Skip to main content

Viewing Pornography Increases Unethical Behavior, According to New Research

It's possible that watching people perform sex acts can lead us to dehumanize others.
porn laptop bed

Two quick questions, both potentially embarrassing: Have you watched any porn today? And, aside from indulging in that naughty pleasure, have you done anything unethical?

New research suggests that an affirmative answer to the first question makes it more likely you also answered yes to the second.

Researchers from Brigham Young University offer evidence that the more porn a person is exposed to, the more likely he or she is to act in an unscrupulous manner. This finding appears to reflect that viewing such material leads the viewer to dehumanize others, which presumably makes it easier to cheat or steal from them.

Viewing porn can lead to "increased moral disengagement," conclude researchers Nathan Mecham, Melissa Lewis-Western, and David Wood. Their study is published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The researchers describe two experiments, the first of which featured 1,083 adult participants—a representative sample of the United States population. They read a scenario in which they purchased an expensive chair from a local store, but damaged it "through [their] own misuse" while transporting it home. Using a one-to-five scale, participants indicated how likely they were to lie to the store owner and claim the issue had been "a defect in manufacturing" so they could get their money back.

The subjects then indicated how often they viewed pornographic material, including videos, magazines, and websites. Participants responded on a five-point scale from "never" to "very frequently." The researchers report that the more people reported watching porn, the more likely they were to lie about the chair.

Why would this be? The researchers addressed that question in a second experiment, which featured 199 adults recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Participants "performed a memory task, which asked them to recall two events and describe them in detail."

Every subject began by describing their most recent birthday. Half of the group then wrote about the last time they'd seriously exercised. The other half described the last time they'd viewed pornography, "including the medium viewed, content, and the length of time."

Next, all were shown a deliberately boring 10-minute movie clip, which consisted of "a blue background with a monotonous voice speaking." After describing their reactions to the video (and indicating whether they had watched it all the way through), they filled out a form designed to reveal the degree to which they dehumanized others.

Using a one-to-seven scale, they were asked to "indicate the extent to which you feel people in general" are capable of feeling each of the following emotions: resentment, pleasure, shame, love, excitement, admiration, anger, and fear. "Participants who view others as less capable of having secondary emotions are classified as having greater tendencies to dehumanize others," the researchers write.

Two clear patterns emerged from the results: Those who recalled watching porn were more likely to lie about having watched the entire boring video, and they were more likely to view others as less than fully human. This remained true even when the participants' levels of religiosity were taken into account.

"We conclude that the reason pornography increases unethical behavior is that viewing it causes the viewers to dehumanize others, which in turn leads to the viewer being more willing to shirk work, and lie to get gain," the researchers write. More concretely, the results suggest that employees who view porn at the office may be more prone to "treating customers like objects," which doesn't exactly tend to increase customer satisfaction.

This research will hardly end the debate over the effects of pornography; there have been many studies of this subject, and they're often contradictory. One found that porn fans are less likely to support affirmative action in the workplace; another reported they are less misogynistic than the average American male.

Given the enormous popularity of this content—even among Evangelical Christians—more research is needed to determine how it's affecting our society and ourselves. But these latest results suggest that, if you find yourself tempted to engage in morally questionable behavior, it might have something to do with your earlier viewing habits.

Those ethical gray areas may seem more inviting if you've spent a few minutes watching Sasha Grey.