STUDY: Porn Users Report Narrower Emotional Range but UCLA Study Name Obscures the Results

SPAN Lab porn study obscures results with confusing title

Psychology Today – Published on July 10, 2013 by Gary Wilson in Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow

Results in a study by UCLA’s SPAN Lab entitled, “No Evidence of Emotion Dysregulation in “Hypersexuals” Reporting Their Emotions to a Sexual Film,” align with what some ex-porn users are reporting. Namely, that porncurtailed their emotional range. However, the title of SPAN Lab’s study obscures this finding. (More below.)The study

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The study compared the emotional range of so-called “hypersexuals” with controls in response to viewing a 3-minute nature film and a 3-minute sex film. The lab’s working hypothesis for the study was that “hypersexuals” would report higher levels of both positive and negative emotions compared with controls. That is, after viewing the sex film, the “hypersexuals” were predicted to show high levels of positive emotions, such as sexual arousal or excitement, as well as high levels of negative emotions, such as embarrassment or anxiety. The authors call the simultaneous experience of greater positive and negative emotions in the face of a stimulus “coactivation.”

However, the researchers said:

  • “This study actually found evidence for the opposite pattern: those complaining of difficulty regulating their viewing of “porn” (VSS) had less mixed emotional responses to sexual films than those who did not report problems regulating their viewing.”
  • “Persons complaining of problems regulating their viewing of visual sexual stimuli exhibited less coactivation of positive and negative affect than controls.”
  • “The effects actually were in the opposite of the predicted direction, not merely weaker.” (Emphasis added)

Wrong hypothesis?

SPAN Lab researchers admit that there are no prior studies on which to base their hypothesis that today’s problem porn users should have experienced greater positive and negative emotional response to a sexual film.

  • “Research concerning hypersexuality has not yet specified exactly when emotion dysregulation is thought to occur, and clinical publications conflict as to when emotion dysregulation is expected.”
  • “There is no accepted measure of ‘level of coactivation.’”

They used a theoretical sexual-addiction model (developed prior to the Internet, and based on assumptions about addicts who act out with real people), claiming that,

  •  “Many proponents of a “hypersexual disorder” suggest that affect dysregulation is a key feature of the disorder.”

There is no citation for this statement, and there’s reason to question whether classic sex-addiction concepts necessarily apply to today’s Internet porn addicts..

Isn’t it likely that SPAN Lab’s hypothesis was simply backward, and that the controls were predictably more likely to show the wider range of emotions (they in fact showed)? After all, the researchers clearly stated that an earlier study had found that it is normal to have a wide range of positive and negative emotions in response to erotic films:

  • “In general, sexual stimuli tend to produce high coactivation of negative and positive feelings in response to sexual stimuli. (Peterson & Janssen, 2007).”

In other words, the controls were perfectly normal. It was the problem porn users who were out of alignment and showed less coactivation. Interestingly, numbed emotions are a common complaint of heavy Internet porn viewers—although most of them don’t realize porn muted their emotions until well after they quit using it. Here are typical comments by ex-users showing the loss of highs and lows:

First guy: “Once you quit the porn and the fapping you gotta accept the emotions you’ll feel. For me it was loneliness, sadness, neediness, etc. But these pass as you become more comfortable with yourself. The highs you feel are augmented and feel higher than before. The lows are augmented too and you nosedive further than before. Fapping to porn just kept me numb to the world but now I feel human emotions better than ever before.”

Second guy: “The thing about quitting porn, is that it cures the numbness. For me, all of the colors came back into my life. Music started sounding better, movies would make me cry (nobody make fun, or I’ll kick your butt! 😉 ); I laugh a lot more; I have way more fun in social settings, etc. I  went through a nasty period of sadness. But later, everything started falling into place, and ALL of your emotions become stronger. Don’t worry, though, as time goes by, life just keeps getting more and more awesome!”

Wrong theoretical basis?

