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What Makes Smart People Do Dumb Things?

Two-Year Project Examines Sexual Risk-Taking in Men

It is not exactly a secret: sex can be dangerous. In the age of AIDS, a wrong move, the wrong decision, can be lethal. That message is being communicated more and more effectively; nevertheless, there remain a significant number of individuals who know about the risks, who understand the potential consequences, yet continue to act in ways that put them in danger. Why?

A new Kinsey Institute study is approaching that question from a completely new angle. Funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health, the two-year study addresses the issue
not from a 'health psychology' perspective, but from a sexual one.

"On reading the already extensive literature on sexual risk taking," says Dr. John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute and principal investigator for the study, "I was astonished to find that virtually all the relevant studies assumed that the risky behavior is under voluntary control, that people appraise the risk and then use that appraisal to decide whether or not to act. Not one was considering that the sexual process itself might play a role. I saw a gap that the Kinsey Institute was well situated to fill."

According to a theoretical model developed by Bancroft and Erick Janssen at the institute, each individual has personality traits that can affect behavior at a relatively unconscious level. "To fully understand why, in a given situation, one person takes a risk and another does not, we need to appreciate how these traits interact with conscious perceptions of risk."

"People have different levels of sexual inhibition and excitation, different relationships between mood and sexuality, and different degrees of assertiveness," says Janssen, associate scientist at the institute. "We believe all of these affect decisions to take or avoid risks. We are postulating that they operate in a kind of matrix: high excitation alone might not lead to risky behavior, but high excitation combined with low inhibition might. Someone who is depressed, or has low self-esteem, and at the same time is not assertive in a relationship, might give in to risky behavior even when he or she knows better. The wrong combination of factors can be a recipe for disaster."

To test their theory, the Kinsey researchers are dividing their study into three parts: a questionnaire survey of about 1 ,500 men (divided into gay and straight groups), recruited from a variety of sources reflecting different degrees of risk taking; a psychophysio- logical study of about 150 of these men; and in-depth interviews of about 100.

David Strong, one of the team who has been active in both the survey and interview portions of the study, says they already have more than 1,000 sets of questionnaires completed.

"We are striving for a balance of factors-gay/straight, black/ white, older/younger, blue collar/white collar, and so on," says Strong, "and believe me, it has been an adventure. Identifying the right places to find certain risk groups has been a challenge. We've visited everything from churches to "leather bars"; sometimes we actually set up a table. We have met some fascinating people."

Strong has conducted some 50 interviews also, and so far it seems the theory is being borne out. "We ask people to relate a recent sexual episode that they now regret, and ask why they did it. They almost always talk about knowing better, but 'the heat of the moment' carried them away. Often they say they literally forgot the risks, only to have the realization of what they had
done come crashing back on them, even in the split second after orgasm."

"Sometimes I feel more like Sherlock Holmes than a scientist," Strong laughs. "It's kind of like detective work, trying to figure out why these smart people do these dumb things."

Erick Janssen agrees that the project's first year has been an adventure, and he feels a strong link to the work of Alfred Kinsey.
"Dr. Kinsey was interested in variations across society," he notes, "and we've got a real smorgasbord. I think he would also approve of the three-part method of survey, lab, and interview. It is unusual---0ther studies might use only one of those-but in the end it will provide a lot of possible angles for looking at the data."

Ultimately, the scientists hope the study will suggest new ways to reach people who know the risks but still act. "We don't think our model will explain all risky behavior," says Janssen, "but it could go a long way. If we can help people understand why they do what they do, what their tendencies are, it might help them increase their control."

Kinsey Today, Spring/Summer 2000, vol 4, no.1.


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