Violence In Games Does Not Cause Real-Life Violence

Violence is a strategic act. What I mean by this is that a threat to employ physical aggression against someone else unless they do what you want is one that needs to be credible to be useful. If a 5-year-old child threatened to beat up her parents if they don’t stop for ice cream, the parents understand that the child does not actually pose a real physical risk and, if push came to shove, the parents would win a physical contest; by contrast, if you happen to hanging out with a heavy-weight MMA fighter and he demands you pull over for ice cream, you should be more inclined to take his request seriously. If you cannot realistically threaten others with credible claims of violence – if you are not likely to be able to inflict harmful costs on other physically – then posturing aggressively shouldn’t be expected to do you any favors; if anything, adopting aggressive stances you cannot back up will result in your suffering costs inflicted by others, and that’s generally an outcome to be avoided. It’s for this reason that – on a theoretical level – we should have expected research on power poses to fail to replicate: simply acting more dominant will not make you more able to actually back up those boasts, and people shouldn’t be expected to take such posturing seriously. If you apply that same logic to nonhumans – say Rams – a male who behaves dominantly will occasionally encourage another male who will challenge that dominance. If neither backs down the result is a physical conflict, and the subsequent realization that writing metaphorical checks you cannot cash is a bad idea.

“You have his attention; sure hope you also have a thick skull, too”

This cursory analysis already suggests there might be a theoretical problem with the idea that people who are exposed to violent content in media will subsequently become more aggressive in real life. Yes, watching Rambo or playing Dark Souls might inspire some penchant for spilling fantasy blood (at least in the short term), but seeing violence doesn’t suddenly increase the advisably of your pursuing such a strategy, as you are no more likely to be able effectively employ it than you were before your exposure. Again, to place that in a nonhuman example (always a good idea when you’re dealing with psychology research to see if an idea still make sense; if it only makes sense for humans, odds are it’s lacking in interpretation), if you exposed a male ram to media depicting males aggressively slamming their horns into other males, that doesn’t suddenly mean your subject ram will be inspired to run out and challenge a rival. His chances of winning that contest haven’t changed, so why should his behavior?

Now the matter is more complex than this analysis lets on, admittedly, but it does give us something of a starting point for understanding why violent content in media – video games in particular – should not be expected to have uniform or lasting impacts on the player’s subsequent behavior. Before I get into the empirical side of this issue, however, I think it’s important I lay my potential bias on the table: I’m a gamer; have been my entire life, at least as far as I can remember. I’ve played games in all sorts of mediums – video, card, board, and sometimes combinations of those – and across a variety of genres, including violent ones. As such, when I see someone leveling accusations against one of my more cherished hobbies, my first response is probably defensive. That is, I don’t perceive people who research the link between violent games and aggression to be doing so for no particular reason; I assume they have some specific goals in mind (consciously understood or not) that center around telling other people what they shouldn’t do or enjoy, perhaps even ranging as far as trying to build a case for the censorship of such materials. As such, I’m by no means an unbiased observed in this matter, but I am also something of an expert in the subject matter as well, which can provide me with insights that others might not possess.

That disclaimer out the way, I wanted to examine some research today which examines the possibility that the relationship people have sometimes spotted between violent video game content and aggression isn’t casual (Przybylski et al, 2014; I say sometimes because apparently this link between the two is inconsistently present, possibly only short-term in nature, and the subject of some debate). The thrust of this paper focuses on the idea that human aggression (proximately) is a response to having one’s psychological needs thwarted. I think there are better ways to think about what aggression is, but this general idea is probably close enough to that truth to do us just fine. In brief, the idea motivating this paper is that people play video games (again, proximately), in part, because they provide feelings of competency and skill growth. Something about the challenges games offers to be overcome proves sufficiently motivating for players to get pleasure out of the experience. Importantly, this should hold true across gaming content: people don’t find content appealing because it is violent generally, but rather because it provides us abilities to test, display, and strengthen certain competencies. As such, manipulating the content of the games (from violent to non-violent) should be much less effective at causing subsequent aggression than manipulating the difficulty of the game (from easy/intuitive to difficult/confusing).    

“I’ll teach him a lesson about beating me in Halo”

This is a rather important factor to consider because the content of a game (whether it is violent or not, for instance) might be related to how difficult the game is to learn or master. As such, if researchers have been trying to vary the content without paying much mind to the other factors that correlate with it, that could handicap the usefulness of subsequent interpretations. Towards that end, Przybylski et al (2014) report on the results of seven studies designed to examine just that issue. I won’t be able to go over all of them in depth, but try to provide a general adequate summary of their methods and findings. In their first study, they examined how 99 participants reacted to playing a simple but non-violent game (about flying a paper airplane through rings) or a complex but violent one (a shooter with extensive controls). The players were then asked about their change in aggressive feelings (pre- and post-test difference) and mastery of the controls. The quick summary of the results was that aggressive content did not predict change in aggression scores above and beyond the effects of frustrations over the controls, while the control scores did predict aggression.

Their second study actually manipulated the content and complexity factors (N = 101). Two versions of the same game (Half-Life 2) were created, such that one contained violent content and the other did not, while the overall environment and difficulty were held constant. Again, there were no effects of content on aggression, but there was an effect of perceived mastery. In other words, people felt angry when they were frustrated with the game; not because of the content. Their third study (N = 104) examined what happened when a non-violent puzzle game (Tetris) was modified to either contain simple or complex control interface. As before, those who had to deal with the frustrating controls were quicker to access aggressive thoughts and terms than those in the intuitive control condition. Study 4 basically repeated that design with some additional variables and found the same type of results: perceived competency in the game correlated negatively with aggression and that people become more aggressive the less they enjoyed the game, among a few other things.The fifth study had 112 participants all play a complex game that was either (a) violent or non-violent, but also gave them either (b) 10 minutes of practice time with the game or no experience with it. As expected, there was an effect of being able to practice on subsequent aggression, but no effect of violent content.

Study 6 asked participants to first submerge their arm in ice water for 25 seconds (a time period ostensibly determined by the last participant), then play a game of Tetris for a few minutes that was modified to be either easy or difficult (but not because of the controls this time). Those assigned to play the more difficult version of Tetris also reported more aggressive feelings, and assigned the next subject to submerge their arm for about 30 seconds in the ice water (relative to the 22 second average assignment in the easy group). The final study surveyed regular players about their experiences gaming over the last month and aggressive feelings, again finding that the ratings of content did not predict aggressive self-reported reactions to gaming, but frustrations with playing the game did.

“I’m going to find the developer of this game and kill him for it!”

In summation, then, violent content per se does not appear to make players more aggressive; instead, frustration and losing seem to play a much larger role. It is at this point that my experience as a gamer comes in handy, because such an insight should be readily apparent to anyone who has watched many other people play games. As an ever-expanding library of YouTube rage-quit videos document, a gamer can become immediately enraged by losing at almost any game, regardless of the content (for those of you not in the know, rage-quitting refers to aggressively quitting out of a game following a loss, often accompanied by yelling, frustrating, and broken controllers). I’ve seen people losing their minds over shooters, sports games, card games, board games, and storming off while shouting. Usually such outbursts are short-term affairs – you don’t see that person the next day and notice they’re visibly more aggressive towards others indiscriminately – but the important part is that they almost always occur in response to losses (and usually losses deemed to be unfair, in some sense).

As a final thought, in addition to the introductory analysis and empirical evidence presented here, there are other reasons one might not predict that violent content per se would be related to subsequent aggression even if one wants to hold onto the idea that mere exposure to content is enough to alter future behavior. In this case, most of the themes found within games that have violent content are not violence and aggression as usually envisioned (like The Onion‘s piece on Close Range: the video game about shooting people point blank in the face). Instead, those themes usually focus on the context in which that violence is used: defeating monsters or enemies that threaten the safety of you or others, killing corrupt and dangerous individuals in positions of power, or getting revenge for past wrongs. Those themes are centered more around heroism and self-defense than aggression for the sake of violence. Despite that, I haven’t heard of many research projects examining whether playing such violent games could lead to increased psychological desires to be helpful, or encourage people to take risks to save others from suffering costs.

References: Przybylski, A., Rigby, C., Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2014). Competent-impeding electronic games and players’ aggressive feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 16, 441-457.

Sensitive Topics: Not All That Sensitive

Standards and Practices are a vital link in keeping good and funny ideas away from you, the television viewer

If you’ve ever been involved in getting an academic research project off the ground, you likely share some form of frustration with the Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) that you had to go through before you could begin. For those of you not the know, the IRB is an independent council set up by universities tasked with assessing and monitoring research proposals associated with the university for possible ethical violations. Their main goal is in protecting subjects – usually humans, but also nonhumans – from researchers who might otherwise cause them harm during the course of research. For instance, let’s say a researcher is testing an experimental drug for effectiveness in treating a harmful illness. The research begins by creating two groups of participants: one who receive the real drug and one who receives a placebo. Over the course of the study, if it becomes apparent that the experimental drug is working, it would be considered unethical for the researcher to withhold the effective treatment from the placebo group. Unfortunately, ethical breaches like that have happened historically and (probably) continue to happen today. It’s the IRB’s job to help reduce the prevalence of such issues.

