Biases Of Boys Or Girls Being Coy?

When it comes to understanding a lot of behavior in sexually-reproducing species, a key variable to consider is differential reproductive potential: what the theoretical upper-limit on reproduction happens to be for each sex. The typical mammalian pattern is such that males tend to have much higher potential reproductive ceilings, owing to how the process of internal fertilization works. When females become pregnant, their reproductive potential is essentially turned off until sometime after the infant is born, as pregnancy and lactation typically disable ovulation. Males, on the other hand, can reproduce about as often as they have an available female. In humans, this can translate into a woman having a child about every three years, whereas a man could – at least in theory – fertilize around 1,000 women in that three-year period if they managed one a day. In terms of realities, though these limits are rarely reached, the most prolific mother on record had around 70 children, as she had a knack for birthing twins and triplets; the most prolific father sired closer to 900 offspring.

“And I suppose you all want to go to college now too, huh?”

Given that males and females face different cost/benefit ratios when it comes to sex, we should expect that male and female psychology looks somewhat different as well, as each sex has had different problems to solve in that domain. One such problem is detecting sexual interest. Perceptions are not perfect, so the degree of sexual interest that another person has in us can only be estimated from behavioral and verbal cues. Accordingly, it follows that people might make mistakes in perceptions: we might see sexual interest where none exists, or fail to see sexual interest that does exist. For women, failing to perceive sexual interest when it is present would be less of a bad thing than it would be for men, as the costs of missing a sexual encounter are generally higher for males. Given the very real reproductive consequences to making these perceptual errors, we should expect some cognitive systems in place designed to manage our errors.

This brings us to the matter of how these errors might be managed. According to one popular view, men manage their errors by over-perceiving sexual interest in women. That is to say that men are likely to perceive interest to be there when, in many cases, it isn’t (e.g., “she touched my arm; she must be interested in having sex with me”). This explanation, while plausible sounding on the face of it (as it does help minimize the chances of missing a potential encounter), does suffer a theoretical weakness: it assumes that men’s perceptions should be inaccurate. That is to say that it posits that men’s cognitive systems overestimate how interest women actually are. The reason this is a problem is that, all else being equal, accurate perceptions tend to lead to better outcomes than inaccurate ones. If, for example, you’re overly-optimistic about your chances of landing that career in your dream field, you might spend an inordinate amount of time pursuing that goal – which you won’t obtain – when you could instead be using that time and energy to pursue outcomes with a higher expected payoff. Put more simply, your sincerely-held belief that you are likely to win the lottery will lead you to wasting more money on lottery tickets than you otherwise should. The same logic holds when it comes to perceiving sexual interest: if you see interest where it doesn’t exist, you’re likely to spend excessive amounts of time and energy pursuing dead ends. It seems that an altogether better system for men would be one that detected women’s interest as accurately as possible, but decided to pursue low-probability outcomes on some occasions anyway owing to their high reward. This system would maximize expected rewards.

Empirically, however, men do seem to over-perceive women’s sexual interest; that’s been the conclusion from past research, anyway. Specifically, if you have a man and a woman interacting, the man will tend to perceive that the woman has more sexual interest in him than she reports that she does. The explanation that men are over-perceiving only works, though, if one assumes that women’s reports are entirely accurate; if women are actually under-reporting their interest – either knowingly or not – then the gap between men and women’s reports might be more readily explainable. The idea that the women are under-reporting has some conceptual merit as well: it is possible that women’s reports underestimate their actual amount of interest as a form of reputation management, since there are consequences to sending signals of promiscuity.

 ”Figure A: just really good friends. Nothing to see here.”

Towards attempting to figure out whether this gap in reports is due to male overperception, female underreporting, or some combination thereof, Perilloux & Kurzban (2014) began by presenting a list of 15 behaviors to roughly 500 men and women. The male subjects were asked to estimate a woman’s sexual intentions if she had engaged in the behaviors; the female subjects were asked to estimate their own sexual intentions, given that they had engaged in the behaviors. This resulted in each of the 15 behaviors getting a mean rating from each sex that could range from -3 (extremely unlikely to indicate a desire to have sex) to 3 (extremely likely). As usual, the difference in reports emerged: men’s composite average collapsed across the 15 behaviors was 1.44, whereas women’s was 0.77. So men were perceiving more interest than women were reporting.

The author’s second study sought to examine whether these reports were consciously being over- or under-estimated by the subjects. In order to do so, another 500 subjects were recruited and given the same 15-item survey and asked to estimate how much each behavior indicated a desire for sex, given that a woman had performed it. However, half the subjects were told that, in addition to their payment for the experiment, they could earn some additional money for more accurate reporting (i.e., estimating the accuracy of sexual intentions within a certain margin of error). In this second study, the gap showed up as it did before: men reported an average of 1.47, whereas women reported an average of 1.14. Compared with first study, the men’s ratings in the second were no different, though the women’s estimates increased significantly. So, when incentivized to be accurate, men’s rating didn’t change, though women’s did and, further, they changed in the direction of being closer to the men’s. One plausible interpretation of the data, as put forth by Perilloux & Kurzban (2014) is that women know that other women will under-report their sexual intentions, just not by how much, the result being that women’s estimates resemble men’s estimates, but still don’t quite match up.

This brings us to the third study. Here, the authors asked another 250 men and women about the same behaviors, but in a slightly different fashion; they now asked what other women would actually intend if they engaged in the behavior, as well what those women would say they intend. In this final condition, the sex difference vanished: when considering what other women actually intend, men’s average (M = 1.91) did not differ statistically from women’s (M = 1.84); when considering what other women would say they intend, the men’s average (M = 1.42) again didn’t differ from the women’s (M = 1.54). A reasonable conclusion from this pattern of data, then, would be to say that both men and women believe that other women will under-report their sexual intentions and, given that the men’s average perceptions remained consistent across studies and women’s continuously shifting in the direction of the men’s average, that the men’s perceptions were probably accurate in the first place.

 ”Alright; I might have underestimated my interest by a little bit…”

Now, again, this is not to say that women are lying about their interest level, as lying implies some knowledge of the truth (though people likely do lie about such things explicitly from time to time); instead, it is probably more often the case that women unconsciously tend to report that they’re less interested in such things, perhaps owing to some kind reputation management. While I suppose it’s not impossible that men have biased views of women’s sexual interest and women have similarly-incorrect views, but for different reasons, it doesn’t seem particularly probable. It is worth noting that a similar pattern of results to the present studies turned up in an informal one I covered some time ago concerning whether men and women can “just be friends”. The gist of that informal study is that men tended to agree that men almost always have an ulterior sexual motive for befriending women. Women disagreed with these assessments, stating that men and women could just be friends; they disagreed, that is, until the idea of their male partner being “just friends” with another woman was brought into question. In that latter instance, women tended to agree with men concerning the sexual interest in such relationships. The present studies would seem to suggest that this isn’t just due to clever video editing. What it doesn’t show is that men are wrong in their perceptions.

References: Perilloux, C. & Kurzban, R. (2014). Do men overperceive women’s sexual interest? Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797614555727

I Reject Your Fantasy And Substitute My Own

I don’t think it’s a stretch to make the following generalization: people want to feel good about themselves. Unfortunately for all of us, our value to other people tends to be based on what we offer them and, since our happiness as a social species tends to be tethered to how valuable we are perceived to be by others, being happy can be more of chore than we would prefer. These valuable things need not be material; we could offer things like friendship or physical attractiveness, pretty much anything that helps fill a preference or need others have. Adding to the list of misfortunes we must suffer in the pursuit of happiness, other people in the world also offer valuable things to the people we hope to impress. This means that, in order to be valuable to others, we need to be particularly good at offering things to others people: either through being better at providing something than many people provide, or able to provide something relatively unique that others typically don’t. If we cannot match the contributions of others, then people will not like to spend time with us and we will become sad; a terrible fate indeed. One way to avoid that undesirable outcome, then, is to increase your level of competition to become more valuable to other people; make yourself into the type of person others find valuable. Another popular route, which is compatible with the first, is to condemn other people who are successful or promote the images of successful people. If there’s less competition around, then our relative ability becomes more valuable. On that note, Barbie is back in the news again.

“Finally; a new doll for my old one to tease for not meeting her standards!”

The Lammily doll has been making the rounds on various social media sites, marketed as the average Barbie, with the tag line: “average is beautiful”. Lammily is supposed to be proportioned so as to represent the average body of a 19-year-old woman. She also comes complete with stickers for young girls to attach to her body in order to give her acne, scars, cellulite, and stretch marks. The idea here seems to be that if young girls see a more average-looking doll, they will compare themselves less negatively to it and, hopefully, end up feeling better about their body. Future incarnations of the doll are hoped to include diverse body types, races, and I presume other features upon which people vary (just in case the average doll ends up being too alienating or high-achieving, I think). If this doll is preferred by girls to Barbie, then by all means I’m not going to tell them they shouldn’t enjoy it. I certainly don’t discourage the making of this doll or others like it. I just get the sense that the doll will end up primarily making parents feel better by giving them the sense they’re accomplishing something they aren’t, rather than affecting their children’s perceptions.

As an initial note, I will say that I find it rather strange that the creator of the doll stated: “By making a doll real I feel attention is taken away from the body and to what the doll actually does.” The reason I find that strange is because the doll does not, as far as I can see, come with a number of different accessories that make it do different things. In fact, if Lammily does anything, I’m not sure what that anything is, as it’s never mentioned. The only accessory I see are the aforementioned stickers to make her look different. Indeed, the whole marketing of the doll is focuses on how it looks; not what it does. For a doll ostensibly attempting to take attention away from the body, it’s body seems to be its only selling point.

