt et al recruited an unusual sample of volunteers: they were all people in a stable relationship, who were willing to comply with the rather intrusive demands of the study. But the accuracy of memory in the real world is likely to be even lower. For one thing, doing those daily reports could well have boosted subsequent recall.

ResearchBlogging.orgWeinfurt KP, Lin L, Dombeck CB, Broderick JE, Snyder DC, Williams MS, Fawzy MR, & Flynn KE (2013). Accuracy of 30-Day Recall for Components of Sexual Function and the Moderating Effects of Gender and Mood. The journal of sexual medicine PMID: 23802907

  • jklhadfgkj@hotmail.com

    Sexual motivation is caused by testosterone in men and estrogen in women according to my textbook. I’d like to see the volunteers levels of testosterone and estrogen, this may be the result of some of the over exaggeration’s or even the reporting of incorrect values. If male’s are taking testosterone (not all to uncommon in young males), it will likely increase the desire for sex and probably have them report inaccurate data.

    This experiment would be done best with a large group of volunteers. This would give a better average. I also think age will have a lot to do with reported sexual behavior. Younger people often like to discuss and over exaggerate it more than older generations.

    • theLaplaceDemon

      My understanding (which is based mostly on the work of Dr. Kim Wallen at Emory – endocrinology is definitely not my specialty) is that it is a bit more complicated than that.

      What I’m curious about though is your assertion that taking testosterone is common among young males. Do you have a citation for that?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      While measuring hormone levels would have been very interesting (and in fact the researchers might even have taken blood samples and just not reported it in this paper… I hope so), this study is more about the mistmatch between two different subjective measures.

      • Bennie The Bouncer

        “Mistmatch”? What is this, an inhaler study? From your post, I draw two conclusions. One, you don’t proofread what you write, and two, you should. Gee, this is fun, this “two conclusions from thin air” thing. :)

    • Michael Clarke

      You are right about Testosterone elevating sexual desires. My textbook clarifies that as well. But if theyre taking testosterone theyd have higher sexual desire throughout the entire month making it less likely for them to overestimate their desires if theyre already elevated.

      One thing that could be interesting to see if testosterone levels at the end of the month were higher making them have a higher libido at the moment and judging the previous month off how they currently feel.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Cori Wood

      Testosterone and estrogen, if I remember correctly, are both present in men and women.

    • Virtuous2012

      Curious why you keep using possessives instead of simple plurals. Exaggeration’s. Male’s. Also comma fault instead of semi.

  • Bennie The Bouncer

    No. Men are just as interested is sex as they ever were, in general. We’ve simply been schooled to keep it to ourselves by the incredible damage done to gender identity by pathological political correctness and radical feminism (as distinct from legitimate feminism, which perfectly reasonably seeks parity in opportunity.)

    You can’t directly study this: society has conditioned males to untruth with regard to the core issue. However, you can look at the indirect indicators, from the popularity of pornography to the steady sale of sex toys, lingerie, even certain types of shoes, the continuing popularity of stockings (as opposed to pantyhose), and provocative makeup.

    Finally, as should be obvious but apparently isn’t, interest in one’s long term partner may indeed wane simply on the basis of familiarity, but that doesn’t mean one’s interest is *sex* has waned. Subject a partnered male to an available potential partner with a healthy salting of the characteristics he finds intriguing, and interest will reveal itself to the male instantly. But not, most likely, to anyone else.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      From this comment I draw two conclusions: one, you haven’t read the post; two, you are a misandrist who believes all men to be helpless, fragile brainwashees or, at best, sheep.

      • Bennie The Bouncer

        I wish you luck with your… “conclusions.”

        • Wouter

          Well, someone has gotten his knickers in a twist (also regarding the reply further down this page). Anyway, I agree with Neuroskeptic here; this study isn’t about sexual desire, mate choice or interest in sex, as much as it is about memory. The authors argue:

          “In the absence of a perfect memory trace for some experience, people may “fill in the gaps” using some theory about what their experiences should have been, given who they are.”

          In other words, they are not concluding that men are more interested in sex than women.
          This same results could probably also have been obtained when the subject “sex” would have been replaced by “consumption of alcoholic beverages”. Next time, read the post.

          • Bennie The Bouncer

            Oh, please. I read the post; the presumption that I didn’t is mindless trolling on both your parts. The problem, as I stated up front in general terms, is that you can’t test people’s memories about a subject where they are tuned to lie about them. No one is going to give you usable data when they know that data will put them into a compromised position. Your problem isn’t that I didn’t read; it is that you read what I said, and did not comprehend same.

