5 Weak Ideas About The Origin Of Homosexuality: A Reply

Back at the end of last month, Mark Van Vugt presented what he considered to be five candidate selection pressures which might explain how homosexuality as an orientation – the exlcusive preference for same-sex sexual partners – came to both (a) exist in human populations in the first place, and (b) have its existence was maintained in the face of, what appear to be, obvious reproductive disadvantages. In each of these five cases I find the arguments lacking for either theoretical or empirical reasons, and, in most cases, both. Before I get to the science, however, I would like to deal with a troubling claim that Mark makes at the beginning of his post:

“The converging findings suggest that exclusive homosexuality is not a “life style choice” but a perfectly natural sexual orientation….Although these findings make a reasonably strong claim that homosexuality is part of someone’s genotype, there is still much speculation as to how it got there.”

There are three problems I have with those two above statements (admittedly, juxtapositioned for effect) that are worth pointing out. The first is the language used: while I’m in no way about to tell you that being gay is a choice (I happen to think it isn’t one), I will point out that the opposite of “choice” is not “genetic” or “natural”. If it was discovered tomorrow that homosexuality was determined by some environmental variable, say, a specific pathogen affecting development, (Cochran, Ewald, & Cochran, 2000) that would make homosexuality no more or less of a “choice”. The second issue is that all biological traits are equally and entirely codetermined both by environmental and genetic factors. Accordingly, saying homosexuality (or any single other trait) is “part of someone’s genotype” is both trivially and true as well as potentially misleading for those who are not well-versed in genetics.

Finally, the third issue is a cautionary point I made about a year-and-a-half ago: presumably, all the talk about choice, genes, and “being natural” has little to do with statements of fact, but are rather about the moral status of homosexuality. While I fully support the moral acceptance of homosexuality, I would be very wary of basing that support on the notion that homosexuality is a “genetic” trait that people “don’t choose”. Not only do I think homosexuality should be accepted regardless of whether it’s a choice or caused by some environmental factor, but I further would hate to see the arguments for acceptance slip away on the basis of the concordance data not panning out (which we’ll see in a moment, it does not).

Politics and science make awkward bedfellows, not unlike gay men and women…

Now that the political-stuff is out of the way, we can start dealing with some of Mark’s claims. The first thing I’ll take issue with there is the prevalence data. The stable 8% figure that Mark mentions is one that exceeds most every published estimate of homosexuality I’ve seen; those have typically hovered about 1-3%. Bear in mind, one isn’t simply trying to estimate the percentage of people who have had a homosexual experience before; it’s preferences which are of primarily interest. Further, there is little reason to think that such a figure is stable, as Mark implies it is, across time, place, or history. It well might have been, but one would have an awful hard time demonstrating that it is if one wishes to go beyond pure assertion.

As for his next point, yes; there is indeed evidence that twins tend to share a sexual orientation, as they do many other things. However, the concordance rates for a homosexual orientation among identical twins (that is, given that one twin has a homosexual orientation, how often does their co-twin have a similar orientation)  is only about 30%, and about 8.3% for non-identical twin pairs (Kendler et al, 2000). To make matters even more complicated, it’s worth noting that these concordance rates only tells us that some amount of what these twins share – genes, prenatal, and postnatal environments – makes it more likely that both will eventually develop a homosexual orientation, but it doesn’t tell us what that something is. Twin pairs, for instance, are similarly concordant for patterns of infectious disease (Cochran, Ewald, & Cochran, 2000), but it doesn’t mean they inherent genes that function to make them sick.

Finally, before getting to the selection pressures, it’s also worth countering the claim that homosexuality is well-documented in non-human species. Sure, there are some species that will, occasionally, engage in brief interactions more typical of mixed-sex pairs, be those interactions sexual or non-sexual in nature. What needs to be explained when it comes to homosexuality is not homosexual behaviors, but rather heterosexual avoidance. This more-or-less exclusive sexual preference for same-sex conspecifics has only been documented in rams, to my knowledge, and in no other non-human species, much less many or most of them.

Selection Pressures: Kin Selection
The first of the five selection pressures that Mark mentions is kin selection: helping others who share your genes reproduce. As Mark correctly points out, there’s little evidence for his hypothesis being correct, but the issues are much larger than that. For starters, the relationship coefficients don’t work well here: for each offspring a homosexual individual doesn’t produce, they would need to ensure that a full sibling produced an additional two that they otherwise wouldn’t have had for them to just break even and for this hypothesis to work. This would require an intense level investment that, if it existed, would be plainly obvious to any observer. It’s not enough that a homosexual individual is occasionally or even often nice to their relatives; they would need to be utterly devoted around the clock.

More to the point, though, is the seemingly apparent point that having a same-sex sexual attraction does nothing to help you invest in kin. Sure, maybe an asexual preference would work, if you wanted to save the time otherwise spent pursuing sex; a facultative heterosexual preference would probably do just as well, if not better. A homosexual orientation, on the other hand, is a complete waste of time; it would be a pointless distraction from the investment issue. Unless seeking out same-sex sexual relations was somehow functional in terms of increasing investment (or a rather odd byproduct), this explanation makes little sense.

Ants are very helpful, yet not very gay…

Selection Pressures: Group Selection
Group selection – the idea that a trait can spread if it offers group-wide advantages despite being individually detrimental – is a conceptual nonstarter, running counter to everything we know about how evolution works. Since I’ve written about this matter before on several occasions, there’s little need to continue beating this theoretical horse which has been dead since the 1960s. As Mark, again, points out, he knows of no evidence in favor of this hypothesis either, so there’s little less to say about it, other than that it doesn’t sound like a very “big” idea.

