Inequality Aversion, Evolution, And Reproduction

Here’s a scenario that’s not too difficult to imagine: a drug company has recently released a paper claiming that a product they produce is both safe and effective. It would be foolish of any company with such a product to release a report saying their drugs were in any way harmful or defective, as it would likely lead to a reduction in sales and, potentially, a banning or withdrawal of the drugs from the wider market. Now, one day, an outside researcher claims to have some data suggesting that drug company’s interpretation of their data isn’t quite right; once a few other data points are considered, it becomes clear that the drug is only contextually effective and, in other cases, not really effective at all. Naturally, were some representatives of the drug company asked about the quality of this new data, one might expect them to engage in a bit of motivated reasoning: some concerns might be raised about the quality of the new research that otherwise would not be, were its conclusions different. In fact, the drug company would likely wish to see the new research written up to be more supportive of their initial conclusion that the drug works. Because of their conflict of interests, however, expecting an unbiased appraisal of the research suggesting the drug is actually much less effective than previously stated from those representatives would be unrealistic. For this reason, you probably shouldn’t ask representatives from the drug company to serve as reviewers for the new research, as they’d be assessing both the quality of their own work and the quality of the work of others with factors like ‘money’ and ‘prestige’ on the table.

“It must work, as it’s been successfully making us money; a lot of money”

On an entirely unrelated note, I was the lucky recipient of a few comments about some work of mine concerning inequality aversion: the idea that people dislike inequality per se (or at least when they get the short end of the inequality stick) and are willing to actually punish it. Specifically, I happen to have some data that suggests people do not punish inequality per se: they are much more interested in punishing losses, with inequality only playing a secondary role in – occasionally – increasing the frequency of that punishment. To place this in an easy example, let’s consider TVs. If someone broke into your house and destroyed your TV, you would likely want to see the perpetrator punished, regardless of whether they were richer or poorer than you. Similarly, if someone went out and bought themselves a TV (without having any effect on yours), you wouldn’t really have any urge to punish them at all, whether they were poorer or richer than you. If, however, someone broke into your house and took your TV for themselves, you would likely want to see them punished for their actions. However, if they were actually poorer than you, this might incline you to go after the thief a bit less. This example isn’t perfect, but it basically describes what I found.

Inequality aversion would posit that people show a different pattern of punitive sentiments: that you would want to punish people who end up better off than you, regardless of how they got that way. This means that you’d want to punish the guy who bought the TV for himself if it meant he ended up better off than you, even though he had no effect on your well-being. Alternatively, you wouldn’t be particularly inclined to punish the person who stole/broke your TV either unless they subsequently ended up better off than you. If they were poorer than you to begin with and were still poorer than you after stealing/destroying the TV, you ought not to be particularly interested in seeing them punished. Now you might be thinking that this doesn’t many any sense but, according to the aforementioned comments I recently received, there’s:

“…actually a good evolutionary reason to expect individuals to care more about inequality than losses per se: Natural Selection doesn’t operate on absolute but on relative fitness differences. Knowing where you stand relative to other might be far more important than keeping track of your own absolute gains and losses.”

In case that wasn’t clear, the argument being put forth is that how well you are doing, relative to others ought to be used as an input for punishment decisions to a greater extent – a far greater one – than absolute losses or gains are.

Now there’s a lot to say about that argument. The first thing to say is that, empirically, it is not supported by the data I just mentioned: if people were interested in punishing inequality itself, they ought to be willing to punish that inequality regardless of how it came about: stealing a TV, buying a TV, or breaking a TV should be expected to prompt very similar punishment responses; it’s just that they don’t: punishment is almost entirely absent when people create inequality by benefiting themselves at no cost to others. By contrast, punishment is rather common when costs are inflicted on someone, whether those costs involve taking (where one party benefits while the other suffers) or destruction (where one party suffers a loss at no benefit to anyone else). On those grounds alone we can conclude that something is off about the inequality aversion argument: the theory does not match the data. Thankfully – for me, anyway – there are also many good theoretical justifications for rejecting inequality aversion.

“It’s a great home in a good neighborhood; pay no mind to the foundation”

The next thing to say about the inequality argument is that, in one regard, it is true: relative reproduction rates determine how quickly the genes underlying an adaptation spread – or fail to spread – throughout the population. As resources are not unlimited, a gene that reproduces itself 1.1 times for each time an alternative variant reproduces itself once will eventually replace the other in the population entirely, assuming that the reproductive rates stay constant. It’s not enough for genes to reproduce themselves, then, but for them to reproduce themselves more frequently than competitors if they metaphorically hope to stick around in the population over time. That this much is true might lure people into accepting the rest of the line of reasoning, though to do so would be a mistake for a few reasons.

Notable among this reasons is that “relative reproductive advantage” does not have three modes of “equal”, “better”, or “worse”. Instead, relative advantage is a matter of degree: a gene that reproduces itself twice as frequently as other variants is doing better than a gene that does so with 1.5 times the frequency; a gene that reproduces itself three times as frequently will do better still, and so on. As relative reproductive advantages can be large or small, we ought to expect mechanisms that generate larger relative reproductive advantages to be favored over those which generate smaller ones. On that point, it’s worth bearing in bearing in mind that the degree of relative reproductive advantage is an abstract quantity compromised of absolute differences between variants. This is the same point as noting that, even if the average woman in the US has 2.2 children, no woman actually has two-tenths of a child laying around; they only come in whole numbers. That means, of course, that evolution (metaphorically) must care about absolute advantages to precisely the same degree it cares about relative ones, as maximizing a relative reproductive rate is the same thing as maximizing an absolute reproductive rate.

The question remains, however, as to what kind of cognitive adaptations would arise from that state of affairs. On the one hand, we might expect adaptations that primarily monitor one’s own state of affairs and makes decisions based on those calculations. For instance, if a male with two mates has an option to pursue a third and the expected fitness benefits of doing so outweigh the expected costs, then the male in question would likely pursue the opportunity. On the other hand, we might follow the inequality aversion line of thought and say that the primary driver of the decision to pursue this additional mate should be how well the male in question is doing, relative to his competitors. If most (or should it be all?) of his competitors currently have fewer than two mates, then the cognitive mechanisms underlying his decision should generate a “don’t pursue” output, even if the expected fitness costs are smaller than the benefits. It’s hard to imagine how this latter strategy is expected to do better (much less far better) than the former, especially in light of the fact that calculating how everyone else is doing is more costly and prone to errors than calculating how you are doing. It’s similarly hard to imagine how the latter strategy would do better if the state of the world changes: after all, just because someone is not currently doing as well as you, it does not mean they won’t eventually be. If you miss an opportunity to be doing better today, you may end up being relatively disadvantaged in the long run.

“I do see her more than the guy she’s cheating on me with, so I’ll let it slide…”

I’m having a hard time seeing how a mechanism that operates on an expected fitness cost/benefit analysis would get out-competed by a more cognitively-demanding strategy that either ignores such a cost/benefit strategy or takes it and adds something irrelevant into the calculations (e.g.,” get that extra benefit, but only so long as other people are currently doing better than you)”. As I mentioned initially, the data shows the absolute cost/benefit pattern predominates: people do not punish others primarily on the basis of whether they’re doing better than them or not; they primarily punish on the basis of whether they experienced losses. Nevertheless inequality does play a secondary role – sometimes – in the decision regarding whether to punish someone for taking from you. I happen to think I have an explanation as to why that’s the case but, as I’ve also been informed by another helpful comment (which might or might not be related to the first one), speculating about such things is a bit on the taboo side and should be avoided. Unless one is speculating that inequality, and not losses, primarily drives punishment, that is.

Sexism: One More Time With Feeling

For whatever reason, a lot of sexism-related pieces have been crossing my desk lately. It’s not that I particularly mind; writing about these papers is quite engaging, and many people – no matter the side of the issue they tend to find themselves falling on – seem to share a similar perspective when it comes to reading about them (known more colloquially as the Howard Stern Effect). Now, as I’ve said before on several of the occasions I’ve written about them, the interpretations of the research on sexism – or sometimes the research itself – feels rather weak. The main reason I’ve found this research to feel so wanting centers around the rather transparent and socially-relevant persuasive messages that reside in such papers: when people have some vested interest in the outcome of the research – perhaps because it might lend legitimacy to their causes or because it paints a socially-flattering picture of their group – this opens the door for research designs and interpretations of data that can get rather selective. Basically, I have a difficult time trusting that truth will fall out of sexism research for the same reason I wouldn’t take a drug company’s report about the safety of their product at face value; there’s just too much on the line socially to not be skeptical.

“50% of the time it worked 100% of the time. Most of the rats didn’t even die!”

Up for consideration today is a paper examining how men and women perceive the quality of sexism research, contingent on the results of it (Handley et al, 2015). Before getting into the meat of this paper, I want to quote a passage from its introduction to applaud the brilliant tactical move the authors make (and to give you a sense for why I experience a certain degree of distrust concerning sexism research). When discussing how some of the previous research published by one of the authors was greeted with skepticism by predominately men – at least according to an informal analysis of online comments replying to coverage of it – the authors have this to say:

“…men might find the results reported by Moss-Racusin et al. threatening, because remedying the gender bias in STEM fields could translate into favoring women over men, especially if one takes a zero-sum-gain perspective. Therefore, relative to women, men may devalue such evidence in an unintentional implicit effort to retain their status as the majority group in STEM fields.”

This is just a fantastic passage for a few reasons. First, it subtlety affirms the truth of the previous research; after all, if there did not exist a real gender bias, there would be nothing in need of being remedied, so the finding must therefore reflect reality. Second. the passage provides a natural defense against future criticism of their work: anyone who questions the soundness of their research, or their interpretation of the results, is probably just biased against seeing the plainly-obvious truth they have stumbled upon because they’re male and trying to maintain their status in the world. For context, it’s worth noting that I have touched upon the piece in question before, writing, “Off the top of my head, I see nothing glaringly wrong with this study, so I’m fine with accepting the results…“. While I think the study in question seemed fine, I nevertheless questioned how well their results mesh with other findings (I happen to think there are some inconsistencies that would require a rather strange kind of discrimination be at play in the real world) and I was not overly taken with their interpretation of what they found.

