Friday, May 31, 2013

Could sexbots one day give people longer life? Dream on!

Recently, I came across an article on a transhumanist website that made the amazing claim that in the not-so-distant future, people will improve their life expectancy by having sex with robots programmed to give them ‘super-orgasms.’ Transhumanists believe that it will one day be possible to vastly expand the human lifespan through technology. Various means of extending human longevity have been proposed but this seems like one of the wackier ones. The author of this article is not alone in the belief that human lifespan can be extended through sex. Celebrity medic Dr Mehmet Oz goes so far as to advise people that if they have 200 orgasms a year they will extend their life by six years. While there is some evidence linking more frequent orgasms to longer life, the claims by Dr Oz and (some) transhumanists extrapolate far beyond the available evidence.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at

There have been a number of research studies linking sexual activity with longevity, but these findings need to be interpreted with a certain amount of caution because a statistical association between sex and longevity does not necessarily prove that one leads to the other. Additionally, the relationship between sexual activity and longevity may be different for men and women. For example, there have been studies linking frequency of orgasm (Smith, Frankel, & Yarnell, 1997) and of sexual intercourse (Palmore, 1982) in men to longer life. The study by Smith et al. controlled for factors such as age, smoking, social class, and baseline coronary heart disease, and remarkably still found that men who had the most frequent orgasms (twice a week or more) had a 50% lower mortality rate compared to men with the lowest frequency of orgasm (less than once a month). However, this study did not take relationship status into account. Additionally, for women, frequency of intercourse did not predict longevity, but past enjoyment of intercourse did (Palmore, 1982). Palmore suggested that quantity of sexual activity may be more important for men’s health, whereas for women the quality is of more importance. The author admitted though that we cannot say for sure whether more frequent or better sex is what actually leads to longer life. An alternative possibility is that people who are in better health have more frequent sex and/or enjoy it more. If this is the case, better health might explain the association between sexual activity and longer life. It is worth noting that in Palmore’s study health ratings were the strongest predictors of how long people lived.

Although Palmore’s study found that in women frequency of intercourse generally was unrelated to longevity, another study found a relationship between frequency of orgasm during intercourse and longevity in women (Seldin, Friedman, & Martin, 2002). There is considerable variability among women in whether and how often they reach orgasm during intercourse. Some women reach orgasm regularly, others occasionally, and others not at all. (See this post for further discussion of these differences, and this post discussing possible reasons why this occurs.) Seldin et al. found that women who described themselves as less neurotic and those who tended to drink more alcohol had a somewhat higher frequency of orgasm during intercourse. In fact, the relationship between orgasm frequency and longevity only approached significance after taking neuroticism and alcohol use into account.[i] It is possible that individual differences in the ability of women to achieve orgasm during sex might be related to longevity. That is, women who are more orgasmic might be healthier in other ways that affect their life expectancy. 

According to Howard Friedman, one of the authors of the Seldin et al. paper, frequency of orgasm in women was linked to their sexual satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction was linked to marital satisfaction. Dr Friedman was careful to point that although all these factors were correlated we do not have enough information to know what was causing what. It might be that more orgasms lead to greater sexual satisfaction which in turn improves marital satisfaction. However, the converse could also be true. That is couples who are more satisfied with their marriages generally might have more frequent sex, leading to greater sexual satisfaction. Couples who are unhappy in their marriages, e.g. if they fight frequently, have little intimacy, poor communication, etc. will probably have less frequent sex and less sexual satisfaction. So there is probably a two-way relationship between sexual satisfaction and marital satisfaction. Therefore, marital satisfaction might be as important for longevity as orgasm frequency. People who are in stable loving supportive relationships may be healthier and live longer than those who are in disharmonious relationships. This seems applicable to the studies on male sexual frequency cited earlier, which did not address why some men are more sexually active than others. Men who have more frequent sex might be in better quality relationships (or in a relationship at all) than men who have infrequent sex.

