Quid Pro Quo

Managing relationships is a task that most people perform fairly adeptly. That’s not to say that we do so flawlessly – we certainly don’t – but we manage to avoid most major faux pas with regularity. Despite our ability to do so, many of us would not be able to provide compelling answers that help others understand why we do what we do. Here’s a frequently referenced example: if you invited your friend over for dinner, many of you would likely find it rather strange – perhaps even insulting – if after the meal your friend pulled out his wallet and asked how much he owed you for the food. Though we would find such behavior strange or rude, when asked to explain what is rude about it, most people would verbally stumble. It’s not that the exchange of money for food is strange; that part is really quite normal. We don’t expect to go into a restaurant, be served, eat, and then leave without paying. There are also other kinds of strange goods and services – such a sex and organs – that people often do see something wrong with exchanging resources for, at least so long as the exchange is explicit; despite that, we often have less of a problem with people giving such resources away.

Alright; not quite implicit enough, but good try

This raises all sorts of interesting questions, such as why is it acceptable for people to give away things but not accept money for them? Why would it be unacceptable for a host to expect his guests to pay, or for the guests to offer? The most straightforward answer is that the nature of these relationships are different: two friends have different expectations of each other than two strangers, for instance. While such an answer is true enough, it don’t really deepen our understanding of the matter; it just seems to note the difference. One might go a bit further and begin to document some of the ways in which these relationships differ, but without a guiding functional analysis of why they differ we would be stuck at the level of just noting differences. We could learn not only that business associates treat each other differently than friends (which we knew already), but also some of the ways they do. While documenting such things does have value, it would be nice to place such facts in a broader framework. On that note, I’d like to briefly consider one such descriptive answer to the matter of why these relationships differ before moving onto the latter point: the distinction between what has been labeled exchange relationships and communal relationships. 

Exchange relationships are said to be those in which one party provides a good or service to the other in the hopes of receiving a comparable benefit in return; the giving thus creates the obligation for reciprocity. This is the typical consumer relationship that we have with businesses as customers: I give you money, you give me groceries. Communal relationships, by contrast, do not carry similar expectations; instead, these are relationships in which each party cares about the welfare of the other, for lack of a better word, intrinsically. This is more typically of, say, mother-daughter relationships, where the mother provisions her daughter not in the hopes of her daughter one day provisioning her, but rather because she earnestly wishes to deliver those benefits to her daughter.On the descriptive level, then, this difference between expectations of quid pro quo are supposed to differentiate the two types of relationships. Friends offering to pay for dinner are viewed as odd because they’re treating a communal relationship as an exchange one.

Many other social disasters might arise from treating one type of social relationship as if it were another. One of the most notable examples in this regard is the ongoing disputes over “nice guys”, nice guys, and the women they seek to become intimate with. To oversimplify the details substantially, many men will lament that women do not seem to be interested in guys who care about their well-being, but rather seek men who offer resources or treat them as less valuable. The men feel they are offering a communal relationship, but women opt for the exchange kind. Many women return the volley, suggesting instead that many of the “nice guys” are actually entitled creeps who think women are machines you put niceness coins into to get them to dispense sex. Now, it’s the men seeking the exchange relationships (i.e., “I give you dinner dates and you give me affection”), whereas the women are looking for the communal ones. But are these two types of relationships – exchange and communal – really that different? Are communal relationships, especially those between friends and couples, free of the quid-pro-quo style of reciprocity? There are good reasons to think that they are not quite different in kind, but rather different in respect to the  details of the quids and quos.

A subject our good friend Dr. Lecter is quite familiar with

To demonstrate this point, I would invite you to engage in a little thought experiment: imagine that your friend or your partner decided one day to behave as if you didn’t exist: they stopped returning your messages, they stopped caring about whether they saw you, they stopped coming to your aid when you needed them, and so on. Further, suppose this new-found cold and callous attitude wouldn’t change in the future. About how long would it take you to break off your relationship with them and move onto greener pastures? If your answer to that question was any amount of time whatsoever, then I think we have demonstrated that the quid-pro-quo style of exchange still holds in such relationships (and if you believe that no amount of that behavior on another’s part would ever change how much you care about that person, I congratulate you on the depths of your sunny optimism and view of yourself as an altruist; it would also be great if you could prove it by buying me things I want for as long as you live while I ignore you). The difference, then, is not so much whether there are expectations of exchanges in these relationships, but rather concerning the details of precisely what is being exchanged for what, the time frame in which those exchanges take place, and the explicitness of those exchanges.

(As an aside, kin relationships can be free of expectations of reciprocity. This is because, owing to the genetic relatedness between the parties, helping them can be viewed – in the ultimate, fitness sense of the word – as helping yourself to some degree. The question is whether this distinction also holds for non-relatives.)