With that context in mind, the three studies in the paper followed the same general method: an abstract of some research was provided to men and women (the first two studies used the abstract from one of the authors; the third used a different one). The subjects were asked to evaluate, on a 1-6 scale, whether they agreed with the author’s interpretation of the results, whether the research was important, whether the abstract was well written, and what their overall evaluation of the research was. These scores were then averaged into a single measure for each subject. In the third experiment the abstract itself was modified to either suggest that a bias favoring men and disfavoring women in STEM fields was uncovered by the research, or that no bias was found (why no condition existed in which the bias favored women I can’t say, but I think it would have been a nice addition to the paper). Just as with the previous paper, I see nothing glaringly wrong with their methods (beyond that omission), so let’s consider the results.

The first sample was comprised of 205 Mturk participants, and found that men were somewhat less favorable about the research that found evidence of sexism in STEM fields (M = 4.25) relative to women (M = 4.66). The second sample was made up of 205 academics from an unnamed research university and the same pattern was observed: overall, male faculty assessed the research somewhat less favorably (M = 4.21) than female faculty (M = 4.65). However, an important interaction emerged: the difference in this second sample was due to male-female differences within STEM fields. Male STEM faculty were substantially less positive about the study (M = 4.02) than their female counterparts (M = 4.80); non-STEM faculty did not differ in this respect, both falling right in between those two points (Ms = 4.55). Now it is worth mentioning that the difference between the STEM and non-STEM male faculty was statistically significant, but the difference between the female STEM and non-STEM faculty was not. Handley et al (2015) infer from that result that, “…men in STEM displayed harsher judgments of Moss-Racusin et al.’s research, not that women in STEM exhibited more positive evaluations of it“. This is where I’m going to be sexist and disagree with the author’s interpretation, as I feel it’s also worth noting that the sample size of male STEM faculty (n = 66) was almost twice as large as the female sample (n = 38), which likely contributed to that asymmetry in statistical significance. Descriptively speaking, STEM men were less accepting of the research and STEM women were more accepting of it, relative to the academics for whom this finding would be less immediately relevant.

“The interpretation of this research determines who deserves a raise, so please be honest.”

The third experiment that modified the abstract to contain a finding of either sexism against women or no sexism also used an Mturk sample of 303 people, rather than faculty. The same basic pattern was found here: when the research reported a bias against women, men were less favorable towards it (M = 3.65) than if it found no bias (M = 3.83); women showed the opposite pattern (Ms =  3.86 and 3.59, respectively). So – taken together – there’s some neat evidence here that the relevance of a research finding affects how that finding is perceived. Those who have something to gain by the research finding sexism (women, particularly those in STEM) tended to be slightly more favorable towards research that found it, whereas those who had something to lose (men, particularly those in STEM) tended to be slightly unfavorable towards research finding sexism. This isn’t exactly new – research on the idea has dated back at least two decades - but it fits well with what we know about how motivated reasoning works.

I want to give credit where credit is due: Handley et al (2015) do write that they cannot conclude that one gender is more biased than the other; just that gender appears to – sometimes – bias how sexism research is perceived to some degree. Now that tentative conclusion would be all well and good were it a consistent theme throughout their paper. However, the examples raised in the write-up universally center around how men might find findings of sexism threatening and how women are known to be disadvantaged by it; not on how women might be strategically inclined towards such research because it suits their goals (as, to remedy anti-female bias, female-benefiting plans may well have to be enacted). Even a quick reading of the paper should demonstrate that the authors are clearly of the view that sexism is a rather large problem for STEM fields, writing about how female participation needs to be increased and encouraged. That would seem to imply that anyone who denies the importance of the research reporting sexism is the one with the problematic bias, and that is a much less tentative way to think about the results. In the spirit of furthering their own interests, the authors further note how these biases could be a real problem for people publishing sexism research, as many of the people reviewing research articles are likely to be men and, accordingly, not necessarily inclined towards it (which, they note, makes it harder for them to publish in good journals and get tenure).

Handley et al’s (2015) review of the literature also comes off as rather one-sided, never explicitly discussing other findings that run counter to the idea that women experienced a constant stream of sexist discrimination in academia (like this finding: qualified women are almost universally preferred to qualified men by hiring committees, often by a large margin). Funnily enough, the authors transition from writing about how the evidence of sexism against women in STEM is “mounting” in the introduction to how the evidence is “copious” by the discussion. This one-sided treatment can be seen again around the very end of their discussion (in the “limitations and future directions” section) when Handley et al (2015) note that they failed to find an effect they were looking for: abstracts that were ostensibly written by women were not rated any differently than abstracts presented as being written by men (they hoped to find the female abstracts to be rated as lower quality). For whatever reason, however, they neglected to report this failure in their results section, where it belonged; indeed, they failed to mention that this was a prediction they were making the main paper at all, even though it was clearly something they were looking to find (else why would they include that factor and analyze the data in the first place?). Not mentioning a prediction that didn’t work out upfront strikes me as somewhat less than honest.

“Yeah; I probably should have mentioned I was drunk before right now. Oops”

Taking these results at face value, we can say that people who are motivated to interpret results in a particular way are going to be less than objective about that work, relative to someone with less to gain or lose. With that in mind, I would be inherently skeptical of the way sexist biases are presented in the literature more broadly and how they’re discussed in the current paper: the authors clearly have a vested interest in their research uncovering particular patterns of sexism, and in their interpretations of their data being accepted by the general and academic populations. That doesn’t make them unique (you could describe almost all academic researchers that way), nor does it make their results incorrect, but it does seem to make their presentation of these impactful issues seem painfully one-sided. This is especially concerning because these are matters which many feel carry important social implications. Bear in mind, I am not taking issue with the methods or the data presented in the current paper; those seem fine; what I take issue with is the interpretation and presentation of them. Then again, perhaps these only seem like issues to me because I’m a male STEM major…

References: Handley, I., Brown, E., Moss-Racusin, C., & Smith, J. (2015). Quality of evidence revealing subtle gender biases in science is in the eye of the beholder. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 112, 13201-13206.

The Very Strange World Of Sexism Research

Just from reading that title, many of you are likely already experiencing a host of emotions concerning the topic of sexism. It’s one of those topics that lights more than the usual number of metaphorical fires under people’s metaphorical asses, as well it should: it’s one of the labels tethered to people’s value as associates in the social world. Being branded a sexist is bad for business, socially, professionally, and otherwise. Conversely, being able to label others as sexist can be helpful for achieving your social goals (as others might acquiesce to your demands to avoid the label), whereas being thought of as someone who throws around the label inappropriately can lead to condemnation of its own. Because there is so much on the line socially when it comes to sexism, the topic tends to be one that migrates away from the realm of truth to the realm of persuasion; a place where truth might or might not be present, but is besides the point anyway. It also yields some truly strange papers with some even stranger claims.

“I’d like to introduce you to my co-authors…”

Some of these strange claims – such as the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory’s (ASI) interpretations of sexism – I’ve written about before. Specifically, I found it to be a rather odd scale for assessing sexism; perhaps being more suited for assessing whether someone is likely to identify as a feminist (which, to head off any comments to the contrary, is not the same thing). For instance, one question on the ASI concerns whether “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist”, which is a nice way of building into your scale a way of denigrating people who think the scale misinterprets certain remarks or acts as indicating sexism. While it’s open to interpretation whether the scale measures what it claims to measure, it’s also an open question as to how well the answers to the inventory relate to actual sexist behaviors. Luckily, the study I wanted to discuss today sought to examine just that very thing, which is a happy little coincidence. Unfortunately, just as the interpretation of sexist attitudes is open to interpretation, the paper’s interpretation of sexist behavior is also rather open to interpretation, as I will soon discuss. Also unfortunately, the study sought to develop an implicit association task (IAT) to measure these sexism scores as well, and my thoughts on IATs have historically been less than positive.

The paper in question (de Oliveira Laux, Ksenofontov, & Becker, 2015) begins with a discussion of two types of sexism (against women) assessed by the ASI: benevolent and hostile sexism. The former refers to attitudes which hold women in high regard and to the prospect that men ought to behave altruistically towards them; the latter type of sexism refers largely to attitudes concerning whether women seek social advantages by overstating complaints and making unreasonable demands. At least that’s my interpretation of what the inventory is measuring when looking at the questions it asks; if you asked the authors of the current paper, they would tell you that hostile sexism inventory is measuring “antipathy towards non-traditional women who are perceived as challenging male power and as posing a threat for men” and that benevolent sexism measures “subjectively positive but patronizing view of women who conform to traditional roles“. These definitions will be important later, so keep them in mind.

In either case, the researchers wondered whether people’s explicit responses to these questions might be hiding their true levels of sexism, as hostile sexism is socially condemned. Accordingly, their first goal was to try and create an IAT that measured implicit hostile and benevolent sexism. They sought to develop this implicit measure despite their (surely a priori) expectation that it would be less predictive of sexist behavior than the explicit measures, which is one of those stranger aspects of this research I mentioned before: they were seeking to create an implicit measure that does worse at predicting behavior than existing, explicit ones. Undeterred by that expectation, the researchers recruited 126 males to take their sexism IATs and fill out the ASI. The benevolent sexism IAT portion had participants view 10 comics in which the man or woman was taking the active role. More precisely, a man/woman was either: (1) protecting the other with a gun, (2) proposing, (3) carrying their spouse through a door, post-marriage, (4) protecting the other with what looks like a stick, and (5) putting a coat on the other. The hostile sexism portion had words – not pictures – referring to “traditional” women (housewife/mother) or “non-traditional” women (feminist/women’s rights activists). Participants were supposed to sort these pictures/words into pleasant and unpleasant categories, I think; the section concerning the methods is less than specific about what the instructions behind the task were.

