Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

By Legal Eagle

Miss Candy recommended I should read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, as she thought I should enjoy it. She was right. I like behavioural economics. I like to know the strange things which influence our decision making and the way in which we value certain things.

Thus far, one of the most interesting experiments detailed in the book has been the experiment which documents the different decisions people make when they are in a “cold” or a “hot” state. Basically, Ariely and others conducted a study where they got young heterosexual male college students to answer certain questions about their sexual behaviour and preferences while in a “cold” state, where the students were asked to predict their responses when aroused. The questions included questions about sexual preferences (eg, “Are women’s shoes erotic?”, “Would you find it exciting to spank your sexual partner?”), questions about immoral sexual behaviour (“Would you tell a woman that you loved her to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?”, “Would you keep trying to have sex after your date says “no”?”, “Would you slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?”) and questions about birth control (eg, “Birth control is the woman’s responsibility”, “Would you always use a condom if you didn’t know the sexual history of a new sexual partner?”, “Would you use a condom even if you were afraid that a woman might change her mind while you went to get it?”).

Then the experimenters got the subjects to look at p*rn and answer the same questions, with the subjects predicting their preferences in a highly aroused state. The answers differed significantly. At pages 126 – 7, Ariely summarises the results as follows:

In every case, our bright young participants answered the questions very differently when they were in a “cold” state. Across the 19 questions about sexual preferences, when…the…participants were aroused they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high as (72 percent higher than) they had predicted when they were cold. For example, the idea of enjoying contact with animals was more than twice as appealing when they were in a state of arousal. In the five questions about their propensity to engage in immoral activities, when they were aroused they predicted their propensity to be more than twice as high as (136 percent higher than) they had predicted in the cold state. Similarly, in the set of questions about using condoms, and despite the warnings that had been hammered into them over the years about the importance of condoms, they were 25 percent more likely in the aroused state than in the cold state to predict that they would forego condoms. In all these cases they failed to predict the influence of arousal on their sexual preferences, morality, and approach to safe sex.

No matter how we looked at the numbers, it was clear that the magnitude of underprediction by the participants was substantial. Across the board, they revealed in their unaroused state that they themselves did not know what they were like once aroused. …They were simply unable to predict the degree to which passion would change them.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if Ariely added alcohol to the equation as well as arousal. My hypothesis is that alcohol would lower inhibitions and probably the responses would change again.

Sometimes, I look at someone like Shane Warne and I wonder, “How can he profess love to one woman, and then go out and philander with other women?” I think that this research answers that question. When such a person is “cold”, I suspect that his answers as to whether or not he will be faithful to his partner would differ significantly to predictions made when he is “hot”. The question is whether serial philanders are aware of this (surely they must be, although who knows?)

Presumably the defence of provocation in criminal law reflects a pragmatic recollection of the notion of that when someone is “hot” he is not really his rational self (and yes, I use the gendered pronoun deliberately there). Certainly it is true that people can lose control — whether men who kill their partners should be offered a partial legal defence as a result is quite another question (one that I would answer in the negative).

I think, too, all of us have this Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde relationship with ourselves. We think, “I’d never do X!” when we hear of someone else doing something inappropriate or immoral. But the thing is that you never know. Who knows what the animal self would do if sufficiently aroused? As Ariely points out, this has application not just to sexual arousal, but also to decisions made when angry, excited or hungry.

This is not to make excuses for people who do inappropriate or immoral things. The moral of the story is perhaps to make sure that one really knows one’s self, and, if you know that you have a tendency to do inappropriate things while aroused, to try to avoid getting into that situation unless you are with people that you really trust. It is for this reason, for example, that I often don’t drink much at work functions. I know that when I’ve had more than a few drinks I get a bit silly, and I really do not want my work colleagues seeing that side of me. I also have a temper, and for this reason I avoid having confrontations with people (unless, of course, I really want them to see the animal side of me…)

Ariely also gives the example of the preferences of women for pain relief during childbirth. This is something that resonates with me. Interestingly, my preference for pain relief did not change (the answer was NO THANK YOU). But my animal self really came out during the birth of my first child (which was long and exceptionally painful – a posterior labour)… I confess that I tried to bite my husband when he kept offering me water (poor man). At one point, I literally forgot who I was and why I was there. It was like the animal self took over completely, and the rational self was gone. In retrospect, it was most disconcerting, although fortunately I don’t remember much of it. Luckily, my second child arrived quickly and with no such complications, and I remained myself.

Still, I know that one can’t necessarily say how one will behave in extreme circumstances. This is what has always haunted me about the Milgram experiment — would I keep my basic decency or not? I think I would, but how well do I know my Mr Hyde?

Ariely concludes at pages 128 – 130:

Our experiment at Berkeley revealed not just the old story that we are all like Jekyll and Hyde, but also something new — that every one of us, regardless of how “good” we are, underpredicts the effect of passion on our behaviour. In every case, the participants in our experiment got it wrong. Even the most brilliant and rational person, in the heat of passion, seems to be absolutely and completely divorced from the person he thought he was. Moreover, it is not just that people make wrong predictions about themselves — their predictions are wrong by a large margin.

