New Mexico ISPI eLearning Center

Pluralistic Ignorance = Sexual Stupidity Squared?

by Peter Shocker

One very frequent topic of discussion here is why women are willing to hook up casually. With so many women feeling generally miserable about the current sociosexual environment, in which women cannot expect commitment in return for sex, it seems reasonable to wonder why women are acting against their own best interests. We understand the factors that led to an uninhibited sexual culture via the Sexual Revolution, including the Pill, Roe and the Women’s Movement. But we continue to scratch our heads over why so many young women engage in behaviors that cause them considerable psychological, emotional and physical distress.

A recent study, published in the Evolutionary Psychology Journal, looked at the phenomenon known as Pluralistic Ignorance as at least a partial explanation. With a name like that, you know it can’t be anything good, right? It sounds like stupidity squared. PI is a cousin of sorts to social proof, part of the herd behavior family. It means that individuals are behaving in accordance with generally false beliefs attributed to the group, regardless of their own beliefs. In other words, we figure everyone else is doing something, and we conclude that we should be doing it too, regardless of whether we even want to. We don’t want to be left out, left behind, the social outcast. It turns out that PI is a key feature of what drives sexual behavior on college campuses.


“Previous research found that young adults routinely believe that others are more comfortable with various sexual behaviors than they, themselves, are. This leads them to behave as if they were more comfortable than they actually are, and engage in behaviors with which they are not actually comfortable. Note that if everyone is affected by this fallacy, no one will be behaving in accordance with their own beliefs and comfort levels.”

In particular, it is hypothesized that sociocultural factors are currently driving up the prevalence of contemporary NSA (no strings attached) sexual hook-up behavior.

“Popular media coverage may be sensationalistic, and undoubtedly influences attitudes and sexual behavior in adolescents and young adults. However, the hook-up phenomenon is not merely a creation of the media; rather, the media seems to be reflecting an actual shift in behavior. Such casual sexual experiences among college students are by no means a product of the 21st century; “one-night stands” and “casual sex” have been studied without the current “hook-up” context. However, the high prevalence of these behaviors, coupled with an openness to display and discuss them, appears to be recent, particularly with respect to women.”

PI must makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, but why?

How does Pluralistic Ignorance advance reproductive strategies?

Humans are, as a species, biological organisms with a polygynous evolutionary history. Thus, male humans are, on average, expected to be more sexually eager than female humans, and females are, on average, expected to be relatively “coy” and choosy concerning mates and mating. The higher potential male reproductive rate and lower cost of reproduction to males should lead to males seeking out a variety of mates and engaging in sex often. That men willingly and eagerly engage in hook-up behavior is therefore not surprising.

But the lower potential female reproductive rate and higher cost of reproduction to females should lead to female reluctance to engage in sexual (historically, costly and potentially reproductive) behavior in the absence of resources, security, and/or commitment from a potential partner. Even the less-obvious potential advantages to women, such as good genes and immediate access to resources, seem not to apply. That women engage in hook-up behavior therefore demands an explanation.

Who’s Doing What?

The study, Hooking Up: Gender Differences, Evolution, and Pluralistic Ignorance by Chris Reiber and Justin Garcia at SUNY Binghamton, consisted of 507 college students at a mid-sized public university. They filled out a 70 item questionnaire online, and were assured of anonymity. They were also instructed to skip any questions they did not feel comfortable answering. The respondents had a mean age of 19.7, reflecting heavy participation by freshman and sophomores. Results showed that 81% of the respondents had engaged in sexual behavior during a hookup. The other 19% can be assumed to have held the line at making out. Students were asked which of these behaviors they had engaged in, but the number of hookups by individual respondents was not considered.

With the exception of the gap in performing oral sex (heh heh), the results were similar for men and women.

It appears that in contrast to earlier studies of sexual behavior, neither sex is misreporting. This may be due to the fact that hooking up does not carry much stigma today. It’s also possible that both women and men are doing any misreporting in the same direction, i.e. both exaggerating or minimizing the data.

Personally, I’m surprised at some of these numbers.

  • In an era where we hear that blowjobs are the new handshake, I find it interesting that they happen less than half the time during a hookup.
  • I’m also surprised (pleasantly) that women are receiving oral sex a third of the time. This is a far more equitable distribution than I would have predicted.
  • There’s not much difference in frequency between touching above and below the waist, so the line between first and second base seems to have pretty much vanished.
  • Yet the line between kissing and fondling breasts remains intact. I am a bit surprised that around a fifth of hookups are limited to kissing.

