PhD Oral Exam - Julie Shilhan, Psychology
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
Historically, research concerning human sexual response and sexual excitement has focused largely on examining subjective arousal or the physiological end points of arousal (e.g., erection or genital vasocongestion: Brotto & Gorzalka, 2002; Laan, van Driel, & van Lunsen, 2008; Laan, van Lunsen, & Everaerd, 2001). However, some researchers have begun to delineate the cognitive mechanisms implicated in human sexual response, and how these mechanisms are influenced by individual differences (Spiering & Everaerd, 2007; Spiering, Everaerd, & Laan, 2004). Accordingly, the studies presented within this dissertation were designed to further elucidate the cognitive contributions of attention and stimulus evaluation on the processing of Visual Sexual Stimuli (VSS), while also expanding the availability of VSS by creating an erotic image database. The modified Stroop paradigm (both word and pictorial) was used to examine attentional responses to VSS. Findings from these studies highlight the importance of attentional factors in the assessment of VSS, and how these factors are influenced by participants’ gender and self-reported sexual desire. Further, results from the pictorial Stroop study suggest that men’s and women’s attentional systems may have adapted to be attuned differently in the processing of VSS. Heterosexual males automatic and controlled attentional biases were category specific (i.e., consistent with their sexual preference), whereas women’s were nonspecific. The general lack of adequately validated modern VSS led to the development of the Concordia Sexual Image Dataset (CSID), a comprehensive database of erotic images that includes heterosexual, lesbian and homosexual content, with norms for valence and arousal by male and female heterosexual participants. These ratings revealed that the evaluation of erotic content was strongly influenced by the gender of the evaluator. Heterosexual men’s response patterns for ratings were fairly consistent across content categories, while women displayed substantial variability in their ratings within and between content categories. These findings suggest that researchers should take into account both the content and the emotional impact of the image when selecting relevant VSS. Collectively, the results presented in this thesis have implications for the objective measurement of sexual response, the conceptualization of cognitive mechanisms implicated in the processing of VSS, and for the identification of cognitive factors associated with individual differences in sexual functioning.