How often do you have sex? How sexually satisfied are you? Have you ever cheated? It turns out that scientists may be able to predict your answers to these and many other questions about your sex life based on a simple personality inventory. Specifically, a large body of research suggests that our sex lives are partially shaped by five basic dimensions of personality known commonly as the Big Five traits.
The Big Five includes openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Below, I will briefly explain what each trait entails and how it is related to sexual behaviors, attitudes, and health based on the results of a new meta-analysis published in Psychological Bulletin that summarizes decades of research in this area.
Openness to Experience
People who are high in openness display intellectual curiosity and a willingness to try new things. They also tend to have more artistic interests and an active imagination.
Given these folks’ daydreaming tendencies, it’s no surprise that people high in openness report having more sex fantasies (and, as I’ve found in my own research, they have more sexual fantasies about almost everything). Also, perhaps as a result of their greater willingness to try new things, they report more liberal sexual attitudes and are more willing to acknowledge when they have same-sex attractions (i.e., they are more likely to identify as gay or bisexual).
Their willingness to try new things probably also helps to explain why highly open people are more sexually satisfied and less likely to develop sexual dysfunctions.
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Conscientious people tend to be very self-disciplined and detail-oriented. They prefer for things to be scheduled rather than spontaneous, and they tend to hold more conventional and traditional attitudes across the board.
Given that people high in conscientious tend to be conformists, it makes sense that they tend to report more conservative sexual attitudes. This, coupled with their high levels of self-discipline, helps us to understand why they’re less likely to cheat, too.
Interestingly, conscientious people report being more sexually satisfied and are less likely to develop sexual problems, perhaps because their attention to detail carries over into the bedroom in ways that enhance sex. For example, maybe they pay more attention to things like setting the mood, like playing soft music and lighting candles.
Extraverted people are very sociable and outgoing. They like to get out and interact with the world around them.
Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are more extraverted tend to be more sexually active. They not only report more desire for sex (and more frequent sexual fantasies), but they are doing it more often, too, which includes having more casual sex. Extraverts are also more sexually satisfied and less likely to report sexual dysfunctions or difficulties.
There is also a small association between extraversion and infidelity, such that extraverts are more likely to cheat. This makes sense because if they’re out interacting more with other people, they will naturally encounter more opportunities to cheat than introverts.
Agreeable people are those who have a lot of care and concern for others. They are kind and considerate, and they genuinely want to make others happy. As you might expect, highly agreeable people are less likely to be sexually aggressive and they’re less likely to cheat. They care about other people’s feelings, after all.
Agreeable people also seem less interested in sex—they report less desire, less frequent sex, and less casual sex. The fact that they aren’t as sexually active probably explains, in part, why agreeable people have fewer STIs (although this may also be because agreeable people just take more steps to protect themselves and their partners due to their caring nature).
Despite the fact that agreeable people have less sex, they’re actually more sexually satisfied. I suspect this is because all of that attention agreeable people pay toward meeting their partners’ needs pays dividends.
Lastly, neurotic individuals tend to be on the emotionally unstable side. They don’t handle stressful situations well and even very minor annoyances can put them in a bad mood.
As might imagine, not dealing well with stress and being quick to get annoyed isn’t a recipe for a happy or healthy sex life. Neurotic folks report not only lower levels of sexual satisfaction, but also more difficulties with sex—something I suspect may be the result of them having a difficult time relaxing and getting in the mood.
Interestingly, neurotic individuals report higher rates of STIs. It’s not exactly clear why that’s the case. Could it be that neurotic folks are more likely to get tested? Or do they just have riskier sex? We need more research to know.
Why is this research important?
What this research tells us is that your sexual behaviors, attitudes, and overall health are, at least in part, a function of your standing on the Big Five personality traits. However, it’s important to keep in mind that looking at the overall pattern of traits an individual person exhibits is probably more informative than looking at specific traits in isolation. For example, just because you’re an introverted person doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unhappy with your sex life—especially if you happen to be an introvert who is agreeable and open to new experiences.
With all of that said, the more that we understand how and why different people approach sex in different ways, the better equipped we will be to develop interventions designed to improve sexual health. If the results of this research tell us anything, it’s that different approaches may be needed for different people depending on their unique personalities.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.