A Great Time For Women In STEM

In last week’s post, I reviewed some evidence that video games do not appear to be doing any damage to women, either in the form of encouraging negative sexism against them or making them internalize any of those ideas themselves. This should be considered good news for the people who have been doing a lot of hand wringing over sexism being encouraged in recreational media, though I suspect many of them will not be overjoyed with the findings. This ironic lack of enthusiasm about such data, where it exists, could be chalked up to those who have a vested social interest – and perhaps even established careers – in the notion that women are being disadvantaged and discriminated against, as victimhood can grant one a paradoxically strong position in the right contexts. Accordingly, a lack of evidence concerning discrimination and sexism would be threatening the goose that lays the golden eggs, so to speak. All the worse for the hand-wringers, some new data has just been published suggesting that women are actually finding themselves advantaged in the realm of obtaining STEM faculty careers.

“There are too many successful women; it’s tanking my dissertation”

The good news will get even worse for those who would, somewhat perversely, prefer to read about data suggesting women are being harmed, despite opposing that outcome: the data upon which those results are based are rather comprehensive. Heading off the standard claims of non-representative samples, the current paper (Williams & Ceci, 2015) presents data from approximately 900 faculty members across 50 states and 371 universities, tested between 5 different experiments and utilizing 20 different sets of materials. Williams & Ceci (2015) even provided an additional incentive ($25) to sample of about 100 subjects to elicit a higher response rate (about 90%) so as to ensure those who responded to their solicitation (about 35%) were deemed unlikely to be different than those who failed to respond.  As far as typical research within psychology goes, this data set represents a truly Herculean feat of collection and validation.

With that piece out of way, let’s consider what the researchers did and what they found. In the first experiment, (N = 363, equally split between men and women), faculty in biology, psychology, economics, and engineering were presented with three candidates to assess for an associate professor position at their university. While the target candidate’s credentials were held constant, their gender was varied via references to them as “he” or “she”. The target was also described on lifestyle variables related to martial and parental status. When compared against an identical candidate, women were favored 67% of time over men, representing a 2-to-1 female advantage; a result which held pretty consistently across types of institutions, sex of participants, lifestyles of the targets, and field of study. Apples-to-apples, women seemed to be heavily favored as job candidates. The only exception to this pattern was that male economists were markedly unbiased with respect to the sex of the applicants. Good for you, male economists; you seem to be a very fair-minded bunch.

When divergent lifestyles of the targets were compared against each other in experiment 2 (N = 144), some changes in that effect were observed. When comparing a married male with a stay-at-home spouse to a divorced mother, both of whom had two young children, female participants preferred the divorced mother 71% of the time, whereas male participants preferred the father 57%. While there was a sex difference in that apples-to-oranges case, when it was a single, childless woman competing against a married father, the woman won 3:1 with male participants and 4:1 with females. This is in line with some recent data concerning young, single women out-earning their male peers.

Nothing will ever beat that lack of baggage

Another sex difference popped up in experiment 3 (N = 204), where a man or woman who took a one year paternity/maternity leave in graduate school was compared against one who did not, though both had children. Whereas the male faculty preferred the woman who took a leave over the one who did not by 2:1, they didn’t seem care to whether the man did. The female participants similarly didn’t care about male paternity leave, though they favored the woman who continued to work about 2:1 over the woman who took the leave. Maternity leave during graduate school may or may not hurt, then, depending on the sex of the person doing the assessing. For female faculty, it’s a bad thing; for males, it’s good.

In experiment 4, a smaller sample was used (35 engineering professors), but the prospective candidates now came complete with a full CV, rather than just a narrative summary. The same difference in favor of women came out as in study 1 (it was actually slightly more favorable towards the women, though not substantially so), and that’s for engineering; one of the more male-dominated professions out there. Finally, experiment 5 asked participants to evaluate single candidates, rather than choose among three different ones. Now each candidate had to stand on their own merits, removing some potential for socially-desirable comparisons being made, such as a man against a woman. When rating the candidates individually on a 1-10 scale of desirability as a hire, participants (N = 127) gave the identical female a full point higher on the scale, relative to the male (8.2 and 7.1, respectively). They really seemed to like the women more.

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but if these preferences were found to run against women, rather than in favor of them, I can only imagine the hordes of people who would be tripping over each other to be the most offended and outraged by them. As it stands, the authors’ conclusions that relatively low female representation in some fields is likely a product of women applying for them in fewer numbers, rather than any bias against women in the hiring process, seems reasonable. In fact, to the extent that women are being told that these areas are biased against them (when the opposite is true), the representation gap might even be encouraged, since no one wants to apply to work in a field they think will be hostile to them. So, if you’re a woman looking to get into the STEM fields, now might be a good time to try.

As for me, it’s back to the applications. By the way, got any change?

Now the reasons this bias in favor of women exists is a matter for speculation. My immediate guess on the matter would be that faculty seem to favor good female candidates over equally-good males because they are trying to, for lack of a better word, look good. Many people seem to have truly embraced the idea of diversity (inasmuch as things like sex/race per se make people more diverse in meaningful ways), and want to come off as accepting and tolerant: their only concern is getting more diverse people to apply. This speculation would hold at least as much as including more women is concerned; I don’t know that fields in which women dominate are actively looking to recruit more men to diversify the place up. They might be, but I don’t know of them.

Will this finding be tolerated or embraced by certain vocal subgroups of people who want to see sexism against women ended? I suspect not. Instead, I imagine this data will be treated the same way some previous data about traffic stops was: even when they find a female advantage, they will continue to dig for specific cases in which women were disadvantaged. They already have their conclusion – women are discriminated against – they just have to find the evidence. As it turns out, that last part can be tricky.

References: Williams, W. & Ceci, S. (2015). National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Are Video Games Making People Sexist?

If the warnings of certain pop-culture critics are correct, there’s a harm being perpetuated against women in the form of video games, where women are portrayed as lacking agency, sexualized, or prizes to be won by male characters. The harm comes from the downstream effects of playing these games, as it would lead to players – male and female – developing beliefs about the roles and capabilities of men and women from their depictions, entrenching sexist attitudes against women and, presumably, killing women’s aspirations to be more than mere ornaments for men as readily as one kills the waves of enemies that run directly into their crosshairs in any modern shooter. It’s a very blank slate type of view of human personality; one which suggests that there’s really not a whole lot inside our heads but a mound of person-clay, waiting to be shaped by the first set of media representations we come across. This blank slate view also happens to be a widely-implausible one lacking much in the way of empirical support.

Which would explain why my Stepford wife collection was so hard to build

The blank slate view of the human mind, or at least one of its many varieties, has apparently found itself a new name lately: cultivation theory. In the proud tradition of coming up with psychological theories that are not actually theories, cultivation theory restates an intuition: that the more one is exposed to or uses a certain type of media, the more one’s views will come to resemble what gets depicted in that medium. So, if one plays too many violent video games, say, they should be expected to turn into more violent people over time. This hasn’t happened yet, and violent content per se doesn’t seem to be the culprit of anger or aggression anyway, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying to push the idea that it could, will, or is currently happening. A similar idea mentioned in the introduction would suggest that if people are playing games in which women are depicted in certain ways – or not depicted at all – people will develop negative attitudes to them over time as they play more of these games.

What’s remarkable about these intuitions is how widely they appear to be held, or at least entertained seriously, in the absence of any real evidence that this cultivation of attitudes actually happens. Recently, the first longitudinal test of this cultivation idea was reported by Breuer et al (2015). Drawing on some data from German gamers, the researchers were able to examine how video game use and sexist attitudes changed from 2011 to 2013 among men and women. If there’s any cultivation going on, a few years ought to be long enough to detect at least some of it. The study ended up reporting on data from 824 participants (360 female), ages 14-85 (M = 38) concerning their sex, education level, frequency of game use, preference of genre of game, and sexist attitudes. The latter measure was derived from agreement on a scale from 1 to 5 concerning three questions: whether men should be responsible for major decisions in the family, whether men should take on leadership roles in mixed-sex groups, and whether women should take care of the home, even if both partners are wage earners.

