how often you think about sex... or food or sleep

A neat blog post from Brian Mustanski over at Psychology Today, about a study on frequency of thoughts about sex. It’s a neat study that asked participants to press a clicker each time they thought about either food, sex, or sleep – depending which group they were in. (Brian is another Kinsey alum, so I have a natural bias toward his work. I really like his stuff.)

My favorite part is on page two of the Psychology Today article, where Brian talks about problems in the media’s coverage of the study, which parallels my thinking on mainstream journalism reporting science:

1. Writers were either confused or deliberately choosing the more extreme, less representative central tendency (the mean rather than the median) to report.

2. Writers emphasized the central tendency, to the exclusion of standard deviation, when one of the most compelling results of the study was the wide variability among subjects.

3. Writers also emphasized the sex part, paying inadequate attention to the fact that thoughts about sleep and food were as frequent as thoughts about sex.

4. Writers emphasized population-level differences between men and women, neglecting to clarify that there was lots of overlap so that, even though the men on average reported more thoughts about sex (and food and sleep), many of the individual women had more thoughts about sex (and food and sleep) than many of the individual men.

5. Writers generalized the results to All People, rather than recognizing the delimitations of the population studied: college students, who are likely to be WEIRD.

What can we really conclude about frequency of thoughts about sex? We think about sex about as often as we think about food and sleep, and we vary a great deal from each other in all three topics.

I wanted to insert another thought here, too:

Hunger and sleep are both drive motivation systems, with a powerful homeostatic mechanism punishing an organism for failing to get adequate food (hunger) or sleep (fatigue). Sex, in contrast, is an incentive motivation system, pushing an organism toward appetitive stimuli, rewarding the organism for exposure to positive experiences rather than punishing it for not getting enough.

(This is not so simple a binary as I’ve made it sound.)

So I wonder how frequency of sex thoughts compares with other incentive motivation systems, like exploration (what’s a thought about “exploration”? Heck, what’s a thought about “sex”?)