Why Do People Care About Race?

As I have discussed before, claims about a species’ evolutionary history – while they don’t directly test functional explanations – can be used to inform hypotheses about adaptive function. A good example of this concerns the topic of race, which happens to have been on many people’s minds lately. Along with sex and age, race tends to be encoded by our minds relatively automatically: these are the three primary factors people tend to notice and remember about others immediately. What makes the automatic encoding of race curious is that, prior to the advent of technologies for rapid transportation, our ancestors were unlikely to have consistently traveled far enough in the world to encounter people of other races. If that was the case, then our minds could not possess any adaptations that were selected to attend to it specifically. That doesn’t mean that we don’t attend to race (we clearly do), but rather that the attention that we pay to it is likely the byproduct of cognitive mechanisms designed to do other things. If, through some functional analysis, we were to uncover what those other things were, this could have some important implications for removing, or at least minimizing, all sorts of nasty racial prejudices.

…in turn eliminating the need to murder others for that skin-suit…

This, of course, raises the question what the cognitive mechanisms that end up attending to race have been selected to do; what their function is. One plausible candidate explanation put forth by Kurzban, Tooby, & Cosmides, (2001) is that the mechanisms that are currently attending to race might actually have been designed to attend instead to social coalitions. Though our ancestors might not have traveled far enough to encounter people of different races, they certainly did travel far enough to encounter members of other groups. Our ancestors also had to successfully manage within-group coalitions; questions concerning who happens to be who’s friends and enemies. Knowing the group membership of an individual is a rather important piece of information: it can inform you as to their probability of providing you with benefits or, say, a spear to the chest, among other things. Accordingly, traits that allowed individuals to determine other’s probable group membership, even incidentally, should be attended to, and it just so happens that race gets caught up in that mix in the modern day. That is likely due to shared appearance reflecting probable group memberships; just ask any clique of high school children who dress, talk, and act quite similarly to their close friends.

Unlike sex, however, people’s relevant coalitional membership is substantially more dynamic over time. This means that shared physical appearance will not always be a valid cue for determining who is likely to be siding with who. In such instances, then, we should predict that race-based cues should be disregarded in favor of more predictive ones. In simple terms, then, the hypothesis on the table is that (a) race tends to be used by our minds as a proxy for group membership, so (b) when more valid cues for group membership are present, people should pay much less attention to race.

So how does one go about testing such an idea? Kurzban, Tooby, & Cosmides, (2001) did so by using a memory confusion protocol. In such a design, participants are presented with a number of photos of people, as well as a sentence that the pictured individuals are said to have spoken to each other during a conversation about a sporting dispute they had last year. Following that, participants are given a surprise recall task, during which they are asked to match the sentences to the pictures of the people who said them. The underlying logic is that participants will tend to make a certain pattern of mistakes in their matching: they will confuse individuals with each other more readily to the extent that their mind has placed them in the same group (or, perhaps more accurately, to the extent that their mind has failed to encode differentiating features of the individuals). Framed in terms of race, we might expect that people will mistake a quote attributed to one black person with another, as they had been mentally grouped together, but will be less likely to mistake that quote for one attributed to a white person. Again, the question of interest here is how our minds might be grouping people: is it doing so on the basis of race per se, or on the basis of coalitions?

“Yes; it’s Photoshopped. And yes; you’re racist for asking”

In the first experiment, 8 pictures were presented, split evenly between young white and black males. From the verbal statements that accompanied each picture, they could be classified into one of two coalitions, though participants were not explicitly instructed to attend to that variable. All the men were dressed identically. In this condition, while subjects did appear to pick up on the coalition factor – evidenced by their being somewhat more likely to mistake people who belonged to same coalition with one another – the size of the race effect was twice as large. In other words, when the only cue to group membership was the statement accompanying each picture, people were more likely to mistake one white man for another more often than they were to mistake one member of a coalition for another.