Selection Pressures: Sexual Attraction
This one, I admit, is probably the strangest of the selection pressures Mark posits. The idea here seems to be that because women might find homosexual men sexually attractive, this could give homosexual men a reproductive advantage. Now, perhaps I’m misunderstanding the basic idea in some fundamental way, but if an individual with a homosexual preference is found to be attractive by opposite sex individuals, it would seem to not matter much, as it’s quite unlikely that the two will ever end up having sex at all, let alone frequently. Provided these increased opportunities for sexual encounters even exist(Mark says there’s no evidence available that they do), they wouldn’t seem to do much good if the urge to take them is all but absent.

In case the problems aren’t plainly apparent at this point, imagine a hypothetical species of bird, like a peacock. In this species, males grow elaborate ornaments that females find to be attractive, generally speaking. Growing these ornaments, however, carries a cost: it makes the males sterile. In this case, no matter how attractive a male is to the females, his genes will never be benefited because of it. Attractiveness only matters so much as it leads to reproduction. No reproduction, no selection.

Selection Pressures: Balanced Selection
This argument at least poits that homosexuality is reproductively detrimental. These detriments are made up elsewhere, though, in the form of benefits to other carries of the genes. In essence, this argument says homosexuality is a lot like sickle-cell: harmful in some cases, but beneficial in others. There’s nothing theoreticall wrong with this possibility, but there are some serious practical hurdles. Specifically, if homosexual orientations ensured that 1-8% of the population was, effectively, sterile, there would need to be tremendous compensating benefits. Sickle-cell, for instance, is only common in areas that have a ton of malaria – which can kill huge minorities of populations and leave even more severely harmed – and pretty much the only known byproduct of its kind with a fitness hit as great as homosexuality (Cochran, Ewald, & Cochran, 2000). It also doesn’t fit well with the concordance rate data. So, while this explanation is theoretically possible, it’s highly improbable. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there’s also no known evidence for this being the case.

Selection Pressures: Sexually Antagonistic Selection
This brings us to the final selection pressure. Here, the idea is that a gene is detrimental when it’s inherited by one sex, but beneficial in the other. This is another theoretically plausible suggestions with some consistent evidence behind it (but the account isn’t anywhere near complete, and only considers male homosexuality). Unfortunately for this suggestion, like the above hypothesis, it also suffers from the concordance rate data. It would also require that females consistently more than make up for the detriment to the male offspring, reproductively. Remember, this isn’t just a matter of slight disadvantages; this is a matter of effective sterility. Further, such sexually antagonistic issues tend to be weeded out over time, as any new modifications that can avoid the costs associated with expression in males will be selected for. Even if this was a viable account, then, it would still be far from a complete one, as it would not be able to explain why some of the twin pairs turn out concordant, but most don’t, why these reproductive costs have yet to be eliminated, and it’s missing an account of female homosexuality.

“Would you care for a sixth cup of weak tea?”

Out of the five “big” ideas, then, four seem to be basically dead in the water and the fifth, while potentially plausible, is by no means conclusive or complete. In my experience, poor outcomes like these can be seen frequently when people attempt to use scientific research to justify some political or moral opinion: any available evidence that can be potentially interpreted in a favorable light is seized upon, no matter how weak or nonsensical the underlying connection between the two is. The goal, after all, doesn’t appear to be accuracy, but rather persuasion; to the extent that the former helps with the latter, all the better for the persuader, but their need not be any necessary connection between the two goals.

References: Cochran, G., Ewald, P., & Cochran, K. (2000). Infectious Causation of Disease: An Evolutionary Perspective. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 43 (3), 406-448 DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2000.0016

Iemmola F. & Ciana, A. (2009). New evidence of genetic factors influencing sexual orientation in men: Female fecundity increases in the maternal line. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 393-399.

Kendler, K.S., Thornton, L.M., Gilman, S.E., & Kessler, R.C. (2000). Sexual orientation in a U.S. national sample of twins and nontwin sibling pairs. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1843-1846

Why Does Stephen Hate Bob (More Than His Wife)?

“If a wife left her husband with three kids and no job/ to run off to fuck in Hawaii with some doctor named Bob/ you could skin them and drain them of blood so they die…especially Bob. Then you would be justice guy”. – Stephen Lynch, “Superhero”

For those of you not in the know, Stephen Lynch is a popular comedic musician. In the song, “Superhero”, Stephen gives the above description of what he would do were he “Justice Guy”. As one can gather, in this story, Stephen’s wife has run off with another man, resulting in Mr. Lynch temporarily experiencing a Predator-like urge for revenge. The interesting thing about this particular song is the emphasis that Stephen puts on his urge to kill Bob. It’s interesting in that it doesn’t make much sense, morally speaking: it’s not as if Bob, a third party who was not involved in any kind of relationship with Stephen, had any formal obligation to respect the boundaries of Stephen’s relationship with his wife. Looking out for the relationship, it seems, ought to have been his wife’s job. She was the person who had the social obligation to Stephen that was violated, so it seems the one who Stephen ought to mad at (or, at least madder at) would be his wife. So why does Stephen wish to especially punish Bob?

“I swear I’ll get you Bob, even if it’s the last thing I do!”

There are two candidate explanations I’d like to consider today to help explain the urge for this kind of Bob-specific punishment: one is slightly more specific to the situation at hand and the other applies to punishment interactions more generally, so let’s start off with the more specific case. Stephen wants his wife to behave cooperatively in terms of their relationship, and she seems less than willing to do so herself; presumably, some mating mechanisms in her brain is suggesting that the payoffs would be better for her to ditch her jobless husband to run off with a wealthy, high-status doctor. In order to alter the cost/benefit ratio to certain actions, then, Stephen entertains the idea of enacting punishment. If Stephen’s punishment makes his wife’s infidelity costlier than remaining faithful, her behavior will likely adjust accordingly. While punishing his wife can potentially be an effective strategy for enforcing her cooperation, it’s also a risky venture for Stephen on two fronts: (1) too much punishing of his wife – in this case, murder, though it need not be that extreme – can be counterproductive to his goals, as it would render her less able to deliver the benefits she previously provided to the relationship; the punishment might also be counterproductive because (2) the punishment makes the relationship less valuable still to his wife as new costs mount, resulting in her urge to abandon the relationship altogether for a better deal elsewhere growing even stronger.