Although there is evidence of a connection between orgasms and longer life, there is simply not enough information available to justify statements by Dr Oz to the effect that if one has a certain number of orgasms a year, one will increase one’s life expectancy by a certain number of years. Similarly, claims by transhumanists that using sex robots to induce “super-orgasms” will induce longer life overlook the human factors involved. Whilst it may be conceivable that people in the future may use robots to enhance sexual pleasure, similar to the way some people use sex toys, it hardly seems likely that people will use them as substitutes for marital partners. Without the element of marital satisfaction, it is debatable whether orgasms alone will produce the same benefit to life expectancy.

Another difference between robot and human partners that might be important is that of intentions. Robots are designed to just do what they are programmed to do, and do not have desires of their own. Humans on the other hand do have desires and intentions, and this affects how their behaviour is perceived by others. In particular, there is evidence that one’s perceptions about the intentions of another person can affect how physical pleasure is perceived. That is, an experience may be perceived as more enjoyable if one believes that the person providing the experience actually intends for one to experience pleasure than if they do not. This was tested in an experiment in which participants received a back massage from a specially designed chair (Gray, 2012). When participants believed that the chair was being controlled by another person who had freely chosen to give them a massage they perceived the experience as more pleasurable then when they thought it was being randomly administered by a computer. In actuality, in both cases, the decision to administer massage was determined by a computer, but the participants were led to believe otherwise. Although not yet tested it may be possible that people may perceive sexual activity as more pleasurable when it is performed with someone they believe is actually intending to give them pleasure, as compared with similar activity with a machine that has no feelings about the matter. Perhaps, the health benefits associated with sexual activity are tied up with the sense of being cared about by another person. Machines may not be able to provide this sense of caring. Of course, if it ever comes to pass that robots are invented that are indistinguishable from real human beings, much like in the film Blade Runner, machines might actually replace humans as both sexual and marital partners. Personally, I don’t think this will happen any time soon. In any case, before such an event does occur, people would need to decide if such a situation is even desirable. 

[1] For the statistically minded, this effect was described by the authors as “marginally significant” (p < .10) and hence did not actually reach a conventional level of statistical significance.

Post Script
It has come to my attention that some transhumanists consider that, the source of the article that inspired this post, is not a credible source of information about their views. Therefore, the remarks in my blog post should be taken as being in response to a specific article on that website, rather than a broader reflection on what transhumanists in general believe. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Other posts about sex and psychology
Gray, K. (2012). The Power of Good Intentions: Perceived Benevolence Soothes Pain, Increases Pleasure, and Improves Taste Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (5), 639-645 DOI: 10.1177/1948550611433470

Palmore, E. B. (1982). Predictors of the Longevity Difference: A 25-Year Follow-Up. The Gerontologist, 22(6), 513-518. doi: 10.1093/geront/22.6.513

Seldin, D. R., Friedman, H. S., & Martin, L. R. (2002). Sexual activity as a predictor of life-span mortality risk. Personality and Individual Differences, 33(3), 409-425. doi:

Smith, G., Frankel, S., & Yarnell, J. (1998). Sex and Death: Are They Related? Findings From the Caerphilly Cohort Study The Journal of Urology, 160 (2) DOI: 10.1016/S0022-5347(01)62990-2

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Twitter versus the Grim Reaper: Extraverts but not introverts use Twitter to ward off existential anxiety
As Twitter has grown in popularity, a number of research studies have examined motivations for using this microblogging platform. A recent study drawing on the framework of Terror Management Theory, made the intriguing finding that when confronted with a reminder of one’s eventual death, extraverts increased their Twitter usage while introverts avoided it altogether. Extraverts and introverts appear to have different ways of coping with existential threats that could affect their use of social networking. This might shed some light on the purpose of a large amount of apparently “pointless” communication that occurs on this site.

Grappling with ultimate concerns in 140 characters or less?

Twitter differs other social networking sites such as Facebook in that messages are restricted to very short lengths (up to 140 characters) and messages are generally immediately visible to the general public, not just a user’s followers. This contrasts with typical Facebook usage, where users generally only allow mutual “friends” to see their status updates and their personal profiles. Thus people’s Facebook profiles tend to be more private, whereas typically a person’s Twitter profile can be viewed by anybody.