In the second experiment, however, participants were given the same pictures, but now there was an additional visual cue to group membership: half of the men were wearing yellow jerseys while the other half wore gray. In this case, the color of the shirt predicted which coalition each man was in, but participants were again not told to pay attention to that explicitly. In this condition, the previous effect reversed: the size of the race effect was only half that of the effect for coalition membership. It seemed that giving people an alternative visual cue for group membership dramatically cut the race effect. In fact, in a follow-up study reported by the paper (using pictures of different men), the race effect disappeared. When provided with alternate visual cues to coalition membership, people seemed to be largely (though not necessarily entirely) disregarding race. This finding demonstrates that racial categorization is not always automatic and strong as it had previously been thought it to be.

Importantly, when this experiment was run using sex instead of race (i.e., 4 women and 4 men), the above effects did not replicate. Whether the cues to group membership were only verbal or whether they were verbal and visual, people continued to encode sex automatically and do so robustly, as evidenced again by their pattern of mistakes. Though white women and black men are both visually distinct from white men, additional visual cues to coalition membership only had an appreciable effect on latter group, consistent with the notion that the tendency people have to encode race is a byproduct of our coalitional psychology.

“With a little teamwork – black or white – we can all crush our enemies!”

The good news, then, is that people aren’t inherently racist; our evolutionary history wouldn’t allow it, given how far our ancestors likely traveled. We’re certainly interested in coalitions, these coalitions are frequently used to benefit our allies at the expense of non-members, and that part probably isn’t going away anytime soon, but that has a less morally-sinister tone to it for some reason. It is worth noting that, in the reality outside the lab, coalitions may well (and frequently seem to) form among racial or ethnic lines. Thankfully, as I mentioned initially, coalitions are also fluid things, and it (sometimes) only seems to take a small exposure to other visual indicators of membership to change the way people are viewed by others in that respect. Certainly useful information for anyone looking to reduce the impact of race-based categorization.

References: Kurzban, R., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization. PNAS, 98, 15387-15392.

#HandsUp (Don’t Press The Button)

In general, people tend to think of themselves as not possessing biases or, at the very least, less susceptible to them than the average person. Roughly paraphrasing from Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban’s latest book, when it comes to debates, people from both sides tend to agree with the premise that one side of the debate is full of reasonable, dispassionate, objective folk and the other side is full of biased, evil, ignorant ones; the only problem is that people seem to disagree as to which side is which. To quote directly from Mercier & Sperber (2011): “[people in debates] are not trying to form an opinion: They already have one. Their goal is argumentative rather than epistemic, and it ends up being pursued at the expense of epistemic soundness” (p.67). This is a long-winded way of saying that people – you and I included – are biased, and we typically end up seeking to support views we already hold. Now, recently, owing to the events that took place in Ferguson, a case has been made that police officers (as well as people in general) are biased against the black population when it comes to criminal justice. This claim is by no means novel; NWA, for instance, voiced in 1988 in their hit song “Fuck tha police”.

 They also have songs about killing people, so there’s that too…

Is the justice system and its representatives, at least in here in the US, biased against the black population? I suspect that most of you reading this already have an answer to that question which, to you, likely sounds pretty obvious. Many people have answered that question in the affirmative, as evidenced by such trending twitter hashtags as #BlackLivesMatter and #CrimingWhileWhite (the former implying that people devalue black lives and the latter implying that people get away with crimes because they’re white, but they wouldn’t if they were black). Though I can’t speak to the existence or extent of such biases – as well as the contexts in which they occur – I did come across some interesting research recently that deals with a related, but narrower question. This research attempts to answer a question that many people feel they already have the answer to: are police officers (or people) quicker to deploy deadly force against black targets, relative to white targets? I suspect many of you anticipate – correctly – that I’m about to tell you that some new research shows people aren’t biased against the black population in that respect. I further suspect that upon hearing that, one of your immediate thoughts will be to figure out why the conclusion must be incorrect.

