Shocking Null-Effects in a Shock-Threat Paradigm
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Shocking Null-Effects in a Shock-Threat Paradigm Lisa A. Scepkowski, M.A. 1 & Erick Janssen, Ph.D. 2 1 Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, Boston University, Boston, MA 2 Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Introduction

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Shocking Null-Effects in a Shock-Threat Paradigm

Lisa A. Scepkowski, M.A.1 & Erick Janssen, Ph.D.2

1Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, Boston University, Boston, MA

2Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

  • Introduction

  • While previous research has explored the role of mood and personality variables in sexual risk-taking in men (e.g., Bancroft et al., 2004), the relationship between sexual arousal and decision-making in a situation of sexual risk has received less attention.

  • Within the Dual Control Model of male sexual response (Bancroft & Janssen, 2000), individuals are thought to vary in their propensity for sexual inhibition and excitation, thus it would be predicted that men who experience more inhibition of arousal due to threats of negative consequences of sexual behavior (e.g., “getting caught,” physical pain, etc.) would be more likely to make “safer” decisions during sexual stimulation in the laboratory, or experience less arousal during threatening conditions.

  • In order to study sexual risk-taking in a laboratory setting, a shock-threat paradigm was developed as an analogue of risky sex, in which participants would have to decide whether or not to continue with visual sexual stimulation under an increasing threat of electric shock.

  • In contrast to previous research (e.g. Beck et al., 1987), in this paradigm the shock threat is real, i.e., actual shocks are delivered to participants.

Shocks were administered during Immediate threat condition between measurements: 5 & 6, 7 & 8, 8 & 9.

Shocks were administered during Delay threat condition between measurements: 6 & 7, 7 & 8, 8 & 9.

  • Methods

  • Participants and Procedures

  • 25 sexually functional men (mean age = 20.6 years, range = 18-28; 24 heterosexual, 1 bisexual; 11 in a monogamous relationship, 3 in a nonmonogamous relationship, and 11 not in a relationship) for which physiological data were obtained were included in the present pilot study.

  • All but 4 men underwent an initial shock establishment procedure to determine optimal shock level (protocol was changed after 20 participants to a pre-set shock level of 4mA). 16 men received shocks of 4mA or above, which is painful and unpleasant, but not harmful.

  • 3 erotic films were presented under one of 3 shock threat conditions: no shock threat (No Shock), shock threat beginning at start of film (Immediate), or shock threat beginning after 1.5 minutes of film (Delay). Men were assigned randomly to one of two threat condition orders: (1) Immediate, Delay, No Shock; or (2) Delay, Immediate, No Shock.

  • Participants could terminate the shock threat during the first two films by pressing a button, at which time the erotic film would be replaced by a neutral film. Throughout the erotic films, the probability of receiving a shock was indicated on the screen. If the full films were viewed, shocks were delivered to the lower arm during the Immediate threat condition at 162s, 216s, and 269s, and during the Delayed threat condition at 198s, 234s, and 269s.

  • Self-report measures included: Sexual Inhibition/Excitation Scales (SIS/SES; Janssen et al., 2002); Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire-Harm Avoidance subscale (MPQ; Tellegen & Waller, 1985); Sexual Opinion Survey (SOS; Fisher et al., 1988).

  • Primary Expected Outcome

  • Viewing time (amount of time participants endured increasing shock threat) and sexual arousal would be inversely related to SIS2 scores on the SIS/SES, which measures inhibition proneness due to threats of sexual performance consequences.


While an effect of condition order did not reach significance in analyses, there are observable differences in the patterns of arousal as measured by base rigidity and base tumescence (similar, not shown) in men who endured the entirety of both films, and therefore received six shocks. Men appear to have showed higher maximum physical arousal during whichever condition they had first.

However, inspection of individuals’ arousal data revealed some atypical patterns, such as two men not showing a physical response in the No Shock condition despite responses during the previous two films, and self-reported arousal.

  • Conclusions

  • Termination of shock threat was negatively correlated with sexual sensation seeking and erotophilia, and positively correlated with harm avoidance, baseline positive affect (happiness), and sexual inhibition related to “getting caught,” or being observed by others during sexual activity. This latter relationship, combined with an absence of correlation with other sexual inhibition factors, suggests that sexual risk-taking in the laboratory may have been influenced more by the laboratory situation itself, rather than the experience of pain.

  • When asked for reasons why they did not terminate the shock threat, men most often cited that they did not care about the shocks, they wanted to see the erotic films, feeling sexually aroused, that they did not want to appear to be backing out, or that they felt that they were not actually supposed to.

  • In general, despite reporting that the shocks were painful, men did not seem to assess the shocks as risky, thus the absence of significant differences between arousal in the different shock threat conditions are not surprising.

    • It is possible that experiencing shocks during the shock establishment procedure minimized their assessed risk during the films.

    • Anxiety ratings were not significantly different during the films, indicating that men were largely not concerned about receiving shocks, which created a situation of minimal perceived risk.

    • It is possible that the shock probability on the screen served either as a distraction that interfered with arousal, or allowed participants to feel more in control of the risky situation, thereby reducing anxiety.

  • The possibility of order effects in which the initial film produced the most arousal suggests that the paradigm could be altered to include a No Shock erotic stimulus pre-exposure prior to the first film condition. Additionally, making the shock probability more ambiguous could elicit more anxiety.

  • Findings

  • Of twenty-five men, only 6 participants (25%) chose to terminate the films, despite reporting that the shocks were unpleasant, with many of them audibly expressing discomfort when shocked as well.

  • Of the six men who terminated shock threat:

    • All terminated both threat conditions early

    • Men who terminated the films received between 0 and 4 shocks during the films (mean = 1.8)

  • Due to the small number of participants terminating shock threat, it was not possible to analyze viewing time as a measure of risk-taking.

  • Termination of shock threat was significantly correlated with the following measures:

  • * p<.05; **p<.01

  • For men who did not terminate the films, the effects of condition order and shock threat condition on base tumescence difference scores, base rigidity, and subjective arousal were not significant.


Bancroft , J. et al. (2004). Sexual activity and risk taking in young heterosexual men: the relevance of sexual arousability, mood, and sensations seeking. Journal of Sex Research, 41, 181-192.

Bancroft , J., & Janssen, E. (2000). The dual control model of male sexual response: a theoretical approach to centrally mediated erectile dysfunction. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 24, 571-579.

Beck, J.G., Barlow, D.H., Sakheim, D.K., & Abrahamson, D.J. (1987). Shock threat and sexual arousal: the role of selective attention, thought content, and affective states. Psychophysiology, 24, 165-172.

Fisher, W.A., Byrne, D., White, I.A., & Kelley, K. (1988). Erotophobia-erotophilia as a dimension of personality. Journal of Sex Research, 25, 123-151.

Janssen, E., Vorst, H., Finn, P, & Bancroft, J. (2002). The Sexual Inhibition (SIS) and Sexual Excitation (SES) Scales: I. Measuring sexual inhibition and excitation proneness in men. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 114-126.

Tellegen, A., & Waller, N.G. (1985). Exploring personality through test construction: Development of a mulitdimensional personality questionnaire. In S.R. Briggs & J.M. Cheek (eds.), Personality measures: Development and Evaluation (Vol 1). Greenwich, CT: Jai Press.