Just A Little Off The Top

In my last post I suggested that humans likely possess a series of modules designed to assess victim characteristics when it comes to assessing their associated victimhood claims. Simply put, there are some people who make better social investments than others, and, accordingly, would tend to have their victimhood claims seen as more legitimate than those others. Specifically, I noted that men might be at something of a disadvantage when attempting to advance a victimhood claim, relative to women, as women might tend to be better targets of social investment (at least in certain contexts; I would be hesitant to assume that this is the case a prior across all contexts).

Coincidentally, I happened to come across this article (and associated Reddit post) today discussing whether or not male newborns should be circumcised. I feel the article and, more importantly, the comments discussing the article serve as an interesting (if non-scientific) case study in the weight of moral claims between genders. So let’s talk about the moral reactions of people to circumcision.

“There might have been a slight mix-up, but don’t worry; we’ll do your ears for free!”

In the debate over whether male offspring should be circumcised around the time they’re born, those in favor of circumcision seem to tend and phrase their stance in a consequentialist fashion, often claiming one or more of three* things: (1) circumcised penises are more appealing aesthetically, (2) circumcision brings with it health benefits in the form of a reduction in the risk of STI transmission, and (3) that the removal of the foreskin doesn’t really do any serious harm to the child. The function of these arguments would appear fairly self-evident: they are attempts to disengage the moral psychology of others by way of denying a victim, and without a victim the moral template cannot be completed. Those in favor of allowing circumcision, then, are generally claiming that being circumcised is a benefit, or at the very least not a cost, and you don’t get to be a victim without being perceived to have suffered a cost.

Beginning with the second point – the reduction of risk for contracting HIV – there is evidence to suggest that circumcision does nothing of the sort. Though I am unable to access the article, this paper in The Journal of Sexual Medicine reports that not only is circumcision not associated with a lower incidence of STIs in men, including HIV, but it might even be associated with a slightly higher incidence of infection (for whatever reason). The studies that claim to find the 40-60% reduction in the female-to-male transmission rate of HIV in circumcised men seem to have been conducted largely in African populations, where other issues, such as general hygiene, might be a factor. Specifically, one of the proposed reasons why uncircumcised males in these studies are more likely to become infected is that the foreskin traps fluids and pathogens, increasing bodily contact duration with them. In other words, a little soap and water after sex (along with a condom during sex, of course) could likely accomplish the same goal as circumcision in these cases, so the removal of the foreskin might be just a bit extreme of a remedy.

I’m most certainly not an expert in this field so don’t just take my word for it, but my perspective on the matter is that the results about whether circumcision decreases the transmission of HIV are mixed at best. Further, at least some of the hypothesized means through which circumcision could potentially work in this regard appear perfectly achievable through other, non-surgical means. Now that I’ve covered at least some ground on that evidentiary front, we can turn towards the more interesting, moral side. On the basis of this mixed evidence and a general lack of understanding as to how circumcision might work, the report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that:

“…the benefits of newborn male circumcision justify access to this procedure for families who choose it” [emphasis mine].

“If you can’t be trusted to wash it properly, I’m going to cut it off”

One interesting facet of our moral judgments is that, to some extent, they are nonconsequentist. That is to say, even if an act leads to a positive consequence, it can still be considered immoral. The classic example of this concerns people’s intuitions in the trolley and footbridge dilemmas: in the former dilemma, roughly 90% of subjects say that diverting an out-of-control trolley away from five hikers and towards one hiker is morally acceptable; in the latter dilemma, a roughly equivalent percentage of subjects say that pushing another person in front of a train to save five hikers is morally impermissible (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009). Despite the consequences of each action being identical, the moral feel of each action is radically different. Thus, to say that an action is justified strictly by referencing a cost/benefit ratio (and a rather fuzzy and potentially flawed one at that) can be to miss the point morally to some degree. That said, to some other degree it does hit the mark because, as previously mentioned, moral claims need a victim, and without costs there can be no victim.