The first of these papers (James, Vila, & Daratha, 2013) begins by noting that some previous research on the topic (though by no means all) has concluded that a racial bias against blacks exists when it comes to the deployment of deadly force. How did they come to this conclusion? Experimentally, it would seem they used a research method similar to the Implicit Association Task (or IAT): they have participants come into a lab, sit in front of a computer, and ask them to press a “shoot” button when they see armed targets pop up on screen and a “don’t shoot” button when the target isn’t armed. James, Vila, & Daratha (2013) argue that such a task is, well, fairly artificial and, as I have discussed before, artificial tasks can lead to artificial results. Part of that artificiality is that there is no difference between the two responses in such an experiment: both responses just involve pushing one button or another. By contrast, actually shooting someone involves unholstering a weapon and pulling a trigger, while not shooting at least does not involve that last step.So shooting is an action; not shooting is an inaction; pressing buttons, however, are both actions, and simple ones. Further, sitting at a computer and seeing static images pop up on the screen is just a bit less interactive than most police encounters that lead to the use of deadly force. So, whether these results concern people’s biases against blacks translate to anywhere outside the lab is an open question.

Accordingly, what the authors of the current paper did involved what must have been quite the luxurious lab set up. The researchers collected data from around 60 civilians and 40 police and military subjects. During each trial, the subjects were standing in an enclosed shooting range with a large screen that would display a simulations where they might or might not have to shoot. Each subject was provided with a modified Glock pistol (that shot lasers instead of bullets), holsters, and instructions on how to use them. The subjects each went through in between 10-30 simulations that recreated instances where officers had been assaulted or killed; simulations which included naturalistic filming with paid actors (as opposed to the typical static images). The subjects were supposed to shoot the armed targets in the simulation and avoid shooting unarmed ones. As usual, the race of the targets was varied to be white, black, or hispanic, as well as whether or not the targets were armed.

Across three studies, a clear pattern emerged: the participants were actually slower to shoot the armed black targets by in between 0.7 – 1.35 seconds, on average; no difference was found between the white and hispanic targets. This result held for both the civilians and the police. The pattern of mistakes people made was even more interesting: when they shot unarmed targets, they tended to shoot the unarmed black targets less than the unarmed white or hispanic targets; often substantially less. Similarly, subjects were also more likely to fail to shot an armed black target. To the extent that people were making errors or slowing down, they were doing so in favor of black targets, contrary to what many people shouting things right now would predict.

“That result is threatening my worldview; shoot it!”

As these studies appear to use a more realistic context when it comes to shooting – relative to sitting at a computer and pressing buttons – it casts some doubt as whether the previous findings that were uncovered when subjects were sitting at computer screens are able to be generalized to the wider world. Casting further doubt on the validity of the computer-derived results, a second paper by James, Klinger, & Vila (2014) examined the relationship between these subconscious race-base biases and the actual decision to shoot. They did so by reanalyzing some of the data (n = 48) from the previous experiment when participants had been hooked up to EEGs at the time. The EEG equipment was measuring what the authors call “alpha suppression”. According to their explanation (I’m not a neuroscience expert, so I’m only reporting what they do), the alpha waves being measured by the EEG tend to occur when individuals are relaxed, and reductions of alpha waves are associated with the presence of arousing external stimuli; in this case, the perception of threat. The short version of this study, then, seems to be that reductions in alpha waves equate, in some way, to more perception of threat.

The more difficult shooting scenarios resulted in greater alpha suppression than the simpler ones, consistent with a relation to threat level but, regardless of the scenario difficulty, the race effect remained consistent. The EEG results found that, when faced with a black target, subjects evidenced greater alpha suppression relative to when they confronting a white or hispanic target; this result obtained regardless of whether the target ended up being armed or not. To the extent that these alpha waves are measuring threat response on a physiological level, people found the black targets more threatening, but this did not translate into an increased likelihood to shoot them; in fact, it seemed to do the opposite. The authors suggest that this might have something to do with the perception of possible social and legal consequences for harming a member of a historically oppressed racial group.

In other words, people might not be shooting because they’re afraid that people will claim that the shooting was racially motivated (indeed, if the results had turned out the opposite way, I suspect many people would be making that precise claim, so they wouldn’t be wrong). The authors provide some reason to think the social concerns of shooting might be driving the hesitation, one of which involves this passage from an interview of a police chief in 1992:

“Bouza…. added that in most urban centers in the United States, when a police chief is called “at three in the morning and told, ‘Chief, one of our cops just shot a kid,’ the chief’s first questions are: ‘What color is the cop? What color is the kid?’” “And,” the reporter asked, “if the answer is, ‘The cop is white, the kid is black’?” “He gets dressed,”

“I’m not letting a white on white killing ruin this nap”

Just for some perspective, the subjects in this second study had responded to about 830 scenarios in total. Of those, there were 240 that did not require the use of force. Of those 240, participants accidentally shot a total of 47 times; 46 of those 47 unarmed targets were white (even though around a third of the targets were black). If there was some itchy trigger finger concerning black threats, it wasn’t seen in this study. Another article I came across (but have not fact checked so, you know, caveat there) suggests something similar: that biases against blacks in the criminal justice system don’t appear to exist.

