How Porn Erodes Your Moral Compass — Even If You Don't Watch It

How Porn Erodes Your Moral Compass — Even If You Don't Watch It

Why you should care

Because subliminal erotic images give a whole new meaning to the word “flashing.”

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you. Or, in this case, altering your moral center with subliminal imagery. Particularly images that turn you on. I guess porn might be leading to the moral decline of the West after all.

Subliminal erotic images make us more willing to sacrifice an individual for the greater good.

A recently published paper in the Plos One journal studied the effects of various factors on moral decision-making, including culture, sex and the presence of erotic “priming” images. The team of researchers, split between the Fundación Universitaria Luis Amigó in Colombia and the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain, studied 224 participants who each judged a series of moral dilemmas, all a variation of the famous “trolley problem” — if you see a runaway railway trolley headed toward a group of five people, but there is a different track with just one person on it, do you do nothing and let the five die, or do you pull the lever to actively condemn a different person to death? They found that people were more likely to think that killing the individual was the right course of action if an erotic image had been shown on the computer screen before the question was asked. The images, though, were shown for just 16 milliseconds — too quickly for participants’ brains to consciously process them. “Believe me,” says lead researcher Dr. Antonio Olivera La Rosa, “it’s impossible to see the pictures.”

Olivera La Rosa points to previous research that suggests that perhaps subliminal stimuli influences our moral judgment even more than consciously perceivable images: “When you actually see a supraliminal, conscious sexual stimulus, there are brain activations that are associated with sexual arousal but also regulatory control.” But if you use subliminal sexual stimuli, “you can’t control your response.” The fact that our moral judgment might not always be cool and level-headed is not a new idea: Many previous studies in the field of moral psychology have shown that “sometimes our judgment of whether something is wrong and how wrong it is fluctuates with our momentary and irrelevant emotions,” says Rebecca Saxe, a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “Recognizing that is quite unsettling, because it feels like our sense of how wrong something is should be stable.” Indeed, a particularly famous example of this — or perhaps infamous, given its dangerous implications — is a study showing that people are likely to judge coercive sexual behavior as less wrong when they are themselves sexually aroused.

To be sure, while the differences in moral judgments measured by this study were statistically significant, they weren’t gigantic. And while existing research has already shown that arousal can affect cognition, and that emotions can affect moral judgment, Olivera La Rosa acknowledges that more research is necessary to understand the specific mechanisms in the brain that can explain this association.

Like many psychological studies, the participants were all college-age students. I don’t think I need a psychology Ph.D. to suggest that college kids might react to erotic stimuli slightly differently than the average person. To answer the question of whether a trend such as this is “humanly universal, you need a very different approach,” says Saxe. So don’t get too paranoid about the evil potential of subliminal sexting — for now.

OZYAcumen

Numbers and factoids --- fodder for your next cocktail party.