“Precise reporting is a tool of patriarchy”

Now the study already has a problem here in that it’s unclear what precisely participants are responding too when they see the pictures in the benevolent IAT: might they find the active women or the man cowering behind her the unpleasant part of the picture they’re categorizing? That concern aside, there were indeed correlations between the IATs and their explicit counterpart measures on the ASI: those who were higher in benevolent sexism were quicker to pair women in the protector role with negative words, and those higher in hostile sexism were quicker to pair feminism with negative words. Sure; both of these correlations were about r = .2, but they were not statistically zero. Further, the IAT measures of benevolent and hostile sexism did not correlate with each other (r = -.12), even though the explicit measures on the ASI did (r = .54). Naturally, the authors interpreted this as providing “strong support” for the validity of these IAT measures.

As a quick aside, I find this method a bit peculiar. The authors believe that hostile sexism might be consciously suppressed, meaning that the explicit measures of it might not be particularly good at measuring people’s actual attitudes. However, they’re trying to validate their implicit measures by correlating them with the explicit ones which they just suggested might not be accurate reflections of attitudes. That makes things rather difficult to interpret if you want to know which measure – explicit or implicit – taps into the construct better. Moving on…

In the second phase of the study, 83 of the original participants were brought back to assess their sexist behavior. What kind of behaviors were being assessed as sexist? Funny I should assumed you asked: in the benevolent sexism condition, participants were paired with a female confederate and asked to do a bit of role playing across three scenarios. During these role playing scenarios, the participants could choose between a pre-selected “sexist” action (like paying for the meal on their anniversary, expressing concern over their sister’s safety were she to take an internship counseling rapists, or asking that their female partner to create a shopping list for baking a cake while he allocated himself the job of creating a shopping list for heavy tools) or non-sexist ones (like simply expressing a concern that his sister would be disappointed by the rapist-counseling internship; not that she might be endangered by it, as that would be sexist).

Assessing the hostile sexist behaviors involving pairing the men with other male confederates. The job of this male-male pair was to review and recommend jokes. Each were given 9 cards that contained either a sexist joke and a neutral one, or two neutral ones.  They were asked to take turns choosing which joke they liked more and indicated whether they would recommend it to others. If both agreed it should be recommended to others, it would be passed on to the next group completing the task. Here’s an example of a neutral joke:

“Who invented the Triathlon? – The Polish. They walk to the swimming pool, swim one round and return home on a bike.”

If you can make sense of it, please let me know in the comments, because I certainly can’t parse what’s supposed to be funny about it, or even what it’s supposed to mean. We can also consider the example of a joke tapping hostile sexism:

“Why does a woman have one brain cell more than a horse? So that she doesn’t drink from the bucket while washing the stairs.”

While that joke does indeed sounds mean, I have some reservations as to whether it counts as hostile sexism the way the authors define it: as an antipathy towards non-tradition women who challenge male power structures. In that joke, the woman is not engaged in a non-traditional task, nor is she challenging male power, as far as I can tell. While the joke might correspond to what people think when they hear the words “hostile sexism” – i.e., being mean to women because of their sex –  it does not correspond well to the definition the authors use. It seems there are better examples of jokes that reflect the hostile sexism the authors hope to tap into (though these jokes no doubt tap many other things as well).

Like this one, for instance.

Skipping over one other role-playing task for length constraints, the final part of the hostile sexist behavior assessment examined one last sexist behavior: whether the participant would sign a petition for a men’s rights organization that the male confederate showed him. Signing the petition was counted as a sexist behavior, while not signing was counted as non-sexist. Take from that what you will.

As for the results of this second portion, the participant’s behavioral sexism scores did not correlate with their IAT measures of benevolent sexism at all, whether that behavior was supposed to count as benevolent or hostile. The IAT measure of hostile sexism did, for whatever reason, correlate with both benevolent and hostile behaviors, but correlated more strongly with benevolent sexism (rs = .33 and .21, respectively), which, as far as I can tell, was not predicted. Perhaps the evidence in favor the validity of these IAT measures was not quite as strong as the authors had claimed earlier. Also, as apparently expected, the implicit measures correlated less well with behavior than the explicit measures in all cases anyway (the correlations between explicit answers and behavior were both about .6), making one wonder why they were developed.

Interpreting these results generously, we might conclude that explicit attitudes predict behaviors –  a finding that many would not consider particularly unique – and that implicit associations predict behaviors less well or not at all. Interpreting these results less charitably, we might conclude that we don’t really learn much about sexism or attitudes, but learn instead that the authors likely identify as feminists and, perhaps, feel that those who disagree with them ought to be labeled as sexists, as they’re willing to stretch the definition of sexism far beyond its normal meaning while only studying the behavior of men. If you lean towards that second interpretation, however, it probably means you’re sexist.

References: de Oliveira Laux, S., Ksenofontov, I., & Becker, J. (2015). Explicit but not implicit sexist beliefs predict benevolent and hostile sexist behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 702-715.

A Dust-Up Over College Majors

One of the latest political soundbites I have seen circling my social media is a comment by Jeb Bush regarding psychology majors and the value their degrees afford them in the job market. This is a rather interesting topic for me for a few reasons, chief among which is, obviously, I’m a psychology major currently engaged in application season. As one of the psych-majoring, job-seeking types, I’ve discussed job prospects with many friends and colleagues from time to time. The general impression I’ve been given up until this week is that – at least for psychology majors with graduate degrees looking to get into academia – the job market is not as bright as one might hope. The typical job search can involve months or years of posting dozens or hundreds of applications to various schools, with many graduates reduced to taking underpaid positions as adjuncts, making barely enough to pay their bills. By contrast, I’ve had friends in other programs tell me about how their undergraduate degree has people metaphorically lining up to give them a job; jobs that would likely pay them a starting salary that could be the same or more than I could demand with a PhD in psychology, even in private industry. Considered along those dimensions, a degree envy can easily arise.

Slanderous rumor incoming in 3…2…

Job envy aside, let’s consider the quote from Jeb:

“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working a Chick-fil-A…The number one degree program for students in this country … is psychology. I don’t think we should dictate majors. But I just don’t think people are getting jobs as psych majors. We have huge shortages of electricians, welders, plumbers, information technologists, teachers.”

Others have already weighed in on this comment, noting that, well, it’s not exactly true: psychology is only the second most common major, and most of the people with psychology BAs don’t end up working in fast food. The median starting salary for someone with a BA in psychology is about $38,000 a year, which rises to about $62,000 after 10 years if this data set I’ve been looking at is accurate. So that’s hardly fast food wages, even if it might be underwhelming to some.

However, there are some slightly more charitable ways of interpreting Jeb’s comment (provided one feels charitable towards him, which many do not): perhaps one might consider instead how psychology majors do on the job market relative to other majors. After all, just having a college degree tends to help people find good jobs, relative to having no degree at all. So how do psychology majors do in that data set I just mentioned? Of the 319 majors listed and ranked by mid-career income, psychology can be found in three locations (starting and mid-career salaries, respectively):

  • (138) Industrial Psych – 45/74k
  • (231) Psychology – 38/62k
  • (292) Psychology & Sociology – 35/55k

So, despite its popularity as a major, the salary prospects of psychology majors tend to fall below the mid-point of the expected pay scale. Indeed, the median salary of psychology majors is quite similar to theater (38/59k), creative writing (38/63k), or art history majors (40/64k). Not to belittle any of those majors either, but it is possible that much of the salary benefits from holding these degrees comes from holding a college degree in general, rather than those ones in particular. Nevertheless, these salaries are also fairly comparable to electricians, plumbers, and welders, or at least the estimates Google returns to me; information technologists seem to have better prospects, though (55/84K).

In general, then, the comment by Jeb seems off-base when taken literally: most of the fields he mentions tend to do about as well as psychology majors, and most psychology majors are not making minimum wage. With a charitable interpretation, there is something worth thinking about, though: psychology majors don’t seem to do particularly well when compared with other majors. Indeed, about 25 of the listed majors have median starting salaries at 60k or above; the median of psychology majors after 10 years of working. Now, yes; there is more to a career and an education than what financial payoff one eventually reaps from it (once one pays off the costs of a college degree), but there’s also room to think about how much value the degree you are receiving adds to your life and the lives of others, relative to your options. In fact, I think that concern has a lot to do with why Jeb mentioned the careers he does: it’s not hard to see how the skills a plumber or an electrician learns during their training are applied in their eventual career; the path between a psychology education and a profitable career that provides others with a needed service is not quite as easy to imagine.

It’s down at the bottom; I promise

This brings us to a rather old piece of research regarding psychology majors. Lunneborg & Wilson (1985) sought to answer an interesting question: would psychology majors major in psychology again, if they had to the option to do it all over? Their sample was made up of about 800 psychology majors who had graduated between 1978 and 1982. In addition to the “would you major in psychology again” question, participants were also asked to provide their impressions of the importance of their college experience in general, those of the psychology courses they took in particular, and their satisfaction with the skills they felt they gained through their psychology education on a scale from 0 to 4. Of the 750 participants who responded to the question regarding whether they would major in psychology again, 522 (69%) indicated that they would (conversely, 31% would not). While some other specific numbers are not mentioned (unfortunately), the authors report that those who graduated more recently were more likely to indicate a willingness to major in psychology again, relative to those who had been graduates for a longer period of time, perhaps suggesting that some realities of the job market have yet to set in.