The punishing of potential third parties – in this case, Bob – does not hold these same costs, though. Provided Bob was a stranger, Stephen doesn’t suffer any loss of benefits, as benefits were never being provided by Bob in the first place. If Stephen and Bob were previously cooperating in some form the matter gets a bit more involved, but we won’t concern ourselves with that for now; we’ll just assume the benefits his wife could provide are more valuable than the ones Bob could. With regard to the second cost – the relationship becoming costlier for the person punishment is directed at – this is, in fact, not a cost when that punishment is directed at Bob, but rather the entire point. If the relationship is costlier for a third party to engage in, due to the prospect of a potentially-homicidal partner, that third party may well think twice before deciding whether to pursue the affair any further. Punishing Bob would seem to look like the better option, then. There’s just one major hitch: specifically, punishing is costly for Stephen, both in terms of time, energy, and risk, and he may well need to direct punishment towards far more targets if he’s attempting to prevent his wife from having sex with other people.

Punishing third parties versus punishing one’s partner can be thought of, by way of analogy, to treating the symptoms or the cause of a disease, respectively. Treating the symptoms (deterring other interested men), in this case, might be cheaper than treating the underlying cause on an individual basis, but you may also need to continuously treat the symptoms (if his wife is rather interested with the idea of having affairs more generally). Depending on the situation, then, it might be ultimately cheaper and more effective to treat either the cause or the symptoms of the problem. It’s probably safe to assume that the relative cost/benefit calculations being worked out cognitively might ultimately be represented to some degree in our desires: if some part of Stephen’s mind eventually comes to the conclusion, for whatever reasons, that punishing one or more third parties would be the cheaper of the two options, he might end up feeling especially interested in punishing Bob.

All things considered, I’d say Bob had a pretty good run…

There is another, unexamined, set of costs, though, which brings us to the more general account. Stephen is not deciding whether to punish his wife and/or Bob in a social vacuum: what other people think about his punishment decisions will, in turn, likely effect Stephen’s perceptions of their attractiveness as options. If people are relatively lined up behind Stephen’s eventual decision, punishment suddenly becomes far less costly for Stephen to implement; by contrast, if others feel Stephen has gone to far and they align against him, his punishment would now become costlier and less effective (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2012). This brings us to a question I’ve raised before: would Stephen’s punishing of Bob result in the same social costs as the same punishment directed towards his wife? Strictly on the grounds that Bob is a man and Stephen’s wife is a woman, the answer to that question would seem to be “no”.

A paper by Glaeser and Sacerdote (2003) examined whether victim characteristics (like age and gender) were predictive of sentencing lengths for various crimes. The authors examined a sample of 1,772 cases in which manslaughter or murder charges were brought and a sentence was delivered, either due to a plea bargain or a conviction. Some of the expected racial bias seemed to raise its head, in that when the victim in question was black, the person sentenced for the killing was given less time (17.6 years, on average), overall, than when the victim was white (19.8 years). As was also the case in my last discussion of this topic, when the victim was a woman, sentence lengths were substantially shorter than when the victim was a man (17.5 vs 22.4 years, respectively). The difference is even starker when you consider the interaction between the gender of the person doing and kill and the gender of the person who got killed: when the victim was a man, if the killer was also a man, he would get about 18 years, on average; if the killer was a woman, that number drops to 11.3. For comparison’s sake, when the victim was a woman and the killer a woman, she would get about 17.5 years; if the killer was a man, that average was 23.1 years.

Those numbers, however, refer to all types of killings, so the sample was further restricted to vehicular homicides (about 7% of all homicides); essentially cases of people being killed by drunk drivers. These cases in particular are interesting because the victims here are, more or less, random; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were not being targeted. Since these killings are relatively random, so to speak, the characteristics of the victim should be irrelevant to sentencing length, but they again were not. In these cases, if the person driving the car and doing the killing was a woman, she could expect a sentence of about 3 years for killing a man and 4.5 for killing another woman. If you replace the driver with a male, those numbers rise to 4.7 and 10.4 years respectively. Killing a woman netted a higher sentence in general, no matter your gender, but being a man doing the killing put you in an especially bad situation.

“Oh, good; we only hit a man. I was worried for a second there.”

So where does all that leave Stephen? If other people are more likely to align against Stephen for punishing his wife, relative to his punishing Bob, that, to some extent, makes the appeal of threatening or harming Bob seem (proportionally) all the sweeter. This analysis is not specifically targeted at gender (or race, or age), but at social value more generally. When deciding who to align with in these kinds of moral contexts, we should expect people to do so, in part, by cognitively computing (though not necessarily consciously) where their social investments will be most likely to yield a good return. Of course, determining the social value of others is not always easy task, as the variables which determine it will vary both in content and degree across people and across time. The larger point is simply that one’s social value can be determined not only by what you think of them, but by what others think of them as well. So even though Stephen’s wife was the only person cheating, Bob gets to be the party more likely to targeted for punishment, in no small part because of his gender.

References: Descioli, P. & Kurzban, R. (2012). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological Bulletin, 1-20.