Taking those matters in order, what gets exchanged in communal relationships is, I think, something that many people would explicitly deny is getting exchanged: altruism for friendship. That is to say that people are using behavior typical of communal relationships as an ingratiation device (Batson, 1993): if I am kind to you today, you will repay with [friendship/altruism/sex/etc] at some point in the future; not necessarily immediately or at some dedicated point. These types of exchange, as one can imagine, might get a little messy to the extent that the parties are interested in exchanging different resources. Returning to our initial dinner example, if your guest offers to compensate you for dinner explicitly, it could mean that he considers the debt between you paid in full and, accordingly, is not interested in exchanging the resource you would prefer to receive (perhaps gratitude, complete with the possibility that he will be inclined to benefit you later if need be). In terms of the men and women example for before, men often attempt to exchange kindness for sex, but instead receive non-sexual friendship, which was not the intended goal. Many women, by contrast, feel that men should value the friendship…unless of course it’s their partner building friendship with another woman, in which case it’s clearly not just about friendship between them.

But why aren’t these exchanges explicit? It seems that one could, at least in principle, tell other people that you will invite them over for dinner if they will be your friend in much the same way that a bank might extend a loan to person and ask that it be repaid over time. If the implicit nature of these exchanges were removed, it seems that lots of people could be saved a lot of headache. The reason such exchanges cannot be made explicit, I think, has to do with the signal value of the exchange. Consider two possible friends: one of those friends tells you they will be your friend and support you so long as you don’t need too much help; the other tells you they will support you no matter what. Assuming both are telling the truth, the latter individual would make the better friend for you because they have a greater vested interest in your well-being: they will be less likely to abandon you in times of need, less likely to take better social deals elsewhere, less likely to betray you, and the like. In turn, that fact should incline you to help the latter more than the former individual. After all, it’s better for you to have your very-valuable allies alive and well-provisioned if you want them to be able to continue to help you to their fullest when you need it. The mere fact that you are valuable to them makes them valuable to you.

“Also, your leaving would literally kill me, so…motivation?”

This leaves people trying to walk a fine line between making friendships valuable in the exchange-sense of the word (friendships need to return more than they cost, else they could not have been selected for), while maintaining the representation that they not grounded in explicit exchanges publicly so as to make themselves appear to be better partners. In turn, this would create the need for people to distinguish between what we might call “true friends” – those who have your interests in mind – and “fair-weather friends” – those who will only behave as your friend so long as it’s convenient for them. In that last example we assumed both parties were telling the truth about how much they value you; in reality we can’t ever be so sure. This strategic analysis of the problem leaves us with a better sense as for why friendship relationships are different from exchange ones: while both involve exchanges, the nature of the exchanges do not serve the same signaling function, and so their form ends up looking different. People will need to engage in proximately altruistic behaviors for which they don’t expect immediate or specific reciprocity in order to credibly signal their value as an ally. Without such credible signaling, I’d be left taking you at your word that you really have my interests at heart, and that system is way too open to manipulation.

Such considerations could help explain, in part, why people are opposed to exchanging things like selling organs or sex for money but have little problem with such things being given for free. In the case of organ sales, for instance, there are a number of concerns which might crop up in people’s minds, one of the most prominent being that it puts an explicit dollar sign on human life. While we clearly need to do so implicitly (else we could, in principle, be willing to exhaust all worldly resources trying to prevent just one person from dying today), to make such an exchange implicit turns the relationship into an exchange one, sending a message along the lines of, “your life is not worth all that much to me”. Conversely, selling an organ could send a similar message: “my own life isn’t worth that much to me”. Both statements could have the effect of making one look like a worse social asset even if, practically, all such relationships are fundamentally based in exchanges; even if such a policy would have an overall positive effect on a group’s welfare.

References: Batson, C. (1993). Communal and exchange relationships: What is the difference? Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 677-683.

DeScioli, P. & Kurzban, R. (2009). The alliance hypothesis for human friendship. PLoS ONE, 4(6): e5802. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005802

Some Thoughts On Side-Taking

Humans have a habit of inserting themselves in the disputes of other people. We often care deeply about matters concerning what other people do to each other and, occasionally, will even involve ourselves in disputes that previously had nothing to do with us; at least not directly. Though there are many examples of this kind of behavior, one of the most recent concerned the fatal shooting of a teen in Ferguson, Missouri, by a police officer. People from all over the country and, in some cases, other countries, were quick to weigh in on the issue, noting who they thought was wrong, what they think happened, and what punishment, if any, should be doled out. Phenomena like that one are so commonplace in human interactions it’s likely the case that the strangeness of the behavior often goes almost entirely unappreciated. What makes the behavior strange? Well, the fact that intervention in other people’s affairs and attempts to control their behavior or inflict costs on them for what they did tends to be costly. As it turns out, people aren’t exactly keen on having their behavior controlled by others and will, in many cases, aggressively resist those attempts.

Not unlike the free-spirited house cat

Let’s say, for instance, that you have a keen interest in killing someone. One day, you decide to translate that interest into action, attacking your target with a knife. If I were to attempt and intervene in that little dispute to try and help your target, there’s a very real possibility that some portion of your aggression might become directed at me instead. It seems as if I would be altogether safer if I minded my own business and let you get on with yours. In order for there to be selection for any psychological mechanisms that predispose me to become involved in other people’s disputes, then, there need to be some fitness benefits that outweigh the potential costs I might suffer. Alternatively, there might also be costs to me for not becoming involved. If the costs to non-involvement are greater than the costs of involvement, then there can also be selection for my side-taking mechanisms even if they are costly. So what might some of those benefits or costs be?

