The Frontal Cortex

David Brooks makes a good point:

A little while ago, a national study authorized by Congress found that abstinence education programs don’t work. That gave liberals a chance to feel superior because it turns out that preaching traditional morality to students doesn’t change behavior.

But in this realm, nobody has the right to feel smug. American schools are awash in moral instruction — on sex, multiculturalism, environmental awareness and so on — and basically none of it works. Sex ed doesn’t change behavior. Birth control education doesn’t produce measurable results. The fact is, schools are ineffectual when it comes to values education. You can put an adult in front of a classroom or an assembly, and that adult can emit words, but don’t expect much impact.

That’s because all this is based on a false model of human nature. It’s based on the idea that human beings are primarily deciders. If you pour them full of moral maxims, they will be more likely to decide properly when temptation arises. If you pour them full of information about the consequences of risky behavior, they will decide to exercise prudence and forswear unwise decisions.

That’s the way we’d like to think we are, but that’s not the way we really are, and it’s certainly not the way teenagers are.

I think Brooks is right to point out the pitiful limitations of sex ed, at least when that education consists of abstract lessons in the classroom. Look, for example, at this R-rated experiment, by the behavioral economist Dan Ariely and neuroeconomist George Loewenstein. They began by asking twenty-five male undergraduates at UC-Berkeley a series of provocative sexual questions. The first set of questions concerned their sexual preferences. Could they imagine having sex with a 60 year old woman? What about getting sexually excited by contact with an animal? Did they like getting tied up during sex? The next set of questions dealt with sexual morality. Would the male students slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with them? Would they keep trying to have sex after their date said “no”? The final set of questions was about safe sex. Would the men insist on using a condom? Is it safe to have unprotected sex if you “pull out” before ejaculation?

Each male student answered these naughty hypotheticals in two different states of mind. In the first condition, the subjects were told to answer the questions without being aroused. They were supposed to contemplate sex in an un-sexual state of mind. In the second condition, the subjects were shown pornography while answering the questions. (They were alone in their dorm room for this part of the experiment.) When asked in advance, the men didn’t think that being aroused would significantly alter their answers. They assumed that their sexual preferences were relatively immune to such temporary emotional biases.

The men were completely wrong. Their desire to engage in peculiar sexual acts – like being tied up, or getting spanked while having sex – nearly doubled when they were aroused. Their morality was even more malleable: they were three times more likely to commit a sex crime⎯such as using a date-rape drug⎯when staring at pornographic images. And, of course, being aroused also made them much less likely to use condoms. Although the undergraduates could all recite the benefits of sexual protection, this rational knowledge was irrelevant when they actually had an erection. The charge of arousal was simply too powerful: they could no longer resist doing the wrong thing, even though they knew it was wrong. As Ariely and Loewenstein drolly concluded: “Efforts at self-control that involve raw willpower are likely to be ineffective in the face of the dramatic cognitive and motivational changes caused by arousal.”

Unfortunately, I have no idea how, exactly, you go about teaching men how to deal with their arousal. One hopes that awareness of the condition – knowing that erections make us irrational – might lead us to make better decisions, but that’s awfully optimistic. Natural selection had spent a lot of time making sure that sexual arousal is motivating.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark P
    June 22, 2007

    And then, of course, there is the question of the correlation between what they say and what they might actually do.

  2. #2 natural cynic
    June 22, 2007

    Then why is sex ed apparently more successful in Europe than America? [based on condom use, STD, adolescent pregnancy etc]

  3. #3 Gork
    June 22, 2007

    Teenagers will work in dangerous jobs and use dangerous practices, even while schools teach them about safety. Students can learn all the rote learning from drivers education, but when they get the junior license, we cannot expect them to drive safely.

    The disparity between what teachers and parents think they’re teaching kids and what the kids are actually learning is glaringly obvious and is huge, yet somehow most people never notice it.

    All of the ‘education’ — by teachers or parents — is done without checking to see what kids actually learn, only whether they seem to have learned what was intended. The unintended lessons have unintended consequences that leave the grownups mystified. Of course they’re mystified — they have no idea what’s going on, and are resistant to learning.

    It was in 1963 that Stanley Milgram published his results that should have alarmed the nation that something was very seriously wrong. American children were being brought up to be good little Germans. Have we grown worse since then? Yes, lots worse.

