Replicating Failures To Replicate

There are moments from my education that have stuck with me over time. One such moment involved a professor teaching his class about what might be considered a “classic” paper in social psychology. I happened to have been aware of this particular paper for two reasons: first, it was a consistent feature in many of my previous psychology classes and, second, because the news had broke recently that when people tried to replicate the effect they had failed to find it. Now a failure to replicate does not necessarily mean that the findings of the original study were a fluke or the result of experimental demand characteristics (I happen to think they are), but that’s not even why this moment in my education stood out to me. What made this moment stand out is that when I emailed the professor after class to let him know the finding had recently failed to replicate, his response was that he was aware of the failure. This seemed somewhat peculiar to me; if he knew the study had failed to replicate, why didn’t he at least mention that to his students? It seems like rather important information for the students to have and, frankly, a responsibility of the person teaching the material, since ignorance was no excuse in this case.

“It was true when I was an undergrad, and that’s how it will remain in my class”

Stories of failures to replicate have been making the rounds again lately, thanks to a massive effort on the part of hundreds of researchers to try and replicate 100 published effects in three psychology journals. These researchers worked with the original authors, used the original materials, were open about their methods, pre-registered their analyses, and archived all their data. Of these 100 published papers, 97 of them reported their effect as being statistically significant, with the other 3 being right on the borderline of significance and interpreted as being a positive effect. Now there is debate over the value of using these kinds of statistical tests in the first place, but, when the researchers tried to replicate these 100 effects using the statistically significant criterion, only 37 even managed to cross the barrier (given that 89 were expected to replicate if the effects were real, 37 is falling quite short of that goal).

There are other ways to assess these replications, though. One method is to examine the differences in effect size. The 100 original papers reported an average effect size of about 0.4; the attempted replications saw this average drop to about 0.2. A full 82% of the original papers showed a stronger effect size than the attempted replications, While there was a positive correlation (about r = 0.5) between the two – the stronger the original effect, the stronger the replication effect tended to be – this still represents an important decrease in the estimated size of these effects, in addition to their statistical existence. Another method of measuring replication success – unreliable as it might be – is to get the researcher’s subjective opinions about whether the results seemed to replicate. On that front, the researchers felt about 39 of the original 100 findings replicated; quite in line with the above statistical data. Finally, perhaps worth noting, social psychology research tended replicate less often than cognitive research (25% and 50%, respectively), and interaction effects replicated less often than simple effects (22% and 47%, respectively).

The scope of the problem may be a bit larger than that, however. In this case, the 100 papers upon which replication efforts were undertaken were drawn from three of the top journals in psychology. Assuming a positive correlation exists between journal quality (as measured by impact factor) and the quality of research they publish, the failures to replicate here should, in fact, be an underestimate of the actual replication issue across the whole field. If over 60% of papers failing to replicate is putting the problem a bit mildly, there’s likely quite a bit to be concerned about when it comes to psychology research. Noting the problem is only one step in the process towards correction, though; if we want to do something about it, we’re going to need to know why it happens.

So come join in my armchair for some speculation

There are some problems people already suspect as being important culprits. First, there are biases in the publication process itself. One such problem is that journals seem to overwhelmingly prefer to report positive findings; very few people want to read about a bad experiment which didn’t work out well. A related problem, however, is that many journals like to publish surprising, or counter-intuitive findings. Again, this can be attributed to the idea that people don’t want to read about things they already believe are true: most people perceive the sky as blue and research confirming this intuition won’t make many waves. However, I would also reckon that counter-intuitive findings are surprising to people precisely because they are also more likely to be inaccurate descriptions of reality. If that’s the case, than a preference on the part of journal editors for publishing positive, counter-intuitive findings might set them up to publish a lot of statistical flukes.

There’s also the problem I’ve written about before, concerning what are known as “research degrees of freedom“; more colloquially, we might consider this a form of data manipulation. In cases like these, researchers are looking for positive effects, so they test 20 people in each group and peak at the data. If they find an effect, they stop and publish it; if they don’t, they add a few more people and peak again, continuing until they find what they want or run out of resources. They might also split the data up into various groups and permutations until they find a set of data that “works”, so to speak (break it down by male/female, or high/medium/low, etc). While they are not directly faking the data (though some researchers do that as well), they are being rather selective about how they analyze it. Such methods inflate the possibility of finding of effect through statistical brute force, even if the effect doesn’t actually exist.

This problem is not unique to psychology, either. A recent paper by Kaplan & Irvin (2015) examined research from 1970-2012 that was looking at the effectiveness of various drugs and dietary supplements for preventing or treating cardiovascular disease. There were 55 trials that met the author’s inclusion criteria. What’s important to note about these trials is that, prior to the year 2000, none of the papers were pre-registered with respect to what variables they were interested in assessing; after 2000, every such study was pre-registered. Registering this research is important, as it doesn’t allow the researchers to then conduct a selective set of analyses on their data. Sure enough, prior to 2000, 57% of trials reported statistically-significant effects; after 2000, that number dropped to 8%. Indeed, about half the papers published after 2000 did report some statistically significant effects, but only for variables other than the primary outcomes they registered. While this finding is not necessarily a failure to replicate per se, it certainly does make one wonder about the reliability of those non-registered findings.

And some of those trials were studying death as an outcome, so that’s not good…

There is one last problem I would like to mention; one I’ve been beating the drum for for the past several years. Assuming that pre-registering research in psychology would help weed out false positives (it likely would), we would still be faced with the problem that most psychology research would not find anything of value, if the above data are any indication. In the most polite way possible, this would lead me to ask a question along the lines of, “why are so many psychology researchers bad at generating good hypotheses?” A pre-registered bad idea does not suddenly make it a good one, even if it makes data analysis a little less problematic. This leads me to my suggestion for improving research in psychology: the requirement of actual theory for guiding research. In psychology, most theories are not theories, but rather restatements of a finding. However, when psychologists begin to take an evolutionary approach to their work, the quality of research (in my obviously-biased mind) tends to improve dramatically. Even if the theory is wrong, making it explicit allows problems to be more easily discussed, discovered, and corrected (provided, of course, that one understands how to evaluate and test such theories, which many people unfortunately do not). Without guiding/foundational theories, the only thing you’re left with when it comes to generating hypotheses are the existing data and your intuitions which, again, don’t seem to be good guides for conducting quality research.

References: Kaplan, R. & Irvin, V. (2015). Likelihood of null effects of large NHLBI clinical trials has increased over time. PLoS One, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.013238

Why Do We Torture Ourselves With Spicy Foods?

As I write this, my mouth is currently a bit aflame, owing to a side of beans which had been spiced with a hot pepper (serrano, to be precise). Across the world (and across YouTube), people partake in the consumption of spicy – and spiced – foods. On the surface, this behavior seems rather strange owing to the pain and other unpleasant feelings induced by such foods. To get a real quick picture of how unpleasant these food additives can be, you could always try to eat an whole raw onion or spicy pepper, though just imagining the experience is likely enough (just in case it isn’t, YouTube will again be helpful). While this taste for spices might be taken for granted – it just seems normal that some people like different amounts of spicy foods – it warrants a deeper analysis to understand this ostensibly strange taste. Why do people love/hate the experience of eating spicy foods?

   Word of caution: don’t touch your genitals afterwards. Trust me.

Food preferences do not just exist in a vacuum; the cognitive mechanisms which generate such preferences need to have evolved owing to some adaptive benefits inherent in seeking out or avoiding certain potential food sources. Some of these preferences are easier to understand than others: for example, our taste for certain foods we perceive as sweet – sugars – likely owes its existence to the high caloric density that such foods historically provided us (which used to be quite valuable when they were relatively rare. As they exist in much higher concentrations in the first world – largely due to our preferences leading us to cultivate and refine them – these benefits can now dip over into costs associated with overconsumption and obesity). By contrast, our aversion to foods which appear spoiled or rotten helps us avoid potentially harmful pathogens which might reside in them; pathogens which we would rather not purposefully introduce into our bodies. Similar arguments can be made for avoiding foods which contain toxic compounds and taste correspondingly unpleasant. When such toxins are introduced into our bodies, the typical physiological response is nausea and vomiting; behaviors which help remove the offending material as best we can.

So where do spicy foods fall with respect to what costs they avoid or benefits they provide? As many such foods do indeed taste unpleasant, it is unlikely that they are providing us with direct nutritional benefits the way that more pleasant-tasting foods do. That is to say we don’t like spicy foods because they are rich sources of calories or vital nutrients. Indeed, the spiciness that is associated with such foods represents chemical weaponry evolved on the part of the plants. As it turns out, these plants have their own set of adaptive best interests which often include not being eaten at certain times or by certain species. Accordingly, they develop certain chemical weapons that dissuade would be predators from chowing down (this is the reason that the selective breeding of plants for natural insect resistance ends up making them more toxic for humans to eat as well. Just because pesticides aren’t being used, that doesn’t mean you’re avoiding toxic compounds). Provided this analysis is correct, then, the natural question arises of why people would have a taste for plants that possess certain types and amounts of chemical weaponry designed to prevent their being eaten. On a hedonic level, growing crops of jalapenos seems as peculiar as growing a crop of edible razor blades.

