Do Moral Violations Require A Victim?

If you’ve ever been a student of psychology, chances are pretty good that you’ve heard about or read a great many studies concerning how people’s perceptions about the world are biased, incorrect, inaccurate, erroneous, and other such similar adjectives. A related sentiment exists in some parts of the morality literature as well. Perhaps the most notable instance is the unpublished paper on moral dumbfounding, by Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy (2000). In that paper, the authors claim to provide evidence that people first decide whether an act is immoral and then seek to find victims or harms for the act post hoc. Importantly, the point seems to be that people seek out victims and harm despite them not actually existing. In other words, people are mistaken in perceiving harm or victims. We could call such tendencies the “fundamental victim error” or the “harm bias”, perhaps. If that interpretation of the results is correct, it would carry a number of implications, chief among which (for my present purposes) is that harm is not a required input for moral systems. Whatever cognitive systems are in charge of processing morally-relevant information, they seem to be able to do so without knowledge of who – if anyone – is getting harmed.

Just a little consensual incest. It’s not like anyone is getting hurt.

Now I’ve long found that implication to be a rather interesting one. The reason it’s interesting is because, in general, we should expect that people’s perceptions about the world are relatively accurate. Not perfect, mind you, but we should be expected to be as accurate as available information allows us to be. If our perceptions weren’t generally accurate, this would likely yield all sorts of negative fitness consequences: for example, believing you can achieve a goal you actually cannot could lead to the investment of time and resources in a fruitless endeavor; resources which could be more profitably spent elsewhere. Sincerely believing you’re going to win the lottery does not mean the tickets are wise investments. Given these negative consequences for acting on inaccurate information, we should expect that our perceptual systems evolved to be as accurate as they can be, given certain real-world constraints.

The only context I’ve seen in which being wrong about something could consistently lead to adaptive outcomes is in the realm of persuasion. In this case, however, it’s not that being wrong about something per se helps you, as much as someone else being wrong helps you. If people happen to think my future prospects are bright – even if they’re not – it might encourage them to see me as an attractive social partner or mate; an arrangement from which I could reap benefits. So, if some part of me happen to be wrong, in some sense, about my future prospects, and being wrong doesn’t cause me to behave in too many maladaptive ways, and it also helps persuade you to treat me better than you would given accurate information, being wrong (or biased) could be, at times, adaptive.

How does persuasion relate to morality and victimhood, you may well be wondering? Consider again the initial point about people, apparently, being wrong about the existence of harms and victims of acts they deem to be immoral. If one was to suggest that people are wrong in this realm – indeed, that our psychology appears to be designed in such a way to consistently be wrong – one would also need to couch that suggestion in the context of persuasion (or some entirely new hypothesis about why being wrong is a good thing). In other words, the argument would need to go something like this: by perceiving victims and harms where none actually exist, I could be better able to persuade other people to take my side in a moral dispute. The implications of that suggestion would seem to, in a rather straight-forward way, rely on people taking sides on moral issues on the basis of harm in the first place; if they didn’t, claims of harm wouldn’t be very persuasive. This would leave the moral dumbfounding work in a bit of a bind, theoretically-speaking, with respect to whether harms are required inputs for moral systems or not: that people perceive something as immoral and then later perceive harms would suggest harms are not required inputs; that arguments about harms are rather persuasive could suggest that harms are required inputs.

Enough about implications; let’s get to some research 

At the very least, the perceptions of victimhood and harm appear intimately tied perceptions of immorality. The connection between the two was further examined recently by Gray, Schein, & Ward, (2014) across five studies, though I’m only going to discuss one of them. In the study of interest, 82 participants each rated 12 actions on whether they wrong (1-5 scale, from ‘not wrong at all’ to ‘extremely wrong’) and whether the act had a victim (1-5 scale, from ‘definitely not’ to definitely yes’). These 12 actions were broken down into three groups of four acts each: the harmful group (including items like kicking a dog or hitting a spouse), the impure group (including masturbating to a picture of your dead sister or covering a bible with feces), and the neutral group (such as eating toast or riding a bus). The interesting twist in this study involved the time frame in which participants answered: one group was placed under a time constraint in which they had to read the question and provide their answers within seven seconds; the other group was not allowed to answer until at least a seven-second delay had passed, and were given an unlimited amount of time in which to answer. So one group was relying on, shall we say, their gut reaction, while the other was given ample time to reason about things consciously.