Glaeser, E., & Sacerdote, B. (2003). Sentencing in Homicide Cases and the Role of Vengeance The Journal of Legal Studies, 32 (2), 363-382 DOI: 10.1086/374707

“Couldn’t-Even-Possibly-Be-So Stories”: Just-World Theory

While I was reading over a recent paper by Callan et al (2012) about the effects that a victim’s age has on people’s moral judgments, I came across something that’s particularly – and disappointingly – rare in most of the psychological literature: the authors explicitly thinking about possible adaptive functions of our psychology. That is to say, the authors were considering what adaptive problem(s) some particular aspect of human psychology might be designed to solve. In that regard, I would praise the authors for giving these important matters some thought. Their major stumbling point, however, is that the theory the authors reference, just-world theory, suggests an implausible function; one that couldn’t even potentially be correct.

Just-world theory, as presented by Hafer (2000), is a very strange kind of theory. It begins with the premise that people have a need to believe in a just or fair world, so people think that others shouldn’t suffer or gain unless they did something to deserve it. More precisely, “good” people are supposed to be rewarded and “bad” people are supposed to be punished, or something like that, anyway. When innocent people suffer, then, this belief is supposedly “threatened”, so, in order to remove the threat and maintain their just-world belief, people derogate the victim. This makes the victim seem less innocent and more deserving of their suffering, so the world can again be viewed as just.

I’ll bet that guy made Santa’s “naughty” list.

Phrased in terms of adaptationist reasoning, just-world theory would go something like this: humans face the adaptive problem of maintaining a belief in a just world in the face of contradictory evidence. People solve this problem with cognitive mechanisms that function to alter that contradictory evidence into confirmatory evidence. The several problems with this suggestion ought to jump out clearly at this point, but let’s take them one at a time and examine them in some more depth. The first issue is that the adaptive problem being posited here isn’t one; indeed, it couldn’t be. Holding a belief, regardless of whether that belief is true or not, is a lot like “feeling good”, in that neither of them, on their own, actually do anything evolutionary useful. Sure, beliefs (such as “Jon is going to attack me”) might motivate you to execute certain behaviors (running away from Jon), but it is those behaviors which are potentially useful; not the beliefs per se. Natural selection can only “see” what you do; not what you believe or how you feel. Accordingly, an adaptive problem could not even potentially be the maintaining of a belief.

But let’s assume for the moment that maintaining a belief could be a possible adaptive problem. Even granting this, just-world theory runs directly into a second issue: why would contradictory evidence “threaten” that belief in the first place? It seem perfectly plausible that an individual could simply believe whatever it is was important to believe and be done with it, rather than trying to rationalize that belief to ensure it’s consistent with other beliefs or accurate. For instance, say, for whatever reason, it’s adaptively important for people to believe that anyone who leaves their house at night will die. Then someone who believes this observes their friend Max leaving the house at night and return very much alive. The observer in this case could, it seems, go right along believing that anyone who leaves their house at night will die without also needing to believe either that (a) Max didn’t leave his house at night or (b) Max isn’t alive. While the observer might also believe one or both of those things, it would seem to be irrelevant as to whether or not they did.

On a related note, it’s also worth noting that just-world theory seems to imply that the adaptive goal here is to hold an incorrect belief – that “the world” is just. Now there’s nothing implausible about the suggestion that an organism can be designed to be strategically wrong in certain contexts; when it comes to persuading others, for instance, being wrong can be an asset at times. When you aren’t trying to persuade others of something, however, being wrong will, at best, be neutral to, at worst, exceedingly maladaptive. So what does Hafer (2000) suggest the function of such incorrect beliefs might be?

By [dissociating from an innocent victim], observers can at least be comforted that although some people are unjustly victimized in life, all is right with their own world and their own investments in the future (emphasis mine)

As I mentioned before, this explanation couldn’t even possibly work, as “feeling good” isn’t one of those things that does anything useful by itself. As such, maintaining an incorrect belief for the purposes of feeling good fails profoundly as a proper explanation for any behavior.

Not only is the world not just, it isn’t tuned into your thought frequencies either, no matter how strongly you incorrectly believe it is.

On top of all the aforementioned problems, there’s also a major experimental problem: the just-world theory only seems to have been tested in one direction. Without getting too much into the methodological details of her studies, Hafer (2000) found that when a victim was “innocent”, subjects who were primed for thinking about their long-term plans were slightly more likely to blame the victim for their negative life outcome, derogate them, and disassociate from them (i.e. they should have been more cautious and what happened to them is not likely to happen to me), relative to subjects who were not primed for the long term. Hafer’s interpretation of these results was that, at least in the long-term condition, the innocent victim threatened the just-world belief, so people in turn perceived the victim as less innocent.

While the innocent-victims-being-blamed angle was examined, Hafer (2000) did not examine the opposite context: that of the undeserving recipient. Let’s say there was someone you really didn’t like, and you found out that this someone recently came into a large sum of money through an inheritance. Presumably, this state of affairs would also “threaten” your just-world belief; after all, bad people are supposed to suffer, not benefit, so you’d be left with a belief-threatening inconsistency. If we presented subjects with a similar scenario, would we expect them to “protect” their just-world belief by reframing their disliked recipient as a likable and deserving one? While I admittedly have no data bearing on that point, my intuitive answer to the question would be a resounding “probably not”; they’d probably just view their rival as richer pain-in-their-ass after receiving the cash. It’s not as if intuitions about who’s innocent and guilty seem to shift simply on the basis of received benefits and harms; the picture is substantially more nuanced.

“If he was such a bad guy, why was he pepper-spraying people instead of getting sprayed?”

To reiterate, I’m happy to see psychologists thinking about functions when developing their research; while such a focus is by no means sufficient for generating good research or sensibly interpreting results (as we’ve just seen), I think it’s an important step in the right direction. The next major step would be for psychological researchers to better learn how to differentiate plausible and non-plausible functions, and for that they need evolutionary theory. Without evolutionary theory, ostensible explanations like “feeling good” and “protecting beliefs” can be viewed as acceptable and, in some cases, even as useful, despite them being anything but.

