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mon023149II. Links with personality across nations

By Dr. W.A. Arrindell, psychologist


Several personality traits show consistent links with casual sex. Countries that value higher levels of sociability, for example, in their average inhabitants are on average also the countries with higher reports of subjects' interest in and preference for having sex without commitment, with higher numbers of subjects who have tried to have casual sex with someone who is already involved in a romantic relationship, with higher numbers of subjects who have succumbed to attempts of others for having casual sex in spite of already being involved in a romantic relationship, and higher numbers of subjects who endorse own infidelities.



Casual sex (short-term mating or a "hook-up") entails sexual activities characterized by an absence of commitment, by a lack of emotional attachment, or by non-familiarity between sexual partners. Examples include a one-night stand, visits to prostitutes, prostitution itself, swinging, and extramarital sex. These examples indicate that there are different variants of short-term mating that can be differentiated from one another on the basis of 'number' and 'kind' of partners: for instance, infidelity (adultery or sexual unfaithfulness towards one's marital partner), promiscuity (having sexual relations with a relatively large number of partners on a casual, indiscriminate basis), paid sex, and the poaching (or romantically attracting) of other people's long-term intimate or marital partners.


The evidence suggests that emotional immaturity, egocentrism, and lack of self-insight are all tied to an interest in casual sex, and these characteristics could hinder the development of close, long-term relationships. Being involved in casual sex or having a chronic preference for short-term mating may lead to important health concerns to individuals, romantic relationships, and societies throughout the world. Short-term mating can lead to divorce or the dissolution of a romantic relationship, to sexual jealousy and associated interpersonal conflicts, to violent retribution by aggrieved partners or next of kin (crimes of passion), and to the contraction of sexually-transmitted diseases and infections. According to the latest figures of the World Health Organization, in sub-Saharan Africa alone, 25 million adults are currently infected with the virus that causes AIDS (HIV), with very large numbers of cases traceable to instances of short-term mating. Unprotected short-term mating may also lead to teenage pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, single motherhood not by choice and, related herewith, children who are brought up in father-absent homes that are potentially also characterized by stress, maternal distress, poverty, suboptimal parenting, and, consequently, poor academic achievement and poor mental, physical and social outcomes in offspring.

Case illustration

"Jennifer is a peppy [lively and high-spirited], outgoing, and alluring [very attractive] woman. She has been happily married for 10 years. Her husband enjoys spending time with her, as her warmth and light-heartedness evoke positive reactions from him. At the same time, she is frequently approached by other men who are interested in her romantically and sexually. Jennifer is impulsive too, and on occasion, she has had brief extramarital relationships. Actually, she suspects that one of her children was conceived when she was with another man".

Nicholas S. Holtzman (Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA, USA).

Evolutionary Psychology 2013, 11(5): 1101-1129.



The (admittedly gender-biased) case illustration given (see Box) has several important implications. If, as the case illustrates, there is a relationship between sexual inclinations and personality, based on thorough assessments, counsellors of newly-wed couples could provide valuable personality information to both partners in order to forecast the potential outcome of their marital relationship. In this specific case, at least three problematic conditions could be or could have been prevented: (a) emotional distress in Jennifer's husband and its potential consequences for his mental and/or physical health and for the marital relationship itself; (b) lack of reproductive success on the part of Jennifer's husband and its potential consequences for the marital relationship; and (c) Jennifer's elevated risk for sexually transmitted diseases and her transmission of such diseases to her unwitting spouse [Holtzman, 2013, p. 1101]. Eventual consequences for offspring have not even yet entered the picture. Thus, knowledge on which personality factors are associated with which sexual inclination is of utmost importance.

Individual differences

The widely-accepted model of personality contains five major dimensions. The characteristic traits pertaining to each of these so-called Big Five dimensions are summarized in a Box. Previous research has shown that the strongest personality predictors of short-term mating are high scores on extraversion (sociability) and its subcomponent of sensation-seeking (excitability, adventurousness). In Anglo-Saxon countries (US and UK), high extraversion scores have been found to be associated with extra-marital liaisons, with promiscuous sexual behaviour, and with having multiple sex partners.

The Big Five                                                Dimension Traits (major features)

Openness to experience                             Curious.



                                                                   Have wide interests.


Conscientiousness                                     Organized.

                                                                    Dutiful (punctual).

                                                                    Goal-directed (achievement striving).

                                                                     Self-disciplined (not lazy).

                                                                     Not impulsive (deliberate, self-controlled).

Extraversion                                             Sociable, outgoing (warm).

                                                                 Forceful (assertive, dominant).


                                                                    Excitement, sensation and novelty seeker (adventurous).


                                                                     Emotionally expressive.

Agreeableness                                            Forgiving.


                                                                    Altruistic (unconditional helpful to and unselfish concern for other people).

                                                                    Compliant (not stubborn).

                                                                   Modest (does not show-off).

                                                                   Tender-minded (sympathetic, friendly).

Neuroticism                                                Anxious (tense).

                                                                   Angry-hostile (irritable).

                                                                    Depressed (moody, unhappy).

                                                                   Shy (distress in and avoidance of social situations).

