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Cybernetic Control Over Porn: Perspectives on Willpower 3

Last Updated: January 12, 2022

Keith Rose
Keith Rose

Keith Rose holds a Master of Divinity degree and BA in Sacred Music. Keith worked with the Covenant Eyes Member Care Team for 15 years. During that time, he also served as a worship leader, Bible teacher, and pastoral assistant. He's now the editor of the Covenant Eyes blog and the author of Allied: Fighting Porn With Accountability, Faith, and Friends. He lives in Rexford, Montana with his wife Ruby and daughter Winslow.

In our last article, we looked at what kinds of plans succeed or fail to accomplish your goals. This article explores the interaction between you and your plans—”cybernetic control.”

Cybernetic control sounds like something from a sci-fi movie or a dystopian novel. Think of human behavior like a computer; how do you “program” yourself to accomplish certain behaviors? How do you “reprogram” yourself to change an unwanted behavior? Cybernetics touches everything from psychology to computer science! It assesses your goals and the willpower it takes to accomplish them.

1960’s self-help guru Maxwell Maltz was an early adaptor of the cybernetic mindset:

Every living thing has a built-in guidance system or goal-striving device, put there by its Creator to help it achieve its goal—which is, in broad terms—to “live.”¹

Maxwell went on to explain how this life instinct in humans extends into various pursuits, ranging from basic survival to deeper fulfillment. “When we conceive of the human brain and nervous system as a form of servo-mechanism, operating in accordance with cybernetic principles, we gain a new insight into the why and wherefore of human behavior.”²

Wow! It’s an exciting claim,especially for those of us interested in overcoming porn. Will cybernetic control help us in the fight against porn? There are at least four things we can learn.

1. Cybernetics helps you find your feedback.

The word “cybernetic” comes from a Greek word for steering a ship. Imagine a captain at the ship’s wheel, constantly making adjustments to keep the ship on course. Feedback keeps you from crashing into the rocks! Cybernetics means looking for feedback so you can adjust course. Adjusting course lets you accomplish your goals.

Charles Carver and Michael Scheier are experts in applying cybernetics to human behavior. They emphasize paying attention to consequences:

The consequence of an act informs you about whether or not the act moved you toward a desired end (or away from an undesired end). In the short term, that information is useful in determining whether to continue the action, change the action, or perhaps the discontinue the activity altogether.³

Maxwell Maltz observed that your view of yourself plays an important role in how you process feedback. You need to understand that you won’t know exactly what to do to be successful until you start.

You don’t need all the answers to begin.

What does this mean for quitting porn? It means your journey to a porn-free life will take some twists and turns. It’s going to be a process of learning from consequences. It’s something you’re going to get better at with experience. You can expect there to be setbacks along the way, and that’s OK.

What feedback are you looking for when it comes to quitting porn?

Cybernetics tells us to find your feedback and start the learning process. 

2. Cybernetics identifies broken controls.

If cybernetic control still seems complicated, imagine a thermostat. A thermostat is a simple cybernetic system that controls just one variable: heat. It measures the room for feedback, and if it’s too cold, it sends a signal to the furnace to warm things up.

What happens if your ability to measure the temperature breaks down? Your furnace might run constantly, thinking the room is cold, when it’s really 95 degrees. If you find yourself continually returning to porn even though you don’t want to, you may have a glitch in your cybernetic control—your thermostat is broken.

Cybernetics tells us there’s a problem with broken controls.

Neuroscientist Dr. Donald Hilton uses the thermostat analogy to describe what happens in the brain when you get hooked on porn. Your “pleasure thermostat” gets mixed up. It keeps sending signals to “turn the heat up,” and your brain believes that porn is the only way to do it:

It’s the overuse of the dopamine reward system that causes addiction. When the pathways are used compulsively, a downgrading occurs that actually decreases the amount of dopamine in the pleasure areas available for use, and the dopamine cells themselves start to atrophy, or shrink…. This resetting of the “pleasure thermostat” produces a “new normal.” In this addictive state, the person must act out in addiction to boost the dopamine to levels sufficient just to feel normal.³

There’s a lot going on in there, so let’s break it down!

The Deal With Dopamine

The pathways Dr. Hilton mentions are the paths in the brain that that make you feel different things, like pleasure or pain.

Dopamine is the chemical in your brain that gives you the “gotta have it” feeling. It tells your brain “this feels good; I want more.” This is a good thing, because without dopamine, you’d lose your motivation for everything—even eating and drinking.

Of course, porn gives you a huge charge of dopamine too. Even thinking about porn releases dopamine; that’s why you can start to feel cravings or urges when you’ve gone a period of time without it.