So what exactly are people on Twitter sharing with the wider world? According to one survey of Twitter, the most common type of content shared (over 40% of all tweets) was “pointless babble,” that is, banal updates about day-to-day activities (e.g. “ate a salad”). Some commentators have disputed this description, arguing that such updates are better described as “social grooming” or “peripheral social awareness.” That is, even though they may seem pointless to outside observers these messages may fulfil some meaningful function for the person. What exactly this function is remains unclear. A recent study explored two possible functions that Twitter usage might serve: restoring a sense of social inclusion after ostracism, and alleviating existential threat (Qiu et al., 2010).

This study involved two experiments, in both of which participants were given access to a pre-existing Twitter account with 30 followers and given opportunities to send brief messages if they wished. The experimenter created the impression that other users were currently online and able to read the participants’ messages by sending two updates about mundane activities (e.g. “helping a friend”). Additionally, participants were assessed on their Big Five personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience).

The first experiment tested whether participants who had been experimentally ostracised would send more tweets compared to those who had not. Most people experience ostracism, or deliberate social exclusion as highly aversive and following ostracism people become motivated to restore a sense of social connection. However, the experimenters found that ostracised participants sent no more tweets than non-ostracised ones, contrary to expectations. The authors thought this indicated that sending brief messages to strangers does not satisfy a person’s need for social inclusion after being ostracised. Perhaps this is because users do not expect random strangers to respond to their tweets. After all, is there a point to communicating if others do not respond? The second experiment suggested another possibility.

The purpose of the second experiment was to test the effects of a reminder of one’s own mortality on Twitter usage. A large body of research known as Terror Management Theory (TMT) has found that being reminded of the fact that one will eventually die creates a sense of existential threat that people attempt to cope with in a number of ways (Hart, Shaver, & Goldenberg, 2005). The most well-researched coping methods are cultural worldview defence (e.g. “My country, my people, are really great!”), bolstering self-esteem (“ I'm great!”) and seeking closeness with loved ones (“someone cares about me”). These coping methods seem to provide a buffer against existential anxiety by reinforcing a sense that one is special, important, and connected with something larger than one’s self, and not merely an insignificant creature with a fleeting existence.

Qiu et al. argued that Twitter usage could help alleviate existential anxiety by providing participants with a means to affirm their own existence, that is, to announce to the world in effect “I am alive!” To test this, participants were asked to write either a brief essay about their own death (mortality salience condition) or about a neutral topic (control condition). Then they were provided with a series of opportunities to tweet messages if they wished. What the researchers found was that there was an effect of mortality salience but this depended on the personality trait of extraversion. Specifically, after mortality salience highly extraverted participants sent more tweets (nearly 10 on average) compared to their counterparts in the control condition  whereas highly introverted participants sent less (about zero on average). In the control condition there was no difference between extraverted and introverted participants in number of tweets sent (3 – 4 on average).  
Qiu et al. did not attempt to explain why extraverted and introverted participants responded to existential threat so differently, or even why their Twitter usage did not differ in the control condition. Extraversion is associated with greater sociability so the fact that in the control condition extraverts did not make greater usage of this social networking tool seems a little surprising. However, previous research has found that social motives do not predict how much time a person spends using Twitter (Johnson & Yang, 2009), suggesting that under routine circumstances a person’s sociability may not be that important to how much they use this medium. However, this might change when a person experiences an existential threat. Extraverts might see Twitter usage as a good way to proclaim their existence to other people, even if these others are complete strangers who may have little interest in the minutiae of one’s life. Introverts appear to adopt a different strategy, so perhaps they feel a need to turn inward and be within themselves as a way of reaffirming their own existence. For introverts experiencing an existential threat, sending banal messages to strangers might seem like a superficial distraction from deeper concerns. For extraverts, such a distraction might be just what they need. The fact that they are strangers might seem less important to them than that they are a potential audience.  

