Just Say No, And Be Sure To Mean It

A man and a woman have been out on a date and things have been going well. After a time, the pair leave the resturant they were at and arrive back at the women’s car. The man leans in close to the woman’s ear and says, “I want to kiss you now. Is that OK?”. The woman agrees and the pair lock lips. After the kiss, the woman, eyeing the man seductively, says, “I want you to get into my car now. Is that OK?”. The man says yes and the two get inside the car together. In the backseat, the man looks at the woman and says,”I want to kiss you again. Is that OK?”. She says yes, and the pair begins to kiss. After a time, the man stops and tells the woman, “I just want to make sure you’re still OK with the kissing; it’s been a while since I asked”. She says she is and they continue on. Eventually, the woman asks if the man would be OK with taking off his shirt, which is confirms that he is, and things continues on like this for some time: each party continuously stops to check and make sure the other party has explicitly consented to each act before it happens and that they are still OK with it going on while the act is taking place. All in all, I’d say this makes for a pretty arousing story.

  Am I right, Ladies?

OK; so maybe I exaggerated a little about the arousing part. In fact,the idea that every step of the courtship process should be made explicit strikes many people as precisely the opposite, if not funny, as demonstrated in this short video. Though I have no data on the subject handy, I would imagine that many people would find a partner continuously asking for explicit verbal consent before and/or during each act to be a mixture of off-putting and annoying. You’d probably get the sense that you were dealing with a rather insecure lover after the fifth or tenth, “Are you OK with this? Are you sure?”. What this is all getting at is the following point: a lot of communication that takes place between people is often nonverbal, implicit, veiled, or, in some cases, purposefully misleading. This is perhaps nowhere more the case than when it comes to sex. Unsurprisingly, though humans do possess a suite of cognitive adaptations for interpreting these indirect forms of communication correctly, mistakes are often made. If these mistakes could be better avoided by making communication more honest are direct, we’re left with the matter of why people beat around the bush or don’t say what they actually mean, with some frequency.

In examining the issue, let’s first consider some data about consent to sex. A 1988 paper by Muehlenhard & Hollabaugh asked a question that, I imagine, certain groups of people might find offensive: how often do women say “no” to sex when they actually mean “maybe” or “yes“? That is, how often is “no” not intended to mean “no“? The authors surveyed 610 undergraduate college women from Texas, asking them how many times they had been in the follow situation:

You were with a guy who wanted to engage in sexual intercourse and you wanted to also, but for some reason you indicated that you didn’t want to, although you had every intention to and were willing to engage in sexual intercourse. In other words, you indicated “no” when you really meant “yes”.

Similar questions were also asked about when the women had said “no” and meant “no”, or had said “no” and meant “maybe”. Of these 610 undergraduates, a full 40% reported at least one instance of saying “no” but meaning “yes” in their life, with the majority of them indicating that they had engaged in this behavior multiple times. For the sake of comparison, 85% of women reported saying “no” and meaning it at least once, and about 70% saying “no” and meaning “maybe” at least once.

The reasons for this token resistance were varied: some women who said “no” but meant “yes” reported that they did so to avoid looking promiscuous (around 23% of women rated factors like these as being important in their decision); others reported that they did so out of fear of moral condemnation for saying “yes” (around 19%); still others reported that they said “no” purposefully to arouse a man and make him more aggressive (around 23%). The authors go on to note that such token resistance might have the following side-effect: they might encourage men to ignore women’s protests when they actually do mean “no”, as distinguishing token resistance from actual resistance is not always an easy task. So while real “no’s” are certainly more common than token “no’s” or “maybe’s”, if men are primarily interested in getting sex, the costs of missing a token “no” (no sex), might outweigh the costs of pushing against real “no’s” with some frequency (some additional wasted mating effort), and the result is often unpleasant for all parties involved.

“I don’t want to stop because I might miss you, babe, and I don’t want to miss a thing

So why all this indirect, veiled, or dishonest communication? It would seem easier for all parties involved to just openly state their interest and be done with it. The problem with that suggestion, however, is that “easier” does not necessarily translate into “more useful”. As we saw from the women’s reasoning as for why they were giving these token “no’s”, there can be social costs to being direct or honest about certain desires: a woman who easily consents to sex might be seen as more likely to be promiscuous and, accordingly, treated differently by both men and other women. This point is dealt with by Steven Pinker, who discusses how indirect speech is useful for avoiding many of the social costs that might accompany communication, whether with respect to sex or other topics. There are other reasons a woman might say no, beyond what others will think of her, however. One that springs to mind regards a woman’s ability to honestly test certain qualities of her would-be mate.

For instance, we could consider one such quality: desire. Not all potential mates are equally desirable. One possible adaptive problem that women might be faced with is to determine how much their partners desire them. All else being equal, a partner who is highly desirous of a woman should make for a better mate than one who desires her less, as the former might be more willing to invest in or not abandon her. Unfortunately, desire is a difficult quality to assess directly just by looking at someone. A woman can’t just ask a man how much he desires her either, as there are incentives for men’s answers to such questions to be less than honest at times. So, to more accurately assess her partner’s level of desire, a woman could, in principle, place metaphorical roadblocks up to try make it more difficult for her partner to achieve the goal of sex he is after. When faced with an initial rejection, this forces the man to either give up (which he might do if he doesn’t desire her as much) or to redouble his efforts and demonstrate his willingness to do whatever needs to be done to achieve that goal (which he might do if he desires her more).On top of desire, such behavior might also communicate other facts about their personality honestly, like dominance, but we need not concern ourselves with that here.

Now that’s not to say that men don’t face a similar type of problem (assessing a partner’s desire); the example just serves to examine the strategic nature of why people might communicate in non-transparent, or even deceptive, ways: there are adaptive problems to be solved in a world where you can’t assume everyone is going to be non-judgmental or honest. If you want to have sex but maintain a reputation for not being thought of as promiscuous, or you want to test your partner’s desire for you, putting up token resistance might serve that goal even if the communication itself is dishonest. This, of course, isn’t good for everyone: as mentioned above, if men get the sense that “no” doesn’t always mean “no”, they might begin to make more advances where it truly isn’t welcome or being encouraged.

“So that’s a “no”, huh? I see that game you’re playing…”

In somewhat unrelated news, California seems to be taking a stance against this kind of indirect communication with the recent “yes means yes” bill. According to the news reports I’ve seen, the bill would require “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” to sex (on campuses) that is “ongoing throughout the sexual activity”, so it looks like the token resistance women are about to find themselves out of luck. The details of what affirmative consent would look like in practice seem to be scarce, outside of saying affirmative consent is both affirmative and voluntary, and could involve non-verbal signals, but must assuredly be unambiguous. Given that human communication is often an ambiguous affair where even explicit “no’s” and “yes’s” don’t necessarily translate into actual intentions and desires, the matter seems to strike me as being the same level of tricky as defining obscenity. If the people writing the bill aren’t going to be explicit about what constitutes a clear standard of consent, I don’t know how those who are expected to abide by it will. Here’s to hoping it all works out for the best anyway. Who knows? Maybe it will even spur on one of those “critical discussions” people seem to love so much and raise some awareness.

References: Muehlenhard, C. & Hollabaugh, L. (1988). Do women sometimes say no when they mean yes? The prevalence and correlates of women’s token resistance to sex. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 54, 872-879.

Some Fuss Over Sperm Competition: A Follow-Up

Back in March, I had discussed an argument put forth by Greg Cochran concerning his conclusion that sperm competition had no real impact on humans. For the sake of repetition, sperm competition is a context in which sperm from more than one male are present in a female’s reproductive tract during a period in which she might conceive; for humans, this often involves infidelity, but could also represent cases of non-committed double mating. In some sense, the sperm from different males can be thought of as different teams competing for the goal of fertilization of an egg. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it should suit us well enough for the purposes of this discussion. In any case, in March’s post, I suggested the following:

Adaptations for sperm competition might be more subtle than larger testicles, for instance. Perhaps the frequency of sex – or at least the frequency and intensity of sexual interest – correlates with infidelity cues; perhaps the number of sperm per ejaculate could be varied facultatively as a function of sperm competition risk.

Clearly, I’m not the only one with such ideas, as a recent study I came across by Pham et al (2014) put the first suggestion – that the frequency of sex might correlate with sperm competition risk – to the test.

That test wasn’t the only thing she would cheat on that day…

The paper begins by noting that the frequency of sex should contribute to a given male’s odds of winning this competition. The idea is pretty simple: more sex equals more viable sperm present in a female’s reproductive tract, and more viable sperm equals a higher probability of conception. It follows, then, that if a male perceives he is at a relatively high risk for sperm competition, we might expect his interest in engaging in sex with this partner to go up as a preemptive strike against non-paternity. The authors consider two factors which might correlate with the risk of sperm competition: a woman’s attractiveness and the number of opposite-sex friends or coworkers she has in her social circles. The former variable might play a role in that attractive women could be expected to draw proportionately more sexual attention or pursuit from males; the latter variable might matter because the larger the pool of males, the more overall interest a woman might receive. So, since more sexual interest equals more sperm competition risk, and since that risk can be mitigated by men by increasing the frequency of sex, we might expect that men should up-regulate their sexual interest in response to a perceived sperm competition risk.