Because the research ethics penguin just wasn’t cutting it

Well-intentioned as the idea is, the introduction of required IRB approval to conduct any research involving humans – including giving them simple surveys to fill out – places some important roadblocks in the way of researcher efficiency; in much the same way, after the 9/11 attacks airport security became much more of a headache to get through. First and foremost, the IRB usually requires a lot of paperwork and time for the proposal to be processes and examined. It’s not all that unusual for what should be a straightforward and perfectly ethical research project to sit in the waiting room of the IRB for six-to-eight weeks just to get green lit. That approval is not always forthcoming, though, with the IRB sending back revisions or concerns about projects regularly; revisions which, in turn, can hold the process up for additional days or weeks. For any motivated researcher, these kinds of delays can be productivity poison, as one’s motivation to conduct a project might have waned somewhat over the course of the two or three months since its inception. If you’re on a tight deadline, things can get even worse.

On the subject of concerns the IRB might express over research, today I wanted to talk about a matter referred to as sensitive topics research. Specifically, there are some topics – such as those related to sexual behavior, trauma, and victimization – that are deemed to pose greater than minimal risk to participants being asked about them. The fear in this case stems from the assumption that merely asking people (usually undergraduates) about these topics could be enough to re-traumatize them and cause them psychological distress above and beyond what they would experience in daily life. In that sense, then, research on certain topics can deemed above minimal risk, resulting in such projects being put under greater scrutiny and ultimately subjected to additional delays or modifications (relative to more “low-risk” topics like visual search tasks or personality measures, anyway).

That said, the IRBs are not necessarily composed of experts on the matter of ethics, nor do their concerns need empirical grounding to be raised; the mere possibility that harm might be caused can be considered grounds enough for not taking any chances and risking reputational or financial damage to the institution (or the participants, of course). That these concerns were raised frequently (but not supported) led Yeater et al (2012) to examine the matter empirically. The authors sought to subject their participants to a battery of questions and measures designated to be either (a) minimal risk, which were predominately cognitive tasks, or (b) above minimal risk, which were measures that asked about matters like sexual behavior and trauma. Before and after each set of measures, the participants would have their emotional states measured to see if any negative or positive changes resulted from taking part in the research.

The usual emotional response to lengthy surveys is always positive

The sample for this research involved approximately 500 undergraduates assigned to either the trauma-sex condition (n = 263) or the cognitive condition (n = 241). All of the participants first completed some demographic and affect measures designed to assess their positive and negative emotions. After that, those in the trauma-sex condition filled out surveys concerning their dating behavior, sexual histories, the rape myth acceptance scale, questions concerning their interest in short-term sex, sexual confidence, trauma and post-traumatic checklists, and childhood sexual and trauma histories. Additionally, females answered questions about their body, menstrual cycle, and sexual victimization histories; males completed similar surveys asking about their bodies, masturbation schedules, and whether they had sexually victimized women. Those in the cognitive condition filled out a similarly-long battery of tests measuring things like their verbal and abstract reasoning abilities.

Once these measures were completed, the emotional state of all the participants was again assessed along with other post-test reaction questions, including matters like whether they perceived any costs and benefits from engaging in the study, how mentally taxing their participation felt, and how their participation measured up to other life stressors in life like losing $20, getting a paper cut, a bad grade on a test, or waiting on line in the bank for 20 minutes.

The results from the study cut against the idea that undergraduate participants were particularly psychologically vulnerable to these sensitive topics. In both conditions, participants reported a decrease in negative affect over the course of the study. There was even an increase in positive affect, but only for the trauma-sex group. While those in the trauma-sex condition did report greater post-test negative emotions, the absolute value of those negative emotions were close to floor levels for both groups (both means were below a 2 on a scale of 1-7). That said, those in the trauma-sex condition also reported lower mental costs to taking part in the research and perceived greater benefits overall. Both groups reported equivalent positive emotions.

Some outliers were then considered. In terms of those reporting negative emotions, 2.1% of those in the cognitive condition (5 participants) and 3.4% of those in the trauma-sex condition (9 participants) reported negative emotions above the midpoint of the scale. However, the maximum value for those handful of participants were 4.15 and 5.52 (respectively) out of 7, falling well short of the ceiling. Looking specifically at women who had reported histories of victimization, there was no apparent difference between conditions with regard to affect on almost any of the post-test measures; the one exception was that women who had experienced a history of victimization reported the trauma-sex measures to be slightly more mentally taxing, but that could be a function of their having to spend additional time filling out the large number of extensive questionnaires rather than any kind of serious emotional harm. Even those who had been harmed in the past didn’t seem terribly bothered by answering some questions.

“While we have you here, would you like to answer a quick survey about your experience?”

The good news is that it would seem undergraduates are more resilient than they are often given credit for and not so easily triggered by topics like sex or abuse (which are frequently discussed on social platforms like Facebook and news sources). The sensitive topics didn’t seem to be all that sensitive; certainly not substantially more so than the standard types of minimal risk questions asked on other psychological measures. Even for those with histories of victimization. The question remains as to whether such a finding would be enough to convince those making the decisions about the risks inherent in this kind of research. I’d like to be optimistic on that front, but it would rely on the researchers being aware of the present paper (as you can’t rely on the IRB to follow the literature on that front, or indeed any front) and the IRB being open to hearing evidence to the contrary. As I have encountered reviewers who seem uninterested in hearing contrary evidence concerning deception, it’s a distinct possibility that the present research might not have the intended effect on mollifying IRB concerns. I certainly wouldn’t rule out it’s potential effectiveness, though, and this is definitely a good resource for researchers to have in their pocket if they encounter such issues.

References: Yeater, E., Miller, G., Rinehart, J., & Nason, E. (2012). Trauma and sex surveys meet minimal risk standards: Implications for institutional review boards. Psychological Science, 23, 780-787.


Spinning Sexism Research On Accuracy

When it comes to research on sexism, there appear to be many parties interested in the notion that sexism ought to be reduced. This is a laudable goal, and one that I would support; I am very much in favor in treating people as individuals rather than representatives of their race, sex, or any other demographic characteristics. It is unfortunately, however, that this goal often gets side-tracked by an entirely different one: trying to get people to reduce the extent to which people view men and women as different. What I mean by this is that I have seen many attempts to combat sexism by trying to reduce the perception that men and women differ in terms of their psychology, personality, intelligence, and so on; it’s much more seldom that those same voices appear to convince people who inaccurately perceive sex differences as unusually small to adjust their estimate upwards. In other words, rather that championing accuracy is perceptions, there appears to be a more targeted effort for minimizing particular differences; while those are sometimes the same thing (sometimes people are wrong because they overestimate), they are often not (sometimes people are wrong because they underestimate), and when those goals do overlap, the minimization side tends to win out.

Just toss your perceptions in with the rest of the laundry; they’ll shrink

In my last post, I discussed some research by Zell et al (2016) primarily in the service of examining measures of sexism and the interpretation of the data they produce (which I recommend reading first). Today I wanted to give that paper a more in-depth look to illustrate this (perhaps unconscious) goal of trying to get people to view the sexes as more similar than they actually are. Zell et al (2016) begin their introduction by suggesting that most psychological differences between men and women are small, and the cases in which medium to large differences exist – like mating preferences and aggression – tend to be rare. David Schmitt has already put remarks like that into some context, and I highly recommend you read his post on the subject. In the event you can’t be bothered to do so at the moment, one of the most important takeaway points from his post is that even if the differences in any one domain tend to be small on average, when considered across all those domains simultaneously, those small differences can aggregate into much larger ones.

Moreover, the significance of a gender difference is not necessarily determined by its absolute size, either. This was a point Steven Pinker mentioned in a somewhat-recent debate with Elizabeth Spelke (and was touched on again in a recent talk by Jon Haidt at SUNY New Paltz). To summarize this point briefly, if you’re looking at a trait in two normally-distributed populations that are, on average, quite similar, the further from that average value you get, the most extreme the difference between populations become. Pinker makes the point clear in this example:

“…it’s obvious that distributions of height for men and women overlap: it’s not the case that all men are taller than all women. But while at five foot ten there are thirty men for every woman, at six feet there are two thousand men for every woman. Now, sex differences in cognition tend not to be so extreme, but the statistical phenomenon is the same.”

Not only are small sex differences sometimes important, then, (such as when you’re trying to hire people for a job who are in the top 1% of distribution for a trait like intelligence, speed, conscientiousness; you name it) but a large number of small effects (as well as some medium and large ones) can all add up to collectively represent some rather large differences (and that assumes you’re accounting for all relevant sex differences; not just a non-representative sample of them). With all this considered, the declaration at the beginning of Zell et al’s paper that most sex differences tend to be small strikes me less as a statement of empirical concern, but rather one that serves to set up the premise for the rest of their project: specifically, the researchers wanted to test whether people’s scores on the ambivalent sexism inventory predicted (a) the extent to which they perceive sex differences as being large and (b) the extent to which they are inaccurate in their perceptions. The prediction in this case was that people who scored high on their ostensible measures of sexism would be more likely to exaggerate sex differences and more likely to be wrong about their size overall (as an aside, I don’t think those sexism questions measure what the authors hope they do; see my last post).