The most likely answer to this mystery comes in the form of understanding what these chemical weapons do not to humans, but rather what they do to the other pathogens that tend to accompany our other foods. If these chemical weapons are damaging to our bodies – as evidenced by the painful or unpleasant tastes that accompany them – it stands to reason they are also damaging to some pathogens which might reside in our food as well. Provided our bodies are better able to withstand certain doses of these harmful chemicals, relative to the microbes in our food, then eating spicy foods could represent a trade-off between the killing food-borne pathogens against the risk of poisoning ourselves. Provided the harm done to our bodies by the chemicals is less than the expected damage done by the pathogens, a certain perverse taste for spicy foods could evolve.

As before, you should still be wary of genital contact with such perverse tastes

A healthy degree of empirical evidence is consistent with such an adaptive hypothesis from the world over. One of the most extensive data sets focuses on recipes found in 93 traditional cookbooks from 36 different countries across the world (Sherman & Billing, 1999). The recipes in these cookbooks were examined for which of 43 spices were added to meat dishes. Of the approximately 4,500 different meat dishes present in these books, the average number of spices called for by the recipes was 4, with 93% of recipes calling for at least one. Importantly, the distribution of these spices was anything but random. Recipes coming from warmer climates tended to call for a much greater use of spices. The probable reason this finding emerged relates to the fact that, in warmer climates, food – especially meats – which would have been unrefrigerated for most of human history (alien as that idea sounds currently) will tend to spoil quicker, relative to cooler climates. Accordingly, as the degree and speed of spoilage tended to increase in warmer climates, a greater use of anti-microbial spices can be introduced to dishes to help combat food-borne illness. To use one of their examples, the typical Norwegian recipe called for 1.6 spices per dish and the recipes only mentioned 10 different spices; in Hungary, the average number of spices per dish was 3, and up to 21 different spices were referenced. It is not too far-fetched to go one step further and suggest that people indigenous to such regions might also have evolved slightly different tolerances for spices in their meals.

Even more interestingly, those spices with the strongest anti-microbial effects (such as garlic and onions) also tended to be the ones used more often in warmer climates, relative to cooler ones. Among the spices which had weaker effects, the correlation between temperature and spice use ceased to exist. Nevertheless, the most inhibitory spices were also the ones that people tended to use most regularly across the globe. Further, the authors also discuss the trade-off between balancing the fighting of pathogens against the possible toxicity of such spices when consumed in large quantities. A very interesting point bearing on that matter concerns the dietary preferences of pregnant women. While an adult female’s body might be able to tolerate the toxicity inherent in such compounds fairly well, the developing fetus might be poorly equipped for the task. Accordingly, women in their first trimester tend to show a shift in food preferences towards avoiding a variety of spices, just as they also tend to avoid meat dishes. This shift in taste preferences could well reflect the new variable of the fetus being introduced to the usual cost/benefit analysis of adding spices to foods.

An interesting question related to this analysis was also posed by the Sherman & Billing (1999): do carnivorous animals ingest similar kinds of spices? After all, if these chemical compounds are effective at fighting against food-borne pathogens, carnivores – especially scavengers – might have an interest in using such dietary tricks as well (provided they did not stumble upon a different adaptive solution). While animals do not appear to spice their foods the way humans do, the authors do note that vegetation makes up a small portion of many carnivore’s diets. Having owned cats my whole life, I confess I have always found their behavior of eating the grass outside to be quiet a bit odd: not only does the grass not seem to be a major part of a cat’s diet, but it often seems to make them vomit with some regularity. While they present no data bearing on this point, Sherman & Billing (1999) do float the possibility that a supplement of vegetation to their diet might be a variant of that same kind of spicing behavior: carnivores eat vegetation not necessarily for its nutritional value, but rather because of possible anti-microbial benefits. It’s certainly an idea worth examining further, though I know of no research at present to have tackled the matter. (As a follow up, it seems that ants engage in this kind of behavior as well)

It’s a point I’ll bear in mind next time she’s vomiting outside my window.

I find this kind of analysis fascinating, frankly, and would like to take this moment to mention that these fascinating ideas would be quite unlikely to have stumbled upon without the use of evolutionary theory as a guide. The typical explanation you might get when asking people about why we spice food would typically sound like “because we like the taste the spice adds”; a response as uninformative as it is incorrect, which is to say “mostly” (and if you don’t believe that last part, go ahead an enjoy your mouthfuls of raw onion and garlic). The proximate taste explanation would fail to predict the regional differences in spice use, the aversion to eating large quantities of them (though this is a comparative “large”, as a slice of Jalapeno can be more than some people can handle), and the maternal data concerning aversions to spices during critical fetal developmental windows. Taste preferences – like any psychological preferences – are things which require deeper explanations. There’s a big difference between knowing that people tend to add spices to food and knowing why people tend to do so. I would think that findings like these would help psychology researchers understand the importance of adaptive thinking. At the very least, I hope they serve as food for thought.

References: Sherman, P. & Billing, J. (1999). Darwinian gastronomy: Why we use spices. Bioscience, 49, 453–463.

The Altruism Of The Rich And The Poor

Altruistic behavior is a fascinating topic. On the first hand, it’s something of an evolutionary puzzle as to why an organism would provide benefits to others at an expense to itself. A healthy portion of this giving has already been explained via kin selection (providing resources to those who share an appreciable portion of your genes) and reciprocal altruism (giving to you today increases the odds of you giving to me in the future). As these phenomenon have, in a manner of speaking, been studied to death, they’re a bit less interesting; all the academic glory goes to people who tackle new and exciting ideas. One such new and exciting realm of inquiry (new at least as far as I’m aware of, anyway) concerns the social regulations and sanctions surrounding altruism. A particularly interesting case I came across some time ago concerned people actually condemning Kim Kardashian for giving to charity; specifically, for not giving enough. Another case involved the turning away of a sizable charitable donation from Tucker Max so as to avoid a social association with him.

*Unless I disagree with your personality; in that case, I’ll just starve

Just as it’s curious that people are altruistic towards others at all, then, it is, perhaps, more curious that people would ever turn down altruism or condemn others for giving it. To examine one more example that crossed my screen today, I wanted to consider two related articles. The first of the articles concerns charitable giving in the US. The point I wanted to highlight from that piece is that, as a percentage of their income, the richest section of the population tends to give the largest portion to charity. While one could argue that this is obviously the case because the rich have more available money which they don’t need to survive, that idea would fail to explain the point that charitable giving appears to evidence a U-shaped distribution, in which the richest and poorest sections of the population contribution a greater percentage of their income than those in the middle (though how to categorize the taxes paid by each group is another matter). The second article I wanted to bring up condemned the richer section of the population for giving less than they used to, compared to the poor, who had apparently increased the percentage they used to give. What’s notable about their analysis of the issue is that the former fact – that the rich still tended to donate a higher percentage of their income overall – is not mentioned at all. I imagine that such an omission was intentional.

Taken together, all these pieces of information are consistent with the idea that there’s a relatively opaque strategic element which surrounds altruistic behavior. While it’s one people might unconsciously navigate with relative automaticity, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and consider just how strange this behavior is. After all, if we saw this behavior in any other species, we would be very curious indeed as to what led them to do what they did; perhaps we would even forgoing the usual moralization that accompanies and clouds these issues while we examined them. So, on the subject of rich people and strategic altruism, I wanted to review a unique data set from Smeets, Bauer, & Gneezy (2015) concerning the behavior of millionaires in two standard economic games: the dictator and ultimatum games. In the former, participants are in charge of deciding how €100 will be divided between themselves and another participant; in the latter, the participant will propose how €100 will be split between themselves and a receiver. If the receiver accepts the offer, both players get paid the division; if the receiver rejects it, both players get nothing.

In the dictator game, approximately 200 Dutch millionaires (those with over €1,000,000 in their bank accounts) where told they were either playing the game with another millionaire or with a low-income receiver. According to data from existing literature on these games, the average amount given to the receiver in a dictator game is a little shy of 30%, with only about 5% of dictators allocating all the money to the recipient. In start contrast, when paired with a low-income individual, millionaire dictators tended to give an average of 71% of the money to the other player, with 45% of dictators giving the full €100. When paired with another millionaire recipient, however, the millionaire dictators only gave away approximately 50% of the €100 sum which, while still substantially more generous than the literature average, is less generous than their giving towards the poor.

The rich; maybe not as evil and cold as they’re imagined to be

Turning to the data from the ultimatum games, we often find that people are often more generous in their offers to receivers in such circumstances, owing to the real possibility that a rejected offer can leave the proposer without anything. Indeed, the reported percentage of the offers in ultimatum games from the wider literature is close to 45% of the total sum (as compared with 30% in dictator games). In the ultimatum game, the millionaires were actually less generous towards the low-income recipients than in the dictator game – bucking the overall trend – but were still quite generous overall, giving an average of 64% of the total sum, with 30% of dictators giving away the full €100 to the other person (as compared with 71% and 45% from above). Interestingly, when paired with other millionaires in the ultimatum game, millionaire proposers gave precisely the same amounts they tended to in the dictator games. In that case, the strategic context has no effect on their giving.