The researchers used sexual-addiction theory from decades ago, as well as the term “hypersexuals,” thereby implying that they are discovering useful information about sex addicts—without using the term. They also imply that these people, popularly regarded as “porn addicts,” don’t have the dysregulated emotions of sex addicts (and therefore perhaps are not addicts at all). Yet there are several problems with this effort:

No addiction screening

The researchers did not pre-screen the participants for Internet porn addiction, so we can’t be sure their participants are addicts. “Hypersexual” and “difficulty controlling porn use” are vague terms in comparison with an actual Internet porn addiction designation via a screening test. If the researchers are going to suggest that they’re discovering things about Internet porn addicts they need to start by screening for porn addiction.

Need homogeneous participants

The researchers need to investigate homogeneous participants, rather than a mix of men and women of various sexual orientations. A 3-minute heterosexual film might inspire widely different effects, depending upon participants’ sexual orientation and current porn tastes. For example, a lesbian porn addict might experience aversion when watching the heterosexual porn film, thus skewing overall results. Sorting out emotional responses in addicts is a highly nuanced endeavor.

Classic sexual addiction theory irrelevant

Today’s young Internet users often don’t fit the classic sex addiction model, which was based on childhood trauma and shame. They are perfectly at ease with porn use, which many believe is beneficial. The average age of the problem porn users in this study was only 24, making them quite likely members of Generation XXX.

Thus, it’s not clear that these participants would exhibit classic emotions such as anxiety or embarrassment (negative emotions) even if addicted. Indeed, is there any sound reason to think that young porn addicts viewing a 3-minute erotic movie in the lab, who have even been told not to masturbate, would be triggered to feel any negative emotions due to the film clip?

In any case, labeling Internet porn addicts as “hypersexuals” doesn’t render them subject to sex addicts’ (purported) emotional responses. Again, the researchers’ hypothesis is weak.

Key addiction neuroscience concepts ignored

The researchers give no indication that they understand the difference between “sensitization” and “desensitization,” or the importance of designing their research around these key neurochemical characteristics of addiction.

Porn addictions can be very specific and tied to particular fetishes. They often involve rather extreme porn because many porn addicts escalate as they need edgier material to become aroused. Visual triggers for their unique cues can cause a powerful reaction, while visual cues that don’t serve as triggers may be of milder interest. Hyper-reactivity to specific cues is known as “sensitization.”

On the other hand, “desensitization” refers to decreased responsiveness to stimuli not tied directly to an addiction. This overall numbed pleasure response has been observed in Internet addicts, food addicts and gambling addicts. It’s quite likely that the same mechanism that numbs these other behavioral addicts to normal pleasure (and satisfaction) is also narrowing porn addicts’ range of emotional responses to porn visuals.

Incidentally, changes in dopamine levels and dopamine sensitivity appear to be one factor behind the “desensitization” phenomenon. For example, consider the experience of this healthy young medical student, who voluntarily had his dopamine response blocked with a drug, and experienced profound, temporary changes:

After 7 hours, Mr. A felt more distance between himself and his environment. Stimuli had less impact; visual and audible stimuli were less sharp. He experienced a loss of motivation and tiredness. After 18 hours, he had difficulty waking up and increasing tiredness; environmental stimuli seemed dull. He had less fluency of speech.”

The point is that it would be a rare generic 3-minute lab film that would elicit an accurate measure of positive and negative emotions for today’s Internet porn addicts. For some it would be dull (or even aversive if it doesn’t match their sexual orientation). For others it would be mildly arousing. Yet others might be highly sensitized to (aroused by) some aspect of it. However, it still might not reflect their emotional range after a full, private porn session with visuals of their own choice.

Ideally, researchers would choose a stimulus that matches each addict’s addiction—namely, each subject’s preferred genre of porn.

In any case, research that doesn’t ascertain whether it is recording addicts’ “sensitized” reactions or their numbed “desensitized” reactions can’t tell us much. Again, the general pattern for addicts is to be somewhat numb to everyday stimuli, and hyper-aroused to cues that tap into their particular addiction.

In conclusion

All of the possible confounds need to be controlled for before SPAN Lab can discover useful things about emotional dysregulation in problem porn users.

The lab may also want to choose more realistic hypotheses, and match their titles to their actual results. For example, a more accurate title for this study would have been, “Problem Porn Users Show Narrower Range Of Emotional Responses To Visual Sexual Stimuli Than Controls.”