One obvious candidate is mutual self-interest. Though that term could cover a broad swath of meanings, I intend it in the proximate sense of the word at the moment. If you and I both desire that outcome X occurs, and someone else is going to prevent that outcome if either of us attempt to achieve it, then it would be in our interests to join forces – at least temporarily – to remove the obstacle in both of our paths. Translating this into a concrete example, you and I might be faced by an enemy who wishes to kill both of us, so by working together to kill him first, we can both achieve an end we desire. In another, less direct case, if my friend became involved in a bar fight, it would be in my best interests to avoid seeing my friend harmed, as an injured (or dead) friend is less effective at providing me benefits than a healthy one. In such cases, I might preferentially side with my friend so as to avoid seeing costs inflicted on him. In both cases, both the other party and I share a vested interest in the same outcome obtaining (in this case, the removal of a mutual threat).

Related to that last example is another candidate explanation: kin selection. As it is adaptive for copies of my genes to reproduce themselves regardless of which bodies they happen to be located in, assisting genetic relatives in disputes could similarly prove to be useful. A partially-overlapping set of genetic interests, then, could (and likely does) account for a certain degree of side-taking behavior, just as overlapping proximate interests might. By helping my kin, we are achieving a mutually-beneficial (ultimate-level) goal: the propagation of common genes.

A third possible explanation could also be grounded in reciprocal altruism, or long-term alliances. If I take your side today to help you achieve our goals, this might prove beneficial in the long term to the extent that it encourages you to take my side in the future. This explanation would work even in the absence of overlapping proximate or genetic interests: maybe I want to build my house where others would prefer I did not and maybe you want to get warning labels attached to ketchup bottles.You don’t really care about my problem and I don’t really care about yours, but so long as you’re willing to help me scratch my back on my problem, I might also be willing to help you scratch yours.

Also not unlike the free-spirited house cat

There is, however, another prominent reason we might take the side of another individual in a dispute: moral concerns. That is, people could take sides on the basis of whether they perceive someone did something “wrong”. This strategy, then, relies on using people’s behavior to take sides. In that domain, locating the benefits to involvement or the costs to non-involvement becomes a little trickier. Using behavior to pick sides can carry some costs: you will occasionally side against your interests, friends, and family by doing so (to the extent that those groups behave in immoral ways towards others). Nevertheless, the relative upsides to involvement in disputes on the basis of morality need to exist in some form for the mechanisms generating that behavior to have been selected for. As moral psychology likely serves the function of picking sides in disputes, we could consider how well the previous explanations for side taking fare for explaining moral side taking.

We can rule out the kin selection hypothesis immediately as explaining the relative benefits to moral side taking, as taking someone’s side in a dispute will not increase your genetic relatedness to them. Further, a mechanism that took sides on the basis of kinship should be primarily using genetic relatedness as an input for side-taking behavior; a mechanism that uses moral perceptions should be relatively insensitive to kinship cues. Relatedness is out.

A mutualistic account of morality could certainly explain some of the variance we see in moral side-taking. If both you and I want to see a cost inflicted on an individual or group of people because their existence presents us with costs, then we might side against people who engage in behaviors that benefit them, representing such behavior as immoral. This type of argument has been leveraged to understand why people often oppose recreational drug use: the opposition might help people with long-term sexual strategies inflict costs on the more promiscuous members of a population. The complication that mutualism runs into, though, is that certain behaviors might be evaluated inconsistently in that respect. As an example, murder might be in my interests when in the service of removing my enemies or the enemies of my allies; however, murder is not in my interests when used against me or my allies. If you side against those who murder people, you might also end up siding against people who share your interests and murder people (who might, in fact, further your interests by murdering others who oppose them).

While one could make the argument that we also don’t want to be murdered ourselves – accounting for some or all of that moral representation  of murder as wrong – something about that line doesn’t sit right with me: it seems to conceive of the mutual interest in an overly broad manner. Here’s an example of what I mean: let’s say that I don’t want to be murdered and you don’t want to be murdered. In some sense, we share an interest in common when it comes to preventing murder; it’s an outcome we both want to avoid. So let’s say one day I see you being attacked by someone who intends to murder to you. If I were to come to your aid and prevent you from being killed, I have not necessarily achieved my goal (“I don’t want to be murdered”); I’ve just helped you achieve yours (“You don’t want to be murdered”). To use an even simpler example, if both you and I are hungry, we both share an interest in obtaining food; that doesn’t mean that my helping you get food is filling my interests or my stomach. Thus, the interest in the above example is not necessarily a mutual one. As I noted previously, in the case of friends or kin it can be a mutual interest; it just doesn’t seem to be the case when thinking about the behavior per se. My preventing your murder is only useful (in the fitness sense of the word) to the extent that doing so helps me in some way in the future.

