Lots And Lots Of Hand-Wringing

There’s a well-known quote that was said to be uttered when someone heard about Darwin’s theory of evolution for the first time: “Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it does not become widely known”. Darwinian theory was certainly not the first theory that got people worrying about the implications of it being true, nor will it be the last. Pascal’s wager, for instance, attempted to suggest that belief in a deity would be a fine one to adopt, as the implications for being wrong about the belief might involve spending an eternity in torment (depending on which version of said deity we’re talking about), but believing incorrectly that a god exists doesn’t carry nearly as many potential costs. More recent worries have suggested that if global warming is real and caused by human activity, then we might want to knock it off with all the fossil fuel burning before we do (anymore) serious damage to the planet; others worry about the implications of that belief being wrong, suggesting it might harm the economy to impose new regulations on business owners over nothing. While we could document a seemingly-endless list of examples of people worrying about the implication of this or that idea, today we actually get a rare chance to examine whether some of those worries about the implications of an idea are grounded in reality.

“I don’t believe in your academic work….because of the implication

Now, of course, the implications which flow from a belief if it were true in no way affect whether or not the belief happens to be true. Our Victorian woman fretting over what might happen if evolution is true in no way changed the truth value of the claim. Given that the truth value isn’t affected, and that we here in the academic portion of world might fancy ourselves as fighters over truth of a claim, the implications which flow from an idea can be shrugged off as matters that don’t concern us. Still, one might wonder what precisely our Victorian was wringing her hands about; what consequences the world might suffer if people began to belief evolution was true and behaved accordingly. If she’s anything like some of the more contemporary critics of evolutionary theory in general – and evolutionary psychology in particular – she might have been worried that if people believe that the theory is true, then people have no reason to avoid being amoral psychopaths, killing and raping their way through life. The argument, I think, is that people might begin to justify things like rape and murder as natural if [behavior is genetically determined in some sense/God didn't create people and care very deeply about what they do], and therefore justifiable. If one is interested in avoiding nasty the consequences of beliefs, well, all that rape and murder might be a good one to avoid.

On a philosophical level, I happen to think that such a concern is rather strange. This strangeness arises from the fact that if, say, rape and murder are natural (and therefore justifiable, according to the argument), condemnation of such acts is, well, also natural and therefore acceptable. I’m not sure that this line of argument really gets anyone anywhere. It’s the same kind of reasoning that crops up concerning the issue of free will and morality: in short, when confronted with the idea of determinism, people seem to feel that acts like murder don’t require a justification, but acts like morally condemning others for murder do, leaving us with the rather odd situation where people feel it wouldn’t be justifiable to condemn someone for killing another person, but the killing itself is fine. Why people attach so much importance to trying to justify their moral judgments like that is certainly an interesting topic, but I wanted to bring the focus away from philosophy and back to the implications of evolutionary theories.

Some people have made the argument that if people believe in an evolutionary theory, then they will subsequently fail to condemn something the arguer would like to condemn. Foregoing the matter of whether the evolutionary theory in question is true, we can consider whether the concern about its implications is warranted. This is precisely what Dar-Nimrod et al (2011) set out to do. The authors set out to examine whether exposing male participants to different explanations for a behavior – specifically, an evolutionary explanation and a social-constructivist one – led to any changes in their condemnation of sex crimes, relative to a control condition. If evolutionary theories are used, even non-consciously, to justify certain behaviors morally (what the authors call a “get-out-of-jail-free card”), we should expect that evolutionary explanations will lead people to be less punitive of the sexual crimes. In the first experiment, the authors examined men’s reactions to an instance of a man soliciting a prostitute for sex; in the second, they examined men’s reactions to an instance of rape.

“Participants were subsequently followed to see if they sought out prostitutes”

The first study only made use of 58 participants (two of which were dropped) across three conditions, which makes me a little wary owing to small sample size concerns. Nevertheless, the participants either read about a social-constructivist theory (stressing power structures between men and women in relationship to sexual behavior), an evolutionary theory (stressing parental investment and reproductive potential), or neither. They were subsequently asked to suggest how much bail a man (John) should have to pay for attempting to solicit a prostitute that was actually an undercover policewoman (anywhere from $50-1000). After controlling for how much bail the participants set for a shoplifter, the results showed a significant difference between the conditions: in the control condition, men set an average bail of $267 for John. In the evolutionary condition, the bail was set around $301, and was around $461 in the social-constructivist condition. This difference was significant between the social-constructivist position and the evolutionary condition, but not between the evolutionary and control conditions.