The main idea, rather, as far as I can tell, is to try and remove the possible intrasexual competition over appearance that women might feel when confronted with a skinny, attractive, makeup-clad figure. So, by making the doll less attractive with scar stickers, girls will feel less competition to look better. There are a number of facets of the marketing of the doll that would support this interpretation: one such point is the tag line. Saying that “average is beautiful” is, from a statistical standpoint, kind of strange; it’s a bit like saying “average is tall” or “average is smart”. These descriptors are all relative terms – typically ones that apply to upper-ends of some distribution – so applying them to more people would imply that people don’t differ as much on the trait in question. The second point to make about the tagline is that I’m fairly certain, if you asked him, the creator of the Lammily doll – Nickolay Lamm - would not tell you he meant to imply that women who are above or below some average are not beautiful; instead, you’d probably get some sentiment to the effect that everyone is attractive and unique in their own special way, further obscuring the usefulness of the label. Finally, if the idea is to “take attention away from the body”, then selling the doll under the label of its natural beauty is kind of strange.

So does Barbie have a lot to answer for culturally, and is Lammily that answer? Let’s consider some evidence examining whether Barbie dolls are actually doing harm to young girl in the first place and, if they are, whether that harm might be mitigated via the introduction of more-proportionate figures.

“If only she wasn’t as thin, this never would have happened”

One 2006 paper (Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive, 2006) concludes that the answer is “yes” to both those questions, though I have my doubts. In their paper, the researchers exposed 162 girls between the ages of 5 and 8 to one of three picture books. These books contained a few images of Barbie (who would be a US dress size 2) or Emme (a size 16) dolls engaged in some clothing shopping; there was also a control book that did not draw attention to bodies. The girls were then asked questions about how they looked, how they wanted to look, and how they hoped to look when they grew up. After 15 minutes of exposure to these books, there were some changes in these girl’s apparent satisfaction with their bodies. In general, the girls exposed to the Barbies tended to want to be thinner than those exposed to the Emme dolls. By contrast, those exposed to Emme didn’t want to be thinner than those exposed to no body images at all. In order to get a sense for what was going on, however, those effects require some qualifications

For starters, when measuring the difference between one’s perception of her current body and her current ideal body, exposure to Barbie only made the younger children want to be thinner. This includes the girls in the 5 – 7.5 age range, but not the girls in the 7.5 – 8.5 range. Further, when examining what the girl’s ideal adult bodies would be, Barbie had no effect on the youngest girls (5 – 6.5) or the oldest ones (7.5 – 8.5). In fact, for the older girls, exposure to the Emme doll seemed to make them want to be thinner as adults (the authors suggesting this to be the case as Emme might represent a real, potential outcome the girls are seeking to avoid). So these effects are kind of all over the place, and it is worth noting that they, like many effects in psychology, are modest in size. Barbie exposure, for instance, reduced the girls “body esteem” (a summed measure of six questions about the girl felt about their bodies that got a 1 to 3 response, with 1 being bad, 2 neutral, and 3 being good) from a mean of 14.96 in the control condition to 14.45. To put that in perspective, exposure to Barbie led to girls, on average, moving one response out of six half a point on a small scale, compared to the control group.

Taking these effects at face value, though, my larger concerns with the paper involve a number of things it does not do. First, it doesn’t show that these effects are Barbie-specific. By that I don’t mean that they didn’t compare Barbie against another doll – they did – but rather that they didn’t compare Barbie against, say, attractive (or thin) adult human women. The authors credit Barbie with some kind of iconic status that is likely playing an important role in determining girl’s later ideals of beauty (as opposed to Barbie temporarily, but not lastingly, modifying it their satisfaction), but they don’t demonstrate it. On that point, it’s important to note what the authors are suggesting about Barbie’s effects: that Barbies lead to lasting changes in perceptions and ideals, and that the older girls weren’t being affected by exposures to Barbies because they have already ”…internalized [a thin body ideal] as part of their developing self-concept” by that point.

At least you got all that self-deprecation out of the way early

An interesting idea, to be sure. However, it should make the following prediction: adult women exposed to thin or attractive members of the same sex shouldn’t have their body satisfaction affected, as they have already “internalized a thin ideal”. Yet this is not what one of the meta-analysis papers cited by the authors themselves finds (Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002). Instead, adult women faced with thin models feel less satisfied with their bodies relative to when they view average or above-average weight models. This is inconsistent with the idea that some thin beauty standard has been internalized by age 8. Both sets of data, however, are consistent with the idea that exposure to an attractive competitor might reduce body satisfaction temporarily, as the competitor will be perceived to be more attractive by other people. In much the same way, I might feel bad about my skill at playing music when I see someone much better at the task than I am. I would be dissatisfied because, as I mentioned initially, my value to others depends on who else happens to offer what I do: if they’re better at it, my relative value decreases. A little dissatisfaction, then, either pushes me to improve my skill or to find a new domain in which I can compete more effectively. The disappointment might be painful to experience, but it is useful for guiding behavior. If the older girls just stopped viewing Barbie as competition, perhaps, because they have moved onto new stages in their development, this would explain why Barbie had no effect on them as well. The older girls might simply have grown out of competing with Barbie.

Another issue with the paper is that the experiment used line drawings of body shapes, rather than pictures of actual human bodies, to determine which body girls think they have and which body they want, both now and in the future. This could be an issue, as previous research (Tovee & Cornelissen, 2001) failed to replicate the “girls want to be skinnier than men would prefer” effects – which were found using line drawings – when using actual pictures of human bodies. One potential reason for that different in findings is that a number of features besides thinness might unintentionally co-vary in these line drawings. So some of the desire to be skinny that the girls were expressing in the 2006 experiment might have just been an artifact of the stimulus materials being used.

Additionally, Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive (2006), somewhat confusingly, didn’t ask the girls about whether or not they owned Barbies or how much exposure they had to them (though they do note that it probably would have been a useful bit of information to have). There are a number of predictions we might make about such a variable. For instance, girls exposed to Barbie more often should be expected to have a greater desire for thinness, if the author’s account is true. Further still, we might also predict that, among girls who have lots of experience with Barbies, a temporary exposure to pictures of Barbie shouldn’t be expected to effect their perception of their ideal body much, if at all. After all, if they’re constantly around the doll, they should have, as the authors put it, already “…internalized [a thin body ideal] as part of their developing self-concept”, meaning that additional exposure might be redundant (as it was with the older girls). Since there’s no data on the matter, I can’t say much more about it.

A match made in unrealistic heaven.

So would a parent have a lasting impact on their daughter’s perception of beauty by buying her a Barbie? Probably not. The current research doesn’t demonstrate any particularly unique, important, or lasting role for Barbie in the development of children’s feelings about their bodies (thought it does assume them). You probably won’t do any damage to your child by buying them an Emme or a Lammily either. It is unlikely that these dolls are the ones socializing children and building their expectations of the world; that’s a job larger than one doll could ever hope to accomplish. It’s more probable that features of these dolls reflect (in some cases exaggerated) aspects of our psychology concerning what is attractive, rather than creating them.

A point of greater interest I wanted to end with, though, is why people felt that the problem which needed to be addressed when it came to Barbie was that she was disproportionate. What I have in mind is that Barbie has a long history of prestigious careers; over 150 of them, most of which being decidedly above-average. If you want a doll that focuses on what the character does, Barbie seems to be doing fine in that regard. If we want Barbie to be an average girl sure, she won’t be as thin, but then chances are that she doesn’t even have her Bachelor’s degree either, which would preclude her from a number of the professions she has held. She’s also unlikely to be a world class athlete or performer. Now, yes, it is possible for people to hold those professions while it is impossible for anyone to be proportioned as Barbie is, but it’s certainly not the average. Why is the concern over what Barbie looks like, rather than what unrealistic career expectations she generates? My speculation is that the focus arises because, in the real world, women compete with each other more over their looks than their careers in the mating market, but I don’t have time to expand on that much more here.

It just seems peculiar to focus on one particular non-average facet of reality obsessively only to state that it doesn’t matter. If the debate over Barbie can teach us anything, it’s that physical appearance does matter; quite a bit, in fact. To try and teach people – girls or boys – otherwise might help them avoid some temporary discomfort (“Looks don’t matter; hooray!”), but it won’t give them an accurate impression of how the wider world will react to them (“Yeah, about that whole looks thing…”); a rather dangerous consequence, if you ask me.

References: Dittmar, H., Halliwell, E., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5- to 8-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42, 283-292.

Groesz, L., Levine, M., & Murnen, S. (2002). The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A metaanalytic review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31, 1–16.

Tovee, M. & Cornelissen, P. (2001). Female and male perceptions of physical attractiveness in front-view and profile. British Journal of Psychology, 92, 391-402.

Are Consequences Of No Consequence? (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed the matter of nonconsequentialism: the idea that, when determining the moral value of an action, the consequences of that action are, in some sense, besides the point; instead, some acts are just wrong regardless of their consequences. The thrust of my argument there was that those arguing that moral cognitions are nonconsequentialist in nature seem to have a rather restricted view of precisely how consequences should matter. Typically, that view consists of whether aggregate welfare was increased or decreased by the act in question. My argument was that we need to consider other factors, such as the distribution of those welfare gains and losses. Today, I want to expand on that point a bit by quickly considering three other papers examining how people respond to moral violations.

Turning the other cheek when you’re being hit helps to even out the scars

The first of these papers comes from DeScioli, Gilbert, & Kurzban, (2012), and it examines people’s perceptions of victims in response to moral transgressions. Their research question concerns the temporal ordering of things: do people need to first perceive a victim in order to perceive an immoral behavior, or do people perceive an immoral behavior and then look for potential victims? If the former idea is true, then people should not rate acts without apparent victims as wrong; if the latter is true, then people might be inclined to, essentially, invent victims (i.e. mentally represent them) when none are readily available. There is, of course, another way people might see things if they were nonconsequentialists: they might perceive an act as wrong without representing a victim. After all, if negative consequences from an act aren’t necessary for perceiving something as wrong, then there would be no need to perceive a victim.