To test this idea, Pham et al (2014) recruited approximately 400 men in committed relationships from a campus and community sample. These men were asked about their relationship length, their perceptions of their partner’s attractiveness, how many male friends and co-workers their partner had, and how often they had sex with their partner in the past week. Their analysis controlled for relationships length since, as almost anyone who has been in a relationship can attest to, the frequency of sex tends to decline over time. Predictable, this pattern also appeared in the results of the current study: men reported less sexual contact in the last week the longer they had been with their partner. There was also an effect of perceived partner attractiveness: the more attractive the men in the study thought their partner was, the more they report having sex in the last week as well. When it came to the risk of sperm competition – as indexed by the number of opposite sex individuals men perceived in their partner’s social circles – there was no effect on the frequency of sex. That is, whether the man reported their partners worked/were friends with few or many other men, there was no relationship to the frequency of sexual contact.

There was, however, a significant interaction between partner attractiveness and risk of sperm competition: when sperm competition risk was low, men with both high and low attractiveness partners reported the same frequency of sex in the last week: about 3 times. However, when the risk of sperm competition was high, men with attractive partners reported having sex about 4.5 times a week, whereas men with less attractive partners reported having sex about 1.5 times a week (though the absolute differences were about the same, only the former effect was significant). This would appear to be some evidence that is at least consistent with the idea that when men perceive there to be a higher risk of their partner having an affair with one or more other men (when other men are both present and interested), their interest in having sex with their partner increases.

I suppose that’s one way of cutting down on several types of cheating…

There are some limitations to the research, which the authors note. First, these reports came only from the men in the sample and it is possible that their perceived risk of sperm competition isn’t entirely accurate. Perhaps women worked/were friends with fewer (or more) men than their partner was aware of. The same could be said of the ratings of attractiveness. This is less of a problem than one might think, though, as we should expect men’s perceptions of their partner’s faithfulness – accurate or not – to predict how the men will subsequently react.

A second limitation is that no data was gathered on which member of the couple initiated the sex or was more interested in having it (though this is a tricky matter to get at). The authors note that it’s possible that women’s mating systems might be primed by receiving sexual attention, and this priming might in turn motivate them to have sex with their committed partner. In other words, the effect is driven less by male interest and more by female interest. While possible, I don’t think such a concern is necessarily warranted for two reasons: first, one could just as easily posit the opposite reaction. That is to say one might suggest that women receiving too much sexual attention might actually be disinclined from having sex, as most of the attention would likely be unwanted, priming the system towards inhibition.

The second reason is that even if sexual attention from other males did prime a woman to want to have sex, one might wonder about how such a system works. As noted above, most of this attention is likely going to be unwelcome, coming from less-than-desirable males. Accordingly, women with a cognitive system that functioned with some general-purpose goal like “increase desire for sex in the presence of attention” would likely be at an adaptive disadvantage, as it might cause women to make less-adaptive mating choices on the whole: attention from unwanted males should not necessarily influence how a woman responds to desired males. However, if such priming (provided it exists) instead directed the woman to have more sex with their in-pair partner specifically, one might again wonder as to why. There’s probably some optimal level of sexual frequency that balances trading off time spent having sex with a committed partner and time not spent doing other non-sexual things against conception probability, and using sexual attention received by other males as an input there wouldn’t seem to lead to better outcomes. However, such a mechanism could, at least in theory, function to assure her partner of his paternity, increasing his likelihood of investing in subsequent offspring. In that case, this mechanism would still owe its existence to sperm competition, albeit in a roundabout way.

“Why does it always have to be about sex with you people? Why not just self-esteem?”

It’s findings like these that suggest to me that ruling out sperm competition as having a measurable impact on people’s behaviors and physiology would be premature. Yes, the non-paternity rate in humans is relatively low (it needs to be if investment in offspring by males is a thing), and yes, mechanisms for maintaining fidelity (like jealousy) might do a better job at keeping that rate low, relative to mechanisms for sperm competition. Better to deal with the cause of the problem than treat the symptoms. However, whether the mechanism for reducing the risk of sperm competition resulting in non-paternity are physiological (larger testicles) or psychological (increased desire for sex when risk of affairs is high) in nature, they could both be categorized as serving the same function and owing their existence to the same cause. Further work is certainly needed to better interpret findings like these, but, well, that’s kind of the point; writing off sperm competition as important precludes certain, possibly-useful avenues of research.

References: Pham, M., Shackelford, T., Holden, C., Zeigler-Hill, V., Hummel, A., & Memering, S. (2014). Partner attractiveness moderates the relationship between number of sexual rivals and in-pair copulation frequency in humans. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 128, 328-331.

Is Morality All About Being Fair?

What makes humans moral beings? This is the question that leads off the abstract of a paper by Baumard et al (2013), and certainly one worth considering. However, before one can begin to answer that question, one should have a pretty good idea in mind as to what precisely they mean by the term ‘moral’. On that front, there appears to be little in the way of consensus: some have equated morality with things like empathy, altruism, impartiality, condemnation, conscience, welfare gains, or fairness. While all of these can be features of moral judgments, none of these intuitions about what morality is tends to differentiate it from the non-moral domain. For instance, mammary glands are adaptations for altruism, but not necessarily adaptations for morality; people can empathize with the plight of sick individuals without feeling that the issue is a moral one. If one wishes to have a productive discussion of what makes humans moral beings, it would seem to beneficial to begin from some solid conceptualization of what morality is and what it has evolved to do. If you don’t start from that point, there’s a good chance you’ll end up talking about a different topic than morality.

Thankfully, academia is no place for productivity.

The current paper up for examination by Baumard et al (2013) is a bit of an offender in that regard: their account explicitly mentions that a definition for the term is harm to agree upon and they use the word “moral” to mean “fair”. To understand this issue, first consider the model that the authors put forth: their account attempts to explain moral sentiments by suggesting that selection pressures might have been expected to shape people to seek out the best possible social deals they could get. In simple terms, the idea contains the following points: (1) people are generally better off cooperating than not, but (2) some individuals are better cooperative partners than others. Since (3) people only have a limited budget of time and energy to spend on these cooperative interactions and can’t cooperate with everyone, we should expect that (4) so long as people have a choice as to whom they cooperate with, people will tend to choose to spend their limited time with the most productive partners. The result is that overly-selfish or unfair individuals will not be selected as partners, resulting in selection pressures generating cognitive mechanisms concerned with fairness or altruism. Their model, in other words, centers around managing the costs and benefits from cooperative interactions. People are moral (fair) because it leads to them be preferred as an interaction partner.

Now that all sounds well and good – and I would agree with each of the points in the line of thought – but it doesn’t sound a whole lot like a discussion about what makes people moral. One way of conceptualizing the idea is to think about a simple context: shopping. If I’m in the market for, say, a new pair of shoes, I have a number of different stores I might buy my shoes from and a number of potential shoes in each store. Shopping around for a shoe that I like with the most for a reasonable price fills all the above criteria in some sense, but shoe-shopping is not itself often a moral task. That a shoe I like is priced at a range higher than I am willing to pay does not necessarily mean I will say that such pricing is wrong the way I might say stealing is wrong. Baumard et al (2013) recognize this issue, noting that a challenge is explaining why people don’t just have selfish motives, but also moral motives that lead to them to respect other people’s interests per se.

Now, again, this would be an excellent time to have some kind of working definition of what precisely morality is, because, if one doesn’t, it might seem a bit peculiar to contrast moral and selfish motivations – which the authors do – as if the two are opposite ends of some spectrum. I say that because Baumard et al (2013) go on to discuss how people who have truly moral concerns for the welfare of others might be chosen as cooperative partners more often because they’re more altruistic, building up a reputation as a good cooperator, and this is, I think, supposed to explain why we have said moral concerns. So the first problem here is that the authors are no longer explaining morality per se, but rather altrustic behaviors. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, mechanisms for altruism need not be moral mechanisms. The second problem I see is that, provided their reasoning about reputation is accurate (and I think it is), it seems perfectly plausible for non-moral mechanisms to make that judgment as well: I could simply be selfishly interested in being altruistic (that is to say, I would care about your interests out of my own interests, the same way people might not murder each other because they’re afraid of going to jail or possibly being killed in the process themselves).The authors never address that point, which bodes poorly for their preferred explanation.

“It’s a great fit if you can just look passed all the holes…”

More troublingly for the partner-choice model of morality, it doesn’t seem to explain why people punish others for acts deemed immoral. The only type of punishment it seems to account for would be, essentially, revenge, where an individual punishes another to secure their own self-interest and defend against future aggression; it might also be able to explain why someone might not wish to continue working in an unfair relationship. This would leave the model unable to explain any kind of moral condemnation from third parties (those not initially involved in the dispute). It would seem to have little to say about why, for instance, an American might care about the woes suffered by North Korean citizens under the current dictatorship. As far as I can tell, this is because the partner-choice account for morality is a conscience-centric account, and conscience does not explain condemnation; that I might wish to cooperate with ‘fair’ people doesn’t explain why I think someone should be punished for behaving unfairly towards a stranger. The model at least posits that moral condemnation ought to be proportional to the offense (i.e. an eye for an eye), seeking to restore fairness, but not only is this insight not a unique prediction, it’s also contradicted by some data on drunk driving I covered before (that is, unless a man hitting a woman while driving his car is more “unfair” than drunk woman hitting a man).

