We imagine that other people are having much more sex than we are. The reasons why are hardwired into our animal instincts – and fuelled by some unconscious biases.

Research shows we think young people have a lot more sex than they do in reality – and men have a particularly skewed view of the sex lives of young women.

As part of Ipsos’ long-running studies on misperceptions to be released in a new book, The Perils of Perception, we asked people in Britain and the US to guess how often people aged 18-29 in their country had sex in the past four weeks.

The average guess about young men in both countries is that they had sex 14 times in the last month. But the actual number is just five in Britain and four in the US, according to detailed surveys of sexual behaviour.

Our guess would mean that, on average, young men are having sex every other day – around 180 times a year – compared with the more mundane reality of around 50 times. But that’s not the most remarkable error in our guessing. Men are even more wildly wrong when they guess about young women’s sex lives, in both the US and Britain.

Men think young women are having an incredible amount of sex – 22 times a month in Britain, and 23 times a month in the US. These guesses would be the equivalent of the average young woman having sex every weekday, plus two or three times on one special day each month. In reality, it’s around five times.

As with so many of our misperceptions, the explanations for this will be both how we think and what we’re told.

The survival of our species literally depends on sex. Yet it is a hotbed of misperceptions. Unlike many other core human behaviours, where we can get a better idea of social norms from observation, sex mostly happens behind firmly closed doors (and the sex that is available for general viewing is not a fully accurate representation of the norm).

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