Before getting into the relationships between video game use and sexist attitudes, I would like to note at the outset a bit of news which should be good for almost everyone: sexist attitudes were quite low, with each question garnering about an average agreement of about 1.8. As the scale is anchored from “strongly disagree” to “agree completely”, these scores would indicate that the sexist statements were met with rather palpable disagreement on the whole. There was a modest negative correlation between education and acceptance of those views, as well as a small, and male-specific, negative correlation with age. In other words, those who disagreed with those statements the least tended to be modestly less educated and, if they were male, younger. The questions of the day, though, are whether those people who play more video games are more accepting of such attitudes and whether that relationship grows larger over time.

Damn you, Call of Duty! This is all your fault!

As it turns out, no; they are not. In 2011, the regression coefficients for video game use and sexist attitudes were .04 and .06 for women and men, respectively (in 2013, these numbers were -.08 and -.07). Over time, not much changed: the female association between video game use in 2011 and sexist attitudes in 2013 was .12, while the male association was -.08. If video games were making people more accepting of sexism, it wasn’t showing up here. The analysis was attempted again, this time taking into account specific genres of gaming, including role-playing, action, and first-person shooters; genres in which women are thought to be particularly underrepresented or represented in sexist fashions (full disclosure: I don’t know what a sexist depiction of a woman in a game is supposed to look like, though it seems to be an umbrella term for a lot of different things from presence vs absence, to sexualization, to having women get kidnapped, none of which strike me as sexist, in the strict sense of the word. Instead, it seems to be a term that stands in for some personal distaste on the part of the person doing the assessment). However, considerations of specific genres yielded no notable associations between gaming and endorsement of the sexist statements either, which would seem to leave the cultivation theory dead in the water.

Breuer et al (2015) note that their results appear inconsistent with previous work by Stermer & Burkley (2012) that suggested a correlation exists between sexist video game exposure and endorsement of “benevolent sexism”. In that study, 61 men and 114 women were asked about the three games they played the most, ranked each on a 1-7 scale concerning how much sexism was present in them (again, this term doesn’t seem to be defined in any clear fashion), and then completed the ambivalent sexism scale; a dubious measure I have touched upon before. The results reported by Stermer & Burkley (2012) found participants reporting a very small amount of perceived sexism in their favorite games (M = 1.87 for men and 1.54 for women) and, replicating past work, also found no difference of endorsement of benevolent sexism between men and women on average, nor among those who played games they perceived to be sexist and those who did not, though men who perceived more sexism in their games endorsed the benevolent items relatively more (β = 0.21). Finally, it’s worth noting there was no connection between the hostile sexism score and video game playing. One issue might raise about this design concerns asking people explicitly about whether their leisure time activities are sexist and then immediately asking them about how much they value women and feel they should be protected. People might be right to begin thinking about how experimental demand characteristics could be effecting the results at that point.

Tell me about how much you hate women and why that’s due to video games

So is there much room to worry about when it comes to video games turning people into sexists? According to the present results, I would say probably not. Not only was the connection between sexism and video game playing small to the point of nonexistence in the larger, longitudinal sample, but the overall endorsement and perception of sexism in these samples is close to a floor effect. Rather than shaping our psychology in appreciable ways, a more likely hypothesis is that various types of media – from video games to movies and beyond - reflect aspects of it. To use a simple example, men aren’t drawn to being soldiers because of video games, but video games reflect the fact that most soldiers are men. For whatever reason, this hypothesis appears to receive considerably less attention (perhaps because it makes for a less exciting moral panic?). When it comes to video games, certain features our psychology might be easier to translate into compelling game play, leading to certain aspects more typical of men’s psychology being more heavily represented. In that sense, it would be rather strange to say that women are underrepresented in gaming, as one needs a reference point to what appropriate representation would mean and, as far as I can tell, that part is largely absent; kind of like how most research on stereotypes begins by assuming that they’re entirely false.

References: Breuer, J., Kowert, R., Festl, R., & Quandt, T. (2015). Sexist games = sexist gamers? A longitudinal study on the relationship between video game use and sexist attitudes. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 18, 1-6.

Stermer, P. & Burkley, M. (2012). SeX-Box: Exposure to sexist video games predicts benevolent sexism. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4, 47-56.

Announcing A New Journal In Psychology

For the last week, I have found myself residing in the blissful haven that I would call a video game coma. With new content for another game on the horizon, the good news doesn’t stop rolling in for me. While video games might be a great source of recreation and pleasure, did you know that playing video games has all sorts of positive consequences? Among the many documented benefits, they serve a wonderful ego-boosting function, lead to increases in mental acuity and intelligence, help build social skills and, perhaps shockingly, even help build muscle mass while burning fat. In fact, an hour of gaming can be directly compared to an hour of strenuous exercise at the gym in terms of physique and health outcomes. Now I can assure you that all these things happen to be true so long as you don’t ask me for a source. Unfortunately, these results will never see publication in the current mainstream of psychological journals, owing to the fact that editorial boards demand that such claims be met with empirical support.

Demands I’m frankly too busy to meet.

In this day and age, psychological research finds itself in a tough spot. There have been claims made that researchers are manipulating their data in various ways to try and find statistically-significant results – a practice known as p-hacking or employing researcher degrees of freedom. Assuming that such practices are not employed by researchers, journals are already notorious for only publishing positive findings, avoiding publishing failures to replicate. There have even been a few prominent cases of data being flat-out fabricated by researchers. Even foregoing these issues, there are also always concerns raised by critics that some experiments might be so poorly designed that the data obtained from them doesn’t really tell us much of value. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to believe that leading questions are bad things for making scientific progress. All this trouble with data in psychology – from it not existing, to it not cooperating, through it being useless – is a relatively constant headache for many otherwise-talented researchers seeking outlets for their conclusions.

The lack of data cooperation is especially troublesome for those of us who have political or personal agendas to advance through our research. For example, the majority of people can agree that sexism against women must be put to an end. To ensure that other people take up this cause, it’s important to put out demonstration after demonstration about how each and every sex difference can be attributed in whole to both overt and subtle types of sexism against women. What is a researcher to do, then, if it turns out the conclusion they began with is not being supported by the data? Are they to just abandon their cause in that instance, or perhaps modify their stance? Of course not, but going back in and trying to make the data fit the conclusion can be a time consuming and occasionally unsuccessful process. This, my colleagues, is where I am proud to announce that I – along with my collaborators – have managed to solve these problems with our new journal, Psychological Feelings Review. The underpinnings of this journal will change the face of psychology forever.

Quite the improvement, if I do say so myself

What new ideas will Psychological Feelings Review bring to the table? For starters, our new journal will be banning the reporting of data altogether. Historically, important ideas in psychology and data have frequently found themselves at odds, and we feel by banning the use of data we can finally put an end to this meaningless conflict. Instead of reporting data, we strongly encourage those who submit to Psychological Feelings Review to instead just report the conclusions they were going to begin their research with anyway. The nature of the conclusions themselves less important than the level of pretentious snark or moral indignation through which they are expressed. Conclusions can be strengthened by repeating them, each time adding some level of formatting-based emphasis, as replications are important. Conclusions can be strengthened by repeating them, each time adding some level of formatting-based emphasis, as replications are important. Conclusions can be strengthened by repeating them, each time adding some level of formatting-based emphasis, as replications are important.

Our journal is a mere fledgling right now, and we do assume there will be criticism from the lame-stream of psychology who are seeking desperately to maintain their structural power monopoly on what they deem to be truth; an idea recently confirmed in our first forthcoming issue. In order to help authors respond to these criticisms, the editorial board has put together the following quick list of suggestions: first and foremost, remember, do not reference data in your replies to mainstream outlets; don’t start playing the game they want to play. Instead, try and assassinate the character of the author(s) you are replying to, such as by claiming they hate minority groups, that their ideas have grave social implications likely to lead to genocide, or that they have been credibly threatening you and your pets with violence to try and shut you up. Alternatively, you can also add some section to your reply making it clear that you “can’t even right now”, while also suggesting that your detractors need to go out and educate themselves. This latter tactic is especially effective, as it takes the burden off you needing to source your obviously-true claim while also casting doubt on the credibility of the critic: if your critics can’t be trusted to be well-informed about the topic in question, their concerns and comments can be safely dismissed as the ravings of an angry madman, all while you establish yourself as the insightful party who just doesn’t have the time or mental energy to deal with them; they’re just too far beneath you for you to even bother.