To test these competing alternatives, DeScioli, Gilbert, & Kurzban (2012) presented 65 subjects with a number of ostensibly “victimless” offenses (including things like suicide, grave desecration, prostitution, and mutually-consensual incest). The results showed that when people perceived an act as wrong, they represented a victim for that act around 90% of the time; when acts were perceived to not be wrong, victims were only represented 15% of the time. While it’s true enough that many of the victims people nominated – like “society” or “the self” – were vague or unverifiable, the fact remains that they did represent victims. From a nonconsequentialist standpoint, representing ambiguous or unverifiable victims seems like a rather peculiar thing to do; better to just call the act wrong regardless of what welfare implications it might have. The authors suggest that a possible function of such victim representation would be to recruit other people to the side of the condemners but, absent the additional argument that people respond to consequences suffered by victims (i.e., that people are consequentialists), this explanation would be incompatible with the nonconsequentialist view.

The next paper I wanted to review comes from Trafimow & Ishikawa (2012). This paper is a direct follow-up from the paper I discussed in my last post. In this paper, the authors were examining what kind of attributions people made about others who lied: specifically, whether people who lied were judged to be honest or dishonest. Now this sounds like a fairly straight-forward kind of question: someone who lies should, by definition, be rated as dishonest, yet that’s not quite what ended up happening. In this experiment, 151 subjects were given one of four stories in which someone either did or not lie. When the story did not represent any reason for the honesty or dishonesty, those who lied were rated as relatively dishonest, whereas those who told the truth were rated as relatively honest, as one might expect. However, there was a second condition in which a reason for the lie was provided: the person was lying to help someone else. In this case, if the person told the truth, that someone else would suffer a cost. Here, an interesting effect emerged: in terms of their rated honesty, the liars who were helping someone else were rated as being as honest as those who told the truth and harmed someone else because of it.

“I only lied to make my girlfriend better off…”

 In the words of the authors, “participants who lie when lying helps another person are absolved, whereas truth tellers do not get credit for telling the truth when a lie would have helped another person“. Now, in the interests of beating this point to death, a nonconsequentialist moral psychology should not be expected to generate that output, as that output is contingent on consequences. Despite that, honesty which harmed was no different than dishonesty which helped. Nevertheless, these judgments were ostensibly about honesty – not morality – so that lying and truth-telling were rated comparably does require some explanation.

While I can’t say for certain what that explanation is, my suspicion is that the mind typically represents some acts – like lying – as wrong because, historically, they did tend to reliably carry costs. In this case, the cost is that behaving on the basis of incorrect information typically leads to worse fitness outcomes than behaving on the basis of accurate information; conversely, receiving new, true information can help improve decision making. As people want to condemn those who inflict costs, they typically represent lying as wrong and those whom people want to condemn because of their lying are labeled dishonest. In other words, “dishonest” doesn’t refer to someone who fails to tell the truth so much as it refers to someone people wish to condemn for failing to tell the truth. However, when considering a context in which lying provides benefits, people don’t wish to condemn the liars – at least not as strongly – so they don’t use the label. Similarly, they don’t want to praise truth-tellers who harm others, and so avoid the honest label as well. While necessarily speculative, my analysis is also ruthlessly consequentialist, as any strategic explanation would need to be.

The final paper I wanted to discuss can be discussed quickly. In this last paper, Reeder et al (2002) examined the matter of whether situational characteristics can make morally unacceptable acts more acceptable. These immoral acts included driving cleat spikes into a player during a sports game, administering a shock to another person, or shaking someone off a ladder. The short version of the results is that when the person being harmed  previously instigated in some way – either through insults or previous physical harm – it became more acceptable (though not necessarily very acceptable) to harm them. However, when someone harmed another person for their own financial gain, it was rated as less acceptable regardless of the size of that gain. At the risk of not saying this enough, a nonconsequentialist moral psychology should output the decision that harming people is equally wrong regardless of what they might or might not have done to you beforehand because, well, it’s only attending to the acts in question; not their precursors or consequences.

I could have sworn I just saw it move…

Now, as I mentioned above, people will tend to represent lying as morally wrong across a wide range of scenarios because lying tends to inflict costs. The frequency with which people do that could provide the facade of moral nonconsequentialism. However, even in cases where lying is benefiting one person, as in Trafimow & Ishikawa (2012), it is likely harming another. To the extent that people don’t tend to advocate for harming others, they would rather that one both (a) avoid the costs inflicted by truth-telling and (b) avoid the costs inflicted by lying. This is likely why some Kantians (from what I have seen) seem to advocate for simply failing to provide a response in certain moral dilemmas, rather than to lie, as the morally acceptable (though not necessarily desirable) option. That said, even the Kantians seem to respond to the consequences of the actions by in large; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t see any dilemma when it came to lying about Jews in the attic to Nazis during the 1940s which, as far as I can tell, they seem to. Then again, I don’t suppose many people see lying to Nazis to save lives as much of a dilemma; I imagine that has something to do with the consequences…

References: Descioli, P., Gilbert, S., & Kurzban, R. (2012). Indelible victims and persistent punishers in moral cognition. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 143-149.

Reeder, G., Kumar, S., Hesson-McInnis, M., & Trafimow, D. (2002). Inferences about the morality of an aggressor: The role of perceived motive. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 83, 789-803.

Trafimow, D. & Ishikawa, Y. (2012). When violations of perfect duties do not cause strong trait attributions. The American Journal of Psychology, 125, 51-60.

Are Consequences Of No Consequence?

Some recent events have led me back to considering the topic of moral nonconsequentialism. I’ve touch on the topic a few times before (here and here). Here’s a quick summary of the idea: we perceive the behaviors of others along some kind of moral dimension, ranging from morally condemnable (wrong) to neutral (right) to virtuous (praiseworthy). To translate those into everyday examples, we might have murder, painting, and jumping on a bomb to save the lives of others. The question of interest is what factors our minds use as inputs to move our perceptions along that moral spectrum; what things make an act appear more condemanble or praiseworthy? According to a consequentialist view, what moves our moral perceptions should be what results (or consequences) an act brings about. Is lying morally wrong? Well, that depends on what things happened because you lied. By contrast, the nonconsequentialist view suggests that some acts are wrong due to their intrinsic properties, no matter what consequences arise from them.

  “Since it’d be wrong to lie, the guy you’re trying to kill went that way”

Now, at first glance, both views seem unsatisfactory. Consequentialism’s weakness can be seen in the responses of people to what is known as the footbridge dilemma: in this dilemma, the lives of five people can saved from a train by pushing another person in front of it. Around 90% of the time, people judge the pushing to be immoral not permissible, even though there’s a net welfare benefit that arises from the pushing (+4 net lives). Just because more people are better off, it doesn’t mean an act will be viewed as moral. On the other hand, nonconsequentialism doesn’t prove wholly satisfying either. For starters, it doesn’t necessarily convincingly outline what kind of thing(s) make an act immoral and why they might do so; just that it’s not all in the consequences. Referencing the “intrinsic wrongness” of an act to explain why it is wrong doesn’t get us very far, so we’d need further specification. Further, consequences clearly do matter when it comes to making moral judgments. If – as a Kantian categorical imperative might suggest – lying is wrong per se, then we should consider it immoral for a family in 1940s Germany to lie to the Nazi’s about hiding a Jewish family in their attic (and something tells me we don’t). Finally, we also tend to view acts not just as wrong or right, but wrong to differing degrees. As far as I can tell, the nonconsequentialist view doesn’t tell us much about why, say, murder is viewed as worse than lying. As a theory of psychological functioning, nonconsequentialism doesn’t seem to make good predictions.

This tension between moral consequentialism and nonconsequentialism can be resolved, I think, so long as we are clear about what consequences we are discussing. The most typical type of consequentialism I have come across defines positive consequences in a rather specific way: the most amount of good (i.e., generating happiness, or minimize suffering) for people (or other living things) on the whole. This kind of consequentialism clearly doesn’t describe how human moral psychology functions very well, as it would predict people would say that killing one person to save five is the moral thing to do; since we don’t tend to make such judgments, something must be wrong. If we jettison this view that increasing aggregate welfare is something our psychology was selected to do and replace it instead with the idea that our moral psychology functions to strategically increasing the welfare of certain parties at the expense of others, then the problem largely dissolves. Explaining that last part requires more space than I have here (which I will happily make public once my paper is accepted for publication), but I can at least provide an empirical example of what I’m talking about now.

This example will make use of the act of lying. If I have understood the Kantian version of nonconsequentialism correctly, then lying should be immoral regardless of why it was done. Phrased in terms of a research hypothesis concerning human psychology, people should rate lying as immoral, regardless of what consequences accrued from the lie. If we’re trying to derive predictions from the welfare maximization type of consequentialism, we should predict that people will rate lying as immoral only when the negative consequences of lying outweigh the positive ones. At this point, I imagine you can all already think of cases where both of those predictions won’t work out, so I’m probably not spoiling much by telling you that they don’t seem to work out in the current paper either.

Spoiler alert: you probably don’t need that spoiler

The paper, by Brown, Trafimow, & Gregory (2005) contained three experiments, though I’m only going to focus on the two involving lying for the sake of consistency. In the first of these experiments, 52 participants read about a person – Joe – who had engaged in a dishonest behavior for one of five reasons: (1) for fun, (2) to gain $1,000,000, (3) to avoid losing $1,000,000, (4) to save his own life, or (5) to save someone else’s life. The subjects were then asked to, among other things, rate Joe on how moral they thought he was from -3 (extremely immoral) to +3 (extreme moral). Now a benefit of $1,000,000 should, under the consequentialist view, make lying more acceptable than when it was done just for fun, as there is a benefit to the liar to take into account; the nonconsequentialist account, however, suggests that people should discount the million when making their judgments of morality.