Pictured: Something not even close to what was being assessed in this study

In their first study, Zell et al (2016) asked about 320 participants to estimate how large they think sex differences are between men and women (from 1-99) were for 48 traits and to answer 6 questions intended to measure their hostile and benevolent sexism (as another aside, I have no idea why those 48 traits in particular were selected). These answers were then averaged for each participant to create an overall score for how large they viewed the sex differences to be, and how high they scored on hostile and benevolent sexism. When the relevant factors were plugged into their regression, the results showed that those higher in hostile (ß = .19) and benevolent (ß = .29) sexism tended to perceive sex differences as larger, on average. When examined by gender, it was found that women (ß = .41) who were higher in benevolent sexism were more likely to perceive sex differences as large (but this was not true for men: ß = .11) and – though it was not significant – the reverse pattern held for hostile sexism, such that women high in hostile sexism were nominally less likely to perceive sex differences as large (ß = -.32).

The more interesting finding, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that in spite of those scoring higher on their sexism scores perceiving sex differences to be larger, they were not really more likely to be wrong about them. Specifically, those who scored higher on benevolent sexism were slightly less accurate (ß = -.20), just as women tended to be less accurate than men (ß = -.19); however, hostile sexism scores were unrelated to accuracy altogether (ß = .003), and no interactions with gender and sexism emerged. To put that in terms of the simple correlations, hostile and benevolent sexism correlated much better with the perceived size of sex differences (rs = .26 and .43, respectively) than they did with accuracy (rs = -.12 and -.22, with the former not being significant and the latter being rather small). Now since we’re dealing with two genders, two sexism scales, and relatively small effects, it is possible that some of these findings are a bit more likely to be statistical flukes; that does tend to happen as you keep slicing data up. Nevertheless, these results are discussed repeated within the context of their paper as representing exaggerations: those scoring higher on these sexism measures are said to exaggerate sex differences, which is odd on account of them not consistently getting them all that wrong.

This interpretation extends to their second study as well. In that experiment, about 230 participants were presented with two mock abstracts and told that only one of them represented an accurate summary of psychological research on sex differences. The accurate version, of course, was the one that said sex differences were small on average and therefore concluded that men and women are very similar to each other, whereas the bogus abstract concluded that gender differences are often large and therefore men and women are very different from one another. As I reviewed in the beginning of the post, small differences can often have meaningful impacts both individually and collectively, so the lines about how men and women are very similar to each other might not reflect an entirely accurate reading of the literature even if the part about small average sex differences did. This setup is already conflating the two statements (“average effect sizes on all these traits is small” and “men and women are very similar across the board”).

“Most of the components aren’t that different from modern cars, so they’re basically the same”

As before, those higher in hostile and benevolent sexism tended to say that the larger sex difference abstract more closely reflected their personal views (women tended to select the large-difference abstract 50.4% of the time compared to men’s 44.2% as well). Now because the authors view the large sex difference abstract as being the fabricated one, they conclude that those higher in those sexism measures are less accurate and more likely to exaggerate these views (they also make a remark that their sexism measures indicate which people “endorse sexist ideologies”; a determination it’s not at all cut out for making). In other words, the authors interpret this finding as those selecting the large-differences abstract to hold “empirically unsupported” views (which in a sort-of ironic sense means that, as the late George Carlin put it, “Men are better at it” when it comes to recognizing sex differences).

This is an interesting methodological trick they employ: since they failed to find much in the way of a correlation between sexism scores and accuracy in their first study (it existed sometimes, but was quite small across the board and certainly much smaller than the perception of size correlation), they created a coarser and altogether worse measure of accuracy in the second study and use that to support their views that believing men and women tend to be rather different is wrong instead. As the old saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, change your measures until you do.

References: Zell, E., Strickhouser, J., Lane, T., & Teeter, S. (2016). Mars, Venus, or Earth? Sexism and the exaggeration of psychological gender differences. Sex Roles, 75, 287-300.

Research Tip: Ask About What You Want To Measure

Recently I served as a reviewer for a research article that had been submitted to a journal for publication. Without going into too much detail as to why, the authors of this paper wanted to control for people’s attitudes towards casual sex when conducting their analysis. They thought that it was possible people who were more sexually-permissive when it comes to infidelity might respond to certain scenarios differently than those who were less sexually-permissive. If you were the sensible type of researcher, you might do something like ask your participants to indicate on some scale as to how acceptable or unacceptable they think sexually infidelity is, then. The authors of this particular paper opted for a different, altogether stranger route: they noted that people’s attitudes towards infidelity correlate (imperfectly) with their political ideology (i.e., whether they consider themselves to be liberals or conservatives). So, rather than ask participants directly about how acceptable infidelity is (what they actually wanted to know), they asked participants about their political ideology and used that as a control instead.

 ”People who exercise get tired, so we measured how much people napped to assess physical fitness”

This example is by no means unique; psychology researchers frequently try to ask questions about topic X in the hopes of understanding something about topic Y. This can be acceptable at times, specifically when topic Y is unusually difficult – but not impossible – to study directly. After all, if topic Y is impossible to directly study, then one obviously cannot say that studying topic X tells you something about Y with much confidence, as you would have no way of assessing the relationship between X and Y to begin with. Assuming that the relationship between X and Y has been established and it is sufficiently strong and Y is unusually difficult to study directly, then there’s a good, practical case to be made for using X instead. When that is done, however, it should always be remembered that you aren’t actually studying what you’d like to study, so it’s important to not get carried away with the interpretation of your results.

This brings us nicely to the topic of research on sexism. When people hear the word “sexism” a couple things come to mind: someone who believes one sex is (or should be) – socially, morally, legally, psychologically, etc – inferior to the other, or worth less; someone who wouldn’t want to hire a member of one sex for a job (or intentionally pays them less if they did) strictly because of that variable regardless of their qualifications; someone who inherently dislikes members of one sex. While this list is by no means exhaustive, I suspect things like these are probably the prototypical examples of sexism; some kind of explicit, negative attitude about people because of their sex per se that directly translates into behavior. Despite this, people who research sexism don’t usually ask about such matters directly, as far as I’ve seen. To be clear, they easily could ask such questions assessing such attitudes in straightforward manners (in fact, they used to do just that with measures like the “Attitudes Towards Women Scale” in the 1970s), but they do not. As I understand it, the justification for not asking about such matters directly is because it has become more difficult to find people who actually express such views (Loo & Thorpe, 1998). As attitudes had already become markedly less sexist from 1972 to 1998, one can only guess at how much more change occurred from then to now. In short, it’s becoming rare to find blatant sexists anymore, especially if you’re asking college students.

Many researchers interpret that difficulty as being the result of people still holding sexist attitudes but either (a) are not willing express them publicly for fear of condemnation, or (b) are not consciously aware that they hold such views. As such, researchers like to ask about questions about “Modern Sexism” or “Ambivalent Sexism“; they maintain the word “sexism” in their scales, but they begin to ask about things which are not what people first think of when they hear the term. They no longer ask about explicitly sexist attitudes. Therein lies something of a problem, though: if what you really want to know is whether people hold particular sexist beliefs or attitudes, you need some way of assessing those attitudes directly in order to determine that other questions which don’t directly ask about that sexism will accurately reflect it. However, if such a method of assessing those beliefs accurately, directly, and easily does exist, then it seems altogether preferable to use that method instead. In short, just ask about the things you want to ask about. 

“We wanted to measure sugar content, so we assessed how much fruit the recipe called for”

If you continue on with using an alternate measure – like using the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI), rather than the Attitudes towards Women Scale – then you really should restrict your interpretations to things you’re actually asking about. As a quick example, let’s consider the ASI, which is made up of a hostile and benevolent sexism component. Zell et al (2016) summarize the scale as follows:

“Hostile sexism is an adversarial view of gender relations in which women are perceived as seeking control over men. Benevolent sexism is a subjectively positive view of gender relations in which women are perceived as pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored; as necessary companions to make a man complete; but as weak and therefore best relegated to traditional gender roles (e.g., homemaker).”

In other words, the benevolent scale measures the extent to which women are viewed as children: incapable of making their own decisions and, as such, in need of protection and provisioning by men. The hostile scale measures the extent to which men don’t trust women and view them as enemies. Glick & Fiske (1996) claim that  ”...hostile and benevolent sexism…combine notions of the exploited group’s lack of competence to exercise structural power with self-serving “benevolent” justifications.” However, not a single measure on either the hostile or benevolent sexism inventory actually asks about female competencies or whether women ought to be restricted socially. 

To make this explicit, let’s consider the questions Zell et al (2016) used to assess both components. In terms of hostile sexism, participants were asked to indicate their agreement with the following three statements:

  • Women seek power by gaining control over men
  • Women seek special favors under the guise of equality
  • Women exaggerate their problems at work

There are a few points to make about these questions: first, they are all clearly true to some extent. I say that because these are behaviors that all kinds of people engage in. If these behaviors are not specific to one sex – if both men and women exaggerate their problems at work – then agreement with the idea that women do does not stop me from believing men do this as well and, accordingly, does not necessarily track any kind of sexist belief (the alternative, I suppose, is to believe that women never exaggerate problems, which seems unlikely). If the questions are meant to be interpreted as a relative statement (e.g., “women exaggerate their problems at work more than men do”), then that statement needs to first be assessed empirically as true or false before you can say that endorsement of it represents sexism. If women actually do tend to exaggerate problems at work more (a matter that is quite difficult to objectively determine because of what the term exaggerate means), then agreement with the statement just means you accurately perceive reality; not that you’re a sexist.