More precise numbers are provided, however, to the questions concerning the perceived value of the psychology major. Psychology degrees were rated as most relevant to personal growth (M = 2.38) and liberal arts education (M = 2.23), but less so for graduate preparation in psychology (M = 1.78), graduate preparation outside of psychology (M = 1.61), or career preparation in general (M = 1.49). While people seemed to find psychology interesting, they were more ambivalent about whether they were walking away from their education with career-relevant skills. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that those who continued on with their education (at the MA level or above) were more satisfied with their education than those who stopped at the BA, as it is at these higher levels that skill sets begin to be explored and applied more fully. Indeed, the authors also report that those who said they were working in a field related to psychology or in their desired field of work were more likely to indicate they would major in psychology again. When things worked out, people seemed inclined to repeat their choices; when their results were less fortunate, people were more inclined to make different choices.

As I mentioned before, making money is not the only reason people seek out certain degrees.This is backed up by the fact that a full 43% of respondents who rated their career preparation from a psychology major as a 0 said they would major in the field again (as compared with 100% who rated career preparation as a 3). People find learning about how people think interesting – I certainly know I do – and so they are often naturally drawn to such courses. It’s a bit more engaging for most to hear about the decisions people make than it is to learn about, say, abstract calculus That psychology is interesting to people is a good consolation for its students, considering that psychology majors are among the most likely to be unemployed, relative to other college majors, and the earning premium of their degrees is also among the lowest.

“…But not at Chik-fil-A; I have standards, after all”

Returning to Jeb’s comment one last time, we can see some truth to what he said if we consider the heart of the matter, rather than the specifics: psychology majors do not have outstanding job prospects relative to other college majors – whether in terms of expected income or employment more generally – and psychology majors also report career preparation as being one of the least relevant things about their education, at least at the BA level. It would seem that many psychology majors are getting jobs not necessarily because of their psychology major, but perhaps because they had a major. Some degree is better than no degree in the job market; a fact that many non-degree holders are painfully aware of. Despite their career prospects, psychology remains the second most popular major in the US, attesting to people’s interest in hearing about the subject. On the other hand, if we consider the specifics, Jeb’s comment is wrong: psychology majors are not working fast food jobs, their income is about on the same level of the other careers he lists, and psychology is the second most – not first – popular major. Which parts of all this information sound most relevant likely depends on your position relative to them: most psychology majors do not enjoy having their field of study denigrated, as the reaction to Jeb’s comments showed; his political opponents likely want to have this comment do the most amount of harm to Jeb as possible (and a heavy degree of overlap likely exists between these two groups). Nevertheless, there are some realities of people’s degrees that ought to not get lost in the defense against comments like these.

References: Lunneborg, P. & Wilson, V. (1985). Would you major in psychology again? Teaching of Psychology, 1, 17-20.

Health Food Nazis

“Hitler was a vegetarian. Just goes to show, vegetarianism, not always a good thing. Can, in some extreme cases, lead to genocide.” – Bill Bailey

There’s a burgeoning new field of research in psychology known as health licensing*. Health licensing is the idea that once people do something health-promoting, they subsequently give themselves psychological license to do other, unhealthy things. A classic example of this kind of research might go something like this: an experimenter will give participants a chance to do something healthy, like go on a jog or eat a nutritious lunch. After participants engage in this healthy behavior, they are then given a chance to do something unhealthy, like break their own legs. Typical results show that once people have engaged in these otherwise healthy behaviors, they are significantly more likely to engage in self-destructive ones, like leg-breaking, in order to achieve a balance between their healthy and unhealthy behaviors. This is just one more cognitive quirk to add to the ever-lengthening list of human psychological foibles.

Now that you engaged in hospital-visiting behavior, feel free to burn yourself to even it out.

Now many of you are probably thinking one or both of two things: “that sounds strange” and “that’s not true”. If you are thinking those things, I’m happy that we’re on the same page so far. The problems with the above hypothetical area of research are clear. First, it seems strange that people would go do something unhealthy and harmful because they had previously done something which was good for them; it’s not like healthy and unhealthy behaviors need to be intrinsically balanced out for any reason, at least not one that readily comes to mind. Second, it seems strange that people would want to engage in the harmful behaviors at all. Just because an option to do something unhealthy is presented, it doesn’t mean people are going to want to take it, as it might have little appeal to them. When people typically engage in behaviors which are deemed harmful in the long-term – such as smoking, overeating junk food, or other such acts which are said to be psychologically ‘licensed’ by healthy behaviors – they do so because of the perceived short-term benefits of such things. People certainly don’t drink for the hangover; they drink for the pleasant feelings induced by the booze.

So, with that in mind, what are we to make of a study that suggests doing something healthy can give people a psychological license to adopt immoral political stances? In case that sounds too abstract, the research on the table today examines whether drinking sauerkraut juice make people more likely to endorse Nazi-like politics, and no; I’m not kidding (as much as I wish I was). The paper (Messner & Brugger, 2015) itself leans heavily on moral licensing: the idea that engaging in moral behaviors activates compensating psychological mechanisms that encourage the actor to engage in immoral ones. So, if you told the truth today, you get to lie tomorrow to balance things out. Before moving further into the details of the paper, it’s worth mentioning that the authors have already bumped up against one of the problems from my initial example: I cannot think of a reason that ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ behaviors need to be “balanced out” psychologically (whatever that even means), and none is provided. Indeed, as some people continuously refrain from immoral (or unhealthy) behaviors, whereas others continuously indulge in them, compensation or balance doesn’t seem to factor into the equation in the same way (or at all) for everyone.

Messner & Brugger (2015) try to draw on a banking analogy, whereby moral behavior gives one “credit” into their account that can be “spent” on immoral behavior. However, this analogy is largely unhelpful as you cannot spend money you do not have, but you can engage in immoral behaviors even if you have no morally-good “credit”. It’s also unhelpful in that it presumes immoral behavior is something one wants to spend their moral credit on; the type of immoral behavior seems to be besides the point, as we will soon see. Much like my leg-breaking example, this too seems to make little sense: people don’t seem to want to engage in immoral behavior because it is immoral. As the bank account analogy is not at all helpful for understanding the phenomenon in question, it seems better to drop it altogether, since it’s only likely to sow confusion in the minds of anyone trying to really figure out what’s going on here. Then again, perhaps the confusion is only present in the paper to compensate for all the useful understanding the researchers are going to provide us later.

“We broke half the lights to compensate for the fact that the other half work”

Moving forward, the authors argue that, because health-relevant behavior is moralized, engaging in some kind of health-promoting behavior – in this case, drinking sauerkraut juice (high in fiber and vitamin C, we are told) – ought to give people good moral “credit” which they will subsequently spend on immoral behavior (in much the same way buying eco-friendly products leads to people giving themselves a moral license to steal, we are also told). Accordingly, the authors first asked 128 Swiss students to indicate who was more moral: someone who drinks sauerkraut juice or someone who drinks Nestea. As predicted, 78% agreed that the sauerkraut-juice drinker was more moral, though whether a “neither, and this question is silly” option existed is not mentioned. The students also indicated how morally acceptable and right wing a number of attitudes were; statements which related to, according to the authors, a number of nasty topics like devaluing the culture of others (i.e., seeing a woman wearing a burka making someone uncomfortable), devaluing other nations (viewing foreign nationals as a burden on the state), affirming antisemitism (disliking some aspects of Israeli politics), devaluing the humanity of others (not agreeing that all public buildings ought to be modified for handicapped access), and a few others. Now all of these statements were rated as immoral by the students, but whether they represent what the authors think they do (Nazi-like politics) is up for interpretation.

In any case, another 111 participants were then collected and assigned to drink sauerkraut juice, Nestea, or nothing. Those who drank the sauerkraut juice rated it as healthier than those who drank the Nestea and, correspondingly, were also more likely to endorse the Nazi-like statements (M = 4.46 on a 10-point scale) than those who drank Nestea (M = 3.82) or nothing (M = 3.73). Neat. There are, however, a few other major issues to address. The first of these is that, depending on who you sample, you’re going to get different answers to the “are these attitudes morally acceptable?” questions. Since it’s Swiss students being assessed in both cases, I’ll let that issue slide for the more pressing, theoretical one: the author’s interpretation of the results would imply that the students who indicated that such attitudes are immoral also wished to express them. That is to say, because they just did something healthy (drank sauerkraut juice) they now want to engage in immoral behavior. They don’t seem to picky about what immoral behavior they engage in either, as they’re apparently more willing to adopt political stances they would otherwise oppose, were it not for the disgusting, yet healthy, sauerkraut juice.

This strikes me very much as the kind of metaphorical leg-breaking I mentioned earlier. When people engage in immoral (or unhealthy) behaviors, they typically do so because of some associated benefit: stealing grants you access to resources you otherwise wouldn’t obtain; eating that Twinkie gives you the pleasant taste and the quick burst of calories, even if they make you fat when you do that too much. What benefits are being obtained by the Swiss students who are now (slightly) more likely to endorse right-wing, Nazi-like politics? None are made clear in the paper and I’m having a hard time thinking up any myself. This seems to be a case of immoral behavior for the sake of it, which could only arise from a rather strange psychology. Perhaps there is something worth noting going on here that isn’t being highlighted well; perhaps the authors just stumbled on a statistical fluke (which does happen regularly). In either case, the idea of moral licensing doesn’t seem to help us understand what’s happening at all, and the banking metaphors and references to “balancing” and “compensation” seem similarly impotent to move us forward.

“Just give him the money; he eats well, so it’s OK”

The moral licensing idea is even worse than all that, though, as it doesn’t engage with the main adaptive reason people avoid self-beneficial, but immoral behaviors: other people will punish you for them. If I steal from someone else, they or their allies might well take revenge on me; that I assure them of my healthy diet will likely create little to no effective deterrence against the punishment I would soon receive. If that is the case – and I suspect it is – then this self-granted “moral license” would be about as useful as my simply believing that stealing from others isn’t wrong and won’t be punished (which is to say, “not at all”). Any type of moral license needs to be granted by potential condemners in order to be of any practical use in that regard, and the current research does not assess whether that is the case. This limited focus on conscience – rather than condemnation – complete with the suggestion that people are likely to adopt social politics they would otherwise oppose for the sake of achieving some kind of moral balance after drinking 100 ml of gross sauerkraut juice makes for a very strange paper indeed.