Unsurprisingly, there appeared to be a connection between harm and victimhood: the directly harmful scenarios generated more certainty about a victim (M = 4.8) than the impure ones (M = 2.5), and the neutral scenarios didn’t generate any victims (M = 1). More notably, the time constraint did have an effect, but only in the impure category: when answering under time constraints in the impure category, participants reported more certainty about the existence of a victim (M = 2.9) relative to when they had more time to think (M = 2.1). By contrast, the perceptions of victims in the harm (M = 4.8 and 4.9, respectively) and neutral categories (M = 1 and 1) did not differ across time constraints.

This finding puts a different interpretive spin on the moral dumbfounding literature: when people had more time to think about (and perhaps invent) victims for more ambiguous violations, they came up with fewer victims. Rather than people reaching a conclusion about immorality first and then consciously reasoning about who might have been harmed, it seems that people could have instead been reaching implicit conclusions about both harm and immorality quite early on, and only later consciously reasoning about why an act which seemed immoral isn’t actually making any worthy victims. If representations about victims and harms are arising earlier in this process than would be anticipated by the moral dumbfounding research, this might speak to whether or not harms are required inputs for moral systems.

Turns out that piece might have been more important than we thought

It is possible, I suppose, that morality could simply use harm as an input sometimes without it being a required input. That possibility would allow harm to be both persuasive and not required, though it would require some explanation as to why harm is only expected to matter in moral judgments at times. At present, I know of no such argument having ever been made, so there’s not too much to engage with on that front.

It is true enough that, at times, when people perceive victims, they tend to perceive victims in a rather broad sense, naming entities like “society” to be harmed by certain acts. Needless to say, it seems rather difficult to assess such claims, which makes one wonder how people perceive such entities as being harmed in the first place. One possibility, obviously, is that such entities (to the extent they can be said to exist at all) aren’t really being harmed and people are using unverifiable targets to persuade others to join a moral cause without the risk of being proved wrong. Another possibility, of course, is that the part of the brain that is doing the reporting isn’t quite able to articulate the underlying reason for the judgment well to others. That is, one part of the brain is (accurately) finding harm, but the talking part isn’t able to report on it. Yet another possibility still is that harm befalling different groups is strategically discounted (Marczyk (2015). For instance, members of a religious group might find disrespect towards a symbol of their faith (rubbing feces on the bible, in this case) to be indicative of someone liable to do harm to their members; those opposed to the religious group might count that harm differently – perhaps not as harm at all. Such an explanation could, in principle, explain the time-constraint effect I mentioned before: the part of the brain discounting harm towards certain groups might not have had enough time to act on the perceptions of harm yet. While these explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are all ideas worth thinking about.

References: Gray, K., Schein, C., & Ward, A. (2014). The myth of harmless wrongs in moral cognition: Automatic dyadic completion from sin to suffering. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143, 1600-1615.

Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (2000). Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. Unpublished Manuscript. 

Marczyk, J. (2015). Moral alliance strategies theory. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1, 77-90.

(Some Of) My Teaching Philosophy

Over the course of my time at various public schools and universities I have encountered a great many teachers. Some of my teachers were quite good. I would credit my interest in evolutionary psychology to one particularly excellent teacher – Gordon Gallup. Not only was the material itself unlike anything I had previously been presented with in other psychology courses, but the way Gordon taught his classes was unparalleled. Each day he would show up and, without the aid of any PowerPoints or any apparent notes, just lecture. On occasion we would get some graphs or charts drawn on the board, but that was about it. What struck me about this teaching style is what it communicated about the speaker: this is someone who knows what he’s talking about. His command of the material was so impressive I actually sat through his course again for no credit in the follow years to transcribe them (and the similarity from year-to-year was remarkable, given that lack of notes). It was just a pleasure listening to him do what we did best.

A feat I was recently recognized for

That I say Gordon was outstanding is to say he was exceptional, relative to his peers (even if many of those peers, mistakenly, believe they are exceptional as well). The converse to that praise, then, is that I have encountered many more professors who were either not particularly good at what they did or downright awful at it (subjectively speaking, of course). I’ve had some professors who act, more or less, as an audio guide to the textbook that, when questioned, didn’t seem to really understand the material they were teaching; I’ve had another tell his class “now, we know this isn’t true, but maybe it’s useful” as he reviewed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for what must have been the tenth time in my psychology education – a statement which promptly turned off my attention for the day. The number of examples I could provide likely outnumber my fingers and toes, so there’s no need to detail each one. In fact, just about everyone who has attended school has had experiences like this. Are these subjective evaluations of teachers that we have all made accurate representations of their teaching ability, though?