Another account of morality which differs from the above positions posits that side-taking on the basis of behavior could help reduce the costs of becoming involved in the disputes of others. Specifically, if all (or at least a sizable majority of) third parties took the same side in a dispute, one side would back down without the need for fights to be escalated to determine the winner (as more evenly-matched fights might require increased fighting costs to determine a winner, whereas lopsided ones often do not). This is something of a cost-reduction model. While the idea that morality functions as a coordination device – the same way, say, a traffic light does – raises an interesting possibility, it too comes with a number of complications. Chief among those complications is that coordination need not require a focus on the behavior of the disputants. In much the same way that the color of a traffic light bears no intrinsic relationship to driving behavior but is publicly observable, so too might coordination in the moral domain need not bear any resemblance to the behavior of the disputants. Third parties could, for instance, coordinate around the flip of a coin, rather than the behavior of the disputants. If anything, coin flips might be better tools than disputant’s behavior as, unlike behavior, the outcome of coin flips are easily observable. Most immoral behavior is notably not publicly observable, making coordination around it something of a hassle.

 And also making trials a thing…

What about the alliance-building idea? At first blush, taking sides on the basis of behavior seems like a much different type of strategy than siding on the basis of existing friendships. With some deeper consideration, though, I think there’s a lot of merit to the idea. Might behavior work as a cue for who would make a good alliance partner for you? After all, friendships have to start somewhere, and someone who was just stolen from might have a sudden need for partial partners that you might fill by punishing the perpetrator. Need provides a catalyst for new relationships to form. On the reverse end, that friend of yours who happens to be killing other people is probably going to end up racking up more than a few enemies: both the ones he directly impacted and the new ones who are trying to help his victims. If these enemies take a keen interest in harming him, he’s a riskier investment as costs are likely coming his way. The friendship itself might even become a liability to the extent that the people he put off are interested in harming you because you’re helping him, even if your help is unrelated to his acts. At such a point, his behavior might be a good indication that his value as a friend has gone down and, accordingly, it might be time to dump your friend from your life to avoid those association costs; it might even pay to jump on the punishing bandwagon. Even though you’re seeking partial relationships, you need impartial moral mechanisms to manage that task effectively.

This could explain why strangers become involved in disputes (they’re trying to build friendships and taking advantage of a temporary state of need to do so) and why side-taking on the basis of behavior rather than identity is useful at times (your friends might generate more hassle than they’re worth due to their behavior, especially since all the people they’re harming look like good social investments to others). It’s certainly an idea that deserves more thought.

Moral Stupefaction

I’m going to paint a picture of loss. Here’s a spoiler alert for you: this story will be a sad one.

Mark is sitting in a room with his cat, Tigger. Mark is a 23-year-old man who has lived most of his life as a social outcast. He never really fit in at school and he didn’t have any major accomplishments to his name. What Mark did have was Tigger. While Mark had lived a lonely life in his younger years, that loneliness had been kept at bay when, at the age of 12, he adopted Tigger. The two had been inseparable ever since, with Mark taking care of the cat with all of his heart. This night, as the two laid together, Tigger’s breathing was labored. Having recently become infected with a deadly parasite, Tigger was dying. Mark was set on keeping his beloved pet company in its last moments, hoping to chase away any fear or pain that Tigger might be feeling. Mark held Tigger close, petting him as he felt each breath grow shallower. Then they stopped coming all together. The cat’s body went limp, and Mark watched the life of only thing he had loved, and that had loved him, fade away.

As the cat was now dead and beyond experiencing any sensations of harm, Mark promptly got up to toss the cat’s body into the dumpster behind his apartment. On his way, Mark passed a homeless man who seemed hungry. Mark handed the man Tigger’s body, suggesting he eat it (the parasite which had killed Tigger was not transmittable to humans). After all, it seemed like a perfectly good meal shouldn’t go to waste. Mark even offered to cook the cat’s body thoroughly.

Now, the psychologist in me wants to know: Do you think what Mark did was wrong? Why do you think that? 

Also, I think we figured out the reason no one else liked Mark

If you answered “yes” to that question, chances are that at least some psychologists would call you morally dumbfounded. That is to say you are holding moral positions that you do not have good reasons for holding; you are struck dumb with confusion as to why you feel the way you do. Why might they call you this, you ask? Well, chances are because they would find your reasons for the wrongness of Mark’s behavior unpersuasive. You see, the above story has been carefully crafted to try and nullify any objections about proximate harms you might have. As the cat is dead, Mark isn’t hurting it by carelessly disposing of the body or even by suggesting that others eat it. As the parasite is not transmittable to humans, no harm would come of consuming the cat’s body. Maybe you find Mark’s behavior at the end disgusting or offensive for some reason, but your disgust and offense don’t make something morally wrong, the psychologists would tell you. After hearing these counter arguments, are you suddenly persuaded that Mark didn’t do something wrong? If you still feel he did, well, consider yourself morally dumbfounded as, chances are, you don’t have any more arguments to fall back on. You might even up saying, “It’s wrong but I don’t know why.”

The above scenario is quite similar to the ones presented to 31 undergraduate subjects in the now-classic paper on moral dumbfounding by Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy (2000). In the paper, subjects are presented with one reasoning task (the Heinz dilemma, asking whether a man should steal to help his dying wife) that involves trading off the welfare of one individual for another, and four other scenarios, each designed to be “harmless, yet disgusting:” a case of mutually-consensual incest between a brother and sister where pregnancy was precluded (due to birth control and condom use); a case where a medical student cuts a piece of flesh from a cadaver to eat, (the cadaver is about to be cremated and had been donated for medical research); a chance to drink juice that had a dead, sterilized cockroach stirred in for a few seconds and then removed; and a case where participants would be paid a small sum to sign and then destroy a non-binding contract that gave their soul to the experimenter. In the former two cases – incest and cannibalism –  participants were asked whether they thought the act was wrong and, if they did, to try and provide reasons for why; in the latter two cases – roach and soul – participants were asked if they would perform the task and, if they would not, why. After the participants stated their reasons, the experimenter would challenge their arguments in a devil’s-advocate type of way to try and get them to change their minds.