In the next study, the setup was largely similar. Sixty-seven participants read about an evolutionary argument concerning why rape might have been adaptive, a social-constructivist argument about how more porn in circulation was correlated with more rape, or a control condition about, I think, sexual relationships between older people. They were asked to assess the scientific significance of the evidence they read about, and then asked about the acceptability of the behavior of a man (“Thomas”) who persisted in asserting his sexual desires on a woman who willingly kissed him but explicitly objected to anything further (date rape). The results showed that men rated the scientific significance of each theory to be comparable (which, I should note, is funny, given that the relationship between porn and rape goes in the opposite direction). Additionally, those reading the social explanation thought men had more control over their sexual urges (M = 5.4), relative to the control condition (M = 4.6) or evolutionary condition (M = 4.2). Similarly, those in the social condition rated sexual aggression less positively in the social condition (M = 3.0) relative to the evolutionary (M = 3.8) and control (M = 3.6) conditions. Finally, the same pattern held for punitive judgments.

Summarizing the results, then, we get the following pattern: while exposure to a certain social theories enhanced people’s moral condemnation of particular criminal sex acts, relative to the control condition, the evolutionary theories didn’t have any effect in particular. They certainly didn’t seem to justify sexual assault, as some feared they might. Precisely why the social theories enhanced condemnation is a separate matter, with the authors postulating that it might have something to due with the language and variable-focus that they used and note that, with different phrasing, it might be possible to eliminate that difference. The important point as far I’m concerned, though, is that evolutionary explanations (at least these ones) didn’t seem to lead to any of the horrific consequences detractors of the field sometimes imagine they would. In other words, if the evolutionary theories are true, we need not pray they do not become widely known.

So we can all safely move onto the next moral panic

Given that many critics of evolutionary psychology have made reference to this get-out-of-jail-free concern, it seems plausible that their worries are based on some misunderstandings of, or misinformation, about the field (or, more generously, a concern that other people will generate such misunderstandings intuitively, even though the critic is in masterful command of the subject himself). That is to say, roughly, someone says “evolutionary” and the receiver hears “genetic”, “predetermined”, and/or fears that other people will. However, if that explanation is true, I would find it curious that it didn’t seem to show up in the results. More precisely, if people substitute “genetic” for “evolutionary”, we might have expected to see the evolutionary explanations reduce judgments of condemnation, rather than do nothing to them*. It is possible that the effect could be witnessed in other topics than sex, perhaps owing to people treating sex differences in behavior as intuitively genetic based, but I suppose only future research will shed light on the issue.

*(For some reason, genetic explanations seem to reduce the severity of moral judgments. I would be interested to see if participants reading about how moral condemnation is genetically determined subsequently condemn more or less than others)

References: Dar-Nimrod, I., Heine, S., Cheung, B., & Schaller, M. (2011). Do scientific theories affect men’s evaluations of sex crimes? Aggressive Behavior, 37, 440-449.

#DERP Syndrome

“I don’t have an accent; this is just how words sound when they’re pronounced properly”

Though the source of the above quote escapes me (I happen to know it was some British comedian; just not which one), I think the sentiment captures nicely the way people tend to feel about their views of the social world. For instance, were you to ask people about the merits of a policy – say one concerning the legality of drug use or the age of consent laws – many people would likely express some variant of the following view points: (a) my view is the correct one, (b) it’s the correct view because it accords well with the data/world when one views it objectively, like I do and, further, (c) those who disagree with me are wrong because (d) their biases blind them to the truth of the matter. In fact, one might even tack on the notion that these disagreements aren’t based in differing perceptions, but rather based on the fact that both sides know which policy is correct but, because the other side just happens to be evil, they don’t care.

Also, they usually want money

Though a full review of the literature on the topic is certainly beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that current evidence seems to suggest that people have little conscious access into the reasons they make the decisions they do, and that our reasoning abilities probably function to convince people of things more than they do to uncover logical and true relations. These are points discussed at greater length in a 2010 book - Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite - by Robert Kurzban and, in my entirely unbiased and objective view, it is one of the best books ever written. On that note, Rob is back with a new book – The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind – co-authored with Jason Weeden. The new book examines, as the title might suggest, how we might be able to explain people’s particular sets of political (and, by extension, moral) stances by understanding where their self-interest* might lie in a matter. While we – or at the least the part of our brain doing the talking – like to dress up our perceptions about what is right as being unmotivated by self-interest with some regularity (perhaps they are instead motivated by a sincere hope to make everyone better off, we might say), this is a proposition that seems unlikely to be true. So Rob and Jason start asking some questions about what kinds of things might motivate our opinions.