Round 1, in this case, went to the nonconsequentalists: when it came to lying just for fun, Joe was morally rated at a -1.33 on average; lying for money didn’t seem to budge the matter much, with a -1.73 rating for the gaining a million and a -0.6 for losing a million. Statistical analysis found no significant differences between the two money conditions and no difference between the combined money conditions and the “for fun” category. Round 2 went the consequentialists, however: when it came to the saving lives category, lying to save one’s own life was rated as slightly morally positive (0.81), as was lying to save someone else’s (M = 1.36). While the difference was not significant between the two life saving groups, the two were different than the “for fun” group. That last finding required a little bit of qualification, though, as the situation being posed to the subjects was too vague. Specifically, the question had read “Joe was dishonest to a friend to save his life”, which could be interpreted as suggesting that either Joe was saving his own life or his friend’s life. The wording was amended in next experiment to read that “…was dishonest to a friend to save his own life”. The “for fun” was also removed, leaving the dishonest behavior without any qualification in the control group.

With the new wording, 96 participants were recruited and given one of three contexts: George being dishonest for no stated reason, to save his own life, or to save his friend’s life. This time, when participants were asked about the morality of George’s behavior, a new result popped up: being dishonest for no reason was rated somewhat negatively (M = -0.5) as before, but this time, being dishonest to save one’s own life was similarly negative (M = -0.4). Now saving a life is arguably more of a positive consequence than being dishonest is negative when considered in a vacuum, so the consequentialist account doesn’t seem to be faring so well. However, when George was being dishonest to save his friend’s life, the positive assessments returned (M = 1.03). So while there was no statistical difference between George lying for no reason and to save his own life, both conditions were different than George lying to save the life of another. Framed in terms of the Nazi analogy, I don’t see many people condemning the family for hiding Anne Frank.

 The jury is still out on publishing her private diary without permission though…

So what’s going on here? One possibility that immediately comes to mind from looking at these results is that consequences matter, but not in the average-welfare-maximization sense. In both of these experiments lying was deemed to be OK so long as someone other than the liar was benefiting. When someone was lying to benefit himself – even when that benefit was large – is was deemed unacceptable. So it’s not just that the consequences, in the absolute sense, matter; their distribution appears to be important. Why should we expect this pattern of results? My suggestion is that it has to do with the signal that is sent by the behavior in question regarding one’s value as a social asset. Lying to benefit yourself demonstrates a willingness to trade-off the welfare of others for your own, which we want to minimize in our social allies; lying to benefit others sends a different signal.

Of course, it’s not just that benefiting others is morally acceptable or praiseworthy: lying to benefit a socially-undesirable party is unlikely to see much moral leniency. There’s a reason the example people use for thinking about the morality of lying uses hiding Jews from the Nazis, rather than lying to Jews to benefit the Nazis. Perhaps the lesson here is that trying to universalize morality doesn’t do us much good when it comes to understanding it, despite our natural inclinations to view morality not a matter of personal preferences.

References: Brown, J., Trafimow, D., & Gregory, W. (2005). The generality of negativity hierarchically restrictive behaviors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 3-13.

Keeping It Topical: That Catcalling Video

Viral fame is an interesting thing. It can come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly; not unlike a firework. It can also be rather difficult to predict, due to the fact that eventual popularity can often be determined largely by preexisting popularity. This week, one such story that appears to have been caught up in a popularity spiral has been the subject of catcalling: specifically, a video of a woman documenting around 100 instances of unsolicited comments she accumulated while wandering the streets of New York City for 10 hours (which is about one such comment each 6 minutes). At time of writing, the video has around 33 million views, not counting the various clone videos (which is around 6 million such views a day, making for such pleasant numerical symmetry). Unsurprisingly, there’s been a lot of talk about the video; a pile which I’m about to add to. Perhaps the most common conversations have been had concerning whether it’s appropriate to call some of the unsolicited comments the woman received “harassment” (for example, “Have a nice evening”, said in passing, or the various comments suggesting she is “beautiful”).

  Can’t a girl be dating a guy for two years and not get bombarded with harassing proposals?

On that front, there are some natural barriers in perspective that might make consensus hard to reach, owing to what these propositions are thought to represent: solicitations for causal sex. Men, for instance, would likely find such solicitations or comments generally pleasant when receiving them from women, whereas women tend to have precisely the opposite reaction (Clark & Hatfield, 1989). Given the perceptual flavor that such comments often have, men might tend to see them as less of a big deal than women (though sex is hardly all there is too it; such an effect would also be influenced by one’s mating strategy – whether they prefer long- or short-term sexual relationships – as well as other such interacting variables). A second barrier to consensus on the matter is the concentrated nature of such comments: whereas the woman in the video might have received over 100 comments that she views as annoying, they are also coming from over 100 different men. If individual comments aren’t viewed as a problem, but an aggregate of them is (kind of like pollution), discussions over whether they should be condemned might hit some snags in attempting to reach agreement.

A second discussion that has been had about the video concerns the racial component. In the viral video, the majority of the men on the street making these comments are non-white. Subsequent analysis of the video led to the conclusion that around 60% of the comments in question were received on a single street in Harlem. Whether this location was specifically selected in order to solicit more comments, whether certain comments from other people in other areas were edited out, or whether the comments were simply received primarily from the people in that area are unknown, but it does leave a lot to be desired in terms of research methods. It’s important to bear in mind that this video was not a research project for the sake of gathering new information: it was a video designed to go viral that ends with a donation link. Any video which failed to generate appropriate reactions from people on the street would be unlikely to be used, as I can’t imagine video of someone walking around the street without incident encourages people to empty their wallets effectively.

In the interests of furthering that discussion, it’s also worth considering a reported cross-cultural replication attempt of this study. Psychological research has often been criticized for relying on WEIRD samples, and reliance on a single person (with an agenda) from largely a single street should not be taken to be representative of people’s experiences more generally (either in that city or aboard). So, when a woman in New Zealand apparently tried the same thing – wandering the streets of a city for, I presume, 10 hours – it’s worth noting that the video reports her receiving a total of two comments, one of which was a man asking for directions. Assuming the walking time was the same, that’s the difference between a comment every 6 minutes and a comment, with different content, every 300. As seems to be the case in psychology research, flashy, attention-grabbing results don’t always replicate, leaving one wondering what caused the initial set of results to be generated in the first place. Statistical variance? Experimental demand characteristics? Improper sampling?

  Divine intervention, perhaps?

It’s difficult to say precisely what caused the difference in men’s behavior between videos, as well as why most of the comments were made in one specific area in the first one. The default answer most people would likely fall back on would, I imagine, be “cultural differences”, but that answer is sufficiently vague to not actually be one. This is the part where I need to be disappointing and say that I don’t actually have an answer to the questions. However, I would like to begin some speculation as to the psychology underlying the sending of these unsolicited comments and, from there, we might be able to figure out some variables which are doing some of the proverbial lifting here.

One possibility is that these comments are used by men specifically to intimidate women, or make them feel otherwise uncomfortable and unwelcome. As some might suggest, these comments are just an extension of a male culture that hates women because they’re women and will take about every chance it gets to ruin their day (variants of this hypothesis abound). I find such an explanation implausible for a number of reasons, chief among which is that calling someone beautiful is unlikely to be the most effective way of expressing contempt for them. When black people in America were marching for civil rights, they were not met with protesters telling them to “have a great day” or admiring their bodies with a suggestive “damn”. Such an explanation likely mistakes an outcome of an event for its motivating cause: because some women feel uncomfortable with these comments, some people think the comments are made in order to make women uncomfortable. This conclusion is likely the result of people wishing to condemn such comments and, in order to do so, they paint the perpetrators in the worst possible light.

However, it’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, there are some women who either (a) express flattery at these comments or (b) sadness that they are not the targets of such comments, taking the lack of comments to say something negative about their attractiveness (which might not be inaccurate). While such sentiments may or may not be in the minority (I have no formal data speaking to the issue), they paint a much different picture of the matter. Typically, people experiencing violence, oppression, and/or hatred, do not, I think, need to be assured that they aren’t actually being complimented; the two are quite easy to tell apart most of the time. In fact, in the original video, at least one of the men is explicit about the notion that he is complimenting the girl (though admittedly he does go about it in a less than desirable fashion), while another man asks whether the reason the woman isn’t talking to him is that he’s ugly. If, as these ancedotes might suggest, catcalling is tied to factors like whether she is attractive or unattractive, or the response to it tied to the man’s desirability, it would be difficult to tie these factors in with misogyny or intentional harassment more generally.

“Why does my friend always get the harassment? Is it my hair?”

There is, of course, also the other end of this issue: men getting catcalled. While, again, I have no data on the issue, the misogyny explanation would be hard to reconcile with gay men or women making such comments towards men (even if such comments are likely less common owing to the historical costs and benefits of short-term sexual encounters for each sex). The simpler explanation would seem to be that such unsolicited comments, while not necessarily desired by the recipient, are earnest – if clumsy – attempts to start conversations or lead to a sexual encounter. Given that similar comments tend to be made in first messages on dating websites, this alternative seems reasonable (women who complain about receiving too many one line messages online should see the parallels immediately). The problem with such attempts is unlikely to be with any particular one being deplorable so much as it is their sheer volume.

