“Exotic Become Erotic” Professor Thinks He Has Scientifically Proven… Well, You Already Know

Jim Burroway

March 2nd, 2011

Which means I don’t have to tell you:

According to “Feeling the Future,” a peer-reviewed paper the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will publish this month, (Cornell Professor Daryl) Bem has found evidence supporting the existence of precognition. The experiment I’m trying, one of nine Bem cites in his study, asks me to guess which of two curtains hides a photograph. (Some of the images are erotic, some neutral, in an attempt to see if different kinds of photos have different effects.) If mere chance governed each guess, I’d be right 50 percent of the time. Naturally, I’d guess correctly more like 100 percent of the time if you showed me where the photo was before I chose.

But what about if you showed me the photo’s location immediately after I chose? Perhaps, if I had ESP, I could peek into the future and improve my guesswork, even just a little bit. Over seven years, Bem tested more than 1,000 subjects in this very room, and he believes he’s demonstrated that some mysterious force gives humans just the slightest leg up on chance.

Between 1996 and 2000, Professor Bem published a series of papers touting his “Exotic Becomes Erotic” theory of sexual development, in which he posits that:

…biological variables, such as genes, prenatal hormones, and brain neuroanatomy, do not code for sexual orientation per se but for childhood temperaments that influence a child’s preferences for sex-typical or sex-atypical activities and peers. These preferences lead children to feel different from opposite or same-sex peers–to perceive them as dissimilar, unfamiliar, and exotic. This, in turn, produces heightened nonspecific autonomic arousal that subsequently gets eroticized to that same class of dissimilar peers: Exotic becomes erotic.

In other words, Bem’s theory holds that we become attracted to those who are different from ourselves, a theory which leaves masculine gay men’s attractions to effeminate twinks but not to women (or twinks to each other or bears to each other or jocks to each other or lipstick lesbians to each other, etc.) unexplained. Nevertheless, this developmental theory which downplays the possibility of biological forces in favor of peer relationships as a cause for homosexuality — and for which there is precious little clinical evidence for support — found favor with NARTH’s own sociallyconstructive viewpoints.

On January 27, Bem appeared on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report to discuss his latest paper on ESP. While amusing on cable television, his paper has generated considerable consternation among psychologists:

Responses to Bem’s paper by the scientific community have ranged from arch disdain to frothing rejection. And in a rebuttal—which, uncommonly, is being published in the same issue of JPSP as Bem’s article—another scientist suggests that not only is this study seriously flawed, but it also foregrounds a crisis in psychology itself.

…To science-writing eminence Douglas Hofstadter, the publication of work like Bem’s has the potential to unleash, and legitimize, other “crackpot ideas.” In the New York Times, the University of Oregon’s Ray Hyman used the words “an embarrassment for the entire field.” Some critics protest that the article can’t explain what mechanism might be behind precognition. (“We almost always have the phenomenon before we have the explanation,” Bem says.) Others just scoff: Why limit yourself to one kind of pseudoscience? As York University’s James Alcock points out in Skeptical Inquirer, that 53 percent might as well be proof of the power of prayer.

“It shouldn’t be difficult to do one proper experiment and not nine crappy experiments,” the University of Amsterdam’s Eric-Jan Wagenmakers tells me. He’s the co-author of the rebuttal that accompanies Bem’s article in JPSP. Wagen­makers uses Bayesian analysis—a statistical method meant to enforce the notion that extraordinary claims require extra­ordinary evidence—to argue that Bem’s results are indistinguishable from chance. In essence, he explains, 53 percent of a bunch of Cornell sophomores, in unmonitored experiments conducted by a pro-PSI professor, shouldn’t really move the needle, considering how deeply unlikely the existence of precognition actually is. The paper, says Wagenmakers, never should have made it through peer review, and the fact that it did is representative of a larger crisis in the field: The methods and statistics used in psychology, he writes, are “too weak, too malleable, and offer far too many opportunities for researchers to befuddle themselves and their peers.”

But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?

Priya Lynn

March 2nd, 2011

If there was any truth to the “exotic becomes erotic” theory then everyone should be most attracted to people outside of their race – that isn’t the case.

David Malcolm

March 2nd, 2011

You know… just before I read the article I knew it was gonna be about something stupid!