The first step in this process comes from the realization that certain “explanations” for people’s behavior are, in fact, not explanations at all. Establishing this point represents the efforts of the first (and my favorite) chapter of the book, which I would like to cover (i.e., gently plagiarize) in some detail. The first example the authors use concerns parties: some people enjoy going out to parties, drinking, dancing, meeting new people and the like; others tend to avoid such settings, finding them to be overwhelming or unpleasant. How might we explain such differences between people? Well, the go-to explanation for many people would be to reference the personalities of the party-goers involved: those who like parties tend to be more extroverted than those introverts who do not like parties. So the fact that some people like parties is explained by referencing their level of extroversion. That’s all well and good until one considers how we know whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert. As the authors point out, the questions on those personality tests that determine who we classify as introverts and extroverts tend to include questions concerning whether they like parties.

So, the fact that people enjoy parties is “explained” by noting they are extroverts, and we know they’re extroverts because they tell us they like parties. This explanation, then, is much like other psychological “explanations” which simply restate empirical findings with a new name. This theoretical spinning of intellectual wheels gets a playful name from Jason and Rob: DERP Syndrome (standing for Direct Explanation Renaming Psychology). If we are trying to understand why people, say, support the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples, or support prayer in public school, we’re going to need to consider other factors than the fact that they think the world would be better off if gay couples could marry or if prayer was allowed in school, respectively. Accordingly, the authors shift their focus towards other variables: demographics, like age, sex, race, income, and so on, to help do some explaining. Though these demographics tend to be used as controls by other researchers interested in examining, say, extroversion or public policy preferences, Rob and Jason suggest this is a rather large mistake. The reason the authors want to use these variables is easy to understand intuitively: when considering a correlation between, say, sex and the support of a policy, it is plausible that a woman might support a policy because it has positive implications for women, but support of that policy would not turn one into a woman.

 “Well, that’s where those dangerous pro-wildlife polices will get you…”

That said, the matter is rarely as easy as considering whether someone is a man or black if you want to try and understand their policy preferences because, as it turns out, the people belonging to these broad demographic groups often don’t share a perfect alignment of interests. Despite what some might suggest, men do not exist in a large cabal and collectively conspire to make non-men feel bad. It’s also difficult to understand policy preferences because you can’t just ask people why they support a policy and expect an accurate answer, as noted above. My favorite example of this is currently the topic of abortion: though people sometimes frame opposition to abortion as an “anti-woman” policy, the demographic data shows that men and women support and oppose abortion in approximately equal numbers. Instead, as it turns out, one’s sexual strategy – whether one tends to enjoy mating in the short- or long-term context – tends to be a pretty good predictor of where one resides politically with respect to abortions being legal and available.

Those who might want short-term strategies to carry more costs (the long-term maters) tend to oppose abortion, but typically say they oppose it on the grounds that it kills a baby; a consciously-held position inconsistent with the fact that many of them also support the legality of abortion in certain circumstances, like because of conceptions resulting from rape or incest. As many of those same people don’t advocate for the ability of mothers to kill two-year-old children who were conceived from an instance of rape, something is amiss. Similarly, those who oppose abortion also tend to oppose freely-available birth control, which is strange under the abortion-is-murder view, but less so under the sexual strategies perspective. Lest those who support legal abortions in other cases get too cocky regarding their own views – which often involve some statements about how people should be “free to control their bodies” – their consciously-articulated views tend to be inconsistent with the fact that many of the same people who support legal abortions also have interests in regulating what others do with their bodies, like engaging in prostitution, using drugs recreationally (and having consensual sex while using them), selling genetically-modified foods, giving money to political candidates, or owning handguns.

