The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Sex and the White Elephant Effect

Can you decide to stop thinking about sex?

Blocking undesirable thoughts can be tricky. Say that you tell someone not to think about a white elephant. Chances are that the image of a white pachyderm hovers in their consciousness. Our incapacity to suppress the image of a white elephant can be termed the white elephant effect. It has many potential applications to sexual thoughts and behavior.

Social psychologist Daniel Wegner, who first studied this phenomenon, used white bears as the cue for his experiments (1) but the particular cue used does not matter. Calling it a white elephant effect emphasizes its practical uselessness.

Applying the white elephant effect to sexuality means that people who try to repress sexual thoughts will likely spend more time thinking about sex. Hence the obsession with all things sexual in sexually restrictive countries of the Middle East, for example (2).

One might imagine that it would be quite difficult to study private sexual thoughts. Yet, researchers managed to do so indirectly by investigating online subscriptions to pornography.

The white elephant effect and online pornography

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Religious conservatives in America endorse sexually restrictive beliefs, including rejection of thoughts involving extramarital sexuality, as inherently sinful. So there is a religious motive for repressing sexual thoughts. If the white elephant effect applies to sexual thoughts, then religious conservatives would actually spend more time thinking about sex.

Consistent with this prediction, residents of religious states spent more on cyber porn than less religious states in an academic study (3). Politically conservative states were also keener on pornography. As far as online adult entertainment is concerned, the red states are also the red light states.

Details in the study left little doubt that pornography use was linked to conservative religious views. Agreement with various religiously conservative positions was predictive of pornography use. States that banned gay marriage had 11 percent more porn subscribers. The level of agreement in a state with the statement that “even today miracles are performed by the power of God” was also associated with higher pornography consumption. States claiming to have old-fashioned values about family and marriage purchased substantially more adult content subscriptions.

The biggest consumer of Internet pornography was Utah. Ironically, Utah’s western neighbor Nevada, a center for gambling and prostitution, doesn’t even make it to the top 10 on consumption of online porn.

Such paradoxical findings are sometimes explained in terms of repression. The idea is that if people are told by religious authorities that they can’t have something, they want it even more. That may be true. Yet, the white elephant effect offers an even simpler explanation.

According to the white elephant perspective, religious conservatives are constantly on their guard against the perceived danger of sexual thoughts. Instead of suppressing sexual thoughts, this has the opposite effect of feeding sexual obsessions.

This white elephant effect helps to explain the long list of “family values” politicians in the Larry Craig mold whose public views on sex were cruelly undercut by their own actions. Some people point to such hypocrisy as more evidence of the corruption and scheming of politicians. I prefer to interpret it as an unexpected sign of their humanity.

 

1. Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.

2. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...

3. Edelman, B. (2009). Red light states: Who buys online adult entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23, 209-220.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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