The Best Mate Money Can Buy

There’s a proud tradition in psychological research that involves asking people about how much they value this thing or that one, be it in a supermarket or, for our present purposes, in a sexual partner. Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing this kind of research, but while there are certain benefits to it, the method does have its shortcomings. One easy way to grasp a potential issue with this methodology is to consider the dating website When users create a profile on this site, they are given a standard list of questions to answer in order to tell other people about themselves. Some of these questions deal with matters like, “What are six things you couldn’t do without?” or “what are you looking for in partner?”. The typical sorts of answers you might find to questions like these are highlighted in a video I really like called “The Truth About Being Single“:

“All these people keep interrupting my loneliness!”

The problem with questions like these is that – when they are posed in isolation – their interpretation can get a bit difficult; they often seem to blur the lines between what people require and what they just want. More precisely, the ratings people give to various items or traits in terms of their importance might not accurately capture their degree of actual importance. A quick example concerns cell phones and oxygen. If you were to ask people on Okcupid about five things they couldn’t do without on a day-to-day basis, more people would probably list their phones than the air they breathe. They would also tell you that, in any given year, they likely spend much more money on cell phones than air. Despite this, air is clearly the more important item, as cell phones stop being useful when the owner has long since asphyxiated (even if the cell phone would allow you to go out playing whatever bird-themed game is currently trending).

Perhaps that all seems very mundane, though: “Yes, of course,” you might say, “air is more important than iPhones, but putting ‘I need air’ on your dating profile or asking people how important is the air they breathe on a survey doesn’t tell you much about the person, whereas iPhone ownership makes you a more attractive, cool, and intelligent individual”. While it’s true that “people rate breathing as very important” will probably not land you any good publications or hot dates, when we start thinking about the relative importance of the various traits people look for in a partner, we can end up finding out some pretty interesting things. Specifically, we can begin to uncover what each sex views as necessities and what they view as luxuries in potential partners. The key to this method involves constraining the mate choices people can make: when people can’t have it all, what they opt to have first (i.e. people want air before iPhones if they don’t have either) tells us – to some extent – where their priorities lie.

Enter a paper by Li et al (2002). The authors note that previous studies on mating and partner selection have found sex differences in the importance placed on certain characteristics: men tend to value physical attractiveness in a partner more than women, and women tend to value financial prospects more than men. However, the ratings of these characteristics are not often found to be of paramount importance, relative to ratings of other characteristics like kindness, creativity, or a sense of humor (on which the sexes tend to agree). But perhaps the method used to derive those ratings is missing part of the larger picture, as it was in our air/iPhone example. Without asking people to make tradeoffs between these characteristics, researchers might be, as Li et al put it, “[putting the participants in] the position of someone answering a question about how to spend imaginary lottery winnings”. When people have the ability to buy anything, they will spend proportionately more money on luxuries, relative to necessities. Similarly, when people are asked about what they want in a mate, they might play up the importance of luxuries, rather than necessities if they are just thinking about the traits in general terms.

“I’m spending it all on cans of beans!”

What Li et al (2002) did in the first experiment, then, was to provide 78 participants with a list of 10 characteristics that are often rated as important in a long-term partner. The subjects were told to, essentially, Frankenstein themselves a marriage partner from that list. Their potential partners would start out in the bottom percentile for each of those traits. What this means is that, if we consider the trait of kindness, their partner would be less kind than everyone else in the population. However, people could raise the percentile score of their partner in any domain by 10% by spending a point from their “mating budget” (so if one point was invested in kindness, their partner would now be less kind than 90% of people; if two points were spent, the partner is now less kind than 80% of people, and so on). The twist is that people were only given a limited budget. With 10 traits and 10 percentiles per trait, people would need 100 points to make a partner high in everything. The first budget people started with was 20 points, which requires some tough calls to be made.

