Where Did I Leave My Arousal?

Jack is your average, single man. Like many single men, Jack might be said to have an interest in getting laid. There are a number of women – and let’s just say they all happen to be called Jill – that he might attempt to pursue to achieve that goal. Now which of these Jills Jack will pursue depends a number of factors: first, is Jack looking for something more short-term and causal, or is he looking for a long-term relationship? Jack might want to consider whether or not any given Jill is currently single, known for promiscuity, or attractive, regardless of which type he’s looking for. If he’s looking for something more long-term, he might also want to know more about how intelligent and kind all these Jills are. He might also wish to assess how interested each of the Jills happens to be in him, given what he offers, as he might otherwise spend a lot of time pursuing sexual dead-ends. If he really wanted to make a good decision, though, Jack might also wish to take into account whether or not he happened to have been scared at the time he met a given Jill, as his fear level at the time is no doubt a useful piece of information.

“Almost getting murdered was much more of a turn-on than I expected”

OK; so maybe that last piece sounded a bit strange. After all, it doesn’t seem like Jack’s experience of fear tells him anything of value when it comes to trying to find a Jill: it doesn’t tell him anything about that Jill as a suitable mate or the probability that he will successfully hook up with her. In fact, by using his level of fear to an unrelated issue to try and make a mating decision, it seems Jack can only make a worse decision than if he did not use that piece of information (on the whole, anyway; his estimates of which Jill(s) are his best bet to pursue might not be entirely accurate, but they’re at least based on otherwise-relevant information). Jack might as well make his decision about who to pursue on the basis of whether he happened to be hungry when he met them or whether it was cloudy that day. However, what if Jack – or some part of Jack’s brain, more precisely – mistook the arousal he felt when he was afraid for sexual attraction?

There’s an idea floating around in some psychological circles that one can, essentially, misplace their arousal (perhaps in the way one misplaces their keys: you think you left them on the steps, but they’re actually in your coat pocket). What this means is that someone who might be aroused due to fear might end up thinking they’re actually rather attracted to someone else instead, because both of those things – fear and sexual attraction – involve physiological arousal (in the form of things like an increased heart rate); apparently, physiological arousal is pretty vague and confusing thing for our brains. One study purporting to show this effect is a classic paper covered in many psychological textbooks: Dutton & Aron (1974). In the most famous experiment of the study, 85 men were approached by a confederate (either a man or a woman) after crossing a fear-inducing bridge or a non-fear-inducing bridge. The men were given a quick survey and asked to write a short story about an ambiguous image of a woman, after which the confederate provides the men with their number if they want to call and discuss the study further. The idea here is that the men might call if they were interested in a date, rather than the study, which seems reasonable.

When the men’s stories were assess for sexual content, those who had crossed the fear-inducing bridge tended to write stories containing more sexual content (M = 2.47 out of 5) compared to when they crossed the non-fear-inducing bridge (M = 1.41). However, this was only the case when the confederate was female; when a male confederate was administering the questions, there was no difference between the two condition in terms of sexual content (M = 0.8 and 0.61, respectively). Similarly, the male subjects were more likely to call the confederate following the interaction when crossing the fear bridge (39%), relative to the non-fear bridge (9%). Again, this difference was only significant when the confederate was a female; male confederates were called at the same rate (8% and 4.5%, respectively).  Dutton & Aron (1974) suggest that these results were consistent with a type of “cognitive relabeling”, where the arousal from fear becomes reinterpreted by the subjects as sexual attraction. The authors further (seem to, anyway) suggest that this relabeling might be useful because anxiety and fear are unpleasant things to feel, so by labeling them as sexual attraction, subjects get to feel good things (like horny) instead.