In studying the effect of PI, the critical question pertains to the relative comfort of women and men engaging in various sexual behaviors.

The Hypothesis:

Modern Western women live in cultures in which there are simultaneously large differentials in male resources and status, and imposed marital monogamy, the combination of which is expected to provoke intrasexual competition among females for potential mates. Engaging in uncommitted sex may be one form of female-female competition. If this is so, we would predict that women attribute to other women comfort levels that are higher than they, themselves, feel; this would generate PI that would heighten women’s awareness of potential threats from female competitors and may motivate women to engage in competition.

The researchers predicted that results would reinforce behavioral-evolutionary theory:

1. Men are more comfortable than women with all types of sexual behaviors.

2. Women correctly attribute higher comfort levels to men, but overestimate men’s actual comfort levels.

3. Men correctly attribute lower comfort levels to women, but still overestimate women’s actual comfort levels.

4. Both genders attribute higher comfort levels to same-gendered others, reinforcing a Pluralistic Ignorance effect that might contribute to the high frequency of hook-up behaviors in spite of the low comfort levels reported and suggesting that hooking up may be a modern form of intrasexual competition between females for potential mates.

Below is a graph illustrating the relative comfort levels of each gender. (Please note the relative discomfort men feel when giving oral. I found this hilarious. True north, young man, true north! Just think of England! Seriously, ladies, if  you find a guy that loves going down, don’t ever let him go.)

Study Results:

1. Men reported higher comfort levels than women for all sexual behaviors.

2. Men overestimated women’s comfort levels with several of the behaviors, particularly oral sex and intercourse.

3. “Women were found to attribute higher comfort levels to other women than they, themselves, felt.

This is consistent with women viewing other women as competitors for mates, and is somewhat paradoxical given the definition of “NSA” sex – that no relationship exists, and no relationship is on offer.”

4. The comfort levels attributed by men to other men (for all sexual behaviors) were predicted and found to be higher than the comfort levels men reported for themselves.

“In evolutionary terms, this would lead to men being more likely to engage in such behavior in spite of their own (lower) comfort levels, thus potentially increasing reproductive success.”

5. Half of women and men cite the desire for a traditional romantic relationship as the motivation to hook up.

“Although the vast majority of these participants reported having no actual expectation that hook-ups would develop into traditional romantic relationships, 51% (of both men and women) indicated the desire to initiate a traditional romantic relationship when asked to identify the factors that motivate them to hook up.”

In short, the study demonstrated clear patterns of Pluralistic Ignorance.

“For all sexual behaviors, both genders attributed to others of the same gender higher comfort levels than they, themselves, felt. This may help explain the high rates of these behaviors in spite of the low comfort levels reported. The pressure to act in accordance with these false perceived norms may be leading individuals to engage in behavior with which they are uncomfortable. It appears that women are behaving in accordance with their false beliefs in spite of their own discomfort , and are facing negative psychological and emotional consequences as a result.”

Now what? Could a reduction in PI alter the sexual landscape?

Though it’s not the goal of the study to identify a corrective course of action to reduce or eliminate the PI effect, many colleges and universities are exploring ways to eradicate false beliefs around behavior in hopes of stemming the demonstrable negative consequences of hookup culture, including other risky behaviors and a rapidly escalating demand for counseling services on campus. One approach that has been found to be successful in reducing alcohol consumption on campuses is social norms marketing. It is predicated on this theory:

For a norm to be perpetuated it is not necessary for the majority to believe it, but only for the majority to believe that the majority believes it. Appropriate information about the actual norm will encourage individuals to express those beliefs that are consistent with the true, healthier norm, and inhibit problem behaviors that are inconsistent with it.

One study conducted at 18 universities over a three-year period found that social norms marketing changed perceptions of student drinking, which led to lower alcohol consumption. Schools are looking at ways of conducting media campaigns to shift the perceptions of students to more accurately reflect what the majority is actually doing.
If students were hooking up and just saying “This rocks!” there wouldn’t be a need to address the issue and attempt to modify the culture. What’s clear is that a great many young women and men are behaving in a way that is not in accordance with their own beliefs and comfort levels. That exacts a high cost on society, both at the individual level, and in aggregate.

Social norms marketing is gaining momentum, but anyone in college today is unlikely to see much of it. In the meantime, try to be aware of what makes you uncomfortable. Then stop doing it.

Instead of pissing someone off, or making them think you’re lame, there’s a very good chance they’ll feel relief. In fact, there’s a 50/50 chance they would actually prefer a relationship.