More to the point, however, none of the measures ask about what the researchers interpret them to mean: women seeking special favors does not imply they are incompetent or unfit to hold positions outside of the home, nor does it imply that one views gender relations primarily as adversarial. If those views are really what a researcher is trying to get at, then they ought to just ask about them directly. A similar story emerges for the benevolent questions:

  • Women have a quality of purity few men possess
  • Men should sacrifice to provide for women
  • Despite accomplishment, men are incomplete without women

 Again, I see no mention of women’s competency, ability, intelligence, or someone’s endorsement of strict gender roles. Saying that men ought to behave altruistically towards women in no way implies that women can’t manage without men’s help. When a man offers to pay for an anniversary dinner (a behavior which I have seen labeled sexist before), he is usually not doing so because he feels his partner is incapable of paying anymore than my helping a friend move suggests I view them as a helpless child. 

“Our saving you from this fire implies you’re unfit to hold public office”

The argument can, of course, be made that scores on the ASI are related to the things these researchers actually want to measure. Indeed, Glick & Fiske (1996) made that very argument: they report that the hostile sexism scores (controlling for the benevolent scores) did correlate with “Old Fashion Sexism” and “Attitudes towards Women” scores (rs = .43 and .60, respectively, bearing in mind that was almost 20 years ago and these attitudes are changing). However, the correlations between benevolent sexism scores and these sexist attitudes were effectively zero (rs = -.03 and .04, respectively). In other words, it appears that people endorse these statements for reasons that have nothing at all to do with whether they view women as weak, or stupid, or any other pejorative you might throw out there, and their responses may tell you nothing at all about their opinion concerning gender roles. If you want to know about those matters, then ask about them. In general, it’s fine to speculate about what your results might mean – how they can best be interpreted – but an altogether easier path is to simply ask about such matters directly and reduce the need for pointless speculation.

 References: Glick, P. & Fiske, S. (1996). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 70, 491-512.

Loo, R. & Thorpe, K. (1998). Attitudes towards women’s roles in society: A replication after 20 years. Sex Roles, 39, 903-912.

Zell, E., Strickhouser, J., Lane, T., & Teeter, S. (2016). Mars, Venus, or Earth? Sexism and the exaggeration of psychological gender differences. Sex Roles, 75, 287-300.

The Value Of Association Value

Sometime ago I was invited to give a radio interview regarding a post I had written: The Politics of Fear. Having never been exposed to this kind of a format before, I found myself having to try and make some adjustments to my planned presentation on the fly, as it quickly became apparent that the interviewer was looking more for quick and overly-simplified answers, rather than anything with real depth (and who can blame him? It’s not like many people are tuning into the radio with the expectation of receiving anything resembling a college education). At one point I was posed with a question along the lines of, “how people can avoid letting their political biases get the better of them,” which was a matter I was not adequately prepared to answer. In the interests of compromise and giving the poor host at least something he could work with (rather than the real answer: “I have no idea; give me a day or two and I’ll see what I can find”), I came up with a plausible sounding guess: try to avoid social isolation of your viewpoints. In other words, don’t remove people from your friend groups or social media just because you disagree with they they say, and actively seek out opposing views. I also suggested that one attempt to expand their legitimate interests in the welfare of other groups in order to help take their views more seriously. Without real and constant challenges to your views, you can end up stuck in a political and social echo chamber, and that will often hinder your ability to see the world as it actually is.

“Can you believe those nuts who think flooding poses real risks?”

As luck would have it, a new paper (Almaatouq et al, 2016) fell into my lap recently that – at least in some, indirect extent – helps speak to the quality of the answer I had provided at the time (spoiler: as expected, my answer was pointing in the right direction but was incomplete and overly-simplified). The first part of the paper examines the shape of friendships themselves: specifically whether they tend to be reciprocal or more unrequited in one direction or the other. The second part leverages those factors to try and explain what kinds of friendships can be useful for generating behavioral change (in this case, getting people to be more active). Put simply, if you want to change someone’s behavior (or, presumably, their opinions) does it matter if (a) you think they’re your friend, but they disagree, (b) they think you’re their friend, but you disagree, (c) whether you both agree, and (d) how close you are as friends?

The first set of data reports on some general friendship demographics. Surveys were provided to 84 students in a single undergraduate course that asked to indicate, from 0-5, whether they considered the other students to be strangers (0), friends (3), or one of their best friends (5). The students were also asked to predict how each other student in the class would rate them.  In other words, you would be asked, “How close do you rate your relationship with X?” and “How close does X rate their relationship to you?” A friendship was considered mutual if both parties rated each other as at least a 3 or greater. There was indeed a positive correlation between the two ratings (r = .36), as we should expect: if I rate you highly as a friend, there should be a good chance you also rate me highly. However, that reality did diverge significantly from what the students predicted. If a student has nominated someone as a friend, their prediction as to how that person would rate them showed substantially more correspondence (r = .95). Expressed in percentages, if I nominated someone as a friend, I would expect them to nominate me back about 95% of the time. In reality, however, they would only do so about 53% of the time.

The matter of why this inaccuracy exists is curious. Almaatouq et al, (2016) put forward two explanations, one of which is terrible and one of which is quite plausible. The former explanation (which isn’t really examined in any detail, and so might just have been tossed in) is that people are inaccurate at predicting these friendships because non-reciprocal friendships “challenge one’s self-image.” This is a bad explanation because (a) the idea of a “self” isn’t consistent with what we know about how the brain works, (b) maintaining a positive attitude about oneself does nothing adaptive per se, and (c) it would need to posit a mind that is troubled by unflattering information and so chooses to ignore it, rather than the simpler solution of a mind that is simply not troubled by such information in the first place. The second, plausible explanation is that some of these ratings of friendships actually reflect some degree of aspiration, rather than just current reality: because people want friendships with particular others, they behave in ways likely to help them obtain such friendships (such as by nominating their relationship as mutual). If these ratings are partially reflective of one’s intent to develop them over time, that could explain some inaccuracy.

Though not discussed in the paper, it is also possible that perceivers aren’t entirely accurate because people intentionally conceal friendship information from others. Imagine, for instance, what consequences might arise for someone who finally works up the nerve to go tell their co-workers how they really feel about them. By disguising the strength of our friendships publicly, we can leverage social advantages from that information asymmetry. Better to have people think you like them than know you don’t in many cases.

 ”Of course I wasn’t thinking of murdering you to finally get some quiet”

With this understanding of how and why relationships can be reciprocal or asymmetrical, we can turn to the matter of how they might influence our behavior and, in turn, how satisfactory my answer was. The authors utilized a data set from the Friends and Family study, which had asked a group of 108 people to rate each other as friends on a 0-7 scale, as well as collected information about their physical activity level (passively, via a device in their smartphones). In this study, participants could earn money by becoming more physically active. In the control condition, participants could only see their own information; in the two social conditions (that were combined for analysis) they could see both their own activity levels and those of two other peers: in one case, participants earned a reward based only on their own behavior, and in the other the reward was based on the behavior of their peers (it was intended to be a peer-pressure condition). The relationship variables and conditions were entered into a regression to predict the participant’s change in physical activity.

In general, having information about the activity levels of peers tended to increase the activity of the participants, but the nature of those relationships mattered. Information about the behavior of peers in reciprocal friendships had the largest effect (b = 0.44) on affecting change. In other words, if you got information about people you liked who also liked you, this appeared to be most relevant. The other type of relationship that significantly predicted change was one in which someone else valued you as a friend, even if you might not value them as much (b = 0.31). By contrast, if you valued someone else who did not share that feeling, information about their activity didn’t seem to predict behavioral changes well (b = 0.15) and, moreover, the strength of friendships seemed to be rather besides the point (b = -0.04), which was rather interesting. Whether people were friends seemed to matter more than the depth of that friendship.

So what do these results tell us about my initial answer regarding how to avoid perceptual biases in the social world? This requires a bit of speculation, but I was heading in the right direction: if you want to affect some kind of behavioral change (in this case, reducing one’s biases rather than increasing physical activity), information from or about other people is likely a tool that could be effectively leveraged for that end. Learning that other people hold different views than your own could cause you to think about the matter a little more deeply, or in a new light. However, it’s often not going to be good enough to simply see these dissenting opinions in your everyday life if you want to end up with a meaningful change. If you don’t value someone else as an associate, they don’t value you, or neither of you value the other, then their opinions are going to be less effective at changing yours than they otherwise might be, relative to when you both value each other.

At least if mutual friendship doesn’t work, there’s always violence

The real tricky part of that equation is how one goes about generating those bonds with others who hold divergent opinions. It’s certainly not the easiest thing in the world to form meaningful, mutual friendships with people who disagree (sometimes vehemently) with your outlooks on life. Moreover, achieving an outcome like “reducing cognitive biases” isn’t even always an adaptive thing to do; if it were, it would be remarkable that those biases existed in the first place. When people are biased in their assessment of research evidence, for instance, they’re usually biased because something is on the line, as far as they’re concerned. It does an academic who has built his career on his personal theory no favors to proudly proclaim, “I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life being wrong and achieving nothing of lasting importance, but thanks for the salary and grant funding.” As such, the motivation to make meaningful friendships with those who disagree with them is probably a bit on the negative side (unless their hope is that through this friendship they can persuade the other person to adopt their views, rather than vice versa because – surely – the bias lies with other people; not me). As such, I’m not hopeful that my recommendation would play out well in practice, but at least it sounds plausible enough in theory.