Though I don’t have time to cover every issue I see with the paper in depth (in large part owing to it’s length), the main issue I see with the account is that Baumard et al (2013) never really define what it is they mean by morality in the first place. As a result, the authors appear to just substitute “altruism”  or “fairness” for morality instead. Now if they want to explain either of those topics, they’re more than welcome to; it’s just that calling them morality instead of what they actually mean (fairness) tends to generate quite a bit of well-deserved confusion. In the interests of progress, then, let’s return to the concern I raised about the opening question. When we are asking about what makes people moral, we need to start by considering what morality is. The short answer to that question is that morality is, roughly, a perception: at a basic level, it’s the ability to perceive acts in or states of the world along a dimension of “right” or “wrong” in much the same way we might perceive sensations as painful or pleasure. This spectrum seems to range from the morally-praiseworthy at one end to the morally-condemnable at the other, with a neutral point somewhere in the middle.

Framed in this light, we can see a few, rather large problems with conflating morality with things like fairness. The first of these is that perceiving an outcome as immoral would require that one first perceives it as unfair and then as immoral, as neither the reverse ordering, or one in which both perceptions appeared simultaneously, does not makes any sense. If one can have a perception of fairness divorced from a moral perception, then, it seems that one could use that perception to do the behavioral heavy lifting when it comes to partner choice. Again, people could be selfishly fair. The second problem that becomes apparent is that we can consider whether perceptions of immorality can be generated in response to acts that do not appear to deal with fairness or altruism. As sexual and solitary behaviors (like incest or drug use) are moralized with some frequency, the fairness account seems to be lacking. In fact, there are even issues where altruistic behavior has been morally condemned by others, which is precisely the opposite of what the Baumard et al (2013) model would seem to predict.

If we reconceptualize such behaviors properly, though…

Instead of titling their paper, ”A mutualistic approach to morality”, the authors might have been better served with the title “A mutualistic approach to fairness”. Then again, this would only go so far when it comes to remedying the issue, as Baumard et al (2013) never really define what they mean by “fair” either. Since people seem to disagree on that issue with frequency, we’re still left with more than a bit of a puzzle. Is it fair that very few people in the world hold so much wealth? Would it be fair for that wealth to be taken from them and given to others? People likely have different answers to those questions.

Now the authors argue that this isn’t really that large of a problem for their account, as people might, for instance, disagree as to the truth of a matter while all holding the same concept of truth. Accordingly, Baumard et al (2013) posit that people can disagree about what is fair even if they hold the same concept of fairness. The problem with that analogy, as far as I see it, is that people don’t seem to have competing senses of the word “truth” while they do have different senses of the word “fair”: fairness based on outcome (everyone gets the same amount), based on effort (everyone gets in proportion to what they put in), based on need (those who need the most get the most), and perhaps others still. Which of these concepts people favor is likely going to be context-specific. However, I don’t know of that the same can be said of different senses of the word “true”. Are there multiple senses in which something might or might not be true? Are these senses favored contextually? Perhaps there are different senses of the word, but none come to mind as readily.

Baumard et al (2013) might also suggest that by “fair” they actually mean “mutually beneficial” (writing, “Ultimately, the mutualistic approach considers that all moral decisions should be grounded in consideration of mutual advantage”), but we’d still be left with the same basic set of problems. Bouncing interchangeably between three different terms (moral, fair, and mutually-beneficial) is likely to generate more confusion than clarity. It is better to ensure one has a clear idea of what one is trying to explain before one sets out to explain it.

References: Baumard, N., Andre, JB., & Sperber, D. (2013). A mutualistic approach to morality: The evolution of fairness by partner choice. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 36, 59-122.

 

Making Your Business My Business (Part 2)

Social little creatures that we happen to be, people are found to frequently, and often unpleasantly, involve themselves in the affairs of others. The unpleasantness seems to result from the fact that people’s involvement in these affairs is hardly ever selfless or unattached. After all, we wouldn’t tend to get involved in regulating the behaviors of others if there was no benefit to doing so. Sometimes people’s motives can be fairly transparent: for instance, that single guy who’s sexually interested in a girl will probably give her somewhat-different relationship advice than that girl’s female friends with no such interest. Now that example happens to be one where a consciously-held proximate motive happens to line up fairly-well with the ultimate reason for that motive’s existence (i.e. the man is sexually interested in the girl, and the advice he gives might have functioned to secure additional mating opportunities for himself). Other cases are less transparent, owing to people not having much conscious insight into the reasons they have certain thoughts or feelings: as another for instance, people might be interested in legislating the sexual behavior of others in order to improve the viability of their sexual strategy. However, on a conscious level all they might experience is a feeling of “that’s gross”, or “that’s not right”.

  “I hate mustard. You shouldn’t be allowed to eat it”

These less-transparent cases pose us with some rather interesting mysteries to solve, mostly because explaining why I might not wish to do something is a much different task than explaining why I might want to stop other people from doing that thing. One such mystery has recently landed at my feet, and I wanted to explore it today in order to try and figure out my own thoughts on the matter (despite the Onion recently telling me such a feat is folly). I came across this example owing to my new-found love for an online card game called Hearthstone. The game operates similar to other existing card games: you have a pool of cards from which you can select a certain number to build your deck. Every player starts out with a beginning pool of cards for free which they can then expand and improve by opening online packs or unlocking certain class-specific cards through playing that class enough. If you’re really into showing off, there are also golden versions of the cards, which function precisely as the normal ones do, but are much rarer and harder to get. They’re basically the spinning rims of the game.

Now having access to all of the cards in the game provides an additional degree of flexibility in terms of what decks you can make. Accordingly, many people would prefer to get full collections. Owing to the free-to-play setup of the game, this either takes a lot of time (spent earning in game packs through play) or a lot of money (you can also buy packs). For the most part, I have taken the former route, and during my time not spent playing, when I should be doing other things, I sometimes like to watch YouTube videos of other people playing to learn and improve (and put off meaningful work). If you’re really looking to kill some time without deluding yourself into thinking you’re spending it productively, though, there are also videos of people just opening online packs. It just so happens that one of those videos happens to be what drew my attention. In the video (which can be viewed here if you have over 2 hours to waste), a man has bought 600 of these online packs for his three-year-old son’s account which he records opening. In real money, that works out to roughly $750.

What drew my interest was not the video itself; that part is actually quite dull. Instead, I found my reaction to it rather noteworthy: when I saw the video, the first thought to cross my mind was, in essence, “This guy is an asshole for spending so much money on those packs”. This sentiment was apparently not unique to me, judging by some comments. Choice selections of them include: he’s an idiot (“Blizzard won the battle. Got this idiot to spend more than $750 for his son…“), he’s neglectful of his children (“This isn’t a good dad in any way…I’d take love and care above 600 hearthstone packs anyday“), or just an all-around bad person (“Who is this twat?”). I find my initial reaction, as well as the ones in the comments section, rather puzzling. Specifically, why do such harsh, negative reactions arise to someone spending his money on, at worst, something he likes, and, at best, a gift for his child? At first glance, it certainly doesn’t seem like this purchase is doing any harm to the world.

“Who does that bitch think she is, buying gifts for her child?!”

There are a number of candidate explanations for this apparent moral outrage we might explore. One of these explanations is that perhaps people were outraged because they thought this man was buying a competitive advantage for himself or his child. This is a common complaint leveled by gamers against ostensibly “free-to-play” games: while the game might be “free” to play, one might need to “pay-to-win”, barring an incredible investment of time and energy which very few people with real responsibilities can make. In one respect, then, buying all those packs might have been condemned for the same reason that people condemned wealthy individuals for “renting” disabled tour guides to skip the lines at busy theme parks. If the father is paying to make his child better off relative to other people, then those other people might understandably get a bit salty about their newly-found competitive disadvantage. Without going too in-depth into the mechanics of the game, however, this explanation seems to hinge on the idea that having access to all those cards provides a competitive edge one could not get without them, and there’s a good deal of evidence to suggest that the advantage of the additional cards, if it exists, might be relatively minimal in some cases. In any case, I wouldn’t rule that explanation out as part of the overall picture.

Nevertheless, I don’t think this could possibly be the whole story. I say that for a number of reasons. First, there was a story that I discussed semi-recently: the reactions another comments section had to Kim Kardashian donating 10% of her eBay auction proceeds to charity. In this case, she was not disadvantaging anyone – quite the opposite – but was still branded as a horrible person by many commenters. Second, I try to imagine whether or not people would have the same reaction to the initial father in question buying 600 packs for someone, but instead of that someone being his son, that someone was a stranger. Though I have no data to support this intuition at moment, I would predict that you’d see a marked decrease in the amount of condemnation the act would receive if it were directed towards non-kin, despite the fact that the competitive edge it provides did not change. By contrast, I think people would still condemn my buying a handicapped tour guide for someone else to skip the lines at Disney world. I also get the sense that if the father bought his child a $750 toy (or $750 worth of them) instead, people would similarly condemn his for doing so, even though toys provide no real competitive edge in any sense.