Now it is quite unlikely that these comments ever yield successful encounters, as I mentioned above. This could be one reason they are often considered to be something other than friendly or sexual in nature (i.e., “since this behavior rarely results in sex, it can’t be about getting sex”; the same kind of error I mentioned earlier). The rarity of sexual encounters resulting from them is also likely why the proportion of men making them is really very low even though they’re rather cheap – in terms of time and energy – to make. While 100 comments in 10 hours might seem like a lot, one also needs to consider how many men the woman in question passed in that time, in one of the largest cities in the world, who said nothing. For every comment there were likely several dozen (or hundred) men who made no attempt to talk to the actress. Any explanation for these comments, then, would need to pinpoint some differences between those who do and do not make them; general aspersions against an entire gender or culture won’t do when it comes to predictive accuracy. For what it’s worth, I think a healthy portion of that variance will be accounted for by one’s sexual strategy, one’s current relationship status, the attractiveness of the person in question, and whether the target is sending any signals correlated with sexual receptivity.

What predictions can be drawn from alternative perspectives I leave up to you.

Lots And Lots Of Hand-Wringing

There’s a well-known quote that was said to be uttered when someone heard about Darwin’s theory of evolution for the first time: “Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it does not become widely known”. Darwinian theory was certainly not the first theory that got people worrying about the implications of it being true, nor will it be the last. Pascal’s wager, for instance, attempted to suggest that belief in a deity would be a fine one to adopt, as the implications for being wrong about the belief might involve spending an eternity in torment (depending on which version of said deity we’re talking about), but believing incorrectly that a god exists doesn’t carry nearly as many potential costs. More recent worries have suggested that if global warming is real and caused by human activity, then we might want to knock it off with all the fossil fuel burning before we do (anymore) serious damage to the planet; others worry about the implications of that belief being wrong, suggesting it might harm the economy to impose new regulations on business owners over nothing. While we could document a seemingly-endless list of examples of people worrying about the implication of this or that idea, today we actually get a rare chance to examine whether some of those worries about the implications of an idea are grounded in reality.

“I don’t believe in your academic work….because of the implication

Now, of course, the implications which flow from a belief if it were true in no way affect whether or not the belief happens to be true. Our Victorian woman fretting over what might happen if evolution is true in no way changed the truth value of the claim. Given that the truth value isn’t affected, and that we here in the academic portion of world might fancy ourselves as fighters over truth of a claim, the implications which flow from an idea can be shrugged off as matters that don’t concern us. Still, one might wonder what precisely our Victorian was wringing her hands about; what consequences the world might suffer if people began to belief evolution was true and behaved accordingly. If she’s anything like some of the more contemporary critics of evolutionary theory in general – and evolutionary psychology in particular – she might have been worried that if people believe that the theory is true, then people have no reason to avoid being amoral psychopaths, killing and raping their way through life. The argument, I think, is that people might begin to justify things like rape and murder as natural if [behavior is genetically determined in some sense/God didn't create people and care very deeply about what they do], and therefore justifiable. If one is interested in avoiding nasty the consequences of beliefs, well, all that rape and murder might be a good one to avoid.

On a philosophical level, I happen to think that such a concern is rather strange. This strangeness arises from the fact that if, say, rape and murder are natural (and therefore justifiable, according to the argument), condemnation of such acts is, well, also natural and therefore acceptable. I’m not sure that this line of argument really gets anyone anywhere. It’s the same kind of reasoning that crops up concerning the issue of free will and morality: in short, when confronted with the idea of determinism, people seem to feel that acts like murder don’t require a justification, but acts like morally condemning others for murder do, leaving us with the rather odd situation where people feel it wouldn’t be justifiable to condemn someone for killing another person, but the killing itself is fine. Why people attach so much importance to trying to justify their moral judgments like that is certainly an interesting topic, but I wanted to bring the focus away from philosophy and back to the implications of evolutionary theories.

Some people have made the argument that if people believe in an evolutionary theory, then they will subsequently fail to condemn something the arguer would like to condemn. Foregoing the matter of whether the evolutionary theory in question is true, we can consider whether the concern about its implications is warranted. This is precisely what Dar-Nimrod et al (2011) set out to do. The authors set out to examine whether exposing male participants to different explanations for a behavior – specifically, an evolutionary explanation and a social-constructivist one – led to any changes in their condemnation of sex crimes, relative to a control condition. If evolutionary theories are used, even non-consciously, to justify certain behaviors morally (what the authors call a “get-out-of-jail-free card”), we should expect that evolutionary explanations will lead people to be less punitive of the sexual crimes. In the first experiment, the authors examined men’s reactions to an instance of a man soliciting a prostitute for sex; in the second, they examined men’s reactions to an instance of rape.

“Participants were subsequently followed to see if they sought out prostitutes”

The first study only made use of 58 participants (two of which were dropped) across three conditions, which makes me a little wary owing to small sample size concerns. Nevertheless, the participants either read about a social-constructivist theory (stressing power structures between men and women in relationship to sexual behavior), an evolutionary theory (stressing parental investment and reproductive potential), or neither. They were subsequently asked to suggest how much bail a man (John) should have to pay for attempting to solicit a prostitute that was actually an undercover policewoman (anywhere from $50-1000). After controlling for how much bail the participants set for a shoplifter, the results showed a significant difference between the conditions: in the control condition, men set an average bail of $267 for John. In the evolutionary condition, the bail was set around $301, and was around $461 in the social-constructivist condition. This difference was significant between the social-constructivist position and the evolutionary condition, but not between the evolutionary and control conditions.

In the next study, the setup was largely similar. Sixty-seven participants read about an evolutionary argument concerning why rape might have been adaptive, a social-constructivist argument about how more porn in circulation was correlated with more rape, or a control condition about, I think, sexual relationships between older people. They were asked to assess the scientific significance of the evidence they read about, and then asked about the acceptability of the behavior of a man (“Thomas”) who persisted in asserting his sexual desires on a woman who willingly kissed him but explicitly objected to anything further (date rape). The results showed that men rated the scientific significance of each theory to be comparable (which, I should note, is funny, given that the relationship between porn and rape goes in the opposite direction). Additionally, those reading the social explanation thought men had more control over their sexual urges (M = 5.4), relative to the control condition (M = 4.6) or evolutionary condition (M = 4.2). Similarly, those in the social condition rated sexual aggression less positively in the social condition (M = 3.0) relative to the evolutionary (M = 3.8) and control (M = 3.6) conditions. Finally, the same pattern held for punitive judgments.

Summarizing the results, then, we get the following pattern: while exposure to a certain social theories enhanced people’s moral condemnation of particular criminal sex acts, relative to the control condition, the evolutionary theories didn’t have any effect in particular. They certainly didn’t seem to justify sexual assault, as some feared they might. Precisely why the social theories enhanced condemnation is a separate matter, with the authors postulating that it might have something to due with the language and variable-focus that they used and note that, with different phrasing, it might be possible to eliminate that difference. The important point as far I’m concerned, though, is that evolutionary explanations (at least these ones) didn’t seem to lead to any of the horrific consequences detractors of the field sometimes imagine they would. In other words, if the evolutionary theories are true, we need not pray they do not become widely known.

So we can all safely move onto the next moral panic

Given that many critics of evolutionary psychology have made reference to this get-out-of-jail-free concern, it seems plausible that their worries are based on some misunderstandings of, or misinformation, about the field (or, more generously, a concern that other people will generate such misunderstandings intuitively, even though the critic is in masterful command of the subject himself). That is to say, roughly, someone says “evolutionary” and the receiver hears “genetic”, “predetermined”, and/or fears that other people will. However, if that explanation is true, I would find it curious that it didn’t seem to show up in the results. More precisely, if people substitute “genetic” for “evolutionary”, we might have expected to see the evolutionary explanations reduce judgments of condemnation, rather than do nothing to them*. It is possible that the effect could be witnessed in other topics than sex, perhaps owing to people treating sex differences in behavior as intuitively genetic based, but I suppose only future research will shed light on the issue.

*(For some reason, genetic explanations seem to reduce the severity of moral judgments. I would be interested to see if participants reading about how moral condemnation is genetically determined subsequently condemn more or less than others)

References: Dar-Nimrod, I., Heine, S., Cheung, B., & Schaller, M. (2011). Do scientific theories affect men’s evaluations of sex crimes? Aggressive Behavior, 37, 440-449.

#DERP Syndrome

“I don’t have an accent; this is just how words sound when they’re pronounced properly”

Though the source of the above quote escapes me (I happen to know it was some British comedian; just not which one), I think the sentiment captures nicely the way people tend to feel about their views of the social world. For instance, were you to ask people about the merits of a policy – say one concerning the legality of drug use or the age of consent laws – many people would likely express some variant of the following view points: (a) my view is the correct one, (b) it’s the correct view because it accords well with the data/world when one views it objectively, like I do and, further, (c) those who disagree with me are wrong because (d) their biases blind them to the truth of the matter. In fact, one might even tack on the notion that these disagreements aren’t based in differing perceptions, but rather based on the fact that both sides know which policy is correct but, because the other side just happens to be evil, they don’t care.

Also, they usually want money

Though a full review of the literature on the topic is certainly beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that current evidence seems to suggest that people have little conscious access into the reasons they make the decisions they do, and that our reasoning abilities probably function to convince people of things more than they do to uncover logical and true relations. These are points discussed at greater length in a 2010 book - Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite - by Robert Kurzban and, in my entirely unbiased and objective view, it is one of the best books ever written. On that note, Rob is back with a new book – The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind – co-authored with Jason Weeden. The new book examines, as the title might suggest, how we might be able to explain people’s particular sets of political (and, by extension, moral) stances by understanding where their self-interest* might lie in a matter. While we – or at the least the part of our brain doing the talking – like to dress up our perceptions about what is right as being unmotivated by self-interest with some regularity (perhaps they are instead motivated by a sincere hope to make everyone better off, we might say), this is a proposition that seems unlikely to be true. So Rob and Jason start asking some questions about what kinds of things might motivate our opinions.