We also strongly encourage women and minority groups to submit to Psychological Feelings Review, as the questioning of conclusions from these groups can be taken as prima facie evidence of sexist or racist biases, allowing critics to be more safely dismissed. If you happen to not be a member of these groups, we would also strongly encourage you to at least publicly claim you are. The same guidelines hold for research on topics which the author has a personal history with. For instance, if you are concluding things about the negative effects of objectification, make sure to recount some moving personal anecdote about a time you’re moderately sure you were personally and severely disadvantaged because of it. Nothing says “objectively right” quite like a strong vested interest in the conclusion you’re pushing. If the conclusions sit well with other people’s intuitions, there’s a lower probability of them being questioned, and anecdotes help here; if they do not, you then have the ability to complain loudly about having your lived experiences erased by arrogant bigots who couldn’t possibility begin to understand what they’re talking about.

Don’t let other people’s experiences speak for them; that’s your job

Finally, we do anticipate that our journal will receive more submissions than could possibly be published, owing to space and time constraints. Until other journals take up our data-exclusionary methods, we will be forced into the uncomfortable position of having to only publish the conclusions that support our personal biases to the highest degree, or at least the ones we find most interesting after a night of heavy drinking. While this peer-review process might seem harsh, we believe it is one of the existing traditions of psychological review and publication that should be maintained in its current form, owing to its completely open-ended and intuition-based nature. After all, confronting challenges to one’s worldview is always unpleasant, so it seems selfish that any of you would ask us to do so in order to publish your work. Anyone submitting such papers really needs to get a life, and quit being so malicious towards us. I just…can’t even right now.

Are People Inequality Averse?

People are averse to a great many things: most of us are averse to the smell of feces or the taste of rotting food; a few people are averse to idea of intercourse with opposite sex individuals, while many people are averse to same-sex intercourse. As I have been learning lately, there are also many people who happen to be in charge of managing academic journals that are averse to the idea of publishing research papers with only a single experiment in them. Related to that last point, there have been claims made that people are averse to inequality per se. I happen to have a new (ish; it’s been written up for over a year) experiment which I feel speaks to the matter that I can hopefully find a home for soon. In the meantime, since I will be talking about this paper at an upcoming conference (NEEPS), I have decided to share some of the results with all of you pre-publication. Anyone interested in reading the paper proper can feel free to contact me for a copy.

   And anyone out there with an interest in publishing it…

To start off, consider the research that my experiment was based on which purports to demonstrate that human punishment is driven by inequality, rather than losses; a rather shocking claim. Rahani & McAuliffe (2012) note that many experiments examining human punishment possess an interesting confound: they tend to generate both losses and inequality for participants. Here’s an example to make that more concrete: in what’s known as a public goods game, a group of four individuals are each given a sum of money. Each individual can decide how much of their money to contribute to a public pot. Every dollar put into the public pot gets multiplied by three and then the pot is equally distributed among all players. From the perspective of getting the maximum overall payment for the group, each member should contribute all their money, meaning everyone makes three times the amount they started out with. However, for any individual player to maximize their own payment, the best course of action is to contribute nothing, as every dollar contributed only returns 75 cents to their own payment. The best payoff for you, then, would be if everyone else contributed all of their money (giving you $0.75 for every dollar they have), and for you to keep all your money. The public and private goods are at odds.

A large body of literature finds that those who contribute to the public good are more likely to desire that costs be inflicted on those who do not contribute as much. In fact, if they’re given the option, contributors will often pay some of their remaining money to inflict costs on those who did not contribute. The question of interest here is what precisely is being punished? On the one hand, those who contributed are, in some sense, having a cost inflicted on them by less cooperative individuals; on the other, they also find themselves at a payoff disadvantage, relative to those who did not contribute. So are these punitive sentiments being driven by losses, inequality, or both?

To help answer that question, Rahani & McAuliffe (2012) put together a taking game. Two players – X and Y – started the game with a sum of money. Player X could take some amount of money from Y and add it to his own payment; player Y could, in turn, pay some of their money to reduce player X’s payment following the decision to take or not. The twist on this experiment is that each player started out with a different amount of money. In cents, the starting payments were: 10/70, 30/70, and 70/70, respectively. As player X could take 20 cents from Y, the resulting payments (if X opted to take the money) would be 30/50, 50/50, or 90/50. So, in all cases, X could take the same amount of money from Y; however, in only one case would this taking generate inequality favoring X. The question, then, is how Y would punish X for their behavior.

The experiment found that when X did not take any money from Y, Y did not spend much to punish (about 11% of subjects paid to punish the non-taker). As there’s no inequality favoring X and no losses incurred by Y, this lack of punishment isn’t terribly shocking. However, when X did take money from Y, Y did spend quite a bit on punishment, but only when the taking generated inequality favoring X. In the event that X ended up still worse off, or as well off, as Y after the taking, Y did not punish significantly more than if X took nothing in the first place (about 15% in the first two conditions and 42% in the third). This would seem to demonstrate that inequality – not losses – is what is being punished.

 ”Just let him take it; he’s probably worse off than you”

Unfortunately for this conclusion, the experiment by Raihani & McAuliffe (2012) contains a series of confounds as well. The most relevant of these is that there was no way for X to generate inequality that favored them without taking from Y. This means that, despite the contention of the authors, its still impossible to tell whether the taking or the inequality is being punished. To get around this issue, I replicated their initial study (with a few changes to the details, keeping the method largely the same), but made two additions: the introduction of two new conditions. In the first of these conditions, player X could only add to their own payment, leaving Y’s payment unmolested; in the second, player X could only deduct from player Y’s payment, leaving their own payment the same. What this means is that now inequality could be generated via three different methods: someone taking from the participant, someone adding to their own payment, and someone destroying some of the other participant’s payment.

If people are punishing inequality per se and not losses, the means by which the inequality gets generated should not matter: taking should be just as deserving of punishment as destruction or augmentation. However, this was not the pattern of results I observed. I did replicate the original results of Raihani & McAuliffe (2012) – where taking resulted in more punishment when the taker ended up with more than their victim (75% of players punished), while the other two conditions did not show this pattern (punishment rates of 40% and 47%). When participants had their payment deducted by the other player without that other player benefiting, punishment was universally high and inequality played no significant role in determining punishment (63%, 53%, and 51%, respectively). Similarly, when the other player just benefited himself without affecting the participant’s payment participants were rather uninterested in punishment, regardless of whether that person ended up better off than them (18%, 19%, and 14%).

In summary, my results show that punishment tended to be driven primarily by losses. This makes a good deal of theoretical sense when considered from an evolutionary perspective: making a few reasonable assumptions, we can say any adaptation that led its bearer to tolerate costs inflicted by others in order to allow those others to be better off would not have a bright reproductive future. By contrast, punishing individuals who inflict costs on you can readily be selected for to the extent that it stops them from doing so again in the future. The role of inequality only seemed to exist in the context of the taking. Why might that be the case? While it’s only speculation on my part, I feel the answer to that question has quite a bit to how other, uninvolved parties might react to such punishment. If needier individuals make better social investments – all else being equal – other third parties might be less willing to subsidize the costs of punishing them, deterring the actual person who was taken from from punishing the taker in turn. The logic is a bit more involved than that, but the answer to the question seems to involve wanted to provide benefits towards those who would appreciate them most for the best return on it.

“Won’t someone think about the feelings of the rich? Probably not”

The hypothesis that people are averse to inequality itself seems to rest on rather shaky theoretical foundations as well. An adaptation that exists to achieve equality with others sounds like a rather strange kind of mechanism. In no small part, it’s weird because equality is a constraint on behavior, and constraining behavior does not allow certain, more-useful outcomes to be reached. As an example, if I have a choice between $5 for both of us or $7 for you and $10 for me, the latter option is clearly better for both of us, but the constraint of equality would prevent me from taking it. Further, if you’re inflicting costs on me, it seems I would be better off if I could prevent you from inflicting them. A poorer person mugging me doesn’t suddenly mean that being mugged would not be something I want to avoid. Perhaps there are good, adaptive reasons that equality-seeking mechanisms could exist despite the costs they seem liable to reliably inflict on their bearers. Perhaps there are also good reasons for many journals only accepting papers with multiple experiments in them. I’m open to hearing arguments for both.

References: Marczyk, J. (Written over a year ago). Human punishment is not primarily motivated by inequality aversion. Journal of Orphan Papers Seeking a Home. 