Here’s an alternative explanation, and what I think is going on here: in brief, I think the ultimate function of morality, broadly defined, is to manage association values (how valuable you are to me as an ally relative to others, all things considered). The reason acts like Kim’s or this father’s receive moral condemnation is that they evidence a very low welfare-tradeoff-ratio towards others (which is just what it sounds like; how willing I am to trade my welfare off for yours). To use a simple example, the world is full of people who need various things: let’s use food in this instance. As I acquire food, the marginal value of each additional bit of it drops. That is to say the first bite of food on an empty stomach is worth more than the second bite, which is worth more than the third, and so on. So, as I consumed food, the value of additional food for me drops until it’s hit the point where I am, on a practical level, not getting any real benefit from having more.

However, as I consume food, other people’s desire for it does not change. The value of the resource for me has thus hit negligible returns at a certain point, whereas the value of that resource for others has not diminished. By continuing to acquire resources for myself at that point, my actions would, implicitly, be suggesting that I value my having a relatively small benefit over someone else having a relatively large one. Given that kin share our genes, acquiring those resources for closely-related others likely sends the same message: I care about my own interests much more than I can about others. This, in many instances, can make me seem like a poor associate. A very selfish friend doesn’t tend to be a very good one. It’s for this reason that taking care of an orphaned child receives more praise than caring for one’s own child. If one instead acquires a vast amount of resources for someone else, however, there is still that diminishing returns issue, but you would instead be demonstrating a rather high welfare-tradeoff-ratio towards others, rather than yourself (“I value someone else getting this resource much more than I value myself getting it”). Accordingly, people should probably condemn it less, if not outright praise it.

“Sure; someone has to buy it, and they’re going to hell, but at least you’re good”

While such ultimate considerations might be responsible for shaping the cognitive mechanisms that generated the feelings people expressed in these comments sections, that’s no guarantee that people will understand them as such consciously. All that’s required is that people take the appropriate behavioral actions, such as morally condemning and insulting those who appear to behave overly selfish, or refusing to associate themselves with such individuals. Proximately, all people might experience is a feeling of moral outrage or disgust. They might not be able to tell you why they experience those things, but that’s probably because understanding the why is much less relevant. In much the same way, animals don’t need to know that sex leads to reproduction in order to have it feel good and thus be motivated to engage in it. If the moral condemnation leads people to make different, other-benefiting choices in the future, so much the better for those others. It doesn’t hurt that by expressing how selfish we think other people are we might be able to make ourselves look like better associates in the process (i.e. “I find your behavior overly selfish, so I must not be similarly self-interested…”).

Not-So-Shocking Results About People Shocking Themselves

I’m bored is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored’”. – Louis CK

One of the most vivid – and strangely so – memories of my childhood involved stand-up comedy. I used to always have the TV on in the background of my room when I was younger, usually tuned to comedy central or cartoons. Young me would somewhat-passively absorb all that comedic material and then regurgitate it around people I knew without context; a strategy that made me seem a bit weirder than I already was as a child. The joke in particular that I remember so vividly came from Jim Gaffigan: in it, he expressed surprise that the male seahorses are the one’s who give birth, suggesting that they should just call the one that gives birth the female; he also postulates that the reason this wasn’t the case was that a stubborn scientist had made a mistake. One reason this joke stood out to me in particular was that, as my education progressed, it served as perhaps the best example of how people who don’t know much about the subject they’re discussing can be surprised at some ostensible quirks about it that actually make a great deal of sense to more knowledgeable individuals.

In fact, many things about the world are quite shocking to them.

In the case of seahorses, the mistake Jim was making is that biological sex in that species, as well as many others, can be defined by which sex produces the larger gametes (eggs vs. sperm). In seahorses, the females produce the eggs, but the males provide much of the parental investment, carrying the fertilized eggs in a pouch until they hatch. In such species where the burden of parental care is shouldered more heavily by the males, we also tend to see reversals of mating preferences, where the males tend to become more selective about sexual partners, relative to the females. So not only was the labeling of the sexes no mistake, but there are lots of neat insights to be drawn about psychology from that knowledge. Admittedly, this knowledge does also ruin the joke, but here at Popsych we take the utmost care to favor being a buzzkill over being inaccurate (because we have integrity and very few friends). In the interests of continuing that proud tradition, I would like to explain why the second part of the initial Louis CK joke – the part about us not being allowed to be bored because we ought to just be able to think ourselves to entertainment and pleasure – is, at best, misguided.

That part of the joke contains an intuition shared by more than Louis, of course. In the somewhat-recent past, an article was making its way around the popular psychological press about how surprising it was that people tended to find sitting with their own thoughts rather unpleasant. The paper, by Wilson et al (2014), contains 11 studies. Given that number, along with the general repetitiveness of the designs and lack of details presented in the paper itself, I’ll run through them in the briefest form possible before getting to meat of the discussion. The first six studies involved around 400 undergrads being brought into a “sparsely-furnished room” after having given up any forms of entertainment they were carrying, like their cell phones and writing implements. They were asked to sit in a chair and entertain themselves with only their thoughts for 6-15 minutes without falling asleep. Around half the participants rated the experience as negative, and a majority reported difficulty concentrating or their mind wandering.The next study repeated this design with 169 subjects asked to sit alone at home without any distractions and just think. The undergraduates found the experience about as thrilling at home as they did in the lab, the only major difference being that now around a third of the participants reported “cheating” by doing things like going online or listening to music. Similar results were obtained in a community sample of about 60 people, a full half of which reported cheating during the period.

Finally, we reach the part of the study that made the headlines. Fifty-five undergrads were again brought into the lab. Their task began by rating the pleasantness of various stimuli, one of which being a mild electric shock (designed to be unpleasant, but not too painful). After doing this, they were given the sit-alone-and-think task, but were told they could, if they wanted, shock themselves again during their thinking period via an ankle bracelet they were wearing. Despite participants knowing that the shock was unpleasant and that shocking themselves was entirely optional, around 70% of men and 25% of women opted to deliver at least one shock to themselves during the thinking period when prompted with the option. Even among the subjects who said they would pay $5 instead of being shocked again, 64% of the men and 15% of the women shocked themselves anyway. From this, Wilson et al (2014) concluded that thinking was so aversive that people would rather shock themselves than think if given the option, even if they didn’t like the shock.

“The increased risk of death sure beats thinking!”

The authors of the paper posited two reasons as to why people might dislike doing nothing but sitting around thinking, neither of which make much sense to me: their first explanation was that people might ruminate more about their own shortcomings when they don’t have anything else to do. Why people’s minds would be designed to do such a thing is a bit beyond me and, in any case, the results didn’t find that people defaulted to thinking they were failures. The second explanation was that people might find it unpleasant to be alone with their own thoughts because they had to be a “script writer” and an “experiencer” of them. Why that would be unpleasant is also a bit beyond me and, again, that wasn’t the case either: participants did not find having someone else prompting the focus of thoughts anymore pleasant.

Missing from this paper, like many papers in psychology, is an evolutionary-level, functional consideration of what’s going on here: not explored or mentioned is the idea that thinking itself doesn’t really do anything. By that, I mean evolution, as a process, cannot “see” (i.e. select for) what organisms think or feel directly. The only thing evolution can “see” is what an organism does; how it behaves. That is to say the following: if you had one organism that had a series of incredibly pleasant thoughts but never did anything because of them, and another that never had any thoughts whatsoever but actually behaved in reproductively-useful ways, the latter would win the evolutionary race every single time.

To further drive this point home, imagine for a moment an individual member of a species which could simply think itself into happiness; blissful happiness, in fact. What would be the likely result for the genes of that individual? In all probability, they would fair less well than their counterparts who were not so inclined since, as we just reviewed, feeling good per se does not do anything reproductively useful. If those positive feelings derived from just thinking happy thoughts motivated any kind of behavior (which they frequently do) and those feelings were not designed to be tied to some useful fitness outcomes (which they wouldn’t be, in this case), it is likely that the person thinking himself to bliss would end up doing fewer useful things along with many maladaptive ones. The logic here is that there many things they could do, but only a small subsection of those things are actually worth doing. So, if organisms selected what to do on the basis of their emotions, but these emotions were being generated for reasons unrelated to what they were doing, they would select poor behavioral options more than not. Importantly, we could make a similar argument for an individual that thought himself into despair frequently: to the extent that feeling motivate behaviors, and to the extent that those feelings are divorced from their fitness outcomes, we should expect bad fitness results.

Accordingly, we ought to also expect that thinking per se is not what people find aversive in this experiment. There’s no reason for the part of the brain doing the thinking (rather loosely conceived) here to be hooked up to the pleasure or pain centers of the brain. Rather, what the subjects likely found aversive here was the fact that they weren’t doing anything even potentially useful or fun. The participants in these studies were asked to do more than just think about something; the participants were also asked to forego doing other activities, like browsing the internet, reading, exercising, or really anything at all. So not only were the subjects asked to sit around and do absolutely nothing, they were also asked not do the other fun, useful things they might have otherwise spent their time on.

