Unless you’ve been living under a rock for that last 20 years, you likely know that the internet is full of pornography. But does exposure to porn hurt your relationships? Although there are conflicting results and plenty of questionable science on this topic (see here for an example), a new study suggests that watching porn may indeed impact certain aspects of relationship quality.1 Specifically, the researchers examined whether exposure to pornographic videos (i.e., the kind of thing you’re most likely to come across on the internet) increases people’s perception of relationship alternatives (read more about alternatives here), which negatively affects relationship quality.
In Study 1, researchers randomly assigned romantically-involved participants to recall either a scene from an action movie or a pornographic video that they had seen in the prior month, and write about that scene for 5 minutes. If participants had not seen any pornography in the prior month, they were asked to write about a sex scene from another type of video, like a TV show or movie (about half of the participants reported seeing pornography in the prior month).
After reflecting on their respective video (action or porn), participants answered questions about their relationships, including a measure of their perceived alternatives to their relationships. Those who were instructed to reflect on sexually explicit videos reported having more alternatives to their relationships than did those who reflected on action videos, independent of other factors associated with relationship quality (like satisfaction and length of the relationship). The authors suggest that seeing people in sexual situations makes others partners seem more accessible.
Although Study 1 demonstrated a causal link between reflecting on a pornographic video clip and beliefs about having viable relationship alternatives, at least in the short term, this first study doesn’t directly address whether watching pornography is associated with negative relationship outcomes outside of the lab. To address this limitation, in Study 2 a sample of nearly 300 people reported on their frequency of pornography viewing and provided information about their relationships. Again, pornography viewing was associated with perceptions of alternatives, which in turn were associated with reports of cheating in the relationship over the next three-months.
Although these results show that people who watch more porn perceive more alternatives and are more likely to actually cheat on their partners, you might be thinking, “of course…people who are ‘more sexual’ (i.e., less sexually inhibited and more sexually motivated; “sociosexuality”) may both watch more porn and cheat more!” If so, you’ve identified what researchers refer to as the “third variable problem”—that porn watching and cheating aren’t really associated with each other, but they appear to be because they are both linked to a common factor, like a personality trait in this case (e.g., sociosexuality). In this study the researchers “controlled for” individual differences in sexual inhibition and motivation in their analyses, so it’s unlikely that this personality variable accounts for the link between porn use and infidelity; however, there are possibly other factors that could account for their results (i.e., some other 3rd variable that went unmeasured).
In short, these data suggest that watching pornography can lead to increased perceptions of alternatives to relationships, and perceptions of alternatives and increased cheating are associated with one another. Of course, one study on this topic doesn’t end the debate, but the researchers present an interesting argument for how perceptions of alternatives are a possible pathway by which porn could hurt the long-term success of relationships.
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1Gwinn, A. M., Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., & Maner, J. K. (2013). Pornography, relationship alternatives, and intimate extradyadic behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 699-704.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.