also drawing upon EF skills. A recent study (Pronk et al., 2011) that investigated men and women who are in committed relationships demonstrated that those individuals who have strong EF skills flirt less with attractive strangers than partners who have poor EF skills.
Strength of EF skills is a trait that varies from person to person just as height, weight, and intelligence do. People at the high end of the continuum are able to maintain attention, shift tasks, and exercise restraint over appetitive drives relatively effortlessly. Most people find these tasks challenging, and at times, they may experience great internal struggles as they attempt to control their attention and behavior. People who have extremely poor EF skills may suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The strength of our EF skills greatly affects our success in work and life. In a famous experiment conducted in 1972 (Mischel), four year-old children were given a choice: they could eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 20 minutes and receive two marshmallows. (The ability to delay gratification draws heavily upon EF skills.) Children who participated in the study were followed for many years. As high school students, the children who had waited 20 minutes so they could receive two marshmallows scored significantly higher on their SATs and exhibited better psychological adjustment than the children who had not waited. As young adults, those who had delayed gratification were less likely to use drugs. More recent research (reviewed in Gross, 2007) indicates that EF plays an important role in our ability to regulate emotions. Individuals who have a strong ability to control their attention experience less negative emotion.
Many sex addicts are reckless, impulsive, beset with negative emotions, and unable to control their sexual behavior. So, do sex addicts have poor executive functioning? Only two studies have directly investigated this question (Reid et al., 2011; Reid et al., 2010), and they produced mixed results. Perhaps future research will show that sex addicts (as a group) have poor executive functioning, and maybe it won't. Regardless, we know that people vary in the strength of their executive functioning skills, and that includes sex addicts. Sex addicts who have strong executive functioning skills have a great advantage as they attempt to rein in their behavior. Sex addicts who have poor executive functioning skills have to work harder than others to gain control over their sexual behavior -- just as they have to work harder to pay attention and succeed at work and in school. The good news is that mental health professionals have a lot of tools to help people who have poor executive functioning skills, and some researchers believe such individuals can build their executive functioning ability through hard work the same way we can become physically stronger by exercising.