Hot and Bothered
Classical Conditioning of Sexual Incentives in Humans
Cross-cultural and individual variation in erotic taste indicate that what we find sexually attractive depends on experience. Partner and other environmental cues can acquire sexually arousing (or inhibiting) properties through a variety of different types of learning processes, including imprinting, mere exposure, social learning, verbal relational learning, and operant conditioning. Most laboratory research on sexual learning, however, has employed classical conditioning procedures. Numerous studies demonstrate the impact of such conditioning on a wide range of sexual behaviors in non-humans, yet relatively few studies have shown such effects in humans. The chapter reviews the experimental research on classical conditioning of sexual arousal in humans, highlighting newer studies that use women participants and more diverse paradigms. Individual differences in conditionability and a distinction between signal versus evaluative learning are also considered. Such research has the potential to contribute to the literature on (human) learning theory as well as to enhance learning-based therapies used to alter problematic sexual responding, for example, in the case of sexual risk taking and/or sexual compulsivity.
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