References: Messner, C. & Brugger, A. (2015). Nazis by Kraut: A playful application of moral self-licensing. Psychology, 6,

*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA or any such governmental body; the field doesn’t actually exist to the best of my knowledge, but I’ll tell you it does anyway.


Some…Interesting…Research On STI Stigma

Today I have the distinct pleasure of examining some research from the distinguished Terri Conley once again. Habitual readers of my writing might know the name; in fact, they might even know that I have written about her work before. The first time I did, it was only to mention, briefly, that Terri had proposed that sexual reproduction was a byproduct of sexual pleasure. To put that claim into easily-understandable terms, it would go something like, “sexual reproduction does not itself contribute to reproduction, but is the result of sexual pleasure, which does contribute to reproduction”. I’m sure many of you might be thinking that doesn’t make any sense, and for a very good reason. The second time I wrote about her work, it involved a number of sex differences which had been labeled myths; in this case, they were myths in the sense of “they are all true”, which is a peculiar usage of the term. On the block for today is a claim about how people are irrational about the risks posed by STIs, complete with a paper that meets the high standards set by the previous two pieces.

I think it might be time to finally see a doctor about that problem

I will start my examination of the piece, by Conley et al (2015), by noting that – like so much psychology work before it and like so much more that is sure to come – the predictions made by the authors are made in the absence of anything resembling a theoretical justification. In other words, sections which might include phrases like, “we predicted we would find this effect because…” are not present. With that in mind, the main hypothesis of the current paper is that people are irrationally biased against STIs and those infected by them, perceiving sexual behavior as exceedingly risky and the diseases as especially harmful. The idea was tested in an assortment of ways. In the first study, 680 participants were asked about the number of people (out of 1000) who would be expected to die on either (a) a 300-mile drive or (b) as the result of contracting an HIV infection from a single instance of unprotected sex with a non-injection drug user. Conley et al (2015) note that people are about 20-times as likely to die on that car ride than they are to contract HIV and die from it as the result of a single sexual encounter.

Sure enough, Conley et al (2015) report that their participants were wildly off the mark: while they overestimated both rates of death, the number of people estimated to die from HIV was far, far higher (M = 72, SD = 161) than from a car accident (M = 4, SD = 15). While people were statistically 20-times more likely to die from a car accident, they believed they were 17-times more likely to die from HIV. What a bias! Some things about those numbers does not sit right with me, though. For instance, it seems unlikely that people are that inaccurate: do people really believe that a little less than 1% of causal sexual encounters result in death from HIV? The variance of those estimates also seems to be exceedingly large, at least for STI risk (the standard deviation of which is over 10 times as large as the car accidents). So what’s going on? I think that answer has a lot to do with the particular question Conley et al (2015) asked:

“Assume that 1,000 people had unprotected intercourse (sex without a condom) yesterday. None of the 1,000 people who had sex were previous intra-venous drug users. How many of these 1,000 individuals who had unprotected sex would you expect to die from HIV contracted from the sexual encounter”

This phrasing is unfortunately – perhaps even purposefully – vague. One possible way of interpreting that question is that it is asking about how many people will die given they have become infected. Asking about how many people will become infected and die is much different than asking about how many infected people will die, and that vagueness could account for the widely-varying estimates being reported. As the wording is not at all clear, the estimates of mortality could be overestimated, at least relative to what the authors think they’re measuring. How this point was not addressed by any editors or reviewers is beyond me.

Their second study examined how people perceived those who (sort of) unknowingly transmitted either a sexual- or non-sexual infection to their sexual partner: H1N1 or chlamydia. That is, they knew they had symptoms of something, but wrote it off as either allergies or a UTI. Again, we find Conley et al (2015) going to great pains to emphasis that H1N1 is the much more harmful bug of the pair, so as to suggest people should believe it worse to transmit the flu. In this study, 310 participants were asked to read brief stories about the infection being spread after some unprotected sex, and then assessed the target who spread it on some 6-points scales. The person who had spread the infection was rated as slightly more selfish (Ms = 3.9/3.6), risky (Ms = 4.8/4.4), and dumb (Ms = 4.3/3.9) when they had spread the sexually-transmitted one (sexual/non-sexual means, respectively). Of course, as the transmission of the STI could have been prevented through the use of, say, a condom when encountering a new sexual partner, whereas the same option is not available for the flu, it’s hard to conclude that the participants are irrational or wrong in their judgments. While Conley et al (2015) note this possibility, they do nothing to test it, asserting instead that their data nevertheless represents an ample amount of evidence in favor of their hypothesis.

Too bad these don’t protect against bad interpretations of data

The third study is perhaps the funniest of them all. It’s not an experiment, but rather a retrospective analysis of information provided on government websites concerning the prevention of driving accidents and contracting STIs (tying into their first study). Conley et al’s (2015) bold prediction was that:

“…government public information websites would promote abstinence as the best way to avoid acquiring an STI, but that these websites would not promote abstinence from driving, which is, statistically, riskier.”

You are reading that correctly: the prediction is that government websites will not advocate that people avoid driving entirely, as opposed to avoiding having sex (or, rather, postponing it until certain criteria have been met, such as marriage). This is not what I would consider a “prediction”, inasmuch as I’m sure they knew what they would find. In any case, 86% of state websites discussed STI prevention, with 72% mentioning that abstinence is the most effective way of avoiding one (a claim which is true beyond dispute); by contrast, 78% of state websites discussed driving accidents and, shockingly, none of them advocated that people avoid driving altogether. What an astounding bias!

Now perhaps that is because, as the authors briefly mention, navigating one’s daily life without the use of a car (or some form of transportation) is all but impossible for many. However, the authors feel that – because sex, not driving, is biologically motivated – asking people to give up (or rather, postpone) sex is more unnatural and difficult. Foregoing the matter of what that is supposed to mean, I remain skeptical as to whether this lack of asking people to avoid driving entirely is evidence of “inappropriately negative” reactions to STIs in particular, despite Conley et al’s (2015) enthusiasm for that interpretation.

There was one detail of the paper which really stood out to me throughout all of this, however. It wasn’t their weak methods or poor interpretations of the data, either, but rather the following sentence:

“This component of the study provides strong evidence for the hypothesis that people who transmit STIs are unjustly stigmatised in society.”

The emphasis on “unjustly” in that passage was made by the authors; not me. While it’s possible I am reading too much into their emphasis, that strikes me as an (unintentional?) slip that puts the biases of the authors on display rather prominently. Taken together with the general poor quality of their work, it appears that there is a particular social agenda which is being pushed by this research. Perhaps that agenda is noble; perhaps it isn’t. Regardless of which it happens to be, once agendas begin to make their way into research, the soundness of the interpretations of data often suffer serious damage. In this case, Conley et al (2015) seem to be doing all they can to make people look irrational and, importantly, wrong, rather than earnestly assessing their work. They’re trying to game the system and their research suffers because of it.

 ”People are unjustly biased against living in my house”

Now, to be clear, I do feel there exists a certain percentage of the population with a vested interest in pushing ideas that make other people more or less likely to engage in certain kinds of intercourse, be that intercourse promiscuous or monogamous in nature. That is, if I want there to be more sexually-available options in the population, I might try to convince others that casual sex is really quite good for them, regardless of the truth in my claim. The current research is not a solid demonstration of people doing this, however; it’s not even a decent one. Ironically, the current research paper instead seems to serve as an example of that very bias it is hoping to find in others. After all, making it seem like STIs really aren’t that big of a deal would do wonders for making the costs associated with short-term encounters seem far less relevant. Also ironically, if such efforts were successful, the costs of casual encounters would likely rise over time, as more promiscuous people less concerned with STIs will likely lead to them spreading the things more regularly, and the STIs mutating into more harmful strains (as they no longer need to keep their host alive as long to successfully reproduce themselves). All that aside, with the glaring problems in this paper, I find it remarkable it ever saw the light of publication.

References: Conley, T., Moors, A., Matsick, J., & Ziegler, A. (2015). Sexuality-related risks are judged more harshly than comparable health risks. International Journal of Sexual Health, DOI: 10.1080/19317611.2015.1063556.

How Many Foundations Of Morality Are There?

If you want to understand and explain morality, the first useful step is to be sure you’re clear about what kind of thing morality is. This first step has, unfortunately, been a stumbling point for many researchers and philosophers. Many writers on the topic of morality, for example, have primarily discussed (and subsequently tried to explain) altruism: behaviors which involves actors suffering costs to benefit someone else. While altruistic behavior can often be moralized, altruism and morality are not the same thing; a mother breastfeeding her child is engaged in altruistic behavior, but this behavior does not appear to driven by moral mechanisms. Other writers (as well as many of the same ones) have also discussed morality in conscience-centric terms. Conscience refers to self-regulatory cognitive mechanisms that use moral inputs to influence one’s own behavior. As a result of that focus, many moral theories have not adequately been able to explain moral condemnation: the belief that others ought to be punished for behaving immorally (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009). While the value of being clear about what one is actually discussing is large, it is often, and sadly, not the case that many treaties on morality begin by being clear about what they think morality is, nor is it the case that they tend to avoid conflating morality with other things, like altruism.

“It is our goal to explain the function of this device”

When one is not quite clear on what morality happens to be, you can end up at a loss when you’re trying to explain it. For instance, Graham et al (2012), in their discussion of how many moral foundations there are, write:

We don’t know how many moral foundations there really are. There may be 74, or perhaps 122, or 27, or maybe only five, but certainly more than one.