According to some research by Braga et al (2011), that answer is “yes”, but in a rather perverse sense: teacher evaluations tend to be negatively predictive of actual teaching effectiveness. In other words, at the end of a semester when a teacher receives evaluations from their students, the better these evaluations, the less effective the teacher tends to be. As someone who received fairly high evaluations from my own students, this should either be cause for some reflection as to my methods (since I am interested in my students learning; not just their being satisfied with my course) or a hunt for why the research in question must be wrong to make me feel better about my good reviews. In the interests of prioritizing my self-esteem, let’s start by considering the research and seeing if any holes can be poked in it.

“Don’t worry; I’m sure those good reviews will still reflect well on you”

Braga et al (2011) analyzed data from a private Italian university offering programs in economics, business, and law in 1998/9. The students in these programs had to take a fixed course of classes with fixed sets of materials and the same examinations. Additionally, students were randomly assigned to professors, making this one of the most controlled academic settings for this kind of research I could imagine. At the end of the terms, students provided evaluations of their instructors, allowing their ratings of instructors to be correlated – at the classroom level, as the evaluations were anonymous – with their performance in being effective teachers.

Teaching effectiveness was measured by examining how students did in subsequent courses, (controlling for a variety of non-teacher factors, like class size) the assumption being that students with better professors in the first course would do better in future courses, owing to their more proficient grasping of the material. These non-teacher factors accounted for about 57% of the variance in future course grades, leaving plenty of room for teacher effects. The effect of teachers was appreciable, with an increase of one standard deviation in effectiveness led to gain of about 0.17 standard deviations of grade in future classes (about a 2.3% bump up). Given the standardized materials and the gulf which could exist between the best and worst teachers, it seems there’s plenty of room for teacher effectiveness to matter. Certainly no students want to end up at a disadvantage because of a poor teacher; I know I wouldn’t.

When it came to the main research question, the results showed that teachers who were the least effective in providing future success for their students tended to receive the highest evaluations. This effect was sizable as well: for each standard deviation increase in teaching effectiveness, student evaluation ratings dropped by about 40% of a standard deviation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, grades were correlated with teaching evaluations as well: the better grades the students received, the better the evaluations they tended to give the professors. Interestingly, this effect did not exist in classes comprised of 25% or more of the top students (as measured by their cognitive entrance exams); the evaluations of those classes were simply not predictive of effectiveness.

That last section is the part of the paper that most everyone will cite: the negative relationship between teacher evaluations and future performance. What fewer people seem to do when referencing that finding is consider why this relationship exists and then use that answer to inform their teaching styles (as I get the sense this information will quite often be cited to excuse otherwise lackluster evaluations, rather than to change anything). The authors of the paper posit two main possibilities for explaining this effect: (1) that some teachers make class time more entertaining at the expense of learning, and/or (2) that some teachers might “teach for the test”, even if they do so at the expense of “true learning”. While neither possibility is directly tested in the paper, the latter possibility strikes me as most plausible: students in the “teaching for the test” classes might simply focus on the particular chunks of information relevant for them at the moment, rather than engaging it as a whole and understanding the subject more broadly.

In other words, vague expectations encourage cramming with a greater scope

With that research in mind, I would like to present a section of my philosophy when it came to teaching and assessment. A question of interest that I have given much thought to is what, precisely, are grades aimed at achieving? For many professors – indeed, I’d say the bulk of them – grades serve the ends of assessment. The grades are used to tell people – students and others – how well the students did at understanding the material come test time. My answer to this question is a bit different, however: as an instructor, I had no particular interest in the assessment of students per se; my interest was in their learning. I only wanted to assess my students as a means of pushing them to the end of learning. As a word of caution, my method of assessment demands substantially more effort from those doing the assessing, be it a teacher or assistant, than is typical. It’s an investment of time many might be unwilling to make.