Some limitations of the study are worth noting. Participants were assigned a pre-existing Twitter account with random strangers as followers. This may not adequately reflect how people use the service in real life. Additionally, the researchers assessed participants on five personality traits yet presented results relevant to only one of them. With five sets of results, the odds are increased that statistically significant findings could occur by chance alone. Additionally, the outcome measure was the number of tweets sent and their content was not assessed. It would be interesting to explore whether message content after mortality salience differed from the control condition based on personality traits. For example, people high in neuroticism might have been more disturbed than others by writing about death and their tweets might perhaps have reflected this (e.g. “I’m freaking out about this experiment!”). Additionally, it would have been interesting to see if participants’ messages after mortality salience involved efforts to bolster self-esteem or defend their cultural world-view, which are also known to help buffer against existential threat.

This study is the first one that I know of to apply principles of TMT to social networking usage. As social networking continues to gain in popularity I would welcome more such research. I think this study shows that what may appear to some to be “pointless babble” may actually serve a deeper purpose, depending on one’s personality and momentary needs.

Other articles concerning social media:

Is there something wrong with people who don't use Facebook? What research really says about non-users. One of my most popular posts!
The Misunderstood Personality Profile of Wikipedia Members Contrary to a widely reported study, Wikipedians are not close-minded at all. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.


Johnson, P. and Yang, S. , 2009-08-05 "Uses and Gratifications of Twitter: An Examination of User Motives and Satisfaction of Twitter Use" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Sheraton Boston, Boston, MA Online. 2012-06-20 from

Qiu L, Leung AK, Ho JH, Yeung QM, Francis KJ, & Chua PF (2010). Understanding the psychological motives behind microblogging. Studies in health technology and informatics, 154, 140-4 PMID: 20543286

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The effectiveness of placebo treatment for pain is related to personality traits
Medical researchers have long known that placebo treatments can produce real effects, such as pain relief. Personality traits are also known to influence a person’s response to treatments for certain conditions. A recent study has found that personality traits appear to influence how strongly a person responds to a placebo treatment for pain. Personality traits associated with self-control and the regulation of anger in particular were associated with greater pain relief. This raises the possibility that improving a person’s self-control and ability to manage anger could also improve their ability to control pain.

Image courtesy of Michal Marcol at

In this study, volunteers received a series of four injections while receiving PET scans to monitor brain activity (Peciña et al., 2012). Two of the injections were designed to be painless and the other two were intended to be quite painful. Participants were not told in advance which injection they would receive so as not to bias their expectations. After receiving one of the painful injections they were administered a substance that they were told would relieve the pain but which was actually an inert saline solution with no analgesic properties. This placebo treatment produced a significant reduction in pain. Pain was rated both subjectively (by self-ratings of pain intensity) and objectively (changes in opioid receptor function observed through PET scans). Pain relief tended to be stronger in participants who rated themselves higher in the personality traits of ego resiliency and agreeableness and lower in neuroticism. Agreeableness and neuroticism each consist of a number of narrower facets that were also examined. The facets that predicted placebo response most strongly were high altruism and straightforwardness (facets of agreeableness) and low angry hostility (a neuroticism facet that is also related to low agreeableness).

Neuroticism is a trait associated with negative emotionality People high in neuroticism tend to report more physical symptoms and complaints, such as headaches and muscle tension and so on, than less neurotic individuals (Ode & Robinson, 2007). People high in neuroticism cope with pain more poorly than other people probably because they tend to over-react emotionally. There is evidence linking physical pain and negative emotions as neuroimaging studies have found that endogenous opioid activity in a number of brain regions modulate both the experience of physical pain and of negative emotions. Angry hostility was the neuroticism facet that most strongly predicted (poor) placebo response in this study. The authors stated that there is research evidence linking anger to lower opioid receptor system functioning so this result was not surprising (Peciña, et al., 2012).