References: Almaatouq, A., Radaelli, L., Pentland, A., & Shmueli, E. (2016). Are you your friends’ friends? Poor perception of friendship ties limits the ability to promote behavioral change. PLOS One, 11, e0151588. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0151588

More Evidence Regarding The Causes Of Homosexuality

Many years ago, the initial inspiration for beginning my blog was a critique I had written of the logic underlying a Lady Gaga song, “Born This Way,” which I felt committed itself firmly to the naturalistic fallacy (it’s also where the namesake of the site came from: Pop Psychology, or the psychological theory found within a pop song). Specifically, I felt that many aspects of the development of homosexuality (both the male and female varieties) were not as well understood as they should be in order to make some of the claims that many people felt confident in expressing. Today, however, I’m pleased to report on some new – and very interesting – research that might pave the way for furthering that understanding. Many important questions still remain regarding how to interpret the results of this research, but I believe that they are certainly looking in the right places for useful leads. 

“Ur-u-guay, huh? Sounds like as good as place to start as any…”

There’s a lot to discuss regarding the results of the paper (Skorska et al, 2016), so I wanted to jump right into it. The researchers were examining the possibility that a maternal immune response might play a key role in the developmental of a homosexual orientation in males. This effect is said to be the result of the mother’s immune system having a maladaptive reaction to the male-specific proteins associated with the Y-chromosome during pregnancy. Effectively, then, the mother’s immune system would (sometimes) treat certain male proteins produced by the fetus as a foreign pathogen and attempt to attack it, resulting in a few quirks of development, such as a homosexual orientation or even fetal loss if the reaction was strong enough (i.e. miscarriages). Already there is a lot to like about this hypothesis on a theoretical level, as it doesn’t posit any hidden adaptive benefits for a homosexual orientation (as such proposed benefits have not received sound empirical support historically). The question remains as to how to test for this kind of an effect, however. The method that the authors use is a rather simple one: examining maternal reports of fetal loss and birth weights. The logic here is that higher rates of fetal loss and lower birth weights both index perturbations in development. As such, they could provide indirect evidence for some kind of maternal immune response doing the causing.

The researchers recruited approximately 130 mothers and classified them on the basis of what kind of children they had: those who had at least 1 gay son (n = 54), and those who only had heterosexual sons (n = 72). These mothers were asked about their age, pregnancy history (numbers of miscarriages, stillbirths, and live births), the duration of their pregnancies, and the sex and sexual orientation of their offspring. These mothers were then classified further into one of five groups: those with gay male only-children (n = 8), those with gay male offspring that had no older brothers (n = 23), those with gay male offspring with older brothers (n = 23), those with heterosexual male only-children (n = 11), and those with heterosexual male offspring with siblings (n = 61). 

First, the authors compared the history of fetal loss between these groups of mothers. In total, 62 instances of fetal loss were reported (60 miscarriages, 1 still birth, and 1 unreported). As predicted, the average number of fetal losses were higher in the first group (mothers of gay male only-children; M = 1.25), relative to all the other groups (d = 0.76), which did not significantly differ from each other (respective Ms = 0.43, 0.74, 0.09, and 0.39). When considered in terms of the ratio of miscarriages to live to births, a similar picture emerged: mothers of gay male only-children reported more miscarriages to live births (M = 1.25) than the other groups (d = 1.55), which did not differ from each other (respective Ms = 0.14, 0.24, 0.09, and 0.17).  

Next, the authors sought to compare birth weight between the former groups. As birth weight tends to increase over successive pregnancies, the comparisons were limited to first live-born sons only (n = 63); this left 4 gay male only-children, 7 gay males with no older brothers, 14 heterosexual males with gay younger brothers, 10 heterosexual male only-children, and 28 heterosexual males with siblings. The results mirrored those of the fetal-loss data: mothers of gay male only-children tended to give birth to infants that weighed significantly less (M = 2970 grams), than all other groups (d = 1.21), which did not differ (respective Ms = 3713, 3489, 3506, and 3633). This was the case despite the duration of pregnancies not differing between any of the groups.

“Please just get out of me”

In sum, then, mothers of gay male only-children tended to have a greater number of miscarriages and give birth to significantly lighter offspring than mothers of other kinds. While it’s important to not get carried away with this finding given the relatively small sample size (I wouldn’t put too much stock in an N of 8), there is some suggestive evidence here worth pursuing further that something might be going awry with fetal development in the case of gay male offspring. That said, I’m going to assume for a moment that these results are indicative of more general patterns in order to speculate about what they could mean.

In general, these results present us with more questions than answers concerning both what might be going on, as well as why it is happening. The first question that comes to mind is why this effect seemed to be specific to gay male only-children, rather than gay male children with siblings? Skorska et al (2016) posit that this might have something to do with some mothers showing a greater immune response against male offspring, resulting in more fetal loss, the net result being that such mothers are both less likely to have any children at all and more likely to have gay male children in particular. While that might have some degree of plausibility to it, it seems that such an effect should be male-specific, and not expected to impact the number of live female births a mother has. In other words, mothers with gay male offspring should be expected to have proportionately more female children owing to a greater male fetal loss. I don’t know of any data bearing on that point, but it seems easy enough to obtain. If mothers of gay men do not tend to have a greater ratio of female-to-male offspring, this would cast some doubt on the explanation (and, since the only data I’ve heard reports that gay men tend to have more older brothers, it seems they would have noticed the sister point by now if it existed). On the other hand, if this is a more general immune reaction against fetal bodies, regardless of their sex, we would not expect such a pattern (it might also predict that mothers taking immunosuppressants would be less likely to have gay offspring/miscarry, but things are unlikely to be that simple owing to the fact that other effects would result too).

Another piece worth considering is the twin data on homosexuality. Identical male twins – those who share both their genetics and maternal fetal environment – only show a concordance rate of homosexuality of approximately 30%. The extent to which this complicates the maternal immune hypothesis is hard to say: it could be possible that one twin tends to get exposed to the brunt of these maternal antibodies despite both being approximately as vulnerable to them, but that remains to be seen.  

On a broader, theoretical level, however, the maternal immune response hypothesis raises an important question. As far as I’m aware, homosexual preferences (not the occasional behavior) do not appear to be well documented in nonhuman species; the only exception I’m aware of is Rams. If it is truly the case that maternal immune responses are the drivers of homosexual development in humans, if would be very curious that similar outcomes don’t appear to obtain across at least other mammalian species. I suppose it’s possible that these outcomes do occur in other species and it’s just the case that no one has really noticed it yet, but I doubt that’s very likely. So the matter of why humans seem rather unique in that regard is a question that needs answering. Has evolution managed to “figure out” a solution to this problem in other species (metaphorically speaking)? If it has, why hasn’t a similar solution arisen in humans and sheep?

It just ran out of square-shaped blocks?

This brings me to the final idea; one that I’ve discussed before. It is indeed possible that looking for something immune-related is in the right ballpark, but maybe in the wrong area. Perhaps what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the result of a maternal immune response against male fetuses, but rather the result of an immune response against an actual infectious agent (or the result of that agent’s behavior itself). Admittedly, I’m no expert in the realm of immune system functioning or infectious agents, but two possibilities come to mind: first, perhaps mothers infected with a particular pathogen during fetal development might ramp up their immune response temporarily, a byproduct of which being that fetal bodies get fewer resources from the mother or caught up in the immune response themselves, both of which could plausibly affect development. Mothers more-chronically affected might have fewer children in general and more gay male children in particular, potentially explaining the current pattern of results. Alternatively, it is possible that some infectious agent itself affects the development of the fetus (such as how pathogens can render people blind or deaf). As a byproduct of that infection, if acquired during a particular critical developmental window, the child comes to develop a homosexual orientation (or is miscarried by the mother). At present, I am not aware of any evidence that speaks to this possibility, but it certainly accords with the known data.

References: Skorska, M., Blanchard, R., VanderLaan, D., Zucker, K., & Bogaert, A. (2016). Gay male only-children: Evidence for low birth weight and high maternal miscarriage rates. Archives of Sexual Behavior, DOI: 10.1007/s10508-016-0829-9

Money For Nothing, But The Chicks Aren’t Free

When people see young, attractive women in relationships with older and/or unattractive men, the usual perception that comes to mind is that the relationship revolves around money. This perception is usual because it tends to be accurate: women do, in fact, tend to prefer men who both have access to financial resources and who are willing to share them.  What is rather notable is that the reverse isn’t quite as a common: a young, attractive man shacking up with an older, rich woman just doesn’t call too many examples to mind. Women seem to have a much more pronounced preference for men with wealth than men have for women. While examples of such preferences playing themselves out in real life exist anecdotally, it’s always good to try and showcase their existence empirically.

Early attempts were made by Dr. West, but replications are required

This brings me to a new paper by Arnocky et al (2016) that examined how altruism affects mating success in humans (as this is still psychology research, “humans” translates roughly as “undergraduate psychology majors”, but such is the nature of convenience samples). The researchers first sought (a) to document that more altruistic people really were preferred as mating partners (spoilers: they are), and then (b) to try and explain why we might expect them to be. Let’s begin with what they found, as that much is fairly straightforward. In their first study, Arnocky et al (2016) recruited 192 women and 105 men from a Canadian university and asked them to complete a few self-report measures: an altruism scale (used to measure general dispositions towards providing aid to others when reciprocation is unlikely), a mating success scale (measuring perceptions of how desirable one tends to be towards the opposite sex), their numbers of lifetime sexual partners, as well as the number of those that were short-term, the number of times over the last month they had sex with their current partner (if they had one, which about 40% did), and a measure of their personality more generally.