This conflict between the nonconsequentialist and consequentialist aspect of our moral psychology appear readily visible in the reactions of people when it comes to comparing elective surgery on the genitals of boys to that of elective surgery when performed on girls. A few years back, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommended reconsidering US law regarding whether or not doctors should be allowed to engage in a “ceremonial” female circumcision. Though not much is said about the details of the procedure explicitly, the sense the various articles discussing it give is that it is a “harmless” one, essentially amounting to a pinprick to the clitoris or clitoral hood capable of drawing a drop of blood.The AAP recommended this reconsideration in order to, hopefully, appease certain cultural groups that might otherwise take their daughters overseas to engage in a much more extreme version of the ritual where piece of the external genitalia are cut or fully removed. This recommendation by the AAP was soon reversed, following a political outcry.

It’s worth noting that, during discussions on the topic of circumcision, there are many people who get rather upset when a comparison is made between the female and male varieties, typically because the female version is more extreme. A complete removal of the clitoris is, no doubt, worse than the removal of the foreskin of the penis. When comparing a pinprick to the clitoris that does no permanent damage to a complete or partial removal of the male foreskin though, that argument would seem to lose some of its weight. Even without that consequentialist weight, however, people were still very strongly opposed the ceremonial pricking on (more or less) nonconsequentialist grounds:

“We retracted the policy because it is important that the world health community understands the AAP is totally opposed to all forms of female genital cutting, both here in the U.S. and anywhere else in the world,” said AAP President Judith S. Palfrey. [emphasis, mine]

The interesting question to me, then, is why male genital cutting isn’t currently opposed as vehemently in all forms when performed on newborn infants who cannot consent to the procedure (Wikipedia puts the percentage of newborn boys being circumcised before they leave the hospital at over 50% in the US). One could try and point, again, to the iffy data on HIV reduction, but even in the event that such data was good and no alternatives were available to reduce the spread of the virus, it would leave one unable to explain why circumcision as a practice dates back thousands of years, well before HIV was ever a concern. It would also still leave the moral question of consent very much alive: specifically, what are the acceptable bounds for parents when making decisions for their dependent offspring? A pinprick to the genitals for culture reasons apparently falls into the non-accepted category, whereas the remove of foreskin for aesthetic or cultural reasons is accepted.

He’ll appreciate all that endorsement cash when he’s grown up.

Now maybe, as some suggest, the female genital pricking would to some extent morally license the more extreme version of the practice. That would certainly be a bad outcome to the procedure, and such an argument seeks to add the consequentialist weight back into the argument. Indeed, most all the articles on the topic, along with many of the commenters, likened the pricking to its far more extreme expression elsewhere. However, I get the sense that such a justification for avoiding pricking might represent a post hoc justification for the aversion. I get that sense because I saw no evidence presented that this moral licensing outcome would actually obtain (just a concern that it would) and no indication that more people would really be OK with the procedure if the moral licensing risks could be reduced or removed. I don’t think I recall anyone saying, “I’d be alright with the clitoral pinprick if…”

Returning to the gender issue, however, why do people not raise similar concerns about male circumcision licensing other forms of harm to men? My sense is that concerns like these are not raised with nearly as much force or as frequently because, in general, people are less bothered by males being hurt, infants or otherwise, for reasons I mentioned in the last post. Even in the event that these people are just incredible swayed by the HIV data, (though why people accept or reject evidence in the first place is also an interesting topic) those potential benefits wouldn’t be realized by the boys until at least the point at which they’re sexually active, so circumcising boys when they’re newborns without any indication they even sort of consent seems premature.

So when people say male and female circumcision aren’t comparable, I feel they have more in their mind then just the consequentialist outcome. I get the sense that the emotional feel of the issues can’t be compared, in part, because one happens to men and one happens to women, and our psychology tends to treat such cases differently.

*Note: this list of three items is not intended to be comprehensive. There are also cultural or religious reasons cited for circumcision, but I won’t be considering them here, as they didn’t appear well represented in the current articles.

References: DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2009). Mysteries of Morality Cognition , 112, 281-299 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.05.008

No, Really; What About The Men?

If you’re the kind of person who has frequented internet discussion boards, you’ll know that debates over sexism can get a bit heated. You might also have noticed that many problems men faced are not infrequently dismissed on the grounds of being relative unimportant when compared to issues women face. One common form this dismissal takes is the purposely misspelled, “what about teh poor menz?”, since everyone on the internet is automatically intellectually twelve. In fact, the whole sexism debate is often treated like a zero-sum game, where reducing sexism against one sex makes the other one worse off. We could debate whether that’s the case or not, but that’s not my goal today. Today, my goal is to ask, quite seriously, what about the men?

