In a previous blog post, we argued the “Salience Value” of screen-based content could serve as a predictor of whether a screen user would fall into a “ludic loop” of problematic content consumption. In this post, we delve deeper into the concept of salience and how it may influence porn use and other screen content consumption behavior.
In their 2017 treatise Decision Neuroscience, researchers Kahnt and Tobler wrote: “At the most general level, salience can be defined as the capacity of a stimulus to direct attention.” They went on to describe, however, some confusion in the neuroscience literature between two concepts for which the term “salience” has been used as a shorthand. One of those concepts, “perceptual salience,” refers to “physical properties (i.e., the color, contrast, orientation, or luminance) that make [a stimulus] more likely to capture attention.” The other, “acquired salience,” refers to “the importance that a stimulus has acquired through association with an incentive outcome.” (It bears noting that both “perceptual” and “acquired” salience may have alternate definitions outside of the neuroscience context, amplifying the definitional ambiguity.)
In our blog post proposing a model for “ludic loops,” we posited (based mostly on anecdotal evidence) that screen-based stimuli – porn, social media, gaming, etc. – have a measurable Salience Value (SV), and that SV has a direct correlation to the likelihood of a problematic “ludic loop” use pattern arising. We hypothesized that the SV of screen-based content features at least two core components: (1) how the content is designed to attract attention, and (2) how the content responds to the user’s deep-seated or primordial needs. These two categories roughly correspond to the concepts of “salience” in neuroscience research articulated by Kahnt and Tobler. Screen content can be engineered to increase its “perceptual salience,” and can feature subject matter that varies in its “acquired salience” according to its fundamental importance to the user.
Delving into those distinctions further, consider how the design engineering of screen-based porn (or social media or gaming) increases “perceptual salience”. Over the past year, ex-Silicon Valley engineers, among them former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, have warned about the tricks and techniques app and web designers use to grab and hold the attention of content consumers. These include on-screen content placement and visual design, leveraging unpredictable rewards, auto-playing video content, infinite scrolling, and tracking user movements to design even more enticing, personalized future interactions. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to recognize how effective these design features can be. Hands up if you’ve ever lost time scrolling through Instagram or playing Candy Crush. We can’t see you, but we know you have your hand up because we do, too.
Similarly, consider how degrees of “acquired salience” impact a user’s interaction with screen-based content. In our previous blog post, we contrasted the SV of porn with that of cute cat videos. Both may appear on screen in an identical, YouTube-style interface. Both likely feature design engineering calculated to grab and hold user attention. But, only one speaks to a primordial need – the sex drive – of most users. Kahnt and Tobler describe “acquired salience” as relating to the importance of a stimulus for motivated behavior independent” of whether its outcome is positive or negative for the content consumer. That makes sense in our model, because sexual content, whether it arouses or disgusts, holds an “absolute” value for most people that is far greater than more neutral content that rarely arouses or disgusts, such as cat videos.
Kahnt and Tobler also observe that “acquired salience” may vary according to learned expectations about the outcome tied to the stimulus. In the context of screen-based content, does this imply “acquired salience” can vary over time? Anecdotally, we suspect so. We think the “acquired salience” of a cute cat video be high initially (when a consumer finds himself entranced by the hilarity of watching a cat fall from a piano bench), but can decline predictably as the novelty of cat antics decreases. Conversely, the “acquired salience” of online porn sustains (or even grows) in intensity because of the near-infinite variety of pornographic genres, themes, and on-screen behaviors available for consumption. Simply put, online porn doesn’t just tickle a particularly potent human instinct, it also remains salient by offering the opportunity to discover new outcomes, no matter whether they are positive (arousing) or negative (disgusting).
Summarizing and simplifying these concepts, here’s the state of our thinking at this point on the Salience Value of screen-based content, particularly online porn. From the perspective of the user, the SV of screen-based content depends upon both exogenous (originating externally) and endogenous (originating internally) factors. Those factors aren’t necessarily held constant. In fact, they’re likely highly dynamic. Engineers can tweak exogenous factors to make content more perceptually salient, and users can respond by adapting modes of use that mitigate those tweaks (e.g., by going gray-screen). Likewise, users’ endogenous valuation of subject matter can evolve through learning, experience, aging, and (perhaps) medical interventions, but can be countered by content providers when they produce ever-more novel subject matter.
Why bother with this exercise? As we wrote previously, we think there's a need to spur focused discussion about the multiple variables that may contribute to problematic online porn use and other compulsive, screen-based behavior. Too many discussions of porn addiction we read proclaim the problem too difficult and nuanced for effective analysis. Our fondness for behavioral economics leads us to believe that basic modeling and multi-disciplinary analysis can bring order to chaotic discussions like these, and perhaps lead to treatment methods tailored to each problem user's needs.
