Talking about one’s sexual history is an important part of new partners’ communication with each other. After all, they say that you’re not only having sex with this new person, but with everyone he or she has had sex with too (sort of a “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game with a sexual twist). But how do you know your partner is being truthful when informing you that he or she has had three, thirteen, thirty, or three hundred past partners? People certainly have reasons for being less than honest (like you don’t want others to judge you based on your busy, or not so busy, bedroom), so when they self-report about their sexual behaviors, how do we know they are not lying? People often fudge their responses about things like how much they recycle and go to the gym because those lies make them look better, and researchers need ways to get participants to tell the truth when reporting about all sorts of “socially desirable” behaviors.
Researchers have developed several ways to get participants to be more truthful in their studies. One of the more creative methods is known as the “bogus pipeline.” The bogus pipeline is a fancy setup where researchers hook participants to what they believe is a lie detector machine and tell the participants that if they don’t tell the truth, the researchers will know about their lie. Because participants are afraid of the researchers discovering their lies, participants are more likely to tell the truth.
In a recent study, researchers randomly assigned 293 men and women (averaging just under 19 years of age) to either a bogus pipeline condition, in which they were hooked to a lie detector and reminded that the equipment would detect their deceit before answering questions verbally, or to an anonymous questionnaire condition, in which they answered questions on a paper and pencil survey while hooked to the same machine.1 However, in the anonymous questionnaire condition, researchers told the participants that the purpose of the machine was to measure participants’ anxiety prior to the filling out the survey (and were not told that it would flag false answers). It’s important to note that both groups were hooked to the same machine, which means any difference in responses are due to the fear of the lie being discovered, and not due to the machine itself.
In the bogus pipeline condition, which should produce more truthful responses, men reported having, on average, 1.96 sexual partners. However, when giving anonymous responses, men reported having 2.85 sexual partners. Women in the bogus pipeline condition reported having 3.35 past sexual partners, compared to 2.70 in the anonymous questionnaire condition (see the figure below). Basically, when they thought they were anonymous, men exaggerated their sexual experience, while women under-reported.
So what does this mean in terms of sexual communication between new partners? It’s probably not practical to hook your partner up to a bogus pipeline when asking about his or her sexual history (unless, of course, you are a psychological researcher or in law enforcement). But this research highlights the fact that men and women both tend to skew their responses to questions about sexual history, and that couples need to create an atmosphere that promotes honesty and open communication, where each partner is comfortable with discussing their history without fear of judgment.
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1Fisher, T. D. (2013). Gender roles and pressure to be truthful: The bogus pipeline modifies gender differences in sexual but not non-sexual behavior. Sex Roles, 68, 401-414.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.