As a brief summary of the results: the large majority of participants reported that having consensual incest and removing flesh from a human cadaver to eat were wrong (in the latter case, I imagine they would similarly rate the removal of flesh as wrong even if it were not eaten, but that’s besides the point), and a similarly-large majority were also unwilling to drink from the roached water or the sign the soul contract. On average, the experimenter was able to change about 16% of the participants’ initial stances by countering their stated arguments. The finding of note that got this paper its recognition, however, is that, in many cases, participants would state reasons for their decisions that contradicted the story (i.e., that a child born of incest might have birth defects, though no child was born due to the contraceptives) and, when those concerns had been answered by the experimenter, that they still believed these acts to be wrong even if they could no longer think of any reasons for that judgment. In other words, participants appeared to generate their judgments of an act first (their intuitions), with the explicit verbal reasoning for their judgments being generated after the fact and, in some cases, seemingly disconnected from the scenarios themselves. Indeed, in all cases except the Heinz dilemma, participants rated their judgments as arising more from “gut feelings” than reasoning.

“fMRI scans revealed activation of the ascending colon for moral judgments…”

A number of facets of this work on moral dumbfounding are curious to me, though. One of those things that has always stood out to me as dissatisfying is that moral dumbfounding claims being made here are not what I would call positive claims (i.e., “people are using variable X as an input for determining moral perceptions”), but rather they seem to be negative ones (“people aren’t using conscious reasoning, or at least the parts of the brain doing the talking aren’t able to adequately articulate the reasoning”). While there’s nothing wrong with negative claims per se, I just happen to find them less satisfying than positive ones. I feel that this dissatisfaction owes its existence to the notion that positive claims help guide and frame future research to a greater extent than negative ones (but that could just be some part of my brain confabulating my intuitions).

My main issue with the paper, however, hinges on the notion that the acts in question were “harmless.” A lot is going to turn on what is meant by that term. An excellent analysis of this matter is put forth in a paper by Jacobson (2012), in which he notes that there are perfectly good, harm-based reasons as to why one might oppose, say, consensual incest. Specifically, what participants might be responding to was not the harm generated by the act in a particular instance so much as the expected value of the act. One example offered to help make that point concerns gambling:

Compare a scenario I’ll call Gamble, in which Mike and Judy—who have no creditors or dependents, but have been diligently saving for their retirement—take their nest egg, head to Vegas, and put it all on one spin of the roulette wheel. And they win! Suddenly their retirement becomes about 40 times more comfortable. Having gotten lucky once, they decide that they will never do anything like that again. Was what Mike and Judy did prudent?

 The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.” While the winning game of roulette might have been “harmless” in the proximate sense of the word, such an analysis would ignore risk. The expected value of the act was, on the whole, rather negative. Jacobson (2012) goes on to expand the example, asking now whether it would have been OK for the gambling couple to have used their child’s college savings instead. The point here is that consensual incest can be considered similarly dangerous. Just because things turned out well in that instance, it doesn’t mean that harm-based justifications for the condemnation are discountable ones; it could instead suggest that there exists a distinction between harm and risk that 30 undergraduate subjects are not able to articulate well when being challenged by a researcher. Like Jacobson, (2012), I would condemn drunk driving as well, even if it didn’t result in an accident.

To bolster that case, I would also like to draw attention to one of the findings of the moral dumbfounding paper I mentioned before: about 16% of participants reversed their moral judgments when their harm-based reasoning was challenged. Though this finding is not often the one people focus on when considering the moral dumbfounding paper, I think it helps demonstrate the importance of this harm dimension. If participants were not using harm (or risk of harm) as an input for their moral perceptions, but rather only a post-hoc justification, these reversals of opinion in the wake of reduced welfare concerns would seem rather strange. Granted, not every participant changes their mind – in fact, many did not – but that any of them did requires an explanation. If judgments of harm (or risk) are coming after the fact and not being used an inputs, why would they subsequently have any impact whatsoever?

“I have revised my nonconsequentialist position in light of those consequences”

Jacobson (2012) makes the point that perhaps there’s a case to be made that the subjects were not necessarily morally dumbfounded as much as the researchers looking at the data were morally stupefied. That is to say, it’s not that the participants didn’t have reasons for their judgments (whether or not they were able to articulate them well) so much as the researchers didn’t accept their viability or weren’t able to see their validity owing to their own theoretical blinders. If participants did not want to drink juice that had a sterilized cockroach dunked in it because they found it disgusting, they are not dumbfounded as to why they don’t want to drink it; the researchers just aren’t accepting the subject’s reasons (it’s disgusting) as valid. If, returning to the initial story in this post, people appear to be opposed to behaving toward beloved (but dead) pets in ways that appear more consistent with feelings of indifference or contempt because it is offensive, that seems like a fine reason for doing so. Whether or not offense is classified as a harm by a stupefied research is another matter entirely.

