Although many research questions in sexual science have to do with behavior, some sexuality research is focused on people's judgments or decisions. In these cases, there is frequently an emphasis on why people make the choices that they do or the factors influencing those decisions. Examples might include studies of mate selection criteria, the conditions under which a condom would be used, decisions as to whether sexual activity would likely take place within a particular context, or the contextual factors influencing likelihood of engaging in extramarital sex. Note that although each of these examples involves behavior, the focus of study in each is decision making. Similar to studies focused on sexual behavior, the norm in these cases is to directly ask respondents about motives or the stimuli influencing their decisions, and the resulting responses are taken at face value.
Unfortunately, several problems exist with asking individuals to report on the factors that affect their own decisions and judgments. Researchers have convincingly shown that humans typically do not have good insight (or, many times, any insight at all) into the various influences involved in their decision-making processes, even though respondents typically believe that they do (e.g., Brehmer & Brehmer, 1988; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Despite objectively poor insight, people routinely report on the factors that went into their judgments or decisions. How can this be?
It appears that, when asked to comment on their own mental processes, which are humanly impossible to observe, respondents typically generate reports of motives and cognitive influences based on a sort of "folk psychology" as to what motives and factors are most plausibly at work. For example, self-reports on preferences and influences regarding intimate relationships may be tapping into individuals' relationship schemas (Baldwin, 1992), or beliefs about relationship development and processes (Fletcher & Kininmonth, 1992), rather than actual influences on relationship decisions. In other words, what researchers end up measuring are people's beliefs about what influenced their judgment or decision. Sometimes these beliefs will coincidently correspond to the actual influences, whereas other times they will not.
From a research standpoint, ideally the investigator would have the power to manipulate stimuli or conditions in people's lives and observe the resulting effects on their decisions and judgments. If I send a man with red hair to approach a particular female for sex, how does she respond? If I take the same male and change only his hair color (now blonde), how does the woman respond to his request? Assuming that only hair color changed from Trial 1 to Trial 2, any difference in the woman's response could be attributed to the man's hair color. Obviously, researchers do not have the ability to perform such experiments, especially when one wants to consider multiple variables and their possible interaction. Hence, researchers would more typically ask women, "To what extent does a man's hair color influence your decision to have sex with him?" Respondents will provide an answer, but the accuracy of those answers is dependent on, among other things, the degree of insight about the stimuli that influence their decision to have sex with particular men.
Is there a way researchers can possibly circumvent some of the inherent problems with introspection when studying the stimuli influencing people's sexual judgments and decisions? One can answer in the affirmative if one finds analogue laboratory conditions an acceptable research methodology. For example, given a specified judgment or decision-making task, one could manipulate or measure particular variables of interest and evaluate how variation in these variables is related to corresponding variation in the respondents' actual judgments or decisions. One such …