“There we go; much better”

These explanations – that the mind mistakes fear arousal for sexual arousal, and that this is useful because it makes people feel good – are both theoretically deficient, and in big ways. To understand why with a single example, let’s consider a hiker out in the wood who encounters a bear. Now this bear is none-too-happy to see the hiker and begins to charge at him. The hiker will, undoubtedly, experience a great deal of physiological arousal. So, what would happen if the hiker mistook his fear for sexual interest? At best, he would end up achieving an unproductive copulation; at worse, he would end up inside the bear, but not in the way he might have hoped. The first point to this example, then, is that the appropriate responses to fear and sexual attraction are quite different: fear should motivate you to avoid, escape, or defend against a threat, whereas sexual attraction should motivate you to more towards the object of your desires instead. Any cognitive system that could easily blur the lines between these two (and other) types of arousal would appear to be at a disadvantage, relative to one that did not make such mistakes. We would end up running away from our dates into the arms of bears. Unproductive indeed.

The second, related point is that feeling good per se does not do anything useful. I might feel better if I never experienced hunger; I might also starve to death, despite being perfectly content about the situation. As such, “anxiety-reduction” is not even a plausible function for this ostensible cognitive relabeling. If anxiety reduction were a plausible function, one would be left wondering why people bothered to feel anxiety in the first place: it seems easier to not bother feeling anxiety than to have one mechanism that – unproductively – generates it, and a second which quashes it. What we need here, then, is an entirely different type of explanation to understand these results; one that doesn’t rely on biologically-implausible functions or rather sloppy cognitive design. To understand what that explanation might look like, we could consider the following comic:

“I will take a prostitute, though, if you happen to have one…”

The joke here, obviously, is that the refusal of a cigarette prior to execution by firing squad for health reasons is silly; it only makes sense to worry about one’s health in the future if there is a future to worry about. Accordingly, we might predict that people who face (or at least perceive) uncertainty about their future might be less willing to forgo current benefits for future rewards. That is, they should be more focused on achieving short-term rewards: they might be more likely to use drugs, less likely to save money, less likely to diet, more likely to seek the protection of others, and more likely to have affairs if the opportunity arose. They would do all this not because they “mistook” their arousal from fear about the future for sexual attraction, pleasant tastes, friendship, and fiscal irresponsibility, but rather because information about their likely future has shifted the balance of preexisting cost/benefit ratios in favor of certain alternatives. They know that the cigarette would be bad for their future health, but there’s less of a future to worry about, so they might as well get the benefits of smoking while they can.

Such an explanation is necessarily speculative and incomplete (owing to this being a blog and not a theory piece), but it would certainly begin to help explain why people in relationships don’t seem to “mistake” their arousal from riding a roller-coaster for heightened levels of stranger attractiveness the way single people do (Meston & Frohlich, 2003). Not only that, but those in relationships didn’t rate their partners as any more attractive either; in fact, if anything, the aroused roller-coaster riders in committed relationships rated their partners as slightly less attractive, which might represent a subtle shift in one’s weighing of an existing cost/benefit ratio (related to commitment, in this case) in the light of new information about the future. Then again, maybe people in relationships are just less likely to misplace their arousal than single folk happen to be…

References: Dutton, D. & Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517.

Meston, C. & Frohlich, P. (2003). Love at first fright: Partner salience moderates roller-coaster-induced excitation transfer. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32, 537-544.

Up Next On MythBusters: Race And Parenting

Lately, there’s been an article that keeps crossing my field of vision; it’s done so about three or four times in the last week, likely because it was written about fathers and father’s day has just come and gone. The article is titled, “The Myth of the Absent Black Father“. In it, Tara Culp-Ressler suggests that “hands-on parenting is similar among dads of all races”, and, I think, that the idea that any racial differences in the parenting realm might exist is driven by inaccurate racist stereotypes instead of accurate perceptions of reality. There are two points I want to make, one of which is specific to the article itself, and the other of which is about stereotypes and biases as they are spoken about more generally. So let’s start with the myth-busting about parenting across races.

Network TV wasn’t touching this one with a 10-foot pole

The first point I want to make about the article in question is that the title is badly at odds with the data being reported on. The title – The Myth of the Absent Black Father – would seem to strongly suggest that the myth here is that black fathers tend to be absent when it comes to childcare (presumably with respect to other racial groups, rather than in some absolute sense of the word). Now if one wished to label this a myth, they should, presumably, examine the data of the percentage of families with father-present and father-absent homes to demonstrate that rates of absent fathers do not differ substantially by race. What it means to be “present” or “absent” is, of course, a semantic issue that is likely to garner some disagreement. In the interests of maintaining something resembling a precise definition, then, let’s consider matters over which there is likely to be less disagreement, such as, “across different races, are the fathers equally likely to be married to the mother of their children?” or, “does the father live in the same household as their child?”.