Now the findings I have presented here may, for some reason, be faulty. Perhaps better experiments in the future will provide more concrete evidence concerning racial biases, or lack thereof. However, if you first reaction to these findings is to assume that something is wrong with them because you know that police target black suspects disproportionately, then I would urge you to consider that, well, maybe some biases are driving your reaction. That’s not to say that others aren’t biased, mind you, or that you’re necessarily wrong, just that you might be more biased than you like to imagine.

References: James, L., Vila, B. & Daratha, K. (2013) Influence of suspect race and ethnicity on decisions to shoot in high fidelity deadly force judgment and decision-making simulations. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 9, 189–212.

 James, L., Klinger, D., & Vila, B. (2014). Racial and ethnic bias in decisions to shoot seen through a stronger lens: Experimental results from high-fidelity laboratory simulations. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 10, 323-340.

 

Bonding (Physically) With Same-Sex Individuals

Humans face the adaptive problem of forming and maintaining social bonds with others. Our ability to bond is rather extraordinary. As one example of our capacity to bond, like many people, I am a (habitual) pet owner. My personal preference – though I like most mammals – is towards cats, and I’ve had at least one cat for about as long as I can remember. Also, like many pet owners, I have a habit of holding, hugging, and kissing my cats. Though I can’t say for certain, my intuition is that this affiliation is mutually pleasurable: when I return home after some time out, my cat will greet me with a series of meows, purrs, and rubs; she will even crawl into my lap while I’m sitting at my computer. The relationship between pets and owners often appears to resemble the relationship parents have towards children in a number of respects and it should come as no surprise, then, that we often also observe parents touching, hugging and kissing their children. While people don’t need to bond with animals socially, we often can as a byproduct of our ability to bond with other people (in this case, probably offspring).

And since one won’t need college, the superior bonding choice is clear

Now perhaps all this kissing and touching parents do with children and people do with pets reflects our bonds with them. That is to say that this behavior is a signal of our love and affection, rather than it’s cause. Then again, maybe kissing children and pets deepens those bonds. Let’s assume for the present discussion that it’s actually the latter. Why might it do this? According to a recent paper by Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians (2014), the why might have something to do with some parts of the cognitive mechanisms that evolved for sexual pair bonding being co-opted. The basic logic in their paper, I think, is that there exist cognitive mechanisms that find erotic (i.e., arousing) acts typically rewarding (pleasurable). As social bonds are often centered around pleasurable interactions, acts associated with erotic or sexual behavior – like kissing or genital touching – can be used to strengthen bonds between people as it leads to additional pleasurable interactions, reinforcing a relationship. It’s worth noting that their paper isn’t focused on explaining kissing per se, but rather homosexual/homoerotic behavior: the argument is that homoerotic behavior functions to build social bonds between same-sex others. By that train of thought, I imagine, those who engage in more “erotic” behavior with each other should be more socially bonded because of it.

I find several facets of that explanation for homoerotic behavior to be a bit strange. One of those facets is that parents and offspring (or pets, for that matter) need to avoid engaging in sexual intercourse, as intercourse with genetically-close others, other species, and those too young to reproduce, tends to carry some reproductive consequences (or fails to carry any benefits). Accordingly, those who found kissing their close kin, animals, or pre-reproductive others erotic should be at a fitness disadvantage, relative to those who did not. In other words, as kin need to bond with one another socially, they also need to avoid engaging in sexual intercourse; any system that blurred the lines between sexual arousal and social bonding in that context might end up with poor fitness outcomes, relative to a system that did not blur that line. So, as one might expect, people who kiss their children, siblings, or pets rarely experience the behavior as erotic.

