Where’s The Market For Organs (And Sex)?

Imagine for a moment that you’re in the market for a new car. While your old car runs fine, you’ve decided you want an upgrade to a newer, fancier model. As new cars are expensive – and because you won’t have much need for the old one anymore – you decide that you want to sell your old car to someone else to raise some of the capital for the new one. This seems like a mutually-beneficial exchange for both you and the buyer. Now if I were to tell you that selling your car is morally repugnant and that you should be legally forbidden from making that sale, you might think me a little strange. You might think it even stranger if I said that I would not object (or at least not as strongly) to you giving your old car away for free. It would seem to make little sense, at least in the abstract, that you’re allowed to give something away that you’re not allowed to sell. A number of goods and services follow this logic for many people in reality, though: namely sex and bodily organs. There are those who feel that people should not be allowed to legally sell sex or kidneys, but don’t prohibit these things from being given away for free if a donor is feeling generous. How are we to understand these interesting – and seemingly contradictory – positions?

Only with lots of in-depth research, one can hope…

Let’s start by considering some cool new data from Elias et al (2015). The researchers collected data from over 3,400 Americans on Mturk split between a control and treatment group. In the control sample, about 1,600 of these participants were just asked about their attitudes concerning the acceptability of organ sales, with roughly 52% of them rating the idea of regulated monetary compensation for bodily organs to be acceptable (as far as I can tell, this wasn’t about a free market for organs, but some government type of program). In the treatment group, the participants were first provided with a short, 500-word essay outlining the current organ shortages faced by people in need of transplants, the consequences of such shortages, and a few proposals that had been put forth to try and alleviate some of those costs. In the face of this information, views about monetary compensation for organs rose dramatically, with 72% of participants in the treatment group rating the proposal as acceptable; an approximate gain of 20%. Moreover, these effects were relatively homogeneous with respect to various features of the respondents, such as, I think, their gender and religious affiliation.

Elias et al (2015) also used this same design to examine attitudes about prostitution. In a second study with another 1,600 US Mturkers, a control group was asked about the acceptability of legalized prostitution while a treatment group received information about how legalized prostitution reduced costly outcomes like sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases. In the control group, prostitution hung around a 67.3% acceptability rating; in the treatment group, this rating was 67.4%. While one might interpret those figures at representing pretty much zero change in acceptability given this information, one would be wrong. The reason this interpretation is incorrect is because, unlike the organ case, the effects of this information were not homogeneous with respect to some participant characteristics. For instance, among men, 78% of the control group supported prostitution while 96% in the treatment group did. How very progressive of them. So why was there no difference between the groups in average acceptability rating? Well, because the women had a much different view: 56% of the women in the control supported prostitution whereas this figure dropped to 41% in the treatment group. A similar effect was seen for the religious and non-religious, with the welfare information making the non-religious more accepting (81% to 94%) and the religious less so (57% to 47%).

One point to take from these results is that welfare concerns do indeed seem to serve as inputs for moral mechanisms. While this point might seem trivial to some, it has been claimed that welfare concerns are used a post-hoc justifications for moral judgments, rather than driving factors. A second point is that the manner in which those welfare consequences matter depends on the individual receiving them: those who are in need of organs represent, for lack of a better word, a “useful” victim; someone who is otherwise a good target of social investment and happens to be facing a temporary state of need (provided they don’t die, that is). On the other hand, prostitutes are less universally “useful” as a recipient of altruism: for men, prostitutes tend to reflect benefits, as they increase short-term mating opportunities; for women, prostitutes tend to reflect costs, decreasing the metaphorical market price of sex. A similar logic holds for religion, to the extent that religious membership tends to reflect member’s preferences for long-term mating strategies, which prostitution threatens.