  4. #4 MarkH
    June 22, 2007

    Of course sex ed isn’t going to be 100% effective, and even when they learn the lessons people will still make bad decisions. That doesn’t mean it had zero impact though.

    You need to show me data that sex education based on information about contraception and safe-sex practices doesn’t work before I buy this essay.

    The contrary evidence is quite strong. One only needs to look at the change in sexual practices with sex ed during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 80s to early 90s. Sexual practices changed greatly based on education about barrier techniques. Yes, not everybody behaves perfectly, that can’t possibly be the expectation of education. But over the last 30 or 40 years with a more realistic sex education program teen pregnancy rates have reached decadal lows, kids are using contraception, STD transmission and HIV transmission have decreased – all while sexual behavior has been similar or increased.

    That’s progress. Shitting on real sex ed as comparable to abstinence – or education as fundamentally ineffective is ludicrous. You can do better.

  5. #5 RP
    June 22, 2007

    Blimey–slow down there, mate. For starters, you’ve confused what the lads said they’d be likely to do with what they’d actually do (you say, “they were three times more likely to commit a sex crime”). What they’d _actually do_ would involve the presence of another human being and other factors not replicated in the kind of solo masturbatory fantasizing they did for the experiment. (You left that part out–that they were asked to toss off while answering the questions.)

    More disconcertingly, you’ve taken one suggestive study of 35 (not 25) wankers…er, subjects, and come to the apparent conclusion that sex ed, and by implication, much moral instruction, is more or less useless in conditions of arousal. That sort of jolly two-step from Brooksian truism to small, possibly relevant experiment to “case closed” can give pop science talk a bad rep.

  6. #6 Daniel
    June 22, 2007

    mmmmmmmmmmmm
    Sex.
    Very interesting!

  7. #7 Jonah
    June 22, 2007

    OK, maybe you guys had really effective sex ed classes. My experience in a big city public school system was that sex ed consisted of a few sessions in which everyone tried to suppress their giggles as the nurse got the condom stuck on the banana. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn about the importance of safe sex. It just means that I didn’t learn about the importance of safe sex in sex ed. (A few episodes of “Beverly Hills 90210″ were much more influential, if memory serves.) My worry is that people think a few educational classes is somehow enough, that if we only give kids the information (about abstinence or birth control) that they’ll make the responsible decisions. I think the virtue of this experiment, and it’s just a funny little experiment, is that it demonstrates the ways in which “hot” emotional states can seriously warp out judgment.

    My own hunch is that giving condoms out in high school and subsidizing the pill (as in Europe) would do far more than a few sex ed sessions in the classroom. As for the benefits of “moral education”? This blog was prompted by the recent study commissioned by congress on abstinence only education. Simply put, it was worthless. The study found that students who received abstinence instruction on a daily basis were just as likely to have sex as students who got no “sex-ed” at all. They also became sexually active at the same age (14.9 years on average) and had the same number of sexual partners.

  8. #8 Todd
    June 22, 2007

    I don’t buy all of this essay, but I do buy into the point that the education part may not be hitting on the most effective motivator for certain behaviors.

    A while back I had to go to a traffic speeding class after getting a speeding ticket. Taking the class was a way to avoid paying the fine, and I thought maybe I’d learn something as well.

    The entire class focused on the practical consequences of speeding (more accidents, you will only arrive xx seconds earlier, etc). Well, I knew all of that already! What the class didn’t address were the emotional reasons for speeding, which I believe are vastly more responsible for why people speed.

    I think the same idea is at work here with the topic of sex ed. We ask people to make rational decisions at times then the rational part of their brain is taking a back seat to what is going on at the moment.

    I think sex ed helps young people know what the options are, but I also thing there should be some education regarding how to make rational decisions while in an (arguably) irrational state.

    Also, the bit about European sex ed apparently being more successful than American I think may have to do as much with attitudes and opennes about sex as sex ed itself.

    I don’t really have anything other than my own experience to base these thoughts on, so take them for what they’re worth :-)

  9. #9 MattXIV
    June 22, 2007

    natural cynic,

    If there is a difference, it may be related to the fact that sex ed in the US is often taught alongside sub-ONDCP level anti-drug propaganda. After being told that marijuana is so addictive you’ll lose interest in sex (actual “fact” from my 8th grade health class, and this is in a liberal, wealthy school district with a safe-sex sex ed approach), it’s hard to take any subsequent information proffered seriously.