There exists plenty of data that speaks to those questions. The answer from the data to both is a clear “no; fathers are not equally likely to be living with the mother across races”. According to census data from 2009, for instance, black children were residing in single-mother homes in around 50% of cases, compared to 18% of white children, 8% in Asian children, and 25% in Hispanic children. With respect to births outside of marriage, further data from 2011 found:

…72 percent of all births to black women, 66 percent to American Indian or Alaskan native women, and 53 percent to Hispanic women occurred outside of marriage, compared with 29 percent for white women, and 17 percent for Asian or Pacific Islander women.

In these two cases, then, it seems abundantly clear that, at least relatively speaking, the “myth” of absent black fathers is not a myth at all; it’s a statistical reality (just like how last time I was discussing “myths” about sex differences, most of the “myths” turned out to be true). This would make the title of the article seem more than a little misleading. If the “myth” of the absent black father isn’t referring to whether the father is actually present in the home or not, then what is the article focused on?

The article itself focuses on a report by the CDC which found that, when they are present, fathers tend to report being about equally involved in childcare over the last month, regardless of their race; similar findings emerge for fathers who are absent. In other words, an absent father is an absent father, regardless of race, just as a present father is a present father, regardless of race. There were some slight differences between racial groups, sure; but nothing terribly noteworthy. That said, if one is concerned with the myth of the absent black father, comparing how much work fathers do given they are present or absent  across races seems to miss the mark. Yes; present fathers tend to do more work than absent ones, but the absent ones are disproportionately represented in some groups. That point doesn’t seem to be contested by Tara; instead, she opts to suggest that the reasons that many black fathers don’t live with their children come down to social and economic inequalities. Now that explanation may well be true; it may well not be the whole picture, either. The reason(s) this difference exists is likely complicated, as many things related to human social life are. However, even fully explaining the reasons for a discrepancy does not make the discrepancy stop existing, nor does it make it a myth.

But never mind that; your ax won’t grind itself

So the content of the article is a bit of a non-sequitur from the title. The combination of the title and content seemed a bit like me trying to say it’s a myth that it’s cloudy outside because it’s not raining; though the two might be related, they’re not the same thing (and it very clearly is cloudy, in any case…). This brings me to the second, more general point I wanted to discuss: articles like these are common enough to be mundane. It doesn’t take much searching to find people writing about how (typically other) people (who the author disagrees with or dislikes) tend to hold to incorrect stereotypes or have fallen prey to cognitive biases. As Steven Pinker once said, a healthy portion of social psychological research often focuses on:

… endless demonstrations that People are Really Bad at X, which are then “explained” by an ever-lengthening list of Biases, Fallacies, Illusions, Neglects, Blindnesses, and Fundamental Errors, each of which restates the finding that people are really bad at X.

Reading over a lot of the standard psychological literature, one might get the sense that people aren’t terribly good at being right about the world. In fact, one might even get the impression that our brains were designed to be wrong about a number of socially-important things (like how smart, trustworthy, or productive some people are which might, in turn, affect our decisions about whether they would make good friends or romantic partners). If that were the case, it should pose us with a rather interesting biological mystery.

That’s not to say that being wrong per se is much of a mystery – as we lack perfect information and perfect information processing mechanisms – but rather that it would be strange if people’s brains were designed for such an outcome: if people’s minds were designed to make use of stereotypes as a source of information for decision making, and if those stereotypes are inaccurate, then people should be expected to make worse decisions relative to if they had not used that stereotype as information in the first place (and, importantly, that being wrong tends to carry fitness-relevant consequences). That people continue to make use of these stereotypes (regardless of their race or sex) would require an explanation. Now the most obvious reason for the usage of stereotypes would be, as per the example above, that they are not actually wrong. Before wondering why people use bad information to make decisions, it would serve us well to make sure that the information is, well, actually bad (again, not just imperfect, but actually incorrect).

