He’s Climbing In Your Windows; He’s Snatching Your People Up

One topic that has been addressed by evolutionary psychologists that managed to draw a good deal of ire was rape. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, the criticisms that the theorizing about it brought were largely undeserved, reflecting, perhaps, a human tendency to mistake explanation with exculpation. Needless to say, at this point, sexual assault will be the topic for examination today, so if it’s the kind of thing that bothers you to read about, I suggest clicking away. Now that the warning has been made, if you’re still reading we can move forward. There has been some debate among evolutionary-minded researchers as to whether or not there are any rape-specific cognitive adaptations in humans, or whether rape represents a byproduct of other mating mechanisms. The debate remains unresolved for lack of unambiguous predictions or data. As the available data could be interpreted as consistent with both sides of the debate, the question remains a slippery and contentious one.

So do be careful if you decide to try and pick it up.

A paper by Felson & Cundiff (2012) suggests to have found some data they say support the byproduct view for rape. While I find myself currently favoring the byproduct explanation, I also find their interpretation of the evidence they bring to bear on the matter underwhelming. I actually find their interpretation of several matters off, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s consider the research itself. The authors sought to examine existing data on robberies committed by lone males 12 years or older where a lone female was present at the time. From the robbery data, the authors were further interested in examining the subset of them that also involved a report of sexually assault. Towards this end, Felson & Cundiff (2012) reported data from approximately 45,000 robberies spanning from 2000-2007. Of those robberies, roughly 2% of them also involved a sexual assault, yielding about 900 cases for examination. As an initial note, the 2% figure would seem to suggest, to me, anyway, that in most instances of robbery/sexual assault, the assaults tended to not be preplanned; they look more opportunistic.

From this sample, the authors first examined what effect the female victim’s age had on the likelihood of a sexual assault being reported during the robbery. As it turns out, the age of the woman was a major determinant: women at the highest risk of being assaulted were in the 15-29 age range (with the peak being within the 20-24 year old age range), where the average risk of a sexual assault was around 2.5%. Before this age range, the risk of assault is substantially lower, around 1.3%. After 29 years, the rate begins to decline, dropping markedly after 40, down to around an average of 0.5%. In terms of opportunistic sexual assaults, then, male robbers appear to target women in their fertile years at disproportionate frequencies, presumably partially or largely on the basis of victim’s physical attractiveness. This finding appears consistent with previous work that had found the average age of a female who was the victim of a robbery alone was 35, while the average age of a robbery/assault victim was 27.9; about 7 years of difference. Any theories of rape that assume the act is motivated by power and not by sex would seem to have a very difficult time accounting for this pattern in the data.

Next, the authors turned their attention towards characteristics of the male robbers that predict whether or not an assault was reported. The results showed that the likelihood of a sexual assault increased as the males reached sexual maturity and steadily increased further until about their mid-thirties, after which they began to decline. Further, regardless of their age, the robbers didn’t show much in the way of variance in terms of the age of women they tended to target. That is to say whether the man was in his late teens or his late forties, they all seemed to preferentially target younger women nearer to their peak fecundity. The one exception to this pattern were the males aged 12-17, who seemed to even more disproportionately prefer women in their teens and early twenties. Felson & Cundiff (2012) note that this pattern of preferences is not typically observed in consensual relationships, where men and women tend to pair up around similar ages. This suggests that older men’s patterns of engaging in relationships with older women likely represents the relative aversion of younger women to the older males; not a genuine preference on the part of men for older women per se.

Though it’s difficult to imagine why older men aren’t preferred…

That’s not to say that older men may not have a preference for pursing relatively older women, just that such a preference wouldn’t be driven by the woman’s age. Such a preference might well be driven by other factors, however, such as the relative willingness of a woman to enter into a relationship with the man in question. There’s not much point for a man in pursuing women they’re unlikely to ever attain success with, even if those women are highly attractive; better to spend that time and energy in domains more liable to payoff. Louis C.K. sums the issue up neatly in one of his stand-up routines: “to me, you’re not a woman until you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet…[if you're a younger girl] I don’t want to fuck you…[alright] I do want to fuck you, but you won’t fuck me, so fuck you”. When such tradeoffs can be circumvented – as is the case in sexual assault – a person’s underlying preferences for certain characteristics can be more readily assessed.

This brings us to my complaints with the paper. As I mentioned initially, there’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not men have cognitive mechanisms designed for rape specifically, or whether rape is generated as a byproduct of mechanisms designed for other purposes. Felson & Cundiff (2012) suggest that their data support the byproduct interpretation. Why? Because they found that women in the 15-29 age range who were sexually assaulted were less likely to be raped than older women. This pattern of data is supposed to support the byproduct hypothesis because, I think, the authors are positing some specific motivation for sex acts that could result in conception, rather than some more general interest in sexual behavior. It’s hard to say, since the authors fail to lay out the theory behind their hypothesis with precision. This strikes me as somewhat of a strange argument, though, as it would essentially posit that sexual acts that are unlikely to result in conception (such as oral or anal sex) are motivated by a different set of cognitive mechanisms that an interest in vaginal sex. While that might potentially be the case, I’ve never seen a case made for it, and there isn’t a strong one to be found in the paper.

The other complaint I have is that the authors use a phrase that’s a particular pet peeve of mine: “..our results are consistent with the predictions from evolutionary psychology”. This phrase always troubles me because evolutionary psychology, as field, does not make a set of uniform predictions about sexual behavior. Their results may well be consistent with some sub-theories derived by psychologists using an evolutionary framework – such as sexual strategies theory – but they are not derived from evolutionary psychology more broadly. To say that a result is consistent or inconsistent with evolutionary psychology is to imply that such a finding supports or fails to support the foundational assumptions of the field; assumptions which have to do with the nature of information processing mechanisms. While this might seem like a minor semantic point at first, I feel it’s actually a rather deep issue. It’s a frequent mistake that many of evolutionary psychology’s critics make when attempting to write off the entire field on the basis of a single idea they don’t like. To the extent that such inaccurate generalizations serve to hinder people’s engagement with the field, there’s a problem to be addressed.

And if you’re not willing to engage with me, I’d like the ring back.

As evolutionary psychology more broadly doesn’t deliver specific predictions about rape, neither the hypothesis that rape is an adaptation or a byproduct should rightly be considered the official evolutionary psychology perspective on the topic; this would be the case regardless of whether the evidence strongly supported one side or the other, I might add. While the the current research doesn’t speak to either of these possibilities distinctly, it does manage to speak against the idea that rape isn’t about sex, adding to the already substantial evidence that such a view is profoundly mistaken. Of course, the not-sex explanation was always more of a political slogan than a scientific one, so the lack of empirical support for it might not prove terribly troubling for its supporters.