    MarkH,

    I believe what Brooks is talking about this study in which federally supported abstinence-only sex ed reduced neither condom use nor refraining from sex compared to typical sex ed including contraceptive use or existing programs without contraception use (or at least that’s the gloss I get from what others have written and my skimming it – I don’t care enough about this issue to read it in depth).

  10. #10 ThePolynomial
    June 22, 2007

    “My own hunch is that giving condoms out in high school and subsidizing the pill (as in Europe) would do far more than a few sex ed sessions in the classroom.”

    While I agree that easier access to contraceptives would be great, I think making the lessons more comprehensive could be even more of an improvement. I was pretty blown away by Atul Gawande’s NYTimes editorial last month, where he notes:

    “Fact three is that our biggest problem is not using contraception properly: 92 percent of abortions occur in women who said they used birth control. Six in 10 used contraception the month they got pregnant.

    “…Oral contraceptive pills, for example, are nearly 100 percent effective when used consistently. But in the real world, they fail 8 percent of the time � that is, 8 in 100 women on the pill get pregnant in a year. The lower dose hormone formulations used nowadays have fewer side effects, but missing a dose by even six hours puts a woman at serious risk. (One should add condoms for that whole month, experts say.) Miss two days and one is effectively not on birth control at all.”

    Perhaps given these stats, one way we can make an improvement is to teach that making the gesture of contraception isn’t enough. Clearly there’s room for improvement there among people who DO use contraceptives.

  11. #11 Jake
    June 23, 2007

    The men were completely wrong. Their desire to engage in peculiar sexual acts – like being tied up, or getting spanked while having sex – nearly doubled when they were aroused. Their morality was even more malleable: they were three times more likely to commit a sex crime⎯such as using a date-rape drug⎯when staring at pornographic images.

    This study shows the effects of pornography. It is ridiculous to generalize these results to the effects of arousal, especially because pornography has already been shown to have similar effects.
    Take a look at the studies that One Angry Girl has compiled here (scroll down for links to information on studies).

    Why did the scientists choose to use pornography? They could have just asked the subjects to masturbate…

  12. #12 Chris
    June 23, 2007

    Jonah, but sex ed is effective! There are literally dozens of studies, in dozens of countries, looking at who knows how many different populations, showing that the right sorts of sex education reduce risky sexual behavior, age of earliest intercourse, and the attitudes that are associated with risky sexual behavior among adolescents.

    The problem with applying the Ariely and Loewenstein study to sex ed… well, there are too many to list. For one, answering hypothetical questions is quite different from actually slipping a micky into a woman’s drink (and seriously, getting tied up isn’t that peculiar). Then there’s the fact that when sex is consensual, there’s, you know, an interpersonal dynamic, and a partner involved. That’s not to say that in heterosexual relationships, women are any more rational when sexually aroused, but the different dynamics make generalizations from the A&L study difficult.

    If we were looking at actual human nature, rather than human nature as it exists in David Brooks’ head, we’d understand that, as study after study has shown, certain attitudes are strongly associated with risky sexual behavior, number of partners, early sex, etc., in adolescents, and sex education can and, when research-based, does have an impact on those attitudes.

  13. #13 brook
    June 23, 2007

    Was it Robin Williams who said the following?

    “God in his infinite wisdom gave men both brains and penises. Unfortunately he only gave them enough blood to run one at a time.”

    My 16yo acknowledged this dilemma as we were discussing sex/birth control etc. He had all the facts down but ended by saying “I know that if I’m not willing to die for her (in terms of STD’s ) or spend the rest of my life dealing with her (unintended pregnancy) I shouldn’t be sleeping with her. But I think that will be really hard to remember when the hormones are raging.”

  14. #14 Mike C.
    June 24, 2007

    You’re correct. There is no real evidence that advocating birth control seems to have much of a positive effect either. While liberals routinely blast abstinence programs whenever data indicates a lack of effectiveness, they just ignore data that indicates the same when it comes to contraceptive-based education.

    I wonder if anyone has explored the racial angle to this. Do we see any evidence for differences in the effectiveness of various approaches between whites, blacks, and Hispanics? If it hasn’t been investigated, perhaps it should be. A substantial percentage of our teenage pregnancy problem lies with ethnic minorities. I’m also curious as to whether or not there is much difference in teenage pregnancy rates between white Americans and white Europeans.