In sum, millionaires tended to evidence quite a bit more generosity in giving contexts than previous, lower-income samples had. However, this generosity was largely confined to instances of giving to those in greater need, relative to a more general kind of altruism. In fact, if one was in need and interested in receiving donations from rich targets, it would seem to serve your goal better to not frame the request as some kind of exchange relationship through which the rich person will eventually receive some monetary benefits, as that kind of strategic element appears to result in less giving.

Why should this be the case, though? One possible explanation that comes to mind builds upon the ostensibly obvious explanation for rich people giving more I mentioned initially: the rich already possess a great number of resources they don’t require. In economic terms, the marginal value of additional money for them is lower than it is for the poor. When the giving is economically strategic, then, the benefit to be received is more money, which, as I just suggested, has a relatively low marginal value to the rich recipient. By contrast, when the giving is driven more by altruism, the benefits to be receiver are predominately social in nature: the gratitude of the recipients, possible social status from observers, esteem from peers, and so on. The other side of this giving coin, as I also mentioned at the beginning, is there can also be social costs associated with not giving enough for the rich. As building social alliances and avoiding condemnation might have different marginal values than additional units of money, the rich could perceive greater benefits from giving in certain contexts, relative to exchange relationships.

Threats – implicit or explicit – do tend to be effective motivators for giving

Such an explanation could also, at least in principle, help explain why the poorest section of the population tends to be relatively charitable, compared to the middle: the poorest individuals are facing a greater need for social alliances, owing to the relatively volatile nature of their position in life. As economic resources might not be stable, poorer individuals might be better served by using more of them to build stronger social networks when money is available. Such spending would allow the poor to hedge and defend against the possibility of future bad luck; that friend you helped out today might be able to give you a place to sleep next month if you lose your job and can’t make rent. By contrast, those in the middle of the economic world are not facing the same degree of social need as the lower classes, while, at the same time, not having as much disposal income as the upper classes (and, accordingly, might also be facing less social pressure to be generous with what they do have), leading to them giving less. Considerations of social need guiding altruism also fits nicely with the moral aspect of altruism, which is just one more reason for me to like it.

References: Smeets, P., Bauer, R., & Gneezy, U. (2015). Giving behavior of millionaires. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1507949112

Examining The Performance-Gender Link In Video Games

Like many people around my age or younger, I’m a big fan of video games. I’ve been interested in these kinds of games for as long as I can remember, and they’ve been the most consistent form of entertainment in my life, often winning out over the company of other people and, occasionally, food. As I – or pretty much anyone who has spent time within the gaming community – can attest to, the experience of playing these games with others can frequently lead to, shall we say, less-than-pleasant interactions with those who are upset by losses. Whether being derided for your own poor performance, good performance, good luck, or tactics of choice, negative comments are a frequent occurrence in the competitive online gaming environment. There are some people, however, who believe that simply being a woman in such environments yields a negative reception from a predominately-male community. Indeed, some evidence consistent with this possibility was recently published by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) but, as you will soon see, the picture of hostile behavior towards women that emerges in much more nuanced than it is often credited as being.

Aggression, video games, and gender relations; what more could you want to read about?

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that some topics – sexism being among them – tend to evade clear thinking because people have some kind of vested social interest in what they have to say about the association value of particular groups. If, for instance, people who play video games are perceived negatively, I would likely suffer socially by extension, since I enjoy video games myself (so there’s my bias). Accordingly, people might report or interpret evidence in ways that aren’t quite accurate so as to paint certain pictures. This issue seems to rear its head in the current paper on more than one occasion. For example, one claim made by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) is that “…men and women are equally likely to play competitive video games”. The citation for this claim is listed as “Essential facts about the computer and video game industry (2014)“. However, in that document, the word “competitive” does not appear at all, let alone a gender breakdown of competitive game play. Confusingly, the authors subsequently claim that competitive games are frequently dominated by males in terms of who plays them, directly contradicting the former idea. Another claim made by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) is that women are “more often depicted as damsels in distress”, though the paper they link to to support that claim does not appear to contain any breakdown of women’s actual representation in video games as characters, instead measuring people’s perceptions of women’s representation in them. While such a claim may indeed be true – women may be depicted as in need of rescue more often than they’re depicted in other roles and/or relative to men’s depictions – it’s worth noting that the citation they use does not contain the data they imply it does.

Despite these inaccuracies, Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) take a step in the right direction by considering how the reproductive benefits to competition have shaped male and female psychologies when approaching the women-in-competitive-video-games question. For men, one’s place in a dominance hierarchy was quite relevant for determining their eventual reproductive success, leading to more overt strategies of social hierarchy navigation. These overt strategies include the development of larger, more muscular upper-bodies in men, suited for direct physical contests. By contrast, women’s reproductive fitness was often less affected by their status within the social hierarchy, especially with respect to direct physical competitions. As men and women begin to compete in the same venues where differences in physical strength no longer determine the winner – as is the case in online video games – this could lead to some unpleasant situations for particular men who have the most to lose by having their status threatened by female competition.

In the interests of being more explicit about why female involvement in typically male-style competitions might be a problem for some men, let’s employ some Bayesian reasoning. In terms of physical contests, larger men tend to dominate smaller ones; this is why most fighting sports are separated into different classes based on the weight of the combatants. So what are we to infer when a smaller fighter consistently beats a larger one? Though these aren’t mutually exclusive, we could infer either that the smaller fighter is very skilled or that the larger fighter is particularly unskilled. Indeed, if the larger fighter is losing both to people of his own weight class and of a weight class below him, the latter interpretation becomes more likely. It doesn’t take much of a jump to replace size with sex in this example: because men tend to be stronger than women, our Bayesian priors should lead us to expect that men will win in direct physical competition over women, on average. A man who performs poorly against both men and women in physical competition, is going to suffer a major blow to his social status and reputation as a fighter.

It’ll be embarrassing for him to see that replayed five times from three angles.

While winning in competitive video games does not rely on physical strength, a similar type of logic applies there as well: if men tend to be the ones overwhelming dominating a video game in terms of their performance, then a man who performs poorly has the most to lose from women becoming involved in the game, as he now might compare poorly both to the standard reference group and to the disfavored minority group. By contrast, men who are high performers in these games would not be bothered by women joining in, as they aren’t terribly concerned about losing to them and having their status threatened. This yields some interesting predictions about what kind of men are going to become hostile towards women. By comparison, other social and lay theories (which are often hard to separate) do not tend to yield such predictions, instead suggesting that both high and low performing men might be hostile towards women in order to remove them from a type of male-only space; what one might consider a more general sexist discrimination.

To test these hypotheses, Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) reported on some data collected while they were playing Halo 3, during which time all matches and conversations within the game were recorded. During these games, the authors had approximately a dozen neutral phrases prerecorded with either a male or female voice they would play during appropriate times in the match. These phrases served to cue the other players as to the ostensible gender of the researcher. The matches themselves were 4 vs 4 games in which the objective for each is to kill more members of the enemy team than they kill of yours. All in-game conversations were transcribed, with two coders examined the transcripts for comments directed towards the researcher playing the game, classifying them as positive, negative, or neutral. The performance of the players making these comments were also recorded with respect to whether the game was won or lost, that player’s overall skill level, and the number of their kills and deaths in the match, so as to get a sense for the type of player making them.

The data represented 163 games of Halo, during which 189 players directed comments towards the researcher across 102 of the games. Of those 189 players who made comments, all of them were males. Only the 147 of those commenters that came from a teammate were retained for analysis. In total, then, 82 players directed comments towards the female-voiced player, whereas 65 directed comments towards the male-voiced player.

A few interesting findings emerged with respect to the gender manipulation. While I won’t mention all of them, I wanted to highlight a few. First, when the researcher used the female voice, higher-skill male players tended to direct significantly more positive comments towards them, relative to low-skill players (β = -.31); no such trend was observed for the male-voiced character. Additionally, as the difference between the female-voiced researcher and the commenting player grew larger (specifically, as the person making the comment was of progressively higher ranks than the female-voiced player), the number of positive comments tended to increase. Similarly, high-skill male players tended to direct fewer negative comments towards the female-voiced research as well (β = -.18). Finally, in terms of their kills during the match, poor performing males directed more negative comments towards female voiced characters, relative to high-performing men (β = .35); no such trend was evident for the male-voiced condition.

“I’m bad at this game and it’s your fault people know it!”

Taken together, the results seem to point in a pretty consistent direction: low-performing men tended to be less welcoming of women in their competitive game of choice, perhaps because it highlighted their poor performance to a greater degree. By contrast, high-performing males were relatively less troubled by the ostensible presence of women, dipping over into being quite welcoming of them. After all, a man being good at the game might well be an attractive quality to women who also enjoy the world of Esports, and what better way to kick off a potential relationship than with a shared hobby? As a final point, it is worth noting that the truly sexist types might present a different pattern of data, relative to people who were just making positive or negative comments: only 11 of the players (out of 83 who made negative comments and 189 who made any comments) were classified as making comments considered to be “hostile sexism”, which did not yield a large enough sample for a proper analysis. The good news, then, seems to be such comments are at least relatively rare.