“Bad information! Very bad!”

Unfortunately, as far as I’ve seen, proportionately-few projects on topics like biases and stereotypes begin by testing for accuracy. Instead, they seem to begin with their conclusion (which is generally, “people are wrong about quite a number of things related to gender and/or race, and no meaningful differences could possibly exist between these groups, so any differential treatment of said groups must be baseless”) and then go out in search of the confirmatory evidence. That’s not to say that all stereotypes will necessarily be true, of course; just that figuring out if that’s the case ought to be step one (step two might then involve trying to understand any differences that do emerge in some meaningful way, with the aforementioned knowledge that explaining these differences doesn’t make them disappear). Skipping that first step leads to labeling facts as “myths” or “racist stereotypes”, and that doesn’t get us anywhere we should want to be (though it can get one pretty good publicity, apparently).

Misinformation About Evolution In Textbooks

Throughout my years making my way through various programs at various schools, I have received (and I say this is the humblest way possible, which appears to be not very…) a number of compliments from others regarding my scholarship. People often seem genuinely impressed that I make the effort to read all the source material I reference and talk about. Indeed, when it came to the class I taught last semester, I did not review any research in class that I had not personally read in full beforehand, frequently more than once. Now, to me, this all seems relatively mundane: I feel that academics should make sure to read all the material they’re using before they use it, and that doing so should be so commonplace that it warrants no special attention. I don’t feel teachers should be teaching others about research they, like Jon Snow, know little or nothing about. Now I have no data regarding how often academics or non-academics do or do not try to teach others about or argue about research they have little personal familiarity with, but, if consulting source material was as common as I would hope, it would seem odd that I received explicit compliments about it on multiple occasions. Compliments are often reserved for special behaviors; not mundane ones.

 ”Thanks, Bob; it was really swell of you to not murder me”

It is for this reason that I have always been at least little skeptical of textbooks in psychology: many of these textbooks cover and attempt to provide some summary of large and diverse areas of research. This poses two very real questions, in my mind: (a) have the authors of these books really read and understood all the literature they are discussing, and (b) provided they have, are they going to be able to provide a summary of it approaching adequate in the space provided?  For instance, one of my undergraduate textbooks – Human Sexuality Today, by Bruce M. King (2005) – contains a reference section boasting about 40 pages, on each of which approximately 60 references are contained. Now perhaps Dr. King is intimately, or at least generally, familiar with all 2,400 references on that list and is able to provide a decent summary of them on the approximately 450 pages of the book; it’s not impossible, certainly.

There are some red flags to me that this is not the case, however. One thing I can now do, having some years of experience under my belt, is return to these books and examine the sections I am familiar with to see how well they’re covered. For instance, on page 254, King (2005) is discussing theories of gender roles. In that section, hes makes reference to two papers by Buss and Geary, but then, rather than discuss those papers, he cites a third paper, by Wood and Eagly, to summarize them. This seems like a rather peculiar choice; a bit like my asking someone else where you said you wanted to go eat when I could just ask you and, in fact, have a written transcript of where you said you wanted to go eat. On page 436, when discussing evolutionary theories of rape, King writes that Thornhill and Palmer’s book suggested that “women can provoke rape” (which the book does not) and that the evolutionary theory “does not explain why men rape children, older women, and other men” (demonstrating their lack of understanding about proximate/ultimate distinction). In fact, King goes on to mention a “thoughtful review” of Thornhill and Palmer’s book that suggests rape might be a byproduct and that “we must not confuse causation with motivation”. Thoughtful indeed. So thoughtful, in fact, that the authors of the book in question not only suggested that rape might be a byproduct, but the pair also take great pains to outline the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. Issues like these do not appear to be the hallmark of a writer familiar with the topic they are writing about. (I will also note that, during the discussion on the function of masturbation, King writes, “Why do people masturbate? Quite simply, because it feels good” (p.336). I will leave it up to you to decide whether that explanation is particularly satisfying on a functional level).

