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Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, and Porn

Is compulsivity with pornography a learned behavior?

AlexLMX on Shutterstock
Source: AlexLMX on Shutterstock

I have written previously about the fact that in today’s increasingly digital world, not every person who is compulsive with pornography is a traditional (trauma-driven) compulsive person. (See my post, Pavlov’s Porn.) I have chosen to refer to this new and emerging category as conditioned compulsivity. But what, exactly, do I mean when I use the word conditioned.

In the field of psychology, there are two primary types of conditioning that impact human behavior – classical conditioning, and operant conditioning. Neither fully explains the human condition, which is also influenced by genetics, free-will, environmental impacts, and a host of other issues. That said, both classical and operant conditioning are clearly in play when it comes to porn usage.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is learning through association. Stated simply, two unrelated stimuli are paired to produce a new (learned) response.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered this pattern while experimenting with dogs. Basically, Pavlov noticed that when dogs are presented with an unconditioned stimulus (like tasty smelling food) they have an unconditioned response (they salivate). When presented with a neutral stimulus, however, like the tinkling of a small bell, there is no response. But if the bell rings every time food is presented, dogs learn to associate food and the bell. Before long, just hearing the bell is enough to make them salivate.

 Alain Lacroix on Shutterstock
Source: Alain Lacroix on Shutterstock

Psychologist John Watson, based on Pavlov’s experiments, initially proposed the model of classical conditioning as an explanation of human behavior. He got a bit carried away with his theory, however, when he rather famously wrote in his 1924 book, Behaviorism:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors.

Watson obviously overstepped when he argued that the complexity of human behavior is entirely based on conditioning (learning that is based on environmental inputs). Nevertheless, he did unquestionably provide us with some useful, scientifically verifiable insight into one aspect of behavioral development.

Operant Conditioning

By the late 1930s, B.F. Skinner (Burrhus Frederic, if you’re wondering) had expanded Watson’s ideas, developing the theory of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is learning that occurs through rewards and punishments in response to a particular behavior. Basically, behavior that is followed or accompanied by something pleasant is likely to be repeated, and behavior followed or accompanied by something unpleasant is unlikely to be repeated.

Skinner’s term for rewards and punishments associated with a particular behavior is reinforcement. Behavior that is reinforced by something positive is strengthened and likely to be repeated. Behavior that is not reinforced by something positive (or is punished in some way) is weakened, and not likely to be repeated.

Perhaps the most enlightening example of operant conditioning is one of Skinner’s own experiments. Skinner placed a lab rat in a box with a lever and a couple of lights. If the green light was lit and the rat pressed the lever, it would get a pellet of food. If the red light was lit and the rat pressed the lever, the rat received a mild electric shock.

Rats are not stupid. In fact, they learn through operant conditioning rather quickly.

  • Green Light + Lever = Food
  • Red Light + Lever = Pain

People are similar in this regard. If we’re rewarded for a certain behavior, we remember it. If we’re punished for a certain behavior, we remember that as well.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Related to operant conditioning, Skinner also studied schedules of reinforcement. For this, he placed a rat in the same basic box, but altered the schedule through which food was dispensed. For example, five green light pushes would deliver a food pellet, or a random number of green light pushes would deliver a food pellet. What he wanted to know was how quickly a rat (or a human) will push the lever in an attempt to elicit reward, and how many times a rat (or a human) will push it before giving up.

Skinner referred to these concepts as the response rate and the extinction rate.

  • Response Rate: The rate at which the lever is pressed.
  • Extinction Rate: The rate at which lever pressing dies out.

What he found was that random reward disbursement had the highest response rate and the lowest extinction rate. Apparently, the uncertainty of the reward adds to the excitement of receiving it.

Continuous reinforcement (getting a reward every time the condition is met):

  • Response Rate – Slow
  • Extinction Rate – Fast

Fixed ratio reinforcement (getting a reward after meeting the condition a set number of times)

  • Response Rate – Fast
  • Extinction Rate – Medium

Variable ratio reinforcement (behavior is reinforced at an unpredictable rate)

  • Response Rate – Fast
  • Extinction Rate – Slow

Interestingly, the extinction rate with variable ratio reinforcement is not just slow, it’s almost nonexistent. If we know that a reward might come at any time, we find it hard to walk away.

Pornography

The theories of classical and operant conditioning are far more complex than the simplified discussion presented above, and neither classical nor operant conditioning are the be-all, end-all in our understanding of human behavior. That said, there is no doubt that both types of learning impact our thinking and behavior. In fact, our conditioned behaviors can overrun our rational minds, and we sometimes find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t serve us.

For a quick example, think of a small child who often hears the bell on a neighbor cat’s collar as the cat wanders around outside. Soon, the child looks for a cat whenever he hears a bell. That is classical conditioning. Then, when he finally meets the cat, he inadvertently scares it or annoys it and gets a quick scratch on the arm. There is no blood and no damage; the cat was simply saying please don’t pull my tail, but the child feels attacked. At that moment, the child learns through operant conditioning that cats should be feared. Many years later, as an adult, that same individual might feel an irrational, seemingly unexplainable fear every time he hears a bell – a combination of classical and operant conditioning.

OK, so what does this have to do with porn?

Let me first digress with a brief discussion of video games. I’ll use Pokémon Go as an example. In case you can’t remember all the way back to 2016, Pokémon Go was (and still is, I assume) a phone app that provided a real-world scavenger hunt. Players pointed their smartphone cameras at the real world and the app would occasionally insert Pokémon characters into the video, with players capturing the random Poképrize. At the height of the Pokémon Go craze, people were ‘losing themselves’ in the game and getting injured – falling off cliffs, getting hit by cars. (Those things really did happen.)

Why did people get so swept up in Pokémon Go? Three words: variable ratio reinforcement. As stated above, when our behavior is randomly reinforced, our response rate is fast (we play) and our extinction rate is slow (we keep playing).

Video game designers have understood this fact from the very beginning. Players need to get the ‘hit’ of finding rewards, but not every time they do something right. For whatever reason, rewards are most enjoyable when they’re intermittent and the player never quite knows when they’re coming. More recent games have built-in algorithms that give players a precise number of rewards that will keep them playing. Basically, as we play these games, we learn that if we keep playing, we’ll eventually get the rewards we seek. The games condition us to stay involved.

Slot machines, video poker machines, and other forms of digital gambling operate on the same principle. And so does porn. The algorithms for porn may not be as accurate or as sophisticated as with gaming and gambling, but there’s not a porn site out there that doesn’t ‘suggest’ other videos to watch based on the user’s past viewing history. Plus, the underlying driver of reinforcement – in particular, variable ratio reinforcement – is very much in play.

Every person (and therefore every porn user) has a unique and very specific arousal template – a set of visuals and behaviors that produce certain levels of arousal. With porn, when an image or video hits the sweet spot, the reward center of the brain kicks into action, pushing out adrenaline and dopamine like nobody’s business. It’s an extremely intense and enjoyable reward – the kind of thing that conditions us (teaches us) to go back for more. And every time the user increases the rewards associated with viewing porn by masturbating to orgasm, more reinforcement.

Exacerbating matters is the fact that porn users typically have to sift through any number of images and videos to find the one that really hits the sweet spot. This uncertainty adds variable ratio reinforcement to the mix, which, as we know from Skinner’s research, makes it difficult to walk away. The tantalization of potential reward keeps users going back for more.

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