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Why You Can’t “Just Say No” In the Heat of the Moment

Kissing couple
A lot of parents believe that if they teach their kids some common sense around sexuality, it’ll sink in and they won’t make bad decisions.

They, of course, would be wrong.

“Just say no” doesn’t work in the heat of the moment — it only works if the person walks away from the possibility of the heat of the moment long before they can be drawn in.

Why can’t teens (and even most adults) make good decisions surrounding sexuality and sexual situations when they’re occurring? It appears that humans generally make poorer decisions when under the influence of strong emotions. And what stronger emotion do most of experience outside of sexual arousal?

In an experiment conducted in 2006 on male college students, researchers Dan Ariely and his colleague George Lowenstein had subjects answer a wide ranging set of questions about sexual preferences, condom usage and immoral activities in two states — not aroused and very aroused (while masturbating). Subjects answered the questions using a computer and in the privacy of their own rooms. The findings? Participants answered they were nearly twice as likely to engage in somewhat odd sexual activities or immoral activities while aroused. When aroused, men were 25% less likely to be interested in using a condom.

As the researchers suggest from this data, “sexual arousal seems to narrow the focus of motivation, creating a kind of tunnel-vision where goals other than sexual fulfillment become eclipsed by the motivation to have sex.”

But surely everybody knows this, right? I mean, we know that when we’re emotionally upset, angry, joyous or aroused, we don’t always make the best decisions. But we don’t. Ariely and Lowenstein suggested that “people seem to have only limited insight into the impact of sexual arousal on their own judgments and behavior. Such an under-appreciation could be important for both individual and societal decision making.”

In other words, we generally have limited insight into how limited our own judgment may be when in the grips of emotion. Which is a good reason to hold off on sending that angry email to your boss or a colleague for a day, because when you read it again in 24 hours, you’ll likely realize what poor judgment you were exhibiting in the heat of the moment.

Predictably IrrationalThis insight is brought to you in a new book published today by MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational, which I’m reading and will write a more thorough review within a few weeks. But after five chapters, I can say that if you enjoyed books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, you’ll love Ariely’s effort.

So if you want your teenager to not get into a sexual situation where poor judgment will occur, you have one of two choices — (1) ensure your teenager agrees with and avoids any situations where they could be alone with someone they find very attractive and/or (2) ensure condoms are readily available, just in case. Because while abstinence is a great philosophy while in a classroom or talking with your teen at the kitchen table, it’ll nearly always lose to passion in the heat of the moment, on a couch, the backseat of a car, or in bed.


Ariely, D. & Lowenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 87-98.

Why You Can’t “Just Say No” In the Heat of the Moment

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John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Why You Can’t “Just Say No” In the Heat of the Moment. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Feb 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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