We were recently invited to sit in on a high school class that asked students, over the course of a semester, to envision how they wanted their own lives to unfold in the coming decades. As the guests of honor, we were there to field questions from the students – all high school seniors – about what we’d learned since we left the cocoon of secondary education.
No softballs came our way in this class. These kids had already been thinking about their questions for a few weeks under the guidance of their teacher, and quickly honed in on some core life issues: “Are you happy, however you understand that word?” “Do you think of yourself as a good person, and are you?” “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made so far?” And, “If you were going to write a letter to yourself at our age, what advice would you give?”
We won’t lie, the session got pretty raw. Not so raw as to tell an unsuspecting group of teens what it’s like to be in recovery from porn addiction, mind you. It wasn’t that kind of setting. But still, we’d lay odds these kids had never heard a group of adults in their 30s and 40s open up about vulnerabilities in way yours truly and others did. One adult talked about coming late to the realization of how important it was to fail miserably. Others reflected, sometimes tearily, about how dreams of having children or careers had eluded them.
Perhaps the most trenchant question, for your correspondent at least, was the last one – what advice would you give to the high school senior version of yourself? Now, remember, these students had already done a lot of thinking about this topic. By the time that question surfaced, we were way past answering in clichés like “don’t take yourself too seriously.”
In contemplating a response to that question, our inner monologue went something like: “I’D TELL MY 18-YEAR OLD SELF TO QUIT LOOKING AT PORN!!!!” But, raw as the class was, getting into the nitty-gritty of porn addiction seemed too specific. The students were asking the adults to translate our experiences into lessons that would be universal, not idiosyncratic. The adults stepped up the challenge with some uniformly insightful answers:
We have no idea which, if any, of the other adults in that class was in recovery. Their answers, however, struck us as something of a textbook lesson in emerging from addiction, and in turn, of how addiction recovery distills and seeks to address the core challenges of human existence.
Would our 18-year old selves have listened to that sage advice? The premise of the class, at least, was we would have. Which is why we feel lucky to have spoken to those young adults. We may not be able to turn back time on our own addictions, but we can play a part in shaping how others confront the future, and in so doing, in making the world a healthier place.
As readers of this blog know, PornHelp.org neither endorses nor rejects any religious practice or principle. What follows is intended as a reflection on a concept in Judaism that may resonate for anyone – religious or not – in recovery from porn addiction. We trust our readers will not mistake this, or any of our writings for that matter, as an attempt to proselytize or pass judgment on anyone’s religion or non-religion. This is merely a perspective we find interesting and think you might too.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish religious calendar, begins this evening. In synagogues around the world, congregations will hear the Hebrew word teshuva spoken. Dictionaries translate teshuva (sometimes spelled t'shuva) as “repentance” or “return,” but those words fail to capture the breadth of the concept.
In his 2010 book Repentance, author and professor emeritus of religious studies at Carleton College Dr. Louis E. Newman explores how teshuva pairs two essential perspectives on atoning for wrongs, one backward-looking, the other forward-looking. To “repent” in the sense of teshuva is not simply to take responsibility for past behavior by apologizing and feeling remorse. Repentance also must encompass future actions taken in the belief that renewal and grace are possible. As Dr. Newman pictures it, teshuva stands for a person “returning” to their “whole” being - owning and making amends for the past, but also turning toward a future in which the past does not limit one’s goodness and potential to contribute to the world.
Addiction, whether to porn, pills, gambling, or something else, leads people into lives of shame, isolation, and self-hatred. Every binge and bender only compounds feelings of worthlessness and despair, in turn accelerating the addictive spiral. People suffering from addiction often implode, even die, when this cycle overwhelms them.
The concept of teshuva described by Dr. Newman might be useful in braking addiction's destructive acceleration. In our experience, in the struggle with addiction, we often overlook the inherently positive corollaries to even the most negative of our emotions. We feel shame because we try, but fail, to curb the compulsive behavior ruining our lives. We feel despair because we believe recovery should be possible but can’t see the way forward. We isolate ourselves because know we’re not the people we worry others might see us as if we reveal our addiction to them.
In other words, to borrow from Dr. Newman’s conceptualization of teshuva, as human beings we have the innate capacity not only to understand and express remorse for how our addiction hurts ourselves and others, but also to believe in and commit ourselves to a course of action in which our true self emerges from the shadow our addiction once cast.
You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the power of this conceptualization of human potential when it comes to recovering from addiction. Dr. Newman, who himself has been in recovery, observes that “Our lives are marked not by our achievements, or certainly not by them alone, but rather by how we deal with our failures….”
By embracing our failures in addiction as ruptures deserving of our sincere remorse but also capable of repair through our future action, and then taking that action, we lay the foundation of our recovery. Or, as Dr. Newman puts it, by being both retrospective in our regret and prospective in our hope, we allow ourselves to “return” (in the sense of teshuva) to being the people we have always wanted and tried (however unsuccessfully in the past) to be.