Raihani, N. & McAuliffe, K. (2012). Human punishment is motivated by inequality aversion, not a desire for reciprocity. Biology Letters, 8, 802-804.

Much Ado About Penis Size

Let’s say you’re trying out for the NBA. You’ve had dreams of being a professional basketball player your whole life and have been eagerly awaiting this chance to finally show off what you can do. There’s only one thing standing between you and basketball fame: you’re a fairly average player. Your skills happen to fall right about on the population mean, however one decides to measure that. While you manage to hit a few layups and jump shots, you also miss a number of them, and you don’t excel at blocking other players either. As a result, the recruiters are not impressed by your skills and decide to move forward with other players. When you go to tell your friends and family, they do their best to try and console you by assuring you that many people aren’t as good as you at the game and most people don’t really care that much about basketball anyway. A valiant effort on their part, but, ultimately, it is unlikely to prove effective.

Just like you at basketball

The moral of that short story is that, in many social contexts, average is often not preferable. When people are recruiting basketball players, they aren’t looking for average ones; they’re looking for people better than average. The same frequently holds true for mating contexts: when people are seeking mates, they are not often looking for average ones; they’re seeking individuals who possess certain desirable traits at above average levels, regardless of whether those traits are physical or psychological in nature. Some notable examples might be traits like physical symmetry, intelligence, and ambition, with increasing amounts of these characteristics tending to make their bearer more sexually attractive in the eyes of others. If you want to do well for yourself in the mating world, you would do well to possess above-average amounts of those traits; if you don’t have them, all the worse for your prospects of attracting and retaining someone desirable.

One such trait that has made the news lately has been male penis size. A recent paper by Veale et al (2014) sought to assess the average male penis size, both flaccid and erect. As my posts dealing with sex tend to be the most popular, it was unsurprising to see the story gain traction in news headlines. One of the primary motivations for this study, as evidenced by both its title (beginning “Am I normal?”) and introduction, was to try and provide some degree of psychological comfort to men who are insecure about their size of their penis, despite falling within the average range. To do so, the authors conducted a metanalysis, examining reported penis size measurements across a number of studies. To be included in the analysis, the studies needed to, among other things, report mean and standard deviations of penis size collected by a health professional, and the study needed to have included 50 or more males over the age of 17. This left Veale et al (2014) with a total of 20 studies on penis size, representing approximately 1,500 subjects.

The analysis yielded the following picture: the average flaccid and erect lengths of a penis were about 9 and 13 centimeters, respectively, or 3.5 and 5.1 inches. The standard deviation of these measures were 1.5 and 1 centimeters, or 0.6 and 0.4 inches, respectively. While the sample was predominately from white populations, the data from non-white populations (about 700 individuals) did not appear to be exceptional. The authors end their paper as they began: by noting that previous research has found that knowledge of average male penis length can lead to men anxious about their size becoming more secure. While I don’t have any particular interest in making men uncomfortable about their penis size, as with the initial basketball example, I would note that data concerning the average size of a male penis doesn’t necessarily tell us much about whether a given man would be – for lack of a better word – rightly insecure about their penis size. The key piece of information missing from that picture concerns women’s preferences.

“…you’re welcome”

I would find it a rather strange state of affairs if men were anxious about the size of their penis (or bank account, or biceps, or….) if such matters weren’t actually important to others – in this case, women making mating decisions. So what do men and women think about penis size? After some fuss about cultural messages concerning penis size and products which promise to increase it, a 2006 paper by Lever, Fredrick, & Peplau report on some survey data from about 50,000 men and women between ages 18-65 concerning penis size. In this survey, penis size was assessed by having participants rate whether their or their partner’s penis was smaller than average, average, or larger than average; a similar question was asked regarding whether the participants wished their penis was smaller, larger, or neither.

About 66% of men rated their penis as being ‘average’ in size – which would accord well with a normal distribution – with 12% reporting that their penis was small and 22% reporting it was large – which would not. Men either seemed to be doing a little bit of rounding up, so to speak, or men with larger penises were biased towards taking the survey. In terms of male satisfaction with their size, 91% who rated their penis as small wanted to be bigger, 46% of men who rated it average wanted more, and 14% of those who said they were large wanted even more still. In general, the larger a man thought his penis was, the happier he was with it, and almost no men reported wanting a smaller penis.

How did the men’s ratings stack up against the women’s? About 67% of women reported that their partner’s penis size was about average, 27% thought it was large, and 6% thought it was small. Again, there either seemed to be some rounding up going on or a biased sample was obtained (perhaps because women weren’t sticking around in large numbers with partners who had small penises). On the matter of satisfaction, 84% of women reported being satisfied with their partner’s size, 14% wanted something a bit bigger, and 2% wanted their partner to be smaller. Those numbers are not quite the whole story, though: among women who rated their partner as ‘average’ or ‘large’, there was a high degree of satisfaction (86 and 94%, respectively); when women rated their partner as small, however, 68% wished he was bigger. Men’s worries are certainly not without a foundation, it would seem, and the market that tries to cater to those worries will likely continue to exist.

“…Step 3: Firmly attach cucumber to groin area and stitch into place”

There are two important conclusions to take away from this data. The first is to suggest, as many would, that women are largely satisfied with their partner’s penis, so long as it’s average or above. The second point is that when women did express a preference for size, it tends to be towards the larger end of things; in fact, women were about 7-times more likely to desire a larger penis in their partner, relative to a smaller one. So men’s concerns in that area are anything but unfounded.

There are also two caveats to bear in mind: the first is that, as I mentioned, the sample of people filling out the penis survey might be biased away from the small side, or that their self-reports might not be entirely accurate. The second and more important point is that the response choices available on this survey might underestimate women’s preferences somewhat. For instance, this handy chart (which I have not fact checked) suggests that women’s ideal penis preferences might hang around the range of 6.5 to 8.5 inches in length, though many other sizes might prove to be enjoyable (if a bit less enjoyable than they otherwise might be). So while many men might be curious as to whether they’re normal, the corollary point is that women’s average ideal size would reside several standard deviations above the mean, using that 5 inches estimate. In much the same way, many men might be relatively unconcerned with a female partner’s smaller breast size – even satisfied with it – but find women with larger-than-average breasts more appealing, all else being equal. The question many men might be concerned with, then, is not whether they’re average relative to other men, but how well they manage to fill women’s desires.

References: Lever, J., Fredrick, D., & Peplau, L. (2006). Does size matter? Men and women’s views on penis size across the lifespan. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 7, 129-143.

Veale, D., Miles, S., Bramley, S., Muir, G., & Hodsoll, J. (2014). Am I normal? A systematic review and construction of nomagrams for flaccid and erect penis lengths and circumferences in up to 15,215 men. BJU International, doi:10.1111/bju.13010

Should Men Have A Voice In The Abortion Debate?

I recently found myself engaged in an interesting discussion on the matter of abortion (everyone’s favorite topic for making friends and civil conversation). The unique thing about this debate was that I found myself in agreement with the other party when it came to the heart of the matter: whether abortions should be legally available and morally condemned (our answers would be “yes” and “no”, respectively). With such convergent views, one might wonder what there is left to argue about. Well, the discussion centered on whether I, as a man, should be able to have any opinion about abortion (positive or negative), or whether such opinions – and corresponding legislation – should be restricted to women. In this case, my friend suggested that I was, in fact, not entitled to hold any views about abortion because of my gender, going on to state that she was not interested in hearing any men’s opinions on the issue. She even went as far as to suggest that the feelings of a woman who disagreed with her stance about abortion would be more valid than mine on the matter. This struck me as a frankly sexist and bigoted view (in case you don’t understand why it sounds that way, imagine I ended this post by saying “I’m not interested in hearing any women’s views on this subject” and you should get the picture), but one I think is worth examining a bit further, especially because my friend’s view was not some anomaly; it’s a perspective I’ve heard before.

So it’s worth having my thoughts ready for future reference when this comes up again

As for the disagreement itself, I was curious why my friend felt this way: specifically, why she did she believe men are precluded from having opinions on abortions? Her argument was that men cannot understand the issue because they are not the one carrying the babies, having periods, taking hormonal birth control, feeling the day-to-day effects of pregnancy on one’s body, and so on. The argument, then, seems to involve the idea that women have privileged access to some relevant information (based on firsthand experience, or at least the potential of it) which men do not, as well as the idea that women are the ones enduring the lion’s share of the consequences resulting from pregnancy. I wanted to examine each of these claims to show why they do not yield the conclusion she felt they did.