My assessments were all short-essay style questions, asking students to apply theories they have learned about to novel questions we did not cover directly in class; there were no multiple choice questions. According to the speculations of Braga et al (2011), this would put me firmly in the “real teaching” camp, instead of the “teaching to the test” one. There are a few reasons for my decision: first, multiple choice questions don’t allow you to see what the students were thinking when answering the question. Just because someone gets an answer correct on a multiple choice exam, it doesn’t mean they got the correct answer for the right reasons. For my method to be effective, however, it does mean someone needs to read the exams in depth instead of just feeding them through a scantron machine, and that reading takes time. Second, essay exams force students to confront what they do and do not know. Having spent many years as a writer (and even more as a student), I’ve found that many ideas that seem crystal clear in my head do not always translate readily to text. The feeling of understanding can exist in lack of actual understanding. If students find they cannot explain an idea as readily as felt they understood it, that feeling might be effectively challenged, yielding a new round of engagement with the material.

After seeing where the students were going wrong, the essay format allowed me to make notes on their work and hand it back to them for revisions; something you can’t do very well with multiple choice questions either. Once the students had my comments on their work, they were free to revise it and hand it back into me. The grade they got on their revisions would be their new grade: no averaging of the two or anything of the sort. The process would then begin again, with revisions being made on revisions, until the students were happy with their grade or stopped trying. In order for assessment to serve the end of learning, assessment needs to be ongoing if you expect learning to be. If assessment is not ongoing, students have little need to fix their mistakes; they’ll simply look at their grade and then toss their test in the trash as many of them do. After all, why would they bother putting in the effort to figure out where they went wrong and how to go right if doing so successfully would have no impact whatsoever on the one thing they get from the class that people will see?

Make no mistake: they’re here for a grade. Educations are much cheaper than college.

I should also add that my students were allowed to use any resource they wanted for the exams, be that their notes, the textbook, outside sources, or even other students. I wanted them to engage with the material and think about it while they worked, and I didn’t expect them to have it all memorized already. In many ways, this format mirrors the way academics function in the world outside the classroom: when writing our papers, we are allowed to access our notes and references whenever we want; we are allowed to collaborate with others; we are allowed – and in many cases, required – to make revisions to our work. If academics were forced to do their job without access to these resources, I suspect the quality of it would drop precipitously. If these things all improve the quality of our work and help us learn and retain material, asking students to discard all of them come test time seems like a poor idea. It does require test questions to have some thought put into their construction, though, and that means another investment of time.

Some might worry that my method makes things too easy on the students. All that access to different materials means they could just get an easy “A”, and that’s why my evaluations were good. Perhaps that’s true, but just as my interest is not on assessment, my interest is also not on making a course “easy” or “challenging”; it’s on learning, and tests should be as easy or hard as that requires. As I recall, the class average for each test started at about a 75; by the end of the revisions, the average for each test had risen to about a 90. You can decide from those numbers whether or not that means my exams were too easy.

Now I don’t have the outcome measures that Braga et al (2011) did for my own teaching success. Perhaps my methods were a rousing failure when it came to getting students to learn, despite the high evaluations they earned me (in the Braga et al sample, the average teacher rating was 7 out of 10 with a standard deviation of 0.9; my average rating would be around a 9 on that scale, placing my evaluations about two standard deviations above the mean); perhaps this entire post reflects a defensiveness on my part when it comes to, ironically, having to justify my positive evaluations, just as I suspect people who cite this paper might use the results to justify relatively poor evaluations. In regards to the current results, I think both myself and others have room to be concerned: just because I received good evaluations, it does not mean my teaching method was effective; however, just because you received poor evaluations, it does not mean your teaching method is effective either. Just as students can get the right answer for the wrong reason, they can also give a teacher a good or bad evaluation for the right or wrong reasons. Good reviews should not make teachers complacent, just as poor reviews should not be brushed aside. The important point is that we both think about how to improve on our effectiveness as teachers.

References: Braga, M., Paccagnella, M., & Pellizzari, M. (2011). Evaluating students’ evaluations of professors. Economics of Education Review, 41, 71-88.  

Should We Expect Cross-Cultural Perceptual Errors?

There was a rather interesting paper that crossed my social media feeds recently concerning stereotypes about women in science fields; a topic about which I have been writing lately. I’m going to do something I don’t usually do and talk about it briefly despite having just read the abstract and discussion section. The paper, by Miller, Eagly, and Linn (2014), reported on people’s implicit gender stereotypes about science, which associated science more readily with men, relative to women. As it turns out, across a number of different cultures, people’s implicit stereotypes corresponded fairly well to the actual representation of men and women in those fields. In other words, people’s perceptions, or at least their responses, tended to be accurate: if more men were associated with science psychologically, it seemed to be because more men also happened to work in science fields. In general, this is how we should expect the mind to work. While our minds might imperfectly gather information about the world, they should do their best to be accurate. The reasons for this accuracy, I suspect, have a lot to do with being right resulting in useful modifications of behaviors.