Now these are only two errors, and I have neither the time nor the patience to sift through the full textbook to look for others, but there’s reason to think that this is by no means an isolated incident. I wrote previously about how evolutionary psychology tends to be misrepresented in introductory psychology textbooks and, when it is mentioned, is often confined to only a select topic or two. These frequent errors are, again, not the hallmarks of people who are terribly familiar with the subjects they are supposed to be educating others about. To the extent that people are being educated by books like these, or using them to educate others, this poses a number of obvious problems concerning the quality of that education, along with a number of questions along the lines of, “why am I trusting you to educate me?” To drive that point home a bit further, today we have another recent paper for consideration by Winegard et al (2014), who examined the representation of evolutionary psychology within 15 popular sex and gender textbooks in psychology and sociology. Since the most common information people seem to hear about evolutionary psychology does concern sex and gender, they might represent a particularly valuable target to examine.

“Don’t worry; I’m sure they’ll nail it”

The authors begin by noting that previous analyzes of evolutionary psychology’s representation in undergraduate textbooks has been less-than stellar, with somewhere between “a lot” and “all” of the textbooks that have been examined showing evidence of errors, a minority showing hostility, and that’s all provided the subject was even mentioned in the first place; not a good start. Nevertheless, the authors collected a sample of 15 academic textbooks from 2005 or later – six in sociology and nine in psychology – that saw some fairly regular use: out of a sample of around 1,500 sociology courses, one of those six books was used in about half of them, and a similar percentage of 1,200 psychology courses sampled used one of the nine psychology texts. The most widely-used of these texts were in around 20% and 10% of courses, respectively, so these books were seeing some fairly good popularity.

Of these 15 books, 3 did not discuss the theoretical foundations of evolutionary psychology and were discarded from the analysis; the remaining 12 books were examined for the areas in which evolutionary psychology was discussed, and any errors they made were cataloged. Of those 12 books, all of them contained at least one error, with the average number of errors per book hovering around 5 (allowing for the fact that they could make the same error more than once), with an average of 4 different categories of error per book. The most common of these errors, unsurprisingly, was the umbrella “strawman” category, where positions not held by evolutionary psychology are said to be representative of their actual positions (I believe the Thornhill and Palmer suggesting women “provoke rape” would fall into this category). The number of errors might not seem all that large at first glance, but once one considers that the average number of pages within the textbooks under consideration were around 6 for psychology and 3 for sociology, that’s around one or two errors a page.

Additionally, the errors that the authors found within these textbooks are cataloged at the end of their paper. Reading through the list should be more than little frustrating, if an entirely familiar experience, for anyone even moderately well-versed in evolutionary psychology. In accordance with the masturbation example listed above, there’s more than one instance in that list of writers suggesting that evolutionary researchers ignore the fact that people have sex for pleasure because we only focus on reproduction (for another example of this error, see here). Now there’s nothing wrong with being critical of evolutionary psychology, to be clear; criticisms are often the lifeblood of advancements. It is important, however, that one is at least familiar with the ideas they are going to be critical towards before attempting criticism, or the education of, others. This should sound like a basic point, but, then again, reading source material you’re discussing shouldn’t be something noteworthy that one gets compliments about.

“As long I don’t read it, I can still disagree with what I think it says…”

These are, of course, just the errors; there’s no consideration here of the degree to which topics are covered in sufficient depth. To the extent that people – teachers and undergraduates alike – are receiving an education from (or creating one based on) these textbooks, we should expect to see these errors repeated. In this case, we might actually hope that students are not reading their books since, in my mind, no education on the subject is likely better than a false sense of one. Now one might make the case that the authors of these textbooks don’t have the time to read everything they cite or cover it in the detail required for it to be of much use, meaning that we should expect errors like these to crop up. If that’s the case, though, it’s curious why anyone would rely on these textbooks as worthwhile sources of information. To put it in metaphorical terms, when it comes to providing information about EP, these textbooks seem about as a good as a tour of Paris taken via plane with a guide who have never been their himself. Not only is the experience unlikely to give you much of a sense for the city, it’s not the type of thing I would pay a lot of money for. While I certainly can’t speak to how well other topics are covered, I think there might be good reason to worry as well.

References: King, B. (2005). Human Sexuality Today. Pearson, NJ.