One other exceedingly interesting point Jason and Rob discuss in their book concerns support for group-based discrimination policies (such as segregation or affirmative action). As they note, all discrimination policies – whether they concern effort, intelligence, gender, or race – produce people who tend to be winners (i.e., benefit under such rules) and losers (suffer costs under them). The only real alternative to discrimination in general is to make decisions in choosing alternative options (in hiring, mating, and so on) at random, which is a policy almost no one advocates for. So, to understand which people might support certain policies, it helps to start thinking about who would win and lose under various rule structures. Consider two possible ways of discriminating: we could discriminate on intelligence (say, more intelligence is usually better for getting hired), or we could discriminate on racial identity (say, being Indian per se improves your odds over non-Indians). Those Indians with a lot of intelligence do fairly well under both policies, but those Indians without much intelligence do much better under the latter policy than the former. Accordingly, we might expect more support for pro-Indian policies to come from those Indians with lower intelligence, relative to those with high intelligence. In fact, those Indians with high intelligence might even do well if they oppose the pro-Indian policy, as accepting that ethnic discrimination policy might hinder acceptance of pro-intelligence policies in other domains. That said, while smart Indians might not favor pro-Indian policies as strongly, they would likely support policies that advance non-Indians for their ethnicity alone even less.

“People should value precisely the traits I happen to have; it’s the only decent option”

As you can see, considerations of interests can get complicated somewhat quickly, as we all have a number of different identities. In fact, it can be a bit tricky to keep up with the book at times when it talks about the difference in interests between those who are male, black, educated, and religious, relative to those who are female, white, educated, and atheists (which is no fault of the book; it’s just difficult to keep such groups neat in one’s head). Matters can be even further complicated by considering whether one’s social allies would be better or worse of under social policies; a point which I do not recall being covered in much depth, but is a natural extension of the self-interest; we could consider it one’s indirect self-interest. Nevertheless, the data examined by Rob and Jason points heavily in favor of these considerations being rather relevant in determining who supports what policies. Importantly, these variables seem capable of freeing us from the circularity of explanations; an ability which is often lacking when trying to understand these issues through accusations of sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and all the other various -isms one can think up. Calling someone a bigot generally serves to stunt our understanding of where their positions come from, I would think. But, then again, understanding isn’t always what people are after, and name-calling does seem to be fun for some. So there’s that…

References: Weeden, J. & Kurzban, R. (2014). The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit it. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.

*If you’ve read Rob’s first book, you should know that “self-interest” is a term that makes little sense. Nevertheless, it is retained for ease of expression.

Honorable Violence

I’m usually not one for TV. Though I rarely find myself watching TV shows, one of the two or three exceptions to this pattern in recent year has been Game of Thrones. It’s a show replete with instances of violence, many of which are rather interesting on top of being entertaining. There are two such instances I have in mind which struck me as particularly memorable: The first scene involves a fight been Jaime Lannister and Eddard Stark. The two fight each other while Jaime’s men stand back and observe. The fight is cut short, however, when one of Jaime’s men suddenly stabs a spear through Eddard’s leg, crippling him. Following that, Jaime approaches his ally who had disabled his opponent and knocks the man out for the assistance before riding off, leaving Eddard alive. While the scene is intuitively understandable to most viewers, if this were any other species being observed, we might find the behaviors all rather peculiar. Why did Jaime’s allies not step in to assist him sooner? Why did Jaime aggress against his own ally for helping him win a potentially-lethal fight? Why did Jaime not kill his opponent when he had the chance?

And, more importantly, why doesn’t my hair look that good?

The second scene I had in mind involves the fight between Bronn and Ser Vardis Egan. The two are engaged in a trial by combat, where the outcome of the fight will, as the name suggests, determine the guilt (and life) of Jaime’s brother, Tyrion, as well as the life of one of the fighters. Bronn, in this case, happens to be fighting on behalf of Tyrion. Bronn manages to win the fight by tiring his armor-clad opponent out, before crippling and killing him. Despite Vardis being surrounded by his allies, none of them join in the fight to help save his life. After Bronn wins, he is rebuked for his victory by the Queen of the Vale, who suggests that Bronn “doesn’t fight with honor”. Bronn responds with one of my favorite lines from the series: “No”, which he follows up by gesturing down the pit where his recently-defeated opponent was dropped, and continues, “He did”. Honor, it seems, can get a man killed, so why do people fight with or make a big deal about it?