            “In other words, they are not concluding that men are more interested in sex than women.”

            And that *alone* should tell you that the study failed to reflect reality.

            PS: I’ll let you know if I develop twisty kickers, lol. What I have is a twisty sense of humor, but that tends to be problematic on the Internet. Previous correspondent engaged in lame trolling derived from inaccurate presumption; he deserved a poke or two IMHO, that’s all.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

            OK but even granting that men were trained to lie about this stuff, it is interesting that men lie differently when asked to recall the past 30 days, as opposed to the past 24 hours. So the ‘lies’ (if you insist) aren’t consistent and that’s the point of this study.

          • Sarah Dawn

            ” “In other words, they are not concluding that men are more interested in sex than women.”

            And that *alone* should tell you that the study failed to reflect reality.”

            What reality? If you’re suggesting that women aren’t as interested in sex as men based on what society has taught you, then you’re in your own little reality. A woman’s sex drive, although perhaps not as frequent (especially women in monogamous relationships), is just as strong. If not stronger. That’s reality.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Cori Wood

        Wow, I could not agree more. You took the words right from my brain, Neuroskeptic. You are surprisingly insightful.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Cori Wood

          Its obvious he didnt read it in the first 2 sentences.

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/VictimOfBoredom Matt

        From this comment I draw one conclusion:
        You’re a blowhard douchebag.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          Hey, I’m just defending men’s rights… to not be written off as poor old brainwashed losers in the name of men’s rights.

  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa

    I wish my wife was less into sex, i’m to old for that stuff.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Cori Wood

      lol WOW. I dont think I’ve ever heard a man honestly say that. Another score for the anonymity of the interwebz.

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  • Buddy199

    Interesting how people see themselves according to an image they hold of themselves rather than how they actually are.

    • Wouter

      Is there any other way to asses how you really are, than by an image you yourself create?

      • Buddy199

        Sure, there are many ways to objectively measure psychological qualities or states that don’t mesh with self assessment.

        • Wouter

          Right. So, if I wanted to know how I really am, I’d simply use one of your objective measurements. And who’d carry out that measurement?

          • Buddy199

            IQ test or any number of standard psych evaluation tools.

          • Wouter

            Let’s say I do an IQ-test (or one of your other psych tools) and out comes the number 40 (or for your other psych tools, a term like “psychotic”). Now you tell me: what does the number “40″ (or the term “psychotic”) say about how I see myself? At best, it says something how society sees me, but not how I see me. Only my interpretation of these outcomes, which is far from objective, will contribute to how I see myself, along with a bunch of images I hold prior to these tests.

          • Alex

            Psychology can never tell you WHO you really are. But an objective measure can tell you how frequently you shower, how often you use the word “like”, how affected your performance on a math test is by your emotional state. The point of psych is to predict behavior, not to define the human soul. I think psych oversteps its boundaries in ways like you mention with labeling people, but fundamentally, if you’re not counting the number of times X happens, and someone else IS counting, then your guess at how much X happens is probably not going to be as accurate as the actual counting records. I think that when you say “how I really am” you are thinking of some idea that I could never pull out of your head no matter how long I study you, but buddy199 is thinking of “how I really am” as a of “how much I do X” kind of statement. You’re thinking of two different things.

          • Wouter

            I think you maybe right, that buddy and me were both using different definitions. Thanks for clearing that up! But then, I’m still confused about the very first post of this discussion:
            “Interesting how people see themselves according to an image they hold of themselves rather than how they actually are.”

            So, it’s interesting that people see themselves (subjective) according to an image they hold (subjective), rather than how many times they did X (objective)? My reply to this (explained) reading would still be no letter different than my first reply to buddy.

          • Alex

            I think buddy199 is talking about things like stereotype threat, and changing your own behavior to fit an idea you have about yourself, rather than making an idea about yourself based on your behavior. I agree that it doesn’t make rational sense until you read research on it-if you have access to some database sources (or I guess google would work haha) go ahead and check out “stereotype threat”, “social identity” etc. :) Here’s my best shot at short explanation.