So what do people look for in a partner first? That depends, in part, on whether you’re a man or a woman. Women tended to spend the most – about 20% of their initial budget (or 4 points) – on intelligence; men spent comparably in that domain as well, with about 16% of their budget going towards brains. The next thing women tended to buy was good financial prospects, spending another 17% beefing up their partner’s yearly income. Men, on the other hand, seemed relatively unconcerned with their partner’s salary, spending only 3% of their initial budget on a woman’s income. What men seemed much more interested in was getting physical attractiveness, spending about 21% of their initial budget there; about twice what the women spent. The most vital characteristics in a long-term partner, then, seemed to be intelligence and money for women, and attractiveness and intelligence for men, in that order.

However, as people’s mating budget was increased, from 20 points to 60 points, these sex differences disappeared. Both men and women began to spend comparably as their budgets were increased and tradeoffs became less pressing. In other words, once people had the necessities for a relationship, they bought the same kinds of luxuries. These results were replicated in a slightly-modified second study using 178 undergraduates and five traits instead of ten. In the final study, participants were given a number of potential dates to screen for acceptability. These mates were said to be have been rated along the previous 5 characteristics in a high/medium/low fashion. Participants could reveal the hidden ratings of the potential dates for free, but were asked to reveal as few as possible in order to make a decision. As one might expect, men tended to reveal how physically attractive the potential mate was first more than any other trait (43% of the time, relative to women’s 16%), whereas women tended to first reveal how much social status the men had (35% of the time, relative to men’s 16%). Men seem to value good looks and women tend to value access to resources. Stereotype accuracy confirmed.

A now onto the next research project…

This is the reason I liked the initial video so much. The first portion of the video reflects the typical sentiments that people often express when it comes to what they want in a partner (“I just want someone [who gets me/to spend time with/ to sleep next to/ etc]“). These are, however, often expressions of luxuries, rather than necessities. Much like the air we breathe, the presence of the necessities in a potential mate are, more or less, taken for granted – at least until they’re absent, that is. So while traits like “creativity” might make an already-attractive partner more attractive, being incredibly creative will likely suddenly count for quite a bit less if you’re poor and/or unattractive, depending on who you’re trying to impress. I’ll leave the final word on the matter to one of my favorite comedians, John Mulaney, as I think he expresses the point well: “Sometimes I’ll be talking to someone and I’ll be like, “yeah, I’ve been really lonely lately”, and they’ll be like, “well we should hang out!” and I’m like, “no; that’s not what I meant”.

References: Li, N., Bailey, J., Kenrick, D., & Linsenmeier, J. (2002). The necessities and luxuries of mate preferences: Testing the tradeoffs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 947-955.

Interesting Information On Cricket Sex

Our experiences of the goings on in our mind tend to paint a less-than-accurate picture of precisely how the mind is structured. Specifically, we tend to consciously experience the functioning of our mind as, more or less, unified; that there’s some “self” running the show, so to speak. There are a great number of theoretical problems with the idea of a self – that I won’t get into here – which has led to a growing conceptual rejection of it. Rather than some unified self processing all sorts of cognitive information, there are thought to be a series of domain-specific cognitive modules performing a variety of independent tasks using unique sets of information. Though the idea of a “self” has been thrown out in favor of, essentially, very many “sub-selves”, there is still some sense in which the functioning of all these different parts can be considered a psychological “you”: the outputs of all these different modules need to be integrated in some way so as to produce behavior, even if they don’t go through a central self. This is just a round about way of saying that though one part of your brain might want to stick to a diet and another part might wish to break the diet, you – your body, anyway – can’t do both of these things at the same time.

Thankfully, you can do both with the proper temporal spacing.

So we might consider the sum of all these different pieces interacting to be, in some non-technical sense, a psychological “you”. As we’re about to see, however, how precisely we want to define this psychological “you” gets even trickier than that. This is because some aspects of our behavior (and, by extension, our psychological functioning) can be affected by other organisms that happen to be taking up residence in our bodies; organisms that would “prefer” we do things to achieve their evolutionary goals at the expense of our own. This brings us nicely to a recent paper by Adamo et al (2014) examining the sexual behavior of crickets.