While there are many other such instances of violence in Game of Thrones we might document, I wanted to use these as a vehicle to discuss a recent paper by Romero, Pham, & Goetz (2014) which examined people’s implicit rules of combat, specifically the acceptability of violent tactics. In their paper, the authors posit that a recurrent history of violence over human evolution – in conjunction with the potential costs associated with violence – likely had a hand in shaping human psychological mechanisms for learning about and responding to violence. In this case, prepared learning would be the order of the day. That is to say that violent conflict, owing to its risky nature, is often not the type of thing that lends itself neatly to repeated trial and error learning, so it is probable that human psychology comes equipped with cognitive mechanisms for structuring our understanding of violent conflict with very little or, in some cases, the absence of, explicit learning about or experience with such topics. This is similar to how monkeys can learn quickly to fear snakes but not flowers.

As people would want to avoid needlessly escalating play fights into lethal combat or fail to respond appropriately to others with lethal intent, we should expect (a) that the mind is structured to both classify violent acts into relatively distinct groups, and  (b) that each group should have types of violence which are deemed acceptable or unacceptable in association with each context. The regulations on what kind of violence is associated with acceptability in each group should also correlate with the functions of violence in those contexts. Though the authors note that such a list is unlikely to be exhaustive, they highlight four groups into which violent conflict might classified: (1) play fighting, the purpose of which might be to prepare one for actual fighting later, but not to cause lasting injury, (2) status contests, the purpose of which is to establish dominance, but not to kill one’s rival, (3) warfare, the purpose of which is to settle between-group rivalries which may occasionally require lethal force, and (4) anti-exploitative violence, covering what people typically consider self-defense which, again, might occasionally require lethal force.

Not included in the list: Senseless and Leisurely violence

In the first study, 237 US students read about a scenario designed to capture each of these four contexts, and were then asked to rate the acceptability of 22 violent acts in each context. The violent acts ranged from minor (slapping and punching the body) to rather severe (eye gouging and the use of a deadly weapon), as confirmed by independent ratings. The authors predicted that more severe violent acts would increase in acceptability from play fighting, to status contexts, to warfare, to anti-exploitation contexts, owing to the function of violence in each context shaping the expectations of behavior in them. This was indeed the pattern that was uncovered: as violent tactics got more severe, endorsements of them as acceptable tended to decrease. The number of acceptable tactics was also lowest for play fighting, followed by status contests, warfare, and anti-exploitation tactics. Interestingly, experience learning about and discussing combat behavior did not have a significant effect on people’s judgments of an act’s acceptability. In the non-US sample of 91 Mturkers, that last result concerning learning was significant but, controlling for the level of experience, the above pattern generally replicated (though the mean values of acceptability were slightly different, with the non-US sample rating violence as generally more acceptable).

The second study really caught my attention, however, and it gets back to our initial Game of Thrones scenes. This study examined status contests specifically. The function of these status contests, as previous mentioned, is to establish dominance. They can also serve a signaling function by allowing others the chance to assess who is the better fighter within the boundaries of these implicit rules of combat. Individuals who break these implicit rules, then, end up obscuring the assessment of their relative fighting ability by granting themselves competitive advantages. To use a simple, yet extreme example, if you’re attempting to assess fighting ability in a boxing match and one boxer shows up to the fight with a knife, you learn less about each person’s relative boxing ability. Other types of “cheap shots” (i.e. violent tactics that extend beyond the normally accepted range for the type of conflict) similarly hinder honest information from being gathered from the results of the contest. This could be why it seemed so comprehensible to viewers for Bronn to be accused of lacking honor (as he was wearing his opponent out rather than fighting him directly) or why Jaime didn’t continue to fight Eddard after the spear through the leg (as winning no longer proves anything about the combatant’s skill).

The second study asked 234 participants to read the status contest story from the first study, but now one of the fighters employed tactics rated as overly-severe during that contest, including: bringing allies into combat, striking the testicles of the other fighter, or using a weapon. Participants also read about three novel contexts, in which one fighter handicapped himself, either by fighting with only one hand, fighting when outnumbered, or fighting a particularly formidable opponent. When the fighter in question employed one of the more severe tactics during the fight, they were assigned less respect than those handicapping themselves. On a 10-point scale, bringing allies to fight was rated as a mean of 2.58 in respect, striking the testicles was a 2.68, and using a weapon was rated as 2.14. By contrast, fighting with one arm was rated a 7.23, fighting outnumbered was 6.41, and fighting a formidable opponent was a 5.88. On the whole, men also tended to give somewhat more respect to fighters handicapping themselves, relative to women, perhaps owing to men generally being the ones doing the fighting.