References: Kasumovic, M. & Kuznekoff, J. (2015). Insights into sexism: Male status and performance moderates female-directed hostile and amicable behavior. PLoS One, 10: e0131613. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131613

Understanding Conspicuous Consumption (Via Race)

Buckle up, everyone; this post is going to be a long one. Today, I wanted to discuss the matter of conspicuous consumption: the art of spending relatively large sums of money on luxury goods. When you see people spending close to $600 on a single button-up shirt, two-months salary on engagement rings, or tossing spinning rims on their car, you’re seeing examples of conspicuous consumption. A natural question that many people might (and do) ask when confronted with such outrageous behavior is, “why do you people seem to (apparently) waste money?” A second, related question that might be asked once we have an answer to the first question (indeed, our examination of this second question should be guided by – and eventually inform – our answer to the first) is how can we understand who is most likely to spend money in a conspicuous fashion? Alternatively, this question could be framed by asking about what contexts tend to favor conspicuous consuming behavior. Such information should be valuable to anyone looking to encourage or target big-ticket spending or spenders or, if you’re a bit strange, you could also try to create contexts in which people spend their money more responsibly.

But how fun is sustainability when you could be buying expensive teeth  instead?

The first question – why do people conspicuously consume – is perhaps the easier question to initially answer, as it’s been discussed for the last several decades. In the biological world, when you observe seemingly gaudy ornaments that are costly to grow and maintain – peacock feathers being the go-to example – the key to understanding their existence is to examine their communicative function (Zahavi, 1975). Such ornaments are typically a detriment to an organism’s survival; peacocks could do much better for themselves if they didn’t have to waste time and energy growing the tail feathers which make it harder to maneuver in the world and escape from predators. Indeed, if there was some kind of survival benefit to those long, colorful tail feathers, we would expect that both sexes would develop them; not just the males.

However, it is because these feathers are costly that they are useful signals, since males in relatively poor condition could not shoulder their costs effectively. It takes a healthy, well-developed male to be able to survive and thrive in spite of carrying these trains of feathers. The costs of these feathers, in other words, ensures their honesty, in the biological sense of the word. Accordingly, females who prefer males with these gaudy tails can be more assured that their mate is of good genetic quality, likely leading to offspring well-suited to survive and eventually reproduce themselves. On the other hand, if such tails were free to grow and develop – that is, if they did not reliably carry much cost – they would not make good cues for such underlying qualities. Essentially, a free tail would be a form of biological cheap talk. It’s easy for me to just say I’m the best boxer in the world, which is why you probably shouldn’t believe such boasts until you’ve actually seen me perform in the ring.

Costly displays, then, owe their existence to the honesty they impart on a signal. Human consumption patterns should be expected to follow a similar pattern: if someone is looking to communicate information to others, costlier communications should be viewed as more credible than cheap ones. To understand conspicuous consumption we would need to begin by thinking about matters such as what signal someone is trying to send to others, how that signal is being sent, and what conditions tend to make the sending of particular signals more likely? Towards that end, I was recently sent an interesting paper examining how patterns of conspicuous consumption vary among racial groups: specifically, the paper examined racial patterns of spending on what was dubbed visible goods: objects which are conspicuous in anonymous interactions and portable, such as jewelry, clothing, and cars. These are good designed to be luxury items which others will frequently see, relative to other, less-visible luxury items, such as hot tubs or fancy bed sheets.

That is, unless you just have to show off your new queen mattress

The paper, by Charles et al (2008), examined data drawn from approximately 50,000 households across the US, representing about 37,000 White 7,000 Black, and 5,000 Hispanic households between the ages of 18 and 50. In absolute dollar amounts, Black and Hispanic households tended to spend less on all manner of things than Whites (about 40% and 25%, respectively), but this difference needs to be viewed with respect to each group’s relative income. After all, richer people tend to spend more than poorer people. Accordingly, the income of these households was estimated through their reports of their overall reported spending on a variety of different goods, such as food, housing, etc. Once a household’s overall income was controlled for, a better picture of their relative spending on a number of different categories emerged. Specifically, it was found that Blacks and Hispanics tended to spend more on visible  goods (like clothing, cars, and jewelry) than Whites by about 20-30%, depending on the estimate, while consuming relatively less in other categories like healthcare and education.

This visible consumption is appreciable in absolute size, as well. The average white household was spending approximately $7,000 on such purchases each year, which would imply that a comparably-wealthy Black or Hispanic household would spend approximately $9,000 on such purchases. These purchases come at the expense of all other categories as well (which should be expected, as the money has to come from somewhere), meaning that the money spent on visible goods often means less is spent on education, health care, and entertainment.

There are some other interesting findings to mention. One – which I find rather notable, but the authors don’t see to spend any time discussing – is that racial differences in consumption of visible goods declines sharply with age: specifically, the Black-White gap in visible spending was 30% in the 18-34 group, 23% in the 35-49 group, and only 15% in the 50+ group. Another similarly-undiscussed finding is that visible consumption gap appears to decline as one goes from single  to married. The numbers Charles et al (2009) mention estimate that the average percentage of budgets used on visible purchases was 32% higher for single Black men, 28% higher for single Black women, and 22% higher for married Black couples, relative to their White counterparts. Whether these declines represent declines in absolute dollar amounts or just declines in racial differences, I can’t say, but my guess is that it represents both. Getting old and getting into relationships tended to reduce the racial divide in visible good consumption.

Cool really does have a cut-off age…

Noting these findings is one thing; explaining them is another, and arguably the thing we’re more interested in doing. The explanation offered by Charles et al (2009) goes roughly as follows: people have a certain preference for social status, specifically with respect to their economic standing. People are interested in signaling their economic standing to others via conspicuous consumption. However, the degree to which you have to signal depends strongly on the reference group to which you belong. For example, if Black people have a lower average income than Whites, then people might tend to assume that a Black person has a lower economic standing. To overcome this assumption, then, Black individuals should be particularly motivated to signal that they do not, in fact, have a lower economic standing more typical of their group. In brief: as the average income of a group drops, those with money should be particularly inclined to signal that they are not as poor as other people below them in their group.

In support of this idea, Charles et al (2008) further analyzed their data, finding that the average spending on visible luxury goods declined in states with higher average incomes, just as it also declined among racial groups with higher average incomes. In other words, raising the average income of a racial group within a state tended to strongly impact what percentage of consumption was visible in nature. Indeed, the size of this effect was such that, controlling for the average income of a race within a state, the racial gaps almost entirely disappeared.

Now there are a few things to say about this explanation, first of which being that it’s incomplete as stands. From my reading of it, it’s a bit unclear to me how the explanation works for the current data. Specifically, it would seem to posit that people are looking to signal that they are wealthier than those immediately below them in the social ladder. This could explain the signaling in general, but not the racial divide. To explain the racial divide, you need to add something else; perhaps that people are trying to signal to members of higher income groups that, though one is a member of a lower income group, one’s income is higher than the average income. However, that explanation would not explain the age/marital status information I mentioned before without adding on other assumption, nor would directly explain the benefits which arise from signaling one’s economic status in the first place. Moreover, if I’m understanding the results properly, it wouldn’t directly explain why visible consumption drops as the overall level of wealth increases. If people are trying to signal something about their relative wealth, increasing the aggregate wealth shouldn’t have much of an impact, as “rich” and “poor” are relative terms.

“Oh sure, he might be rich, but I’m super rich; don’t lump us together”

So how might this explanation be altered to fit the data better? The first step is to be more explicit about why people might want to signal their economic status to others in the first place. Typically, the answer to this question hinges on the fact that being able to command more resources effectively makes one a more valuable associate. The world is full of people who need things – like food and shelter – so being able to provide those things should make one seem like a better ally to have. For much the same reason, being in command of resources also tends to make one appear to be a more desirable mate as well. A healthy portion of conspicuous signaling, as I mentioned initially, has to do with attracting sexual partners. If you know that I am capable of providing you with valuable resources you desire, this should, all else being equal, make me look like a more attractive friend or mate, depending on your sexual preferences.

However, recognition of that underlying logic helps make a corollary point: the added value that I can bring you, owing to my command of resources, diminishes as overall wealth increases. To place it in an easy example, there’s a big difference between having access to no food and some food; there’s less of a difference between having access to some food and good food; there’s less of a difference still between good food and great food. The same holds for all manner of other resources. As the marginal value of resources decreases as access to resources increases overall, we can explain the finding that increases in average group wealth decrease relative spending on visible goods: there’s less of a value in signaling that one is wealthier than another if that wealth difference isn’t going to amount to the same degree of marginal benefit.

So, provided that wealth has a higher marginal value in poorer communities – like Black and Hispanic ones, relative to Whites – we should expect more signaling of it in those contexts. This logic could explain the racial gap on spending patterns. It’s not that people are trying to avoid a negative association with a poor reference group as much as they’re only engaging in signaling to the extent that signaling holds value to others. In other words, it’s not about my signaling to avoid being thought of as poor; it’s about my signaling to demonstrate that I hold a high value as a partner, socially or sexually, relative to my competition.

Similarly, if signaling functions in part to attract sexual partners, we can readily explain the age and martial data as well. Those who are married are relatively less likely to engage in signaling for the purposes of attracting a mate, as they already have one. They might engage in such purchases for the purposes of retaining that mate, though such purchases should involve spending money on visible items for other people, rather than for themselves. Further, as people age, their competition in the mating market tends to decline for a number reasons, such as existing children, inability to compete effectively, and fewer years of reproductive viability ahead of them. Accordingly, we see that visible consumption tends to drop off, again, because the marginal value of sending such signals has surely declined.