“Check out the male privilege on that guy”

There were two posts on Reddit that inspired this post: the first is this story of President Obama reacting to the Akin quote regarding rape. Here’s what Obama had to say:

“The views expressed were offensive,” said Obama. “Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me. So what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.” [emphasis mine]

Now, it seems to me that what we should want when it comes to our elected official writing legislation regarding our health care has nothing to do with gender per se; it should have everything to do with the policies themselves, not their proposers. For instance, imagine that Akin was a woman who uttered the same nonsensical quote about rape pregnancies: would that be an opportune time to comment about how women in general can’t be trusted to make their own health care decisions? I’d think not, yet it seemed to be a fine time to draw attention to the male gender.

Here’s the second post: the radically different prices that men and women can be charged for admission to certain venues. This is about as blatant case of sexism as you could think of. It’s also exceedingly common: bars and clubs hold “ladies nights” where women are charged less – if they’re charged at all – for entry and drinks on no basis other than gender. What you rarely, if ever, find is the reverse, where men are given a pass and women are required to pay a higher premium. Now we could argue about whether this is a good business move (whether it ends up profiting the clubs or not) but that’s not the point here. I doubt many people would accept women being charged higher tuition premiums to attend college, for instance, if it ended up causing the college to profit.

One could also argue about whether ladies nights can be said to do men real harm. Complaining about them might even be conceptualized as a first-world problem, or a whiny privileged male problem. Whether they do or not is still besides the point, which is this: it’s probable that even when a policy hurts or discriminates against men, that harm or discrimination will be taken less seriously than a comparable one directed against women. There is likely be some psychological module devoted to taking into account victim characteristics when assessing victimhood claims, and gender would appear to be a very relevant variable. In fact, I would predict that gender will be an important variable above and beyond the extent to which the sexes historically faced different costs from different acts (rape, for instance, entails the additional risk of pregnancy from a male-on-female case, but not the reverse, so we might expect people to say a woman getting raped is worse than a man being raped).

“It’s illegal to talk on your cell while driving without having my number”

Some intriguing data come to us from Mustard (2001), who examined roughly 80,000 federal sentences across different racial groups, men, and women. Doing so requires controlling for a number of relevant variables, such as offense type and severity, past criminal record, and so on, since the variable of interest is, “the extent to which an individual who is in the same district court, commits the same offense, and has the same criminal history and offense level as another person received a different sentence on the basis on race, ethnicity or gender”. Mustard (2001) found that, after controlling for these variables, some of the usual racial bias come through: sentences that were handed out to blacks and Hispanics were, on average, 5.5 and 4.5 months longer than comparable sentences handled out to whites. Seems like a run-of-the-mill case of discrimination so far, I’m sure. However, the male-female discrepancy didn’t fair any better: men, on average, also received sentences 5.5 months longer than women did. Huh; it would seem that the male-female bias is about as bad, if not worse, than racial biases in this case.

It’s potentially worth noting that these disparities could come about for two reasons: sentencing within the guidelines – just differently between genders – or departing from the sentencing guidelines. For example, both men and women could be sentenced within the appropriate guidelines, but women tend to be sentenced towards the low end of the sentencing range while men are sentenced towards the high end. Granted, bias is still bias, whether it’s due to departures or sticking to the accepted range of sentencing length, but, as it turns out, roughly 70% of the gender difference could be accounted for by departures from sentencing guidelines; specifically, women were more often given downward departures from the guidelines, relative to men. When blacks and Hispanics are granted a downward departure, it averages about 5.5 months less than departures given to whites; for women, the average departure was almost 7 months greater than for men. Further, when the option of no jail time is available, females are also more likely to be granted no time, relative to men (just as whites are to blacks).

It’s also worth noting, as Mustard (2001) does, that these disparities were only examined at the level of sentencing. It would not be much of a leap to consider the possibility that similar disparities existed in other aspects of the moral domain, such as suspicion regarding a perpetrator, the devotion of resources to certain varieties of crime, or even assessments concerning whether a crime took place at all. Further still, it doesn’t consider the everyday social, non-criminal, extent to which men may not given certain considerations that women would. If that is the case, the effects of these biases that we see in this paper are likely to be cumulative, and the extent of the differences we see at time of sentencing might only reflect a part of the overall discriminatory pattern. Simply noticing the pattern, however, does not explain it, which means it’s time to consider some potential reasons why women may be assessed more positively than men when it comes to handing out punishment.