 Safe prostitution is only making God and his sex-punishing STDs angry

In terms ultimate moral functioning, then, these results appear consistent with an alliance-building function; the one I’ve been going on about for some time now. The short version of that hypothesis is that morality functions, in part, as a kind of ingratiation device, allowing us to identify social assets. It is worth contrasting that function with the hypothesis that our moral psychology is simply functioning to increase welfare more generally. These scenarios were presenting legalized prostitution and organ sales as increasing welfare for certain parties in both cases. However, certain individuals did not seem to want to see those welfare gains achieved for certain groups because the two have opposing best interests in mind. This is understandable in precisely the same way that I would not only want to avoid give the guy threatening me with a knife access to benefits he otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve, but I would also want to have costs inflicted upon him to stop him from making my life harder. While the costs inflicted by prostitutes on long-term maters might be substantially less intentional and more indirect, they are costs nonetheless.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that the alliance hypothesis is consistent with other, older findings about selling organs as well. Tetlock (2000) reports that, when faced with the matter of whether selling organs should be legal, many people opposed to the idea cite welfare concerns: specifically, they appear concerned that poor people would be forced into donating organs for finical reasons and, conversely, that the rich would be the primary beneficiaries of such a policy. Why might these concerns get raised? I imagine that answer has something to do with the idea that organ markets will, essentially, inflict costs on already-needy groups people are hoping to provide benefits to (the poor), whereas the group receiving the benefits might not appear terribly needy (the rich). As the rich as seen as less needy than the poor, the former are likely assessed to be worse alliance potential, all else being equal. In fact, I would wager that people’s opinions about selling organs in an open market are probably correlated with their belief in whether the poor are responsible for their station in life, or whether they’re viewed as otherwise hard-working but unlucky. If people view the poor as having relatively stable need states (responsible for their current situation), other people would likely be less concerned with expending effort to help them, as such an investment would be unlikely to be returned (since their need today signals their need tomorrow as well). By contrast, the unlikely poor represent good social investments, and so might warrant some additional moral protection.

Well, that’s what you get for being irresponsible with your money

Findings like these highlight the considerable subtlety that research into the moral domain needs to take. In short, if you want to understand how people’s moral positions will change on the basis of some welfare-relevant information, you’ll likely be served by knowing where their stake in the matter at hand might reside: either directly or indirectly with regard to whether those involved in the dispute would make valuable social assets. Indeed, these findings are quite reminiscent of the Tucker Max case I wrote about some time ago, where a rather sizable donation ($500,000) was rejected by planned parenthood because some supporters of the organization perceived the source of the donation to be morally unacceptable (and, importantly, because the association was to be made publicly, rather than anonymously. If he didn’t want his name on the building, I suspect matters would have ended differently). In some cases, you can’t sell things that you can give away; in other cases, so long as the right conditions are met, people don’t even want you to be able to give those things away either.

References: Elias, J., Lacetera, N, & Macis, M. (2015). Sacred values? The effect of information on attitudes towards payment for human organs. American Economic Review Papers & Proceedings. 

Tetlock, P. (2000). Coping with trade-offs: Psychological constraints and political implications. In Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice, & the Bounds of Rationality. Ed. Lupia, A., McCubbins, M., & Popkin, S. 239-322.  

Socially-Strategic Welfare

Continuing with the trend from my last post, I wanted to talk a bit more about altruism today. Having already discussed that people do, in fact, appear to engage in altruistic behaviors and possess some cognitive mechanisms that have been selected for that end, I want to move into discussing the matter of the variance in altruistic inclinations. That is to say that people – both within and between populations – are differentially inclined towards altruistic behavior, with some people appearing rather disinterested in altruism, while others appear quite interested in it. The question of interest for many is how those differences are to be explained. One explanatory route would be to suggest that the people in question have, in some sense, fundamentally different psychologies. A possible hypothesis to accompany that explanation might go roughly as follows: if people have spent their entire lives being exposed to social messages about how helping others is their duty, their cognitive mechanisms related to altruism might have developed differently than someone who instead spent their life being exposed to the opposite message (or, at least, less of that previous one). On that note, let’s consider the topic of welfare.

In a more academic fashion, if you don’t mind…

The official website of Denmark suggests that such a message of helping being a duty might be sent in that country, stating that:

The basic principle of the Danish welfare system, often referred to as the Scandinavian welfare model, is that all citizens have equal rights to social security. Within the Danish welfare system, a number of services are available to citizens, free of charge.

Provided that this statement accurately characterizes what we would consider the typical Danish stance on welfare, one might imagine that growing up in such a country could lead individuals to develop substantially different views about welfare than, say, someone who grew up in the US, where opinions are quite varied. In my non-scientific and anecdotal experience, while some in the US might consider the country a welfare state, those same people frequently seem to be the ones who think that is a bad thing; those who think it’s a good thing often seem to believe the US is not nearly enough of a welfare state. At the very least, the US doesn’t advertise a unified belief about welfare on its official site.