Similarly, one might expect that the cognitive system designed for governing sexual arousal should be relatively autonomous from systems designed to bond socially with same-sex others, as homosexual behavior is a bit of a reproductive dead-end. Most kin and social bonding appears to be successfully navigated without any erotic behavior taking place (Kirkpatrick, 2000), so we can safely say that homoerotic behavior is in no way a requirement of bonding for humans. That’s not to say that many people don’t engage in some kind of same-sex behavior at some point in their life with an individual or two (sometimes girls kiss girls and they might even like it, though if they’re young it might not have any erotic or sexual overtones), but to say that such behaviors do not appear to be a hallmark of forming social bonds.

Foregoing those issues, though, the affiliation hypothesis for homoerotic behavior would not necessarily tell us much about the existence of homosexual orientations. It’s one thing to say that my providing erotic experiences to others of my sex could increase the degree of concern they might have in my welfare; it’s quite another to say that I should not only prefer to engage in erotic behavior with them over opposite sex individuals if I had to choose, but that I would actively avoid engaging in heterosexual intercourse when presented with the opportunity if I didn’t. After all, having same-sex allies would only be selected for insomuch as they afford additional opportunities for heterosexual opportunities. Indeed,  Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians (2014) reported that men primed with sexual words saw no increase in their homoerotic motivation, though there was a slight increase in the affiliation primed group. It seems, by their own logic, we should not predict homoerotic motivations to stop heterosexual ones (they predict the opposite, in fact).

This makes the apparent distaste for heterosexual erotic behavior in homosexual populations appear rather curious. Perhaps that point could be skirted if one posits that there exists some variance in people’s preferences for bonding with same/opposite sex individuals (in the same way people vary in their height), that the two desires trade off against each other for some reason (such that being aroused by men means you couldn’t also be aroused by women), and that this explains the variance in sexual preferences.

Figure 1: Not what the distribution of sexual orientation looks like

This would predict that sexual orientation follows something of a normal distribution – with most people being bisexual – which it clearly doesn’t. Instead, sexual orientation is heavily skewed towards heterosexual (as one should expect from a fitness standpoint), with around 97-99% of people identifying as such. The distribution problem is even worse when considering male sexual orientation, which finds most men reporting a heterosexual orientation, homosexual being second most common, and very few indicating being bisexual. This is not the kind of variation you see in many other adaptations (like height, which is much more normally distributed, like the above graph). It is possible, I suppose, that there exist many more male bisexuals out there than the surveys typically find; Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians (2014) suggest that many (male) bisexuals don’t want to admit to their bisexuality owing to some social stigma against it. While that’s possible, I don’t think we want to venture into the realm of question begging in the interests of making the available evidence fit the theory.

On the topic of social stigma, though, if the function of homoerotic behavior is to bond with others socially, it seems peculiar that so many moral injunctions against homosexual behavior exist in many cultures worldwide. Yes, the tolerance of such behavior does vary across time and place, but that people condemn it at all seems rather strange if the function is social bonding; surely everyone wants to be able to make friends. It’s even stranger because people don’t seem to be condemning other acts of social bonding, like doing favors or exchanging gifts; they seem to condemn the sexual thoughts and behaviors associated with same-sex erotic behavior. Even if it’s the case that homoerotic behaviors might have only become condemned in relatively recent times (I don’t know if that’s true or not), that would still leave us with the matter of why there was an uptick in homoerotic condemnation.

Even more peculiar is that same-sex behavior appears to be quite rare if it functions as an affiliation-building mechanism. By that I don’t mean that many people haven’t engaged in something resembling homoerotic behavior (like a man kissing a man on the lips) at any point in their life, but rather that I feel we should see otherwise-straight male friends (especially good friends) kissing each other goodbye (erotically) every day, or male businessmen engaging in some light genital petting after a meeting to keep up the impression of being a friendly, valuable asset to one another. If homoerotic behavior helped cement social bonds, it seems like it should be as common as handshakes or hugs. Perhaps such practices are more common elsewhere in the world that I am unaware of, but that they are not much more common than they appear to be, at least here in the US, seems out of place if the bonding explanation is true.