“His most attractive quality is his rapidly-approaching demise”

Finally, it is also worth noting other factors which might play an important role in determining the marginal value of this kind of conspicuous signaling. One of these is an individual’s life history. To the extent that one is following a faster life history strategy – reproducing earlier, taking rewards today rather than saving for greater rewards later – one might be more inclined to engage in such visible consumption, as the marginal value of signaling you have resources now is higher when the stability of those resources (or your future) is called into question. The current data does not speak to this possibility, however. Additionally, one’s sexual strategy might also be a valuable piece of information, given the links we saw with age and martial status. As these ornaments are predominately used to attract the attention of prospective mates in nonhuman species, it seems likely that individuals with a more promiscuous mating strategy should see a higher marginal value in advertising their wealth visibly. More attention is important if you’re looking to get multiple partners. In all cases, I feel these explanations make more textured predictions than the “signaling to not seem as poor as others” hypothesis, as considerations of adaptive function often do.

References: Charles, K., Hurst, E., & Roussanov, N. (2008). Conspicuous consumption and race. The Journal of Quarterly Economics, 124, 425-467.

Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection – A selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53, 205-214.

 

Stereotyping Stereotypes

I’ve attended a number of talks on stereotypes; I’ve read many more papers in which the word was used; I’ve seen still more instances where the term has been used outside of academic settings in discussions or articles. Though I have no data on hand, I would wager that the weight of this academic and non-academic literature leans heavily towards the idea that stereotypes are, by in large, inaccurate. In fact, I would go a bit farther than that: the notion that stereotypes are inaccurate seems to be so common that people often see little need in ensuring any checks were put into place to test for their accuracy in the first place. Indeed, one of my major complaints about the talks on stereotypes I’ve attended is just that: speakers never mentioning the possibility that people’s beliefs about other groups happen to, on the whole, match up to reality fairly well in many cases (sometimes they have mentioned this point as an afterthought but, from what I’ve seen, that rarely translates into later going out and testing for accuracy). To use a non-controversial example, I expect that many people believe men are taller than women, on average, because men do, in fact, happen to be taller.

Pictured above: not a perceptual bias or an illusory correlation

This naturally raises the question of how accurate stereotypes – when defined as beliefs about social groups – tend to be. It should go without saying that there will not be a single answer to that question: accuracy is not an either/or type of matter. If I happen to think it’s about 75 degrees out when the temperature is actually 80, I’m more accurate in my belief than if the temperature was 90. Similarly, the degree of that accuracy should be expected to vary on the intended nature of the stereotype in question; a matter to which I’ll return later. That said, as I mentioned before, quite a bit of the exposure I’ve had to the subject of stereotypes suggests rather strongly and frequently that they’re inaccurate. Much of the writing about stereotypes I’ve encountered focuses on notions like “tearing them down”, “busting myths”, or about how people are unfairly discriminated against because of them; comparatively little of that work has focused on instances in which they’re accurate which, one would think, would represent the first step in attempting to understand them.

According to some research reviewed by Jussim et al (2009), however, that latter point is rather unfortunate, as stereotypes often seem to be quite accurate, at least by the standards set by other research in psychology. In order to test for the accuracy of stereotypes, Jussim et al (2009) report on some empirical studies that met two key criteria: first, the research had to compare people’s beliefs about a group to what that group was actually like; that much is a fairly basic requirement. Second, the research had to use an appropriate sample to determine what that group was actually like. For example, if someone was interested in people’s beliefs about some difference between men and women in general, but only tested these beliefs against data from a convenience sample (like men and women attending the local college), this could pose something of a problem to the extent that the convenience sample differs from the reference group of people holding the stereotypes. If people, by in large, have accurate stereotypes, researchers would never know if they make use of a non-represented reference group.

Within the realm of racial stereotypes, Jussim et al (2009) summarized the results of 4 papers that met this criteria. The majority of the results fell within what the authors consider “accurate” range (as defined by being 0-10% off from the criteria values) or near-misses (those between 10-20% off). Indeed, the average correlations between the stereotypes and criteria measures ranged from .53 to .93, which are very high, relative to the average correlation uncovered by psychological research. Even the personal stereotypes, while not as high, were appreciably accurate, ranging from .36 to .69. Further, while people weren’t perfectly accurate in their beliefs, those who overestimated differences between racial groups tended be balanced out by those who underestimated those differences in most instances. Interestingly enough, people’s stereotypes about group differences tended to be a bit more accurate than their within group stereotypes.

“Ha! Look at all that inaccurate shooting. Didn’t even come close”

The same procedure was used to review research on gender stereotypes as well, yielding 7 papers with larger sample sizes. A similar set of results emerged: the average stereotype was rather accurate, with correlations ranging between .34 to .98, most of which hovered in the range of .7. Individual stereotypes were again less accurate, but most were still heading in the right direction. To put those numbers in perspective, Jussim et al (2009) summarized a meta-analyses examining the average correlation found in psychological research. According to that data, only 24% of social psychology effects represent correlations larger than .3 and a mere 5% exceeded a correlation of .5; the corresponding numbers for averaged stereotypes were 100% of the reviewed work meeting the .3 threshold, and about 89% of the correlations exceeding the .5 threshold (personal stereotypes at 81% and 36%, respectively).

Now neither Jussim et al (2009) or I would claim that all stereotypes are accurate (or at least reasonably close); no one I’m aware of has. This brings us to the matter of when we should expect stereotypes to be accurate and when we should expect them to fall shorter of that point. As an initial note, we should always expect some degree of inaccuracy in stereotypes – indeed, in all beliefs about the world – to the extent that gathering information takes time and improving accuracy is not always worth that investment in the adaptive sense. To use a non-biological example, spending an extra three hours studying to improve one’s grade on a test from a 70 to a 90 might seem worth it, but the same amount of time used to improve from a 90 to a 92 might not. Similarly, if one lacks access to reliable information about the behavior of others in the first place, stereotypes should also tend to be relatively inaccurate. For this reason, Jussim et al (2009) note that cross-cultural stereotypes in national personalities tend to be among the most inaccurate, as people from, say, India, might have relatively little exposure to information about people from South Africa, and vice versa.

The second point to make on accuracy is that, to the extent that beliefs guide behavior and that behavior carries costs or benefits, we should expect beliefs to tend towards accuracy (again, regardless of whether they’re about social groups or the world more generally). If you believe, incorrectly, that group A is as likely to assault you as group B (the example that Jussim et al (2009) use involves biker gang members and ballerinas), you’ll either end up avoiding one group more than you need to, not being wary enough around one, or miss in both directions, all of which involves social and physical costs. One of the only cases in which being wrong might reliably carry benefits are contexts in which one’s inaccurate beliefs modifies the behavior of other people. In other words, stereotypes can be expected to be inaccurate in the realm of persuasion. Jussim et al (2009) make nods toward this possibility, noting that political stereotypes are among the least accurate ones out there, and that certain stereotypes might have been crafted specifically with the intent of maligning a particular group.

For instance…

While I do suspect that some stereotypes exist specifically to malign a particular group, that possibility does raise another interesting question: namely, why would anyone, let alone large groups of people, be persuaded to accept inaccurate stereotypes? For the same reason that people should prefer accurate information over inaccurate information when guiding their own behaviors, they should also be relatively resistant to adopting stereotypes which are inaccurate, just as they should be when it comes to applying them to individuals when they don’t fit. To the extent that a stereotype is of this sort (inaccurate), then, we should expect that it not be widely held, except in a few particular contexts.

Indeed, Jussim et al (2009) also review evidence that suggests people do not inflexibly make use of stereotypes, preferring individuating information when it’s available: according to the meta-analyses reviewed, the average influence of stereotypes on judgments hangs around r = .1 (which does not, in many instances, have anything to say about the accuracy of the stereotype; just the extent of its effect); by contrast, individuating information had an average effect of about .7 which, again, is much larger than the average psychology effect. Once individuating information is controlled for, stereotypes tend to have next to zero impact on people’s judgments of others. People appear to rely on personal information to a much higher degree than stereotypes, and often jettison ill-fitting stereotypes in favor of personal information. In other words, the knowledge that men tend to be taller than women does not have much of an influence on whether I think a particular women is taller than a particular man.

When should we expect that people will make the greatest use of stereotypes, then? Likely when they have access to the least amount of individuating information. This has been the case in a lot of the previous research on gender bias where very little information is provided about the target individual beyond their sex (see here for an example). In these cases, stereotypes represent an individual doing the best they can with limited information. In some cases, however, people express moral opposition to making use of that limited information, contingent on the group(s) it benefits or disadvantages. It is in such cases that, ironically, stereotypes might be stereotyped as inaccurate (or at least insufficiently accurate) to the greatest degree.

References: Jussim, L., Cain, T., Crawford, J., Harber, K., & Cohen, F. (2009). The unbearable accuracy of stereotypes. In Nelson, T. The Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination (199-227). NY: Psychological Press.  