Agreeableness is an interpersonal trait associated with cooperativeness and concern for others. The authors of the study noted that patients who are highly agreeable tend to have a better relationship with their doctors as they take a frank and collaborative approach. Agreeable patients may therefore respond more readily to treatment, even if the treatment is a placebo. Additionally, agreeableness has been linked to placebo responses to acupuncture. They also noted that PET scans showed that the placebo response (that is, opioid receptor function) occurred in brain regions that respond to observing pain in others, and therefore play a role in empathy. Agreeable people tend to be empathetic to the suffering of others, so this overlap between the brain regions associated with the placebo response and with empathy might help explain the connection with agreeableness, particularly the altruism facet.

Altruism is associated with selflessness and self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Perhaps people who are self-sacrificing are better able to control pain? Perhaps, being able to suppress pain when needed facilitates self-sacrifice because the pain and inconvenience of foregoing one’s own interests for the benefit of another person becomes easier to bear. Straightforwardness, the other agreeableness facet that predicted the placebo response, is associated with honesty and openness in one’s communication with others. One possible explanation for its connection with the placebo effect is that people who are naturally honest may have been more likely to believe the researcher when they were told they were being given a treatment that would provide pain relief.

Agreeableness is also related to effortful self-control, in particular the ability to control the expression of anger (Ode & Robinson, 2007). As noted previously, anger has been linked to the opioid system, so this may another reason that agreeableness is linked to the placebo effect. Another personality trait linked to both self-control and the placebo effect is ego-resiliency.
Ego-resiliency might be described as flexibility in self-control. That is, a person can inhibit their impulses when required by the situation, and yet also allow him or herself to be spontaneous and uninhibited when this is permitted. That is, the person can adapt their level of self-expression to the demands of the situation. This in contrast to people who are either chronically over-controlled – that is, unable to loosen up when they need to – or under-controlled, unable to restrain their impulses when expected to do so. Ego-resiliency assists a person in adapting to stress and adversity as over-controlled individuals tend to respond in a stiff, repetitive manner, whereas under-controlled people respond in a chaotic and unfocused manner (Letzring, Block, & Funder, 2005). The researchers argue that ego-resiliency is associated with positive emotions and adaptive changes in areas of the brain related to reward and emotional processing. Specifically, there is evidence that this trait may be associated with lower levels of activation of the dopamine system during expectation of reward, and lower levels of dopamine in turn has been associated with greater activation of endogenous opioid receptors during a painful stressor (Peciña, et al., 2012). 

The findings that the placebo effect is linked to personality traits associated with self-control, i.e. agreeableness and ego-resiliency, suggests that the placebo effect is influenced by a person’s capacity to regulate how they respond to adverse experiences. Even though the placebo effect would seem to be outside of conscious awareness, it appears that people who have developed the ability to regulate their emotions may also have a greater ability to regulate pain. This might be because the brain regions that modulate responses to pain (the opioid receptor systems) also are involved in regulating negative emotions. Additionally, it could be the case that people with greater self-control may take an attitude of active engagement to treatment, even placebo treatment, as opposed to passively waiting to see what happens. As a consequence they might respond more effectively. Emotional regulation is a trainable skill. That is, psychologists can teach people strategies to regulate how they experience and express their emotions to cope more effectively with stress. Psychologists already teach anxiety management strategies to people with chronic pain. It seems possible that training in emotional regulation, such as anger management, could actually effect changes in the opioid receptor system, resulting in a stronger placebo effect. This might have implications for how people manage pain. Future research, such as PET studies could determine whether training could have such an effect on the brain and whether this assists in coping with pain.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.
Letzring, T. D., Block, J., & Funder, D. C. (2005). Ego-control and ego-resiliency: Generalization of self-report scales based on personality descriptions from acquaintances, clinicians, and the self. Journal of Research in Personality, 39(4), 395-422. doi:
Ode, S., & Robinson, M. D. (2007). Agreeableness and the self-regulation of negative affect: Findings involving the neuroticism/somatic distress relationship. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(8), 2137-2148. doi:
Peciña M, Azhar H, Love TM, Lu T, Fredrickson BL, Stohler CS, & Zubieta JK (2013). Personality trait predictors of placebo analgesia and neurobiological correlates. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 38 (4), 639-46 PMID: 23187726