Btw, the gay male penchant for obsessing over twinks… only proves that gay men are self destructive ;)

Timothy Kincaid

March 2nd, 2011

Oh good heavens. You know, between finding mysterious secret codes in the Bible (Satinover), endorsing ridicule of children (Berger), Moony mass weddings (Cohen), blatant racism (Schoenewolf), and now ESP (Bem), it’s no wonder that the mental health professional community thinks that the ex-gay crew are raving loons.


March 2nd, 2011


As far as I know, Daryl Bem is not a proponent of ex-gay therapy. In fact, articles like this one (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_4644918) suggest the opposite. Judith Stacey’s empirical and theoretical work on same-sex parenting has been used by right-wing groups to promote their own points of view, but that doesn’t make her a right-winger. Nor does it make her work wrong.

Timothy Kincaid

March 2nd, 2011


Thanks for clarifying.

Bem’s theory on the “exotic becomes erotic” was at one time a favorite among some who searched desperately for just any believable theory of non-biological etiology for homosexuality.

I really don’t know if it holds any value or truth, but I always thought it was a stretch. Now my opinion of Bem has dropped even further.


March 2nd, 2011

Jim (and Priya),

No, that presentation of Bem’s theory is an oversimplification. The social sciences (and Daryl Bem) are well aware that the dominant human tendency in matters of sexuality and otherwise is homogamy – sameness. At least in Western societies, the dominant pattern is for people to find those like them and who they spend time with more attractive, to date them (or whatever the kids are doing these days), and to partner with them. So what needs to be explained, actually, is why heterosexuality (a form of heterogamy) is the dominant pattern when we look at gender. Bem’s proposition is more specifically that exotic – but not too exotic – becomes erotic.

Bem’s EBE theory is one of the few that coherently brings together factors from biology, psychology, and sociology to try to explain the variations we observe in human sexual desires (and is not his only influential theory). Most academics who at least partially subscribe to a socially constructed viewpoint on sexuality use Bem as at least one starting point for understanding sexuality. He isn’t a NARTH guy and to imply such is the case is irresponsible reporting. Bem’s theory definitely has some weak points and I think fails to explain some particular sexual variants. But that’s how theory is built and developed – someone puts out some ideas that have some empirical support and other people test that set of ideas against further empirical evidence and suggest revisions to the theory. Eventually Bem’s theory might be proved totally wrong and/or replaced with a better theory and/or shown to only have explanatory power given a particular scope. But to date nobody has offered anything clearly better.

Maurice Lacunza

March 3rd, 2011

“…that subsequently gets eroticized…”

Many Christian authors have posited that boys become gay when they are eroticized by any wacky notion such as viewing your own penis when masturbating (I really read a book that made that claim.)

So tell me: what is this process of eroticization? There would be the potential for some real science; if you could define it. Instead, they sling the term around but never actually attempt to define it.

This study is another whack job. Do any of you need to know why you are gay? I don’t need to know why I am gay. So why the big search? What benefits will come from this research?

First, any of you out there care to tell me how you were eroticized from heter to homo? The article implies that the base line is hetero. The reason for the research is the implication that if eroticization can go from hetero to homo, then it stands to reason that we can manipulate the process or control the variables to that we can go to the other extreme: changing homo to hetero.

If this isn’t another poorly veiled Christian junk-science psuedo paper, then it is an example of over-exuberance from an under-achieving psychologist that shouldn’t be publishing. It smells of NARTH.

Maurice Lacunza

March 3rd, 2011

At Muscot:

This is a serious question as I see that you actually give some intelligent thought to the matter. So, why do we need to have theories about gayness?

I am content with myself and can’t see any benefit to understanding hetersexuality any more than homosexuality. What benefits are there to these studies?

Thanks for responding.

Priya Lynn

March 3rd, 2011

Muscat said “Bem’s proposition is more specifically that exotic – but not too exotic – becomes erotic”.

This person’s exoticness was too much, that person’s exoticness was too little, but the third person’s exoticness was just right.

Timothy Kincaid

March 4th, 2011

Many Christian authors have posited that boys become gay when they are eroticized by any wacky notion such as viewing your own penis when masturbating (I really read a book that made that claim.)

Well then the solution is obvious. The church should issue porn to pubescent boys. :P

Timothy Kincaid

March 4th, 2011

This person’s exoticness was too much, that person’s exoticness was too little, but the third person’s exoticness was just right.

Which is why that kid with the golden locks fell for the young bear.

Maurice Lacunza

March 4th, 2011

I assume, Timothy, that you are referring to hetero porn; maka da boys lika da girls…aight?

Ewww! Its a gonna be a sumpthin good!

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