Whether he wins or loses here, he still loses.

Perhaps the most obvious issue is one I’ve touched on previously: men could be treating women better (or avoiding punishing them harshly) in hopes of receiving sexual favors later. In this regard, women are often able to offer men something that other men simply can’t, which makes them a particularly appealing social asset. However, such an explanation is likely incomplete, as it would only be able to account for cases in which men treated women preferentially, not cases where women treated other women preferentially as well. While the current data doesn’t speak to that issue (the interaction between the sex of the judge, sex of the convict, and sentencing length was not examined), I wouldn’t doubt it plays a significant role in accounting for this bias.

Another potential explanation is that men may in fact be more likely to be dangerous, leading people, men and women alike, to assume men are more likely to be guilty, acted more intentionally, and should be punished more severely (among other things). If the former proposition is true, then such a bias would likely be useful on the whole. However, that does not imply it would be useful or accurate for any one given case, especially if other, potentially more useful, sources of information are available (such as criminal history). Gender would only be a proxy for the other variables people wish to assess, which means its use would likely lead to inaccurate assessments in many individual cases. 

Finally, one other issue returns to the point I was making last post: if women are, all things considered, better targets of social investment for other people relative to men, punishing them harshly is unlikely to lead to a good strategic outcome. Simply put, punishing women may be socially costlier than punishing men, so people might shy away from it when possible. While this is unlikely to be an exhaustive list of potential explanations for this discriminatory bias, it seems a plausible starting position. Now the only thing left to do is to get people to care about solving (and seeing) the problem in the first place.

References: Mustard, D. B. (2001). Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in sentencing: Evidence from the U.S. federal courts. Journal of Law and Economics, 44, 285-314 DOI: 10.1086/320276

No Pain, No Gain: Victimhood And Selfishness

If you’re the kind of person who has an active social life, including things like friends and intimate sexual relationships, then you’re probably the type of person who has something better to do than read this page. In the event you’re reading this and also manage to have those kinds of relationships, you might have noticed that people who have recently (or not so recently) been hurt will sometimes go a bit off the rails. Perhaps they opt to drink to the point of blacking out and burning down their neighbor’s pets, or they might take a more subtle approach and simply become a slightly different person for a time (a little more extroverted, a little less concerned about safe sex, or just ball up in their closet and eat ice cream for days on end). I’ve kind of touched on this issue before when considering the function of depression, so today I’m going to shift gears a bit.

Right after I treat myself to some retail therapy…

I’ve written about victimhood several times in the past, and today I’d like to tie two pieces of information together to help understand a third. The first piece to consider is the Banker’s Paradox: people need to judge where to invest their social capital in so as to get the most from their investment over the long-term. Part of this assessment involves considering (a) whom your social capital would be most valuable for and (b) how likely the recipient of that investment would be to return in. Certain classes of people make better investment targets than others, depending on the context you currently find yourself (and them) in. The second piece of information involves how people attribute blame to victims and heroes: victims (conceptualized as someone that has a bad thing happen to them) are blamed less than heroes (conceptualized as someone who does good deeds) for later identical misdeeds.

In light of the Banker’s Paradox, the second finding makes more sense: victims may often make better social investment targets than heroes, at least with regard to their need for the assistance. Accordingly, if you’re looking to invest in someone and foster a relationship with them, casting them in a negative moral light probably won’t go very far towards achieving that goal. At the very least, if victims make better investment targets for other people, even if you aren’t looking to invest in that victim yourself, you run the risk of drawing condemnation from those other parties by siding against the victim they’re trying to invest in. To clarify this point, consider the story of Robin Hood; even if you were not benefiting directly from Robin stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, condemning him for theft would be unlikely to win you much support from the lower class he was helping. Unless you were looking to experience a public embarrassment and/or beating, keeping quiet about the whole stealing thing might be in your best interests.