   Being wrong about skateboarding skill, for instance, has some consequences

Whenever people propose psychological hypotheses that have to do with people being wrong, then, we should be a bit skeptical. A psychology designed in such a way so as to be wrong about the world consistently will, on the whole, tend to direct behavior in more maladaptive ways than a more accurate mind would. If one is positing that people are wrong about the world in some regard, it would require either that (a) there are no consequences for being wrong in that particular way or (b) there are some consequences, but the negative consequences are outweighed by the benefits. Most hypotheses for holding incorrect beliefs I have encountered tend towards the latter route, suggesting that some incorrect beliefs might outperform true beliefs in some fitness-relevant way(s).

One such hypothesis that I’ve written about before concerns error management theory. To recap, error management theory recognizes that some errors are costlier to make than others. To use an example in the context of the current paper I’m about to discuss, consider a case in which a man desires to have sex with a woman. The woman in question might or might not be interested in the prospect; the man might also perceive that she is interested or not interested. If the woman is interested and the man makes the mistake of thinking she isn’t, he has missed out on a potentially important opportunity to increase his reproductive output. On the other hand, if the woman isn’t interested and the man makes the mistake of thinking she is, he might waste some time and energy pursuing her unsuccessfully. These two mistakes do not carry equivalent costs: one could make the argument that a missed encounter is costlier on average, from a fitness standpoint, than an unsuccessful pursuit (depending, of course, on how much time and energy is invested in the pursuit).

Accordingly, it has been hypothesized that male psychology might be designed in such a way so as to over-perceive women’s sexual interest in them, minimizing the costs associated with making mistakes, multiplied by their frequency, rather than minimizing the number of mistakes one makes in total. While that sounds plausible at first glance, there is a rather important point worth bearing in mind when evaluating it: incorrect beliefs are not the only way to go about solving this problem: a man could believe, correctly, that a woman is not all that interested in him, but simply use a lower threshold for acceptable pursuits. Putting that into numbers, let’s say a woman has a 5% chance of having sex with the man in question: the man might not pursue any chance below 10%, and so could bias his belief upward to think he actually has a 10% chance; alternatively, he might believe she has about a 5% chance of having sex with him and decide to go after her anyway. It seems that the second route solves this problem more effectively, as a biased probability of success with a woman might have downstream effects on other pursuits.

Like on the important task of watching the road

Now in that last post I mentioned, it seems that the evidence that men over-perceive women’s sexual interest might instead be better explained by the hypothesis that women are underreporting their intentions. After all, we have no data on the probability of a woman having sex with someone given she did something like held his hand or bought him a present, so concluding that men over-perceive requires assuming that women report accurately (the previous evidence would also require that pretty much everyone else but the woman is wrong about her behavior, male or female). Some new evidence puts the hypothesis of male over-perception into even hotter water. A recent paper by Perilloux et al (2015) sought to test this over-perception bias cross-culturally, as most of the data bearing on it happens to have been derived from American samples. If men possess some adaptation designed for over-perception of sexual interest, we should expect to see it cross-culturally; it ought to be a human universal (as I’ve noted before, this doesn’t mean we should expect invariance in its expression, but we should at least find its presence).

Perilloux et al (2015) collected data from participants in Spain, Chile, and France, representing a total sample size of approximately 400 subjects. Men and women were given a list of 15 behaviors. They were asked to imagine they had been out on a few dates with a member of the opposite sex, and then about their estimates of having sex with them, given that this opposite sex individual engaged in those behaviors (from -3 being “extremely unlikely” to 3 being “extremely likely”). The results showed an overall sex difference in each country, with men tending perceive more sexual interest than women. While this might appear to support the idea that over-perception is a universal feature of male psychology, a closer examination of the data cast some doubt on that idea.

In the US sample, men perceived more sexual interest than women in 12 of the 15 items; in Spain, that number was 5, in Chile it was 2, and in France it was 1. It seemed that the question concerning whether someone bought jewelry was enough to driving this sex difference in both the French and Chilean samples. Rather than men over-perceiving women’s reported interests in general across a wide range of behaviors, it seemed that the cross-cultural sample’s differences were being driven by only a few behaviors; behaviors which are, apparently, also rather atypical for relationships in those countries (inasmuch as women don’t usually buy men jewelry). As for why there’s a greater correspondence between French and Chilean men and women’s reported likelihoods, I can’t say. However, that men from France and Chile seem to be rather accurate in their perceptions of female sexual intent would cast doubt on the idea that male psychology contains some mechanisms for sexual over-perception.