Some Bathwater Without A Baby

When reading psychology papers, I am often left with the same dissatisfaction: the lack of any grounding theories in them and their inability to deliver what I would consider a real explanation for their findings. While it’s something I have harped on for a few years now, this dissatisfaction is hardly confined to me, as others have voiced similar concerns for at least around the last two decades, and I suspect it’s gone on quite a bit longer than that. A healthy amount of psychological research strikes me as empirical bathwater without a theoretical baby, in a manner of speaking; no matter how interesting that empirical bathwater might be – whether it’s ignored or the flavor of the week – almost all of it will eventually be thrown out and forgotten if there’s no baby there. Some new research that has crossed my eyes a few times lately follows that same trend; a paper examining the reactions of individuals who were feeling powerful to inequality that disadvantaged them or others. I wanted to review that paper today and help fill in the missing sections from it where explanations should go.

Next step: add luxury items, like skin and organs

The paper, by Sawaoka, Hughes, & Ambady (2015), contained four or five experiments – depending on how one counts a pilot study – in which participants were primed to think of themselves as powerful or not. This was achieved, as it so often is, by having the participants in each experiment write about a time they had power over another person or about a time that other people had power over them, respectively. In the first pilot study, about 20 participants were primed as powerful and another 20 primed as relatively powerless. Subsequently, they were told they would be playing a dictator game with another person, in which the other person (who was actually not a person) would be serving as the dictator in charge of dividing up 10 experimental tokens between the two; tokens which, presumably, were supposed to redeemed for some kind of material reward. Those participants who had been primed to feel more powerful expected to receive a higher average number of these tokens (M = 4.2) relative to those primed to feel less powerful (M = 2.2). Feeling powerful, it seemed, lead to participants expecting better treatment from others.

In the next experiment, participants (N = 227) were similarly primed before completing a fairness reaction task. Specifically, participants were presented with three pictures representing distributions of tokens: one of which represented the participant’s payment while the other two represented the payments to others. It was the job of participants to indicate whether these tokens were distributed equally between the three people or whether the distribution was unequal. The distributions could have been (a) equal, (b) unequal, favoring the participant, or (c) unequal, disfavoring the participant. The measure of interest here was how quickly the participants were able to identify equal and unequal distributions. As it turns out, participants primed to feel powerful were quicker to identify unfair arrangements that disfavored them, relative to less powerful participants by about a tenth of a second, but were not quicker to do so when the unequal distributions favored them.

The next two studies followed pretty much the same format and echoed the same conclusion, so I don’t want to spend too much time on their details. The final experiment, however, examined not just reaction times to assessments of equality, but rather how quickly participants were willing to do something about it. In this case, participants were told they were being paid by an experimental employer. The employer to whom they were randomly assigned would be responsible for distributing a payment amount between them and two other participants over a number of rounds (just like the experiment I just mentioned). However, participants were also told that there were other employers they could switch to if they wanted after each round. The question of interest, then, was how quickly participants would switch away from employers who disfavored them. Those participants that were primed to feel powerful didn’t wait around very long in the face of unfair treatment that disfavored them, leaving after the first round, on average; by contrast, those primed to feel less powerful waited about 3.5 rounds to switch if they were getting a bad relative deal. If the inequality favored them, however, the powerful participants were about as likely to stay over time as the less powerful ones. In short, those who felt powerful not only recognized poor treatment of themselves (but not others) quicker, they also did something about it sooner.

They really took Shia’s advice about doing things to heart

These experiments are quite neat, but, as I mentioned before, they are missing a deeper explanation to anchor them anywhere.. Sawaoka, Hughes, & Ambady (2015) attempt an explanation for their results, but I don’t think they get very far with it. Specifically, the authors suggest that power makes people feel entitled to better treatment, subsequently making them quicker to recognize worse treatment and do something about it. Further, the authors make some speculations about how unfair social orders are maintained by powerful people being motivated to do things that maintain their privileged status while the disadvantaged sections of the population are sent messages about being powerless, resulting in their coming to expect unfair treatment and being less likely to change their station in life. These speculations, however, naturally yield a few important questions, chief among which being, “if feeling entitled yields better treatment on the part of others, then why would anyone ever not feel that way? Do, say, poor people really want to stay poor and not demand better treatment from others as well?” It seems that there are very real advantages being forgone by people who don’t feel as entitled as powerful people do, and we would not expect a psychology that behaved that way – that just avoided taking welfare benefits – to have been selected for.

In order to craft something approaching a real explanation for these findings, then, one would need to begin with a discussion about some possible trade-offs that have to be made: if feeling entitled was always good for business, everyone would feel entitled all the time; since they don’t, there are likely some costs associated with feeling entitled that, at least in certain contexts, prevents its occurrence. One of the most likely trade-offs involves the costs associated with conflict: if you feel you’re entitled to a certain kind of treatment you feel you’re not receiving, you need to take steps to ensure the correction of that treatment, since other people aren’t exactly expected just going to start giving you more benefits for no reason. To use a real life example, if you feel your boss isn’t compensating you properly for your work, you need to demand a raise, threatening to inflict costs on him – such as your quitting – if your demands aren’t met.

The problems with such a course of action are two-fold: first, your boss might disagree with your assessment and let you quit, and losing that job could pose other, very real costs (like starving and homelessness). Sometimes an unfair arrangement is better than no arrangement at all. Second, the person with whom you’re bargaining might attempt to inflict costs on you in turn. For instance, if you begin a dispute with law enforcement officers because you believe they have treated you unfairly and are seeking to rectify that situation, they might encourage your compliance with the arrangement with a well-placed fist to your nose. In other words, punishment is a two-way street, and trying to punish stronger individuals – whether physically or socially stronger – is often a poor course of action to take. While “punching-up” might be appealing to certain sensitivities in, say, comedy, it works less well when you’re facing down that bouncer with a few inches and a few dozens pounds of muscle on you.

I’m sure he’ll find your arguments about equality quite persuasive

Indeed, this is the same kind of evolutionary explanation offered by Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides (2009) for understanding the emotion of anger and its associated entitlement: one’s formidability – physically and/or socially – should be a key factor in understanding the emotional systems underlying how they resolve their conflicts; conflicts which may well have to do with distributions of material resources. Those who are better suited to inflict costs on others (e.g., the powerful) are also likely to be treated better by others who wish to avoid the costs of conflicts that accompany poor treatment. This could suggest, however, that making people feel more powerful than they actually are would, in the long-term, tend to produce quite a number of costs for the powerful-feeling, but actually-weak, individuals: making that 150-pound guy think he’s stronger than the 200-pound one might encourage the former to initiate a fight, but not make him more likely to win it. Similarly, encouraging your friend who isn’t that good at their job to demand that raise could result in their being fired. In other words, it’s not that social power structures in society are maintained simply on the basis of inertia or people getting sent particular kinds of social messages, but rather that they reflect (albeit imperfectly) important realities in the actual value people are able to demand from others. While the idea that some of the power dynamics observed in the social world reflect non-arbitrary differences between people might not sit well with certain crowds, it is a baby capable of keeping this bathwater around.

References: Sawaoka, T., Hughes, B., & Ambady, N. (2015). Power heightens sensitive to unfairness against the self. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 1023-1035.

Sell, A., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106, 15073-78.

Examining Arousal And Homophobia

In my last post, I mentioned that the idea of people misplacing or misinterpreting their arousal as being a silly one (as I also did previously here). Today, I wanted to talk about that arousal issue again. In the wake of the supreme court’s legalization of same-sex marriage here in the US, let’s consider arousal in the context straight men’s penises reacting to gay, straight, and lesbian pornography. Specifically, I wanted to discuss a rather strange instance where some people have interpreted men’s physiological arousal as sexual arousal, despite the protests of those men themselves, in the apparent interests of making a political point about homophobia. The political point in question happens to be that a disproportionate number of homophobes are actually latent homosexual themselves who, in true Freudian fashion, are trying to deny and suppress their gay urges in the form of their homophobic attitudes  (see here and here for some examples).

Homosexual individuals, on the other hand, are only repressing a latent homophobia

The paper in question I wanted to examine today is a 1996 piece by Adams, Wright, & Lohr. The paper was designed to test a Freudian idea about homophobia: namely, as mentioned above, that individuals might express homophobic attitudes as a result of their own internal struggle regarding some unresolved homosexual desires. As an initial note, this idea seems rather on the insane side of things, as many Freudian ideas tend to seem. I won’t get too mired in the reasons the idea is crazy, but it should be sufficient to note that the underlying idea appears to be that people develop maladaptive sexual desires in early childhood (long before puberty, when they’d be relevant) which then need to be suppressed by different mechanisms that don’t actually do that job very well. In other words, the idea seems to be positing that we have cognitive mechanisms whose function is generate maladaptive sexual behavior, only to develop different mechanisms later that (poorly and inconsistently) suppress the maladaptive ones. If that isn’t torturous logic, I don’t know what would be.

In any case, the researchers recruited 64 men from their college’s subject pool who had all previously self-identified as 100% straight. These men were then given the internalized homophobia scale (IHP), which, though I can’t access the original paper with the questions, appears to contain 25 questions aimed at assessing people’s emotional reactions to homosexuals, largely focused on their level of comfort/dread being around them. The men were divided into two groups: those who scored above the midpoint on the scale (the men labeled as homophobes) and those who scored below the midpoint (the non-homophobes). Each subject was provided with a stain gauge to attach to their penis which functioned to measure changes in penile diameter; basically how erect the men were getting. Each subject then watched three, four-minute long pornographic scenes: one depicting heterosexual intercourse, another gay intercourse, and another for lesbian intercourse. After each clip, they were asked how sexually aroused they were and how erect their penis was, before being given a change to return to flaccid before the next clip was shown.