References: Felson, R., & Cundiff, P. (2012). Age and sexual assault during robberies Evolution and Human Behavior, 33 (1), 10-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.04.002

Understanding Understanding

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Steven Hawking

Many researchers in the field of psychology don’t appear to understand that restating a finding is not the same as explaining that finding. For instance, if you found that men are more likely to gamble than women, a typical form of “explanation” of this finding would be to say that men have more of a “risk bias” than women, resulting in them gambling more. Clearly this explanation doesn’t add anything that stating the finding didn’t; all it manages to do is add a label to the finding. Now some psychologists might understand this shortcoming and take the next step: they might say something along the lines of men perceive gambling to be more fun or more likely to payoff than women do. While that might well be true, it still falls short of an complete explanation. Instead, it would merely push the explanation stage back a step to a question about why men might perceive gambling differently than women do. If the researchers understand this further shortcoming and take the next step, they’ll reference some cause of that feeling. If we’re lucky, that cause will be non-circular and amount to more than the phrase “culture did it”.

The smart money is on betting against that outcome, though…

A good explanation needs to focus on some outcome of a behavior; some plausible function of that outcome that can account for the emotion or feeling itself. This is notably easier in some cases than others: hunger motivates people to seek out and consume food avoiding starvation; fear motivates people to escape from or avoid threatening situations, avoiding danger; guilt motivates people to make amends and repair relationships towards wronged parties, avoiding condemnation and punishment while reaping the benefits of social interaction. Recently, I found myself posing that functional question about a feeling that is not often discussed: understanding. Teasing out the function of understanding is by no means a straightforward task. Before undertaking the task, however, I need to make a key distinction concerning precisely what I mean by “understanding”. After all, if wikipedia has a hard time defining the term, I can’t just assume that we’ll all be the on the same page despite using the same word.

The distinction I would like to draw is between understanding per se and the feeling of understanding. The examples given on wikipedia reflect understanding per se: the ability to draw connections among mental representations. Understanding per se, then, represents the application of knowledge. If a rat has learned to press a bar for food, for instance, we would say that the rat understands something about the connection between bar pressing and receiving food, in that the former seems to cause the latter. The degree of understanding per se can vary in terms of accuracy and completeness. To continue on with the rat example, a rat can understand that pressing the bar generally leads to it receiving food without understanding the mechanisms through which the process works. Similarly, a person might understand that taking an allergy pill will result in their allergy symptoms being reduced, but their understanding of how that process works might be substantially less detailed or accurate than the understanding of the researchers responsible for developing the pill.

Understanding per se is to be distinguished from the feeling of understanding. While understanding per se refers to the actual connections among your mental representations, the feeling of understanding refers to your mental representations about the state of those other mental representations. The feeling of understanding, then, is a bit of a metacognitive sensation; your thinking about your thinking. Much like understanding per se, the feeling of understanding comes in varying degrees: one can feel as if they don’t understand something at all through feeling as if they understand it completely, and anything in between. With this distinction made, we can begin to start considering some profitable questions: what is the connection between understanding per se and the feeling of understanding? What behaviors are encouraged by the feeling of understanding? What functional outcome(s) are those behaviors aimed at achieving? Given these functional outcomes, what predictions can we draw about how people experiencing various degrees of feeling as if they understand something will react to certain contexts?

Maybe even what Will Smith meant when he wrote “Parents Just Don’t Understand

To begin to answer these questions, let’s return to the initial quote. The enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but rather the illusion of knowledge; the feeling of understanding. While a bit on the dramatic and poetic sides of things, the quote brings to light an important idea: there is not necessarily a perfect correlation between understanding per se and the feeling of understanding. Sure, understanding per se might tend to trigger feelings of understanding, but we ought to be concerned with matters of degree. It is clear that increased feelings of understanding do not require a tight connection to degrees of understanding per se. In much the same way, one’s judgment of how attractive they are need not perfectly correlate with how attractive they actually are. This is a partial, if relatively underspecified, answer to our first question. Thankfully, it is all my account of understanding requires: a less than perfect correlation between understanding per se and feelings of understanding.

This brings us to the second question: what behaviors are motivated by the feeling of understanding. If you’re a particularly astute reader, you’ll have noticed that the term “understanding” appeared several times in the first paragraph. In each instance, it referred to researchers feeling that their understanding per se was incomplete. What did this feeling motivate researchers to do? Continue to attempt and build their understanding per se. In the cases where researchers lack the feeling that their understanding per se was incomplete, they seem to do one thing: stop. That is to say that reaching a feeling of understanding appears to act as a stopping rule for learning. That people stop investing in learning when they feel they understand is likely what Hawkins was hinting at in his quote. The feeling of understanding is the enemy of knowledge because it motivates you to stop acquiring the stuff. It might even motivate you to begin to share that information with others, opting to speak on a topic, rather than defer to who you perceive to be an expert, but I won’t deal with that point here.

Given that people often do not ever seem to reach complete understanding per se, why should we ever expect people to stop trying to improve? Part of that reason is that there’s a tradeoff between investing time in one aspect of your life versus investing it in any other. Time spent learning more about one skill is not time not spent doing other potentially-useful things. Further still, were you to plot a learning curve, charting how much new knowledge is gained per-unit of time invested in learning, you’d likely see diminishing returns over time. Let’s say you were trying to learn how to play a song on some musical instrument. The first hour you spend practicing will result in you gaining more information than, say, the thirtieth hour. At some point in your practicing, you’ll reach a point where the value-added by each additional hour simply isn’t worth the investment anymore. It is at this point, when some cognitive balance shifts away from investing time on learning one task to doing other things, that we should predict people to reach a strong feeling of understanding. Just as hunger wanes with each additional bite of food, feelings of understanding should grow with each additional piece of information.

Also like hunger, some people tend a touch more towards the gluttonous side.

This brings us to the final question: what can we predict about people’s behavior on the basis of their feelings of understanding? Aside from the above mentioned disinclination to learn about some specific topic further, we might also predict that repeated exposure to information we feel we already understand would be downright aversive (again, in much the same way that eating food after you feel full is painful). We might, for instance, expect people to react with boredom and diverted attention in classes that cover material too slowly. We might also expect people to react with anger when someone tries to explain something to them that they feel they already understand. In fact, there is a word for what people consider that latter act: condescending. Not only does condescension waste an individual’s time with redundant information, it could also serve as an implicit or explicit challenge to their social status via a challenge to their understanding per se (i.e. “You think you understand this topic, but you really don’t. Let me say it explain it to you again…nice…and…slowly…). While this list is quite modest, I feel it represents a good starting point for understanding understanding. Of course, since I feel that way, there’s a good chance I’ll probably stop looking for other starting points, so I may never know.

Why Hang Them Separately When We Can Hang Them Together?

For those of you lucky enough to not have encountered it, there is a concept known as privilege that floats around in predominately feminist-leaning groups. The basic idea of the concept of privilege is that some groups of people have unearned social status or economic benefits provided to them strictly on the basis of their group membership. White people are supposed to be privileged over non-whites; men are supposed to be privileged over women; heterosexuals are supposed to be privileged over homosexuals. An official method for determining which groups are privileged over others appears to largely be absent, so the exercise tends to lean towards the infamous, “I know it when I see it” method of classification. That said, the unofficial method seems to be some combination of the Ecological and Apex fallacies. One curious facet of the idea of privilege is that it’s commonly used as a springboard for various types of moral condemnation. For instance, there are many who assert that sexism = power + prejudice, with power being equated with privilege. Accordingly, if you’re not privileged (i.e. not a male), you can’t be sexist. You can be discriminatory on the basis on sex if you’re a woman, but that is apparently something entirely different and worthy of a distinction (presumably because some people feel one ought to be more punishable than the other).