“We can’t figure out why he doesn’t like being in jail despite all that thinking time…”

Now, sure, it might seem a bit weird that people would shock themselves instead of just sit there and think at first glance. However, I think that strangeness can be largely evaporated by considering two factors: first, there are probably some pretty serious demand characteristics at work here. When people know they’re in a psychology experiment and you only prompt them to do one thing (“but don’t worry it’s totally optional. We’ll just be in the other room watching you…”), many of them might do it because they think that’s what the point of the experiment is (which, I might add, they would be completely correct about in this instance). There did not appear to be any control group to see how often people independently shocked themselves when not prompted to do so, or when it wasn’t their only option. I suspect few people would under that circumstance.

The second thing to consider is that most organisms would likely start behaving very strangely after a time if you locked them in an empty room; not just humans. This is because, I would imagine, the minds of organisms are not designed to function in environments where there is nothing to do. Our brains have evolved to solve a variety of environmentally-recurrent problems and, in this case, there seems to be no way to solve the problem of what to do with one’s time. The cognitive algorithms in their mind would be running through a series of “if-then” statements and not finding a suitable “then”. The result is that their mind could potentially start generating relatively-random outputs. In a strange situation, the mind defaults to strange behaviors. To make the point simply, computers stop working well if you’re using them in the shower, but, then again, they were never meant to go in the shower in the first place.

To return to Louis CK, I don’t think I get bored because I’m not thinking about anything, nor do I think that thinking about things is what people found aversive here. After all, we are all thinking about things – many things – constantly. Even when we are “distracted”, that doesn’t mean we are thinking about nothing; just that our attention is on something we might prefer it wasn’t. If thinking it what was aversive here, we should be feeling horrible pretty much all the time, which we don’t. Then again, maybe animals in captivity really do start behaving weird because they don’t want to be the “script writer” and “experiencer” of their own thoughts…

References: Wilson, T., Reinhard, D., Westgate, E., Gilbert, D., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., Brown, C., & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345, 75-77.

Is There Any Good Evidence That Porn Is Harmful To Relationships?

In my last post, I noted briefly how technology has made it easier than ever to access a variety of pornographic images, whether produced personally or professionally. Much like concerns about how violent video games might make people who play them more violent, there have also been concerns raised about how pornography becoming more prevalent might also lead to certain, undesirable outcomes, such as rape as weakened relationships. As for the video game concern, there is some evidence that the aggression (or rather anger) caused by video games might have a lot less to do with violent content per se than it has to do with losing (full disclosure: I have been unable to locate the paper, so I can’t assess the claims made in it personally, but this explanation should be easily and intuitively understandable to anyone who has seriously engaged in competitive play. Gamers don’t rage quit over violent content; they rage quit because they lost). Similarly, there have been many concerns raised about pornography over the years, many of which hinge on the idea that pornography might lead to people (specifically men) to develop negative attitudes towards women and, accordingly, be more likely to rape them or to accept rape more generally.

Tissue companies vigorously denied that such a link existed

As pornography has become more widely available – thanks in no small part to the internet – rates of rape appear to have declining rather markedly over the same time period; in much the same way, violence has been declining despite violent video games being more common and accessible than ever. The world is a complex place and there are plenty of variables at play, so those correlations are just that. Nevertheless, the evidence that pornography causes any kind of sexual offending is “inconsistent at best” (Ferguson & Hartley, 2009) and, given the nature of the topic, one might reasonably suspect that at least some of that inconsistency has to do with researchers setting out to find certain conclusions. To be blunt about it, some researchers probably “have their answer”, so to speak, before they even begin the research, and might either game their projects to find that result, or interpret otherwise ambiguous results in a manner consistent with their favored hypothesis.

On that note, there was a recent post by Peg Streep concerning the negative effects that pornography might have on intimate relationships. In no uncertain terms, Peg suggests that (1) relationships with porn are less stable, (2) watching porn makes people less committed to their relationships, and (3) that it leads to people cheating on their partners. The certainty with which these points were made appears to stand in marked contrast to the methodological strength of studies she mentions, even from her own summaries of them (As an aside, in the comments section Peg also appears to insinuate that video games make people more violent as well; just a fun coincidence). Given that the studies are covered in less-than-adequate detail, I decided it track down the research she presented for myself and see if there was any good evidence that pornography use has a negative and causal relationship with commitment and intimate relationships.

The first study comes from Maddox et al (2011). This paper surveyed the pornography viewing habits of around 1,300 individuals (whether alone, with a partner, or not at all) and examined whether there was any relationship between viewing pornography and various relationship measures. Those who reported not viewing pornography tended to be more religious, tended to escalate fights less (d = 0.26), thought their relationship was going better (d = 0.22), and were more dedicated to their relationships (d = 0.25, approximately). Further, those who watched porn were less likely to report being satisfied sexually in their relationship (d = 0.21) and also appeared to be two- to three-times as likely to report infidelity. However, the authors explicitly acknowledge on more than one occasion that their data is correlational in nature and provided no evidence of causality. Such research might simply suggest those who like pornography are different than those who do not like it, or that “…individuals who are unhappy with their relationships seek out [pornography] on their own as an outlet for sexual energy”. The pornography itself might have very little to do with relationship strength.

It might have plenty to do with arm strength, though

The second paper Peg mentions at least contains an experiment, which should, in principle, be better for determining if there is any causal relationship here. Unfortunately, there exists a gap between principle and practice here. The paper, by Lambert et al (2012) is rather long, so I’m only going to focus on the actual experiment within it and ignore the other correlational work (as those issues would be largely a retread of the last paper). The experiment involved having current porn users to either (a) refrain from using porn or (b) eating their favorite food for three weeks. The participants (N = 20) also maintained a daily dairy of their porn use. Initially, the two groups reported similar porn usage (M = 3.73 and 4.07 viewings per month – I think – respectively) and relationship commitment (estimated 72% and 62% chance of being with their partner in the future, respectively). After the three week period, those who attempted to abstain from porn reported less viewing (M = 1.42) than those in the food-abstaining group (M = 3.88); the former group also reported greater relationship commitment (63% chance of staying together over time) relative to the food-abstainers (30% chance) at the end of the three weeks.

So was porn the culprit here? Well, I think it’s very doubtful. First of all, the sample size of 10 per group is pitifully small and I would not want to draw any major conclusions from that. Second, both groups were initially high on their relationship commitment despite both groups also watching porn. Third, and perhaps most importantly, what this study found was not an increase in commitment when people watched less porn, directly contradicting what Peg says about the results (that group saw a decrease as well, albeit only a 10% drop); it just found a large decrease in the group that continued to do what it had been doing this whole time. In other words, the authors are positing that a constant (porn usage) was responsible for a dramatic and sudden decline, whereas their manipulation (less porn usage) was responsible for things staying (sort of) constant. I find that very unlikely; more likely, I would say, is that one or two couples within the food-abstaining group happened to have hit a rough patch unrelated to the porn issue and, because the sample size was so small, that’s all it took to find the result.

The final paper Peg mentions comes from Gwinn et al (2013), and examined the relationship between porn and cheating. The authors report two studies: in the first, 74 students either wrote about a sexually explicit scene or an action scene from a movie or show they had seen in the last month; they were then asked to think about what options they had for alternative sexual partners. Those who wrote about the sexual scene rated their options as an average 3.3 out of 7, compared with the 2.6 for the action group (Of note: only half the subjects in the sex group wrote about porn; the other half wrote about non-porn sex scenes). Further, those in the sexual group did not report any difference in their current relationship satisfaction than those in the action group. In the second study, 291 students had their porn habits measured at time one and their cheating behavior (though this was not exclusively sexual behavior) measured at time two. They found a rather weak but positive correlation between the two: pornography use at time one could uniquely account for approximately 1% of the variance in cheating 12 weeks later. So, much like the first study, this one tells us nothing about causation and, even if it did, the effect was small enough to be almost zero.

But go ahead; blame porn. I’m sure you will anyway.

So, to summarize: the first study suggests that people who like porn might be different than those who do not, the second study found that watching less porn did not increase commitment (in direct contradiction to what Peg said about it), and the final study found that porn usage explains almost no unique variance in infidelity on its own, nor does it effect relationship satisfaction. So, when Peg suggests that “The following three studies reveal that it has a greater effect on relationships than those we usually discuss” and, ”Pornography is not as benign as you think, especially when it comes to romantic relationships“, and, “The fantasy alternative leads to real world cheating“, she doesn’t seem to have an empirical leg to stand on. Similarly, in the comments, when she writes “Who blamed cheating on porn? Neither the research nor I. The research indicates the watching porn elevates the odds of cheating for the reasons noted” (emphasis mine), she seems to either not be very careful about her words, or rather disingenuous about what point she seems to be making. I’m not saying there are absolutely no effects to porn, but the research she presents do not make a good case for any of them.

References: Ferguson, C. & Hartley, R. (2009). The pleasure is momentary…the expense damnable? The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 14, 323-329.

Gwinn, A., Lambert N., Fincham, F., Maner, J. (2013). Pornography, relationship alternatives, and intimate extradyadic behavior. Social Psychology & Personality Science, 4, 699-704.

Lambert, N., Negash, S., Stillman, T., Olmstead, S., & Fincham, F. (2012). A love that doesn’t last: Pornography consumption and weakened commitment to one’s romantic partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31, 410-438.

Maddox, M., Rhoades, G., & Markman, H. (2011). Viewing sexually-explicit materials alone or together: Associations with relationship quality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 441-448.