I say that because if we were talking about another adaptation – like vision – we might be curious if we found that one-in-four males had the ability to see (at some point in their life), whereas the remaining 80% of men were blind. Adaptions – because of their reproductive benefits – tend to be common (generally universal) in populations. This is why pretty much everyone has two hands and a functioning liver, barring some environmental insult. Yet homoerotic behavior is anything but ubiquitous. Kirkpatrick (2000) cites a number of studies finding that around 20% of men (and women, but let’s stick to the men for now) report having homosexual intercourse at some point in their lives (though most of this behavior – about two thirds of it – seems to take place before the age of 19). Assuming these numbers are representative, that people found all of those encounters erotic even when they were younger children, and that the behavior wasn’t coerced by others, we would still be looking at around 4 out of 5 males who have never engaged in homosexual intercourse at any point in their life. For a purported adaptation with social benefits, this seems strange; why would 80% (or 93% if we’re talking about 19+ year olds) of the male population be foregoing the social-bonding benefits of a bit of buggery?

That’s what I’ve been saying; you just have to convince my good buddies.

We could, as Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians (2014) do, expand the definition away from just homoerotic intercourse to behavior that doesn’t include the genitals, but this (a) runs us back into the problem that most men don’t seem to be kissing their good friends good-bye erotically and (b) that we should expect behavior that resulted in orgasm to be more rewarding – and thus bonding – than non-orgasmic results, if I follow the logic here correctly. No matter how I try to slice it, I keep ending up at the idea that, if homoerotic behavior functions to cement social bonds – that we should be seeing a lot more of it in terms of prevalence, frequency, and intensity. As it stands, it’s as if most of the male population doesn’t seem to want to improve their social bonds, which would be odd.

The only way I see to side-step that issue is to suggest homoerotic bonding is a facultative adaptation: one which responds to specific environment contexts. While such an explanation is not out of the question, it would need to identify some feature of the environment that encourages same-sex bonding via erotic behaviors for some individuals but not (most) others. As far as know, no such context is currently on offer, so there’s not much more to say about it.

In the interests of adding some testable suggestions to hopefully move the debate forward, one analysis that would be relevant to the current functional explanation would be to examine what factors make same-sex partners erotic. If these erotic relationships function to help build productive friendships, we might expect the criteria for a same-sex erotic friend to look a bit different from, say, a heterosexual erotic partner. As a for instance, when seeking mates, heterosexual men tend to value youth in women, as youth tends to correlate well with reproductive potential. When seeking friends, however, I don’t get the sense that youth is perceived to be as desirable of a trait. A question of interest, then, would be whether, when seeking erotic encounters with other men, do gay men value youth or not? Presumably, these homoerotic encounters should be driven by friendship-relevant, rather than mating-relevant variables, if the function is friendship building. Another interesting avenue would be to examine mating and friendships in a short-term versus long-term contexts. Admittedly, it sounds a bit strange to talk about short-term, casual, no-strings attached friendship, which is why I happen to think that men aren’t using Grindr to meet one-night friends and people at glory holes aren’t looking for help moving; I could be wrong about that, though.

Separating the variables into more distinctly mate-selection and friend-selection driven might be difficult – as many of the qualities that make one a good mate, like kindness, might also make one a good friend – but I’m sure that analysis could be taken in a number of interesting directions.

References: Fleischman, D., Fessler, D., & Cholakians, A. (2014). Testing the affiliation hypothesis of homoerotic motivation in humans: The effects of progesterone and priming. Archives of Sexual Behavior, DOI: 10.1007/s10508-014-0436-6

Kirkpatrick, R. (2000). The evolution of human homosexual behavior. Current Anthropology, 41, 385-413.

Biases Of Boys Or Girls Being Coy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Reject Your Fantasy And Substitute My Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A match made in unrealistic heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Consequences Of No Consequence? (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could have sworn I just saw it move…

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

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

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

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

Are Consequences Of No Consequence?

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler alert: you probably don’t need that spoiler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping It Topical: That Catcalling Video

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

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

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

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

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

  Divine intervention, perhaps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots And Lots Of Hand-Wringing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we can all safely move onto the next moral panic

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

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

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

#DERP Syndrome

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

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

Also, they usually want money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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