Sentiments like these suggest a lack of focus on what it is precisely the authors are trying to understand. If you are unsure whether the thing you are trying to explain is 2, 5, or over 100 things, then it is likely time to take a step back and refine your thinking a bit. As Graham et al (2012) do not begin their paper with a mention of what kind of thing morality is, they leave me wondering what precisely it is they are trying to explain with 5 or 122 parts. What they do posit is that morality is innate (organized in advance of experience), modified by culture, the result of intuitions first and reasoning second, and that is has multiple foundations; none of that, however, removes my wondering of what precisely they mean when they write “morality”.

The five moral foundations discussed by Graham et al (2012) include kin-directed altruism (what they call the harm foundation), mechanisms for dealing with cheaters (fairness), mechanisms for forming coalitions (loyalty), mechanisms for managing coalitions (authority), and disgust (sanctity). While I would agree that navigating these different adaptive problems are all important for meeting the challenges of survival and reproduction, there seems to be little indication that these represent different domains of moral functioning, rather than simply different domains upon which a single, underlying moral psychology might act (in much the same way, a kitchen knife is capable of cutting a variety of foods, so one need not carry a potato knife, a tomato knife, a celery knife, and so on). In the interests of being clear where others are not, by morality I am referring to the existence of the moral dimension itself; the ability to perceive “right” and “wrong” in the first place and generate the associated judgments that people who engage in immoral behaviors ought to be condemned and/or punished (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009). This distinction is important because it would appear that species are capable of navigating the above five problems without requiring the moral psychology humans possess. Indeed, as Graham et al (2012) mention, many non-human species share one or many of these problems, yet whether those species possess a moral psychology is debatable. Chimps, for instance, do not appear to punish others for engaging in harmful behavior if said behavior has no effect on them directly (though chimps do take revenge for personal slights). Why, then, might a human moral psychology lead us to condemn others whereas it does not seem to exist in chimps, despite us sharing most of those moral foundations? That answer is not provided, or even discussed, throughout the length of moral foundations paper.

To summarize up this point, the moral foundation piece is not at all clear on what type of thing morality is, resulting in it being unclear when attempting to make a case that many – not one – distinct moral mechanisms exist. It does not necessarily tackle how many of these distinct mechanisms might exist, and it does not address the matter of why human morality appears to differ from whatever nonhuman morality there might – or might not – be. Importantly, the matter of what adaptive function morality has – what adaptive problems it solved and how it solved them – is left all but untouched. Graham et al (2012) seem to fall into the same pit trap that so many before them have of believing they have explained the adaptive value of morality because they outline an adaptive value for somethings like kin-direct altruism, reciprocal altruism, and disgust, despite these concepts not being the same thing as morality per se.

Such pit traps often prove fatal for theories

Making explicit hypotheses of function for understanding morality – as with all of psychology – is crucial. While Graham et al (2012) try to compare these different hypothetical domains of morality to different types of taste receptors on our tongues (one for sweet, bitter, sour, salt, and umami), that analogy glosses over the fact that these different taste receptors serve entirely separate functions by solving unique adaptive problems related to food consumption. Without any analysis of which unique adaptive problems are solved by morality in the domain of disgust, as opposed to, say, harm-based morality, as opposed to fairness-based morality – and so on – the analogy does not work. The question of importance in this case is what function(s) these moral perceptions serve and whether that (or those) function(s) vary when our moral perceptions are raised in the realm of harm or disgust. If that function is consistent across domains, then it is likely handled by a single moral mechanism; not many of them.

However, one thing Graham et al (2012) appear sure about is that morality cannot be understood through a single dimension, meaning they are putting their eggs in the many-different-functions basket; a claim with which I take issue. A prediction that this multiple morality hypothesis put forth by moral foundations theory might make, if I am understanding it correctly, would be that you ought to be able to selectively impair people’s moral cognitions via brain damage. For example, were you to lesion some hypothetical area of the brain, you would be able to remove a person’s ability to process harm-based morality while leaving their disgust-based morality otherwise unaffected (likewise for fairness, sanctity, and loyalty). Now I know of no data bearing on this point, and none is mentioned in the paper, but it seems that, were such a effect possible, it likely would have been noticed by now.

Such a prediction also seems unlikely to hold true in light of a particular finding: one curious facet of moral judgments is that, given someone perceives an act to be immoral, they almost universally perceive (or rather, nominate) someone – or a group of someones – to have been harmed by it. That is to say they perceive one or more victims when they perceive wrongness. If morality, at least in some domains, was not fundamentally concerned with harm, this would be a very strange finding indeed. People ought not need to perceive a victim at all for certain offenses. Nevertheless, it seems that people do not appear to perceive victim-less moral wrongs (despite their inability to always consciously articulate such perceptions), and will occasionally update their moral stances when their perceptions of harms are successfully challenged by others. The idea of victim-less moral wrongs, then, appears to originate much more from researchers claiming that an act is without a victim, rather than from their subject’s perceptions.

Pictured: a PhD, out for an evening of question begging

There’s a very real value to being precise about what one is discussing if you hope to make any forward momentum in a conversation. It’s not good enough for a researcher to use the word morality when it’s not at all clear to what that word is referring. When such specifications are not made, people seem to end up doing all sorts of things, like explaining altruism, or disgust, or social status, rather than achieving their intended goal. A similar problem was encountered when another recent paper on morality attempted to define “moral” as “fair”, and then not really define what they meant by “fair”: the predictable result was a discussion of why people are altruistic, rather than why they are moral. Moral foundations theory seems to only offer a collection of topics about which people hold moral opinions; not a deeper understanding of how our morality functions.

References: DeScioli, P. & Kurzban, R. (2009) Mysteries of morality. Cognition, 112, 281-299.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Wojcik, S., & Ditto, P. (2012). Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 55–130.

The Drug Addictions Of Mice And Men

In my post, I mentioned the very real possibility that as people’s personal biases make their way into research, the quality of that research might begin to decline. More generally, I believe that such an issue arises because of what the interpretation of some results says about the association value of particular groups or individuals. After all, if I believed (correctly) that people like you tend to be more or less [cooperative/aggressive/intelligent/promiscuous/etc] than others, it would be a fairly rational strategy for me to adjust my behavior around you accordingly if I had no information about you other than that piece of information. Anyone who has feared being mugged by a group of adolescent males at night and not feared being mugged by a group of children at a playground during the day understand this point intuitively. As a result, some people might – intentionally or not – game their research towards obtaining certain patterns of results that reflect positively or negative on other groups or, as in today’s case, highlight some research other people as being particularly important because it encourages us to treat others a certain way. So let’s talk about giving drugs to mice and men.

Way to set a positive example for the kids, Mickey

The article which inspired this post was written by Johann Hari, and the message of it is that the likely cause of drug addiction (and, perhaps, other addictions as well) is that people fail to bond with other humans, bonding instead with drugs. This is, according to Johann, quite a distinct explanation than the one that many people favor: that some chemical hooks in the drugs alter our brains in such a way as to make us crave them. To make this point, Johann highlights the importance of the Rat Park experiment, in which rats placed in enriched environments failed to develop addictions to opiates (which were placed in one of their water bottles), whereas rats placed in isolated and stressful environments tended to develop the addictions to the drugs readily. However, when the isolated rats were moved into the enriched environments, their preference for the drug all but vanished.

The conclusion drawn from this research is that the rats – and, by extension, humans – only really use drugs when their environments are harsh. One quote that really drew my attention was the following passage:

“A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

I find this interpretation to be incomplete and stated far too boldly. One rather troublesome thorn for this explanation rears its head only a few passages later, when Johann is discussing how the nicotine patch does not help most smokers successfully quit; about 18% is the quoted percentage of those who quit through the patch, though that percentage is not properly sourced. From the gallup poll data I dug up, we can see that approximately 5% of those who have quit smoking attribute their success to the patch. That seems like a low number, and one that doesn’t quite fit with the chemical hook hypothesis. Another number sticks out, though: the number of people who attribute their success in quitting to support from friends and family. If Johann’s hypothesis is correct and people are like isolated rats in a cage when addicted, we might expect the number who quit successfully through social support to be quite high. If addiction is the opposite of human connection, as human connections increase, addiction should drop. Unfortunately for his hypothesis, only 6% of ex-smokers attribute their success to those social factors. By contrast, about 50% of the ex-smokers cited just deciding it was time and quitting cold turkey as their preferred method. Now it’s possible that they’re incorrect – that has been known to happen when you ask people to introspect – but I don’t see any reason to assume they are incorrect by default. In fact, many of the habitual smokers I’ve known did not seem like people lacking social connections to begin with; smoking was quite the social activity, and many people started smoking because their friends did. That is, they might developed their addiction through building social connections; not through lacking them.

Indeed, his hypothesis is all the stranger when considering the failure of people using the patch to successfully kick their habit. If, as Johann suggested, people are bonding with chemicals instead of people, it would sound as if giving them the chemicals in question should correspondingly cut down on their urge to smoke. That it doesn’t seem to do so very much is rather peculiar, suggesting something is wrong with the patches or the hypothesis. So what’s going on here? Is addiction to cigarettes different than addiction to opiates, explaining the disconnect from the Rat Park results to the cigarette data? That might be one possibility, though there is another: it is possible that, like quite a bit of psychology research, the Rat Park results don’t replicate so nicely.

“Reply still hazy; try controlling for gender and look again”

Petrie (1996) reports on an attempted replications of the rat park style of research that did not quite pan out as one might hope. In the first experiment, two groups of 10 rats were tested. The first group was raised in isolated conditions from weaning (21 days old), in relatively small cages without much to do; the second group was raised collectively in a much larger and more comfortable enclosure. These enclosures both contained food and water dispensers, freely available at all hours. In order to measure how much water was being consumed, each rat was marked for identification, and each trip to the drinking spout triggered a recording device. The weight of the water consumed was automatically recorded after each trip to the spout as well.  The testing began when the rats were 113 days old, lasting about 30 days, at which points the rats were all killed (which I assume is standard operating procedure for this kind of thing).

