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Quitting Porn Fast and Slow: Perspectives on Willpower 6

Last Updated: January 28, 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.

Have you ever felt like you have a split personality?

You have the best intentions to get up early, work out, eat salad, and read good books. But when it comes right down to it, you end up sleeping in, lounging on the couch, eating pizza, and watching porn.

It’s a common experience for many of us. Even the Apostle Paul wrote, “For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Why is this?

The Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a compelling answer: not a split personality, but a split brain. His New York Times bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains we have two distinct systems for thinking. The first system, “fast-thinking,” involves instinct and intuition. It makes quick, subconscious assessments of our situation based on prior experiences. We do fast thinking without thinking!

The second system, sometimes called “slow-thinking,” is the rational, logical part of the brain. It works more slowly, requires more effort, but is better equipped for working out complex problems. Slow-thinking can also put the brakes on the fast-thinking part of the brain—if it gets there in time.

Summarizing Kahneman, Dr. Shahram Heshmat says:

The tradeoff between speed and accuracy is a universal aspect of individual decision-making. The deliberative system is conscious (analytical) and relatively slow. The impulsive system, in contrast, is relatively effortless and spontaneous. Choices favoring the immediate reward are associated with the habit or impulsive system. In contrast, choices favoring the long-term consequences are associated with the deliberative system.¹

Most of us blunder through life with very little awareness of which system we’re using and when. And that’s fine—most of the time. But things can go haywire when it comes to porn.

Fast-Thinking Leads to Porn

We’ve looked before at why porn is so addictive. Our brains are wired to like porn, especially the fast-thinking part of our brain. Since fast-thinking is instinctive and automatic, it can easily bypass an earlier decision to stay away from porn. So you might just find yourself going back to porn again and again—even though you know better.

How does this happen?

Porn Feels Good

Your fast-thinking brain is designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Salt and sugar cravings come from the fast-thinking system, and so do sexual impulses. On a neurological level, we know this is related to the chemical release of dopamine in the brain, which is a significant factor in porn’s appeal as well.

Just like it’s easy to eat half a bag of potato chips without thinking, it’s also easy to find yourself an hour into a porn binge once you start clicking. Your fast-thinking has a mind of its own, and it’s always on the lookout for things that feel good.

Porn Is Easy

Lots of things feel good, but porn has more going for it than that. Fast-thinking LOVES shortcuts. Quick and easy is the name of the game. One reason porn is so tempting is that it takes so little effort to find and watch it. Even though you can get some of the same feel-good chemicals from exercise, going to the gym takes a lot more effort and physical exertion.

By the time your slow-thinking brain remembers that you wanted to quit porn and that porn hurts your relationships and makes you feel shame, your fast-thinking already has you scrolling through video thumbnails.

Slow-Thinking Likes to Slacks Off

Slow-thinking is powerful. It’s logical and smart. Like a calculator, it crunches the numbers and weighs pros and cons (see the “accounting perspective” on willpower). Unfortunately, says Kahneman, it’s also lazy.² And when slow-thinking wants to take a break, fast-thinking takes this as a queue to jump in.

Your slow-thinking probably already knows the benefits of quitting porn. It might even know the six essential steps to quit porn for good. But, it takes a lot of effort to kick your slow-thinking into gear. While your slow-thinking mulls over your resolution to quit porn, you’re fingers automatically type in the address of your favorite porn site.

Slow-Thinking Is Limited

I’m not sure it’s fair to call your slow-thinking a slacker, though Kahneman and others have. The point is that it takes a lot of effort and willpower to use it. As we’ve seen, our willpower is very limited. Even if your slow-thinking isn’t slacking off, it still has serious limitations.

Not only is it limited by your willpower, but slow-thinking is limited to focusing on one thing at a time. Kahneman explains:

[T]he response to mental overload is selective and precise: [slow-thinking] protects the most important activity, so it receives the attention it needs; “spare capacity” is allocated second by second to other tasks.³

What does this mean? It means that when you’re absorbed with other problems like work stress, relationship conflict, or financial worries, you won’t have much capacity for avoiding porn. At best, you can thinking about quitting porn “second by second,” as your attention to the other concerns allows.

Sometimes you have the bandwidth to resist for a while. What happens more often is the distractions that consume your slow-thinking capabilities become triggers that lead your fast-thinking brain straight into porn.

More Fast-Thinking Trickery

Fast-thinking doesn’t just take you down the slippery slope to porn. It can also trick you into an unending cycle of shame and secrecy. How so?

You may be aware that accountability is a critical step to overcoming porn. But, even if you believe an ally is important to fight porn, your fast-thinking can get in the way. Maybe you’re frightened by the grip that porn has on you and you want to get help, but each time you consider asking someone, you shut down. You’re overwhelmed with embarrassment or shame—even though you know that logically, an ally will help you break free.

That’s fast-thinking again. It’s the automatic emotional response that makes us want to hide instead of reaching out. Sometimes, you need to reign in your fast-thinking and do a little slow-thinking to find the boldness to share your porn secret.

Beyond Fast and Slow

The concept of fast-thinking and slow-thinking gives powerful insights into why porn is so difficult to quit. It uncovers some of the deeper nuances and complexity of willpower. But just blaming the impulses of your fast-thinking or the laziness of your slow-thinking won’t help.  Romans 12:2 encourages us to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds”—that includes fast and slow thinking.

How does this happen?


¹https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201711/why-addicts-make-poor-decisions

²Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 39-49.

³ Fast and Slow, 35