On the other hand, we might consider another hypothesis: that Danes and Americans don’t necessarily possess any different cognitive mechanisms in terms of their being designed for regulating altruistic behavior. Instead, members of both countries might possess very similar underlying cognitive mechanisms which are being fed different inputs, resulting in the different national beliefs about welfare. This is the hypothesis that was tested by Aaroe & Petersen (2014). The pair make the argument that part of our underlying altruistic psychology is a mechanism that functions to determine deservingness. This hypothetical mechanism is said to use inputs of laziness: in the presence of a perceived needy but lazy target, altruistic inclinations towards that individual should be reduced; in the presence of a needy, hard-working, but unlucky individual, these inclinations should be augmented. Thus, cross-national differences, as well as within-group differences, concerning support for welfare programs should be explained, at least in part, by perceptions of deservingness (I will get to the why part of this explanation later).

Putting those ideas together, two countries that differ on their willingness to provide welfare should also differ on their perceptions of the recipients in general. However, there are exceptions to every rule: even if you believe (correctly or incorrectly) that group X happens to be lazy and undeserving of welfare, you might believe that a particular member of group X bucks that trend and does deserve assistance. This is the same thing as saying that while men are generally taller than women, you can find exceptions where a particular woman is quite tall or a man quite short. This leads to a corollary prediction,that Aaroe & Petersen examine: despite decades of exposure to different social messages about welfare, participants from the US and Denmark should come to agree on whether or not a particular individual deserves welfare assistance.

     Never have I encountered a more deserving cause

The authors sampled approximately 1000 participants from both the US and Denmark; a sample designed to be representative of their home country’s demographics. That sample was then surveyed on their views about people who receive social welfare via a free-association task in which they were asked to write descriptors of those recipients. Words that referred to the recipients’ laziness or poor luck were coded to determine which belief was the more dominant one (as defined by lazy words minus unlucky one). As predicted, the lazy stereotype was dominant in the US, relative to Denmark, with Americans listing an average of 0.3 more words referring to laziness than luck; approximately four-times the size from Denmark, in which these two beliefs were more balanced.

In line with that previous finding was the fact that Americans were also more likely to support the tightening of welfare restrictions (M = 0.57) than the Danes (M = 0.49, scale 0-1). However, this difference between the two samples only existed under the condition of informational uncertainty (i.e., when participants were thinking about welfare recipients in general). When presented with a welfare recipient who was described as the victim of a work-related accident and motivated to return to work, the US and Danish citizens both agreed that welfare for restrictions for people like that person should not be tightened (M = 0.36 and 0.35 respectively); when this recipient was instead described as able-bodied but unmotivated to work, the Americans and Danes once again agreed, suggesting that welfare restrictions should be tightened for people like him (M = 0.76 and 0.79). In the presence of more individualizing information, then, the national stereotypes built over a lifetime of socialization appear to get crowded out, as predicted. All it took was about two sentences worth of information to get the US and Danish citizens to agree. This pattern of data would seem to support the hypothesis that some universal psychological mechanisms reside in both populations, and their differing views tend to be the result of their being fed different information.

This brings us to the matter of why people are using cues to laziness to determine who should receive assistance, which is not explicitly addressed in the body of the paper itself. If the psychological mechanisms in question function to reduce the need of others per se, laziness cues should not be relevant. Returning to the example from my last post, for instance, mothers do not tend to withhold breastfeeding from infants on the basis on whether those infants are lazy. Instead, breastfeeding seems better designed to reduce need per se in the infants. It’s more likely that mechanisms responsible for determining these welfare attitudes are instead designed to build lasting friendships (Tooby & Cosmides, 1996): by assisting an individual today, you increase the odds they will be inclined to assist you in the future. This altruism might be especially relevant when the individual is in more severe need, as the marginal value of altruism in such situations is larger, relative to when they’re less needy (in the same way that a very hungry individual values the same amount of food more than a slightly hungry one; the same food is simply a better return on the same investment when given to the hungrier party). However, lazy individuals are unlikely to be able to provide such reciprocal assistance – even if they wanted to – as the factors determining their need are chronic, rather than temporary. Thus, while both the lazy and motivated individual are needy, the lazy individual is the worse social investment; the unlucky one is much better.