References: Callan, M., Dawtry, R., & Olson, J. (2012). Justice motive effects in ageism: The effects of a victim’s age on observer perceptions of injustice and punishment judgments Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (6), 1343-1349 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.07.003

Hafer, C. (2000). Investment in Long-Term Goals andCommitment to Just Means Drive
the Need to Believe in a Just World Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1059-1073

Now You’re Just A Moral Rule I Used To Know

At one point in my academic career I found myself facing something resembling an ethical dilemma: I had, what I felt was, a fantastic idea for a research project, hindered only by the fact that someone had conducted a very similar experiment a few years prior to my insight. To those of you unfamiliar with the way research is conducted, this might not seem like too big of a deal; after all, good science requires replications, so it seems like I should be able to go about my research anyway with no ill effects. Somewhat unfortunately for me – and the scientific method more generally – academic journals are not often very keen on publishing replications, nor are dissertation committees and other institutions that might eventually examine my resume impressed by them. There was, however, a possible “out” for me in this situation: I could try and claim ignorance. Had I not have read the offending paper, or if others didn’t know about it (“it” being either the paper’s existence or the knowledge that I read it), I could have more convincingly presented my work as entirely novel. All I had to do would be not cite the paper and write as if no work had been conducted on the subject, much like Homer Simpson telling himself, “If I don’t see it, it’s not illegal” as he runs a red light.

Plan B for making the work novel again is slightly messier…

Since I can’t travel back in time and unread the paper, presenting the idea as completely new (which might mean more credit for me) would require that I convince others that I had not read it. Attempting that, however, comes with a certain degree of risk: if other people find out that I had read the paper and failed to give proper credit, my reputation as a researcher would likely suffer as a result. Further, since I know that I read the paper, that knowledge might unintentionally leak out, resulting in my making an altogether weaker claim of novelty. Thankfully, (or not so thankfully, depending on your perspective) there’s another way around this problem that doesn’t involve time travel; my memory for the study could simply “fail”. If I suddenly was no longer aware of the fact that I had read the paper, if those memories no longer existed or existed but could not be accessed, I could honestly claim that my research was new and exciting, making me that much better off.

Some new research by Shu and Gino (2012) asked whether our memories might function in this fashion, much like the Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses found in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series: darkening at the first sign of danger, preventing the wearer from noticing and allowing them to remain blissfully unaware. In this case, however, the researchers asked whether engaging in an immoral action – cheating – might subsequently result in the actor’s inability to remember other moral rules. Across four experiments, when subjects were given an opportunity to act less than honestly, either through commission or omission, they reported remembering fewer previously read moral – but not neutral – rules.

In the first of these experiments, participants read both an honor code and a list of requirements for obtaining a driver’s license and they were informed that they would be answering questions about the two later. The subjects were then given a series of problems to try and solve in a given period of time, with each correct answer netting a small profit. In one of the conditions, the experimenter tallied the number of correct answers for each participant and paid them accordingly; in the other condition, subjects noted how many answers they got right and paid themselves privately, allowing for subjects to misrepresent their performance for financial gain. Following their payment, subjects were then given a memory task for the previously-read information. When given the option for cheating, about a third of the subjects took advantage of the opportunity, reporting that they had solved an additional five of the problems, on average. That some people cheated isn’t terribly noteworthy; what was is that when the subjects were tested on their recall of the information they had initially read, those who cheated tended to remember fewer items concerning the honor code than those who did not (2.33 vs 3.71, respectively), but remembered similar number of items about the license rules (4 vs 3.79). The cheaters’ memories seemed to be, at least temporarily, selectively impaired for moral items.

There goes that semester of business ethics…

Of course, that pattern of results is open to a plausible alternative explanation: people who read the moral information less carefully were also more likely to cheat (or people who are more interested in cheating had less of an interest in moral information). The second experiment sought to rule that explanation out. In the follow-up study, subjects initially read two moral documents: the honor code and the Ten Commandments. The design was otherwise similar, minus one key detail: subjects took two memory tasks, one before they had the opportunity to cheat and another one after the fact. Before there was any option for dishonest behavior, subjects’ performance on their memory for moral items was similar regardless of whether they would later cheat or not (4.33 vs 4.44, respectively). After the problem solving task, however, the subjects who cheated subsequently remembered fewer moral items about the second list they read (3.17), relative to those who did not end up cheating (4.21). The decreased performance on the memory task seemed to be specific to the subjects who cheated, but only after they had acted dishonestly; not before.

The third experiment shifted gears, looking instead at acts of omission rather than outright lying. First, subjects were asked to read the honor code as before, with one group of subjects being informed that the memory task they would later complete would yield an additional $1.50 of payment for each correct answer. This gave the subjects some incentive to remember and accurately report their knowledge of the honor code later (to try and rule out the possibility that, previously, subjects had remembered the same amount of moral information, but just neglected to report that they did). Next, subjects were asked to solve some SAT problems on a computer, and each correct answer would, as before, net the subject some additional payment. However, some subjects were informed that the program they were working with contained a glitch that would cause the correct answer to be displayed on the screen five seconds after the problem appeared unless they hit the space bar. The results showed that, of the subjects that knew the correct answer would pop up on the screen, almost all of them (minus one very moral subject) made use of that glitch at least once during the experiment and, ss before, the cheaters recalled fewer moral items than the non-cheating groups (4.53 vs 6.41). Further, while the incentives for accurate recall were effective in the non-cheating group (they remembered more items when they were paid for each correct answer), this was not the case for the cheaters: whether they were being paid to remember or not, the cheaters still remembered about the same amount of information.