Some Free Consulting Advice For Improving Online Dating

I find many aspects of life today to be pretty neat, owing largely to the wide array of fun and functional gadgets we have at our disposal. While easy to lose sight of and take for granted, the radical improvements made to information technology over my lifetime have been astounding. For instance, I now carry around a powerful computer in my pocket that is user-friendly, capable of accessing more information than I could feasibly process in my entire lifetime, and it also allows me to communicate instantly with strangers and friends all over the globe; truly amazing stuff. Of course, being the particular species that we are, such technology was almost instantly recognized and adopted as an efficient way of sending and receiving naked pictures, as well as trying to initiate new sexual or dating relationships. While the former goal has been achieved with a rousing success, the latter appears to still pose a few more complications, as evidenced by plenty of people complaining about online dating, but not about the ease by which they can send or receive naked pictures. As I’ve been turning my eye towards the job market these days, I decided it would be fun to try and focus on a more “applied” problem: specifically, how might online dating sites – like Tinder and OkCupid – be improved for their users?

Since the insertable portion of the internet market has been covered, I’ll stick to the psychological one.

The first question to consider is the matter of what problems people face when it comes to online dating: knowing what problems people are facing is obviously important if you want to make forward progress. Given that we are species in which females tend to provide the brunt of the obligate parental investment, we can say that, in general, men and women will tend to face some different problems when it comes to online dating; problems which mirror those faced in non-internet dating. In general, men are the more sexually-eager sex: accordingly, men tend to face the problem of drawing and retaining female interest, while women face the problem of selecting mates from among their choices. In terms of the everyday realities of online dating, this translates into women receiving incredible amounts of undesirable male attention, while men waste similar amounts of time making passes that are unlikely to pan out.

To get a sense for the problems women face, all one has to do is make an online dating profile as a woman. There have been a number of such attempts that have been documented, and the results are often the same: before the profile has even been filled out, it attracts dozens of men within the first few minutes of its existence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the quality of messages that the profiles receive can also liberally be considered less-than optimal. While I have no data on the matter, almost every women who has talked with me about their online dating experiences tends to remark, at some point, that they are rather afraid of meeting up with anyone from the site owing to a fear of being murdered by them. Now it is possible that such dangers are, for whatever reason, being overestimated by women, but it also seems likely that women’s experiences with the men on the site might be driving some of that fear. After all, many of those same women also tell me that they start off replying to all or most of the messages they receive when they set up a profile, only to quickly stop doing that owing to their sheer volume or unappealing content. There are also reports of men becoming verbally aggressive when turned down by women, so it seems likely some of these fears about meeting someone from the site are not entirely without merit (to be clear, I think women are probably no more likely to be murdered by anyone they meet online relative to in person; it’s just that strangers online might be more likely to initiate contact than in person).

The problems that men face are a bit harder to appreciate for a number of reasons, one of which is likely owing to the fact that they take longer to appreciate. As I mentioned, women’s profiles attract attention within minutes of their creation; a rather dramatic effect. By contrast, were one to make a profile as a man, not much of anything would happen: you would be unlikely to receive messages or visitors for days, weeks, or months if you didn’t actively try to initiate such contact yourself. If you did try to initiate contact, you’d also find that most of it is not reciprocated and, of the replies you did receive, many would burn out before progressing into any real conversation. If men seen a bit overeager for contact and angry when it ceases, this might owe itself in part to the rarity with which such contact occurs. While being ignored might seem like a better problem to have than receiving a lot of unwanted attention (as the latter might involve aggression, whereas the former does not), one needs to bear in mind that without any attention there is no dating life. Women might be able to pull some desirable men from the pool of interested ones, even if most are undesirable; a man without an interested pool has no potential to draw from at all. Neither is necessarily better or worse than the other; they’re just different.

Relationships: Can’t live with them; can’t live without them

That said, bickering about whose problems are worse doesn’t actually solve any of them, so I don’t want to get mired in that debate. Instead, we want to ask, how do we devise a possible resolution to both sets of problems at the same time? At first glance, these problems might see opposed to one another: men want more attention and women want less of it. How could we make both sides relatively better off than they were before? My suggestion for a potential remedy is to make messages substantially harder to send. There are two ways I envision this might enacted: on the one hand, the number of messages a user could send (that were not replies to existing messages) could be limited  to a certain number in a given time period (say, for instance, people could send 5 or 10 initiate messages per week). Alternatively, people could set up a series of multiple choice screening questions on their profile, and only those people who answered enough questions “correctly” (i.e. the answer the user specifies) would be allowed to send a message to the user. Since these aren’t mutually exclusive, both could be implemented; perhaps the former as a mandatory restriction and the latter as an optional one.

Now, at first glance, these solutions might seem geared towards improving women’s experiences with online dating at the expense of men, since men are the ones sending most of the messages. If men aren’t allowed to send enough messages, how could they possibly garner attention, given that so many messages ultimately fail to capture any? The answer to that question comes in two parts, but it largely involves considering why so many messages don’t get responses. First, as it stands now, messaging is largely a costless endeavor. It can take someone all of 5 to 60 seconds to craft an opening message and send it, depending on how specific the sender wants to get with it. With such a low cost and a potentially high payoff (dates and/or sex), men are incentivized to send a great many of these messages. The problem is that every man is similarly incentivized. While it might be good for any man to send more messages out, when too many of them do it, women get buried beneath an avalanche of them. Since these messages are costless to send, they don’t necessarily carry any honest information about the man’s interest, so women might just start ignoring them altogether. There are, after all, non-negligible search costs for women to dig through and respond to all these messages – as evidenced by the many reports from women of their of starting out replying to all of them but quickly abandoning that idea – so the high volume of messages might actually make women less likely to respond in general, rather than more.

Indeed, judging by their profiles, many women pick up on this, explicitly stating that they won’t reply to messages that are little more than a “hey” or “what’s up?”. If messaging was restricted in some rather costly way, it would require men to be more judicious about both who they send the message to and the content of those messages; if you only have a certain number of opportunities, it’s best to not blow them, and that involves messaging people you’re more likely to be successful with in and in a less superficial way. So women, broadly speaking, would benefit by receiving a smaller number of higher-quality messages from men who are proportionately more interested in them. Since the messages are not longer costless to send, that a man chose to send his to that particular woman has some signal value; if the message was more personalized, the signal value increases. By contrast, men would, again, broadly speaking, benefit by lowering the odds of their messages being buried beneath a tidal wave of other messages from other men, and would need to send proportionately fewer of them to receive responses. In other words, the relative level of competition for mates might remain constant, but the absolute level of competition might fall.

Or, phrased as a metaphor: no one is responding to all that mess, so it’s better to not make it in the first place

Now, it should go without saying that this change, however implemented, would be a far cry from fixing all the interactions on dating sites: some people are less attractive than others, have dismal personalities, demand too much, and so on. Some women would continue to receive too many unwanted messages and some men would continue to be all but nonexistent as far as women were concerned. There would also undoubtedly be some potential missed connections. However, it’s important to bear in mind that all that happens already, and this solution might actually reduce the incidence of it. By everyone being willing to suffer a small cost (or the site administrators implementing them), they could avoid proportionately larger ones. Further, if dating sites became more user-friendly, they could also begin to attract new users and retain existing ones, improving the overall dating pool available. If women are less afraid of being murdered on dates, they might be more likely to go on them; if women receive fewer messages, they might be more inclined to respond to them. As I see it, this is a relatively cheap idea to implement and seems to have a great deal of theoretical plausibility to it. The specifics of the plan would need to be fleshed out more extensively and it’s plausibility tested empirically, but I think it’s a good starting point.

Practice Makes Better, But Not Necessarily Much Better

“But I’m not good at anything!” Well, I have good news — throw enough hours of repetition at it and you can get sort of good at anything…It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking.” -David Wong

That quote is from one of my favorite short pieces of writing entitled “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person”, which you can find linked above. The jist of the article is simple: the world (or, more precisely, the people in the world) only care about what valuable things you provide them, and what is on the inside, so to speak, only matters to the extent that it makes you do useful things for others. This captures nicely some of the logic of evolutionary theory – a piece that many people seem to not appreciate – namely that evolution cannot “see” what you feel; it can only “see” what organisms do (seeing, in this sense, referring to selecting for variants that do reproductively-useful things). No matter how happy you are in life, if you aren’t reproducing, whatever genes contributed to that happiness will not see the next generation. Given that your competence at performing a task is often directly related to the value it could potentially provide for others, the natural question many people begin to consider is, “how can I get better at doing things?”

  Step 1: Print fake diploma for the illusion of achievement

The typical answer to that question, as David mentions, is practice: by throwing enough hours of practice at something, people tend to get sort of good at it. The “sort of” in that last sentence is rather important, according to a recent meta-analysis. The paper – by Macnamara et al (2014) – examines the extent of that “sort of” across a variety of different studies tracking different domains of skill one might practice, as well as across a variety of different reporting styles concerning that practice. The results from the paper that will probably come as little surprise to anyone is that – as intuition might suggest – the amount of time one spends practicing does, on the whole, seem to show a positive correlation with performance; the ones that probably will come as a surprise is that the extent of that benefit explains a relatively-small percentage of the variance in eventual performance between people.