This sex-based discrimination was so accepted the first time they made a sequel.

Last Easter I discussed the curious case of morally punishing baseball batters for the misdeeds of baseball pitchers on the same team. Some similar underlying psychology seems to be at play in the case of privilege: people seem to perceive the moral culpability or welfare of all group members as being connected. In the case of privilege, if the top of the social hierarchy is predominantly male, males at the bottom of the hierarchy can be viewed as being similarly benefited, even if those men are obviously disadvantaged. In another case, white people might be viewed as being collectively complicit in harms done to non-whites, even if any contemporary white person clearly had no hand in the act, either directly or indirectly. For a final example, harms done to some specific women might be viewed as harms done to all women, with the suffering being co-opted by women who were never victimized by the act in question. Any plausible theory of morality that seeks to explain why people morally condemn others ought to be able to convincingly explain this idea of collective moral responsibility. Today I would like to examine what I consider to be the two major models for understanding moral judgments and see how they fare against a curious case of collective punishment: third-party punishment of genetic relatives of the perpetrator.

I’ll take those two matters in reverse order. A paper by Uhlmann et al (2012) sought to examine whether moral blameworthiness can spill over from the perpetrator to the blood relatives of the perpetrator, even if the perpetrator and their relative never knew one another. The first of the three studies in the paper looked at the misdeeds of someone’s grandfather in past generations. The 106 subjects read a story about Sal, whose grandfather owned a factory during the great depression and was exploitative of the workers. However, Sal received no direct benefit from this act (in that there was no inheritance left to him). Further, Sal’s grandfather was described as being either a biological relative or a non-biological one (only being related by marriage). Sal ended up winning the lottery and wanted to donate some of his winnings to a charity: either the descendants of some of the exploited workers (the purpose of which was to help them go to college) or a hungry children’s fund. Subjects were more likely to recommend that Sal donate money to the college fund of the exploited workers when his grandfather was a blood relative (M = 4.15) compared to when his grandfather was not (M = 5.28, where the scale was 1 to 9, with 1 representing donating to the college fund and a 9 representing donating to the hungry children). Obligations to try and right past wrongs appeared to transfer across generations to some extent.

The second study involved a case of a robbery/murder. A group of 191 subjects read a story about a man who killed a store clerk during a robbery. A video camera had managed to get a clear view of the perpetrator, but this was the only evidence to go on. Two possible perpetrators had been arrested for the crime on account of them looking identical to person in the video. Neither of these perpetrators knew the other, but in one case they were described as twins, whereas in the other they were described as not being related despite their similar appearance. The subjects were asked whether the two should be held in captivity while the police looked for more evidence or whether they should be let go until the matter was resolved (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing held in custody and 7 representing being let go until more evidence came in). The results showed that subjects were more willing to hold both in custody when they were twins (M = 3.03) relative to when they were not (M = 4.21). On top of transferring obligations, then, people also seemed somewhat willing to inflict costs on innocent relatives of a perpetrator.

Better kill them all, just to be on the safe-side

Of course, it’s not enough to just point out that moral judgments seem to have the capacity to be collective; one also needs to explain why this is the case. Collective punishment would seem to require that moral judgments make use of an actor’s identity, rather than an actor’s actions. Such an outcome appears to run directly counter to what is known as the dynamic coordination model (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013). In the dynamic coordination model, third-party moral condemners choose sides in a moral debate on the basis of an individual’s actions as a means to avoid discoordination with other condemners (simply put, you want to be on the side that most other people are, so people opt to use an individual’s actions to judge which side to take. In much the same way, drivers want to avoid hitting other cars, so they decide when to stop and go on the basis of a traffic light). In the case of collective punishment, however, there is no potentially condemnable action on the part of the person being punished. The dynamic coordination model would have to require the mere act of being associated in any way with a perpetrator to be morally condemnable as well for this kind of punishment to make sense. While there might be laws against certain acts – like killing and stealing – being related to someone who committed a crime is typically not against the law (at least not the best of my knowledge. I’ll check with my legal team and get back to you about that).

While the dynamic coordination model would seem to have a good deal of trouble accounting for collective moral judgments, an alliance model would not. As Ulhmann et al (2012) note, the threat of punishment for one’s social allies can serve as a powerful deterrent. This is a point I brought up previously when considering why reputations matter: if I were to harm anyone who associated with person X, regardless of whether the person I was harming actually did anything wrong themselves, any associations with person X naturally have become costlier. If people are disinclined to associate with person X, then person X is all the worse off for it and the punishment successfully reached its ultimate target. If social ties are cut, person X will find it increasing difficult to engage in many behaviors that might ultimately be detrimental to others. This raises a concern to be dealt with, though: in the Ulhmann et al (2012) stories, the kin of the perpetrator were not described as being social allies (just as white males are not all allies, despite them being lumped together in the same group by the privilege term). If they weren’t allies, how can an alliance model account for the collective punishment?

My answer to this concern would be as follows: existing social alliances might only be one proximate cue that moral systems use. The primary targets of collective punishment would seem to be those with whom the perpetrator is perceived to share welfare with, and not all welfare connections are going to be worth targeting, given the costs involved in punishment. My welfare is, all else being equal, more dependent on kin than non-kin. Accordingly, collective punishment directed at kin is likely to be even costlier for that perpetrator, making kin punishment particularly appealing for any moral condemners. This would leave us with the following prediction: the degree to which collective punishment is enacted ought to be mediated by the perception of the degree of shared welfare between the perpetrator and the person being punished. Kin should be punished more than non-kin; close allies should be punished more than distant ones; allies that offer substantial benefits to the perpetrator ought to be punished more than allies who offer more meager benefits. Further, this punishment presents the social allies of a perpetrator with new adaptive problems to solve, specifically: how do they trade-off distancing themselves enough from the perpetrator so as to avoid being condemned with the loss of benefits that such distancing can bring?

Crude, yet effective.

This brings me to one final question: are moral judgments ever impartial? My sense is that no, moral judgments are in fact never impartial. This point requires some clarification. The first point of clarification is that moral judgments can have the appearance of impartiality without actually being generated by mechanisms designed to bring that state of affairs about. In fact, we ought not expect any cognitive mechanisms to be designed to generate impartiality because impartiality per se – much like feeling good – doesn’t do anything useful. One useful outcome that being impartial might bring would be, as DeScioli & Kurzban (2013) suggest, being better able to coordinate with other third-party condemners. Of course, if the target behavior is being on the winning side of a dispute, then we ought to expect mechanisms designed to take sides contingent on which side already has a majority of the support. Those mechanisms, though, should rightly be considered partial, in that they are judging the identity of who is on whose side, rather than neutrally on the basis of who did what to whom. This should be expected, in that the latter is only important insomuch as it predicts the former; being impartial is only useful insomuch as it leads to one being partial.

Oh; I would also like to add that providing you with this analysis of collective punishment was my privilege.