Forgetting about the forth experiment for now, I’d like to consider why we might expect to see this pattern of results. Shu and Gino (2012) suggest that such motivated forgetting might help in “reducing dissonance and regret”, to maintain one’s “self-image”. Such explanations are not even theoretically plausible functions for this kind of behavior, as “feeling good”, in and of itself, doesn’t do anything useful. In fact, forgetting moral rules could be harmful, to the extent that it might make one more likely to commit acts that others would morally condemn, resulting in increased social sanctions or physical aggression. However, if such ignorance was used strategically, it might allow the immoral actor in question to mitigate the extent of that condemnation. That is to say, committing certain immoral acts out of ignorance is seen as being less deserving of punishment than committing them intentionally, so if you can persuade others that you just made a mistake, you’d be better off.


While such an explanation might be at least plausible, there are some major issues with it, namely that cheating-contingent rule forgetting is, well, contingent on the fact that you cheated. Some cognitive system needs to know that you cheated in the first place to start suppressing one’s memory for moral rule accessibility, and if that system knows that a moral rule has been violated, it may leak that information into the world (in other words, it might cause the same problem that it was hypothesized to solve). Relatedly, suppressing memory accessiability for moral rules more generally, specifically moral rules unrelated to the current situation, probably won’t do you much good when it comes to persuading others that you didn’t know the moral rule which you broke in the first place – what they’ll likely be condemning you for. If you’re caught stealing, forgetting that adultery is immoral won’t help out (and claiming that you didn’t know stealing was immoral is itself not the most believable of excuses).

That said, the function behind the cognitive mechanisms generating this pattern of results likely does involve persuasion at its conceptual core. That people have difficulty accessing moral information after they’ve done something less than moral probably represents some cognitive systems for moral condemnation becoming less active (one side-effect of which is that your memory for moral rules isn’t accessed, as one isn’t trying to find a moral violation), while systems for defending against moral condemnation come online. Indeed, as the forth, unreviewed, study found, even moral words appeared to be less accessible; not just rules. However, this was only the case for cheaters who had been exposed to an honor code; when there was less of a need to defend against condemnation (when one didn’t cheat or hadn’t been exposed to an honor code), those systems stayed relatively dormant.

References: Shu, L., & Gino, F. (2012). Sweeping dishonesty under the rug: How unethical actions lead to forgetting of moral rules. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (6), 1164-1177 DOI: 10.1037/a0028381

My Eyes Are Up Here (But My Experiences Aren’t)

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, objectification is a central notion to feminist theory. Among the listed features of objectification found there, I’d like to focus on number seven in particular: 

Denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Non-living objects – and even some living ones – are not typically perceived to have a mind capable of experiences. Cars, for instance, are not often thought of as possessing the capacity to experience things the way sentient beings do, like pain or sound (though that doesn’t always stop drivers from verbally bargaining with their cars or physically hitting them when they “refuse” to start). Accordingly, people find different behaviors more socially justifiable when they’re directed towards an object, as opposed to a being capable of having subjective experiences. For instance, many people might say that it’s morally wrong to hit a person, because, in part, being hit hurts; hitting a car, by contrast, while silly or destructive, isn’t as morally condemned, as the car feels no pain. As people generally don’t wish to be treated in the same fashion as objects, their objections or being objectified would seem to follow naturally.

It has often been asserted that focusing on someone’s (typically a woman’s) physical characteristics (typically the sexual ones) results in the objectification of that person; objectification which strips them of their mind, and with it their capacity for experiences. They’re reduced to the status of “tool” for sexual pleasure, rather than “person”. This assertion makes a rather straightforward prediction: increasing the focus on someone’s body ought to diminish perceptions of their capacity to experience things.

Like the pain of his daily steroid injections.

When that prediction was put to the test by Gray et al (2011), however, the researchers found precisely the opposite pattern of results across six experiments: increasing the focus on a person’s physical characteristics resulted in the perception that the person was more capable of subjective experiences. In the first of these experiments, subjects were presented with either a male or female face alone, or those same faces complete with a portion of their exposed upper body, followed by questions about the ability of the pictured person to do (behave morally, control themselves) or feel (hunger, desire) certain things, relative to others. When more of the person’s body was on display, they were rated as slightly less likely to be able to do things (2.90 vs 3.23 out of 5), but slightly more able to experience things (3.65 vs 3.38), relative to the face-alone condition. It’s also worth noting that a score of 3 on this scale denoted being average, relative to others, in either agency or experience, so showing more skin certainly didn’t remove the perception of the person having a mind (they were still about average); it just altered what kind of mind was being perceived.

The basic effect was replicated in the second of these studies. Subjects were asked to assess pictures of two women along either physical or professionalism variables. Subsequently, the subjects were asked which of two women they thought was more capable of doing or feeling certain things as before.  When the woman in the picture had been assessed along the physical variables, they were rated as being slightly more capable of experiences, but slightly less agentic; when that same woman was instead assessed along the professionalism variables, the reverse pattern held – more agency and less patiency.

The researchers turned up the sex in the next two studies. In the third experiment, subjects saw one of ten target men or women in a picture, either clothed or naked (with the sexy parts tastefully blurred, of course), and assessed the target along the same agency or experiential dimensions. The naked targets were rated as having a greater capacity for experience, relative to their clothed pictures (3.28 vs 3.18), while also having less agency (2.92 vs 3.26). Further, though I didn’t mention this before, it was the female targets that were ascribed more overall mind in this study, as was also the case in the first study, though this difference was small (just to preemptively counter the notion that women were being universally perceived as having less of a mind). On a possibly related note, there was also a positive correlation between target attractiveness and mind perception: the more attractive the person in the picture was, the more capable of agency and experience they was rated as being.