What happens, then, when our irrational self comes alive in an emotional place that we think is familiar but in fact is unfamiliar? If we fail to really understand ourselves, is it possible to somehow predict how we or others will behave when “out of our heads” — when we’re really angry, hungry, frightened, or sexually aroused? Is it possible to do something about this?

Ariely concludes, inter alia, that the “just say no” campaign with regard to sexual abstinence in teenagers is doomed to failure because of the gap between our predictions of how we behave when we are “cold” and how we predict we will behave when we are “hot”. He says at page 131:

There are most likely many situations where teenagers simply won’t be able to cope with their emotions. A better strategy, for those who want to guarantee that teenagers avoid sex, is to teach teenagers that they must walk away from the fire of passion before they are close enough to be drawn in. Accepting this advice might not be easy, but our results suggest that it is easier for them to fight temptation before it arises than after it has started to lure them in. In other words, avoiding temptation altogether is easier than overcoming it.

The same is true of many situations. Rather than putting ourselves in a position where we may become incapable of controlling our emotions and actions, it is surely better to be aware of our propensities as much as we can, and to avoid getting into situations which may produce such actions, if at all possible.


  1. Posted July 19, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    On the childbirth – the wife of one of my best mates from med school (one of those that finished the course) had the right plan: walk into the hospital, up to the desk, say “My name is (X), now: where is my anaesthetist?” Her plan didn’t vary from the first to last (third) kids.

  2. RipleyP
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    What an intriguing study. I personally stopped imbibing alcohol due to impairment of my judgment even at low consumption. It was much simpler to avoid the situation rather than try control it once it began or worse deal with the consequences.

    The sad thing is the only way I discovered these limits was to experience them and suffer the consequences. Hence why the underestimation of how a person will act is concerning as they have a greater potential to discover the limits the hard way.

    I can see something like this being used as the basis for a defense. I haven’t considered it at length but it does suggest something like provocation or the state where one is not in full control of ones actions.

    It wouldn’t be a defense I would be comfortable with. I still subscribe to the “Walk away” option for situations with potential to go badly.

  3. Posted July 20, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I’m thinking of the effect that booze has on me. I find it magnifies whatever existing emotion I’m feeling at the time. So happy me=happy drunk; tired me=drunk who has a very early night etc. A positive thing is that if I start drinking while I’m happy, then even people trying to wind me up will have no effect — I’ll just stay silly and happy.

    But I must never start drinking once I’m already angry (something that came across to me very strongly during the written component for my shodan exam). Never ever. Because then I become actively dangerous.

  4. Patrick
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Quite to the contrary DB, I think there are excellent reasons to avoid anaesthesia if you can.

    For starters, my wife professes to be very glad to have actually been able to feel what was happening.

    Obviously she didn’t feel as much as some women!

  5. derrida derider
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    A better strategy, for those who want to guarantee that teenagers avoid sex, is to teach teenagers that they must walk away from the fire of passion before they are close enough to be drawn in.

    Now there’s your problem right there. You can’t guarantee that teenagers will avoid sex because those fires burn bloody hot in the late teens. Further, it’s questionable that you should even if you could (you risk being a damned hypocrite, for a start. For a second you are denying those kids one of life’s great joys).

    Try replacing the term “sex” with “bad sex” in that quote and you’ll see that better strategies are possible than just “take a cold shower”.

  6. Posted July 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    On anæsthesia: good chats beforehand to indicate wishes to anæsthetist, and during the procedure take their advice is the wisest.

    Women (or same woman, different circumstance) vary in how much and how quickly they’ll flood their own systems with endogenous opiates – and pretty much they’ll all release more endorphins more quickly than any bloke. (Dare I suggest something horrible… that feeling ain’t euphoria, your opioid receptors are just firing as much as if you’d had a large dose of heroin).

    On the experiment – i reckon the same would apply to violence (eg, “it’s ok to shove away into a wall someone hassling you at the footy”) after watching mindless violence … The relevant centres activated and primed to go.

    Alcohol? Dirty drug – not so dirty as solvent sniffing… Inelegant non-specific receptor targetting, and wildly unpredictable behavioural responses.

    As to the specifics of the experiment… I’ve got little to worry about. Those regions activated in neurotypicals after pron are activated by debate on woo/morality, and it’s one of the great advantages of left temporal lobe epilepsy that there is less need to worry about being yanked around by a libido and causing trouble. (But show me the right film, and I might perhaps be more likely to throw an invalid syllogism to force my opinion… or go not for the 5 minute argument but the full half hour – love that monty python sketch).

    But the experminent does raise issues of volition and culpability if someone has been to a pron film or a buck’s night and goes on to commit a crime – has mens rea been diminished?

  7. kvd
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Now Dave, if you hadn’t gone all Latin on me, I would not have been forced to mention ‘in vino veritas’ – which was for many years a trigger-apology-in-advance for a good friend of mine, just so he could feel absolved from what then followed. My translation became ‘where’s my car keys’.