With that in mind, it’s time to turn this analysis towards the perspective of the victimized party, who, up until now, has been treated in a relatively passive way; as someone who things happen to, or someone who receives investment. Third parties, in this scenario, would invest socially in victims because the victims hold real or potential social value. This value could in turn be strategically leveraged by victis in order to achieve other useful outcomes for themselves. For instance, if victims are less likely to be morally condemned for their actions by others, this would give victims a bit of moral wiggle room to behave more selfishly towards others while more effectively avoiding the consequences of their actions. As summed up by The Joker in The Dark Knight, “If you’re good at something [or valuable to someone], never do it [or be that] for free”.

“Also, don’t exceed the recommended daily dosage on your drugs”.

This hypothesis was inadvertently tested by Zitek et al (2010), who examined the link between perceiving oneself as a victim and subsequent feelings of entitlement. I say inadvertently, because, as is usually the case in psychology research, their experiment was carried out with no theory worth mentioning. Essentially, this research was done a hunch, and the results were in no way explained. While I’d prefer not to have to harp on this point so frequently, it’s just too frequent of an issue to ignore. Moving on…

In the first experiment, Zitek et al (2010) asked two groups of subject to either (a) write about a time they were bored or (b) write about a time life treated them unfairly. Following this, subjects were asked three questions relating to their sense of entitlement. Lastly, subjects were given a chance to help the experimenter with an additional task, ostensibly unrelated to the current experiment. This final measure could be considered an indirect assessment of the subject’s current altruistic tendencies. When it came to the measures of entitlement, subjects who wrote about an unfair instance in their life rated themselves as more entitled than the control group (4.34 vs 3.85 out of 7, respectively). Further, subjects were less likely to help the experimenter out with the additional task in the unfair condition, relative t the bored one (60% vs 81% of subjects helped, respectively).

A second experiment altered the entitlement questions somewhat and also asked about the subject’s selfish behavioral intentions in lieu of asking subjects to help out on the additional task. Zitek et al (2010) also asked about other aspects of the subject’s current negative emotions, such as anger. The results for this experiment showed that subjects in the unfair condition were slightly more likely to report selfish behavioral intentions (3.78) than subjects in the bored condition (3.42). Similarly, subjects in the unfair condition also reported a greater sense of entitlement (4.91) relative to the bored group (4.54). The subject’s current feelings of anger and frustration did not mediate this effect significantly, whereas feelings of entitlement did, suggesting there is something special about entitlement in this regard.

One final experiment got a little more personal: instead of just asking subjects about a time life was unfair to them, an experiment was run where subjects would lose out on a prize either fairly or unfairly. In the unfair loss condition, what appeared to be a computer glitch prevented subjects from being able to win, whereas in the fair loss condition the task subjects were given was designed to appear as if they were simply unable to solve it successfully in the time allotted. After this loss, subjects were asked how they would allocate money for a hypothetical experiment between themselves and another player, contingent on them outperforming that other player 70% of the time. Again, the same effect popped up, where subjects in the unfair loss condition suggested they should get more money in the hypothetical experiment ($3.93 out of 6) relative to the fair loss condition ($3.64). While that might not seem like much of a difference, when considering only the most selfish allocations of money, those in the unfair condition were more than twice as likely (19%) to make such divisions (8% in the bored group).

The forth experiment might have got a little out of hand…

So, being a victim would seem to make people slightly more selfish in these cases. The size of this effect wasn’t particularly impressive in the current experiments, but the measures of victimization were rather tame; two involved experiences long past, and the third involved victimization at the hands of a relatively impersonal force – a computer glitch. More recent and more intense victimization might do something to change the extent of this effect, but that will have to be a matter for future research to sort out; research that might be a little difficult to conduct, as most review boards aren’t too keen on approving research that aims to cause significant discomfort for the subjects.

That said, many people might have easily made the opposite prediction: that being victimized would lead people to become more altruistic and less selfish, perhaps based in some proximate empathy model (i.e. “I don’t want to see people hurt the way I was”). While I certainly wouldn’t want to write off such a possible outcome, given the proper context, discussing that possibility will be a job for another day. What I will suggest is that we shouldn’t expect victimhood to make people do one and only one thing; we should expect their behavior will be highly dependent on their contexts. After all, the appropriateness of a behavior can only be determined contextually, and behaving selfishly with reckless abandon is still a risky proposition, victim or not.

