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Can Implicit Associations Reveal the Presence of Cybersex Addiction?

Doctors can use a procedure known as an implicit association test to help identify those individuals likely affected by cybersex addiction, according to new findings from a team of German researchers. Essentially all humans have beliefs that they hold but typically don’t consciously examine. Psychologists and psychiatrists commonly refer to such beliefs as implicit (implied but not stated) beliefs. In a study published in 2015 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from two German institutions sought to determine if it’s possible to use a screening tool for implicit beliefs, called an implicit association test, to detect indications of cybersex addiction in people who access pornographic material over the Internet.

Cybersex Addiction

Cybersex describes sex or sex-related activity that occurs virtually over the Internet rather than in person. This form of sexual expression can center on such things as the viewing of pornographic material produced by others, the direct exchange of sexually explicit material with a known individual and the direct exchange of sexually explicit material with a stranger. A person affected by cybersex addiction is involved in a pattern of Internet-based sexual expression that damages his or her ability to function or otherwise produces significant personal impairment. As the name indicates, cybersex addiction is subtype of sex addiction, a condition characterized by dysfunctional involvement in some sort of real-world sexual behavior, or dysfunctional involvement in sexual thinking or a sexual fantasy life. Sex addiction and cybersex addiction do not have officially sanctioned definitions in the U.S., although years of accumulated evidence clearly indicate that some people experience significant harms associated with their sexual fantasies, thoughts or behaviors. In the context of cybersex, possible symptoms of addiction include an inability to limit the amount of time spent on Internet-based sexual practices, a preoccupation with Internet-based sexual practices while engaged in other activities, the onset of a withdrawal syndrome when cybersex participation is not an option, exposure to clearly negative outcomes of cybersex participation and continued cybersex participation after exposure to some form of related personal or social harm.

Implicit Association Tests

Implicit association tests are computer-based procedures designed to detect the hidden assumptions that underlie everyday thought processes. During the typical test, a participant is exposed to a series of terms or concepts, then asked to choose accompanying descriptions for those terms or concepts as quickly as possible. Generally speaking, associations that quickly occur to the individual are more deeply imbedded in unconscious thought processes than associations that take a longer amount of time to form. Any given implicit association test can target a number of topics and probe various types of unspoken or unarticulated personal and social assumptions.

Implicit Associations and Cybersex Addiction

In the study scheduled for publication in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen and Erwin L. Hahn Institute for Magnetic Resonance Imaging used a project involving 128 heterosexual men to explore the viability of implicit association tests designed to identify potential cases of cybersex addiction. The researchers undertook this project, in part, because implicit associations about substance intake are known to affect the odds of developing a dysfunctional pattern of substance use. They wanted to know if such associations have a similar impact on patterns of cybersex addiction. During the study, all of the participants took an implicit association test that used pornographic images as its main source material. For each individual, the researchers also made separate assessments of cybersex addiction and the level of craving generated by viewing pornographic imagery. Some of the study participants had implicit association test results that indicated an underlying belief that the viewing of sexual images on the Internet is a “positive” activity. Compared to the participants who did not make such an association, these individuals had higher chances of showing signs of cybersex addiction. They also experienced higher levels of craving when exposed to pornographic imagery, were easier to excite sexually and had a higher level of exposure to real-world problems linked to sexual conduct. The researchers concluded that those participants who implicitly viewed pornographic images in a positive light and also had unusually elevated levels of sexual craving were especially likely to display cybersex addiction symptoms. The researchers note that their findings largely mirror the known connection between a positive attitude toward substance use and the odds of developing diagnosable substance problems.

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