Sexual Desire Triggers Attachment Feelings Interview with:

Gurit E. Birnbaum, Ph.D. Associate Professor Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya Herzliya, Israel

Dr. Birnbaum

Gurit E. Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya
Herzliya, Israel What is the background for this study?

Response: Sexual desire evolved to serve as a powerful motivational force that brings potential romantic partners together initially and thereby helps to facilitate sexual intercourse and pregnancy. As such, sexual acts may be devoid of affectional bonding, as in the case of one night stands. And yet, sexual desire may play a major role not only in attracting potential partners to each other, but also in encouraging the formation of an attachment between them.

Nevertheless, thus far it has been unclear whether desire motivates merely reproductive acts, with attachment between partners developing independently, or whether desire directly contributes to the building of an emotional bond between newly acquainted partners. Indeed, although sexual urges and emotional attachments are not necessarily connected with each other, evolutionary and social processes may have rendered humans particularly likely to become romantically attached to partners to whom they are sexually attracted. The present research sought to provide support for the latter option. What are the main findings?

Response: In four studies, we demonstrated that sexual desire elicits behaviors that can facilitate the attachment-bonding process during face-to-face encounters with a new opposite-sex acquaintance. In Study 1, participants mimed together with an opposite-sex confederate to pre-recorded music. Participant’s desire for the confederate was associated with coded immediacy behaviors toward the confederate (e.g., proximity-seeking, synchronization). Study 2 extended these findings, showing that participants, who slow danced with a confederate perceived to be more desirable, were more synchronized with the confederate. Synchronization, in turn, was associated with greater interest in future interactions with the confederate.

Studies 3 and 4 were designed to establish a causal connection between sexual activation and non-sexual behaviors (provision of responsiveness and help, respectively) that are not only strategically employed to initiate relationships with potential partners but also play a key role in supporting long-term bonding. In both studies, participants were exposed to sexual stimuli (versus neutral stimuli) and then interacted face-to-face with an attractive opposite-sex stranger who either discussed interpersonal dilemmas with them (Study 3) or ostensibly sought their help (Study 4). Participants’ responsiveness and helping behaviors toward the confederate were recorded.

The findings revealed that participants were more responsive and quicker to help as well as invested more time and effort in providing help to the opposite-sex stranger in the sexual priming condition than in the control condition. Overall, our research demonstrates that even a nonconscious sexual stimulus can elicit verbal and non-verbal behaviors that not only convey contact readiness but also express caring about a partner’s well-being. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Our research suggests that when two strangers meet, sexual desire experienced by one or both of them may initiate a cascade of behaviors that signal their interest in further interaction as well as their willingness to invest in a potential relationship. Such behaviors help set the stage for deepening the emotional connection between them. To be sure, whereas intense desire may attract new partners to each other, the behaviors it engenders are those that support long-term bonding. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: More research is needed to examine the conditions under which heightened relationship-promoting tendencies in a sexually arousing context reflect the desire for a meaningful relationship with a prospective partner and predict greater efforts toward building an intimate relationship. For example, research should explore whether sexual attraction that is based on partner’s surface-quality traits (e.g., physical attractiveness) elicits different relationship goals (short-term vs. long-term) than sexual attraction that is based on deeper-quality traits, which tap relationship compatibility (e.g., emotional stability, sensitivity), and whether these different goals, in turn, generate distinctive constellations of relationship-initiating behaviors (e.g., immediacy behaviors in the case of both short-term and long-term goals vs. more attachment-promoting behaviors in the case of long-term goals).

One limitation of our research is that in Studies 3 and 4, we compared sexual with neutral primes and did not control for general closeness priming. It is therefore unclear whether engagement in relationship initiating behaviors is exclusive to sexual priming. Future research should rule out the possibility that priming sexuality leads to higher levels of positive affect or to heightened feelings of engagement, which in turn, facilitate approach behavior toward a new interaction partner. Such an additional study could explore, for example, whether priming sexuality induces responsiveness to strangers of the desired sex rather than to both male and female strangers. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: Watch my recent TEDxVienna talk on why humans make sex so complicated.


Birnbaum, G. E., Mizrahi, M., & Reis, H. T. (2018). Fueled by desire: Sexual activation facilitates the enactment of relationship-initiating behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships




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