    LE, that husband-biting bit. I’m assuming second birth was a quite thirsty experience. Or was it a sort of Twilightish romantic thing?

  8. Posted July 20, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] : Your friend – not “cogito ergo sum” but “bibito ergo sum”.?? My grammar is yuk. (Bibito/bibo/??? – help me o mavens)

  9. Posted July 20, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    It’s bibere, so bibo.

    Latin pedants are we…

  10. Posted July 20, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Ta. Mind you, there’s probably *SOME* weird tense/mood where bibito means *something*

  11. Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    There is. Either second-person singular future active imperative of bibo, or third-person singular future active imperative of bibo.

    Very roughly, ‘You will drink!’ or ‘He/she will drink!’

    One can imagine a commanding officer saying it to soldiers about to go ‘over the top’ while doses of Dutch courage are doled out into mess-tins.

    Remember, a Roman, like an Englishman, always wants to know where he is in time, hence the incredible tense complexity in both languages. The Roman — like the Japanese — also wants to know who gets to order him about, and whether that person has sufficient authority to dispense with politeness while doing so. The Englishman also cares about this, but rather than featuring the characteristic in English grammar, displays it in speech patterns and codes (loo not toilet, napkin not serviette etc).

  12. Mel
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Permalink


    “Sometimes, I look at someone like Shane Warne and I wonder, “How can he profess love to one woman, and then go out and philander with other women?” I think that this research answers that question. When such a person is “cold”, I suspect that his answers as to whether or not he will be faithful to his partner would differ significantly to predictions made when he is “hot”. ”

    Lust and love are not the same thing, so I wonder why you’d find such a thing a cause for wonderment. I’m guessing it’s because women are incapable of understanding just how powerful the sex drive of an average male is and how sex needn’t have a deep and meaningful emotional component. I simply don’t believe monogamy is at all “natural” for men whose libidos reside in the meaty part of the Bell Curve, rather society must “pussy whip” them into submission for the sake of social order. Obviously some blokes, like Warney, will crawl over a hill of broken glass for a bonk with fresh meat and no amount of whipping or public humiliation will change them. But that doesn’t mean blokes like Warney don’t love their wives.

    Or at least that’s my theory.

  13. TerjeP
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    I agree with Mel. However I think it is more complex.

    The sexual utopia for a male is to be free to have sex with any woman and for the process to be free of obstacles or consequences.

    The sexual utopia for a female seems to be to use sex to gain the attention of the tribes alpha male (the male most prized by other females) and then to monopolize his reproductive capacity by making him stick to monogamy. Hence why women are sluts around male celebrities and they complain about him not being faithful.

    As a man I don’t see much correlation between sex and love. Except that some men use love to get sex and some woman use sex to get love and most people settle for some overlap of the two. However don’t tell my wife I said this. 😉

    p.s. All gender assumptions are flawed but the generalization seems true enough.

  14. Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Obviously some blokes, like Warney, will crawl over a hill of broken glass for a bonk with fresh meat and no amount of whipping or public humiliation will change them. But that doesn’t mean blokes like Warney don’t love their wives.

    I think this is right. I have never seen any evidence that Warne dislikes women, or is any sort of misogynist. He just isn’t monogamous.

    Interestingly, there are varying cultural responses to the differential male/female sexual demand/supply curve. Some cultures try to constrain the male to monogamy, which seems superficially attractive until one realises that they also (as an inevitable corollary) permit rape in marriage and debase the status of women who are highly sexed (typically a class of low-status prostitutes). Then there are cultures that allow the male to stray, which seems unfair (the woman is almost always expected to remain monogamous), but at the same time condemn and criminalise rape in marriage and respect women who are highly sexed (the Japanese geisha, the Roman courtesan).

    It is very much a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ on stuff like this.

  15. Posted July 21, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: Sounds, especially in the context of this post, who for their sense of self requires someone else to get blotto by some stage in the future. Hmmm. Showing pron to students in a chem lab (with chloral hydrate somewhere about) just before post-prac drinkies at the pub is not a good idea!

    Also worth noting that women’s attitudes vary over the month – and that most men assess women mid-cycle as more attractive – perhaps subconciously.

    There are probably analogous experiments to the one above, but performed on pre-menopausal women, asking about acceptability of one-night stands or provocative behaviour, with and without pron, and correlating with where in the cycle they are.

    (Another illustration of why testing drugs specific for females is so damn expensive to get right)

    I suppose this means that the only place for social gatherings and social lubricants where “frisky” movies on a big screen are safe would be Amsterdam “Coffee Shops” and nobody could be stuffed misbehaving (especially if there was a good supply of tim tams at the counter).

  16. Posted July 21, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Which reminds me of the joke about the problem with lesbian sex: who starts?

    I agree with Mel that love and lust are not the same. I have no doubt that Bill and Hillary are in a love match: that Bill is not monogamous does not make this less true.

  17. Patrick
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    You are sure of that??

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