These measures were then entered into a regression (controlling for personality). When it came to predicting perceived mating success, reported altruism was a significant predictor (ß = 0.25), but neither sex nor the altruism-sex interaction was. This suggests that both men and women tend become more attractive to the opposite sex if they behave more altruistically (or, conversely, that people who are more selfish are less desirable, which sounds quite plausible). However, what it means for one to be successful in the mating domain varies by sex: for men, having more sexual partners usually implies a greater level of success, whereas the same does not hold true for women as often (as gametes are easy to obtain for women, but investment is difficult). In accordance with this point, it was also found that altruism predicted the number of lifetime sexual partners overall (ß = .16), but this effect was specific to men: more altruistic men had more sexual partners (and more casual ones), whereas more altruistic women did not. Finally, within the contexts of existing relationships, altruism also (sort of) predicted the number of times someone had sex with their partner in the last month (ß = .27); while there was not a significant interaction with sex, a visual inspection of the provided graphs suggest that if this effect existed, it was being predominately carried by altruistic women having more sex within a relationship; not the men.

Now that’s all well and good, but the authors wanted to go a little further. In their second study, rather than just asking participants about how altruistic they were, they offered participants the opportunity to be altruistic: after completing the survey, participants could indicate how much (if any) of their earnings they wanted to donate to a charity of their choice. That way, you get what might be a less-biased measure of one’s actual altruism (rather than their own perception of it). Another 335 women and 189 men were recruited for this second phase and, broadly, the results follow the same general pattern, but there were some notable differences. In terms of mating success, actual altruistic donations (categorized as either making a donation or not, rather than the amount donated) were not a good predictor (ß = -.07). In terms of number of lifetime dating and sexual partners, however, the donation-by-sex interaction was significant, indicating that more charitable men – but not women – had a greater number of relationships and sexual partners (perhaps suggesting that charitable men tend to have more, but shorter, relationships, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for the women involved). Donations also failed to predict the amount of sex participants had been having in their relationship in the last month.

Guess the blood drive just isn’t a huge turn on after all

With these results in mind, there are two main points I wanted to draw attention to. The first of these concerns the measures of altruism in general: effectively charitable behaviors to strangers. While such a behavior might be a more “pure” form of altruistic tendencies as compared with, say, helping a friend move or giving money to your child, it does pose some complications for the present topic. Specifically, when looking for a desirable mate, people might not want someone who is just generally altruistic. After all, it doesn’t always do me much good if my committed partner is spending time and investing resources in other people. I would probably prefer that resources be preferentially directed at me and those I care about, rather than strangers, and I might especially dislike it if altruism directed towards strangers came at my expense (as the same resources can’t be invested in me and someone else most of the time). While it is possible that such investments in strangers could return to me later in the form of them reciprocating such aid to my partner, it seems unlikely that deficit would be entirely and consistently made up, let alone surpassed.

To make the point concrete, if someone was equally altruistic towards all people, there would be little point in forming as kind of special relationship with that kind person (friendships or otherwise) because you’d get the same benefits from them regardless of how much you invested in them (even if that amount was nothing).

This brings me to the second point I wanted to discuss: the matter of why people like the company of altruists. There are two explanations that come to mind. The first explanation is simple: people like access to resources, and altruists tend to provide them. This explanation should hardly require much in the way of testing given its truth is plainly obvious. The second explanation is more complex, and it’s one the authors favor: altruism honestly signals some positive, yet difficult-to-observe quality about the altruist. For instance, if I were to donate blood, or my time to clean up a park, this would tell you something about my underlying genetic qualities, as an individual in worse condition couldn’t shoulder the costs of altruism effectively. In this sense, altruism functions in a comparable manner to a peacock’s tail feathers; it’s a biologically-honest signal because it’s costly.

While it does have some plausibility, this signaling explanation runs into some complications. First, as the authors note, women donated more than men did (70% to 57%), despite donating predicting sexual behavior better for men. If women were donating to signal some positive qualities in the mating domain, it’s not at all clear it was working. Further, patterns of charitable donations in the US show a U-shaped distribution, whereby those with access to the most and  the fewest financial resources tend to donate more than those in the middle. This seems like a pattern the signaling explanation should not predict if altruism is meaningfully and consistently tied to important, but difficult-to-observe biological characteristics. Finally, while the argument could be made that altruism directed towards friends, sexual partners, and kin are not necessarily indicative of someone’s willingness to donate to strangers (i.e., how altruistic they are dispositionally might not predict how nepotistic they are), well, that’s kind of a problem for the altruism-as-signaling model. If donations towards strangers are fairly unpredictive of altruism towards closer relations, then they don’t really tell you what you want to know.  Specifically, if you want to know how good of a friend or dating partner someone would be for you, a better cue is how much altruism they direct towards their friends and romantic partners; not how much they direct to strangers.

“My boyfriend is so altruistic, buying drinks for other women like that”

Last, we can consider the matter of why people behave altruistically, with respect to the mating domain. (Very) broadly speaking, there are two primary challenges people need to overcome: attracting a mate and retaining them. Matters get tricky here, as altruism can be used for both of these tasks. As such, a man who is generally altruistic towards lot of people might be using altruism as a means of attracting the attention of prospective mates without necessarily intending to keep them around. Indeed, the previous point about how altruistic men report having more relationships and sexual partners could be interpreted in just such a light. There are other explanations, of course, such as the prospect that generally selfish people simply don’t have many relationships at all, but these need to be separated out. In either case, in terms of how much altruism we provide to others, I suspect that the amount provided to strangers and charitable organizations only makes up a small fraction; we give much more towards friends, family, and lovers regularly. If that’s the case, measuring someone’s willingness to donate in those fairly uncommon contexts might not capture their desirability as partner as well as we would like.

References: Arnocky, S., Piche, T., Albert, G., Ouellette, D., & Barclay, P. (2016). Altruism predicts mating success in humans. British Journal of Psychology, DOI:10.1111/bjop.12208


Homophobia Isn’t Repressed Homosexuality

In the wake of the Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub, there were quite a number of speculations floating around my social media that the shooter himself had been harboring homosexual urges that he had been trying to repress. Repression – being the odd thing that it apparently is – in this case involved his visiting gay nightclubs and using gay dating apps to communicate – and presumably have sex – with other gay men; he might have even been doing all those things while telling himself he had no interest in such activities, that they were morally wrong, or at the very least while trying to keep it secret from other people in his life. The shooting resulted, then, at least in part from this unsuccessful repression of his homosexual urges; an inward loathing directed outwards at others. Or so the story went, anyway. Subsequent official investigations into Omar Mateen’s life revealed no evidence of such behavior: no gay dating apps, no credible homosexual partners, and no gay pornography. Perhaps he was just very good at covering his tracks, but a more parsimonious explanation jumps out at me: he probably wasn’t grappling with homosexual urges.

“Keep grappling with those urges! Don’t stop! You’re almost there…”

The underlying idea in that case – that some degree of homophobia is actually explained by the homophobes in question trying to deny their own homosexual urges – remains a somewhat popular speculation. It has roots as far back as Freud, and I’ve already discussed one piece of more modern research on the idea from the mid-90s. This homosexuality repression hypothesis is also even a subplot in one of my favorite movies, American Beauty. For an idea with such a long history, it does seem rather peculiar that more empirical research on the topic doesn’t seem to exist. Perhaps the most obvious guess as to why such research doesn’t exist is that its not exactly the easiest thing in the world to measure someone’s implicit sexual attraction (provided such a thing can even be said to exist at all). If the subjects themselves aren’t even aware of it, a failure to uncover any evidence of its existence might not mean it’s not there; it might just mean that you don’t know how to uncover it. Designing the proper experiments and accurately interpreting the data resulting from them thus becomes troublesome.

Before considering some new research on the hypothesis, then, I wanted to take a step back and consider why, on a theoretical level, we shouldn’t expect implicit or repressed homosexual urges to predict homophobic attitudes particularly well. The first starting point is to note that explicit homosexuality is rare in humans (about 1-3%). This should be expected, as homosexuality does not appear to be adaptive; same-sex attraction just isn’t a good way to reproduce ones’ genes directly or indirectly (whether through kin or alliance formation). Further, open homosexuals don’t tend to be particularly homophobic; at least not as far as I know. Given that rarity, then, if something around even 20% of the population is homophobic, then there is either a lot of homophobia unrelated to homosexuality, or repressed homosexuality is very, very common. In other words, one of two statements follow, neither of which bode well for the homophobia-as-repressed-attraction hypothesis: (a) lots of people who are homophobic harbor no homosexual urges or (b) many of those who are homophobic harbor such urges.

If the first idea is true, then very little homophobia could even be explained in principle by homosexual urges. Most people who were homophobic just wouldn’t have homosexual urges, and an absent variable can’t explain a present trait.

If the second idea is true, however, then repression-via-homophobia strategy would be fairly ineffective. In order to understand why, we need to start with the following point: people are only repressing homosexual urges to convince others that they are not gay. From an adaptive point of view, an organism does not need to deceive itself about its desires. False beliefs, in that sense, just don’t do anything functionally useful, and there is no “self” to be deceived in the first place, given the modular nature of the mind. Taking that as a given for the moment, if you’re trying to convince others that you don’t have a desire, you will only be successful to the extent you engage in behaviors that someone with that desire would usually not. Placed into a simple example, if you’re trying to convince others that you’re not hungry, you turn down food. Eating a lot isn’t a particularly good way to do that, as people who aren’t hungry don’t normally eat a lot. So, if lots of people who do have homosexual urges were homophobic, then adopting a homophobic stance should actually be expected to positively signal that one is a homosexual, as being homophobic is something lots of (closeted) homosexual people actually do.

