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I'm sure most of us have heard at least a variation of this myth. Unfortunately I failed to find the original source. Was there actually a study that claimed this?

A lot of the sites debunking this myth point to the book "The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States" citing:

  • 54% of men think about sex everyday, or several times a day,

  • 43% think about sex a few times per month, or a few times per week

  • 4% think about sex less than once a month.

These numbers show that almost half the men don't even think about sex once a day. But that book is from 1994 and from what I understand it was just a survey.

In 2006 Dr. Louann Brizendine published her book The Female Brain, in which see apparently claims:

Studies have shown that while a man will think about sex every 52 seconds, the subject tends to cross women's minds just once a day.

I don't have the book, so I don't know which studies she is referencing.

Are there actually studies (not just polls) that show men think about sex fairly often?

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How would you conduct such a study? fMRI? –  David Hedlund Mar 29 '11 at 9:44
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All this "every x seconds" results can't be correct. Either it must be "every x seconds on average", i.e. Seconds Per Day / Number = x, or there would need to be some very accurate times in a mans brain which goes off every x seconds. And I would really see the scientific proof for that. –  Martin Scharrer Mar 29 '11 at 10:09
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The guy in the picture has obviously just read this research –  David Hedlund Mar 29 '11 at 10:41
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Only 54% of men think about sex every day? Now that is a claim that I’m skeptical about. Same goes for women. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 29 '11 at 11:08
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What does "think about sex" mean? Intercourse & genitalia? Or thinking anything about opposide sex, like "the book SHE gave me is great"? If we take the first option, the man thinking about sex every 7 seconds is totaly f***** in the head, IMHO –  Egle Mar 29 '11 at 13:47
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4 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Finally, someone has done a study that will provide an answer. The study, run by Dr Terri Fisher, asked 163 students to carry a tally counter, and note when they had thoughts about sex:

It won't be published until January 2012 so I have had to rely on early press reports, such as this one in MedicalXpress:

the research discredits the persistent stereotype that men think about sex every seven seconds, which would amount to more than 8,000 thoughts about sex in 16 waking hours. In the study, the median number of young men's thought about sex stood at almost 19 times per day. Young women in the study reported a median of nearly 10 thoughts about sex per day.

[...]

Correcting this stereotype about men's sexual thoughts is important, Fisher noted. "It's amazing the way people will spout off these fake statistics that men think about sex nearly constantly and so much more often than women do," she said. "When a man hears a statement like that, he might think there's something wrong with him because he's not spending that much time thinking about sexuality, and when women hear about this, if they spend significant time thinking about sex they might think there's something wrong with them."

It's hard to properly evaluate the methodology and results before seeing it published; press reports are often inaccurate.

One aspect that concerns me is that it required student to notice that they were having these thoughts. Perhaps a better methodology would be a buzzer that rang randomly, and had the students record whether they were thinking about sex at the time, would have gotten better results.

Obviously, self-reporting about a taboo topic is another issue.


Update:

The article was published:

I see nothing in the abstract or first couple of pages which undermines any of the above analysis.

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Drat, I was about to write this up. –  Konrad Rudolph Nov 29 '11 at 21:10
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Anything in the study about the distribution of the daily number? I'm just trying to judge whether i'm a freak or not. –  matt_black Nov 29 '11 at 23:12
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@matt_black: "In raw numbers, male participants recorded between one and 388 daily thoughts about sex, compared to the range of female thoughts about sex of between one and 140 times per day." Also, "those measuring the highest in erotophilia – or comfort with their sexuality – were the most likely to think more frequently about sex." –  Oddthinking Nov 29 '11 at 23:53
    
did this study get published yet? Not seeing it in the Jan 2012 issue? highbeam.com/publications/the-journal-of-sex-research-p620/… –  Jeff Atwood Apr 2 '13 at 6:02
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they need a study that determines if handing someone a counter and telling them to keep track of how often they think about sex makes them think about sex more often. Also how do you account for continually thinking about sex. Is constantly thinking about it for 5 minutes the same as constantly thinking about it for 20? –  Mr.Mindor Apr 4 '13 at 20:14
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Honestly, you should think about this claim in the other direction. The claim is made, but lacks support, that men think about sex every 7 seconds. So, if you're taking a scientific approach, you'd ask a question, look for supporting research and, were we to follow the scientific process, we'd stop when we learned that there was no such thing.

That being said, there are few studies that actually test this because it is the case that you can't actually know what any individual person is thinking at any given time. However, there are things that we can know about thinking that are likely to make it unlikely that such a claim is true. A very basic concentration test, for example, which can take an hour or more obviously has a time frame that overlaps the time that a man would be thinking about sex if this were true. Thus, if you can keep someone concentrating on a task for an extended length of time, they're clearly not thinking about sex.

Here are some studies that are evidence regarding the efficiency (or lack of efficiency) with which we can think about multiple things:

You can be awesome at one thing, but most people suck when they try to be awesome at two.

This study shows that dividing one's attention between driving and talking on a cell phone can cause more accidents because the attention of individuals is not actually working on each task simultaneously.

Psychologists blame what is known as Load Theory for our inability to process much stimuli at once.

So, based on the inability of our brains to actually process very many stimuli at once, while some men may think about sex more frequently than others, it is very unlikely that they are even capable of thinking about sex as frequently as is commonly claimed.

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Or to give an order like : "Don't think about an elephant!" –  Rabskatran Mar 29 '11 at 10:48
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unless, of course, you can think about more than one thing at once –  warren Mar 29 '11 at 15:16
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From Wikipedia's "List of Popular Misconceptions"

A popular myth regarding human sexuality is that men think about sex every seven seconds. In reality, this has not been measured, and as far as researchers can tell, this statistic greatly exaggerates the frequency of sexual thoughts.

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NO says a survey by Head and Shoulders as reported in this article by The Mirror.It says the following of the average man:

He will use up 126.6 minutes a day dreaming about a new partner and married men think about their wives for 118 minutes. The survey of 5,000 men found Mr Average spends 177 minutes a day worrying about his job, 101 minutes on money trouble – and almost 33 minutes on how good he looks, whether he’s getting moobs, a bald patch or is piling on the pounds.

It was reported by BBC on its 10 stories that could be April Fools pranks but aren't, so even if I was not able to find the original research, I suppose that is possible.

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