The first piece of information I wanted to discuss is one I mentioned sometime ago: men and women do not appear to differ appreciably in their views regarding abortion. According to some Gallup data from 1975-2009 concerning the matter, between 22-35% of women believed abortion should be legal in all circumstance, 15-21% believed it should be illegal in all, and 48-55% of women believed it should be legal in some circumstances; the corresponding ranges for men were  21-29%, 13-19%, and 54-59%, respectively. From those numbers, we can see that men and women seem to hold largely similar views about abortion. My friend expressed a disinterest in hearing about this information, presumably because she did not feel it had any relevance to the argument at hand.

However, I feel there is a real relevance to those numbers that speaks to the first point my friend made: that women have privileged access to certain experiences and information men do not. It’s true enough that men and women have different experiences and perceptions in certain domains on average; I don’t know anyone who would deny that. However, those differences in experiences do not appear to yield substantial differences in opinion on the matter of abortion. This is a rather curious point. How are we to interpret this lack of a difference? Here are two ways that come to mind: first, we could continue to say that women have access to some privileged source of information bearing on the moral acceptability of abortion which men do not, but, despite this asymmetry in information, both sexes come to agreement about the topic in almost equal numbers anyway. In this case, then, we would be using a variable factor to explain a lack of differences between the sexes (i.e., “men and women come to agree on abortion almost perfectly owing to their vastly different experiences that the other sex cannot understand).

There might also just be a very similar person behind the mirror

This first interpretation strikes me as particularly unlikely, though not impossible. The second (and more likely) interpretation that comes to mind is that, despite frequent contentions to the contrary, variables relating to one’s sex per se – such as having periods or being the ones to give birth – are not actually the factors primarily driving views on abortion. If abortion views are driven instead by, say, one’s sexual strategy (whether one tends to prefer more long-term, monogamous or short-term, promiscuous mating arrangements), then the idea that men cannot understand arguments for or against abortion because of some unique experiences they do not have falls apart. Men and women both possess cognitive adaptions for long- and short-term mating strategies so, if those mechanisms are among the primary drivers of abortion views, the issue seems perfectly understandable for both sexes. Indeed, I haven’t heard an argument for or against abortion that has just left me baffled, as if it were spoken in a foreign language, regardless of whether I agree or not with it. Maybe I’m just not hanging out at the right parties and not hearing the right arguments.

Even if women were privy to some experiences which men could not understand and those unique experiences shaped their views on abortion, that still strikes me as a strange reason to disallow men from having opinions about it. Being affected by an issue in some unique way – or even primarily – does not mean you’re the only one affected by it, nor that other people can’t hold opinions about how you behave. One example I would raise to help highlight that point would be a fictional man I’ll call Tom. Tom happens to be prone to random outbursts of anger during which he has a habit of yelling at and fighting other people. I would not relate to Tom well; he is uniquely affected by something I am not and he likely sees the world much differently than I would. However, social species that we happen to be, his behavior resulting from those unique experiences has impacts on other people, allowing the construction of moral arguments for why he should or should not be condemned for doing what he does.

To say that abortion is a woman’s issue, or that they’re the only ones allowed to have opinions about it because they bear most of the consequences, is to overlook a lot of social impact. Men have mothers, sisters, friends, and sexual partners would who be affected by the legality of abortion; some men who do not wish to become fathers are certainly affected by abortion laws, just as men who wish to become fathers might be. To again turn to an analogy, one could try to make the argument that members of the military are the people most affected by the decision to go to war (they’re the ones who will be fighting and dying), so they should be the only one’s allowed to vote on the matter of whether our country enters armed combat. Objections to this argument might include propositions such as, “but civilians will be impacted by the war too” which, well, is kind of the whole point.

For example, see this rather strange quote

While one is free to hold to a particular political position without any reason beyond “that’s how I feel”, a position that ends up focusing on the sex of a speaker instead of their ideas seems like the kind of argument that socially-progressive individuals would want to avoid and fight against. To be clear, I’m not saying that sex is never relevant when it comes to determining one’s political and moral views: in my last post, for instance, I discussed the wide gap that appears between men and women with respect to their views about legalized prostitution, with men largely favoring it and women more often opposing it; a gap which widens when presented with information about how legalized prostitution is safer. What’s important to note in that case is that when sex is a relevant factor in the decision-making process we see differences in opinion between men and women’s views; not similarities. Those differences don’t imply that one sex’s average opinion is correct, mind you, but they serve as a cue that factors related to sex – such as mating interests – might be pulling some strings. In such cases, men and women might literally have a hard time understanding the opinion of the opposite sex, just as some people have trouble seeing the infamous dress as either black and blue or gold and white. That just doesn’t seem to be the case for abortion.

Where’s The Market For Organs (And Sex)?

Imagine for a moment that you’re in the market for a new car. While your old car runs fine, you’ve decided you want an upgrade to a newer, fancier model. As new cars are expensive – and because you won’t have much need for the old one anymore – you decide that you want to sell your old car to someone else to raise some of the capital for the new one. This seems like a mutually-beneficial exchange for both you and the buyer. Now if I were to tell you that selling your car is morally repugnant and that you should be legally forbidden from making that sale, you might think me a little strange. You might think it even stranger if I said that I would not object (or at least not as strongly) to you giving your old car away for free. It would seem to make little sense, at least in the abstract, that you’re allowed to give something away that you’re not allowed to sell. A number of goods and services follow this logic for many people in reality, though: namely sex and bodily organs. There are those who feel that people should not be allowed to legally sell sex or kidneys, but don’t prohibit these things from being given away for free if a donor is feeling generous. How are we to understand these interesting – and seemingly contradictory – positions?

Only with lots of in-depth research, one can hope…

Let’s start by considering some cool new data from Elias et al (2015). The researchers collected data from over 3,400 Americans on Mturk split between a control and treatment group. In the control sample, about 1,600 of these participants were just asked about their attitudes concerning the acceptability of organ sales, with roughly 52% of them rating the idea of regulated monetary compensation for bodily organs to be acceptable (as far as I can tell, this wasn’t about a free market for organs, but some government type of program). In the treatment group, the participants were first provided with a short, 500-word essay outlining the current organ shortages faced by people in need of transplants, the consequences of such shortages, and a few proposals that had been put forth to try and alleviate some of those costs. In the face of this information, views about monetary compensation for organs rose dramatically, with 72% of participants in the treatment group rating the proposal as acceptable; an approximate gain of 20%. Moreover, these effects were relatively homogeneous with respect to various features of the respondents, such as, I think, their gender and religious affiliation.

Elias et al (2015) also used this same design to examine attitudes about prostitution. In a second study with another 1,600 US Mturkers, a control group was asked about the acceptability of legalized prostitution while a treatment group received information about how legalized prostitution reduced costly outcomes like sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases. In the control group, prostitution hung around a 67.3% acceptability rating; in the treatment group, this rating was 67.4%. While one might interpret those figures at representing pretty much zero change in acceptability given this information, one would be wrong. The reason this interpretation is incorrect is because, unlike the organ case, the effects of this information were not homogeneous with respect to some participant characteristics. For instance, among men, 78% of the control group supported prostitution while 96% in the treatment group did. How very progressive of them. So why was there no difference between the groups in average acceptability rating? Well, because the women had a much different view: 56% of the women in the control supported prostitution whereas this figure dropped to 41% in the treatment group. A similar effect was seen for the religious and non-religious, with the welfare information making the non-religious more accepting (81% to 94%) and the religious less so (57% to 47%).

One point to take from these results is that welfare concerns do indeed seem to serve as inputs for moral mechanisms. While this point might seem trivial to some, it has been claimed that welfare concerns are used a post-hoc justifications for moral judgments, rather than driving factors. A second point is that the manner in which those welfare consequences matter depends on the individual receiving them: those who are in need of organs represent, for lack of a better word, a “useful” victim; someone who is otherwise a good target of social investment and happens to be facing a temporary state of need (provided they don’t die, that is). On the other hand, prostitutes are less universally “useful” as a recipient of altruism: for men, prostitutes tend to reflect benefits, as they increase short-term mating opportunities; for women, prostitutes tend to reflect costs, decreasing the metaphorical market price of sex. A similar logic holds for religion, to the extent that religious membership tends to reflect member’s preferences for long-term mating strategies, which prostitution threatens.