References: Zitek EM, Jordan AH, Monin B, & Leach FR (2010). Victim entitlement to behave selfishly. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98 (2), 245-55 PMID: 20085398

Can Situations Be Strong Or Weak?

“The correspondence bias is the tendency to draw inferences about a person’s unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situation in which they occur. Although this tendency is one of the most fundamental phenomena in social psychology, its causes and consequences remain poorly understood” – Gilbert and Malone, 1995

Social psychologists are not renowned for being particularly good at understanding things, even things which are (supposedly) fundamental to their field of study. Like the proverbial drunk looking for his missing keys at night under a streetlight rather than in the park where he lost them “because the light is better”, part of the reason social psychologists are not very good at providing genuine understanding is because they often begin with some false premise or assumption. In the case of the correspondence bias, as defined by Gilbert & Malone (1995), I feel one of these misunderstandings is the idea that behavior can be caused or explained by the situation at all (let alone ‘entirely’); that is, unless one defines “the situation” in a way that ceases to be of any real value.

Which is about as valuable as the average research paper in psychology.

According to Gilbert and Malone (1995), an “eminently reasonable” rule is that “…one should not explain with dispositions that which has already been explained by the situation”. They go on to suggest that people tend to “underestimate the power of situations”, frequently mistaking “…strong situation[s] for relatively weak one[s]. To use some more concrete examples, people seemed to perform poorly at tasks like predicting how much shock subjects in the Milgram experiment on obedience would give when asked to by an experimenter, or tend to do things like judge basketball players as less competent when they were shooting free throws in a dimly-lit room, relative to a well-lit one. In these experiments, the command of an experimenter and the lighting of a room are supposed to be, I think, “strong” situations that “highly constrain” behavior. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but that makes no sense.

A simple example should demonstrate why. Let’s say you wanted to see how “strong” of a situation a hamburger is, and you measure the strength of the situation by how much subjects are willing to pay for that burger. An initial experiment finds that subjects are, on average, willing to pay a maximum of about $5 for that average burger. Good to know. Now, a second experiment is run, but this time subjects are divided into three groups: group 1 has just finished eating a larger meal, group 2 ate that same meal four hours prior and nothing else since, and group 3 ate that meal 8 hours prior and nothing else since. These three groups are now presented with the same average hamburger. The results you’d now find is that group 1 seems relatively uninterested in paying for that burger (say, $0.50, on average), group 2 is somewhat interested in paying for it ($5), and group 3 is very interested in paying for it ($10).

From this hypothetical pattern of results, what are we to conclude about the “strength” of the situation of an opportunity to buy a burger? Obviously, the burger itself (the input provided by the environment) explains nothing about the behavior of the subjects and has no intrinsic “strength”. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising because abstract situations aren’t what generate behavior; psychological modules do. Whether that burger is currently valuable or not is going to depend crucially on the outputs of certain modules monitoring things like one’s current caloric state, and other modules recognizing the hamburger as a good source of potential calories. That’s not to say that the situations are irrelevant to the behavior that is eventually generated, of course; it just implies that which aspects of the environment matter, how much they matter, when they matter, and why they matter, are all determined by the current state of the existing psychological structures of the organism in question. A resource that is highly valuable in one situation is not necessarily valuable in another.

“If it makes my car go fast, just imagine how much time it’ll cut off my 100m”

Despite their use of inconsistent and sloppy language regarding the interaction between environments and dispositions in generating behavior, Glibert and Malone (1995) seem to understand that point to some extent. Concerning an example where a debate coach instructs subjects to write a pro-Castro speech, the authors write:

“…[T]he debate coach’s instructions merely alter the payoffs associated with the two behavioral options…the essayist’s behavioral options are not altered by the debate coach’s instructions; rather, the essayist’s motivation to enact each of the behavioral options is altered.”

What people are often underestimating (or overestimating, depending on context), then, is not the strength of the situation, but the strength of other competing dispositions, given a certain set of environmental inputs. While this might seem like a minor semantic issue, I feel it might holds a deeper significance, insomuch as it leads researchers to ask the wrong kinds of questions. For instance, what’s noteworthy to me about Gilbert and Malone’s (1995) analysis of the ultimate causes of the correspondence bias are not the candidate explanations they put forward, but rather which questions they don’t ask and what explanations they don’t give.

