Why We Should Stop Calling Porn “Addiction” An Addiction

The concept of “pornography addiction” is one that has generated a lot of debate in the popular media. Although pretty much everyone seems to agree that there are indeed some people out there who are distressed about their porn use, there has been much controversy about whether it is appropriate to apply the “addiction” label in such cases. A new study published in Biological Psychology provides provocative evidence in favor of dropping the addiction label because what’s going on inside the brains of so-called porn “addicts” is nothing like what you would expect from someone who has an addiction.

In this study, researchers recruited 122 heterosexual men and women who reported “problems regulating their viewing of sexual images.” These participants came to a lab where they viewed a series of images (some sexual, some non-sexual) while an electroencephalograph (EEG) measured their brain waves.

The researchers focused on one specific brain activity pattern, the late positive potential (LPP), which reveals the extent to which a stimulus evokes an emotional response. LPP is a frequently used measure in neuroscience studies of emotion.

Previous studies of drug addicts have found that, when shown images of their drug of choice, their LPP levels spike—that is, they show a strong emotional response to images of the drug.

To the extent that pornography is addictive, one would expect a similar finding when a so-called porn addict is shown sexually explicit imagery; however, that’s not what was found in this study. Instead, what researchers found was the reverse—that is, these individuals showed decreased LPP levels when viewing sexual images compared to non-sexual images.

As noted by the study’s lead author, Dr. Nicole Prause, in a press release: “While we do not doubt that some people struggle with their sexual behaviors, these data show that the nature of the problem is unlikely to be addictive.”

In light of such findings, it would seem advisable to drop the “addiction” label when talking about people who are having issues regulating their porn use because it does not appear to be accurate. Ultimately, this terminology change may be helpful to patients with such problems who are seeking help because if treated through the lens of an addiction model, the therapy may not have the desired effect and could potentially be harmful to the extent that it gives patients false hope.

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To learn more about this research, see: Prause, N., Steele, V. R., Staley, C., Sabatinelli, D., & Hajcak, G. (2015). Modulation of late positive potentials by sexual images in problem users and controls inconsistent with “porn addiction.” Biological Psychology109, 192-199.

Image Source: 123RF.com/Mateusz Zogala 

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