 Safe prostitution is only making God and his sex-punishing STDs angry

In terms ultimate moral functioning, then, these results appear consistent with an alliance-building function; the one I’ve been going on about for some time now. The short version of that hypothesis is that morality functions, in part, as a kind of ingratiation device, allowing us to identify social assets. It is worth contrasting that function with the hypothesis that our moral psychology is simply functioning to increase welfare more generally. These scenarios were presenting legalized prostitution and organ sales as increasing welfare for certain parties in both cases. However, certain individuals did not seem to want to see those welfare gains achieved for certain groups because the two have opposing best interests in mind. This is understandable in precisely the same way that I would not only want to avoid give the guy threatening me with a knife access to benefits he otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve, but I would also want to have costs inflicted upon him to stop him from making my life harder. While the costs inflicted by prostitutes on long-term maters might be substantially less intentional and more indirect, they are costs nonetheless.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that the alliance hypothesis is consistent with other, older findings about selling organs as well. Tetlock (2000) reports that, when faced with the matter of whether selling organs should be legal, many people opposed to the idea cite welfare concerns: specifically, they appear concerned that poor people would be forced into donating organs for finical reasons and, conversely, that the rich would be the primary beneficiaries of such a policy. Why might these concerns get raised? I imagine that answer has something to do with the idea that organ markets will, essentially, inflict costs on already-needy groups people are hoping to provide benefits to (the poor), whereas the group receiving the benefits might not appear terribly needy (the rich). As the rich as seen as less needy than the poor, the former are likely assessed to be worse alliance potential, all else being equal. In fact, I would wager that people’s opinions about selling organs in an open market are probably correlated with their belief in whether the poor are responsible for their station in life, or whether they’re viewed as otherwise hard-working but unlucky. If people view the poor as having relatively stable need states (responsible for their current situation), other people would likely be less concerned with expending effort to help them, as such an investment would be unlikely to be returned (since their need today signals their need tomorrow as well). By contrast, the unlikely poor represent good social investments, and so might warrant some additional moral protection.

Well, that’s what you get for being irresponsible with your money

Findings like these highlight the considerable subtlety that research into the moral domain needs to take. In short, if you want to understand how people’s moral positions will change on the basis of some welfare-relevant information, you’ll likely be served by knowing where their stake in the matter at hand might reside: either directly or indirectly with regard to whether those involved in the dispute would make valuable social assets. Indeed, these findings are quite reminiscent of the Tucker Max case I wrote about some time ago, where a rather sizable donation ($500,000) was rejected by planned parenthood because some supporters of the organization perceived the source of the donation to be morally unacceptable (and, importantly, because the association was to be made publicly, rather than anonymously. If he didn’t want his name on the building, I suspect matters would have ended differently). In some cases, you can’t sell things that you can give away; in other cases, so long as the right conditions are met, people don’t even want you to be able to give those things away either.

References: Elias, J., Lacetera, N, & Macis, M. (2015). Sacred values? The effect of information on attitudes towards payment for human organs. American Economic Review Papers & Proceedings. 

Tetlock, P. (2000). Coping with trade-offs: Psychological constraints and political implications. In Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice, & the Bounds of Rationality. Ed. Lupia, A., McCubbins, M., & Popkin, S. 239-322.  

Socially-Strategic Welfare

Continuing with the trend from my last post, I wanted to talk a bit more about altruism today. Having already discussed that people do, in fact, appear to engage in altruistic behaviors and possess some cognitive mechanisms that have been selected for that end, I want to move into discussing the matter of the variance in altruistic inclinations. That is to say that people – both within and between populations – are differentially inclined towards altruistic behavior, with some people appearing rather disinterested in altruism, while others appear quite interested in it. The question of interest for many is how those differences are to be explained. One explanatory route would be to suggest that the people in question have, in some sense, fundamentally different psychologies. A possible hypothesis to accompany that explanation might go roughly as follows: if people have spent their entire lives being exposed to social messages about how helping others is their duty, their cognitive mechanisms related to altruism might have developed differently than someone who instead spent their life being exposed to the opposite message (or, at least, less of that previous one). On that note, let’s consider the topic of welfare.

In a more academic fashion, if you don’t mind…

The official website of Denmark suggests that such a message of helping being a duty might be sent in that country, stating that:

The basic principle of the Danish welfare system, often referred to as the Scandinavian welfare model, is that all citizens have equal rights to social security. Within the Danish welfare system, a number of services are available to citizens, free of charge.

Provided that this statement accurately characterizes what we would consider the typical Danish stance on welfare, one might imagine that growing up in such a country could lead individuals to develop substantially different views about welfare than, say, someone who grew up in the US, where opinions are quite varied. In my non-scientific and anecdotal experience, while some in the US might consider the country a welfare state, those same people frequently seem to be the ones who think that is a bad thing; those who think it’s a good thing often seem to believe the US is not nearly enough of a welfare state. At the very least, the US doesn’t advertise a unified belief about welfare on its official site.

On the other hand, we might consider another hypothesis: that Danes and Americans don’t necessarily possess any different cognitive mechanisms in terms of their being designed for regulating altruistic behavior. Instead, members of both countries might possess very similar underlying cognitive mechanisms which are being fed different inputs, resulting in the different national beliefs about welfare. This is the hypothesis that was tested by Aaroe & Petersen (2014). The pair make the argument that part of our underlying altruistic psychology is a mechanism that functions to determine deservingness. This hypothetical mechanism is said to use inputs of laziness: in the presence of a perceived needy but lazy target, altruistic inclinations towards that individual should be reduced; in the presence of a needy, hard-working, but unlucky individual, these inclinations should be augmented. Thus, cross-national differences, as well as within-group differences, concerning support for welfare programs should be explained, at least in part, by perceptions of deservingness (I will get to the why part of this explanation later).

Putting those ideas together, two countries that differ on their willingness to provide welfare should also differ on their perceptions of the recipients in general. However, there are exceptions to every rule: even if you believe (correctly or incorrectly) that group X happens to be lazy and undeserving of welfare, you might believe that a particular member of group X bucks that trend and does deserve assistance. This is the same thing as saying that while men are generally taller than women, you can find exceptions where a particular woman is quite tall or a man quite short. This leads to a corollary prediction,that Aaroe & Petersen examine: despite decades of exposure to different social messages about welfare, participants from the US and Denmark should come to agree on whether or not a particular individual deserves welfare assistance.

     Never have I encountered a more deserving cause

The authors sampled approximately 1000 participants from both the US and Denmark; a sample designed to be representative of their home country’s demographics. That sample was then surveyed on their views about people who receive social welfare via a free-association task in which they were asked to write descriptors of those recipients. Words that referred to the recipients’ laziness or poor luck were coded to determine which belief was the more dominant one (as defined by lazy words minus unlucky one). As predicted, the lazy stereotype was dominant in the US, relative to Denmark, with Americans listing an average of 0.3 more words referring to laziness than luck; approximately four-times the size from Denmark, in which these two beliefs were more balanced.

In line with that previous finding was the fact that Americans were also more likely to support the tightening of welfare restrictions (M = 0.57) than the Danes (M = 0.49, scale 0-1). However, this difference between the two samples only existed under the condition of informational uncertainty (i.e., when participants were thinking about welfare recipients in general). When presented with a welfare recipient who was described as the victim of a work-related accident and motivated to return to work, the US and Danish citizens both agreed that welfare for restrictions for people like that person should not be tightened (M = 0.36 and 0.35 respectively); when this recipient was instead described as able-bodied but unmotivated to work, the Americans and Danes once again agreed, suggesting that welfare restrictions should be tightened for people like him (M = 0.76 and 0.79). In the presence of more individualizing information, then, the national stereotypes built over a lifetime of socialization appear to get crowded out, as predicted. All it took was about two sentences worth of information to get the US and Danish citizens to agree. This pattern of data would seem to support the hypothesis that some universal psychological mechanisms reside in both populations, and their differing views tend to be the result of their being fed different information.