The authors suggest that the correspondence bias might not have historically had many negative consequences for a number of reasons that I won’t get into here. The only possible positive consequence they discuss is that the bias might allow people to predict the behavior of others. This is a rather strange benefit to posit, I feel, given that almost the entirety of their paper up to that point had been focused on how this bias is likely to lead to incorrect predictions, all things considered. Even granting that the correspondence bias might only tend to be an actual problem in contexts artificially created in psychology experiments (such as by randomly assigning subjects to groups), in no case does it seem to lead to more accurate predictions of others’ behavior.

The ultimate explanations offered for the correspondence bias left me feeling like (and I could be wrong about this) the authors were still thinking about the bias as an error in the way we think; they don’t seem to give the impression that the bias had an real function. Now, that could be true; the bias might well be a neutral-to-maladaptive byproduct, though what the bias would be a byproduct of isn’t immediately clear. While, from a strictly accuracy-based point of view, the bias might often lead to inaccurate conclusions, as I’ve mentioned before, accuracy is only important to the extent that it helps organisms do useful things. The question that Gilbert and Malone (1995) fail to ask, given their focus on accuracy, is why would people bother attributing the behavior of others to situational or dispositional characteristics in the first place?

My road rage happens to be indifferent to whether you were lost or just a slow driver.

Being able to predict the behavior of other organisms is useful, no doubt; it lets you know who is likely to be a good social investment and who isn’t, which will in turn affect the way you behave towards others. Given the stakes at hand, and since you’re dealing with organisms that can be persuaded, accuracy in perceptions might not always be the best policy. Suppose you’re in competition with a rival over some resource; since the Olympics are currently going on, you’re now a particularly good swimmer and competing in some respective event. Let’s say you don’t come in first; you end up placing behind one of your country’s bitter rivals. How are you going to explain that loss to other people? You might concede that your rival was simply a better swimmer than you, but that’s not likely to garner you a whole lot of support. Alternatively, you might suggest that you were really the better swimmer, but some aspect of the situation ended up giving your rival a temporary upper-hand. What you’d be particularly unlikely to do would be to both suggest that your rival was actually the better swimmer and still beat you despite some situational factor that ended up putting you at an advantage.

As Gilbert and Malone (1995) mention in their introduction, a niece who is perceived as intentionally breaking a vase by their aunt would receive the thumbscrews, while the niece who is perceived as breaking a vase on accident would not. Depending on the nature of the situation – whether it’s one that will result in blame or praise – it might serve you will to minimize or maximize the perception of your involvement in bringing the events about. It would similarly serve you will to manipulate the perceptions of other people’s involvement in act. One way of doing this would involve going after the perceptions of whether a behavior was caused by a situation or a disposition; whether the outcome was a fluke or likely to be consistent across situations. This would lead to the straight-forward prediction that such attributional biases will tend to look remarkably self-serving, rather than just wrong in some general way. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether or not that seems to be the case.

References: Gilbert, D.T., & Malone, P.S. (1995). The correspondence bias Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21-38 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.21

Why All The Fuss About Equality?

In my last post, I discussed why the term “inequality aversion” is a rather inelegant way to express certain human motivations. A desire to not be personally disadvantaged is not the same thing as a desire for equity, more generally. Further, people readily tolerate and create inequality when it’s advantageous for them to do so, and such behavior is readily understandable from an evolutionary perspective. What isn’t as easily understandable – at least not as immediately – is why equality should matter at all. Most research on the subject of equality would appear to just take it for granted (more-or-less) that equality matters without making a concerted attempt to understand why that should be the case. This paper isn’t much different.

On the plus side, at least they’re consistent.

The paper by Raihani & McAuliffe (2012) sought to disentangle two possible competing motives when it comes to punishing behavior: inequality and reciprocity. The authors note that previous research examining punishment often confounds these two possible motives. For instance, let’s say you’re playing a standard prisoner’s dilemma game: you have a choice to either cooperate or defect, and let’s further say that you opt for cooperation. If your opponent defects, not only do you lose out on the money you would have made had he cooperated, but your opponent also ends up with more money than you do overall. If you decided to punish the defector, the question arises of whether that punishment is driven by the loss of money, the aversion to the disadvantageous inequality, or some combination of the two.