I’ll bet US men still lead in shooting accuracy, though

This paper helps make two very good points that, at first, might seem like they oppose each other, despite their complimentary nature. The first point is the obvious importance of cross-cultural research; one cannot simply take it for granted that a given effect will appear in other cultures. Many sex differences – like height and willingness to engage in casual sex – do, but some will not. The second point, however, is that hypotheses about function can be developed and even tested (albeit incompletely) in absence of data about their universality. Hypotheses about function are distinct from hypotheses about proximate form or development, though these different levels of analysis can often be used to inform others. Indeed, that’s what happened in the current paper, with Perilloux et al (2015) drawing the implicit hypothesis about universality from the hypothesis about ultimate functioning, using data about the former to inform their posterior beliefs about the latter. While different levels of analysis inform each other, they are nonetheless distinct, and that’s always worth repeating.

References: Perilloux, C., Munoz-Reyes, J., Turiegano, E., Kurzban, R., & Pita, M. (2015). Do (non-American) men overestimate women’s sexual intentions? Evolutionary Psychological Science, DOI 10.1007/s40806-015-0017-5

Miller, D., Eagly, A., & Linn, M., (2014). Women’s representation in science predicts national gender-science stereotypes: Evidence from 66 nations. Journal of Educational Psychology,

Has A Universal Preference Just Been Challenged?

One well-documented physiological feature which plays a role in determining women’s attractiveness is the ratio of their waist to their hips (their WHR). The largest underlying reason for this preference appears to concern fertility: controlling for other factors, women with lower WHRs tend to be more fertile than women with higher ratios (Zaadstra et al, 1993). Historically, men who found lower WHRs more attractive could thus be expected to have ended up pursuing more viable mating opportunities than men who failed to do likewise. It should come as no surprise, then, that this preference for lower WHRs shows up in cross-cultural samples. The preference is so robust in its development that even men who were born blind appear to show evidence of it from touch alone, demonstrating that visual input is not required to shape this preference (doing violence to the notion that these standards are socialized into us by media forces for some arbitrary reason). The cognitive mechanism responsible for generating these perceptions of attractiveness to relatively low WHRs can be considered what we would call a universal feature of human psychology. However, there appears to be some confusion over what precisely what is meant by “universal” which I wanted to address today.

For instance, this is Mrs. Universe; not Mrs. Universal

The point of confusion focuses on whether a universal human preference should be expected to be invariant in its expression. In a new paper, Bovet & Raymond (2015) present some data they claim challenges “the universality of an ideal WHR” of about 0.7. More specifically, their claim seems to be that “the assertion that the preference for [a] WHR [of 0.7] is universal and temporally invariant” (p. 9) is incorrect because preferences for WHRs have changed over time. Before I get to what their methods and results were, I wanted to make an initial note about the assertion they sought to challenge: I find it strange. What I find particularly strange about the assertion that Bovet & Raymond (2015) seek to cast doubt on is that, and I want to be crystal clear about this, I have never heard it before. By that, I mean that I know of no author who has claimed that men have and will continue to show an invariant preference for a specific WHR over time. Checking a citation for Singh (1993) that is mentioned in conjunction with that claim, for instance, reveals no evidence of that assertion being made. The closest Singh (1993) comes to saying anything along those lines is that the significance of WHR – not a particular value of it – should be expected to be culturally invariant. In that respect, it seems that Bovet & Raymond (2015) might be tilting at windmills.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to consider what Bovet & Raymond (2015) did and what they found. For what I would consider the main study in their paper, they collected 216 images of works of art – both paintings and sculptures – representing women over the last 2,500 years. The art was collected so as to show nude or partially nude forms, allowing the WHR of the subject being depicted to be observable. Pictures of these works of art were then presented to about 1,400 diligent Mturk workers, each of whom was asked to examine 17 of these art pieces and to select which female figure it most closely resembled from an array of 12 line drawings of women; drawing which varied on both BMI and WHR, and can be seen here. These estimates of which WHR was depicted were used to create an average estimate of the WHR of the figure in the art. Not the most precise method, admittedly, but let’s move to what they found.