Here at PornHelp, we know the frustration of trying to explain a porn binge to those who haven’t struggled with addiction. No esoteric explanation we’ve tried (“trapped in a bubble” “falling into a deep hole”) ever succeeds in describing that simultaneously intense, detached, and hellish experience.
Which is why our ears perked up when we first heard the term “ludic loop.” That’s the phrase coined by NYU professor and researcher Natasha Dow Schüll to describe the trance-like state video slot machine users enter for hours on end while their money ticks away on losing bets.
In a recent interview with Medium, Dr. Dow Schüll described a “ludic loop” as the experience of being “hooked into doing something that has no real reward, and the feeling of being trapped in that state of empty limbo becomes the reward in and of itself.” Or, as one of Dr. Dow Schüll’s interviewees for her 2015 book examining the rise of video slot machines, Addiction by Design, put it:
It’s like being in the eye of a storm … Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there – you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.
It sure does to us. Specifically, it sounds like what happens when a person struggling with porn addiction sits down with his laptop at bedtime and heads over to PornTube, and the next thing he knows it’s 4 a.m. It also sounds like what happens when you scroll through an Instagram feed for an hour without stopping, or when you fire up a gaming app during your morning commute and miss your stop by miles.
Our brain’s ability to enter a trance state is not necessarily problematic in-and-of-itself. In the Medium interview, Dr. Dow Schüll observes ludic loops can occur when you drive a car: you stay functional but achieve a pleasant, zoned out state at the same time. Dr. Dow Schüll describes this state as mildly problematic if you do nothing but drive in circles to achieve a blissful, detached high. But, as anyone who’s ever taken a long road trip knows, that same trance state occurs even when you do have a destination. Do you remember every stretch of the 100 miles you just drove? Of course not.
That’s because we humans have an innate capacity to dial-in and tune-out simultaneously while performing complex, goal-oriented functions. It’s a useful evolutionary adaptation, really. Behind the wheel, you feel detached and protected from the unpleasant boredom of driving long distance, but you also flawlessly execute the relatively complex tasks of monitoring your speed, changing lanes, keeping track of other drivers, and avoiding hazards to arrive at your destination. Hunters describe a similar experience while tracking their quarry. Researchers refer to this as a “flow state”. Athletes often call it “the zone.” Whatever you call it, our ability to focus and detach all at once can help us achieve seemingly super-human ends.
But what if you arrive at your destination and you don’t want to stop? Or you feel you’d rather just stalk a deer forever instead of pulling the trigger? Dr. Dow Schüll’s theory, paraphrased, is that when the bliss of the “zone” feels better than achieving the goal, you end up stuck in the zone’s evil cousin, a “ludic loop.”
Of course, most people don’t drive in circles forever, stalk deer forever, or (to borrow a canard porn addiction skeptics often peddle) watch cute cat videos forever. They do, however, lose themselves in video slots and internet porn and social media.
Why is that? What makes some ludic loops so much more likely than others to arise, persist, and become problematic?
To answer those questions, we’ve taken a stab at modeling the factors we believe contribute to the existence and durability of ludic loops. This model isn’t particularly scientific (not even in the “dismal science” sense), but we hope our readers will see it as a reasonably constructive first pass at bringing some order to the complex origins of porn binges and other internet black holes that resemble the ludic loops Dr. Dow Schüll describes.
For starters, let’s go back to Dr. Dow Schüll’s explanation of a ludic loop as being “hooked into doing something that has no real reward, and the feeling of being trapped in that state of empty limbo becomes the reward in and of itself.” A simple inequality reflecting that explanation might look like this:
LV > AV
Where LV (“Loop Value”) stands for the value to the user of staying in a ludic loop, and AV (“Actual Value”) stands for the value to the user of achieving the “goal,” if any, of the underlying behavior.
To add precision to this inequality, based on personal experience, we suggest inserting a second variable such that a ludic loop forms and endures when:
LV > AV + PC
where PC (“Perceived Cost”) stands for the user’s immediate perception of the cost of staying in the ludic loop. In our experience, when PC is obvious, immediate, and tangible to a user – “If I keep scrolling I’ll be late for work” – the loop can break. Even if there is no value (or “reward”) in the underlying behavior, if the user clearly perceives the cost of entering and staying in a ludic loop as greater than the value of doing so, the loop won’t occur or persist for long.
Digging deeper on the left side of the inequality, we further propose LV consists of the sum of two variables:
LV = PV + SV
Plugging that equivalence into our original inequality suggests a ludic loop will arise and endure when:
PV + SV > AV + PC
Finally, we propose that SV and PC are inversely related. The more salient the looping behavior for the user, the less likely the user is to perceive the cost of remaining in a loop involving that behavior. Users will instead tend to discount the cost of staying in a ludic loop as salience increases. This relationship might be thought of as reflecting degrees of impulsivity displayed by the user.