The first step in this process comes from the realization that certain “explanations” for people’s behavior are, in fact, not explanations at all. Establishing this point represents the efforts of the first (and my favorite) chapter of the book, which I would like to cover (i.e., gently plagiarize) in some detail. The first example the authors use concerns parties: some people enjoy going out to parties, drinking, dancing, meeting new people and the like; others tend to avoid such settings, finding them to be overwhelming or unpleasant. How might we explain such differences between people? Well, the go-to explanation for many people would be to reference the personalities of the party-goers involved: those who like parties tend to be more extroverted than those introverts who do not like parties. So the fact that some people like parties is explained by referencing their level of extroversion. That’s all well and good until one considers how we know whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert. As the authors point out, the questions on those personality tests that determine who we classify as introverts and extroverts tend to include questions concerning whether they like parties.

So, the fact that people enjoy parties is “explained” by noting they are extroverts, and we know they’re extroverts because they tell us they like parties. This explanation, then, is much like other psychological “explanations” which simply restate empirical findings with a new name. This theoretical spinning of intellectual wheels gets a playful name from Jason and Rob: DERP Syndrome (standing for Direct Explanation Renaming Psychology). If we are trying to understand why people, say, support the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples, or support prayer in public school, we’re going to need to consider other factors than the fact that they think the world would be better off if gay couples could marry or if prayer was allowed in school, respectively. Accordingly, the authors shift their focus towards other variables: demographics, like age, sex, race, income, and so on, to help do some explaining. Though these demographics tend to be used as controls by other researchers interested in examining, say, extroversion or public policy preferences, Rob and Jason suggest this is a rather large mistake. The reason the authors want to use these variables is easy to understand intuitively: when considering a correlation between, say, sex and the support of a policy, it is plausible that a woman might support a policy because it has positive implications for women, but support of that policy would not turn one into a woman.

 “Well, that’s where those dangerous pro-wildlife polices will get you…”

That said, the matter is rarely as easy as considering whether someone is a man or black if you want to try and understand their policy preferences because, as it turns out, the people belonging to these broad demographic groups often don’t share a perfect alignment of interests. Despite what some might suggest, men do not exist in a large cabal and collectively conspire to make non-men feel bad. It’s also difficult to understand policy preferences because you can’t just ask people why they support a policy and expect an accurate answer, as noted above. My favorite example of this is currently the topic of abortion: though people sometimes frame opposition to abortion as an “anti-woman” policy, the demographic data shows that men and women support and oppose abortion in approximately equal numbers. Instead, as it turns out, one’s sexual strategy – whether one tends to enjoy mating in the short- or long-term context – tends to be a pretty good predictor of where one resides politically with respect to abortions being legal and available.

Those who might want short-term strategies to carry more costs (the long-term maters) tend to oppose abortion, but typically say they oppose it on the grounds that it kills a baby; a consciously-held position inconsistent with the fact that many of them also support the legality of abortion in certain circumstances, like because of conceptions resulting from rape or incest. As many of those same people don’t advocate for the ability of mothers to kill two-year-old children who were conceived from an instance of rape, something is amiss. Similarly, those who oppose abortion also tend to oppose freely-available birth control, which is strange under the abortion-is-murder view, but less so under the sexual strategies perspective. Lest those who support legal abortions in other cases get too cocky regarding their own views – which often involve some statements about how people should be “free to control their bodies” – their consciously-articulated views tend to be inconsistent with the fact that many of the same people who support legal abortions also have interests in regulating what others do with their bodies, like engaging in prostitution, using drugs recreationally (and having consensual sex while using them), selling genetically-modified foods, giving money to political candidates, or owning handguns.

One other exceedingly interesting point Jason and Rob discuss in their book concerns support for group-based discrimination policies (such as segregation or affirmative action). As they note, all discrimination policies – whether they concern effort, intelligence, gender, or race – produce people who tend to be winners (i.e., benefit under such rules) and losers (suffer costs under them). The only real alternative to discrimination in general is to make decisions in choosing alternative options (in hiring, mating, and so on) at random, which is a policy almost no one advocates for. So, to understand which people might support certain policies, it helps to start thinking about who would win and lose under various rule structures. Consider two possible ways of discriminating: we could discriminate on intelligence (say, more intelligence is usually better for getting hired), or we could discriminate on racial identity (say, being Indian per se improves your odds over non-Indians). Those Indians with a lot of intelligence do fairly well under both policies, but those Indians without much intelligence do much better under the latter policy than the former. Accordingly, we might expect more support for pro-Indian policies to come from those Indians with lower intelligence, relative to those with high intelligence. In fact, those Indians with high intelligence might even do well if they oppose the pro-Indian policy, as accepting that ethnic discrimination policy might hinder acceptance of pro-intelligence policies in other domains. That said, while smart Indians might not favor pro-Indian policies as strongly, they would likely support policies that advance non-Indians for their ethnicity alone even less.

“People should value precisely the traits I happen to have; it’s the only decent option”

As you can see, considerations of interests can get complicated somewhat quickly, as we all have a number of different identities. In fact, it can be a bit tricky to keep up with the book at times when it talks about the difference in interests between those who are male, black, educated, and religious, relative to those who are female, white, educated, and atheists (which is no fault of the book; it’s just difficult to keep such groups neat in one’s head). Matters can be even further complicated by considering whether one’s social allies would be better or worse of under social policies; a point which I do not recall being covered in much depth, but is a natural extension of the self-interest; we could consider it one’s indirect self-interest. Nevertheless, the data examined by Rob and Jason points heavily in favor of these considerations being rather relevant in determining who supports what policies. Importantly, these variables seem capable of freeing us from the circularity of explanations; an ability which is often lacking when trying to understand these issues through accusations of sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and all the other various -isms one can think up. Calling someone a bigot generally serves to stunt our understanding of where their positions come from, I would think. But, then again, understanding isn’t always what people are after, and name-calling does seem to be fun for some. So there’s that…

References: Weeden, J. & Kurzban, R. (2014). The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit it. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.

*If you’ve read Rob’s first book, you should know that “self-interest” is a term that makes little sense. Nevertheless, it is retained for ease of expression.

Honorable Violence

I’m usually not one for TV. Though I rarely find myself watching TV shows, one of the two or three exceptions to this pattern in recent year has been Game of Thrones. It’s a show replete with instances of violence, many of which are rather interesting on top of being entertaining. There are two such instances I have in mind which struck me as particularly memorable: The first scene involves a fight been Jaime Lannister and Eddard Stark. The two fight each other while Jaime’s men stand back and observe. The fight is cut short, however, when one of Jaime’s men suddenly stabs a spear through Eddard’s leg, crippling him. Following that, Jaime approaches his ally who had disabled his opponent and knocks the man out for the assistance before riding off, leaving Eddard alive. While the scene is intuitively understandable to most viewers, if this were any other species being observed, we might find the behaviors all rather peculiar. Why did Jaime’s allies not step in to assist him sooner? Why did Jaime aggress against his own ally for helping him win a potentially-lethal fight? Why did Jaime not kill his opponent when he had the chance?

And, more importantly, why doesn’t my hair look that good?

The second scene I had in mind involves the fight between Bronn and Ser Vardis Egan. The two are engaged in a trial by combat, where the outcome of the fight will, as the name suggests, determine the guilt (and life) of Jaime’s brother, Tyrion, as well as the life of one of the fighters. Bronn, in this case, happens to be fighting on behalf of Tyrion. Bronn manages to win the fight by tiring his armor-clad opponent out, before crippling and killing him. Despite Vardis being surrounded by his allies, none of them join in the fight to help save his life. After Bronn wins, he is rebuked for his victory by the Queen of the Vale, who suggests that Bronn “doesn’t fight with honor”. Bronn responds with one of my favorite lines from the series: “No”, which he follows up by gesturing down the pit where his recently-defeated opponent was dropped, and continues, “He did”. Honor, it seems, can get a man killed, so why do people fight with or make a big deal about it?

While there are many other such instances of violence in Game of Thrones we might document, I wanted to use these as a vehicle to discuss a recent paper by Romero, Pham, & Goetz (2014) which examined people’s implicit rules of combat, specifically the acceptability of violent tactics. In their paper, the authors posit that a recurrent history of violence over human evolution – in conjunction with the potential costs associated with violence – likely had a hand in shaping human psychological mechanisms for learning about and responding to violence. In this case, prepared learning would be the order of the day. That is to say that violent conflict, owing to its risky nature, is often not the type of thing that lends itself neatly to repeated trial and error learning, so it is probable that human psychology comes equipped with cognitive mechanisms for structuring our understanding of violent conflict with very little or, in some cases, the absence of, explicit learning about or experience with such topics. This is similar to how monkeys can learn quickly to fear snakes but not flowers.

As people would want to avoid needlessly escalating play fights into lethal combat or fail to respond appropriately to others with lethal intent, we should expect (a) that the mind is structured to both classify violent acts into relatively distinct groups, and  (b) that each group should have types of violence which are deemed acceptable or unacceptable in association with each context. The regulations on what kind of violence is associated with acceptability in each group should also correlate with the functions of violence in those contexts. Though the authors note that such a list is unlikely to be exhaustive, they highlight four groups into which violent conflict might classified: (1) play fighting, the purpose of which might be to prepare one for actual fighting later, but not to cause lasting injury, (2) status contests, the purpose of which is to establish dominance, but not to kill one’s rival, (3) warfare, the purpose of which is to settle between-group rivalries which may occasionally require lethal force, and (4) anti-exploitative violence, covering what people typically consider self-defense which, again, might occasionally require lethal force.