To separate the two motives out, Raihani & McAuliffe (2012) used a taking game. Subjects would play the role of either player 1 or player 2 in one of three condition. In all conditions, player 1 was given an initial endowment of seventy cents; player 2, on the other hand, started out with either ten cents, thirty cents, or seventy cents. In all conditions, player 2 was then given the option of taking twenty cents from player 1, and following that decision player 1 was then given an option of playing ten cents to reduce player 2′s payoff by thirty cents. The significance of these conditions is that, in the first two, if player 2 takes the twenty cents, no disadvantageous inequality is created for player 1. However, in the last condition, by taking the twenty cents, player 2 creates that inequality. While the overall loss of money across conditions is identical, the context of that loss in terms of equality is not. The question, then, is how often player 1 would punish player 2.

In  the first two conditions, where no disadvantageous inequality was created for player 1, player 1 didn’t punish significantly more whether player 2 had taken money or not (approximately 13%). In the third treatment, where player 2′s taking did create that kind of inequality, player 1 was now far more likely to pay to punish (approximately 40%). So this is a pretty neat result, and it mirrors past work that came at the question from the opposite angle (Xiao & Houser, 2010; see here). The real question, though, concerns how we are to interpret this finding. These results, in and of themselves, don’t tell us a whole lot about why equality matters when it comes to punishment decisions.

They also doesn’t tell me much about this terrible itch I’ve been experiencing lately, but that’s a post for another day.

I think it’s worth noting that the study still does, despite it’s best efforts, confound losing money and generating inequality; in no condition can player 2 create disadvantageous inequality for player 1 without taking money away as well. Accordingly, I can’t bring myself to agree with the authors, who conclude:

  Together, these results suggest that disadvantageous inequality is the driving force motivating punishment, implying that the proximate motives underpinning human punishment might therefore stem from inequality aversion rather than the desire to reciprocate losses.

It could still well be the case that player one would rather not have twenty cents taken from them, thank you very much, but don’t reciprocate with punishment for other reasons. To use a more real-life context, let’s say you have a guest come to your house. At some point after that guest has left, you discover that he apparently also left with some of the cash you had been saving to buy whatever expensive thing you had your eye on at the time. When it came to deciding whether or not you desired to see that person punished for what they did, precisely how well off they were relative to you might not be your first concern. The theft would not, I imagine, automatically become OK in the event that the guy only took your money because you were richer than he was. A psychology that was designed to function in such a manner would leave one wide-open for exploitation by selfish others.

However, how well off you were, relative to how needy the person in question was, might have a larger effect in the minds of other third party condemners. The sentiment behind the tale of Robin Hood serves as an example towards that end: stealing from the rich is less likely to be condemned by others than stealing from one of lower standing. If other third parties are less likely, for whatever reason, to support your decision to punish another individual in contexts where you’re advantaged over the person being punished, punishment immediately risks becoming more costly. At that point. it might be less costly to tolerate the theft rather than risking condemnation by others for taking action against it.

What might be better referred to as, “The Metallica V. Napster Principle”.

One final issue I have with the paper is a semantic one: the authors label the act of player 2 taking money as cheating, which doesn’t fit my preferred definition (or, frankly, any definition of cheating I’ve ever seen). I favor the Tooby and Cosmides definition where a cheater is defined as “…an individual who accepts a benefit without satisfying the requirements that provision of that benefit was made contingent upon.” As there was no condition required for player 2 to be allowed to take money from player 1, it could hardly be considered an act of cheating. This seemingly minor issue, however, might actually hold some real significance, in the Freudian sense of the word.

To me, that choice of phrasing implies that the authors realize that, as I previously suggested, player 1s would really prefer if player 2s didn’t take any money from them; after all, why would they? More money is better than less. This highlights, for me, the very real and very likely possibility that what player 1s were actually punishing was having money taken from them, rather than the inequality, but they were only willing to punish in force when that punishment could more successfully be justified to others.

References: Raihani NJ, & McAuliffe K (2012). Human punishment is motivated by inequity aversion, not a desire for reciprocity. Biology letters PMID: 22809719

Xiao, E., & Houser, D. (2010). When equality trumps reciprocity Journal of Economic Psychology, 31, 456-470 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2010.02.001