Thus the dilemma of the homophobia-as-repression hypothesis is highlighted: if only few homophobes are meaningful homosexual, then homosexuality can’t explain much; if many homophobes actually are homosexual, then homophobia will be ineffective at persuading others one is straight.

“They’re trying to signal they’re gay so much that they must be straight!”

As such, it should come as little surprise that some recent research finds no evidence for this homophobia-as-repressed-homosexuality hypothesis. MacInnis & Hodson (2013) sought to examine whether any link exists between a measure of implicit sexual attraction and explicit homophobia in heterosexuals. In order to do this, the authors used an implicit association task (IAT) adapted to sexual attraction: a task in which participants have to categorize pictures as male/female and words as sexually attractive/unattractive, and the speed at which they do so should tell you something about the cognitive association between the two. I’m wary of the interpretations of IATs for a number of reasons, but I’ll assume for the time being that such a test does indeed kind of measure what they hope. Participants were also asked about their explicit sexual attractions to men and women, and their attitudes towards gay/lesbian and heterosexual populations. In total, their sample represented 237 Canadian undergraduates (85 men).

As I would expect, the IAT results only correlated modestly with explicit measures of sexual attraction (r = .37 for men, r = .15 for women). The correlations between those IAT measures and negative, explicit evaluations of homosexuals for men was r = -.06, and for women, r = -.24. In other words, not only were such correlations quite small, but they nominally went in the opposite direction of the repression account: as people showed more implicit attraction to the same sex, they also showed less explicit negativity. On a similar note, men’s explicit attractions to the same sex negatively correlated with their homophobia as well (r = -.31), meaning that as men reported more conscious attraction to other men, they were also more positive towards homosexuals. People tend to be more positive towards those that resemble them – for good reason – so this isn’t terribly shocking.

The researchers tried additional analyses as well to address other interpretations of the repression-to-attraction account. First, they divided the data such that those who showed positive homosexual implicit attraction were compared to those who on the negative side. The male sample, it’s worth noting, could not be analyzed here as only 4 of the 85 men had such a score (perhaps there’s just not much implicit attraction floating around?); for women, the same finding as before emerged: those showing more implicit attraction were less negative towards homosexuals. Next, the authors tried to examine only those in the upper-half of homophobia score, and then those in the more extreme ends. However, the implicit attraction scores did not differ between those high and low in prejudice for men or women. The repression hypothesis wasn’t even supported when the authors tried to isolate those participants whose explicit and implicit attraction scores were maximally different from one another (the authors frame this as participants overstating their heterosexuality on an explicit level, but I suspect the actual interpretation is that the IAT isn’t too great of a tool).

Directions for future research: invasive mind-reading technology

With all the dividing of their sample, MacInnis & Hodson (2013) gave their data every possible advantage to find somethingeven some spurious relationship – but essentially nothing arose. They broke the data down by men and women; attitudes towards gays, lesbians, and homosexuals in general; those high or low in prejudice; those whose implicit and explicit attractions diverged. No matter how it was sliced, support was not found for the repression idea. When relationships did exist between implicit attraction and explicit attitudes, it usually ran in the opposite direction of the repression hypothesis: those who showed implicit attraction were less negative towards homosexuals (albeit quite modestly). I don’t suspect this will stop those who fancy the repression hypothesis to abandon it – likely because they value it for reasons beyond its established truth value, which is currently dubious at best –  but it is a possible starting point for that journey.   

References: MacInnis, C. & Hodson, G. (2013). Is homophobia associated with an implicit same-sex attraction? Journal of Sex Research, 50, 777-785.

The Fight Against Self-Improvement

In the abstract, most everyone wants to be the best version of themselves they can. More attractive bodies, developing and improving useful skills, a good education, achieving career success; who doesn’t want those things? In practice, lots of people, apparently. While people might like the idea of improving various parts of their life, self-improvement takes time, energy, dedication, and restraint; it involves doing things that might not be pleasant in the short-term with the hope that long-term rewards will follow. Those rewards are by no means guaranteed, though, either in terms of their happening at all or the degree to which they do. While people can usually improve various parts of their life, not everyone can achieve the levels of success they might prefer no matter how much time they devote to their crafts. All of those are common reasons people will sometimes avoid improving themselves (it’s difficult and contains opportunity costs), but they do not straightforwardly explain why people sometimes fight against others improving.

“How dare they try to make a better life for themselves!”

I was recently reading an article about the appeal of Trump and came across this passage concerning this fight against the self-improvement of others:

“Nearly everyone in my family who has achieved some financial success for themselves, from Mamaw to me, has been told that they’ve become “too big for their britches.”  I don’t think this value is all bad.  It forces us to stay grounded, reminds us that money and education are no substitute for common sense and humility. But, it does create a lot of pressure not to make a better life for yourself…”

At first blush, this seems like a rather strange idea: if people in your community – your friends and family – are struggling (or have yet to build a future for themselves), why would anyone object to the prospect of their achieving success and bettering their lot in life? Part of the answer is found a little further down:

“A lot of these [poor, struggling] people know nothing but judgment and condescension from those with financial and political power, and the thought of their children acquiring that same hostility is noxious.”

I wanted to explore this idea in a bit more depth to help explain why these feelings might rear their head when faced with the social or financial success of others, be they close or distant relations.

Understanding these feelings requires drawing on a concept my theory of morality leaned heavily on: association value. Association value refers to the abstract value that others in the social world have for each other; essentially, it asks the question, “how desirable of a friend would this person make for me (and vice versa)?” This value comes in two parts: first, there is the matter of how much value someone could add to your life. As an easy example, someone with a lot of money is more capable of adding value to your life than someone with less money; someone who is physically stronger tends to be able to provide benefits a weaker individual could not; the same goes for individuals who are more physically attractive or intelligent. It is for this reason that most people wish they could improve on some or all of these dimensions if doing so were possible and easy: you end up as a more desirable social asset to others.

The second part of that association value is a bit trickier, however, reflecting the crux of the problem: how willing someone is to add value to your life. Those who are unwilling to help me have a lower value than those willing to make the investment. Reliable friends are better than flaky ones, and charitable friends are better than stingy ones. As such, even if someone has a great potential value they could add to my life, they still might be unattractive as associates if they are not going to turn that potential into reality. An unachieved potential is effectively the same thing as having no potential value at all. Conversely, those who are very willing to add to my life but cannot actually do so in meaningful ways don’t make attractive options either. Simply put, eager but incompetent individuals wouldn’t make good hires for a job, but neither would competent yet absent ones.

“I could help you pay down your crippling debt. Won’t do it, though”

With this understanding of association value, there is only one piece left to add to equation: the zero-sum nature of friendship. Friendship is a relative term; it means that someone values me more than they value others. If someone is a better friend to me, it means they are a worse friend to others; they would value my welfare over the welfare of others and, if a choice had to be made, would aid me rather than someone else. Having friends is also useful in the adaptive sense of the word: they help provide access to desirable mates, protection, provisioning, and can even help you exploit others if you’re on the aggressive side of things. Putting all these pieces together, we end up with the following idea: people generally want access to the best friends possible. What makes a good friend is a combination of their ability and willingness to invest in you over others. However, their willingness to do so depends in turn on your association value to them: how willing and able you are to add things to their lives. If you aren’t able to help them out – now or in the future – why would they want to invest resources into benefiting you when they could instead put those resources into others who could?

Now we can finally return to the matter of self-improvement. By increasing your association value through various forms of self-improvement (e.g., making yourself more physically attractive and stronger through exercise, improving your income by moving forward in your career, learning new things, etc) you make yourself a more appealing friend to others. Crucially, this includes both existing friends and higher-status individuals who might not have been willing to invest in you prior to your ability to add value to their life materializing. In other words, as your value as an associate rises, unless the value of your existing associates rises in turn, it is quite possible that you can now do better than them socially, so to speak. If you have more appealing social prospects, then, you might begin to neglect or break-off existing contacts in favor of newer, more-profitable friendships or mates. It is likely that your existing contacts understand this – implicitly or otherwise – and might seek to discourage you from improving your life, or preemptively break-off contact with you if you do, under the assumptions you will do likewise to them in the future. After all, if you’re moving on eventually they would be better off building new connections sooner, rather than later. They don’t want to invest in failing relationships anymore than you do.

In turn, those who are thinking about self-improvement might actually decide against pursuing their goals not necessarily because they wouldn’t be able to achieve them, but because they’re afraid that their existing friends might abandon them, or even that they themselves might be the ones who do the abandoning. Ironically, improving yourself can sometimes make you look like a worse social prospect.

