Personality, Behavior, and Sex

by Oscar Anderson, Kenyon ’17

Behavioral systems are complex processes of cognition that help a person achieve his or her goals, and they are normally unconscious. Each behavioural system within a person has different factors that make it unique, such as when it is used, its unconscious thoughts, and its success rate. Much of these systems rely on past experiences and schemas, or individual perceptions of the world for a certain concept. In the present article, Birnbaum et al. (2014) explore ehavioural systems and how they relate to sexual functioning.

They propose that “… human mating is governed by an inborn sexual ehavioural system and that individual differences… reflect variations in the functioning of this system,” (Birnbaum et al., 2014, p. 823). Sexual behavior is a part of normal development, but it is unique in the fact that it is shaped by the attachment system. The attachment system is formed when humans are infants and still learning about the world; the outcomes of this time determine how trusting and anxious a person is within romantic and sexual relationships. In a normally developed sexual behavioral system, a person will want to entice a sexually desirable partner into intercourse, if not a relationship (Birnbaum et al., 2014). This is the primary strategy, and it should result in positive and mutually pleasurable feelings.

However, just like a regular behavioral system, this can be flawed. Sexuality can sometimes affect people in an adverse way. Birnbaum and his colleagues (2014) proposed that there are two primary failures of the sexual behavioral system: hyperactivation and deactivation. “Hyperactivation of the sexual system involves intensifying the primary strategy and keeping it chronically activated… This intense desire [for sex] is accompanied by performance anxieties and worries about sexual rejection,” (Birnbaum et al., 2014, p. 823). Hyperactivation strategies tend to have conflicting views; they overemphasize the importance of sex in a romantic relationship, yet they create an anxiety about personal sexual desirability and performance (Birnbaum et al., 2014).

Deactivation, then, is the opposite reaction to sexuality. It is characterized by a suppression and rejection of a person’s inherent sexuality and sexual needs. In other words, this is an avoidance reaction to sex. This strategy may have arisen from an association of punishment or pain with sex, which results in an avoidance of sexual behaviors. People enabling sexual deactivation strategies deemphasize the importance of sex in romantic relationships, and they may avoid people and stimuli that they find sexually desirable. (Birnbaum et al., 2014)

In order to test for the level of activation of the sexual behavioral system, the researchers “… constructed a two-factor scale tapping individual differences in sexual hyperactivation and deactivation,” (Birnbaum et al., 2014, p. 824). This scale was named the Sexual System Functioning Scale, or the SSFS. The scale measured whether people used sexual hyperactivation or deactivation strategies; that is, it measured a person’s thoughts and feelings about sex. The people that showed an abnormal strategy were measured on a broad range of scales in order to determine how this behavioral system fits into cognition and personality. To begin, the SSFS measured how pervasive these strategies are. Testing showed that these strategies remained at the same general level, much like a personality trait or schema. In addition, this test showed that these behavioral systems can be identified and observed by romantic partners. Finally, this test proved that a person’s self-reports are valid indicators of sex-related thoughts and feelings. (Birnbaum et al., 2014)

For the next series of test, Birnbaum et al. (2014) made predictions about sexual attitudes, sexual self-views, sexual functioning, sexual fantasies, sex-related personality traits, and sex-related motives. They predicted that sexual hyperactivation would be positively associated with sexual arousal, sexual desire, frequency of sexual fantasies, erotophilia (liking sex), and sex-related anxieties; they also predicted that hyperactivation would be associated with using sex as a means of achieving personal goals (Birnbaum et al., 2014). In addition, they predicted that deactivation would be associated with withdrawn sexuality, dislike of casual sex, less frequent fantasies, and the such (Birnbaum et al., 2014). Finally, the researchers predicted that “The two SSFS scores would be associated with sexual dysfunctions, negative sex-related self-views, sex-related negative emotions, and sexual satisfaction,” (Birnbaum et al., 2014, 827). After a series of tests, all of the predictions were supported. Hyperactivation was shown to be related to more promiscuous sexual activities and thoughts, including a positive association with power-themed sexual fantasies, and deactivation was proven to be associated with a tendency to shirk away from sexuality and sexual themes.

After they established a common theme for each of the secondary sexual strategies, Birnbaum and his colleagues tested various personality traits, including the Big Five, the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (ZKPQ), and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), to look for correlations. Beginning with the Big Five, the researchers found that hyperactivation and deactivation were positively correlated with neuroticism. Hyperactivation was negatively correlated with conscientiousness and agreeableness, and deactivation was negatively associated with extraversion and openness to experience. The ZKPQ showed that both were negatively correlated with aggressiveness and that both were positively related with neuroticism. Hyperactivation was associated with impulsivity, whereas deactivation showed the opposite correlation. The NPI had no significant correlations. (Birnbaum et al., 2014)

These personality associations show that the hyperactivation strategy “… scored higher on sensation seeking, impulsivity, and behavioral inhibition… These associations highlight the dual nature of sexual hyperactivation…” (Birnbaum et al., 2014, 832). This means that sexually hyperactive behavioral systems demonstrate both an anxious and avoidant attachment style, which was unexpected.

This study by Birnbaum and his colleagues (2014) demonstrates that the behavioral system can be applied to the sexual system and attachment system, which can then be seen in personality. A major issue arises with this, however: Does personality influence the sexual behaviour system, or the other way around? Future research could lead into this, along with analyzing how the behavioral systems are balanced in romantic love and how the relationship changes. However, there is clearly an influence between sexual behavioral systems and personality and romantic love.


Birnbaum, G. E., Mikulincer, M., Szepsenwol, O., Shaver, P. R., & Mizrahi, M. (2014). When sex goes wrong: A behavioral systems perspective on individual differences in sexual attitudes, motives, feelings, and behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology106(5), 822-842. doi:10.1037/a0036021

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