To summarize, according to our proposed model, a ludic loop will form and endure when the self-regulating (PV) and attention-holding (SV) attributes of the loop together exceed the value of the “goal,” if any, of the underlying behavior (AV) and the perceived costs (PC) of staying in the loop. The greater the difference between the left and right sides of the formula, the more or less likely it is that a ludic loop will form and endure. Also, because salience and perceived cost have an inverse relationship, high salience (through any combination of its primal importance to the user, its ease of access, or its engineered design) is a reasonably good predictor of the likelihood that a ludic loop will form and become problematic.
Let’s put our model to the test with a real world example. As we noted above, Dr. Dow Schüll’s description of a “ludic loop” matches the experience of a “porn binge.” Under our model, a ludic loop based around consuming internet pornography might therefore arise because PV is high (the user has a need to self-regulate) and SV is high (sexual arousal is a deep primal mechanism and internet porn is freely accessible and infinitely variable), and though AV (achieving orgasm) may also be high, PC, as it is inversely related to SV, tends to be low (or at least lower than it would be outside of the loop).
As another example, take social media consumption. Under our model, a ludic loop based around Instagram use may especially arise in teens because PV tends to be high in that population (the need to regulate the hellish angst of adolescence) and SV is usually also high (the extreme desire for social approval and knowing what’s going on), whereas AV tends to be relatively low (there’s little genuine social connection in social media interactions), as is PC (perception of cost tends to be low in teens generally).
Through this model, we might also tease out why it’s rare (albeit not impossible) for a ludic loop to arise and become problematic around, say, looking at cute cat videos. While the PV of a ludic loop involving looking at cat videos may be high (since it doesn’t depend on the content but rather the condition the user seeks to escape), the SV of cat videos is relatively low and declines over time (because cat videos tend not to be particularly variable in their content). On the other side of the equation, the AV of looking at cat videos (getting a giggle and some warm fuzzies) isn’t especially high and also declines over time, while PC can be high (“ugh, I’m such a loser looking at another cat video”).
Likewise, a ludic loop consisting of driving endlessly in circles is comparatively unlikely because even if PV is high (it’s nice to zone out and just drive) and AV is zero (there’s no destination), SV is minimal (driving the same route over and over isn’t so interesting) and, thus, PC tends to be high (fatigue and gas expense).
The model seems to fit real world examples. So, what’s its point?
First, as we said at the outset, the proposed model is our attempt to bring a little order to the topic of porn binges by sketching out variables that affect the likelihood and durability of a ludic loop generally. All too often, we’ve heard arguments about porn addiction bog down in the inherent complexities of compulsivity and sexuality. We hope this model might spur discussion about what specific factors come into play when a person struggling with porn/internet addiction disappears into yet another self-destructive binge.
Second, porn addiction skeptics often reject the “addiction model” by saying “it’s not the porn” that’s the problem, but rather an underlying mental illness or personal moral conflict in the user. Dr. Dow Schüll observed a similar strain of “lopsided” reasoning in critics of gambling addiction. “The problem,” they say, “is not in the products [players] abuse, but within the individuals” themselves.
We don’t discount the possibility that a portion of people trapped in porn addiction also suffer from other mental illnesses or feel moral conflict with their behavior. With this model, however, we resist the idea that inherent nature of porn-as-porn has “nothing to do with” why people binge on it. We propose that it is the porn that, at least in part, contributes to the existence, durability, and addictive nature of a ludic loop focused on internet porn consumption. Porn is highly salient. It taps into the sex drive, is easy to access, and features infinite variety in a way that attracts and holds attention – and, we propose, blunts a user’s immediate perception of cost – in a way that no cat video or drive around the block ever will.
Third and finally, we hope this attempt at modeling porn binges and other internet-based ludic loops might help clarify the origins of problematic pornography-related behaviors. Taking a lead from Dr. Dow Schüll, we wonder whether certain porn use behaviors become addictions not simply because of the content of internet porn, or because of the particularities of the user, but because of the interaction between the two.
To be more blunt, we wonder whether a “ludic loop” may best be thought of as a “drug of addiction” that delivers a sought-after “high” for problem porn and internet users. It may not be the only “high” those users pursue, and other problem porn users may ignore its availability altogether in favor of the euphoria of reaching orgasm. But, in our experience, for many struggling with porn addiction a primary purpose of using porn is – like Dr. Dow Schüll’s video slot players – “to climb into the screen and get lost,” only to emerge when an (unwanted) orgasm or exhaustion breaks the loop and returns them to an increasingly dismal reality.
As always, we encourage constructive feedback and polite discussion in the comments section.
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.