The researchers had been collecting crickets for some reason not directly related to matter of pathogens, as far as their paper suggests. However, they eventually noticed that some of the females had stopped laying eggs. When these females were dissected, the researchers noticed that the fatty body inside these females had an iridescent blue sheen. As it turns out, this was indicative of a type of viral infection; it also turns out that this particular virus is spread via sexual contact. Let’s consider the pathogen’s fitness interests for a moment: first, and perhaps most obviously, this virus would prefer that the crickets have sex with some regularity. Since the virus is spread sexually, the more sex the cricket is having, the more opportunities the virus has to find new hosts and reproduce itself. Accordingly, we might imagine that this virus would prefer their hosts are more eager to mate than non-infected crickets.

However, the virus would also prefer that the crickets not behave as if they’re sick. As someone who has just recently recovered from an infection myself, I can attest to the fact that sick animals often behave much differently than healthy ones. Sick animals might try to conserve energy, for instance, opting to spend their energy budget on an immune response to fight off the infection rather than moving around their environment and doing other things. This poses a problem for the sexually transmitted virus, as animals which are conserving their energy budget might not be interested in pursuing mating effort at the same time. So if the virus could prevent this suite of sickness-related behaviors from taking place, it could potentially benefit itself as well.

“Stupid, lazy host; get out of bed and fuck something!”

Now this is all very interesting in the abstract, but is there any evidence that these viruses actually had the ability to manipulate the host’s behavior? Since I wouldn’t be writing about this issue if there wasn’t, yes; there seems to be. Compared to non-infected crickets, the male crickets sporting the infection were quicker to try and court females. In the case of crickets, this means the males started to produce courtship signaling, in the form of “singing”, quicker. Infected males starting singing around 200 seconds after being exposed to females, whereas their uninfected counterparts took a little over 400 seconds to begin the process.  Unfortunately for the eager lovers, there also seemed to be pretty good evidence that the virus had a nasty habit of rendering them sterile, so the mating wasn’t doing the crickets a whole lot of good..

That wasn’t the only behavioral effect of the infection observed, though. The researchers also injected healthy crickets and infected crickets with a bacteria that had been killed by heat prior to the injection. While this renders the bacteria relatively harmless to the crickets, their immune system still responded to what it perceived to be a potential threat. Accordingly, the immune response tended to trigger certain sickness behaviors, like not eating and taking longer to try and court females. However, this was only the case the for non-infected crickets, which now took about 800 seconds to begin courting; the infected crickets showed no sickness behaviors when injected with the dead bacteria and continued on eating and mating as they had beforehand.

While it’s not entirely clear whether the sickness behavior was inhibited as byproduct of the virus partially shutting down its host’s immune response abilities more generally or whether the capacity to inhibit the behavior had been directly selected for, the main point doesn’t change: the viral infection seemed to be having an effect on the host’s behavior and, presumably, this effect was at least partially realized through a change in the host’s psychology. While it’s hard for me to say what, if anything, it’s “like” to be a cricket, to the extent that they feel things like hunger or lust, such feelings might well have been modified by the effects of the infection (making them not lose their appetite in the presence of invading pathogens as healthy crickets did, and making them more eager to court females). Indeed, the results of this study appear to be conceptually similar to the paper suggesting that mosquitoes infected with malaria might preferentially feed from human hosts, owing to the pathogen reproducing in humans and being spread by mosquitoes. The more people the infected mosquitoes bite, the greater the chance the pathogen has to spread, and the parasite seems to be able to push its host in the preferred direction.   

Side effects of infections include an insatiable thirst for human blood and sex…

So while the idea of “the self” is already a theoretical non-starter, even the colloquial sense of the word poses some interesting definitional problems. After all, if we were to label the sum total of the interactions within our brains as “the self” then, in some sense, the effect of the presence of certain pathogens may well be included in the “you” side of this equation, though most of us wouldn’t think of them that way. Some of our preferences are, no doubt, influenced by particular pathogens when they are infecting us, and some of our preferences might also be shaped in a more long-term fashion by the presence of infectious agents present during our development as well. It’s unfortunate that more hasn’t been written about the subject (or at least I haven’t seen too much about it around the psychology departments I’ve been in), as there are likely a great many pathogens that have all sorts of interesting effects on our behavior, from the symbiotes we carry around in body to those trying to make meals of us.