This brings us to the matter of why people are using cues to laziness to determine who should receive assistance, which is not explicitly addressed in the body of the paper itself. If the psychological mechanisms in question function to reduce the need of others per se, laziness cues should not be relevant. Returning to the example from my last post, for instance, mothers do not tend to withhold breastfeeding from infants on the basis on whether those infants are lazy. Instead, breastfeeding seems better designed to reduce need per se in the infants. It’s more likely that mechanisms responsible for determining these welfare attitudes are instead designed to build lasting friendships (Tooby & Cosmides, 1996): by assisting an individual today, you increase the odds they will be inclined to assist you in the future. This altruism might be especially relevant when the individual is in more severe need, as the marginal value of altruism in such situations is larger, relative to when they’re less needy (in the same way that a very hungry individual values the same amount of food more than a slightly hungry one; the same food is simply a better return on the same investment when given to the hungrier party). However, lazy individuals are unlikely to be able to provide such reciprocal assistance – even if they wanted to – as the factors determining their need are chronic, rather than temporary. Thus, while both the lazy and motivated individual are needy, the lazy individual is the worse social investment; the unlucky one is much better.

Investing in toilet futures might not have been the wisest retirement move

In this case, then, perceptions of deservingness appear to be connected to adaptations that function to build alliances. Might perceptions of deservingness in other domains serve a similar function? I think it’s probable. One such domain is the realm of moral punishment, where transgressors are seen as being deserving of punishment. In this case, if victimized individuals make better targets of social investment than non-victimized ones (all else being equal), then we should expect people to direct altruism towards the former group; when it comes to moral condemnation, the altruism takes the form of assisting the victimized individual in punishing the transgressor. Despite that relatively minor difference, the logic here is precisely the same as my explanation for welfare attitudes. The moral explanation would require that moral punishment contains an alliance-building function. When most people think morality, they don’t tend to think about building friendships, largely owing to the impartial components of moral cognitions (since impartiality opposes partial friendships). I think that problem is easy enough to overcome; in fact, I deal with it in an upcoming paper (Marczyk, in press). Then again, it’s not as if welfare is an amoral topic, so there’s overlap to consider as well.

References: Aaroe, l. & Petersen, M. (2014). Crowding out culture: Scandinavians and Americans agree on social welfare in the face of deservingness cues. The Journal of Politics, 76, 684-697.

Marczyk, J. (in press). Moral alliance strategies theory. Evolutionary Psychological Science

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1996). Friendship and the banker’s paradox: Other pathways to the evolution of adaptations for altruism. Proceedings of the British Academy, 88, 119-143.

Phrasing The Question: Does Altruism Even Exist?

There’s a great value in being precise when it comes to communication (if you want your message to be understood as you intended it, anyway; when clarity isn’t the goal, by all means, be imprecise). While that may seem trivial enough, it is my general experience that many communicative conflicts in psychology arise because people are often unaware of, or at least less than explicit about, the level of analysis at which they’re speaking. As an example of these different levels of analysis, today I will consider a question that many people wonder about: does altruism really exist? While definitions do vary, perhaps the most common definition of altruism involves the benefiting of another individual at the expense of the actor. So, to rephrase the question a little, “Do people really benefit others at an expense to themselves, or are ostensibly altruistic acts merely self-interest in disguise?”

“I would have saved his life if you wouldn’t have thought me selfish for doing so”

There are three cases I’m going to consider to help demonstrate these different levels of analysis. The first two examples are human-centric, as they have a greater bearing on the initial question: reciprocal exchanges and breastfeeding. In the former case – reciprocal altruism – two individuals will provide benefits to each other in the hopes of receiving similar assistance in turn. This type of behavior is often summarized with the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” line. In the case of breastfeeding, the bodies of mammalian mothers will produce a calorically-valuable milk, which they allow their dependent offspring to feed on. This latter type of altruism is generally not reciprocal in nature, as most mothers do not breastfeed their infants in the hope of, say, their infant one day breastfeeding them.

But are these acts really altruistic? After all, if I’m doing a favor for you in the hopes that you’ll do one for me later, it seems that I’m not enduring a cost to provide you with a benefit; I’m enduring a cost to try and provide me with a benefit. As for breastfeeding, offspring share some of their mother’s genes, so allowing an infant to breastfeed is, in the genetic sense, beneficial for the mother; at least for a time, at which point the weaning conflicts tend to kick in. If the previous thoughts ran through your head, chances are that you’re thinking about some of the right things but in the wrong way, blurring the lines between different levels of analysis. Allow me to explain.

In a post last year, I discussed what are commonly known as the “big four” questions one might ask about a biological mechanism, like the psychological ones that generate altruistic behavior: how does it proximately (immediately) function; how does it develop over one’s life; what is its evolutionary history with respect to other species; and what its evolved function might be. These questions all require different considerations and evidence to answer and, in many cases, can be informative as to answers at other levels. Despite their mutually informative nature, they are nonetheless distinct.

The first and fourth questions (proximate and evolutionary functioning) are the most relevant for the current matter. Let’s start by considering reciprocal altruism. The first question we might ask concerns the proximate functioning of the behavior: do people behave in ways that deliver benefits to other individuals that carry costs for the actors? Well, we certainly seem to. Some of these acts of reciprocal altruism might be based on relatively short-lived and explicit exchanges: I give you my money, you give me your goods and/or services. In other cases, the exchanges might be longer lived and more implicit: I give you help today, you should be inclined to give me help down the road when I need it. To demonstrate that these acts are, in fact, altruistic, is relatively straightforward: in the first example, for instance, I would be better off getting my goods/services and keeping my money. The act of giving does not provide me with a direct benefit. Even though we might both benefit from the exchange (gains from trade, and all that), it doesn’t mean each portion of the exchange isn’t altruistic. Proximately, then, we can say that people are altruistic or, more conservatively, that people engage in altruistic behaviors from time to time.

Score one for team good

But how about the mechanisms generating these reciprocally-altruistic behaviors; do they function to deliver benefits to others? That is to ask whether these mechanisms were selected to deliver benefits to others. The answer to this question depends on which part of the system you’re looking at. In the broader sense, that answer is “no,” inasmuch as the cognitive systems for reciprocal exchanges appear to owe their existence to receiving benefits from others, rather than providing them; the providing is just instrumental to another goal. This would mean we have altruistic behavior that is the product of a non-altruistic system, which is a perfectly possible outcome. However, in a narrower sense, the answer to that question can be “yes,” inasmuch as the broader cognitive system engaged in reciprocal exchanges is made up of a number of subsystems: one such system needs to monitor the needs of others and generate behavior to deliver benefits to them in order for the system to work, making that bit seem to be adapted for providing altruism; another piece needs to monitor the return on those investments, down-regulating altruistic behavior in the absence of reciprocity (or other relevant cues). This is where being precise really begins to count: some parts of a system might be considered altruistic, while others are more selfish.

Now let’s turn to the breastfeeding example. Beginning again with the proximate question, breastfeeding certainly seems like an altruistic behavior: the mother’s body pays a metabolic cost to create the calorically-rich milk which is then consumed by the infant. So the mother is paying a biological cost to deliver a benefit to another individual, making the behavior altruistic. In the functional sense of the word, this behavior appears to be the result of adaptations for altruism: mothers of a number of mammalian species are found to breastfeed their infants with little apparent need for reciprocity. The reason they can do so, as I previously mentioned, is that the infants share some portion of their mother’s genes, so the mother is, by proxy, improving her reproductive success by helping her offspring survive and thrive. Importantly, one needs to bear in mind that explaining the persistence of these altruistic mechanisms over time with kin selection does not make them any less altruistic. In much the same way, while the manufacturing of cars owes its existence to the process being profitable, that doesn’t mean that I’m inclined to think of cars as really being devices designed to make money.

The third example of altruism I wanted to mention is an interesting one, involving a certain parasite – the Lancet Liver Fluke – that infects ants (among other things). In brief, this pathogen will impact an ant’s behavior such that the ant will dangle from the tip of a blade of grass, leading to being more likely to get eaten by a passing grazing animal (it then travels from the grazer to snails to ants and then back into the grazers; it’s a rather involved reproductive cycle). In the proximate sense, this behavior of the ant is altruistic inasmuch that the ant is suffering a cost – death – to deliver a benefit to the parasite. However, the ant possesses no cognitive mechanisms designed for this function; the adaptations for making the ant behave as it does are found within the parasite. In this case, while the proximate behavior of the ant might appear to be altruistic, it is not because of any altruistic adaptation on the part of the ant.