Investing in toilet futures might not have been the wisest retirement move

In this case, then, perceptions of deservingness appear to be connected to adaptations that function to build alliances. Might perceptions of deservingness in other domains serve a similar function? I think it’s probable. One such domain is the realm of moral punishment, where transgressors are seen as being deserving of punishment. In this case, if victimized individuals make better targets of social investment than non-victimized ones (all else being equal), then we should expect people to direct altruism towards the former group; when it comes to moral condemnation, the altruism takes the form of assisting the victimized individual in punishing the transgressor. Despite that relatively minor difference, the logic here is precisely the same as my explanation for welfare attitudes. The moral explanation would require that moral punishment contains an alliance-building function. When most people think morality, they don’t tend to think about building friendships, largely owing to the impartial components of moral cognitions (since impartiality opposes partial friendships). I think that problem is easy enough to overcome; in fact, I deal with it in an upcoming paper (Marczyk, in press). Then again, it’s not as if welfare is an amoral topic, so there’s overlap to consider as well.

References: Aaroe, l. & Petersen, M. (2014). Crowding out culture: Scandinavians and Americans agree on social welfare in the face of deservingness cues. The Journal of Politics, 76, 684-697.

Marczyk, J. (in press). Moral alliance strategies theory. Evolutionary Psychological Science

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1996). Friendship and the banker’s paradox: Other pathways to the evolution of adaptations for altruism. Proceedings of the British Academy, 88, 119-143.

Phrasing The Question: Does Altruism Even Exist?

There’s a great value in being precise when it comes to communication (if you want your message to be understood as you intended it, anyway; when clarity isn’t the goal, by all means, be imprecise). While that may seem trivial enough, it is my general experience that many communicative conflicts in psychology arise because people are often unaware of, or at least less than explicit about, the level of analysis at which they’re speaking. As an example of these different levels of analysis, today I will consider a question that many people wonder about: does altruism really exist? While definitions do vary, perhaps the most common definition of altruism involves the benefiting of another individual at the expense of the actor. So, to rephrase the question a little, “Do people really benefit others at an expense to themselves, or are ostensibly altruistic acts merely self-interest in disguise?”

“I would have saved his life if you wouldn’t have thought me selfish for doing so”

There are three cases I’m going to consider to help demonstrate these different levels of analysis. The first two examples are human-centric, as they have a greater bearing on the initial question: reciprocal exchanges and breastfeeding. In the former case – reciprocal altruism – two individuals will provide benefits to each other in the hopes of receiving similar assistance in turn. This type of behavior is often summarized with the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” line. In the case of breastfeeding, the bodies of mammalian mothers will produce a calorically-valuable milk, which they allow their dependent offspring to feed on. This latter type of altruism is generally not reciprocal in nature, as most mothers do not breastfeed their infants in the hope of, say, their infant one day breastfeeding them.

But are these acts really altruistic? After all, if I’m doing a favor for you in the hopes that you’ll do one for me later, it seems that I’m not enduring a cost to provide you with a benefit; I’m enduring a cost to try and provide me with a benefit. As for breastfeeding, offspring share some of their mother’s genes, so allowing an infant to breastfeed is, in the genetic sense, beneficial for the mother; at least for a time, at which point the weaning conflicts tend to kick in. If the previous thoughts ran through your head, chances are that you’re thinking about some of the right things but in the wrong way, blurring the lines between different levels of analysis. Allow me to explain.

In a post last year, I discussed what are commonly known as the “big four” questions one might ask about a biological mechanism, like the psychological ones that generate altruistic behavior: how does it proximately (immediately) function; how does it develop over one’s life; what is its evolutionary history with respect to other species; and what its evolved function might be. These questions all require different considerations and evidence to answer and, in many cases, can be informative as to answers at other levels. Despite their mutually informative nature, they are nonetheless distinct.