Before getting into the specific results of the paper, it’s worth noting that, as a theoretical matter, there are reasons we might expect practicing on a task to correlate with eventual performance even if the practicing itself has little effect: people might stop practicing things they don’t think they’re very good at doing. Let’s say I wanted to get myself as close to whatever the chess-equivalent of a rockstar happens to be. After playing the game for around a month, I find that, despite my best efforts, I seem to be losing; a lot. While it is true that more practice playing chess might indeed improve my performance to some degree, I might rightly conclude that investing the required time really won’t end up being worth the payoff. Spending 10,000 hours of practice to go from a 15% win rate to a 25% win rate won’t net me any chess groupies. If my time spent practicing chess is, all things considered, a bad investment, not investing anymore time in it than I already had would be a rather useful thing to do, even if it might lead to some gains. The idea that one ought to persist at the task despite the improbable nature of a positive outcome (“if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”) is as optimistic as it is wasteful. That’s not a call to give up on doing things altogether, of course; just a recognition that my time might be profitably invested in other domains with better payoffs. Then again, I majored in psychology instead of computer science or finance, so maybe I’m not the best person to be telling anyone else about profitable payoffs…

In any case, turning to the meat of the paper, the authors began by locating around 9,300 articles that might have been relevant to their analysis. As it turns out, only 88 of them possessed the relevant inclusion criteria: (1) an estimate of the numbers of hours spent practicing, (2) a measure of performance level, (3) and effect size of the relationship between those first two things, (4) written in English, and (5) conducted on humans. These 88 studies contained 111 samples, 157 effect sizes, and approximately 11,000 participants. Of those 157 correlations, 147 of them were positive: as performance increased, so too did hours of practice tend to increase in an overwhelming majority of the papers. The average correlation between hours of practice and performance was a 0.35. This means that, overall, deliberate practice explained around 12% of the variance in performance. Throw enough hours of repetition at something and you can get sort of better at it. Well, somewhat slightly better at it, anyway…sometimes…

At least it only took a few decades of practice to realize that mediocrity

The average correlation doesn’t give a full sense of the picture, as many averages tend to not. Macnamera et al (2014) first began to break the analysis down by domain, as practicing certain tasks might yield greater improve than others. The largest gains were seen in the realm of games, where hours of practice could explain around a forth of the variance in performance. From there, the percentages decreased to 21% in music, 18% in sports, 4% in education, and less than 1% in professions. Further, as one might also expect, practice showed the greatest effect when the tasks were classified as highly predictable (24% of the variance), followed by moderately (12%) and poorly predictable (4%). If you don’t know what to expect, it’s awfully difficult to know what or how to practice to achieve a good outcome. Then again, even if you do know what to expect, it still seems hard to achieve those outcomes.

Somewhat troubling, however, was that the type of reporting about practicing seemed to have a sizable effect as well: reports that relied on retrospective interviews (i.e. “how often would you say you have practiced over the last X weeks/months/years”) tended to show larger effects; around 20% of the variance explained. When the method was a retrospective questionnaire, rather than an interview, this dropped to 12%. For the studies that actually involved keeping daily logs of practice, this percentage dropped precipitously to a mere 5%. So it seems at least plausible that people might over-report how much time they spend practicing, especially in a face-to-face context. Further still, the extent of the relationship between practice and product depended heavily on the way performance was measured. For the studies simply using “group membership” as the measure of skill, around 26% of the variance was explained. This fell to 14% when laboratory studies alone were considered, and fell further when expert ratings (9%) or standardized measures of performance (8%) were used.

Not only might be people be overestimating how much time they spend practicing a skill, then, but the increase in ability possibly attributable to that practice appears to shrink the more fine-grained or specific an analysis gets. Now it’s worth mentioning that this analysis is not able to answer the question of how much improvement in performance is attributable to practice in some kind of absolute sense; it just deals with how much of the existing differences between people’s ability might be attributable to differences in practice. To make that point clear, imagine a population of people who were never allowed to practice basketball at all, but were asked to play the game anyway. Some people will likely be better than others owing to a variety of factors (like height, speed, fine motor control, etc), but none of that variance would be attributable to practice. It doesn’t mean that people wouldn’t get better if they were allowed to practice, of course; just that none of the current variation would be able to be chalked up to it.

And life has a habit of not being equitable

As per the initial quote, this paper suggests that deliberate practicing, at least past a certain point, might have more to do with sanding the harsh edges off one’s ability rather than actually carving it out. The extent of that sanding likely depends on a lot of things: interests, existing ability, working memory, general cognitive functioning, what kind of skill is in question, and so on. In short, it’s probably not simply a degree of practice that separates a non-musician from Mozart. What extensive practice can help with seems to be more pushing the good towards the great. As nice as it sounds to tell people that they can achieve anything they put their mind to, nice does not equal true. That said, if you have a passion for something and just wish to get better at it (and the task at hand lends itself to improvement via practice), the ability to improve performance by a few percentage points is perfectly respectable. Being slightly better at something can, on the margins, mean the difference between winning or losing (in whatever form that takes); it’s just that all the optimism and training montages in the world probably won’t take you from the middle to the top.

References: Macnamera, B., Hambrick, D., & Oswald, F. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797614535810

Keepin’ It Topical: The Big Facebook Study

I happen to have an iPhone because, as many of you know, I think differently (not to be confused with the oddly-phrased “Think Different”® slogan of the parent company, Apple), and nothing expresses those characteristics of intelligence and individuality about me better than my ownership of one of the most popular phones on the market. While the iPhone itself is a rather functional piece of technology, there is something about it (OK; related to it) that has consistently bothered me: the Facebook app I can download for it. The reason this app has been bugging me is that, at least as far as my recent memory allows, the app seems to have an unhealthy obsession with showing me the always-useless “top stories” news feed as my default, rather than the “most recent” feed I actually want to see. In fact, I recall that the last update to the app actually made it more of a hassle to get to the most recent feed, rather than make it easily accessible. I had always wondered why there didn’t seem to be a simple way to change my default, as this seems like a fairly basic design fix. Not to get too conspiratorial about the whole thing, but this past week, I think I might have found part of the answer.

Which brings us to the matter of the Illuminati…

It’s my suspicion that the “top stories” feed has uses beyond simply trying to figure out which content I might want to see; this would be a good thing, because if the function were to figure out what I want to see, it’s pretty bad at that task. The “top stories” feed might also be used for the sinister purposes of conducting research (then again, the “most recent” feed can probably do that as well; I just really enjoy complaining about the “top stories” one). Since this new story (or is it a “top story”?) about Facebook conducting research with its users has been making the rounds in the media lately, I figured I would add my two cents to the incredibly tall stack of pennies the internet has collectively made in honor of the matter. Don’t get it twisted, though: I’m certainly not doing this in the interest of click-bait to capitalize on a flavor-of-the-week topic. If I were, I would have titled this post “These three things about the Facebook study will blow your mind; the fourth will make you cry” and put it up on Buzzfeed. Such behavior is beneath me because, as I said initially, I think different(ly)…

Anyway, onto the paper itself. Kramer et al (2014) set out to study whether manipulating what kind of emotional content people are exposed to in  other’s Facebook status updates had an effect on that person’s later emotional content in their own status updates. The authors believe such an effect would obtain owing to “emotional contagion”, which is the idea that people can “…transfer positive and negative moods and emotions to others”. As an initial semantic note, I think that such phrasing – the use of contagion as a metaphor – only serves to lead one to think incorrectly about what’s going on here. Emotions and moods are not the kind of things that can be contagious the way pathogens are: pathogens can be physically transferred from one host to another, while moods and emotions cannot. Instead, moods and emotions are things generated by our minds from particular sets of inputs.

To understand that distinction quickly, consider two examples: in the first case, you and I are friends. You are sad and I see you being sad. This, in turn, makes me feel sad. Have your emotions “infected” me? Probably not; consider what would happen if you and I were enemies instead: since I’m a bastard and I like to see people I don’t like fail, your sadness might make me feel happy instead. So it doesn’t seem to be your emotion per se that’s contagious; it might just be the case that I happen to generate similar emotions under certain circumstances. While this might seem to be a relatively minor issue, similar types of thinking about the topic of ideas – specifically, that ideas themselves can be contagious – has led to a lot of rather unproductive thinking and discussions about “memes”. By talking about ideas or moods independently of the minds that create them, we end up with a rather dim view of how our psychology works, I feel.

Which is just what the Illuminati want…

Moving past that issue, however, the study itself is rather simple: for a week in 2012, approximately 700,000 Facebook users had some of their news feed content hidden from them some of the time. Each time one of the subjects viewed their feed, depending on what condition they were in, each post containing certain negative or positive words had a certain probability (between 10-90% chance) of being omitted. Unfortunately, the way the paper is written, it’s a bit difficult to get a sense as to precisely how much content was, on average, omitted. However, as the authors note, this was done a per-viewing basis, so content that was hidden during one viewing might well have showed up were the page to be refreshed (and sitting there refreshing Facebook minute after minute is something many people might actually do). The content was also only hidden on the news feed: if the subject visited a friend’s page directly or sent or received any messages, all the content was available. So, for a week, some of the time, some of the content was omitted, but only on a per-view basis, and only in one particular form (the news feed); not exactly the strongest manipulation I could think of.