To put that in a simple example, we could consider the world of fitness. The classic trope of weak high-schooler being bullied by the strong, jock type has been ingrained in many stories in our culture. For those doing the bullying, their targets don’t offer them much socially (their association value to others is low, while the bully’s is high) and they are unable to effectively defend themselves, making exploitation appear as an attractive option. In turn, those who are the targets of this bullying are, in some sense, wary of adopting some of the self-improvement behaviors that the jocks engage in, such as working out, because they either don’t feel they can effectively compete against the jocks in that realm (e.g., they wouldn’t be able to get as strong, so why bother getting stronger) or because they worry that improving their association value by working out will lead to them adopting a similar pattern of behavior to those they already dislike, resulting in their losing value to their current friends (usually those of similar, but relatively-low association value). The movie Mean Girls is an example of this dynamic struggle in a different domain.

So many years later, and “Fetch” still never happened…

This line of thought has, as far as I can tell, also been leveraged (again, consciously or otherwise) by one brand within the fitness community: Planet Fitness. Last I heard an advertisement for their company on the radio, their slogan appeared to be, “we’re not a gym; we’re planet fitness.” An odd statement to be sure, because they are a gym, so what are we to make of it? Presumably that they are in some important respects different from their competition. How are they different from other gyms? The “About” section on their website lays their differences out in true, ironic form:

“Make yourself comfy. Because we’re Judgement Free…you deserve a little cred just for being here. We believe no one should ever feel Gymtimidated by Lunky behavior and that everyone should feel at ease in our gyms, no matter what his or her workout goals are…We’re fiercely protective of our Planet and the rights of our members to feel like they belong. So we create an environment where you can relax, go at your own pace and just do your own thing without ever having to worry about being judged.”

This marketing is fairly transparent pandering to those who currently do not feel they can compete with those who are very fit or are worried about becoming a “lunk” themselves (they even have an alarm in the gym designed to bet set off if someone is making too much noise while lifting, or wearing the wrong outfit). However, in doing so, they devalue those who are successful or passionate in their pursuits of self-improvement. While I have never seen a gym more obsessed with judging their would-be members than Planet Fitness, so long as that judgment is pointed at the right targets, they try to appeal (presumably effectively) to certain portions of the population untapped by other gyms. Planet Fitness wants to be your friend; not the friend of those jerks who make you feel bad.

There is value in not letting success go to one’s head; no one wants a fair-weather friend who will leave the moment it’s expedient. Such an attitude undermines loyalty. The converse, however, is that using that as an excuse to avoid (or condemn) self-improvement will make you and others worse-off in the long term. A better solution to this dilemma is to improve yourself so you can improve those who matter the most to you, hoping they reciprocate in turn (or improve together for even better success).

Skepticism Surrounding Sex

It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies; the only variable is about what

One of my favorite shows from years ago was House; a show centered around a brilliant but troubled doctor who frequently discovers the causes of his patient’s ailments through discerning what they – or others – are lying about. This outlook on people appears to be correct, at least in spirit. Because it is sometimes beneficial for us that other people are made to believe things that are false, communication is often less than honest. This dishonesty entails things like outright lies, lies by omission, or stretching the truth in various directions and placing it in different lights. Of course, people don’t just lie because deceiving others is usually beneficial. Deception – much like honesty – is only adaptive to the extent that people do reproductively-relevant things with it. Convincing your spouse that you had an affair when you didn’t is dishonest for sure, but probably not a very useful thing to do; deceiving someone about what you had for breakfast is probably fairly neutral (minus the costs you might incur from coming to be known as a liar). As such, we wouldn’t expect selection to have shaped our psychology to lie about all topics with equal frequency. Instead, we should expect that people tend to preferentially lie about particular topics in predictable ways.

Lies like, “This college degree will open so many doors for you in life”

The corollary idea to that point concerns skepticism. Distrusting the honesty of communications can protect against harmful deceptions, but it also runs the risk of failing to act on accurate and beneficial information. There are costs and benefits to skepticism as there are to deception. Just as we shouldn’t expect people to be dishonest about all topics equally often, then, we shouldn’t expect people to be equally skeptical of all the information they receive either. This is point I’ve talked about before with regards to our reasoning abilities, whereby information agreeable to our particular interests tends to be accepted less critically, while disagreeable information is scrutinized much more intensely.

This line of thought was recently applied to the mating domain in a paper by Walsh, Millar, & Westfall (2016). Humans face a number of challenges when it comes to attracting sexual partners typically centered around obtaining the highest quality of partner(s) one can (metaphorically) afford, relative to what one offers to others. What determines the quality of partners, however, is frequently context specific: what makes a good short-term partner might differ from what makes a good long-term partner and – critically, as far as the current research is concerned – the traits that make good male partners for women are not the same as those that make good females partner for men. Because women and men face some different adaptive challenges when it comes to mating, we should expect that they would also preferentially lie (or exaggerate) to the opposite sex about those traits that the other sex values the most. In turn, we should also expect that each sex is skeptical of different claims, as this skepticism should reflect the costs associated with making poor reproductive decisions on the basis of bad information.

In case that sounds too abstract, consider a simple example: women face a greater obligate cost when it comes to pregnancy than men do. As far as men are concerned, their role in reproduction could end at ejaculation (which it does, for many species). By contrast, women would be burdened with months of gestation (during which they cannot get pregnant again), as well as years of breastfeeding prior to modern advancements (during which they also usually can’t get pregnant). Each child could take years of a woman’s already limited reproductive lifespan, whereas the man has lost a few minutes. In order to ease those burdens, women often seek male partners who will stick around and invest in them and their children. Men who are willing to invest in children should thus prove to be more attractive long-term partners for women than those who are unwilling. However, a man’s willingness to stick around needs to be assessed by a woman in advance of knowing what his behavior will actually be. This might lead to men exaggerating or lie about their willingness to invest, so as to encourage women to mate with them. Women, in turn, should be preferentially skeptical of such claims, as being wrong about a man’s willingness to invest is costly indeed. The situation should be reversed for traits that men value in their partners more than women.

Figure 1: What men most often value in a woman

Three such traits for both men and women were examined by Walsh et al (2016). In their study, eight scenarios depicting a hypothetical email exchange between a man and woman who had never met were displayed to approximately 230 (mostly female; 165) heterosexual undergraduate students. For the women, these emails depicted a man messaging a woman; for men, it was a woman messaging a man. The purpose of these emails was described as the person sending them looking to begin a long-term intimate relationship with the recipient. Each of these emails described various facets of the sender, which could be broadly classified as either relevant primarily to female mating interests, relevant to male interests, or neutral. In terms of female interests, the sender described their luxurious lifestyle (cuing wealth), their desire to settle down (commitment), or how much they enjoy interacting with children (child investment). In terms of male interests, the sender talked about having a toned body (cuing physical attractiveness), their openness sexually (availability/receptivity), or their youth (fertility and mate value). In the two neutral scenarios, the sender either described their interest in stargazing or board games.

Finally, the participants were asked to rate (on a 1-5 scale) how deceitful they thought the sender was, whether they believed the sender or not, and how skeptical they were of the claims in the message. These three scores were summed for each participant to create a composite score of believability for each of the messages (the lower the score, the less believable it was rated as being). Those scores were then averaged across the female-relevant items (wealth, commitment, and childcare), the male-relevant items (attractiveness, youth, and availability), and the control conditions. (Participants also answered questions about whether the recipient should respond and how much they personally liked the sender. No statistical analyses are reported on those measures, however, so I’m going to assume nothing of note turned up)

The results showed that, as expected, the control items were believed more readily (M = 11.20) than the male (M = 9.85) or female (9.6) relevant items. This makes sense, inasmuch as believing lies about stargazing or interests in board games aren’t particularly costly for either sex in most cases, so there’s little reason to lie about them (and thus little reason to doubt them); by contrast, messages about one’s desirability as a partner have real payoffs, and so are treated more cautiously. However, an important interaction with the sex of the participant was uncovered as well: female participants were more skeptical on the female-relevant items (M = about 9.2) than males were (M = 10.6); similarly, males were more likely to be skeptical in male-relevant conditions  (M = 9.5) than females were (M = 10). Further, the scores for the individual items all showed evidence of the same sex kinds of differences in skepticism. No sex difference emerged for the control condition, also as expected.

In sum, then – while these differences were relatively small in magnitude – men tended to be more skeptical of claims that, if falsely believed, were costlier for them than women, and women tended to be more skeptical of claims that, if falsely believed, were costlier for them than men. This is a similar pattern to that found in the reasoning domain, where evidence that agrees with one’s position is accepted more readily than evidence that disagrees with it.

“How could it possibly be true if it disagrees with my opinion?”

The authors make a very interesting point towards the end of their paper about how their results could be viewed as inconsistent with the hypothesis that men have a bias to over-perceived women’s sexual interest. After all, if men are over-perceiving such interest in the first place, why would they be skeptical about claims of sexual receptivity? It is possible, of course, that men tend to over-perceive such availability in general and are also skeptical of claims about its degree (e.g., they could still be manipulated by signals intentionally sent by females and so are skeptical, but still over-perceive ambiguous or less-overt cues), but another explanation jumps out at me that is consistent with the theme of this research: perhaps when asked to self-report about their own sexual interest, women aren’t being entirely accurate (consciously or otherwise). This explanation would fit well with the fact that men and women tend to perceive a similar level of sexual interest in other women. Then again, perhaps I only see that evidence as consistent because I don’t think men, as a group, should be expected to have such a bias, and that’s biasing my skepticism in turn.

References: Walsh, M., Millar, M., & Westfall, S. (2016). The effects of gender and cost on suspicion in initial courtship communications. Evolutionary Psychological Science, DOI 10.1007/s40806-016-0062-8