The first and fourth questions (proximate and evolutionary functioning) are the most relevant for the current matter. Let’s start by considering reciprocal altruism. The first question we might ask concerns the proximate functioning of the behavior: do people behave in ways that deliver benefits to other individuals that carry costs for the actors? Well, we certainly seem to. Some of these acts of reciprocal altruism might be based on relatively short-lived and explicit exchanges: I give you my money, you give me your goods and/or services. In other cases, the exchanges might be longer lived and more implicit: I give you help today, you should be inclined to give me help down the road when I need it. To demonstrate that these acts are, in fact, altruistic, is relatively straightforward: in the first example, for instance, I would be better off getting my goods/services and keeping my money. The act of giving does not provide me with a direct benefit. Even though we might both benefit from the exchange (gains from trade, and all that), it doesn’t mean each portion of the exchange isn’t altruistic. Proximately, then, we can say that people are altruistic or, more conservatively, that people engage in altruistic behaviors from time to time.

Score one for team good

But how about the mechanisms generating these reciprocally-altruistic behaviors; do they function to deliver benefits to others? That is to ask whether these mechanisms were selected to deliver benefits to others. The answer to this question depends on which part of the system you’re looking at. In the broader sense, that answer is “no,” inasmuch as the cognitive systems for reciprocal exchanges appear to owe their existence to receiving benefits from others, rather than providing them; the providing is just instrumental to another goal. This would mean we have altruistic behavior that is the product of a non-altruistic system, which is a perfectly possible outcome. However, in a narrower sense, the answer to that question can be “yes,” inasmuch as the broader cognitive system engaged in reciprocal exchanges is made up of a number of subsystems: one such system needs to monitor the needs of others and generate behavior to deliver benefits to them in order for the system to work, making that bit seem to be adapted for providing altruism; another piece needs to monitor the return on those investments, down-regulating altruistic behavior in the absence of reciprocity (or other relevant cues). This is where being precise really begins to count: some parts of a system might be considered altruistic, while others are more selfish.

Now let’s turn to the breastfeeding example. Beginning again with the proximate question, breastfeeding certainly seems like an altruistic behavior: the mother’s body pays a metabolic cost to create the calorically-rich milk which is then consumed by the infant. So the mother is paying a biological cost to deliver a benefit to another individual, making the behavior altruistic. In the functional sense of the word, this behavior appears to be the result of adaptations for altruism: mothers of a number of mammalian species are found to breastfeed their infants with little apparent need for reciprocity. The reason they can do so, as I previously mentioned, is that the infants share some portion of their mother’s genes, so the mother is, by proxy, improving her reproductive success by helping her offspring survive and thrive. Importantly, one needs to bear in mind that explaining the persistence of these altruistic mechanisms over time with kin selection does not make them any less altruistic. In much the same way, while the manufacturing of cars owes its existence to the process being profitable, that doesn’t mean that I’m inclined to think of cars as really being devices designed to make money.

The third example of altruism I wanted to mention is an interesting one, involving a certain parasite – the Lancet Liver Fluke – that infects ants (among other things). In brief, this pathogen will impact an ant’s behavior such that the ant will dangle from the tip of a blade of grass, leading to being more likely to get eaten by a passing grazing animal (it then travels from the grazer to snails to ants and then back into the grazers; it’s a rather involved reproductive cycle). In the proximate sense, this behavior of the ant is altruistic inasmuch that the ant is suffering a cost – death – to deliver a benefit to the parasite. However, the ant possesses no cognitive mechanisms designed for this function; the adaptations for making the ant behave as it does are found within the parasite. In this case, while the proximate behavior of the ant might appear to be altruistic, it is not because of any altruistic adaptation on the part of the ant.

The new poster child for increasing altruism

Depending, then, on what one means by “really” when asking if something is “really” altruistic, one can get vastly different answers to the question. Some behavior may or may not be proximately altruistic, the system under consideration may contain both altruistic and non-altruistic mechanisms, and the extent of that altruism can also vary. These examples should highlight the considerable subtlety that underlies such analyses, hopefully impressing upon you the point that one can easily stumble, instead of progress, if ideas are not carefully selected and understood. There are, of course, other realms we could consider – like altruism that functions to signal traits about the actor, to gain social status, or whether the immediate motives of an actor are altruistic – but the general analyses, rather than their specific details, are what is important here. Thinking about what benefits organisms might reap through their altruistic behavior is a very valuable line of thought; it just shouldn’t be confused with other meaningful levels of thought.