Seems like a fair assessment of fighting ability

Now, as the authors note, the rules governing the classification of violent acts should be expected to vary somewhat from culture to culture. For some cultures, status contests might take the form of wrestling; in others, like the Game of Thrones world, status contests might sometimes involve the use of lethal weaponry. Some blurring of these categories, then, is a likely outcome at times. When duels are held with lethal weaponry, for instance, they might serve dual functions of status contests and anti-exploitation tactics, making classifications difficult. Despite that occasional blurring, however, we should expect people to have different expectations of the acceptable rules of violence contingent on its function. When the function is only to display status, grievous bodily injury should be relatively unacceptable; when the function is play fighting, even mild injuries should be frowned upon.

To turn this finding towards some personal experience, these results shed some light on the frequent complaint of many gamers concerning “honor” in their games, whether certain tactics are “cheap”, and whether certain things in the game need to be “nerfed” (i.e. have their power reduced). These complaints likely arise from a combination of the two aforementioned issues: first, if one player is using some severely-unbalanced or powerful item, the ability of each player’s skill to determine the result of the match shrinks, relative to the portion determined by the item. In the event that such tactics are too good and easy to pull off, the ability to display skill can be removed entirely. This would make the game less fun for many. Second, people might be treating these games as if they belong in different categories. Some players who play just for fun might treat them as play fights while others treat them as status competitions; still others might even treat them as anti-exploitation contexts. This could result in the different groups having different ideals as to how others should behave in game, and without agreement on the implicit rules resentment between players can build. A similar logic thus likely underlies non-violent status competitions, play, and anti-exploitation tactics as well. It would be interesting to see this line of research expanded into other areas of human competition.

References: Romero, G., Pham, M., & Goetz, A. (2014). The implicit rules of combat. Human Nature, DOI: 10.1007/s12110-014-9214-3


He’s Got Your Eyes…Right?

Last post, I was discussing paternal investment in children. The point of that post was to draw attention to the fact there are often rather good biological reasons for why we might expect men and women to be differentially interested in investing their time and energy in raising children versus doing other adaptive things. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect men to be interested in investing in children, of course; just that we shouldn’t expect such things to be indiscriminate or motivated by the same factors as women’s altruism. I wanted to expand on one of those ideas a bit more today: specifically, the idea that men lack assurance in their paternity when fertilization takes places inside the female, whereas women can be 100% certain the child they give birth to is theirs. “Certain”, in the former context, refers to the notion that women were unlikely in need of a solution the adaptive problem of maternity certainty, as giving birth to a child was an honest and reliable signal that the child was related to the mother genetically.

“Little does she know it’s not her child” – No one, ever

The first study I wanted to draw attention to concerns the resemblance of a child to their parents. Naturally, as children inherit half of their genes from each parent, we should expect that children tend to resemble their parents with respect to a number of external and internal features. That much is pretty noncontroversial. However, since fathers cannot be assured of their paternity, we might expect men to attend to certain similarities between them and their would-be children when calculating the likelihood that a given child is actually theirs. If an Asian woman gives birth to a Black child, her Asian husband can likely be fairly assured that the child in question is not, in fact, his, and there might have been some infidelity involved somewhere along the line. One might – and, indeed, some have – make the corresponding argument that we might expect children to physically resemble their father more than their mother. The logic would go roughly as follows: if the child resembles their father more, they might receive more parental investment from the father, as he can be more certain the child is his. So, since that tends to be a good thing for the survival and reproductive prospects of the child, we might expect children to bias their resemblance towards their fathers (foregoing for the moment the precise mechanisms through which that might be achieved).

There’s a major issue that such expectations run into, however: reality. In a 1999 paper, Berdart & French collected photos of parents and their children from 28 families. The children’s photographs were taken when they were approximately 1, 3, and 5 years old; the parent’s pictures were all from when the child was about 1 year old. During each trial, the participants (180 undergraduates) were presented with a single picture of a child alongside three women or three men and asked to try and identify the child’s parent. This process was repeated 28 times for each subject. If children tend to resemble their fathers more than their mothers, we should also expect people to be better at matching the child to their father than their mother. This effect failed to materialize, however: for one-year old children, the average correct matching to the father (13/28) was not different than correct matching to the mother (12/28); similar findings obtained for the three-year olds (13/28 and 13/28, respectively) and five-year olds (14/28 and 14/28, respectively).