In terms of the arousal to the heterosexual and lesbian pornography, there was no difference between the homophobic and non-homophobic groups with respect to how erect the men got and how aroused they reported being. However, in the gay porn condition, the homophobic men became more erect. Framed in terms of the degree of tumescence (engorgement), the non-homophobic men displayed no tumescence 66% of the time, modest tumescence 10% of the time, and definite tumescence 24% of the time in response to the gay porn; the corresponding numbers for the homophobic group were 20%, 26%, and 55%, respectively, while there was no difference between the homophobic and non-homophobic groups with respect how aroused they reported being, the physiological arousal did seem to differ. So what’s going on here? Does homophobia have its roots in some latent homosexual desires being denied?

And does ignoring those desires place you in the perfect position for penetration?

I happen to think that such an idea is highly implausible. There are a few reasons I feel that way, but let’s start with the statistical arguments for why that interpretation probably isn’t right. In terms of the number of men who identify as homosexual or bisexual at a population level, we’re only looking about 1-3%. Given that rough estimate, with a sample size of 60 individuals, you should expect about 1.5 gay people if you were sampling randomly. However, this sampling was anything but random: the subjects were selected specifically because they identified as straight. This should bias the number of gay or bisexual participants in the study downward. Simply put, this sample size is not large enough to expect that any gay or bisexual male participants were in it at all, let alone in large enough numbers to detect any kind of noticeable effect. That problem gets even worse in that they’re looking to find participants that are both bisexual/gay and homophobic, which cuts the probability down even further.

The second statistical reason to be wary of these results is that bisexual men tend to be less common that gay men by a ratio of approximately 1:2. However, the pattern of results observed in the paper from the homophobic group could better be described as bisexual than gay: each group reported the same degree of subjective and physiological arousal to the straight and lesbian porn; there was only the erection difference observed during the homosexual porn. This means that the sample would have been needed to have been compromised of many bisexual homophobes who publicly identified as straight, which seems outlandishly unlikely.

Moreover, the sheer number of the participants displaying “definite tumescence” requires some deeper consideration. If we assume that the physiological arousal translates directly into some kind of sexual desire, then about 25% of non-homophobic men and 55% of homophobic men are sexually interested in homosexual intercourse despite, as I mentioned before, only about 1-3% of the population saying they are gay or bisexual. Perhaps that rather strange state of affairs holds, but a much likelier explanation is that something has gone wrong in the realm of interpretation somewhere. Adams et al (1996) note in their discussion that another interpretation of their results involves the genital swelling being the result of other arousing emotions, such as anxiety, rather than sexual arousal per se. While I can’t say whether such an explanation is true, I can say that it certainly sounds a hell of a lot more plausible than the idea that most homophobes (and about 1-in-4 non-homophobes) are secretly harboring same-sex desires. At least the anxiety-arousal explanation could, in principle, explain why 25% of non-homophobic men’s penises wiggled a little when viewing guy-on-guy action; they’re actually uncomfortable.

Maybe they’re not as comfortable with gay people as they like to say they are…

Now don’t get me wrong: to the extent that one perceives there to be social costs associated with a particular sexual orientation (or social attitude), we should expect people to try and send the the message that they do not possess such things to others. Likewise, if I’ve stolen something, there might be a good reason for me to lie about having stolen it publicly if I don’t want to suffer the costs of moral condemnation for having done so. I’m not saying that everyone will be accurate or truthful about themselves at all times to others; far from it. However, we should also expect that others will not be accurate or truthful about others either, at least to the extent they are trying to persuade people about things. In this case, I think people are misinterpreting data on physiological arousal to imply a non-existent sexual arousal for the purposes of making some kind of social progress. After all, if homophobes are secretly gay, you don’t need to take their points into consideration to quite the same degree you might have otherwise (since once we reach a greater level of societal acceptance, they’ll just come out anyway and probably thank you for it, or something along those lines). I’m all for social acceptance; just not at the expense of accurately understanding reality.

References: Adams, H., Wright L., & Lohr, B. (1996). Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105, 440-445.

Evolutionary Marketing

There are many popular views about the human mind that, roughly, treat it as a rather general-purpose kind of tool: one that’s not particularly suited to this task or that, but more as a Jack of all trades and master of none. In fact, many such perspectives view the mind as (baffling) being wrong about the world almost all the time. If one views the mind this way, one can be lead into making some predictions about how it ought to behave. As one for instance, some people might predict that our minds will, essentially, mistake one kind of arousal for another. A common example of this thinking involves experiments in which people are placed in a fear-arousal condition in the hopes that they will subsequently report more romantic or sexual attraction to certain partners they meet at that time. The explanation for this finding often hinges on some notion of people “misplacing” their arousal – since both kinds of arousal involve some degree of overlapping physiological responses – or reinterpreting a negative arousal as a positive one (e.g., “I dislike being afraid, so I must actually be turned on instead”). I happen to think that such explanations can’t even possibly be close to true, largely because the response to arousal generated by fear and sexual interest should motivate categorically different kinds of behavior.

Here’s one instance where an arousal mistake like that can be costly

Bit by bit, this view of the human mind is being eroded (though progress can be slow), as it does not fit the empirical evidence or possess any solid theoretical groundings. As a great example of this forward progress, consider the experiments demonstrating that learning mechanisms appear to be eloquently tailored to specific kinds of adaptive problems, since learning to, say, avoid poisonous foods requires much different cognitive rules, inputs, and outputs, than learning to avoid predator attacks. Learning, in other words, represents a series of rather domain-specific tasks which a general-purpose mechanism could not navigate successfully. As psychological hypotheses begin to get tailored more closely to considerations of recurrent adaptive problems, new previously-unappreciated, features of our minds come into stark relief.

So let’s return to the matter of arousal and think about how arousal might impact our day-to-day behavior, specifically with respect to persuasion; a matter of interest to anyone in the fields of marketing or advertising. If your goal is to sell something to someone else – to persuade them to buy what you’re offering – the message you use to try and sell it is going to be crucial. You might, for example, try to appeal to someone’s desire to stand out from the crowd in order to get them interested in your product (e.g., “Think different“); alternatively, you might try to appeal to the popularity of a product to get them to buy (e.g., “The world’s most popular computer”). Importantly, you can’t try to send both of these messages at once (“Be different by doing that thing everyone else is doing”), so which message should you use, and in what contexts should you use it?

A paper by Griskevicius et al (2009) sought to provide an answer to that very question by considering the adaptive functions of particular arousal states. Previous accounts examining how arousal affected information processing were on the general side of things: the general arousal-based accounts would predict that arousal – irrespective of the source – should yield shallower processing of information, causing people to rely more on mental heuristics, like scarcity or popularity, when assessing a product; affect valance-based accounts took this idea one step further, suggesting that positive emotions, like happiness, should yield shallower processing, whereas negative emotions, like fear, should yield deeper processing. However, the authors proposed a new way of thinking about arousal – based on evolutionary theory that suggests those previous theories are too vague to help us truly understand how arousal shapes behavior. Instead, one needs to consider what adaptive functions particular arousal states serve in order to understand when one type of message will be persuasive in that context.

Don’t worry; if this gets too complicated, you can just fall back on using sex

To demonstrate this point, Griskevicius et al (2009) examined two arousal-inducing contexts: the aforementioned fear and romantic desire. If the general arousal-based accounts are correct, both the scarcity and popularity appeals should become more persuasive as people become aroused by romance or fear; by contrast, if the affect valance-accounts are correct, the positively-valanced romantic feelings should make all sorts of heuristics more persuasive, whereas the negatively-valanced fear arousal should make both less persuasive. The evolutionary account instead focuses on the functional aspects of fear and romance: fear activates self-defense-relevant behavior, one form of which would be to seek safety in numbers; a common animal defense tactic. If one were motivated to seek safety in numbers, a popularity appeal might be particularly persuasive (since that’s where a lot of other people are), whereas a scarcity appeal would not be; in fact, sending the message that a product would help make one stand out from the crowd when they’re afraid could actually be counterproductive. By contrast, if one is in a romantic state of mind, positively differentiating oneself from your competition can be useful for attracting and subsequently retaining attention. Accordingly, romance-based arousal might have the reverse effect, making popularity heuristics less persuasive while making scarcity appeals more so.

To test these ideas, Griskevicius et al (2009) induced romantic desire or fear in about 300 participants by having them read stories or watch movie clips related to each domain. Following the arousal-inducing, participants were then asked to briefly examine an advertisement for a museum or restaurant which contained a message that appealed to popularity (e.g., “visited by over 1,000,000 people each year”), scarcity (“stand out from the crowd”), or neither message, and then report on how appealing the location was and whether or not they would be likely to go there (on a 9-point scale across a few questions).