Winegard B., Winegard, B., & Deaner, R. (2014). Misrepresentations of evolutionary psychology in sex and gender textbooks. Evolutionary Psychology, 12, 474-508.

Punch-Ups In Bars

For those of you unfamiliar with the literature in economics, there is a type of experimental paradigm called the dictator game. In this game, there are two players, one of which is given a sum of money and told they can do whatever they want with it. They could keep it all for themselves, or they could divide it however they want between themselves and the other player. In general, you often find that many dictators – the ones in charge of dividing the money – give at least some of the wealth to the other player, with many people sharing it evenly. Some people have taken that finding to suggest there is something intrinsically altruistic about human behavior towards others, even strangers. There are, however, some concerns regarding what those results actually tell us. For instance, when you take the game out of the lab and into a more naturalistic setting, dictators don’t really tend to give other people any money at all, suggesting that most, or perhaps all, of the giving we see in these experiments is being driven by the demand characteristics of the experiment, rather than altruism per se. This should ring true to anyone who has even had a wallet full of money and not given some of it away to a stranger for no reason. Real life, it would seem, is quite unlike dictator games in many respects.

Dictators are not historically known for their benevolence.

Relatedly, around two years ago, Rob Kurzban wondered to what extent the role of ostensibly altruistic punishment had been overstated by laboratory experiments. Altruistic punishment refers to cases in which someone – the punisher – will incur costs themselves (typically by paying a sum of money in these experiments) to inflict costs on others (typically by deducting a sum of money from another person). What inspired this wondering was a video entitled “bike thief“, where a man tries to steal his own bike, using a crowbar, hacksaw, and power tool to cut the locks securing the bike to various objects. Though many people pass by the man as he tries to “steal” his bike, almost no one intervenes to try and determine what’s going on. This video appears to show the same pattern of results as a previous one also dealing with bike theft: in that video, third parties are somewhat more likely to intervene when a white man tries to steal the bike than in the first video one, but, in general, they don’t tend to involve themselves much, if at all (they are more likely to intervene if the ostensible thief is black or a woman. In the former case, people are more likely to confront him or call the police; in the latter case, some people intervened to help the woman, not to condemn her).

I have long found these videos fascinating, in that I feel they raise a lot of questions worthy of further consideration. The first of these is how do people decide when to become involved in the affairs of others? The act itself (sawing through a bike lock) is inherently ambiguous: is the person trying to steal the bike, or is the bike theirs but they have lost the key? Further, even if the person is stealing the bike, there are certain potential risks to confronting them about it that might be better avoided. The second question is, given someone has decided to become involved, what do they do? Do they help or hinder the thief? Indeed, when the “thief” suggests that they lost the key, the third parties passing by seem willing to help, even when the thief is black; similarly, even when the woman all but says she is stealing the bike, people (typically men) continue to help her out. When third parties opt instead to punish someone, do they do so themselves, or do they try to enlist others to do the punishing (like police and additional third parties)? These two questions get at the matter of how prevalent/important is third-party punishment outside of the lab, and under what circumstance might that importance be modified?

Though there is a lack of control one faces from moving outside of the lab into naturalistic field studies, the value of these studies for understanding punishment should be hard to overstate. As we saw initially with the dictator games, it is possible that all the altruistic behavior we observe in the lab is due to experimental demand characteristics; the same might be true of third-party moral condemnation. Admittedly, naturalistic observations of third-party involvement in conflicts is rare, likely owing to how difficult it is to get good observations of immoral acts that people might prefer you didn’t see (i.e. real bike thieves likely go through some pains to not be seen so others might be unlikely to become involved, unlike the actors in the videos). One particularly useful context for gathering these observations, then, is one in which the immoral act is unlikely to be planned and people’s inhibitions are reduced: in this case, when people are drinking at bars. As almost anyone who has been out to a bar can tell you, when people are drinking tempers can flare, people overstep boundaries, and conflicts break out. When that happens, there often tends to be a number of uninvolved third parties who might intervene, making it a fairly ideal context for studying the matter.

