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International Academy of Sex Research Presentations

Attention and emotional responses to sexual stimuli and their relationship to sexual desire

Prause, N. 1,2, Janssen, E. 1,2, and Hetrick, W.P. 1, 1Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University at Bloomington, Bloomington, Indiana 47405; USA; 2The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Morrison 313, Indiana University at Bloomington, Bloomington, Indiana, 47405 USA (email: nprause@indiana.edu)

Little is known about why individuals vary in their levels of sexual desire. Information processing models, like Barlow’s (1986) model of sexual functioning, suggest that individuals with higher sexual desire attend more and respond with more pleasant emotions to sexual cues than individuals with lower levels of sexual desire. In our first study, 69 participants (36 female) completed a dot detection task (Mathews & MacLeod, 2002) measuring attention capture by sexual stimuli and a startle eyeblink modulation (Vrana, Spence, & Lang, 1988) task measuring the valence of emotional response to affective stimuli. Participants with high levels of sexual desire were slower to detect targets in the dot detection task that replaced sexual pictures but did not differ in startle eyeblink responses to sexual stimuli. The results suggest that the amount of attention captured by sexual stimuli is a stronger predictor of a person’s sexual desire level than the valence of the emotional responses elicited by such stimuli. However, the direction of the attention effect was unexpected such that participants with higher sexual desire were slower to identify the dot target when it appeared in the area of the sexual stimulus.

In our second study, we explored three possible explanations for this counterintuitive finding with 91 different participants (48 female). The explanations explored include the role of the novelty of sexual stimuli, differential absorption of attention resources by sexual stimuli, and cognitive inhibition of return. The effect of stimulus novelty was assessed by questions addressing participants’ prior level of experience with erotica. The role of absorption (greater allocation of limited processing resources) was assessed by measuring the P300 amplitude component of the evoked response potentials to sexual stimuli. Finally, the role of inhibition of return was assessed by varying the stimulus display time in the dot detection task. The startle eyeblink modulation task also was repeated as a replication test. Results suggest that the effects of stimulus novelty and stimulus absorption may explain why individuals with lower sexual desire attend more to sexual stimuli. The valence of emotional responses in the startle eyeblink modulation was not predictive of sexual desire levels.

These studies suggest that alternative conceptualizations of the dot detection task are appropriate. If replicated, these findings eventually may have implications for the development of theoretically-grounded clinical treatments designed to alter sexual desire levels. Additional research currently underway is addressing the role of sustained attention to sexual stimuli for sexual desire levels.


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