As predicted, the fear condition led to popularity messages to be more persuasive (M = 6.5) than the control advertisements (M = 5.9). However, fear had the opposite effect for the scarcity messages (M = 5.0), making them less appealing than the control ads. That pattern of results was flipped for the romantic desire condition: scarcity appeals (M = 6.5) were more persuasive than controls (M = 5.8), whereas the popularity appeals were less persuasive than either (M = 5.0). Without getting too bogged down in the details on their second experiment, the authors also reported that these effects were even more specific than that: in particular, appeals to scarcity and popularity only had their effects when discussing behavioral aspects (stand out from the crowd/everyone’s doing it); when discussing attitudes (everyone’s talking about it) or opportunities (limited time offer) popularity and scarcity did not differ in their effectiveness, regardless of the type of arousal being experienced.

One condition did pose interpretive problems, though…

Thinking about the adaptive problems and selection pressures that shaped our psychology is critical for constructing hypotheses and generating theoretically plausible explanations for understanding its features. Expecting some kind of general arousal, emotional valance, or other such factors to explain much about the human (or nonhuman) mind is unlikely to pan out well; indeed, it hasn’t been working out for the field for many decades now. I don’t suspect such general explanations will disappear in the near future, despite their lack of explanatory power, though; they have saturated much of the field in psychology and many psychologists lack the necessary theoretical background to fully appreciate why such explanations are implausible to begin with. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that someday the future of psychology might not include reams of thinking about misplaced arousal and general information processing mechanisms that are, apparently, quite bad at solving important adaptive problems.

References: Griskevicius, V., Goldstein, N., Mortensen, C., Sundie, J., Cialdini, R., & Kenrick, D. (2009). Fear and loving in Las Vegas: Evolution, emotion, and persuasion. Journal of Marketing Research, 46, 384-395.

A Curious Case Of Welfare Considerations In Morality

There was a stage in my life, several years back, where I was a bit of a chronic internet debater. As anyone who has engaged in such debates – online or off, for that matter – can attest to, progress can be quite slow if any is observed at all. Owing to the snail’s pace of such disputes, I found myself investing more time in them than I probably should have. In order to free up my time while still allowing me to express my thoughts, I created my own site (this one) where I could write about topics that interested me, express my view points, and then be done with them, freeing me from the quagmire of debate. Happily, this is a tactic that has not only proven to be effective, but I like to think that it has produced some positive externalities for my readers in the form of several years worth of posts that, I am told, some people enjoy. Occasionally, however, I do still wander back into a debate here and there, since I find them fun and engaging. Sharing ideas and trading intellectual blows is nice recreation.

 My other hobbies follow a similar theme

In the wake of the recent shooting in Charleston, the debate I found myself engaged in concerned the arguments for the moral and legal removal guns from polite society, and I wanted to write a bit about it here, serving both the purposes of cleansing it from my mind and, hopefully, making an interesting point about our moral psychology in the process. The discussion itself centered around a clip from one of my favorite comedians, Jim Jefferies, who happens to not be a fan of guns himself. While I recommend watching the full clip and associated stand-up because Jim is a funny man, for those not interested in investing the time and itching to get to the moral controversy, here’s the gist of Jim’s views about guns:

“There’s one argument and one argument alone for having a gun, and this is the argument: Fuck off; I like guns”

While Jim notes that there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I like something; don’t take it away from me”, the rest of the routine goes through various discussions of how other arguments for the owning of guns are, in Jim’s word’s, bullshit (including owning guns for self-defense or the overthrow of an oppressive government. For a different comedic perspective, see Bill Burr).

Laying my cards on the table, I happen to be one of those people who enjoys shooting recreationally (just target practice; I don’t get fancy with it and I have no interest in hunting). That said, I’m not writing today to argue with any of Jim’s points; in fact, I’m quite sympathetic to many of the concerns and comments he makes: on the whole, I feel the expected value of guns, in general, to be a net cost for society. I further feel that if guns were voluntarily abandoned by the population, there would probably be many aggregate welfare benefits, including reduced rates of suicide, homicide, and accidental injury (owing to the possibility that many such conflicts are heat of the moment issues, and lacking the momentary ability to employ deadly force might mean it’s never used at all later). I’m even going to grant his point I quoted above: the best justification for owning a gun is recreational in nature. I don’t ask that you agree or disagree with all this; just that you follow the logical form of what’s to come.

Taking all of that together, the argument for enacting some kind of legal ban of guns – or at the very least the moral condemnation of the ability to own them – goes something like this: because the only real benefit to having a gun is that you get to have some fun with it, and because the expected costs to all those guns being around tend to be quite high, we ought to do away with the guns. The welfare balance just shifts away from having lots of deadly weapons around. Jim even notes that while most gun owners will never use their weapons intentionally or accidentally to inflict costs on others or themselves, the law nevertheless needs to cater to the 1% or so of people who would do such things. So, this thing – X – generates welfare costs for others which far outstrip its welfare benefits, and therefore should be removed. The important point of this argument, then, would seem to focus on these welfare concerns.

Coincidentally, owning a gun may make people put a greater emphasis on your concerns

The interesting portion of this debate is that the logical form of the argument can be applied to many other topics, yet it will not carry the same moral weight; a point I tried to make over the course of the discussion with a very limited degree of success. Ideas die one person at a time, the saying goes, and this debate did not carry on to the point of anyone losing their life.

In the case, we can try and apply the above logic to the very legal, condoned, and often celebrated topic of alcohol. On the whole, I would expect that the availability of alcohol is a net cost for society: drunk driving deaths in the US yield about 10,000 bodies (a comparable number to homicides committed with a firearm), which directly inflict costs on non-drinkers. While it’s more difficult to put numbers on other costs, there are a few non-trivial matters to consider, such as the number of suicides, assaults, and non-traffic accidents encouraged by the use of alcohol, the number of unintended pregnancies and STIs spread through more casual and risky drunk sex, as well as the number of alcohol-related illnesses and liver damage. Broken homes, abused and neglected children, spirals of poverty, infidelity, and missed work could also factor into these calculations somewhere. Both of these products – guns and booze – tend to inflict costs on individuals other than the actor when they’re available, and these costs appear to be substantial,

So, in the face of all those costs, what’s the argument in favor of alcohol being approved of, legally or moally? Well, the best and most common argument seems to be, as Jim might say, “Fuck off; I like drinking”. Now, of course, there are some notable differences between drinking and owning guns, mainly being that people don’t often drink to inflict costs on others while many people do use guns to intentionally do harm. While the point is well taken, it’s worth bearing in mind that the arguments against guns are not the same arguments against murder. The argument as it pertains to guns seemed to be, as I noted above, that regular people should not be allowed to own guns because some small portion of the population that does have one around will do something reprehensible or stupid with it, and that these concerns trump the ability of the responsible owners to do what they enjoy. Well, presumably, we could say the same thing about booze: even if most people who drink don’t drive while drunk, and even if not all drunk drivers end up killing someone, our morals and laws need to cater to that percentage of people that do.

(As an aside, I spent the past few years at New Mexico State University. One day, while standing outside a classroom in the hall, I noticed a poster about drunk driving. The intended purpose of the flyer seemed to be to inform students that most people don’t drive drunk; in fact, about 75% students reported not driving under the influence, if I recall correctly. That does mean, of course, that about 1 in 4 students did at some point, which is a worrying figure; perhaps enough to make a solid argument for welfare concerns)

There is also the matter of enforcement: making alcohol illegal didn’t work out well in the past; making guns illegal could arguably be more successful on a logistical level. While such a point is worth thinking about, it is also a bit of a red herring from the heart of the issue: that is, most people are not opposed to the banning of alcohol because it’s difficult in practice, but otherwise supportive of the measure on principle; instead, people seem as if they would oppose the idea even if it could be implemented efficiently. People’s moral judgments can be quite independent of enforcement capacity. Computationally, it seems like the judgments concerning whether something is worth condemning in the first place ought to proceed judgments about whether it could be done feasibly, simply because the latter estimation is useless without the former. Spending time thinking about what one could punish effectively without any interest in following through would be like thinking about all the things one could chew and swallow when they’re hungry, even if they wouldn’t want to eat them.

Plenty of fiber…and there’s lots of it….

There are two points to bear in mind from this discussion to try and tie it back to understanding our own moral psychology and making a productive point. The first is that there is some degree of variance in moral judgments that is not being determined by welfare concerns. Just because something ends up resulting in harm to others, people are not necessarily going to be willing to condemn it. We might (not) accept a line of reasoning for condemning a particular act because we have some vested interest in (encouraging) preventing it while categorically (accepting) rejecting that same line in other cases where our strategic interests run in the opposite direction; interests which we might not even be consciously aware of in many cases. This much, I suspect, will come as no surprise to anyone, especially because other people in debates are known for being so clearly biased to you, the dispassionate observer. Strategic interests lead us to preference our own concerns.

The other point worth considering, though, is that people raise or deny these welfare concerns in the interests of being persuasive to others. The welfare of other people appears to have some impact on our moral judgments; if welfare concerns were not used as inputs, it would seem rather strange that so many arguments about morality often lean so heavily and explicitly upon them. I don’t argue that you should accept my moral argument because it’s Sunday, as that fact seems to have little bearing to my moral mechanisms. While this too might seem obvious to people (“of course other people’s suffering matters to me!”), understanding why the welfare of others matters to our moral judgments is a much trickier explanatory issue than understanding why our own welfare matters to us. Both of these are matters that any complete theory of morality needs to deal with.