References: Adamo, S., Kovalko, I., Easy, R., & Stoltz, D. (2014). A viral aphrodisac in the cricket Gryllus texensis. The Journal of Experimental Biology, doi:10.1242/jeb.103408

Gender Gaps Vs. Gender Facts

In a now-classic 1994 paper, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides discussed an idea they labeled “instinct blindness”. One of the basic ideas of this paper is that our minds have evolved to become really good at doing particular things; so good, in fact, that we often don’t realize we’re doing them. Vision, for instance, is an incredibly complex problem to solve. Our cognitive systems for vision function so automatically, however, that we don’t realize the depth of the problems inherent in seeing; we simply open our eyes and see, typically without any conscious experience of the task being particularly challenging. A consequence of this instinct blindness is that much of our psychological functioning goes, essentially, unnoticed; in other cases, facets of our psychology are viewed as not needing an explanation (i.e. “It’s just natural that…”) because they just seem so normal. Now instinct blindness doesn’t much matter to most people in everyday life: people not appreciating how many mechanisms are involved in vision probably won’t affect their day or many other people’s days all that often. It’s effect on my life is certainly limited. However, when people begin discussing matters of morality, the effects of that instinct blindness can be a touch more important.

Blindness? Touch? I’ll see myself out…

The moral issue I would like to highlight today is one that I have hit upon many times in the past: gender. Specifically, the issue is that men and women are often found to differ with respect to particular outcomes to some degree: perhaps women, on the whole, tend to make less money than men; perhaps men tend to be sent to jail more often than women, and so on. Now it’s often also the case that people find such differences to be morally offensive. Well, sort of, anyway; more precisely, it’s not that the differences per se are morally offensive, but that the underlying causes of the differences are viewed to be nefarious in some way. It’s not that women make less money than men that is the problem, then, but rather that this fact is perceived to be due to sexism or discrimination against women that’s the problem.

I would like to emphasis the word “perceived” in that last sentence because claims of discrimination or sexism are often made without good supporting evidence, or their extent is, what one might consider, exaggerated to some degree. This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as discrimination or that sexism necessarily plays a minimal or no role in any given disparity, mind you; I don’t want to be misunderstood in that respect. The issue I’m discussing is that when people say things like “women make 70 cents for every dollar a man makes”, the implication being made, implicitly or explicitly, is that this 30 cent difference is due mostly or entirely to sexism and discrimination without consideration that any other factors might play some role in determining who makes how much money. Also, the implication is that such gaps should be reduced, of course. People aren’t just stating these gaps as if they were mere statements of facts; they’re calls to action.

Except that this clearly isn’t the case all the time, which brings us to the current paper (which looks like more of a conference presentation, but that’s besides the point). While not empirical in nature, the paper by Browne (2013) focuses on the following suggestion: gender differences that appear to favor men are far more often to be viewed as “gaps” requiring remediation, while gender differences that appear to favor women are viewed more as “facts” and of little or no moral or social concern. Browne (2013) runs through a few interesting examples of these disparities, among which are: the special focus on violence against women despite men being more likely to be a victim of almost any type of violent crime, women being less likely to be stopped or cited for traffic violations, women being sentenced to less time in jail if convicted of a crime, domestic abuse allegations of men being ignored at greater frequency than women’s, women earning more of the degrees than men in the US, and men making up a bit more than 9 out of every 10 workplace deaths. Despite the existence of these gender disparities, very little seems to ever be mentioned about them nor is much remedy for them sought; they seem to be viewed, more or less, as acceptable, or the unintended result of a system designed to benefit men overall.

“Can you reframe this workplace accident in the form of patriarchy?”