                                                                   Vulnerable (easily upset).


National differences

Whether the associations found in Anglo-Saxon countries hold for other countries in the developed and developing world as well was addressed by David P. Schmitt (Bradley University, USA) and Todd K. Shackelford (Florida Atlantic University, USA) who also extended their study to the other four dimensions captured with the Big Five, namely Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism or Mental stability versus Mental instability (see Box). As part of the International Sexuality Description Project, Schmitt and Shackelford administered self-report measures of personality and mating behaviour to 13,243 participants from 46 nations from the world regions of North America, South America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Middle East, Africa, Oceania, South/Southeast Asia, and East Asia [Evolutionary Psychology 2008, 6(2): 246-282].


Schmitt and Shackelford administered different measures of short-term mating. Sample items are given in a Box.

Short-term mating measures

Interests in short-term mating

● Indicate, using an open-ended scale, your number of sex partners desired in the following future time periods: "one month", "one year", and "five years".

● How likely would you consent to sex with someone who is desirable after knowing that person for the following time intervals: "one month", "one year", and "five years"?

● Are you currently seeking a short-term mate?

Socio-sexual orientation (willingness to have sex without commitment)

● With how many different partners have you had sex (sexual intercourse) within the past year?

● How often do (did) you fantasize about having sex with someone other than your current (most recent) dating partner?

● "I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying "casual" sex with different partners" [1 (I strongly disagree) to 9 (I strongly agree)].

Anonymous Romantic Attraction Survey

● Have you ever tried to attract someone who was already in a romantic relationship with someone else for a short-term sexual relationship with you?

● While you were in a romantic relationship, if others attempted to obtain you as a short-term sexual partner, how successful have they been?

"Sexy seven" sexuality attributes – Relationship exclusivity

Rate yourself, compared to others you know, on the following adjectives:

"Adulterous", "Devoted", "Faithful", "Loose", "Monogamous", "Polygamous", "Promiscuous", and "Unfaithful" [1=Extremely inaccurate to 9=Extremely accurate].


Comparisons between nations

At the individual level, high scores on Extraversion and low ones on Conscientiousness and Agreeableness coincided with high scores on several measures of short-term mating behaviours in both females and males, and across many of the major 10 regions of the world. Thus, in line with findings reported by other investigators in Anglo-Saxon countries (Part I), Extraversion was universally associated with interest in short-term mating, with unrestricted socio-sexuality (that is, with greater willingness to have sex without commitment), with having engaged in short-term mate poaching attempts (romantically attracting someone else's partner), with having succumbed to short-term poaching attempts, and with lacking relationship exclusivity (being unfaithful). Low agreeableness and conscientiousness too were related to short-term mating, especially with measures of extra-pair mating (that is, succumbing to short-term poaching attempts) and lacking relationship exclusivity. Higher scores on Neuroticism and Openness to experience were related to short-term mating, although these links were less consistent.

National-level findings

In determining the associations between average national scores on personality and mating behaviours, it was found that extraverted (European women) and disagreeable nations (European and South American men) were, on average, more short-term oriented than introverted (Asian and African women) and agreeable nations (African men). Men were more short-term oriented in nations low on conscientiousness, and women's conscientiousness was linked to greater short-term mating among men (cross-sex linkage). Neurotic nations (Asian males) had lower scores on short-term mating than the most stable ones (for example, Morocco, Finland, Slovenia, and Croatia). Nations with higher levels of openness to experience were generally also the ones with more short-term mating in both sexes.


Personality plays an important part in casual sex – both at the individual (Part I) and the national level. If healthcare workers wish to attempt to control short-term mating as a key risk factor for dissolution of romantic relationships, divorce, teenage pregnancy, unwanted pregnancy, childbirths out-of-wedlock, the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases (including HIV and HPV infections) and other disastrous consequences for youth and society as a whole, it may be most effective to concentrate on the developmental and physiological factors associated with extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. One example will suffice.

Direction illustration

An important subcomponent of conscientiousness is self-control (willpower) or the ability to exercise control over one's feelings, emotions, reactions, desires, and thoughts by one's own will. Researchers have recently demonstrated that children who are self-controlled during the first decades of life are less likely to smoke, drop out of high school, or become parents during adolescence; and that staying out of these three kinds of trouble predicts better income, better saving behaviour, financial security, better academic performance, occupational prestige, better physical and mental health, lack of substance abuse, and staying out of jail (better law-abidingness) in adulthood [see].

Even though self-control is in part genetically determined, programs have been developed that can boost willpower. Through professional assessments, children who score low on self-control can be identified at an early age. The relevant behaviour is already visible around age two. By applying public health campaigns that combine, in young adolescence, such self-efficacy programs with others that include parenting education, sex education (and availability of contraception and condoms), and take into account the effects of local culture, officials (with a little aid of the Almighty) may (a) bring down the numbers of teenage and other unwanted pregnancies, and out-of-wedlock births, (b) prevent short-term mating desires from turning into short-term mating behaviours, and, accordingly, (c) increase the welfare of the general population in nations where such undesirable events are highly prevalent.

To be continued ...

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