During that testing period, animals had access to two kinds of water: tap water and the experimental batch. The experimental batch was flavored with a sweetener initially, whereas on later trials various concentrations of morphine were also added to the bottle (in decreasing amounts from 1 mg to 0.125 mg, cutting by half each time). Across every concentration of morphine, the socially-reared rats drank slightly more than their isolated counterparts: at 1 mg of morphine, the average number of grams of experimental fluid consumed daily by the social group was 3.6 to the isolated rats 0; at 0.5 mg of morphine, these numbers were 1.3 and 0.5, respectively; at 0.25 mg morphine, 18.3 and 15.7; at 0.125 mg, 42.8 and 30.2. In a second follow up study without the automated measuring tools, this pattern was reversed, with the isolated rats tending to drink slightly more of the morphine water during 3 of the 4 testing phases (those numbers, in concentrations of morphine as before, with respect to social/isolated rats were: 4.3/0.3; 3.0/9.4; 10.9/17.4; and 33.1/44.4). So the results seems somewhat inconsistent, and the differences aren’t all that large. The differences in these studies did not even come close to the original reports of previous research claiming that the isolated rats drank up to 7-times as much.

To explain at least some of this difference in results, Petrie (1996) notes that some genetic differences might exist between the rat strains utilized between the two. If that was the case, then the implication of that is – like always – that the story is not nearly as simple as “bad environments cause” people to use drugs; there are other factors to think about, which I’ll get to in a moment. Suffice it to say right now that, in humans, it seems clear that recreational drug use is inherently more pleasant for certain people. Petrie (1996) also notes that the rats tended to consume the same absolute amount of morphine during each phrase, regardless of its concentration in the water. The rats seemed to much prefer the sweetened to the tap water by a huge margin when it was just sucrose, but drank less sweetened water when the morphine (or another bitter additive) was added, so it’s likely that the rats did not quite enjoy the taste of the morphine all that much. The author concludes that it’s probable the rats enjoyed the taste of the sugar more than they enjoyed the morphine’s effects.

An affinity many humans seem to share as well

The Petrie (1996) paper and the cigarette data, then, ought to cause us some degree of pause when assessing the truth value of Johann’s claims concerning the roots of addiction. Also worrying is the moralization that Johann engages in when he writes the following:

“The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.”

This hypothesis of his seems to strike me as the strangest of all. He is suggesting, if I am understanding him correctly, that people (a) find human connections more pleasurable than material items or drugs, like rats, but (b) voluntarily forgo human connections in the pursuit of things that bring us less pleasure. That is akin to finding, in terms of our rats, that the rats enjoy the taste of the sweetened water more than the bitter water, but choose to regularly drink out of the bitter one instead, despite both options being available. It would be a very odd psychology that generates that kind of behavior. It would be the same kind of psychology that would drive rats in the enriched cages to leave them for the isolated morphine cages if given the choice; the very thing Johann is claiming would not, and does not, happen. It would require that some other force – presumably some vague and unverifiable entity, like “society” – is pushing people to make a choice they otherwise would not (which, presumably, we must change to be better off).

This moralization is worrying because it sheds some light on the motivation of the author: it is possible that evidence is being selectively interpreted so as to fit with a particular world view that has social implications for others. For instance, the failure to replicate I discussed in not new; it was published in 1996. Did Johann not have access to this data? Did he not know about it? Was it just ignored? I can’t say, but none of those explanations paint a flattering picture of someone who claims expertise in the area. When the reputations of others are on the line, truth can often be compromised in the service of furthering a social agenda; this could include people stopping the search for contrary evidence, ignoring it, or downplaying its importance.

A more profitable route research might take would be to begin by considering what adaptive function the cognitive systems underlying drug use might serve. By understanding that function, we can make some insightful predictions. To attempt and do so, let’s start by asking the question, “why don’t people use drugs more regularly?” Why do so many smokers wish to stop smoking? Why do many people tend to restrict most of their drinking to the weekends? The most obvious answer to these questions is that drinking and smoking entail some costs to be suffered at a later date, whether those costs be tomorrow (in the form of a hangover) or years from now (in the form of lung cancer and liver damage). Most of the people who wanted to quit smoking, for instance, cited health concerns as their reasons. In other words, people don’t engage in these behaviors more often because there are trade-offs to be made between the present and future. The short term benefits of smoking need to be measured against their long term costs.

“No thanks; I need all my energy for crack”

It might follow, then, that those who value short term rewards more heavily in general – those who do not view the future as particularly worth investing in – are more likely to use drugs; the type of people who would rather have $5 today instead of $6 tomorrow. They’d probably also be more oriented towards short term sexual relationships, explaining the interesting connection between the two variables. It would also explain other points mentioned in the Johann piece: soldiers in Vietnam using (and then stopping) heroin and hospital patients not suffering from addiction to their painkillers once they leave the hospital. In the former case, soldiers in war time are in environments where their future is less than certain, to say the least. When people are actively trying to kill you, it makes less sense to put off rewards today for rewards tomorrow, since you can’t claim them if you’re dead. In the latter case, people being administered these painkillers are not necessarily short term oriented to begin with. In both cases, the value of pursuing those drugs further once the temporary threat has been neutralized (the war ends/they end their treatment) is deemed to be relatively low, as it was before the threat appeared. They might value those drugs very much when they’re in the situation, but not when the threat subsides.

It would even explain why drug addiction fell when legalization and treatment hit Portugal: throwing people in jail introduces new complications to life that reduce the value of the future (like the difficulty getting a job with a conviction, or the threats posed by other, less-than-pleasant inmates). If instead people are given some stability and resources are channeled to them, this might increase their perceived value of investing in the future versus getting that reward today. It’s not about connecting with other people per se that helps with the addiction, then, as much as it’s about one’s situation can change their valuation of the present as compared with the future.

Such a conclusion might be resisted by some on the grounds that it implies that drug addicts, to some extent, have self-selected into that pattern of behavior – that their preferences and behaviors, in a meaningful sense, are responsible for which “cage” they ended up in, to use the metaphor. Indeed, those preferences might explain both why addicts like drugs and why some might fail to develop deep connections with others. That might not paint the most flattering picture of a group they’re trying to help. However, it would be dangerous to try and treat a very real problem of drug addiction by targeting the wrong factors, similar to how just giving people large sums of windfall money won’t necessarily help them not go broke in the long term.

References: Petrie, B. (1996). Environment is not the most important variable in determining oral morphine consumption in Wistar rats. Psychological Reports, 78, 391-400.

Real Diversity Means Disagreement

Diversity is one of the big buzzwords of the recent decades. Institutions, both public and private, often take great pains to emphasize their inclusive stances and colorful cast of a staff. I have long found the displays of diversity to be rather queer in one major respect, however: they almost always focus on diversity in the realms of race and gender. The underlying message behind such displays would seem to suggest that men and women, or members of different ethnic groups, are, in some relevant psychological respects, different from one another. What’s strange about that idea is that, as many of the same people might also like to point out, there’s less diversity between those groups than within them, while others are entirely uncomfortable with the claim of sex or racial differences from the start. The ambivalent feelings many people have surrounding such a message were captured well by Principle Skinner on The Simpsons:

It’s the differences…of which…there are none…that make the sameness… exceptional

Regardless of how one feels about such a premise, the fact remains that diversity in race or gender per se is not what people are seeking to maximize in many cases; they’re trying to increase diversity of thought (or, as Maddox put it many years ago: “people who look different must think different because of it; otherwise, why the hell embrace anything? Why not just assume that diversity comes from within, regardless of their skin color, sex, age or religion?“)

Renting that wheel chair was a nice touch, but it’s time to get up and return it before we lose the deposit

If diversity in perspective is what most people are after when they talk about seeking diversity, it seems like it would be a reasonable step to assess people’s perspectives directly, rather than trying to use proxies for it, like race and gender (or clothing, or hair styles, or musical tastes, or…). If, for instance, one was hiring a number of people for a job involving problem solving, it’s quite possible for the person doing the hiring to select a group of men and women from different races who all end up thinking about things in pretty much the same way: not only would the hires likely have the same kinds of educational background, but they’d probably also have comparable interests since they applied for the same job. On top of that initial similarity the person doing the hiring might be partial towards those who hold agreeable points of view. After all, why would you hire someone who holds a perspective you don’t agree with? It sounds as if that decision would make work that much more unpleasant during the day-to-day operations of the company, even if it was irrelevant to the work they do.

Speaking of areas in which diversity of thought seem to be lacking in certain respects, an interesting new paper from Duarte et al (2015) puts forth the proposition that social psychology – as a field – isn’t all that politically diverse, and that’s probably something of a problem for research quality. For example, if social psychologists can be said to be a rather politically homogeneous bunch, this could result in particular (and important) questions not being asked as a result of how that answer might pan out for the images of liberals and their political rivals. After all, if the conclusions of psychology research, by some happy coincidence, tend to demonstrate that liberals (and, by extension, the liberal researchers conducting it) happen to have a firm grasp on reality, whereas their more conservative counterparts are hopelessly biased and delusional, all the better for the liberal group’s public image; all the worse for the truth value of psychological research, however, if those results are obtained by only asking about scenarios in which conservatives, but not liberals, are likely to look biased. If some liberal assumptions about what is right or good are shaping their research to point in certain directions, we’re going to end up making a number of unwarranted interpretative conclusions.

The problems could mount further if the research purporting to deliver conclusions counter to certain liberal interests is reviewed with disproportionate amounts of scrutiny, whereas research supporting those interests is given a pass when their methods are equivalent or worse. Indeed, Duarte et al (2015) discuss some good reasons to think this might be the state of affairs in psychology, not least of which is that quite a number of social psychologists will explicitly admit they would discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs. When surveyed about their self-assessed probability of voting either for or against a known conservative job applicant (when both alternatives are equally qualified for the job), about 82% of social psychologists indicated they would be at least a little more likely to vote against the conservative hire, with about 43% indicating a fairly high degree of certainty they would (above the midpoint of the scale). These kinds of attitudes might well dissuade more conservatives from wanting to enter the field, especially given that the liberals likely to discriminate against them outnumber the conservatives by about 10-to-1.