References: DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological Bulletin, 139 (2), 477-496 DOI: 10.1037/a0029065

Uhlmann, E., Zhu, L., Pizarro, D., & Bloom, P. (2012). Blood is thicker: Moral spillover effects based on kinship Cognition, 124 (2), 239-243 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.04.010

An Implausible Function For Depression

Recently, I was involved in a discussion about experimenter-induced expectation biases in performance, also known as demand characteristics. The basic premise of the idea runs along the following lines: some subjects in your experiment are interested in pleasing the experimenter or, more generally, trying to do “well” on the task (others might be trying to undermine your task – the “screw you” effect – but we’ll ignore them for now). Accordingly, if the researchers conducting an experiment are too explicit about the task, or drop hints as to what the purpose is or what results they are expecting, even hints that might seem subtle, they might actually create the effect they are looking for, rather than just observe it. However, the interesting portion of the discussion I was having is that some people seemed to think you could get something for nothing from demand characteristics. That is to say some people seem to think that, for instance, if the experimenter thinks a subject will do well on a math problem, that subject will actually get better at doing math.

Hypothesis 1: Subjects will now be significantly more bullet-proof than they previously were.

This raises the obvious question: if certain demand characteristics can influence subjects to perform better or worse at some tasks, how would such an effect be achieved? (I might add that it’s a valuable first step to ensure that the effect exists in the first place which, in the case of stereotype threat with regard to math abilities, it might well not) It’s not as if these expectations are teaching subjects any new skills, so whatever information is being made use of (or not being made use of, in some cases) by the subject must have already been potentially accessible. No matter how much they might try, I highly doubt that researchers are able to simply expect subjects into suddenly knowing calculus or lifting twice as much weight as they normally can. The question of interest, then, would seem to become: given that subjects could perform better at some important task, why would they ever perform worse at it? Whatever specific answer one gives for that question, it will inevitably include the mention of trade-offs, where being better at some task (say, lifting weights) carries costs in other domains (such as risks of injury or the expenditure of energy that could be used for other tasks). Subjects might perform better on math problems after exercise, for instance, not because the exercise makes them better at math, but because there are fewer cognitive systems currently distracting the math one.

This brings us to depression. In attempting to explain why so many people get depressed, there are plenty of people who have suggested that there is a specific function to depression: people who are depressed are thought to be more accurate in some of their perceptions, relative to those who are not depressed. Perhaps, as Neel Burton and, curiously, Steven Pinker suggest, depressed individuals might do better at assessing the value of social relationships with others, or at figuring out when to stop persisting at a task that’s unlikely to yield benefits.  The official title for this hypothesis is depressive realism. I do appreciate such thinking insomuch as researchers appear to be trying to explain some psychological phenomenon functionally. Depressed people are more accurate in certain judgments, being more accurate in said judgments leads to some better social outcomes, so there are some adaptive benefits to being depressed. Neat. Unfortunately, such a line of thinking misses the aforementioned critical mention of trade-offs: specifically, if depressed people are supposed to perform better at such tasks, if people have the ability to better assess social relationships and their control over them, why would people ever be worse at those tasks?

If people hold unrealistically positive cognitive biases about their performance, and these biases cause people to, on the whole, do worse than they would without them, then the widespread existence of those positive biases need to be explained. The biases can’t simply exist because they make us feel good. Not only would such an explanation be uninformative (in that it doesn’t explain why we’d feel bad without them), but it would also be useless, as “feeling good” doesn’t do anything evolutionary useful. Notwithstanding those issues, however, the depressive realism hypothesis doesn’t even seem to be able to explain the nature of depression very well; not on the face of it anyway. Why should increasing one’s perceptual accuracy in certain domains go hand-in-hand with low energy levels or loss of appetite? Why should women be more likely to be depressed than men? Why should increases in perceptual accuracy similarly increase an individual’s risk of suicidal behavior? None of those symptoms seem like the hallmark of good, adaptive design when considered in the context of overcoming other, unexplained, and apparently maladaptive positive biases.

“We’ve manged to fix that noise the car made when it started by making it unable to start”

So, while the depressive realism hypothesis manages to think about functions, it would appear to fail to consider other relevant matters. As a result, it ends up positing a seemingly-implausible function for depression; it tries to get something (better accuracy) for nothing, all without explaining why other people don’t get that something as well. This might mean that depressive realism identifies an outcome of being depressed instead of explaining depression, but even that much is questionable. This returns to the initial point I made, in that one wants to be sure that the effect in question even exists in the first place. A meta-analysis of 75 studies of depressive realism conducted by Moore & Fresco (2012) did not yield a great deal of support for the effect being all that significant or theoretically interesting. While they found evidence of some depressive realism, the effect size of that realism was typically around or less than a tenth of a standard deviation in favor of the depressed individuals; an effect size that the authors repeatedly mentioned was “below [the] convention for a small effect” in psychology. In many cases, the effect sizes were so close to zero that they might of as well have been zero for all practical purposes; in other cases it was the non-depressed individuals who performed better. It would seem that depressed people aren’t terribly more realistic; certainly not relative to the costs that being depressed brings. More worryingly for the depressive realism hypothesis, the effect size appeared to be substantially larger in studies using poor methods of assessing depression, relative to studies using better methods. Yikes.

So, just to summarize, what we’re left with is an effect that might not exist and a hypothesis purporting to explain that possible effect which makes little conceptual sense. To continue to pile on, since we’re already here, the depressive realism hypothesis seems to generate few, if any, additional testable predictions. Though there might well be plenty of novel predictions that flow from the suggestion that depressed people are more realistic than non-depressed individuals, there aren’t any that immediately come to my mind. Now I know this might all seem pretty bad, but let’s not forget that we’re still in the field of psychology, making this outcome sort of par for the course in many respects, unfortunate as that might seem.

The curious part of the depressive realism hypothesis, to me, anyway, is why it appears to have generated as much interest as it did. The meta-analysis found over 120 research papers on the topic, which is (a) probably not exhaustive and (b) not representative of any failures to publish research on the topic, so there has clearly been a great deal of research done on the idea. Perhaps it has something to do with the idea that there’s a bright side to depression; some distinct benefit that ought to make people more sympathetic towards those suffering from depression. I have no data that speaks to that idea one way or the other though, so I remain confused as to why the realism hypothesis has drawn so much attention. It wouldn’t be the first piece of pop psychology to confuse me in such a manner.

And if it confuses you too, feel free to stop by this site for more updates.

As a final note, I’m sure there are some people out there who might be thinking that though the depressive realism idea is, admittedly, lacking in many regards, it’s currently the best explanation for depression on offer. While such conceptual flaws are, in my mind, reason enough to discard the idea even in the event there isn’t an alternative on offer, there is, in fact, a much better alternative theory. It’s called the bargaining model of depression, and the paper is available for free here. Despite not being an expert on depression myself, the bargaining model seems to make substantially more conceptual sense while simultaneously being able to account for the existing facts about depression. Arguably, it doesn’t paint the strategy of depression in the most flattering light, but it’s at least more realistic.