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

Jacobson, D., (2012). Moral dumbfounding and moral stupefaction. Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, 2, DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199662951.003.0012

Charitable Interpretations Were Never My Strong Suit

Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity – Halon’s Razor

Disagreement and dispute are pervasive parts of human life, arising for a number of reasons. As Halon’s razor suggests, the charitable response to disagreement would be to just call someone stupid for disagreeing, rather than evil. Thankfully, these are not either/or types of aspersion we can cast, and we’re free to consider those who disagree with us both stupid and evil if we so desire. Being the occasional participant in discussions – both in the academic and online worlds – I’m no stranger to either of those labels. The question of the accuracy of the aspersions remains, however: calling someone ignorant or evil could serve the function of spreading accurate information; then again, it could also serve the function of persuading others to not listen to what the target has to say.

“The other side doesn’t have the best interests of the Empire in mind like I do”

When persuasion gets involved, we are entering the realm where perceptions can be inaccurate, yet still be adaptive. Usually being wrong about the world carries costs, as incorrect information yields worse decision making. Believing inaccurately that cigarettes don’t increase the probability of developing lung cancer will not alter the probability of developing a tumor after picking up a pack-a-day habit. If, however, my beliefs can cause other people to behave differently, then I could do myself some good and being wrong isn’t quite as bad. For instance, even if my motives in a debate are purely and ruthlessly selfish, I might be able to persuade other people to support my side anyway through both (1) suggesting that my point of view is not being driven by my underlying biases – but rather by the facts of the matter and my altruistic tendencies – and (2) that my opponent’s perspective is not to be trusted (usually for the opposite set of reasons). The explanation for why people frequently accuse others of not understanding their perspective, or of sporting particular sets of biases, in debates, then, might have little to do with accuracy and more to do with convincing other people to not listen; to the extent that they happen to be accurate might be more be accidental than anything.

One example I discussed last year concerned the curious case of Kim Kardashian. Kim had donated 10% of some eBay sales to disaster relief, prompting many people to deride Kim’s behavior as selfishly motivated (even evil) and, in turn, also suggest that her donation be refused by aid organizations or the people in need themselves. It seemed to me that people were more interested in condemning Kim because they had something against her in particular, rather than because any of what she did was traditionally wrong or otherwise evil. It also seemed to me that, putting it lightly, Kim’s detractors might have been exaggerating her predilection towards evil by just a little bit. Maybe they were completely accurate – it’s possible, I suppose – it just didn’t seem particularly likely, especially given that many of the people condemning her probably knew very little about Kim on a personal level. If you want to watch other people make uncharitable interpretations of other people’s motives, I would encourage you to go observe a debate between people passionately arguing over an issue you couldn’t care less about. If you do, I suspect you will be struck by a sense that both sides of the dispute are, at least occasionally, being a little less than accurate when it comes to pinning motives and views on the other.

Alternatively, you could just observe the opposite side of a dispute you actually are invested in; chances are you will see your detractors as being dishonest and malicious, at least if the results obtained by Reeder et al (2005) are generalizable. In their paper, the researchers sought to examine whether one’s own stance on an issue tended to color their perceptions about the opposition’s motives. In their first study, Reeder et al (2005) posed about 100 American undergradutes with a survey asking them both about their perceptions of the US war in Iraq (concerning matters such as what motivated Bush to undertake the conflict and how likely particular motives were to be part of that reason), as well as whether they supported the war personally and what their political affiliation was. How charitable were the undergraduates when it came to assessing the motives for other people’s behavior?

“Don’t spend it all in one place”

The answer, predictably, tended to hinge on whether or not the participant favored the war themselves. In the open-ended responses, the two most common motives listed for going to war were self-defense and bringing benefits to the Iraqi people, freeing it from a dictatorship; the next two most common reasons were proactive aggression and hidden motives (like trying and take US citizen’s minds off other issues, like the economy). Among those who favored the war, 73% listed self-defense as a motive for the war, compared to just 39% who opposed it; conversely, proactive aggression was listed by 30% of those who supported the war, relative to 73% of those who oppose it. The findings were similar for ratings of self-serving motives: on a 1-7 scale (from being motivated by ethical principles to selfishness), those in favor of the war gave Bush a mean of 2.81; those opposed to the war gave him a 6.07. It’s worth noting at this point that (assuming the scale is, in fact measuring two opposite ends of a spectrum) both groups cannot be accurate in their perceptions of Bush’s motives. Given that those not either opposed to or supportive of the war tended to fall in between those two groups in their attributions of motives, it is also possible that both sides could well be wrong.

Interestingly – though not surprisingly – political affiliation per se did not have much predictive value for determining what people thought of Bush’s motives for the war when one’s own support for the war was entered into a regression model with it. What predicted people’s motive attributions was largely their own view about the war. In other words, Republicans who opposed to the war tended to view Bush largely the same as Democrats opposed to the war, just as Democrats supportive of the war viewed Bush the same as Republicans in favor of it. Reeder et al (2005) subsequently replicated these findings in a sample of Candian undergraduates who, at the time, were far less supportive of the war on the whole than the American sample. Additionally, this pattern of results was also replicated when asking about the motives of other people who support/oppose the war, rather than asking about Bush specifically. Further, when issues other than the war (in this case, abortion and gay marriage) were used, the same pattern of results obtained. In general, opposing an issue made those who support it look more self-serving and biased, and vice versa.