            You think you belong to a group, and you have an idea of what a member of that group ‘should’ be like that has been built by your experiences and also by the culture around you and how other’s describe members of that group. When your membership in that group is brought to the forefront of your mind, you may alter your behavior to be more in line with what you would expect of a group member. If you aren’t thinking about that aspect of your identity, you might behave very differently in the same situation. This also happens in comparison situations: ‘my group is worse at this than group X, I’m in a room with a member of group X: I can’t outperform them’ so you perform worse than you would doing the same task in a room by yourself.

            but that’s mostly stereotype threat, not quite the whole concept of how we construct identity? I don’t think I can explain it in a comment!

  • wgone

    This should be obvious – people in a relationship especially if its been for a while dont really focus that much on sex. Men out of a relationship think a lot more about sex and even when they dont have access to it they turn to porn. Most couples have gotten over the sex novelty and are working on more foundational aspects of their relationship. I am pretty sure that if you got honest answers from men, they will tell you that often they fantasize about other women while having sex with their partners, maybe women too.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Cori Wood

      I think that’s a generalization based on your life, but I for one have been in a relationship for over 5 years, and I kid you not,
      I am just as sexual towards my guy today as I was our first
      few months together. And yes, the novelty does wear off after
      a short or long time, but I dont think it necessarily becomes less important to the couple. Its the second most important thing in

      my relationship. And yes, we are probably all guilty of thinking about someone else during sex, at least sometimes,

  • Bobareeno

    “The correlation coefficient between someone’s 30-day interest rating, and their average daily score, was r=0.7″

    Definition of correlation coefficient ====> Pearson’s correlation coefficient between two variables is defined as the covariance of the two variables divided by the product of their standard deviations.The form of the definition involves a “product moment”, that is, the
    mean (the first moment about the origin) of the product of the mean-adjusted random variables; hence the modifier product-moment in the name.”

    Not much jargon in THAT definition. I wonder who funded this study and exactly what was learned from it that we didn’t already know? People have bad memories? Knew that…People think about sex fairly frequently? Knew that….People don’t accurately remember their sexual thought frequency? Bingo!!! Now THAT makes the study worthwhile. The next tine I discuss the frequency of my sexual thought memories with anyone (Mom, sis, the arresting officer…) I can be sure that they are unlikely to be accurate. The jury will most likely be hung in my ensuing trial. A great victory for muddled thinking.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Jargon? If you don’t understand correlation coefficients, you don’t understand facts.

      • Bobareeno

        Calm down. I meant the number 2 definition of jargon ===>: the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group. Facts can be phrased in jargon or plain vanilla English. Jargon has the advantage of not having to explain itself to the low information citizen, thereby being a kind of shorthand for the trained person. The “muddled thinking” I was referring to was on the part of the hypothetical jury at the hypothetical trial of my sexual harassment case. I apologize if my sarcasm was missed.

  • Tom Keenan

    A post on sex and the trolls come out to play. Interesting. I don’t accept men have been ‘schooled’ & ‘conditioned’ to keep our sexual thoughts & talk to ourselves. That’s utter b.s. Most men I know, straight or gay, are happy to talk about their sex lives and do so with both men & women. Bennie, try grinding your anti-feminisim axe somewhere else and try not to start an argument by lumping all men into a single category.

  • Facebook User

    I have the very secret truth about Men,If you wanted to know reach http://ommoola.com/2013/07/02/the-ugly-truth-about-what-men-really-think-about-women/

    • ocayaro

      I had reservations following the ommoola.com link but my concerns were unjustified.

  • http://fortheloveofthecreator.blogspot.com/ SHAHARIL AHMAD

    Just do it!

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  • chatpaltam o

    its probably equal interest depending on the person.
    what I find more important in this info, is that peoples memory is so bad.
    knowing this, what can we ever believe to be accurate on the news, or told to us by anyone ever?

    I think they should have applied age of the test subjects to the study..

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  • Gideon

    Well maybe this just means that people are subject to various biases when it comes to their own views, whether it’s about sex or any other thing. How about this? Men might tend to under-report their daily interest in sex so that they won’t appear as sex-starved creatures or addicts thinking about it all the time. On the other hand, over-reporting the 30 days review of their interest in sex still gives a representation of them as healthy males with adequate desire for sex.

    The other irony in this survey is this: I believe, when we talk about sex that has happened recently, we are less likely to imagine it as ‘great’ because of our expectations of it (our perceived norms, gender stereotypes, social heuristics, etc). But on hindsight, it could seem that it (the sex) wasn’t so bad because we can compare it with a later experience (or general experiences). If I’m wrong about this, it does prove something about the survey. Everything we know about sex is really just a point of view. :D

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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