The effect of that manipulation was seen when examining what percentage of positive or negative words the subjects themselves used when posting their status updates during the experimental period. Those subjects who saw more positive words in their feed tended to post more positive words themselves, and vice versa for negative words. Sort of, anyway. OK; just barely. In the condition where subjects had access to fewer negative words, the average subject’s status was made up of about 5.3% positive words and 1.7% negative words; when the subjects had access to fewer positive words, these percentages plummeted/jumped to…5.15% and 1.75%, respectively. Compared to the control groups, then, these changes amount to increases or decreases of in between 0.02 and 0.0001 standard deviations of emotional word usage or, as we might say in precise statistical terms, effects so astonishingly small they might as well not be said to exist.

“Can’t you see it? The effect is right there; plain as day!”

What we have here, in sum, then, is an exceedingly weak and probabilistic manipulation that had about as close to no net effect as one could reasonably get, based on an at-least-partially (if only metaphorically) deficient view of how the mind works. The discussion about the ethical issues people perceived with the research appears to have vastly overshadowed the fact that research itself wasn’t really very strong or interesting. So for all of you people outraged over this study for fear that people were harmed: don’t worry. I would say the evidence is good that no appreciable harm came of it.

I would also say that other ethical criticisms of the study are a bit lacking. I’ve seen people raise concerns that Facebook had no business seeing if bad moods would be induced by showing people a disproportionate number of negative status updates; I’ve also seen concerns that the people posting these negative updates might not have received the support they needed if other people were blocked from seeing them. The first thing to note is that Facebook did not increase the absolute number of positive or negative posts; only (kind of) hid some of them from appearing (some of the time, to some people, in one particular forum); the second is that, given those two criticisms, it would seem that Facebook is in a no-win situation: reducing or failing to reduce the number of negative stories leads to them being criticized. Facebook is either failing to get people the help they need or bumming us out by disproportionately exposing us to people who need help. Finally, I would add that if anyone did miss a major life event of a friend – positive or negative – because Facebook might have probabilistically omitted a status update on a given visit, then you’re likely not very good friends with that person anyway, and probably don’t have a close enough relationship with them that would allow you to realistically lend help or take much pleasure from the incident.

References: Kramer, A., Guillory, J., & Hancock, J. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1320040111

Where Did I Leave My Arousal?

Jack is your average, single man. Like many single men, Jack might be said to have an interest in getting laid. There are a number of women – and let’s just say they all happen to be called Jill – that he might attempt to pursue to achieve that goal. Now which of these Jills Jack will pursue depends a number of factors: first, is Jack looking for something more short-term and causal, or is he looking for a long-term relationship? Jack might want to consider whether or not any given Jill is currently single, known for promiscuity, or attractive, regardless of which type he’s looking for. If he’s looking for something more long-term, he might also want to know more about how intelligent and kind all these Jills are. He might also wish to assess how interested each of the Jills happens to be in him, given what he offers, as he might otherwise spend a lot of time pursuing sexual dead-ends. If he really wanted to make a good decision, though, Jack might also wish to take into account whether or not he happened to have been scared at the time he met a given Jill, as his fear level at the time is no doubt a useful piece of information.

“Almost getting murdered was much more of a turn-on than I expected”

OK; so maybe that last piece sounded a bit strange. After all, it doesn’t seem like Jack’s experience of fear tells him anything of value when it comes to trying to find a Jill: it doesn’t tell him anything about that Jill as a suitable mate or the probability that he will successfully hook up with her. In fact, by using his level of fear to an unrelated issue to try and make a mating decision, it seems Jack can only make a worse decision than if he did not use that piece of information (on the whole, anyway; his estimates of which Jill(s) are his best bet to pursue might not be entirely accurate, but they’re at least based on otherwise-relevant information). Jack might as well make his decision about who to pursue on the basis of whether he happened to be hungry when he met them or whether it was cloudy that day. However, what if Jack – or some part of Jack’s brain, more precisely – mistook the arousal he felt when he was afraid for sexual attraction?

There’s an idea floating around in some psychological circles that one can, essentially, misplace their arousal (perhaps in the way one misplaces their keys: you think you left them on the steps, but they’re actually in your coat pocket). What this means is that someone who might be aroused due to fear might end up thinking they’re actually rather attracted to someone else instead, because both of those things – fear and sexual attraction – involve physiological arousal (in the form of things like an increased heart rate); apparently, physiological arousal is pretty vague and confusing thing for our brains. One study purporting to show this effect is a classic paper covered in many psychological textbooks: Dutton & Aron (1974). In the most famous experiment of the study, 85 men were approached by a confederate (either a man or a woman) after crossing a fear-inducing bridge or a non-fear-inducing bridge. The men were given a quick survey and asked to write a short story about an ambiguous image of a woman, after which the confederate provides the men with their number if they want to call and discuss the study further. The idea here is that the men might call if they were interested in a date, rather than the study, which seems reasonable.

When the men’s stories were assess for sexual content, those who had crossed the fear-inducing bridge tended to write stories containing more sexual content (M = 2.47 out of 5) compared to when they crossed the non-fear-inducing bridge (M = 1.41). However, this was only the case when the confederate was female; when a male confederate was administering the questions, there was no difference between the two condition in terms of sexual content (M = 0.8 and 0.61, respectively). Similarly, the male subjects were more likely to call the confederate following the interaction when crossing the fear bridge (39%), relative to the non-fear bridge (9%). Again, this difference was only significant when the confederate was a female; male confederates were called at the same rate (8% and 4.5%, respectively).  Dutton & Aron (1974) suggest that these results were consistent with a type of “cognitive relabeling”, where the arousal from fear becomes reinterpreted by the subjects as sexual attraction. The authors further (seem to, anyway) suggest that this relabeling might be useful because anxiety and fear are unpleasant things to feel, so by labeling them as sexual attraction, subjects get to feel good things (like horny) instead.

“There we go; much better”

These explanations – that the mind mistakes fear arousal for sexual arousal, and that this is useful because it makes people feel good – are both theoretically deficient, and in big ways. To understand why with a single example, let’s consider a hiker out in the wood who encounters a bear. Now this bear is none-too-happy to see the hiker and begins to charge at him. The hiker will, undoubtedly, experience a great deal of physiological arousal. So, what would happen if the hiker mistook his fear for sexual interest? At best, he would end up achieving an unproductive copulation; at worse, he would end up inside the bear, but not in the way he might have hoped. The first point to this example, then, is that the appropriate responses to fear and sexual attraction are quite different: fear should motivate you to avoid, escape, or defend against a threat, whereas sexual attraction should motivate you to more towards the object of your desires instead. Any cognitive system that could easily blur the lines between these two (and other) types of arousal would appear to be at a disadvantage, relative to one that did not make such mistakes. We would end up running away from our dates into the arms of bears. Unproductive indeed.

The second, related point is that feeling good per se does not do anything useful. I might feel better if I never experienced hunger; I might also starve to death, despite being perfectly content about the situation. As such, “anxiety-reduction” is not even a plausible function for this ostensible cognitive relabeling. If anxiety reduction were a plausible function, one would be left wondering why people bothered to feel anxiety in the first place: it seems easier to not bother feeling anxiety than to have one mechanism that – unproductively – generates it, and a second which quashes it. What we need here, then, is an entirely different type of explanation to understand these results; one that doesn’t rely on biologically-implausible functions or rather sloppy cognitive design. To understand what that explanation might look like, we could consider the following comic:

“I will take a prostitute, though, if you happen to have one…”

The joke here, obviously, is that the refusal of a cigarette prior to execution by firing squad for health reasons is silly; it only makes sense to worry about one’s health in the future if there is a future to worry about. Accordingly, we might predict that people who face (or at least perceive) uncertainty about their future might be less willing to forgo current benefits for future rewards. That is, they should be more focused on achieving short-term rewards: they might be more likely to use drugs, less likely to save money, less likely to diet, more likely to seek the protection of others, and more likely to have affairs if the opportunity arose. They would do all this not because they “mistook” their arousal from fear about the future for sexual attraction, pleasant tastes, friendship, and fiscal irresponsibility, but rather because information about their likely future has shifted the balance of preexisting cost/benefit ratios in favor of certain alternatives. They know that the cigarette would be bad for their future health, but there’s less of a future to worry about, so they might as well get the benefits of smoking while they can.

Such an explanation is necessarily speculative and incomplete (owing to this being a blog and not a theory piece), but it would certainly begin to help explain why people in relationships don’t seem to “mistake” their arousal from riding a roller-coaster for heightened levels of stranger attractiveness the way single people do (Meston & Frohlich, 2003). Not only that, but those in relationships didn’t rate their partners as any more attractive either; in fact, if anything, the aroused roller-coaster riders in committed relationships rated their partners as slightly less attractive, which might represent a subtle shift in one’s weighing of an existing cost/benefit ratio (related to commitment, in this case) in the light of new information about the future. Then again, maybe people in relationships are just less likely to misplace their arousal than single folk happen to be…

References: Dutton, D. & Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517.

Meston, C. & Frohlich, P. (2003). Love at first fright: Partner salience moderates roller-coaster-induced excitation transfer. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32, 537-544.