The last set of findings – concerning abortion and gay marriage – was particularly noteworthy because of an addition to the survey: a measure of personal involvement in the issue. Rather than just being asked about whether they support or oppose one side of the issue, they were also asked about how important the issue was to them and how likely they were to change their mind about their stance. As one might expect, this tendency to see your opposition as selfish, biased, close-minded, and ignorant was magnified by the extent to which one found the issue personally important. Though I can’t say for certain, I would venture a guess that, in general, the importance of an issue to me is fairly uncorrelated with how much other people know about it. In fact, if these judgments of other people’s motives and knowledge were driven by the facts of the matter, then the authors should not have observed this effect of issue importance. That line of reasoning, again, suggests that these perceptions are probably aimed more at persuasion than accuracy. The extent to which they’re accurate is likely besides the point.

“Damn it all; I was aiming for the man”

While I find this research interesting, I do wish that it had been grounded in the theory I had initially mentioned, concerning persuasion and accuracy. Instead, Reeder et al (2005) ground their account in naive realism, the tenets of which seem to be (roughly) that (a) people believe they are objective observers and (b) that other objective observers will see the world as they do, so (c) anyone who doesn’t agree must be ignorant or biased. Naive realism looks more like a description of results they found, rather than an explanation for them. In the interests of completeness, the authors also ground their research in self-categorization theory, which states that people seek to differentiate their group from other groups in terms of values, with the goal of making their own group look better. Again, this sounds like a description of behavior, rather than an explanation for it. As the authors don’t seem to share my taste for a particular type of theoretical explanation grounded in considerations of evolutionary function here (at least in terms of what they wrote), I am forced to conclude that they’re at least ignorant, if not downright evil*

References: Reeder, G., Pryor, J., Wohl, M., & Griswell, M. (2005). On attributing negative motives to others who disagree with our opinions. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1498-1510.

*Not really


An Eye For Talent

Rejection can be a painful process for almost anyone (unless you’re English). For many, rejection is what happens when a (perhaps overly-bloated) ego ends up facing the reality that it really isn’t as good as it likes to tell people it is. For others, rejection is what happens when the person in charge of making the decision doesn’t possess the accuracy of assessment that they think they do (or wish they did), and failed to recognize your genius. One of the most notable examples of the latter is The Beatle’s Decca audition in 1962, during which the band was told they had no future in show business. Well over 250 million certified sales later, “oops” kind of fails to cut it with respect to how large of a blunder that decision was. This is by no means a phenomenon unique to The Beatles either: plenty of notable celebrities had been previously discouraged or rejected from their eventual profession by others. So we have a bit of error management going on here: record labels want to do things like (a) avoid signing artists that are unlikely to go anywhere while (b) avoiding failures to sign the best-selling band of all time. As they can’t do either of those things with perfect accuracy, they’re bound to make some mistakes.

“Yet again, our talents have gone unnoticed despite our sick riffs”

Part of the problem facing companies that put out products such as albums, books, movies, and the rest, is that popularity can be a terribly finicky thing, since popularity can often snowball on itself. It’s not necessarily the objective properties of a song or book that make it popular; a healthy portion of popularity depends on who else likes it (which might sound circular, but it’s not). This tends to make the former problem of weeding out the bad artists easier than finding the superstars: in most cases, people who can’t sing well won’t sell, but just because one can sing well it doesn’t mean they’re going to be a hit. As we’re about to see, these problems are shared not only by people who put out products like music or movies; they’re also shared by people who publish (or fail to publish) scientific research. A recent paper by Siler, Lee, & Bero (2014) sought to examine how good the peer review process – the process through which journal editors and reviewers decide what gets published and what does not – is at catching good papers and filtering out bad ones.

The data examined by the authors focused on approximately 1,000 papers that had been submitted to three of the top medical journals between 2003 and 2004: Annals of Internal Medicine, British Medical Journal, and The Lancet. Of the 1,008 manuscripts, 946 – or about 94% of them – were rejected. The vast majority of those rejections – about 80% – were desk rejections, which is when an article is not sent out for review before the journal decides to not publish it. From that statistic alone, we can already see that these journals are getting way more submissions than they could conceivably publish or review and, accordingly, lots of people are going to be unhappy with their decision letters. Thankfully, publication isn’t a one-time effort; authors can, and frequently do, resubmit their papers to other journals for publication. In fact, 757 of the rejected papers were found to have been subsequently published in other journals (more might have been published after being modified substantially, which would make them more difficult to track). This allowed Siler, Lee, & Bero (2014) the opportunity to compare the articles that were accepted to those which were rejected in terms of their quality and importance.