  15. #15 Mike C.
    June 24, 2007

    The contrary evidence is quite strong. One only needs to look at the change in sexual practices with sex ed during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 80s to early 90s. Sexual practices changed greatly based on education about barrier techniques. Yes, not everybody behaves perfectly, that can’t possibly be the expectation of education. But over the last 30 or 40 years with a more realistic sex education program teen pregnancy rates have reached decadal lows, kids are using contraception, STD transmission and HIV transmission have decreased – all while sexual behavior has been similar or increased.

    That’s progress.

    AIDS is, and remains, a disease largely restricted to those engaging in homosexual behavior and intravenous drug use and the few people stupid enough to sleep with IV drug users. That is the way it’s always been in this country.

    By the way, teenage pregnancy rates will likely be surging up in decades ahead. Hispanics are a rapidly growing demographic and their teenage pregnancy rates are enormous.

  16. #16 Albion Tourgee
    June 24, 2007

    Remarkable how this thread has devolved into racist and homophobic drivel. As some of the commenters above pointed out, Brooks and Jonah overgeneralize very greatly from a questionable experiment. Then, the comments switch, not only accepting the original overgeneralization but asserting AIDS is correlated with being gay and urging racial studies and other stuff that sounds “scientific” to them but reflects their personal biases. Do the commenters really want to do a bunch of race-based studies to see if we should be basing societal decision more on race? Hopefully, not. In a society with a racist past, of course there will be measurable racial differences, but that doesn’t mean it’s scientific to focus on things that perpetuate these differences. Likewise, with the porno study, showing students sexually provoking images is going to affect how they answer sexual questions, but doesn’t prove much more. And, what kind of porno were they shown? Did the experimenters show the students really perverted stuff, giving them a message about what’s expected in the answers, or giving them a message that the answers were supposed to reflect fantasy rather than reality? Before generalizing based on race and porno-based experiments, one should think pretty carefully about what one is doing!

  17. #17 Mike C.
    June 24, 2007

    Remarkable how this thread has devolved into racist and homophobic drivel.

    Remarkable how supposedly scientific-minded people resort to name-calling when they don’t have an argument.

  18. #18 tinisoli
    June 25, 2007

    MikeC,
    Despite the accuracy about the two major at-risk groups for HIV (in the U.S., that is), your comment is callous. Not everyone who sleeps with an IV drug user is aware of their partner’s habits. (Some people tend to keep things like heroin use a secret.) To suggest that anyone who gets HIV from an IV drug user is “stupid” is pretty harsh. Your point about at-risk groups in the U.S. is also irrelevant to the situation in other parts of the world. In Sub-Saharan countries such as Swaziland and Botswana, where a quarter or a third of adults are infected, gay sex and IV drug use are not major risk factors.

  19. #19 Elizabeth, MD, PhD
    June 26, 2007

    In olden days, the onset of sexual experiences was delayed in many USA adolescents, though there were always early engagers.

    Intercourse was probably delayed for all variety of reasons which no longer exists, not the least being the fear of pregnancy, a consequence of less concern today.

    At that time, sex education was birds and bees with little romance suggested. What may to be the biggest factor in the lowering of age of first sexual experiences is NOT THE FAILURE OF EDUCATON BUT THE SUCCESS OF ENTERTAINMENT AND FASHION MEDIA IN SEXUALIZING YOUNG TEENS who are even less able to consider consequences than the older adolescents.

    In olden days, one could not imagine the young characters of films played by young actors and actresses (Andy Rooney/Hardy, Judy Garland/ Dorothy, Elizabeth Taylor / National Velvet) as being sexually active in the roles they protray.
    In SPENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961), even Warren Beatty (playing a high school football star tho 25 years old) does not have sex with Natalie Wood; things do not turn out well for either of them. Such a movie would not be made today. Sexual activity has been aged downward to real age young teens. Nonetheless, the message often given in today’s films is somewhat the same… have sex, but things will not turn out well either.

    {{{At one time, the back seat of a car was the hot spot. Now the most common place for teens (often not yet old enough to drive a car) to have sex is in their own bedrooms. My generation could not imagine that, especially as siblings shared that bedroom, but the babysitting couch was also popular. Of course, few teens babysit today… perhaps they do not know what they missing!?}}}

  20. #20 lieben
    March 5, 2009

    Interessante Informationen.

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