Not included in the list: Senseless and Leisurely violence

In the first study, 237 US students read about a scenario designed to capture each of these four contexts, and were then asked to rate the acceptability of 22 violent acts in each context. The violent acts ranged from minor (slapping and punching the body) to rather severe (eye gouging and the use of a deadly weapon), as confirmed by independent ratings. The authors predicted that more severe violent acts would increase in acceptability from play fighting, to status contexts, to warfare, to anti-exploitation contexts, owing to the function of violence in each context shaping the expectations of behavior in them. This was indeed the pattern that was uncovered: as violent tactics got more severe, endorsements of them as acceptable tended to decrease. The number of acceptable tactics was also lowest for play fighting, followed by status contests, warfare, and anti-exploitation tactics. Interestingly, experience learning about and discussing combat behavior did not have a significant effect on people’s judgments of an act’s acceptability. In the non-US sample of 91 Mturkers, that last result concerning learning was significant but, controlling for the level of experience, the above pattern generally replicated (though the mean values of acceptability were slightly different, with the non-US sample rating violence as generally more acceptable).

The second study really caught my attention, however, and it gets back to our initial Game of Thrones scenes. This study examined status contests specifically. The function of these status contests, as previous mentioned, is to establish dominance. They can also serve a signaling function by allowing others the chance to assess who is the better fighter within the boundaries of these implicit rules of combat. Individuals who break these implicit rules, then, end up obscuring the assessment of their relative fighting ability by granting themselves competitive advantages. To use a simple, yet extreme example, if you’re attempting to assess fighting ability in a boxing match and one boxer shows up to the fight with a knife, you learn less about each person’s relative boxing ability. Other types of “cheap shots” (i.e. violent tactics that extend beyond the normally accepted range for the type of conflict) similarly hinder honest information from being gathered from the results of the contest. This could be why it seemed so comprehensible to viewers for Bronn to be accused of lacking honor (as he was wearing his opponent out rather than fighting him directly) or why Jaime didn’t continue to fight Eddard after the spear through the leg (as winning no longer proves anything about the combatant’s skill).

The second study asked 234 participants to read the status contest story from the first study, but now one of the fighters employed tactics rated as overly-severe during that contest, including: bringing allies into combat, striking the testicles of the other fighter, or using a weapon. Participants also read about three novel contexts, in which one fighter handicapped himself, either by fighting with only one hand, fighting when outnumbered, or fighting a particularly formidable opponent. When the fighter in question employed one of the more severe tactics during the fight, they were assigned less respect than those handicapping themselves. On a 10-point scale, bringing allies to fight was rated as a mean of 2.58 in respect, striking the testicles was a 2.68, and using a weapon was rated as 2.14. By contrast, fighting with one arm was rated a 7.23, fighting outnumbered was 6.41, and fighting a formidable opponent was a 5.88. On the whole, men also tended to give somewhat more respect to fighters handicapping themselves, relative to women, perhaps owing to men generally being the ones doing the fighting.

Seems like a fair assessment of fighting ability

Now, as the authors note, the rules governing the classification of violent acts should be expected to vary somewhat from culture to culture. For some cultures, status contests might take the form of wrestling; in others, like the Game of Thrones world, status contests might sometimes involve the use of lethal weaponry. Some blurring of these categories, then, is a likely outcome at times. When duels are held with lethal weaponry, for instance, they might serve dual functions of status contests and anti-exploitation tactics, making classifications difficult. Despite that occasional blurring, however, we should expect people to have different expectations of the acceptable rules of violence contingent on its function. When the function is only to display status, grievous bodily injury should be relatively unacceptable; when the function is play fighting, even mild injuries should be frowned upon.

To turn this finding towards some personal experience, these results shed some light on the frequent complaint of many gamers concerning “honor” in their games, whether certain tactics are “cheap”, and whether certain things in the game need to be “nerfed” (i.e. have their power reduced). These complaints likely arise from a combination of the two aforementioned issues: first, if one player is using some severely-unbalanced or powerful item, the ability of each player’s skill to determine the result of the match shrinks, relative to the portion determined by the item. In the event that such tactics are too good and easy to pull off, the ability to display skill can be removed entirely. This would make the game less fun for many. Second, people might be treating these games as if they belong in different categories. Some players who play just for fun might treat them as play fights while others treat them as status competitions; still others might even treat them as anti-exploitation contexts. This could result in the different groups having different ideals as to how others should behave in game, and without agreement on the implicit rules resentment between players can build. A similar logic thus likely underlies non-violent status competitions, play, and anti-exploitation tactics as well. It would be interesting to see this line of research expanded into other areas of human competition.

References: Romero, G., Pham, M., & Goetz, A. (2014). The implicit rules of combat. Human Nature, DOI: 10.1007/s12110-014-9214-3


He’s Got Your Eyes…Right?

Last post, I was discussing paternal investment in children. The point of that post was to draw attention to the fact there are often rather good biological reasons for why we might expect men and women to be differentially interested in investing their time and energy in raising children versus doing other adaptive things. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect men to be interested in investing in children, of course; just that we shouldn’t expect such things to be indiscriminate or motivated by the same factors as women’s altruism. I wanted to expand on one of those ideas a bit more today: specifically, the idea that men lack assurance in their paternity when fertilization takes places inside the female, whereas women can be 100% certain the child they give birth to is theirs. “Certain”, in the former context, refers to the notion that women were unlikely in need of a solution the adaptive problem of maternity certainty, as giving birth to a child was an honest and reliable signal that the child was related to the mother genetically.

“Little does she know it’s not her child” – No one, ever

The first study I wanted to draw attention to concerns the resemblance of a child to their parents. Naturally, as children inherit half of their genes from each parent, we should expect that children tend to resemble their parents with respect to a number of external and internal features. That much is pretty noncontroversial. However, since fathers cannot be assured of their paternity, we might expect men to attend to certain similarities between them and their would-be children when calculating the likelihood that a given child is actually theirs. If an Asian woman gives birth to a Black child, her Asian husband can likely be fairly assured that the child in question is not, in fact, his, and there might have been some infidelity involved somewhere along the line. One might – and, indeed, some have – make the corresponding argument that we might expect children to physically resemble their father more than their mother. The logic would go roughly as follows: if the child resembles their father more, they might receive more parental investment from the father, as he can be more certain the child is his. So, since that tends to be a good thing for the survival and reproductive prospects of the child, we might expect children to bias their resemblance towards their fathers (foregoing for the moment the precise mechanisms through which that might be achieved).

There’s a major issue that such expectations run into, however: reality. In a 1999 paper, Berdart & French collected photos of parents and their children from 28 families. The children’s photographs were taken when they were approximately 1, 3, and 5 years old; the parent’s pictures were all from when the child was about 1 year old. During each trial, the participants (180 undergraduates) were presented with a single picture of a child alongside three women or three men and asked to try and identify the child’s parent. This process was repeated 28 times for each subject. If children tend to resemble their fathers more than their mothers, we should also expect people to be better at matching the child to their father than their mother. This effect failed to materialize, however: for one-year old children, the average correct matching to the father (13/28) was not different than correct matching to the mother (12/28); similar findings obtained for the three-year olds (13/28 and 13/28, respectively) and five-year olds (14/28 and 14/28, respectively).

So while child did certainly tend to resemble their parents consistently (though clearly less than perfectly), they failed to resemble their fathers more than their mothers. Berdart & French (1999) suggested that there might be a rationale for this lack of distinct resemblance: if fathers were good at figuring out which children were theirs, they would presumably also be good at figuring out which children were not theirs, and withhold investment from the latter group. I don’t want to spend too much time on this point other than to note that it’s not a particularly strong one, as it would be good for the ostensible fathers if they had such a skill, and the ill effects on the unrelated child shouldn’t be expected to have an impact on its adaptive nature. Nevertheless, the important point here is that children do not appear to actually resemble their father anymore than their mother. Reality need not always get in the way of perceptions, though.

Fitness is 99% instagram filters

In general, having perceptions that match up to reality is a good thing. If you think you can succeed where you will fail, you’re more likely to waste your time; it you think you will fail when you can succeed, you’ll miss opportunities. Things like that. The exception to that rule concerns contexts of persuasion. There are beliefs I might prefer you to have because they would make me better off, rather than because they are true. So, if some part of my brain that deals with persuading others holds an incorrect belief, that’s not necessarily a problem. As the last post touched on, if people can convince others certain sex differences are due to sexism, that might have some useful implications for certain groups of people to the extent that people are trying to avoid being perceived as sexist and are willing to take steps to remediate the situation. For the present purposes, however, if women are trying to extract investment from men for their children, it would be in those women’s best interest if the man in question believes the child in question is actually related to him, as men are more likely to invest in child on that basis alone. Accordingly, we might predict that women will be more likely to try and convince men that their children resemble them.

Enter some research by Daly & Wilson (1982) that examined the spontaneous utterances of people following the birth of a child. Their first sample consisted of 111 births which had been taped; the fathers were present in 42 of them. From those 111 tapes, approximately 70 comments about the baby’s appearance were recorded. When it was the mother speaking, she remarked on the baby’s resemblance to the father in 16 instances, and the baby’s resemblance to herself 4 times. By contrast, when the father was speaking, he remarked on how the baby resembled the mother 4 times, and himself only once. Further, every time the resemblance to the mother was commented on, the utterance was singular; when the father’s resemblance was being discussed by the mother, however, six of them contained repetitions (e.g. “He looks like you…He’s got your eyes”). Immediately following the birth of a child, then, the resemblance to the father appeared to focused on specifically by the mother. While the mother was nominally more likely to comment on the resemblance to the father in his presence (75%) relative to his absence (47%), this difference didn’t reach significant with the small sample size.