References: Moore, M., & Fresco, D. (2012). Depressive realism: A meta-analytic review Clinical Psychology Review, 32 (6), 496-509 DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2012.05.004

Mothers And Others (With Benefits)

Understanding the existence and persistence of homosexuality in the face of its apparently reproductive fitness costs has left many evolutionary researchers scratching their heads. Though research into homosexuality has not been left wanting for hypotheses, every known hypothesis to date but one has had several major problems when it comes to accounting for the available data (and making conceptual sense). Some of them lack a developmental story; some fail to account for the twin studies; others posit benefits that just don’t seem to be there. What most of the aforementioned research shares in common, however, is its focus: male homosexuality. Female homosexuality has inspired considerably less hypothesizing, perhaps owing to the assumption, valid or not, that female sexual preferences played less of a role in determining fitness outcomes, relative to men’s. More precisely, physical arousal is required for men in order for their to engage in intercourse, whereas it is not necessarily required for women.

Not that lack of female arousal has ever been an issue for this fine specimen.

A new paper out in Evolutionary Psychology by Kuhle & Radtke (2013) takes a functional stab at attempting to explain some female homosexual behavior. Not the homosexual orientations, mind you; just some of the same-sex behavior. On this point, I would like to note that homosexual behavior isn’t what poses an evolutionary mystery anymore than other, likely nonadaptive behaviors, such as masturbation. The mystery is why an individual would be actively averse to intercourse with members of the opposite sex; their only path to reproduction. Nevertheless, the suggestion that Kuhle & Radtke (2013) put forth is that some female homosexual sexual behavior evolved in order to recruit female alloparent support. An alloparent is an individual who provided support for an infant but is not one of that infant’s parents. A grandmother helping to raise a grandchild, then, would represent a case of alloparenting. On the subject of grandmothers, some have suggested that the reason human females reach menopause so early in their lifespan – relative to other species who go on with the potential to reproduce until right around the point they die – is that grandmother alloparenting, specifically maternal grandmother, was a more valuable resource at the point, relative to direct reproduction. On the whole, alloparenting seems pretty important, so getting a hold of good resources for the task would be adaptive.

The suggestion that women might use same-sex sexual behavior to recruit female alloparental support is good, conceptually, on at least three fronts: first, it pays some mind to what is at least a potential function for a behavior. Most psychological research fails to think about function at all, much less plausible functions, and is all the worse because of it. The second positive part of this hypothesis is that it has some developmental story to go with it, making predictions about what specific events are likely to trigger the proposed adaptation and, to some extent, anyway, why they might. Finally, it is consistent with – or at least not outright falsified by – the existing data, which is more than you can say for almost all the current theories purporting to explain male homosexuality. On these conceptual grounds, I would praise the lesbian-sex-for-alloparenting model. On other grounds, both conceptual and empirical, however, I have very serious reservations.

The first of these reservations comes in form of the source of alloparental investment. While, admittedly, I have no hard data to bear on this point (as my search for information didn’t turn up any results), I would wager it’s a good guess that a substantial share of the world’s alloparental resources come from the mother’s kin: grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, or even other older children. As mentioned previously, some have hypothesized that grandmothers stop reproducing, at least in part, for that end. When alloparenting is coming from the female’s relatives, it’s unlikely that much, if any, sexual behavior, same-sex or otherwise, is involved or required. Genetic relatedness is likely providing a good deal of the motivation for the altruism in these cases, so sex would be fairly unnecessary. That thought brings me neatly to my next point, and it’s one raised briefly by the authors themselves: why would the lesbian sex even be necessary in the first place?

“I’ll help mother your child so hard…”

It’s unclear to me what the same-sex behavior adds to the alloparenting equation here. This concern comes in a number of forms. The first is that it seems adaptations designed for reciprocal altruism would work here just fine: you watch my kids and I’ll watch yours. There are plenty of such relationships between same-sex individuals, regardless of whether they involve childcare or not, and those relationships seem to get on just fine without sex being involved. Sure, sexual encounters might deepen that commitment in some cases, but that’s a fact that needs explaining; not the explanation itself. How we explain it will likely have a bearing on further theoretical analysis. Sex between men and women might deepen that commitment on account of it possibly resulting in conception and all the shared responsibilities that brings. Homosexual intercourse, however, does not carry that conception risk. This means that any deepening of the social connections homosexual intercourse might bring would most likely be a byproduct of the heterosexual counterpart. In much the same way, masturbation probably feels good because the stimulation sexual intercourse provides can be successfully mimicked by one’s hand (or whatever other device the more creative among us make use of). Alternatively, it could be possible that the deepening of an emotional bond between two women as the result of a sexual encounter was directly selected for because of it’s role in recruiting alloparent support, but I don’t find the notion particularly likely.

A quick example should make it clear why: for a woman who currently does not have dependent children, the same-sex encounters don’t seem to offer her any real benefit. Despite this, there are many women who continue to engage in frequent to semi-frequent same-sex sexual behaviors and form deep relationships with other women (who are themselves frequently childless as well). If the deepening of the bond between two women was directly selected for in the case of homosexual sexual behavior due to the benefits that alloparents can bring, such facts would seem to be indicative of very poor design. That is to say we should predict that women without children would be relatively uninterested in homosexual intercourse, and the experience would not deepen their social commitment to their partner. So sure, homosexual intercourse might deepen emotional bonds between the people engaging in it, which might in turn effect how the pair behave towards one another in a number of ways. That effect, however, is likely a byproduct of mechanisms designed for heterosexual intercourse; not something that was directly selected for itself. Kuhle & Radtke (2013) do say that they’re only attempting to explain some homosexual behavior, so perhaps they might grant that some increases in emotional closeness are the byproduct of mechanisms designed for heterosexual intercourse while other increases in closeness are due to selection for alloparental concerns. While possible, such a line of reasoning can set up a scenario where the hits for the theory can be counted as supportive and the misses (such as childless women engaging in same-sex sexual behaviors) dismissed as being the product of some other factor.

On top of that concern, the entire analysis rests on the assumption that women who have engaged in sexual behavior with the mother in question ought to be more likely to provide substantially better alloparental care than women who did not. This seems to be an absolutely vital prediction of the model. Curiously, that prediction is not represented in any of the 14 predictions listed in the paper. The paper also offers no empirical data bearing on this point, so whether homosexual behavior actually causes an increase in alloparental investment is in doubt. Even if we assume this point was confirmed however, it raises another pressing question: if same-sex intercourse raises the probability or quality of alloparental investment, why would we expect, as the authors predict, that women should only adopt this homosexual behavior as a secondary strategy? More precisely, I don’t see any particularly large fitness costs to women when it comes to engaging in same-sex sexual behavior but, under this model, there would be substantial benefits. If the costs to same-sex behavior are low and the benefits high, we should see it all the time, not just when a woman is having trouble finding male investment.

“It’s been real, but men are here now so…we can still be friends?”

On the topic of male investment, the model would also seem to predict that women should be relatively inclined to abandon their female partners for male ones (as, in this theory, women’s sexual interest in other women is triggered by lack of male interest). This is anecdotal, of course, but a fairly-frequent complaint I’ve heard from lesbians or bisexual women currently involved in a relationship with a woman is that men won’t leave them alone. They don’t seem to be wanting for male romantic attention. Now maybe these women are, more or less, universally assessing these men as being unlikely or unable to invest on some level, but I have my doubts as to whether this is the case.