“Don’t worry, buddy; you can take ‘em”

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but if these ratios were discovered elsewhere – say, a 10:1 ratio of men to women in a field, and about half of the men explicitly say they would vote against hiring women – I imagine that many social psychologists would tripping over themselves to try and inject some justice and moral outrage into the mix. Compared with some other explicit racist tendencies (4% of respondents wouldn’t vote for a black presidential candidate), or sexist ones (5% wouldn’t vote for a woman), there’s a bit of a gulf in discrimination. While the way the question is asked is not quite the same, social psychologists might be about as likely to want to vote for the conservative job candidate as Americans are to vote for a Muslim or an atheist if we assumed equivalence (which is is to say “not very”).

It is at least promising, then, to see that the reactions to this paper were fairly universal in at least recognizing that there might be something of a political diversity problem in psychology, both in terms of its existence and possible consequences. There was more disagreement with respect to the cause of this diversity problem and whether including more conservative minds would increase research quality, but that’s to be expected. I – like the authors – am happy enough that even social psychologists, by in large, seem to accept that social psychology is not all that politically diverse and that such a state of affairs is likely – or at least potentially – harmful to research in some respects (yet another example where stereotypes seem to track reality well).

That said, there is another point to which I want to draw attention. As I mentioned initially, seeking diversity for diversity’s sake is a pointless endeavor, and one that is certainly not guaranteed to improve the quality of work produced. This is the case regardless of the criteria on which candidates are selected, be they physical, political, or something else.  For example, psychology departments could strive to hire people from a variety of different cultural or ethnic groups, but unless those new hires are better at doing psychology, this diversity won’t improve their products. Similarly, psychology departments could strive to hire people with degrees in other fields, like computer science, chemistry, and fine arts; that would likely increase the diversity of thought in psychology, but since there are many more ways of doing poor psychology than there are of doing good psychology, this diversity in backgrounds wouldn’t necessarily be desirable.

Say “Hello” to your new collaborators

Put bluntly, I wouldn’t want people to begin hiring those from non-liberal groups in greater numbers and believe this will, de facto, improve the quality of their research. More specifically, while greater political diversity might, to some extent, reduce the number of bad research projects by diluting or checking existing liberal biases, I don’t know that it would increase in the number of good papers substantially; the relative numbers might change, but I’m more concerned with the absolutes, as a field which fails to produce quality research in sufficient quantities is not demonstrating much value (just like how the guy without a particular failing doesn’t necessarily offer much as a dating prospect). In my humble (and no doubt biased, but not necessarily incorrect) view, there is an important dimension of thought along which I do not wish psychologists to differ, and that is in their application of evolutionary theory as a guiding foundation for their work. Evolutionary theory not only allows one to find previously unappreciated aspects of psychological functioning by considerations of adaptive value, but also allows for building on previous research in a meaningful way and for the effective rooting out of problematic underlying assumptions. In that sense, even failed research projects can contribute in a more meaningful way when framed in an evolutionary perspective, relative to failed projects lacking one.

Evolutionary theory is by no means a cure-all for the bias problem; people will still sometimes get caught up trying to rationalize behaviors or preferences they morally approve of – like homosexuality – as adaptive, for example. In spite of that, I do not particularly hope to see a diversity of perspectives in psychology regarding the theoretical language we all ought to speak by this point. There are many more ways to think about psychology unproductively than there are of doing it well, and more diversity in those respects will make for a much weaker science.

References: Duarte , J., Crawford, J., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 38, 1-58.

No Such Thing As A Free Evolutionary Lunch

Perceiving the world does not typically strike people as a particularly demanding task. All you need to do is open your eyes to see, put something in your mouth to taste, run your hand along an object to feel, and hearing requires less effort still. Perhaps somewhat less appreciated but similar in spirit is the ease with which other kinds of social perceptions are generated, such a perceiving a moral dimension and intentions in the behavior of others. Unless the cognitive mechanisms underlying such perceptions are damaged, all this perceiving feels as if it takes place simply, easily, and automatically. It would be strange for someone to return home from a long day of work and complain that their ears can’t possibly listen to anything else, as they’re too worn out (quite a different complaint from not wanting to listen to someone’s particular speech about their day). Indeed, we ought to expect such processes to work quite efficiently and quickly, owing the historical adaptive value of generating such perceptions. Being able to see and hear, as well as read the minds of others, turn out to be pretty important tasks when it comes to the day-to-day business of survival and reproduction. If one was unable to accomplish such goals quickly and automatically, they would frequently find themselves suffering costs they could have avoided.

“Nothing to it; I can easily perceive the world all day”

That these tasks might feel easy – in fact, perception often doesn’t feel like anything at all – does not mean they are actually easy, either computationally or, importantly, metabolically. Growing, maintaining, and running the appropriate cognitive and physiological mechanisms for generating perception is not free for a body to do. Accordingly, we ought to expect that these perceptual mechanisms are only maintained in the population to extent that they are continuously useful for doing adaptive things. Now for us the value of hearing or seeing in our environment is unlikely to change, and so these mechanisms are maintained in the population. However, that status quo is not always maintained in different species or across time. One example I used for my undergraduate evolutionary psychology course of when this is not the case involves cave-dwelling organisms; specifically, organisms which did not always live in caves exclusively, but came to reside there over time.

What’s notable about these underground caves is that light does not reach the creatures that live there regularly. Without any light, the physiological mechanisms designed to process such information – specifically, the eyes – no longer grant an adaptive benefit to the cave-dwellers. Similarly, the neural tissue required for processing this visual information would not provide any advantage to the bearer either. When that adaptive value of vision is removed, the value of growing the eyes and associated brain regions are compromised and, as a result, many cave-dwelling species either fail to develop eyes altogether, or develop reduced, non-functional ones. Similarly, if there’s no light in the environment, other organisms cannot see you, resulting in many of these cave dwellers losing any skin pigmentation as well. (In a parallel fashion, people tend to lose track of their grooming and dressing habits when they know they aren’t going to leave the house. Now just imagine you would never leave the house again…)

Some recent research attempted to estimate the metabolic costs avoided by cave-dwelling fish who fail to develop functioning eyes and possess a reduced optic tectum (the brain region associated with vision in the surface-dwelling varieties). To do so, researchers removed the brains from surface and cave varieties of Pachon fish and placed them in individual respirator chambers. The oxygenated fluid that filled these chambers was replaced every 10 minutes, allowing measurements to be taken on how much oxygen was consumed by each brain over time. The floating brain/eyes of the surface fish consumed about 23% of the fish’s  estimated resting metabolism (for smaller fish; for larger fish, this percentage was closer to 10%). By contrast, the eyeless brains of the cave fish only consumed about 10% of their metabolism (again, for the smaller fish; larger fish used about 5%). Breaking the numbers down for an estimate of vision specifically, the cost of vision mechanisms was estimated to be about 5-15% of the resting metabolism in the surface fish. The cost of vision, it would seem, is fairly substantial.

Much better; just think of the long-term savings!

It is also worth noting that the other organs (hearts, digestive systems, and gonads) of the fish did not tend to differ between surface and cave dwelling varieties, suggesting that the selective pressure against vision was rather specific, as one should expect, given the domain-specific nature of adaptive problems: just because you don’t have to see, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to circulate blood, eat, and mate. One lesson to take from the current results, then, is to appreciate that adaptive problems are rather specific, instead of being more general. Organisms don’t need to just “do reproductively useful things”, as such a problem space is too under-specified to result in any kind of useful adaptations. Instead, organisms need to do a variety of specific things, like avoid predators, locate food, and remove rivals (and each of those larger class of problems are made up of very many sub-problems).

The second, and larger, important point to draw out from this research is that all features of an organism – from physiological to cognitive – are not free to develop or use. While perceptions like vision, taste, morality, theory of mind, and so on might feel as if they come to us effortlessly, they certainly do not come free. Vision might not feel like lifting weight or going on a run, but the systems required to make it happen need fuel all the same; quite a lot of it, in fact, if the current results are any indication. The implication of this is idea is that we are not allowed to take perceptions, or other psychological functioning, for granted; not if we want to understand them, that is. It’s not enough to say the such feelings or perceptions are “natural” or, in some sense, the default. There need to be reproductively-relevant benefits the justify the existence of any cognitive mechanisms. Even a relatively-minor but consistent drain on metabolic resources can become appreciable when considered over the span of an organism’s life.

To apply this thinking to a topic I’ve written about recently, we could consider stereotypes briefly. There are many psychologists who – and I am glossing this issue broadly – believe that the human mind contains mechanisms for generating beliefs about other groups which end up being, in general, very wrong. A mechanism which uses metabolic resources to generate beliefs that do not correspond well to reality would be a strange find indeed; kind of like a visual mechanism in the surface fish that does not actually result in the ability to navigate the world successfully. When it comes to the related stereotype threat, there are researchers positing the existence of a cognitive mechanism that generates anxiety in response to the existence of stereotypes that result in their bearer performing worse at socially-important tasks. Now you have a metabolically costly cognitive mechanism which seems to be handicapping its host. These would be strange mechanisms to posit the existence of when one is not making (or testing) claims about how and why they might compensate their bearer in other, important ways. It is when you stop taking the existence of cognitive functioning for granted and need to justify it that new, better research questions and clearer thinking about the matter will begin to emerge.

References: Moran, D., Softley, R., & Warrant, E. (2015). The energetic costs of vision and the evolution of eyeless Mexican cavefish. Science Advances, 11, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500363