Taking that last experiment one step further, one of the female targets that had previously been represented was again presented to subjects either clothed or naked, but a third condition was added: that woman also happened to have done an adult film, and the (highly sexualized) picture of her on the cover was rated along the same dimensions as the other two. In terms of her capacity for agency, there was a steady decline over the clothed, naked, and sexualized pictures (2.92, 2.76, and 2.58), whereas there was a steady incline on the experiential dimension (2.91, 3.18, and 3.45). Overall, the results really do make a for a very good-looking graph.

Results  so explicit they might not be suitable for minors

Skipping the fifth study, the final experiment looked at how a person might be treated, contingent on how much skin is on display. Subjects were presented with a picture of a male confederate who was hooked up to some electrodes and either clothed or shirtless. It was the subject’s job to decide which tasks to give to the confederate (i.e. have the confederate do task X or task Y), and some of those tasks ostensibly involved painful shocks. The subjects were told to only administer as many shock tasks as they thought would be safe, as their goal was to protect the confederate (while still gathering shock data, that is). Of interest was how often the subjects decided to assign the shock task to the confederate out of the 40 opportunities they had to do so. In the shirtless condition, the subjects tended to think of the confederate more in terms of his body rather than his mind, as was hoped; they also liked the confederate just as much, no matter his clothing situation. Also, as predicted, subjects administered fewer shocks to the shirtless confederates (8 times, on average, as compared with almost 14). Focusing on a person’s body seemed to make these subjects less inclined to hurt them, fitting nicely with the increases we just saw in perceptions of capacity for experience.

Just to summarize, focusing on someone’s physical characteristics, whether that someone was a man or a woman, did not lead to diminished attributions of their capacity to have experiences; just their agency. People were perceiving a mind in the “objectified” targets; they were just perceiving different sorts – or focusing on different aspects – of minds. Now perhaps some people might counter that this paper doesn’t tell us much about objectification because there wasn’t any – sexual or otherwise – going on, as “sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own“. Indeed, all the targets in these experiments were viewed as having both experiences and agency, and the ratings of those two dimensions hovered closely around the midpoints of the scales; they clearly weren’t be viewed as mindless objects in any meaningful sense, so maybe there was no objectification going on here. However, the same website that provided the sexual objectification definition goes on to list pornography and the representation of women in media as good examples of sexual objectification, both of which could be considered to have been represented in the current paper. For such a criticism to have any teeth, the use of the term “objectification” would need to be reined in substantially, restricted to cases where depersonalization actually occurs (meaning things like pointing a video camera at someone’s body don’t qualify).

While these results are all pretty neat, one thing this paper seriously wants for is an explanation for them. Gray et al (2011) only redescribe their findings in terms of “common-sense dualism”, which is less than satisfying and it doesn’t seem to account for the findings on attractiveness very well either. The question they seem to be moving towards involves examining the ways we perceive others more generally; when and why certain aspects of someone’s mind become relatively more salient. Undoubtedly, the ways these perceptions shift will turn out to be quite complex and context-specific. For instance, if I was going in for, say, a major operation, I might be very interested in, to some extent, temporarily “reducing” the person doing my surgery from a complex person with all sorts of unique attributes and desires to being simply a surgeon because, at that moment, their other non-surgery-related traits aren’t particularly relevant.

“A few more people are coming over for dinner; which of you guys are the flattest?”

While it’s not particularly poetic, what’s important in that situation – and many other situations more generally – is whether the person in question can help you do something useful; whether they’re a useful “tool” for the situation at hand (admittedly, they’re rather peculiar kinds of tools that need to be properly motivated to work, but the analogy works well enough). If you need surgery, someone’s value as a mate won’t be particularly relevant there; after you’ve recovered, left the hospital, and found a nice bar, the situation might be reversed. Which of a person’s traits are most worthy of focus will depend on the demands of the task at hand: what goals are being sought, how they might be achieved, and whom they might be most profitably achieved with. Precisely what problem the aforementioned perceptual shifts between agency and experience are supposed to solve – what useful thing they allow the perceivers to do – is certainly a matter worthy of deeper consideration for anyone interested in objectification.

References: Gray, K., Knobe, J., Sheskin, M., Bloom, P., & Barrett, L. (2011). More than a body: Mind perception and the nature of objectification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (6), 1207-1220 DOI: 10.1037/a0025883

The Tension Between Theory And Reality

“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

There is a relatively famous quote attributed to Michelangelo who was discussing his process of carving a statue: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”. Martin Nowak, in his book SuperCooperators (2011), uses that quote to talk about his admiration for using mathematical models to study cooperation. By stripping away the “noise” in the world, one can end up with some interesting conclusions. For instance, it was through this stripping away of the noise that led to the now-famous programming competition that showed us how successful a tit-for-tat strategy can be. There’s just one hitch, and it’s expressed in another relatively famous quote attributed to Einstein: “Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.” Imagine instead that Michelangelo had not seen an angel in the marble, but rather a snake: he would have “released” the snake from the marble instead. That Michelangelo “saw” the angel in the first place seemed to preclude his seeing the snake – or any number of other possible images – that might have potentially been representable by the marble as well. I should probably also add that neither the snake nor the angel were actually “in” the marble in the first place…

“You see a medium for high art; I see new kitchen countertops”

The reason I bring up Nowak’s use of the Michelangelo quote is that both in his book and a recent paper (Nowak, 2012), Nowak stresses the importance of both (a) using mathematical models to reveal underlying truths by stripping away noise from the world, and (b) advocates for the readdition of that noise, or at least some of it, to make the models better at predicting real-world outcomes. The necessity of this latter point is demonstrated neatly by the finding that, as the rules of the models designed to assess cooperation shifted slightly, the tit-for-tat strategy no longer emerged as victorious. When new variables – ones previously treated as noise – are introduced to these games, new strategies can best tit-for-tat handily. Sometimes the dominant strategy won’t even remain static over time, shifting between patterns of near universal cooperation, universal defection, and almost anything in between. That new pattern of results doesn’t mean that a tit-for-tat strategy isn’t useful on some level; just that it’s usefulness is restricted to certain contexts, and those contexts may or may not be represented in any specific model.