Finally, given these sizable hypothesized benefits and negligible costs, we ought to expect to see women competing with other women frequently in the realm of attracting same-sex sexual interest. Same-sex sexual behavior should be expected to not only be cross-cultural universals, but fairly common as well, in much the same way that same-sex friendship is (as they’re hypothesized to serve much the same function, really). Why same-sex sexual interest would be relatively confined to a minority of the population is entirely unclear to me in terms of what is outlined in the paper. This model also doesn’t deal why any women, let alone the vast majority of them, would appear to feel averse to homosexual intercourse. Such aversions would only cause a woman to lose out the hypothesized alloparental benefits which, if the model is true, ought to have been substantial. Women who were not averse would have had more consistent alloparental support historically, leading to whatever genes made such attractions more likely to spread at the expense of women who eschewed it. Again, such aversions would appear to be evidence of remarkably poor design; if the lesbian-alloparents-with-benefits idea is true, that is…

References: Kuhle BX, & Radtke S (2013). Born both ways: The alloparenting hypothesis for sexual fluidity in women. Evolutionary psychology : an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior, 11 (2), 304-23 PMID: 23563096

Should Psychological Neuroscience Research Be Funded?

In my last post, when discussing some research by Singer et al (2006), I mentioned as an aside that their use of fMRI data didn’t seem to add a whole lot to their experiment. Yes, they found that brain regions associated with empathy appear to be less active in men watching a confederate who behaved unfairly towards them receive pain; they also found that areas associated with reward seemed slightly more active. Neat; but what did that add beyond what a pencil and paper or behavioral measure might? That is, let’s say the authors (all six of them) had subjects interact with a confederate who behaved unfairly towards them. This confederate then received a healthy dose of pain. Afterwards, the subjects were asked two questions: (1) how bad do you feel for the confederate and (2) how happy are you about what happened to them? This sounds fairly simple, likely because, well, it is fairly simple. It’s also incredibly cheap, and pretty much a replication of what the authors did. The only difference is the lack of a brain scan. The question becomes, without the fMRI, how much worse is this study?

“No fMRI data? Why not just insult psychology directly and get it over with?”

There are two crucial questions in mind, when it comes to the above question. The first is a matter of new information: how much new and useful information has the neuroscience data given us? The second is a matter of bang-for-your-buck: how much did that neuroscience information cost? Putting the two questions together,we have the following: how much additional information (in whatever unit information comes in) did we get from this study per dollar spent? As an initial caveat before I give my answer to the question, I will point out that I am by no means an expert in the field of neuroscience. Though some might feel this automatically disqualified my having an opinion about the field, I would follow that up by noting that there’s are reasons I’m not an expert in the field of neuroscience. As far as I can tell, some of the major reasons include that I have found almost all of it that I have been exposed to either incredibly dull, lacking in perceived value, or both in many cases.

Now that my neuroscience credentials and biases have been laid bare, let’s move onto the question of the day. As with most questions, I’ll begin my answer to it with a thought experiment: let’s say you ran the initial same study as Singer et al did, and in addition to your short questionnaire you put people into an fMRI machine and got brain scans. In the first imaginary world, we obtained results identical to what Singer et al reported: areas thought to be related to empathy decrease in activation, areas thought to be related to pleasure increase in activation. The interpretation of these results seems fairly straightforward – that is, until one considers the second imaginary world. In this second world, we see the results of brain scan show the reverse pattern: specifically, areas thought to be related to empathy show an increase in activation and areas associated with reward show a decrease. The trick to this thought experiment, however, is that the survey responses remain the same; the only differences between the two worlds are the brain pictures.

This makes interpreting our results rather difficult. In the second world, do we conclude that the survey responses are, in some sense, wrong? The subjects “really” feel bad about the confederates being hurt, but they are unaware of it? This strikes me as a bit off, as far as conclusions go. Another route might be to suggest that our knowledge of what areas of the brain are associated with empathy and pleasure is somehow off: maybe increased activation means less empathy, or maybe empathy is processed elsewhere in the brain, or some other cognitive process is interfering. Hell; maybe it’s possible that the technology employed by fMRIs just isn’t sensitive to what you’re trying to look at. Though the brain scan might have highlighted our ignorance as to how the brain is working in that case, it didn’t help us to resolve it. Further, that the second interpretative route seems like a more reasonable one than the first, it also brings to our attention a perhaps under-appreciated fact: we would be privileging the results of the survey measure above the results of the brain scan.

So make sure to check your survey privilege.

The fact that the survey measures are privileged in this case raises the possibility of another hypothetical world: imagine you had done the the experiment and the brain scan as before, but not the survey. In that case, interpretation of the fMRI  data doesn’t even seem possible; description of the brain activation is, sure, but not a profitable understanding of what we would be seeing. This leads to an interesting perspective on the relative contribution of each experimental tool: the majority of the useful information in this study – its  academic value – does not appear to be derived from the brain imaging. The only thing the brain imaging adds is a description of the activation. So yes, the brain scans are technically adding something, but their primary contributions are descriptions of themselves, rather than new interpretations or insights. While such a thought experiment does not definitely answer the question of how much value is added by neuroscience information in psychology, it provides a tentative starting position: not the majority. The bulk of the valuable information in the study came from the survey, and all the subsequent brain information was interpreted in light of it.

Let’s move onto the second question, then: how much did this information cost to obtain? Admittedly, objective information on this question isn’t the easiest to find. The estimates I have come across, however, range from about $400 to over $1000, perhaps even closer to $2000, per subject (the latter article estimates that 20 subjects would cost approximately $40,000). For the sake of comparison, I’d like to discuss how much a recent study I ran cost. The study involved getting subjects to read a hypothetical moral dilemma and answer approximately 5 questions. It was short and approximately as complicated as the non-neuroscience part of the Singer et al paper. Using Mturk (an Amazon site where you can pay people to take your surveys), I was able to pay subjects around $0.10 each (rounding up) for their responses. My sample of approximately 350 subjects cost me well under $50, but let’s say it cost $50 to make the math easy. If I wanted to run that same survey and also collect fMRI data, I would have been looking at a bill of somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000. On top of the cost, there’s also the matter of time: it takes far longer to get the subject set up in the fMRI and collect the data (which means you need to pay the subject and researchers more for their time), and it also takes far longer to analyze the data you do collect. So there are unaccounted for opportunity costs here as well that we’ll ignore for now.

So now we have a tentative answer for our second question: the neuroscience-version of my study would likely have cost well over 7000 times as much as the non-neuroscience one. Thus, in order to justify the cost of the additional neuroscience, we would want approximately 99.9999% of the information gain of our research to come from the neuroscience information we gathered, and that estimate is actually fairly charitable towards the neuroscience end of things. However, as I previously estimated, we would be hard-pressed to say that even half of the information value of a study could be attributed towards the addition of neuroscience information. In fact, the actual value is likely well below half. In other words, we’re not even anywhere close to justifying the money invested in neuroscience in psychology. Accordingly, I find the justification for the use of neuroscience in psychology to be wanting, and I would advocate the money being dumped into the field (however much that is) be diverted to areas where it could do more research good. Of course, the US could also consider investing $100,000,000 into mapping the brain, I suppose.