Comparing the antique art (defined as 500 BCE to 400 CE) to the recent art (1400 CE to 2014 CE), no significance difference in the average estimates of depicted WHRs emerged: both groups averaged a WHR of about 0.8. In the more recent works group, there was a slight tendency for more modern art to depict a relatively smaller WHR over time, and no such trend was found in the antique art. It also happened to be the case that works of art designated as specifically depicting female beauty symbols – like Aphrodite – were depicted with relatively lower WHRs than the non-symbolic women – like Eve.

Depictions of clam shells remained highly unrealistic during this time

Study two just involved analyzing a data set of the WHR measurements of Playboy centerfolds and Miss America winners from 1920 to 2000 which, evidently, showed a curvilinear relationship over time right around a mean of 0.7, so there’s not too much to say there. Skipping to the third study, the estimates of the WHRs from the art in study 1 were compared against actual measurements of 13 of the sculptures to try and correct for participant’s estimation errors. As it turns out, participants tended to overestimate the WHRs by about 8% on average. Correcting participant’s estimates, then, it was estimated that the average WHR depicted in the antique set was about 0.73; quite close to the 0.7 figure I mentioned initially. By contrast, the more recent art set, combined with the Playboy and Miss America winners, yielded an average depicted WHR of about 0.75 at 1400 CE down to about 0.68 by the present. This latter set of modern depictions was the substantially larger sample, though I’m not sure what to make of that.

So, taking these results at face value, two major points fall out: while (1) estimates of artistic depictions of women’s WHRs show a remarkable consistency from 500 BCE to the present day, (2) these depictions do tend to get a little smaller in more recent works; there’s some variance. Does this little bit of variation cut against the heart of the idea that a preference for relatively-small WHR on women is a universal feature of our mating psychology? I would say certainly not. There are a few reasons I would give this answer. The first of those is that, as I mentioned before, I know of no theory which ever claimed 0.7 as the invariant set point for peak attractiveness. Every trait – including the psychological ones which determine perceptions of attractiveness – needs to develop, and development can be a rocky road in many respects. Expecting development to land on a specific value every time would be absurd.

The second, and perhaps more relevant point, is that traits are not depicted, nor selected, in a vacuum. For example, we could consider the ever-popular Playboy centerfolds. While the shape of their body is certainly one rather important factor that comes into play with respect to their selection for the magazine, their WHR is certainly not the only feature relevant to the decision. Also included could be other factors like hair color, breast size and shape, clarity of skin, BMI, whether they are pushing for the position, and so on. The same kind of trade-offs need to made when selecting a mate: do you want the one with a slightly shapelier body or the one with more intelligence? One might argue that such trade-offs need not be made when it comes to producing pieces of art, and I would concede the point. I would also add in the point that artists, no matter how talented, are not necessarily perfectly accurate in translating their preferences onto canvas or marble.

“Nailed it”

One final point relating to that second one is that preferences were not being directly assessed in any of this research: just depictions. While I (and the authors) would argue that we should expect a rather high degree of concordance between these preferences and depictions, I would also argue that the translation will be imperfect. This adds another source of variation into the mix which might account for a little bit of the inconsistency we notice. While I don’t doubt that preferences for one trait or another should be expected to vary over time adaptively on the basis on environmental inputs, I think that reflects more on trade-offs that have to made rather than on what some ideal would be in the absence of them. For what it’s worth, I see the current data as rather supportive of the idea that preferences of WHRs are universal features of or psychology, rather than cutting against it.

References: Bovet J. & Raymond, M. (2015). Preferred women’s waist-to-hip ratio variation over the last 2,500 years. PLos One, 10, e0123284. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123284

Singh, D. (1993). Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: Role of waist-to-hip ratio. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 65, 293-307.

Zaadstra et al. (1993). Fat and fecundity: prospective study of effect of body fat distribution on conception rates. British Medical Journal, 306, 484-48.

A Great Time For Women In STEM

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing will ever beat that lack of baggage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Video Games Making People Sexist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Announcing A New Journal In Psychology

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

Demands I’m frankly too busy to meet.

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

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

Quite the improvement, if I do say so myself

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

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

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

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

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

Are People Inequality Averse?

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

   And anyone out there with an interest in publishing it…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much Ado About Penis Size

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

Just like you at basketball

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

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

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

“…you’re welcome”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Men Have A Voice In The Abortion Debate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, see this rather strange quote

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