Thursday, August 21, 2014

Internet searches say a lot about our desires--and the results are dirty

If our internet search histories are any indication, people are dirrrty. The things we google when we're sitting alone in our rooms can reveal a lot about us, particularly what we find arousing. So if you were to combine detailed search engine results from millions of people and compare them to the published research on sex and relationships, the result would be an insightful, humorous and occasionally disturbing study of human sexuality. That's exactly what Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam have done in their book A Billion Wicked thoughts.

Studies of human sexuality are plagued by two common problems. They often only involve college students, and the information researchers glean from these participants is collected through surveys. Since most people aren't college students and the incentive to lie about such a sensitive topic is so strong, Ogas and Gaddam sought out a way to access reliable data about people's sexual preferences without engaging in unethical research. Their clever solution: internet searches. Because who's going to lie when looking up their favorite porn or erotic stories?

The book is full of fascinating information about human sexuality, but there are two important themes running throughout A Billion Wicked Thoughts that are particularly important if you want to understand what motivates our behavior in this regard. First, our sexuality is mostly biological, the result of millions of years of evolution. And perhaps more importantly, our innate desires are very often politically incorrect; men and women are judgmental when it comes to whom they pair up with, and very harshly so. This clash between empirical observation and culture is interesting and even amusing by itself, but it also speaks to the valuable role science can play in our society.

Scientists who study human sexuality have discovered that our attraction to other people is governed by signals in our brain that help us determine whether or not those people would make good partners. For men, these signals manifest as preferences for certain female physical attributes called cued interests, which "develop when the brain's natural responsiveness to a particular kind of cue causes the brain to sexually imprint upon a target that exhibits that cue." (p 51) This process usually occurs during adolescence and explains why men develop a lifelong fascination with breasts, butts and other shapely curves, which are indicators that a woman is fit enough to produce healthy offspring.

Much research confirms this finding, though many voices in contemporary society, especially some feminists, find it objectionable. Nonetheless, internet search data from around the world--lest you believe this is a uniquely western phenomenon--confirms that men find women with certain physical features more attractive than others. I'll spare you the search details to keep this post somewhat family friendly, but this is why women in porn tend to be slimmer than the average woman and have the hourglass figure that men typically find attractive. (p 33) Or as Ogas and Gaddam put it, "Men's brains are wired to objectify women." (p 47)

But women aren't victims in this evolutionary story. Though far less visually oriented than men, women, too, respond to a list of cues that help them determine which men to pair up with. Instead of evaluating men merely for their looks, women's brains are also wired to judge men based on their social status, intelligence, confidence, kindness and dozens of other qualities. Women, in short, prefer jerks with a soft side. This is the archetypal hero in almost all romance novels, which Ogas and Gaddam point out are written almost exclusively for female audiences. The hero in these books is usually dominant, aloof and borderline arrogant. He makes his living as a pirate, soldier, cowboy or some other kind of bad ass--but he always falls for the heroine in the end, when he finally exposes his inner nice guy and the two live happily ever after.

Studies have likewise confirmed that women evaluate men in this way, and the kinds of men who win their affection are those who closely match this romance hero. Research shows that women are attracted to men who are disinterested in them, or who are clever enough to feign disinterest. Other studies have found that women prefer so-called benevolent sexists—men who treat women as their inferiors, albeit with good intention—to men who view them as equals. Still more research has concluded that women find dominant men attractive, specifically men who are socially dominant, according to this study. The conclusions of such research are grounded in our evolutionary history. Women's preference for dominant men is a survival mechanism meant to help them select partners who can protect and provide for them, skills which are indicative of reproductive fitness. "[W]omen like bad boys. I suspect it's because our inner cave woman knows that Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger lunch in short order," summarizes one romance fan quoted by Ogas and Gaddam.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts is an important book for two reasons. It calls into question a lot of commonly accepted beliefs about sexuality and challenges us to change our opinions based on the evidence--which is what science is all about. It's not polite these days to say that men evolved to judge women based on their looks. Likewise, it's insensitive to tell young men that women will judge them for being socially awkward, but it's true nonetheless, and you'll find it documented in the book. More importantly, however, the authors did a terrific job of presenting a lot of complex information in way a wide audience can understand. Along with taking copious notes, I burst into laughter as I read through every chapter.

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