A follow-up study surveyed the responses of mothers, fathers, and the relatives of both concerning the child’s resemblance. Responses came back from about 230 parents and 150 relatives. In all cases, each group suggested the child looks more like the father than the mother by a ratio of at least 2:1. This is in slight opposition to the previous results insomuch as both mothers and fathers said the child looked more like the father. This may have something to do with sampling bias, though, as only about 1/5 of the sample returned any surveys. It seems plausible, as the authors note, that “...fathers rankled by any serious suspicion of nonpaternity would be unlikely to find the questionnaire an amusing diversion“. It possible, then, that fathers might be overstating their physical resemblance to the child in surveys as signals of their unwillingness to abandon investment in the child or relationship, but that’s just speculation on my part. The videos, by contrast, might have proven to be more of an unbiased sample, freer from demand characteristics. Though it’s difficult to say, it’s worth noting that around 25% of the survey respondents reported that “everyone” in their life said the baby looked like the father, as compared with no one reporting comparable utterances about the mother. This is in spite of the finding that children don’t particularly resemble the father over the mother in a matching task, suggesting that such comments might represent social politeness, rather than accurate perceptions.

“She looks just like both of you…”

To repeat the major point here, there can be benefits to perceiving the world in inaccurate ways when you are trying to convince other people of things. Whether that thing is the resemblance of the child to a parent or whether sex differences are due sexism is quite irrelevant. It is likely, in many of these cases, that the part of the brain doing the talking legitimately believes those perceptions so as to better convince others, while different parts of the brain might disagree. Now, in this case, we happen to have data to suggest that the perceptions – or at least what people say about their perceptions – are incorrect; we also have a relatively straightforward theory for explaining why we might expect this might be the case. In many other cases we are not so fortunate.

References: Berdart, S. & French, R. (1999). Do babies resemble their fathers more than their mothers? A failure to replicate Chistenfeld & Hill (1995). Evolution & Human Behavior, 20, 129-135.

Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1982). Whom are newborn babies said to resemble? Ethology & Sociobiology, 3, 69-78.

Understanding Male Investment In Children

As a rather social species, humans seem to have a fairly advanced theory of mind. By that, I mean we attribute things like beliefs, intentions, desires, and so on to other people in efforts to understand, explain, predict, and manipulate the behavior of others. The adaptive value of this skill can be hard to overstate and, accordingly, we ought to expect people to be pretty accurate at figuring out the mental states of others. That said, doing so with perfect accuracy is not an easy task, despite our general proficiency with it. Part of the reason, of course, is that things like beliefs and desires are not themselves directly observable, requiring us to make certain assumptions about the reasons for the observable behavior of others. Another part of the reason, however, is that people often have a vested interest in convincing others about certain internal states of affairs, and that interest persists even in the absence of truth value. For instance, if my suffering tends to draw investment from others in the form of social or material resources, it might pay for some cognitive mechanism of mine to over-represent how much I am suffering publicly to others.

“No, really; I am in that much pain. Just come a little closer and see…”

As an example of the trickier aspects of figuring out the intentions and motivations of others, I wanted to use a case of paternal investment in humans. In many mammalian species, males do not tend to assist in the raising of offspring at all. This is owing largely to the fact that males cannot be assured of their paternity the way females can “know” the child they give birth to is theirs. Human males, by stark contrast, often offer substantial investment in children. However it came about, males in our species managed to largely solve the adaptive problem of paternity uncertainty. The key word in that last sentence, though, is largely: we still can’t be sure that a child is ours 100%, so we might expect that, in general, men are less interested in investing in children than women tend to be, especially if the specter to infidelity has been raised. We might also expect that outcome to obtain owing to opportunity costs; what else we could be doing with the time spent investing in children. Time and energy that I spend investing in raising a child is often time and energy I can’t spend doing other adaptive things, like pursuing additional mating opportunities. As the obligate costs to reproduction are lower for men than women, we might also expect men are more interested in putting their time into pursuing mating opportunities and less interested in putting into investment in children, relative to women.

Now these are theoretically-sound evolutionary reasons for expecting the sex with less obligate investment and genetic certainty (typically males) to be less interested in parenting efforts. The logic of managing these adaptive problems should be instantiated in the psychologies of men and women, and to the extent that men and women face different problems, we should perceive the world and behave in different ways. However, some people don’t like the idea that there is any difference between men and women with respect to how interested they are in raising children. As an example, I would offer this article over at Patheos calling Sam Harris a sexist for suggesting men and women have some different interests when it comes to raising children. In it, the author puts forth two hypotheses: that women being the ones to disproportionately cut their careers short to raise children is due to either “…biology or sexism“. In this case, the author favors the “sexism” explanation which, I think, is that men and women and psychologically indistinguishable with respect to their interest in raising children, and would be just as likely to do so were it not for whatever culture is setting different standards. The author’s theory of mind, then, says that men are just as interested in raising children as women (or at least that’s what one part of her mind says publicly). The notable quote I would consider to outline this hypothesis is, “There is no biological reason men and women cannot share the responsibility of childrearing“. No biological reason making such an outcome impossible, sure; just that a host of them make an equitable distribution of interest in doing so fairly unlikely.

The piece and subsequent comments sections are full of anecdotes about how people know men who are supremely nurturing towards children. I don’t doubt that’s the case, just like I don’t doubt that there are some women who are taller than most men. Variance is a thing, after all, and males in our species do tend to invest in children. It doesn’t follow, though, that there are no aggregate differences in desire rear children between the sexes owing to more than sexist culture. The important thing worth noting here is that desires to invest in children are being inferred from the behavior of investing. The problem with doing so is that people might enact behavior for reasons other than desiring to enact the behavior itself. An easy example is a man visiting a prostitute: just because the man gives the prostitute money, it does not mean his motives are altruistic; he is giving her money instrumentally. If he didn’t have to give her money for the sex, he probably wouldn’t. That sounds simple, I’m sure, but how about the hypothesis that men invest in child rearing for reasons owing to mating effort, rather than parenting effort?

“HA; Got one! Bring on the ladies!”

This brings me to a paper by Anderson, Kaplan, & Lancaster (1999). Now this study doesn’t speak to the matter of sex differences in interest in children, as it only focuses on male behavior, but it makes the point well that inferring motives from behavior can be a problem. The study examined male investment in children in conjunction with their relationship status with the child’s mother. There were four groups the men were placed into: (1) those who had genetic children and were in a relationship with the mother, (2) those who had genetic children and were not in a relationship with the mother, (3) those who had stepchildren with a woman they were in a relationship with, and (4) those who had stepchildren from a past relationship. The researchers had a sample of approximately 1,300 men with offspring in one or more of those categories. The question at hand was whether or not a male’s investment in said children varied as a function of the male’s relationship status with the child’s mother and the children themselves. The male’s investment was considered in four groups: (1) Time spent with the child, (2) money spent on the child, (3) whether the child attended college, and (4) how much support the child received for college.

I want to focus on the monetary investment category, as I feel it’s the easiest to think about, (and because all four classes of investment showed basically the same pattern). With respect to monetary investments over the past year to children 17 or younger, genetic children from a previous relationship received, on average, about $700 less than similarly-aged genetic children from the current relationship (less, in this case, refers to how much a statistical model accounting for a number of factors predicted the typical child should get). By contrast, stepchildren from the current relationship received only around $150 less than genetic children from a current relationship.Stepchildren from a previous relationship received about $1,500 less than genetic children from the current relationship, and $900 less than genetic children from previous relationships. For children age 18-24, the same pattern held, with the exception of the genetic children from past marriages receiving more money than stepchildren from the current one, though the two categories did not differ significantly.

These results found that men do indeed tend to invest in children; often substantial amounts. This fact was never in question. However, the amount they invested in the child, whether in terms of time or money, varied contingent on their genetic relatedness to the child and relationship with the child’s mother. Some of men’s interest in investing in children, like women’s, owes to their relatedness to the child: genetic children from past relationships received much more investment than stepchildren from past relationship. This is classic kin selection. I presume very few people would suggest that parents tend to invest in their own children more because “their culture tells them to do so”, rather than positing some kind of biologically-grounded reason. It also seems like a hefty portion of the investment in children by men could reflect mating effort towards the mother: the men behaved as if they were trying to build or maintain a relationship with a woman through investing in her children. Sure; it might not be as romantic as a dinner date, but investment is investment. It follows that men might well be less interested in raising children per se, but quite interested in maintaining a relationship with the mother, so they invest at certain levels despite their lack of intrinsic interest. Put another way, it is quite plausible that women with children do not generally wish to be in relationships with partners that abuse or neglect the child, so men try to avoid that in order to not be ruled out as mates.


Now, again, I don’t have comparable data for women, but the point at hand is that just because you find men investing in children, it doesn’t mean that their sole motivation is in the investing per se. We could very well find that men and women invested relatively equally (or unequally) in children and that their motives for doing so differ substantially. It is also possible that the people agreeing with the sentiments expressed in the Patheos article represent something of a biased sample, insomuch as they don’t know many men who dislike taking care of children because they wouldn’t want to (and purposefully don’t) associate with such men in the first place. At the very least, I doubt any of them are giving fathers who ran out on their children pats on the back and telling them they understand. Finally, it is also possible that people might be inferring certain motivations on the part of one sex or the other in hopes of convincing people of some particular political viewpoint or to affect a change in their behavior. Though I don’t have much time to speculate about it, if people have a vested interest in seeing sexism as being responsible for a difference between men and women, you can bet they will find it. Similarly, psychological researchers often have a vested interest in finding certain statistical results and, lo and behold, they tend to find them too. If you’d like to speculate more about men and women’s interest in raising children, sexist biases, and the like, I’ll leave you with some helpful places to do just that.

References: Anderson, K., Kaplan, H., & Lancaster, J. (1999). Paternal care by genetic fathers and stepfathers I: Reports from Albuquerque men. Evolution & Human Behavior, 20, 405-431.