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Accounting for Porn: Perspectives on Willpower 4

Last Updated: January 31, 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.

What is worth more to you: looking at porn or not looking at porn?

Think about your decisions like an accountant would. When you face the choice to look at porn or not look at porn, you are—consciously or subconsciously—making a calculation about what is most worthwhile.

So far, we’ve looked at willpower as a resource, the goal systems theory, and cybernetic control theory. But we can also step back and analyze willpower as value-based choices. This is an “economic” model, or “accounting” model of decision-making. It’s all about the cost-benefit analysis.

Sound crazy?

A number of recent psychological studies have also looked at questions of decision-making and willpower from the standpoint of economics. There research shows us five important truths about our decisions and the willpower to overcome porn.

Values Drive Decision-making

The American theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote in his treatise on The Freedom of the Will, “the will is as the greatest apparent good… the thing which appears most agreeable.” He went on to argue that you always choose the thing you desire most.¹

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In other words, you’re going to run after the things you value the most. The most accurate way of determining your values isn’t what you say or even think. It’s what you do.

Yikes. What does that say about some of my decisions? 

You probably don’t like to hear that any more than I do. Willpower is a tough subject, and we need to take a tough look at the values that motivate us.

Your Momentary Values Matter

When you assess a bad decision (like the decision to look at porn) it rarely makes sense in the big picture. But the strength of this model is in assessing your values at the  moment of a decision.

If you’re like me, some of your decisions seem ridiculous when you look back on them. For example, in graduate school, I was obsessed with grades. I valued them—probably more than I should have. I knew the level of effort it would take for me to be adequately prepared (it was a LOT). But when exam time approached, instead of studying, I spent hours on Youtube watching clips of an old Korean interview show from the 1990’s where the hosts would get dumped into a swimming pool every time they used a word like “but” or “yes.”

Why did I do that?

Umm, it was hilarious, that’s why! And apparently, I valued the immediate payoff of a good chuckle more than the less tangible payoff of being well-prepared for exams. In retrospect, I value the grades more than the fleeting entertainment. But factoring in the stress I felt at the time, the mental fatigue from studying, and a little bit of reckless confidence, the choice actually makes sense.

Each decision (and your willpower to carry it out) serves as a snapshot of what you’re valuing at the moment. The snapshot may bear little resemblance to your values overall, but it’s nonetheless where you stood at that moment.

Bad Choices = Bad Calculations

Why is that snapshot important? Because you can see where your momentary values are falling out of alignment with your life values.

Warren Buffet’s mentor, Benjamin Graham, wrote The Intelligent Investor. It teaches his method of value-based investing. Obviously, we invest our money based on what seems like a good value! But the stock market is wild and crazy, so you shouldn’t buy based on the trends—trends are driven by emotion more than real value. Instead, look at the financial records, calculate the value of the business, then ask whether the price is worth it. If not, you’d better find somewhere else to put your money!

In the same way, we can evaluate the “investment” of each decision by calculating its pros and cons. Our momentary values fluctuate as wildly as the stock market, but our real values are much more consistent. Once you have the snapshot of your decision, you can perform and “audit”—ask the tough questions and find out where your calculations went wrong.

With my decision to forgo studying for a Youtube binge, I failed to calculate the benefits of delayed gratification. The immediate payoff seemed too great and the immediate cost of studying didn’t feel worthwhile. Recent studies in criminology indicate that risky behaviors are connected with an inability to make accurate cost-benefit assessments.² Bad choices are a bad calculation. Behind every poor choice, there’s some faulty math—an overpriced stock, as Graham would say.

If you’re still calculating whether quitting porn is worth it, I recommend taking some time to read “The Benefits of Quitting Porn”!

Identity Determines Value

Going a step further, researchers Elliot Berkman, Jordan Livingston, and Lauren Kahn looked wanted to understand where these values came from. How do you calculate the value of one behavior over another in the heat of the moment? Where do our longer-term values come from?

In an article titled “Finding the ‘self’ in self-regulation: The identity-value model,” they concluded that identity was one of the key factors in determining values. How you see yourself dictates what’s important to you. In their research, they found that people tended to do the things most closely related to their identity but were less likely to do things unrelated to their identity:

[G]oal-directed behaviors that are identity-relevant are more likely to be enacted because they have greater subjective value than identity-irrelevant behaviors.³

This means if I identify myself as a healthy person then I’m more likely to eat right and exercise. The same is true for avoiding negative or unwanted behaviors:

[A]ll else being equal, a person will be more likely to succeed in resisting a temptation to smoke—both at a given moment and cumulatively across the quit attempt—to the extent that she identifies as a “quitter” and that her quitter identity tends to be salient at the times that she decides whether to smoke.4

When it comes to porn, do you identify as a quitter? (See our article titled “5 Benefits of Being a Quitter”). More importantly, do you have a deeper identity that transcends porn—something you can aspire to? In STRIVE, our porn detox challenge, author and speaker Matt Fradd challenges participant to ask themselves these identity-related questions:

  1. What kind of person do you want to be?
  2. What kind of people do you respect?
  3. How do you want to be remembered?

These questions challenge us to rethink our identity and evaluate whether our short-term behaviors measure up to what we value long-term.

Broken Values Are Broken Identities

So what does it say about my identity if I choose porn in a moment of temptation? What if I know porn is bad and want to be a “quitter,” but I watch it anyway?

Counselor and researcher Jay Stringer conducted research on more than 3,600 men and women who struggled with unwanted sexual behavior. He found three identity-related factors that predicted porn use:

  1. Lack of purpose
  2. Past sexual abuse
  3. Shame

These three things relate to deeply held identities, and they shape values and decisions. (See “Who Watches Porn? 3 Key Predictors of Porn Use” for more details).

This tells us that identity goes much deeper than the surface or the things we want to believe. Identity goes into the deepest parts of ourselves to the wounds and shame buried within. When your identity is broken, it causes a break-down in your values as well.

Counseling can provide tremendous benefit as you learn to understand your broken identity and restore your values to the proper place. Likewise, an accountability relationship with a trusted ally can help you overcome the feelings of shame that drive you back to porn again and again!


¹Jonathan Edwards, The Freedom of the Will, accessed from https://ccel.org/ccel/edwards/will/will.ii.i.html.

²J.W. Buckholtz, U. Karmarkar, & S. Ye, “Blunted Ambiguity Aversion During Cost-Benefit Decisions in Antisocial Individuals” Sci Rep 7, 2030 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-02149-6.

³E.T. Berkman, J.L. Livingston, & L.E. Kahn, “Finding the ‘self’ in self-regulation: The identity-value model,” Psychol Inq 28 (2017): 77-98. doi:10.1080/1047840X.2017.1323463.

4 “Finding the ‘self.'”