One of my favorite passages from the paper concerned research on one of the former issues: traffic stops. Though it’s lengthy, I wanted to recreate it here in its entirety because I think it demonstrates the focus of the paper rather aptly:

…[W]hen a Massachusetts study of racial and gender profiling found that, contrary to the authors’ expectations, women were substantially less likely to be stopped or cited than men, the authors did not then express concern that maybe there was gender profiling against men; instead, they emphasized the need for further information on “the traffic stop behavior of individual officers . . . to determine if some officers are stopping [a] larger number of female drivers compared to their similarly situated peers.” The fact that all officers, as a whole, were stopping a larger number of male drivers was simply not on the authors’ radar as a problem.

Such a passage suggests rather strongly that some research is conducted with a particular agenda in mind: the researchers seemed pretty sure that some group was being disadvantaged, and when they didn’t find the result they were looking for, they expressed interest in continuing to dig until they found the answer they wanted. The odds are good, I would say, that if the initial research turned up an identical gender “gap” disfavoring women (i.e. women are more likely to be stopped or cited for traffic offenses), it would be taken as evidence of a problem. But since this “gap” disfavored men, it was reported instead as more of a “fact”.

Research on our reasoning abilities has been reaching a similar conclusion for some time now: reasoning appears to function primarily to persuade other people of things, rather than to necessarily be accurate. Certain findings might be ignored or questions not asked if they don’t find the agenda of the researchers. Now it’s all well and good (and fun, too) to throw metaphorical rocks at the research or conclusions of other people and make accusations of particular agendas working against the empirical or theoretical soundness of their work. However, the interesting focus of this issue, to me, anyway, is not that people have biases, but rather why people have certain biases. Despite how many psychologists write on the topic, noticing (or labeling) a bias is not the same thing as explaining it. Something about gender – or some factor relating to it – seems to have a powerful, if perhaps under-appreciated or unrecognized, influence on our moral judgments. Why, then, might women’s welfare appear to be, in general, of more concern than men’s?

The answer to this question, I imagine, will likely turn out to be strategic in nature. Specifically, such a cognitive bias should only be expected to exist if it serves some other useful goal. The underlying logic here is that being wrong about reality can frequently carry costs, and these costs need to be offset by some compensating benefit in order for biases to persist and become common. So what might this other useful goal be? Well, I don’t think current accounts of our moral sentiments have much to offer us in that regard. The accounts of morality that suggest our moral psychology functions to increase group welfare or make people more altruistic/cooperative don’t seem to get us very far, as they don’t straightforwardly explain why one particular subgroup’s welfare (women) is more important than another’s (men). The dynamic coordination account – which posits that people take sides in moral disputes on the basis of observable actions to achieve coordination and reduce punishment costs (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013) – doesn’t seem to get us very far either for two reasons: first, the model explicitly rejects the idea that moral sentiments should be tied to individual identities, so it’s not at all clear why one gender’s issues might be perceived differently and, second, because the observed part – the gender disparity – is not what people seem to be condemning; they are condemning the perceived cause of that disparity, and their perceptions may well be inaccurate on that front).

Because we know gender disparities can never be caused by choice; only sexism against women.

It seems more plausible to me that the selective attention and moral outrage that gets directed against particular gender “gaps” relates more to managing one’s association value to others. That is to say that supporting someone on a moral issue relates more to alliance politics than it does coordination or altruism. If, for instance, women happen to possess some resource (such as their reproductive capacity) that makes them more valuable socially (relative to non-women), then you might well find that people are, in general, more interested in catering to their issues. Even if one is not personally interesting in catering to those issues, however, if enough other people happen to be on the “women’s side” (provided such a term is meaningful, which I don’t think it is, but let’s use it anyway), siding against them can be a bad idea all the same: by doing so you might become a target of condemnation by proxy, even if you have personally done nothing particularly wrong, as you are preventing that group from achieving its goal. Now all of this speculation is founded on the idea that these “pro-women” biases actually exist, and I think that requires more empirical work to be demonstrated with greater certainty, but the anecdotes reviewed by Browne (2013) provide some good initial reasons to think such a phenomenon may well be real.

References: Browne, K. (2013). Mind which gap? The selective concern over sex disparities. Florida International Law Review, 8.

DeScioli, P. & Kurzban, R. (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 477-496.