Or let me conduct research with a combined sample size of twice the US population. Please?

Is all this to say that no useful information or positive outcomes would be derived from large investments in neuroscience? Well, that depends on two things: (a) what the investment is in and (b) what else the investment might have been in. I can’t speak to how much benefit we might observe from investing the money directly into neuroscience technology itself in the hopes of improving it and/or bringing the cost of its use down. I would also be vest hesitant to speak to what other investments might be more profitable. What I do feel comfortable saying, however, is that if we’re talking about basic, run-of-the-mill psychological research, there is no feasible way that neuroscience is capable of justifying the monstrous costs involved in producing it. The value added from a single neuroscience paper on 30 subjects is not greater than the value added by dozens, hundreds, or thousands of non-neuroscience papers (the precise value of which depends, obviously, on how much you pay your participants). What people and top journals see in psychological neuroscience, I don’t really understand. Then again, I’m not expert in it, so there’s that, I suppose…

References: Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Stephan, K., Dolan, R., & Frith, C. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others Nature, 439 (7075), 466-469 DOI: 10.1038/nature04271


Reactions To Reactions About Steubenville

Around the middle of last month, CNN came under some social-media fire. The source of this fire came from the perception among some people that CNN had covered the Steubenville rape case inappropriately.  More precisely, the outrage focused on the notion that CNN had not demonized the two convicted male teens enough; if anything, many people seemed to feel that CNN had humanized the pair. Here’s one of the major quotes that people took issue with:

 ”It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”

The issue, it would seem, is that many people felt that it ought not have been hard emotionally for the reporter to witness the event; if anything, she should have been angry that the teens were not sentenced more harshly. Other debates raged on in the comments sections of various articles about whether being placed on the list of registered sex offenders for the rest of their life was too harsh of a punishment for the two teens on the one hand, with those advocating the castration or death of the teens on the other extreme. I think these reactions, along with the case itself, happen to highlight some of the adaptive problems that bystanders face surrounding the moral judgments they make.

And now, since there are two degrees of separation between the tragic event and my use of it, it’s acceptable.

The first of these problems highlighted by the story is that third-party condemners (those who are not directly involved) need to pick a side in a moral dispute, and being on the wrong side of that dispute can be costly. Accordingly, third party condemners face the problem of figuring out how to coordinate their condemnation with other third parties (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013). The problem runs deeper than choosing a side, though. As people’s reactions to the CNN story show us, even being on the “right” side of the dispute can be costly, provided one isn’t on the “right” side in the “right” way. Just to be clear, the first “right” in the previous sentence refers to being on the side with more social support; the second “right” refers to the agreement within a given side as to what the appropriate response of its members ought to be. The CNN coverage described the crime as “very serious” and the teen who was raped as “the victim”, suggesting that the reporters were certainly not of the opinion that rape is good or the boys were the real victims. The outrage was that the reporters for CNN did not appear to be appropriately outraged at the boys or offended enough on the part of the victim. CNN’s crime was not treating the teens as viciously as others would have liked.

It would seem that not condemning a behavior thoroughly enough can be interpreted by some as actually condoning that same behavior. Indeed, it was likely when the reporter for CNN said that it was emotionally difficult for her to witness the scene that she sparked the subsequent outcry against the network. This leaves us with a somewhat standard question: why should this be the case? Imagine for a moment that we’re not talking about rape anymore, but about theft. You and I both agree that stealing is wrong and deserves to be punished. However, while you think that stealing a car deserves a sentence of five years in jail and a permanent brand that says “car thief”, I think that stealing a car deserves a sentence of a year in prison and no brand. It would seem silly to conclude that, from these differences in opinion on the extent of deserved punishment, that only one of us is actually against stealing while the other is a morally condemnable “stealing-apologist”. Yet this is precisely what we see happening. Why?

A potential answer comes in more than one part. The first part of this answer is to note that, in cases of moral condemnation, the activity of certain parts of the brain associated with empathy seem to be inhibited. A neuroscience paper by Singer et al (2006) examined the responses of 16 men and 16 women in an fMRI to viewing confederates receiving painful shocks. Before the viewing took place, however, the confederates had either behaved fairly or unfairly towards the subject in a trust game. The results of the analysis found that men, but not women, showed a reduction in activation of presumably empathy-related regions of the brain when viewing the confederates receiving the painful shocks; in the case of the fair player receiving the shocks, subject’s brains showed more signs of empathy-related activation. Similarly, men, but not women, showed increases in brain regions associated with reward when the unfair player received the shocks. Post fMRI measures confirmed that men were more interested in seeking revenge against unfair players

Sure; the research could have been done without the expensive fMRI, but then we wouldn’t get pictures.

There are a few shortcomings of the Singer et al (2006) study to bear in mind as it relates to the current questions: the sample size wasn’t terribly impressive, but sample sizes in neuroscience studies seldom seem to be. The second piece to bear in mind is that these brain scans do not necessarily add much (or any) value beyond what the far cheaper survey did. At best, the brain scans were icing on the explanatory cake. Further, this study only examined cases of direct revenge, or second-party involvement; not the reactions of bystanders to the fair or unfair behavior. Nevertheless, the results hint at something interesting: the amount of empathy that people (at least men) feel towards the suffering of a perpetrator (i.e. how much they care about the consequences of the punishment to the perpetrator) might be indicative of how morally wrong they view the behavior as being, at least to some extent. One requires certain assumptions to make that leap, but it doesn’t seem too unreasonable.

The picture is not nearly that simple, however. It is at this point that the discoordination problem that DeScioli & Kurzban (2013) raised again rears its head. It is unlikely to be adaptive for condemners to completely – or partially – inhibit their empathic responses towards the perpetrator in all moral cases. While the inhibition might be adaptive in terms of avoiding the condemnation of other condemners (i.e. not being labeled a rape apologist and subsequently socially shunned), it also carries costs, chief among which is that the perpetrator often has social supporters as well. If a condemner has completely inhibited such empathic systems, they’re likely to seek greater punishments of the perpetrators which, by extension, are also punishments leveled against the perpetrator’s social allies. To put the matter more plainly, if my friend goes to jail, I’m out a friend and worse off for it. This can lead to retaliation on the part of the perpetrator’s allies: case in point, it was not long after the verdict was handed down that the rape victim received two threats from other girls who seemed to be socially aligned with one or more of the perpetrators.

This puts third parties in an unpleasant situation: no matter who they side with, they’re likely to face some condemnation, either for condemning one party too much or not condemning that party enough. Similarly, if the third party happens to be socially connected with either the perpetrator or the victim, any harms that befall that party are, by proxy, harms that befall the third parties themselves. Thus, inhibiting an empathy reaction towards a perpetrator might entail the related need to inhibit empathy towards the perpetrator’s social allies, at least to some degree. Such a need could potentially expand the costs associated with the conflicts surrounding moral condemnation and punishment, as the number of people to be punished has grown beyond the initial disputants. The fact that the coordination problem is actually a series of many different problems makes the matter of third-party coordination all the trickier to solve. In fact, it would seem that in many cases, perhaps even most cases, it is not at all clear that people actually do manage to consistently solve the coordination problem.

