What’s “delay discounting” and what does it have to do with porn? Psychologists use this concept to indicate how people view a small immediate payoff, as compared to a larger future payoff. One common trait of compulsive behavior is heavy delay discounting—compulsivity means you put a high value on what you can get right now.
Some psychologists believe that porn consumption fuels delay discounting. In other words, watching porn makes you more likely to value short-term pleasures over long-term rewards. Researchers hypothesized that people who consumed pornography would demonstrate greater delay discounting—they would favor immediate gratification rather than waiting for a longer-term payoff.
Sure enough, they did.
How Modern Tech Fuels Delay Discounting
Neuroscientists understand that our brains are wired to seek out sexual rewards. And prior to internet pornography, obtaining those rewards typically involved a lot of work. Within the Christian sexual ethic, sexual reward requires a serious commitment to your spouse. And the hard work and self-sacrifice required for a healthy marriage is a good thing!
But in today’s tech world, immediate rewards are always better. Where 20 years ago we had to wait to send a simple email, today streaming video is expected to load without buffering. Porn sites deliver instant access to porn whenever and wherever you happen to be. For most of us, waiting more than a few seconds for a website to respond is too much. If something takes a long time, it’s not worth it—or just bad tech.
Furthermore, software designers and user experience practitioners have realized that to keep attention in this economy, it’s not enough to be fast. The most successful tech companies no longer wait for you to decide the results that you want. Instead, they fuel a constant dopamine drip of instant gratification. Sophisticated algorithms predict what you want so you don’t even need to look for it. Social media feeds you a constant stream of new images and videos. Netflix automatically starts the next episode of your show for you. And porn sites serve up a panoply of graphic content in the same way.
How Porn Uniquely Impacts Delay Discounting
Just living in the 21st century lends itself to delay discounting. But a group of researchers set out to understand whether porn has any special effect on delay discounting. They analyzed a group of people and evaluated their use of pornography. The researchers found that the more people used porn, the more significant their delay discounting.
Interestingly, the group of porn users was found to show less delay discounting after a period of abstinence from porn. These results were published in 2015 in the Journal of Sex Research. The paper concluded that sexual rewards affect delay discounting differently from other natural rewards.
However, as neuroscientists like Dr. Donald Hilton and Dr. Bill Struthers have pointed out, digital pornography is not merely a natural sexual reward, but a supernormal stimulus. You can read more about this in Brain Chemicals and Porn: How Porn Affects the Brain.
The Payoff of Delayed Gratification
Anyone who has struggled to quit pornography has experienced this firsthand. You know there will be consequences for giving in. You know that long-term, abstaining from porn will be better for you. But the immediate reward is so promising that the future payoff doesn’t seem worth it in the moment. As the research suggests, consuming porn may be affecting delay discounting in other areas of your life as well.
The good news is, you can develop the discipline of delayed gratification. As noted in the study above, even a short period of abstinence from porn may increase your appreciation for future rewards. The more you practice saying “no” to the momentary pleasures of porn, the more clearly you’ll see the long-term benefits.
1Sesen Negash, Nicole, Sheppard, Nathaniel Lambert, & Frank Fincham, “Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting” Journal of Sex Research (2015): 53, 1-12. 10.1080/00224499.2015.1025123.)