Like Michelangelo, then, these theoretical models can “see” any number of outcomes (as determined by the initial state of the program and its governing rules); like Einstein, these models can also only “see” what they are programmed to see. Herein lies the tension: these models could be excellent for demonstrating the many things (like group selection works), but many of many those things which can be demonstrated in the theoretical realm are not applicable to the reality that we happen to live in (also like group selection). The extent to which those demonstrations are applicable to the real world relies on the extent to which the modeller happened to get things right. For example, let’s say we actually had a slab of marble with something inside it and it’s our goal to figure out what that something is: a metaphorical description of doing science. Did Michelangelo demonstrate that this something was the specific angel he had in mind by removing everything that wasn’t that angel from an entirely different slab of marble?  Not very convincingly; no. He might have been correct, but there’s no way to tell without actually examining the slab with that something inside of it directly. Because of this, mathematical models do not serve as a replacement for experimentation or theory in any sense.

On top of that concern, a further problem is that, in the realm of the theoretical, any abstract concept (like “the group”) can be granted as much substance as any other, regardless of whether those concepts can be said to exist in reality; one has a fresh slab of marble that they can “see” anything in, constrained only by their imagination and programming skills. I could, with the proper technical know-how, create a mathematical model that demonstrates that people with ESP have a fitness advantage over those without this ability. By contrast, I could create a similar model that demonstrates that people without ESP have a fitness advantage over those with the ability. Which outcome will eventually obtain depends entirely on the ways in which I game my model in favor of one conclusion or the other. Placed in that light, (“we defined some strategy as working and concluded that it worked”) the results of mathematical modeling seem profoundly less impressive. More to the point, however, the outcome of my model says nothing about whether or not people actually have these theoretical ESP abilities in the first place. If they don’t, all the creative math and programming in the world wouldn’t change that fact.

Because, eventually, Keanu Reeves will stop you.

As you can no doubt guess by this point, I don’t hold mathematical modeling in the same high esteem that Nowak seems to. While its theoretical utility is boundless, its practical utility seems extremely limited, relying on the extent to which the assumptions of the programmer approach reality. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a few other details that have not yet seemed to have been included in these models of cooperation. That’s not to say that the inclusion of these variables would allow a model to derive some new and profound truths – as these models can only see what they are told to see and how they are told to see it – just that these variables might help, to whatever degree, the models better reflect reality.

The first of these issues is that these cooperation games seem to be played using an identical dilemma between rounds; that is to say there’s only one game in town, and the payoff matrices for cooperation and defection remain static. This, of course, is not the way reality works: cooperation is sometimes mutually beneficial, other times mutually detrimental, and still others only beneficial for one of the parties involved, and all that changes the game substantially. Yes, this means we aren’t strictly dealing with cooperative dilemmas anymore, but reality is not made up of strictly cooperative dilemmas, and that matters if we’re trying to draw conclusions about reality. Adding this consideration into the models would mean that behavioral strategies are unlikely to ever cycle between  “always cooperate” or “always defect” as Nowak (2012) found that they did in his models. Such strategies are too simple-minded and underspecified to be practically useful.

A second issue involves the relative costs and benefits to cooperation and defection even within the same game. Sometimes defecting may lead to great benefits for the defector; at others, defecting may only lead to small benefits. A similar situation holds for how much of a benefit cooperation will bring to one’s partner. A tit-for-tat strategy could be fooled, so to speak, by this change of rules (i.e. I could defect on you when the benefits for me are great and reestablish cooperation only when the costs to cooperation are low). As cooperation will not yield identical payoffs over time more generally, cooperation will also not yield identical payoffs between specific individuals. This would make some people more valuable to have as a cooperative partner than others and, given that cooperation takes some amount of limited time and energy, this means competition for those valuable partners. Similarly, this competition can also mean that cooperating with one person entails simultaneously defecting against another (cooperation here is zero-sum; there’s only so much to go around). Competition for these more valuable individuals can lead to all sorts of interesting outcomes: people being willing to suffer defection for the privilege of certain other associations; people actively defecting on or punishing others to prevent those others from gaining said associations; people avoiding even trying to compete for these high value players, as their odds of achieving such associations are vanishingly low. Basically, all sorts of politically-wise behaviors we see from the characters in Game in Thrones that don’t find themselves represented in these mathematical models yet.

We might also want to add a stipulations for in-game beheadings.

A final issue is that information that individuals in these games are exposed to: it’s all true information. In the non-theoretical realm, it’s not always clear as to whether someone you’ve been interacting with cooperated or defected, or the degree of effort they put into the venture even if they were on the cooperating side of the equation. If individuals in these games could reap the benefits of defecting while simultaneously convincing others that they had cooperated, that’s another game-changer. Modeling all of this is, no doubt, a lot of work, but potentially doable. It would lead to all sorts of new set of findings about which strategies worked and which one didn’t, and how, and when, and why. The larger point, however, is that the results of these mathematical models aren’t exactly findings; they’re restatements of our initial intuitions in mathematical form. Whether those intuitions are poorly developed and vastly simplified or thoroughly developed and conceptually rich is an entirely separate matter, as they’re all precisely as “real” in the theoretical domain.

References: Nowak, M. (2011). SuperCooperators: Altruism, evolution, and why we need each other to succeed. New York: Free Press

Nowak, M. (2012). Evolving cooperation Journal of Theoretical Biology, 299, 1-8 DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2012.01.014