“No one else wears this shirt on my watch. No one”

A 2013 paper by Parks et al examined around 800 such incidents of what was deemed to be verbal or physical aggression to determine what kinds of conflicts arose, what types people tends to get involved in them, and how they became involved. As an initial note – and this will become relevant shortly – aggression was defined in a particular way that I find to be troublesome: specifically, there was physical aggression (like hitting or pushing), verbal aggression (like insults), and unwanted or persistent sexual overtures. The problem here is that though failed or crude attempts at flirting might be unwanted, they are by no means aggressive in the same sense that hitting someone is, so aggression might have been defined too broadly here. That said, the “aggressive” acts were coded for severity and intent, third-party intervention was coded as present or absent and, when present, whether it was an aggressive or non-aggressive intervention, and all interactions were coded for the sex of the parties and their level of intoxication.

The first question is obviously how often did third parties become involved in an aggressive encounter? The answer is around a third of the time on average, so third-party involvement in disputes is by no means an infrequent occurrence. Around 80% of the third parties that intervened were also male. Further, when third parties did become involved, they were about twice as likely to become involved in an non-aggressive fashion, relative to an aggressive one (so they were more often trying to diffuse the situation, rather than escalating it). Perhaps unsurprising in the fact that most disputes tended to be initiated by people who appeared to be relatively more intoxicated, and the aggressive third parties tended to be drunker than the non-aggressive ones. So, as is well known, being drunk tended to lead to people being more aggressive, whether it came to initiating conflicts or joining them. Third parties also tended to become more likely to get involved in disputes as the severity of the disputes rose: minor insults might not lead to much involvement on the parts of others, while throwing a punch or pulling out a knife will. This also meant that mutually-aggressive encounters – ones that are likely to escalate – tended to draw more third-party involvement that one-sided aggression.

Of note is that the degree of third party involvement did fluctuate markedly: the disputes that drew the most third-party involvement were the male-on-male mutually-aggressive encounters. In those cases, third parties got involved around 70% of the time; more than double the average involvement level. By contrast, male-on-female aggression drew the least amount of third-party intervention; only around 17% of the time. This is, at first, a very surprising finding, given that women tend to receive lighter sentences for similar crimes, and violence against women appears to be less condoned than violence against men. So why would women garner less support when men are aggressing against them? Well, likely because unwanted sexual attention falls under the umbrella term of aggression in this study. Because “aggressive” does not equate to “violent” in the paper, all of the mixed-sex instances of “aggression” need to be interpreted quite cautiously. The authors note as much, wondering if male-on-female aggression generated less third-party involvement because it was perceived as being less severe. I think that speculation is on the right track, but I would take it further: most of the mixed-sex “aggression” might have not been aggressive at all. By contrast, when it was female-female mutual aggression (less likely to be sexual in nature, likely involving a fight or the threat of one), third parties intervened around 60% of the time. In other words, people were perfectly happy to intervene on behalf of either sex, so long as the situation was deemed to be dangerous.

“It’s only one bottle; let’s not be too hasty to get involved yet…”

Another important caveat to this research is that the relationship of the third parties that became involved to the initial aggressors was not known. That is, there was no differentiation between a friend or a stranger coming to someone’s aid when aggression broke out. If I had to venture a guess – and this is probably a safe one – I would assume that most of the third parties likely had some kind of a relationship to the people in the initial dispute. I would also guess that non-violent involvement (diffusing the situation) would be more common when the third parties had some relationship to both of the people involved in the initial dispute, relative to when it was their friend against a stranger. I happen to feel that the relationship between the parties who become involved in these disputes has some rather large implications for understanding morality more generally but, since that data isn’t available, I won’t speculate too much more about it here. What I will say is that the focus on how strangers behave towards one another in the lab – as is standard for most research on moral condemnation – is likely missing a large part of how morality works, just like how experimental demand characteristics seemed to make people look more altruistic than they are in naturalistic settings. Getting friends together for research poses all sorts of logistically issues, but it is a valuable source of information to start considering.

 References: Parks, M., Osgood, D., Felson, R., Wells, S., & Graham, K., (2013). Third party involvement in barroom conflicts. Aggressive Behavior, 39, 257-268.