The whole mess makes dueling seem like a more reasonable alternative.

The previous analysis puts the matter as to why ostensible third parties become involved in moral disputes into a new light. Getting involved in these disputes is clearly a potentially costly endeavor, so why would an uninvolved party bother getting involved in the first place? What are the benefits to joining in the disputes of others that offset these very real costs? Part of that answer would seem to be that these third parties, as previously mentioned, are indirectly personally affected by their outcomes: my friend being condemned or harmed is bad for me to the extent that the condemnation or harm prevents them from delivering me benefits they previous did or potentially might.  Further still, if a friend of a friend has been affected in some way it is still potentially detrimental to me. The extent of that detriment would, of course, decrease as social distance between the parties increased; my best friend’s friend is more valuable to me than my acquaintance’s friend. A final possibility is that my not siding with one side could be taken as implicit support for the opposing side, making me the target of moral condemnation by assoication. The result of that perception of implicit support being that it can be similarly costly to me to not become involved. In other words, saying that one doesn’t care at all about the perpetrators or the victim in the Steubenville case is unlikely to earn you many friends, but it will likely still earn you plenty of condemnation.

References: DeScioli P, & Kurzban R (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological bulletin, 139 (2), 477-96 PMID: 22747563

Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Stephan, K., Dolan, R., & Frith, C. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others Nature, 439 (7075), 466-469 DOI: 10.1038/nature04271

Closing Gender Gaps

Given that we are living in a society that privileges men, it should come as no surprise that women tend to be relatively disadvantaged. These disadvantages faced by women can take many forms: from the gender pay gap that favors men, to the fact that men make up the majority of all our elected officials and CEOs, and even to women not outperforming men in college by a wide enough margin. Indeed, women are sometimes even disadvantaged by the ways they benefit from the system  that sees men as stronger, more agentic, and competent than women. These facts may be shocking to hear, I know, as it forces us men to confront the deeply sexist social world of benefits and privileges that we are collectively granted access to on the basis of our gender alone and nothing more. It should go without saying, but these gender gaps are clearly unwarranted and unfair and, as such, it is a moral imperative to correct them. So it’s time to check our privilege, cast any doubts aside, and take a good, hard examination at some of the most sexist institutions in our society.

“Alright; I checked my privilege. What’s step two?”

At the recent event where the Playstation 4 was previewed, I was shocked to hear that men completely dominated the talks; in fact there were no female presenters. A chilling thought, I know. It’s almost as if men were telling women that women are unfit to play video games! What might come as an even greater shock to you is that large segments of the American workforce display similar levels of what is very clearly sexism. These fields are basically boys clubs with a metaphorical “no girls allowed” sign nailed to their doors in the form of rampant sexism and misogyny; fields that are simply inhospitable environments for women. These kinds of hostile sexism against women (and, because sexism = discrimination + power, men can never be the victims of sexism; they are just victims of discrimination, which is a totally different thing) box out large numbers of women who are otherwise qualified and eager for the jobs they are denied by society. One good for instance would be the field of construction, where the workforce is almost entirely male. Faced with such a clear gender gap, one can only be left gasping, wondering what steps our government and society are taking to remedy such obvious sexism. It’s not like women are too incapable  or incompetent to build houses, after all.

Women’s worries don’t end with the field of construction, however: similar gender gaps are seen in fields like plumbing, lumberjacking, and firefighting. As we know that the sexes are born completely equivalent to one another in terms of their physical potentials and psychological interests and motivations, these gender gaps can clearly only be the result of sexist socialization. Dismantling the sexist social constructs of our culture – constructs which were clearly created by men in the first place – is required if we ever hope to see the 50/50 split between men and women who are willing and able to fix your septic tank that we’ve all been dreaming about. As it stands right now, women are disproportionately forced into careers deemed appropriate for them by the patriarchy: nursing, child care, and secretarial work, all of which involve women outnumbering men by more than four-to-one.

Now I know there are some naysayers out there who might, in their ignorance (due to their privilege if they’re male and internalized sexism if they’re female), actually believe that there might be some biological differences between men and women at the physical or psychological levels that can explain these differences. That is to say, we don’t always need to resort to sexism to explain any and all the gender differences we see. The go-to example that many of these patriarchy-apologists tend to raise is that of the difference in upper-body muscle mass between men and women. Proponents of this sex difference cling to the myth that selection has acted on men and women differently in this regard, as having more muscle mass might help men dominate their rivals in competitions relevant to successful reproduction. The implication there would seem to be that, historically, men and women did not behave identically which, as we know, must be false on the basis of it sounding sexist to me.

This is literally what that argument sounds like

What those biological-determinists clearly overlook is the fact that men are socialized to exercise their upper-body more than women; without such socialization, these differences would surely vanish. Now there’s the slightly inconvenient fact the differences in strength between men and women might remain even after attempts were made to control for exercise, but let’s not forget that such tests were carried out using WEIRD samples. Further still, it’s unlikely that researchers were able to fully control for all the relevant sexist socialization forces, as many of them are exceedingly subtle. As it should now be clear that researchers have failed to fully control for such variables, one is forced to accept the undeniable conclusion that these variables must be driving the differences in strength between men and women. There’s just no alternative explanation.

So how can we go about remedying this problem? Simply put, women need better social mentors and role models in order to counteract the toxic messages that society is putting forth. This proposal comes in two parts. The first is that we must make it mandatory for men and women to take all the same classes and participate in all the same activities, so as not to send the message that one sex ought to have a certain set of interests. Special attention needs to be paid to the aforementioned skills and careers were men and women are most divergent on the professional level. This means that it needs to be mandatory for all students to take classes in nursing, early childhood education, logging, and firefighting.

The second part of the proposal acknowledges that change needs to take place on the professional level as well, so as to minimize any implicit or subtle messages that children might receive through the media or facts about reality. This means that we need to mandate, effective immediately, that all employers ensure that each job position on their staff is compromised of equal numbers of men and women who are making precisely the same wage (as they are both clearly as qualified, motivated, and work as much as the other). The worst offender in this regard is clearly the professional sporting industry. The world of sporting is so socially-backwards that they still enforce segregation on the basis of gender, for crying out loud! Not only does such a policy effectively tell women that it’s unlikely they’ll ever grow up to be a professional football player, but it goes further, suggesting that they’re so much less a person that they can’t even compete against the men. Here’s a memo for the professional sporting leagues out there: it’s not the 1960s anymore – segregation’s illegal.

A sad display of internalized sexism and a sad day for women everywhere.

I think I speak for all of us when I say enough is enough. It’s time to make our stand and put an end to all gender disparity, whether that disparity be in America, the world at large, or even in other non-human species. In fact, especially in non-human species. For too long have sexist messages penetrated non-human minds, resulting in sexually-dimorphic ornaments or behaviors. In some cases, the sexism has been so bad that males end up about twice as large the females; truly disturbing examples of the power of the patriarchy. We need to ensure that these non-human species have positive role models to look up to, and understand that their sexist behavior has larger social ramifications for other forms of life. Once we stop accepting this kind of behavior in other species, we might finally be able to stop accepting it in our own.