Now determining an article’s importance is a rather subjective task, so the authors decided to focus instead on the paper’s citation counts – how often other papers had referenced them – as of April 2014. While by no means a perfect metric, it’s a certainly a reasonable one, as most citations tend to be positive in nature. First, let’s consider the rejected articles. Of the articles that had been desk rejected by one of the three major journals but eventually published in other outlets, the average citation count was 69.8 per article; somewhat lower than the articles which had been sent out for review before they had been rejected (M = 94.65). This overstates the “average” difference by a bit, however, as citation count is not distributed normally. In the academic world, some superstar papers receive hundreds or thousands of the citations, whereas many others hardly receive any. To help account for this, the authors also examined the log-transformed number of citations. When they did so, the mean citation count for the desk rejected papers was 3.44, and 3.92 for the reviewed-then-rejected ones. So that is some evidence consistent with the notion that those who decide whether or not to send papers out for review work as advertised: the less popular papers (which we’re using as a proxy for quality) were rejected more readily, on average.

“I just don’t think they’re room for you on the team this season…”

There’s also evidence that, if the paper gets sent out to reviewers, the peer reviewers are able to assess a paper’s quality with some accuracy. When reviewers send their reviews back to the journal, they suggest that the paper be published as is, with minor/major revisions, or rejected. If those suggestions are coded as numerical values, each paper’s mean reviewer score can be calculated (e.g., fewer recommendations to reject = better paper). As it turns out, these scores correlated weakly – but positively – with an article’s subsequent citation count (r = 0.28 and 0.21 with citation and logged citation counts, respectively), so it seems the reviewers have at least some grasp on the paper’s importance and quality as well. That said, the number of times an article was revised prior to acceptance had no noticeable effect on it’s citation count. While reviewers might be able to discern the good papers from the bad at better-than-chance rates, the revisions they suggested did not appear to have a noticeable impact on later popularity.

What about the lucky papers that managed to get accepted by these prestigious journals? As they had all gone out for peer review, the reviewer’s scores were again compared against citation count, revealing a similarly small but positive correlation (0.21 and 0.26 with citation and logged citation counts). Additionally, the published articles that did not receive any recommendations to reject from the reviewers received higher citation counts on average (162.8 and 4.72) relative to those with at least one recommendation to reject (115.24 and 4.33). Comparing these numbers to the citation counts of the rejected articles, we can see a rather larger difference: articles being accepted by the high-end journals tended to garner substantially more citations than the ones that were rejected, whether before or after peer review.

That said, there’s a complication present in all this: papers rejected from the most prestigious journals tend to subsequently get published in less-prestigious outlets, which fewer people tend to read. As fewer eyes tend to see papers published in less-cited journals, this might mean that even good articles published in worse journals receive less attention. Indeed, the impact factor of the journal (the average citation count of the recent articles published in it) in which an article was published correlated 0.54 with citation and 0.42 with logged citation counts. To help get around that issue, the authors compared the published to rejected-then-published papers in journals with an impact factor of 8 or greater. When they did so, the authors found, interestingly, that the rejected articles were actually cited more than the accepted ones (212.77 vs 143.22 citations and 4.77 and 4.53 logged citations). While such an analysis might bias the number of “mistaken” rejections upwards (as it doesn’t count the papers that were “correctly” bumped down into lower journals), it’s a worthwhile point to bear in mind. It suggests that, above a certain threshold of quality, the acceptance or rejection by a journal might reflect chance differences more than meaningful ones.

But what about the superstar papers? Of the 15 most cited papers, 12 of them (80%) had been desk rejected. As the authors put it, “This finding suggests that in our case study, articles that would eventually become highly cited were roughly equally likely to be desk-rejected as a random submission“. Of the remaining three papers, two had been rejected after review (one of which had been rejected by two of the top 3 journals in question). While it was generally the case, then, that peer review appears to help weed out the “worst” papers, the process does not seem to be particularly good at recognizing the “best” work. Much like The Beatles Decca audition, then, rockstar papers are not often recognized as such immediately. Towards the end of the paper, the authors make reference to some other notable cases of important papers being rejected (one of which being rejected twice for being trivial and then a third time for being too novel).

“Your blindingly-obvious finding is just too novel”

It is worth bearing in mind that academic journals are looking to do more than just publish papers that will have the highest citation count down the line: sometimes good articles are rejected because they don’t fit the scope of the journal; others are rejected just because the journals just don’t have the space to publish them. When that happens, they thankfully tend to get published elsewhere relatively soon after; though “soon” can be a relative term for academics, it’s often within about half a year.

There are also cases where papers will be rejected because of some personal biases on the part of the reviewers, though, and those are the cases most people agree we want to avoid. It is then that the gatekeepers of scientific thought can do the most damage in hindering new and useful ideas because they find them personally unpalatable. If a particularly good idea ends up published in a particularly bad journal, so much the worse for the scientific community. Unfortunately, most of those biases remain hidden and hard to definitively demonstrate in any given instance, so I don’t know how much there is to do about reducing them. It’s a matter worth thinking about.

References: Siler, K., Lee, K., & Bero, L. (2014). Measuring the effectiveness of scientific gatekeeping. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), DOI10.1073/pnas.1418218112

Why Do People Care About Race?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#HandsUp (Don’t Press The Button)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bonding (Physically) With Same-Sex Individuals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biases Of Boys Or Girls Being Coy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Reject Your Fantasy And Substitute My Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A match made in unrealistic heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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