The new poster child for increasing altruism

Depending, then, on what one means by “really” when asking if something is “really” altruistic, one can get vastly different answers to the question. Some behavior may or may not be proximately altruistic, the system under consideration may contain both altruistic and non-altruistic mechanisms, and the extent of that altruism can also vary. These examples should highlight the considerable subtlety that underlies such analyses, hopefully impressing upon you the point that one can easily stumble, instead of progress, if ideas are not carefully selected and understood. There are, of course, other realms we could consider – like altruism that functions to signal traits about the actor, to gain social status, or whether the immediate motives of an actor are altruistic – but the general analyses, rather than their specific details, are what is important here. Thinking about what benefits organisms might reap through their altruistic behavior is a very valuable line of thought; it just shouldn’t be confused with other meaningful levels of thought.

The Implicit Assumptions Test

Let’s say you have a pet cause to which you want to draw attention and support. There are a number of ways you might go about trying to do so, honesty being perhaps the most common initial policy. While your initial campaign is met with a modest level of success, you’d like to grow your brand, so to speak. As you start researching how other causes draw attention to themselves, you notice an obvious trend: big problems tend to get more support than smaller ones: that medical condition affecting 1-in-4 people is much different than one affecting 1-in-10,0000. Though you realize it sounds a bit perverse, if you could somehow make your pet problem a much bigger one than it actually is – or at least seem like it is –  you would likely attract more attention and funding. There’s only one problem standing in your way: reality. When most people tell you that your problem isn’t much of one, you’re kind of out of luck. Or are you? What if you could convince others that what people are telling you isn’t quite right? Maybe they think your problem isn’t much of one but, if their reports can’t be trusted, now you have more leeway to make claims about the scope of your issue.

You finally get that big fish you always knew you actually caught

This brings us once again to the matter of the implicit association task, or IAT. According to it’s creators, the IAT “…measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report,” making that jump from “association” to “attitudes” in a timely fashion. This kind of test could serve a valuable end for the fundraiser in the above example, as it could potentially increase the perceived scope of your problem. Not finding enough people who are explicitly racist to make your case that the topic should be getting more attention than it currently is? Well, that could be because racism is, by in large, a socially-undesirable trait to display and, accordingly, many people don’t want to openly say they’re a racist even if they hold some racial biases. If you had a test that could plausibly be interpreted as saying that people hold attitudes they explicitly deny, you could talk about how racism is much more common than it seems to be.

This depends on how one interprets the test, though: all the IAT measures is very-fast and immediate reaction times when it comes to pushing buttons. I’ve discussed the IAT on a few occasions: first with regard to what precisely the IAT is (and might not be) measuring and, more recently, with respect to whether IAT-like tests that use response times as measures of racial bias are actually predicting anything when it comes to actual behaviors. The quick version of both of those posts is that we ought to be careful about drawing a connection between measures of reaction time in a lab to racial biases in the real world that cause widespread discrimination. In the case of shooting decisions, for instance, a more realistic task in which participants were using a simulation with a gun instead of just pressing buttons at a computer resulted in the opposite pattern of results that many IAT tests would predict: participants were actually slower to shoot black suspects and more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects. It’s not enough to just assume that, “of course this different reaction times translate into real world discrimination”; you need to demonstrate it first.

This brings us to a recent meta-analysis of some IAT experiments by Oswald et al (2014) examining how well the IAT did at predicting behaviors, and whether it was substantially better than the explicit measures being used in those experiments. There was, apparently, a previous meta-analysis of IAT research that did find such things – at least for certain, socially-sensitive topics – and this new meta-analysis seems to be a response to the former one. Oswald et al (2014) begin by noting that the results of IAT research has been brought out of the lab into practical applications in law and politics; a matter that would be more than a little concerning if the IAT actually wasn’t measuring what it’s interpreted by many to be measuring, such as evidence of discrimination in the real world. They go on to suggest that the previous meta-analysis of IAT effects lacked a degree of analytic and methodological validity that they hope their new analysis would address.

Which is about as close as academic publications come to outright shit-talking

For example, the authors were interested in examining whether various experimental definitions of discrimination were differentially predicted by the IAT and explicit measures, whereas they had previously all been lumped into the same category by the last analysis. Oswald et al (2014) grouped these operationalizations of discrimination into six categories: (1) measured brain activity, which is a rather vague and open-to-interpretation category, (2) response times in other tasks, (3), microbehavior, like posture or expression of emotions, (4), interpersonal behavior, like whether one cooperates in a prisoner’s dilemma, (5) person perception, (i.e., explicit judgments of others), and (6) political preferences, such as whether one supports policies that benefit certain racial groups or not. Oswald et al (2014) also added in some additional, more recent studies that the previous meta-analysis did not include.

While this is a lot to this paper, I wanted to skip ahead to discussing a certain set of results. The first of these results is that, in most cases, IAT scores correlated very weakly to the discrimination criterion being assessed, averaging a meager correlation of 0.14.To the extent that IAT is actually measuring implicit attitudes, those attitudes don’t seem to have much a predictable affect on behavior. The exception to this pattern was in regard to the brain activity studies: that correlation was substantially higher (around a 0.4). However, as brain activity per se is not a terribly meaningful variable when it comes to its interpretation, whether that tells us anything of interest about discrimination is an open question. Indeed, in the previous post I mentioned, the authors also observed an effect for brain activity, but it did not mean people were biased toward shooting black people; quite the opposite, in fact.

The second finding I would like to mention is that, in most cases, the explicit measures of attitudes toward other races being used by researchers (like this one or this one) were also very weakly correlated to the discrimination criterion being assess, though their average correlation was about the same size as the implicit measures at 0.12. Further, this value is apparently substantially below the value achieved by other measures of explicit attitudes, leading the authors to suggest that researchers really ought to think more deeply about what explicit measures they’re using. Indeed, when you’re asking questions about “symbolic racism” or “modern racism”, one might wonder why you’re not just asking about “racism”. The answer, as far as I can tell, is because, proportionately, very few people – and perhaps even fewer undergraduates; the population most often being assessed – actually express openly racist views. If you want to find much racism as a researcher, then, you have to dig deeper and kind of squint a little.

The third finding is that the above two measures – implicit and explicit – really didn’t correlate with each other very well either, averaging only a correlation of 0.14. As Oswald et al (2014) put it:

“These findings collectively indicate, at least for the race domain…that implicit and explicit measures tap into different psychological constructs—none of which may have much influence on behavior…”

In fact, the authors estimate that the implicit and explicit measures collectively accounted for about 2.5% of the variance in discriminatory criterion behaviors concerning race, which each adding about a percent or so over and beyond the other measure. In other words, these effects are small – very small – and do a rather poor job of predicting much of anything.

“Results: Answer was unclear, so we shook the magic ball again”

We’re left with a rather unflattering picture of research in this domain. The explicit measures of racial attitudes don’t seem to do very well at predicting behaviors, perhaps owing to the nature of the questions being asked. For instance, in the symbolic racism scale, the answer one provides to questions like, “How much discrimination against blacks do you feel there is in the United States today, limiting their chances to get ahead?” could have quite a bit to do with matters that have little, if anything, to do with racial prejudice. Sure, certain answers might sound racist if you believe there is an easy answer to that question and anyone who disagrees must be evil and biased, but for those who haven’t already drank that particular batch of kool-aid, some reservations might remain. Using the implicit reaction times also seems to blur the line between actually measuring racist attitudes and many other things, such as whether one holds a stereotype or whether one is aware of a stereotype (foregoing the matter of its accuracy for the moment). These reservations appear to be reflected in how very bad both methods seem to be at predicting much of anything.

So why do (some) people like the IAT so much even if it predicts so little? My guess, again, is that a lot of it’s appeal flows from its ability to provide researchers and laypeople alike with a plausible-sounding story to tell others about how bad a problem is in order to draw more support to their cause. It provides cover for one’s inability to explicitly find what you’re looking for – such as many people voicing opinions of racial superiority – and allows a much vaguer measure to stand in for it instead. Since more people fit that vaguer definition, the result is a more intimidating sounding problem; whether it corresponds to reality can be besides the point if it’s useful.

References: Oswald, F., Blanton, H., Mitchell, G., Jaccard, J., & Tetlock, P. (2014). Predicting racial and ethnic discrimination: A meta-analysis of IAT criterion studies. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 105, 171-192.