So while child did certainly tend to resemble their parents consistently (though clearly less than perfectly), they failed to resemble their fathers more than their mothers. Berdart & French (1999) suggested that there might be a rationale for this lack of distinct resemblance: if fathers were good at figuring out which children were theirs, they would presumably also be good at figuring out which children were not theirs, and withhold investment from the latter group. I don’t want to spend too much time on this point other than to note that it’s not a particularly strong one, as it would be good for the ostensible fathers if they had such a skill, and the ill effects on the unrelated child shouldn’t be expected to have an impact on its adaptive nature. Nevertheless, the important point here is that children do not appear to actually resemble their father anymore than their mother. Reality need not always get in the way of perceptions, though.

Fitness is 99% instagram filters

In general, having perceptions that match up to reality is a good thing. If you think you can succeed where you will fail, you’re more likely to waste your time; it you think you will fail when you can succeed, you’ll miss opportunities. Things like that. The exception to that rule concerns contexts of persuasion. There are beliefs I might prefer you to have because they would make me better off, rather than because they are true. So, if some part of my brain that deals with persuading others holds an incorrect belief, that’s not necessarily a problem. As the last post touched on, if people can convince others certain sex differences are due to sexism, that might have some useful implications for certain groups of people to the extent that people are trying to avoid being perceived as sexist and are willing to take steps to remediate the situation. For the present purposes, however, if women are trying to extract investment from men for their children, it would be in those women’s best interest if the man in question believes the child in question is actually related to him, as men are more likely to invest in child on that basis alone. Accordingly, we might predict that women will be more likely to try and convince men that their children resemble them.

Enter some research by Daly & Wilson (1982) that examined the spontaneous utterances of people following the birth of a child. Their first sample consisted of 111 births which had been taped; the fathers were present in 42 of them. From those 111 tapes, approximately 70 comments about the baby’s appearance were recorded. When it was the mother speaking, she remarked on the baby’s resemblance to the father in 16 instances, and the baby’s resemblance to herself 4 times. By contrast, when the father was speaking, he remarked on how the baby resembled the mother 4 times, and himself only once. Further, every time the resemblance to the mother was commented on, the utterance was singular; when the father’s resemblance was being discussed by the mother, however, six of them contained repetitions (e.g. “He looks like you…He’s got your eyes”). Immediately following the birth of a child, then, the resemblance to the father appeared to focused on specifically by the mother. While the mother was nominally more likely to comment on the resemblance to the father in his presence (75%) relative to his absence (47%), this difference didn’t reach significant with the small sample size.

A follow-up study surveyed the responses of mothers, fathers, and the relatives of both concerning the child’s resemblance. Responses came back from about 230 parents and 150 relatives. In all cases, each group suggested the child looks more like the father than the mother by a ratio of at least 2:1. This is in slight opposition to the previous results insomuch as both mothers and fathers said the child looked more like the father. This may have something to do with sampling bias, though, as only about 1/5 of the sample returned any surveys. It seems plausible, as the authors note, that “...fathers rankled by any serious suspicion of nonpaternity would be unlikely to find the questionnaire an amusing diversion“. It possible, then, that fathers might be overstating their physical resemblance to the child in surveys as signals of their unwillingness to abandon investment in the child or relationship, but that’s just speculation on my part. The videos, by contrast, might have proven to be more of an unbiased sample, freer from demand characteristics. Though it’s difficult to say, it’s worth noting that around 25% of the survey respondents reported that “everyone” in their life said the baby looked like the father, as compared with no one reporting comparable utterances about the mother. This is in spite of the finding that children don’t particularly resemble the father over the mother in a matching task, suggesting that such comments might represent social politeness, rather than accurate perceptions.

“She looks just like both of you…”

To repeat the major point here, there can be benefits to perceiving the world in inaccurate ways when you are trying to convince other people of things. Whether that thing is the resemblance of the child to a parent or whether sex differences are due sexism is quite irrelevant. It is likely, in many of these cases, that the part of the brain doing the talking legitimately believes those perceptions so as to better convince others, while different parts of the brain might disagree. Now, in this case, we happen to have data to suggest that the perceptions – or at least what people say about their perceptions – are incorrect; we also have a relatively straightforward theory for explaining why we might expect this might be the case. In many other cases we are not so fortunate.

References: Berdart, S. & French, R. (1999). Do babies resemble their fathers more than their mothers? A failure to replicate Chistenfeld & Hill (1995). Evolution & Human Behavior, 20, 129-135.

Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1982). Whom are newborn babies said to resemble? Ethology & Sociobiology, 3, 69-78.