Dopamine Downgrading

So, dopamine is generally a good thing. But porn gives you a LOT of dopamine. It’s too much for your brain to handle—imagine the chemical pathways in your brain getting absolutely FLOODED. When the neurocircuitry is overloaded like this, you can’t experience pleasure the way you normally would. You’ve used up the amount of dopamine available. and it leaves you feeling desperate. Neuroscientists call this “downgrading.” 

This throws your cybernetic control into a tailspin. Instead of reliable feedback, you’re brain is PUMMELED with signals that you NEED porn. It feels desperate, and this is why porn can be so challenging to quit.

Before you can use it again, your cybernetic control system needs a dopamine detox. Once your thermostat is fixed, it starts processing feedback normally again.

3. Cybernetics focuses on controllable variables.

Cybernetics gives us another way to think about addiction.

Cyberneticists talk about the “law of requisite variety.”³ This means you need to consider every variable that you’re trying to control, and you need an effective way to control it!

Back to the thermostat example. You can control the heat with it (if it’s working!), but if you’re also worried about the carbon monoxide, your furnace won’t help. To use cybernetic language, your control system doesn’t have enough variety.

This applies to porn as well. Simply trying to block porn won’t work because a porn filter does not have sufficient variety to block every possible outlet to porn. People who use blocking software without accountability reporting will eventually find a loophole or an electronic device that isn’t covered by filtering.

There isn’t enough variety in a filter control system to manage every possible access point.

Letting Go of the Uncontrollable

Ranulph Glanville was a very smart guy. The holder of multiple PhDs, he was a researcher and theorist in the field of cybernetics and served as the president of the American Society for Cybernetics from 2009 until his passing in 2014. He reflected deeply on the implications of cybernetics on many areas of life—including addictions.5

Glanville was concerned that therapists were using cybernetic theory to attempt to control addiction, instead of accepting that addicts were out of control. While Glanville believed in cybernetic control, he also recognized its limitations.

For an addict (Glanville was talking about alcohol specifically, but it applies to porn users as well), the variables outnumber the controls. Glanville pointed to Alcoholics Anonymous as a good example of an effective approach that follows the law of requisite variety. How so? The famous first step of AA says, “We admit we are powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Your thermostat won’t control the carbon monoxide. So don’t try to control what you can’t. Use the feedback you’ve gathered to figure out what factors are within your control, and focus on those instead.

Taking Inventory of the Variables

Trying to control something beyond your control leaves you in a world of hurt! Too often, when it comes to changing a behavior like watching porn, we’re trying to use our thermostat to control carbon monoxide. The feedback/learning process is a process of learning what you can and can’t control. When you use cybernetics to quit porn, you’re taking an honest inventory of your life: What variables can you control?

Think about the big goal of “quitting porn.” Then consider some factors that go into this: setting up porn blocking on your devices, staying off your phone at night, and meeting regularly with your ally. These are all things you can control.

Things you can’t control could include bad day at work that leaves you tired and frustrated (i.e. your mood). It could also include the impulse to look at porn when you’re all alone with your phone and nobody can see you (i.e. situation).

As a practical exercise, write down two lists. One is for variables you can control. The other is for variables you can’t control. Shoot for 25 in each list—which list is harder to complete?

4. Cybernetics tells you to get help for everything else.

Using cybernetics effectively means recognizing its limitations. If you can’t control the urge to click on a porn site, trying to will yourself away from it is a losing game. Figure out the things you can control, and get help for everything else.

In his paper on cybernetics and addiction, Glanville concluded:

It is crucial that we know when (and when not) to use techniques and ideas. Control is not an
idea that should be used everywhere, and we need to know when we should not use it. And,
while the benefits of control are well known and widely accepted, the benefits of non-control
aren’t.6

When it comes to resisting porn, fighting alone with self-control is a losing game. Cybernetic feedback will tell you this: you need outside help. The late Dr. Mark Laaser said, “To achieve true change, a person must be accountable to others to make that change.”


¹ Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics, Simon & Schuster (1960), 16.

² Psycho-Cybernetics, 19.

³Donald Hilton, “How Pornography & Drugs Changes Your Brain”, Salvo 13 (2010). https://salvomag.com/article/salvo13/slave-master

³Charles Carver & Michael Scheier, On the Self-Regulation of Behavior, Cambridge University Press (1998), 4.

4 Roger Conant, Mechanisms of Intelligence: Ashby’s Writings on Cybernetics, Intersystems Publications (1981), 192. Accessed through Google Books: http://rossashby.info/Ashby-Mechanisms_of_intelligence.pdf#page=103

5 Ranulph Glanville, “A (Cybernetic) Musing: Control, Variety and Addiction,” 2004. https://asc-cybernetics.org/2004/glanvillepaper.pdf

6 “A (Cybernetic) Musing,” 11.

7 Mark Laaser, The 7 Principles of Highly Accountable Men, Beacon Hill Press (2011), 7.