The Implicit Assumptions Test

Let’s say you have a pet cause to which you want to draw attention and support. There are a number of ways you might go about trying to do so, honesty being perhaps the most common initial policy. While your initial campaign is met with a modest level of success, you’d like to grow your brand, so to speak. As you start researching how other causes draw attention to themselves, you notice an obvious trend: big problems tend to get more support than smaller ones: that medical condition affecting 1-in-4 people is much different than one affecting 1-in-10,0000. Though you realize it sounds a bit perverse, if you could somehow make your pet problem a much bigger one than it actually is – or at least seem like it is –  you would likely attract more attention and funding. There’s only one problem standing in your way: reality. When most people tell you that your problem isn’t much of one, you’re kind of out of luck. Or are you? What if you could convince others that what people are telling you isn’t quite right? Maybe they think your problem isn’t much of one but, if their reports can’t be trusted, now you have more leeway to make claims about the scope of your issue.

You finally get that big fish you always knew you actually caught

This brings us once again to the matter of the implicit association task, or IAT. According to it’s creators, the IAT “…measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report,” making that jump from “association” to “attitudes” in a timely fashion. This kind of test could serve a valuable end for the fundraiser in the above example, as it could potentially increase the perceived scope of your problem. Not finding enough people who are explicitly racist to make your case that the topic should be getting more attention than it currently is? Well, that could be because racism is, by in large, a socially-undesirable trait to display and, accordingly, many people don’t want to openly say they’re a racist even if they hold some racial biases. If you had a test that could plausibly be interpreted as saying that people hold attitudes they explicitly deny, you could talk about how racism is much more common than it seems to be.

This depends on how one interprets the test, though: all the IAT measures is very-fast and immediate reaction times when it comes to pushing buttons. I’ve discussed the IAT on a few occasions: first with regard to what precisely the IAT is (and might not be) measuring and, more recently, with respect to whether IAT-like tests that use response times as measures of racial bias are actually predicting anything when it comes to actual behaviors. The quick version of both of those posts is that we ought to be careful about drawing a connection between measures of reaction time in a lab to racial biases in the real world that cause widespread discrimination. In the case of shooting decisions, for instance, a more realistic task in which participants were using a simulation with a gun instead of just pressing buttons at a computer resulted in the opposite pattern of results that many IAT tests would predict: participants were actually slower to shoot black suspects and more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects. It’s not enough to just assume that, “of course this different reaction times translate into real world discrimination”; you need to demonstrate it first.

This brings us to a recent meta-analysis of some IAT experiments by Oswald et al (2014) examining how well the IAT did at predicting behaviors, and whether it was substantially better than the explicit measures being used in those experiments. There was, apparently, a previous meta-analysis of IAT research that did find such things – at least for certain, socially-sensitive topics – and this new meta-analysis seems to be a response to the former one. Oswald et al (2014) begin by noting that the results of IAT research has been brought out of the lab into practical applications in law and politics; a matter that would be more than a little concerning if the IAT actually wasn’t measuring what it’s interpreted by many to be measuring, such as evidence of discrimination in the real world. They go on to suggest that the previous meta-analysis of IAT effects lacked a degree of analytic and methodological validity that they hope their new analysis would address.

Which is about as close as academic publications come to outright shit-talking

For example, the authors were interested in examining whether various experimental definitions of discrimination were differentially predicted by the IAT and explicit measures, whereas they had previously all been lumped into the same category by the last analysis. Oswald et al (2014) grouped these operationalizations of discrimination into six categories: (1) measured brain activity, which is a rather vague and open-to-interpretation category, (2) response times in other tasks, (3), microbehavior, like posture or expression of emotions, (4), interpersonal behavior, like whether one cooperates in a prisoner’s dilemma, (5) person perception, (i.e., explicit judgments of others), and (6) political preferences, such as whether one supports policies that benefit certain racial groups or not. Oswald et al (2014) also added in some additional, more recent studies that the previous meta-analysis did not include.

While this is a lot to this paper, I wanted to skip ahead to discussing a certain set of results. The first of these results is that, in most cases, IAT scores correlated very weakly to the discrimination criterion being assessed, averaging a meager correlation of 0.14.To the extent that IAT is actually measuring implicit attitudes, those attitudes don’t seem to have much a predictable affect on behavior. The exception to this pattern was in regard to the brain activity studies: that correlation was substantially higher (around a 0.4). However, as brain activity per se is not a terribly meaningful variable when it comes to its interpretation, whether that tells us anything of interest about discrimination is an open question. Indeed, in the previous post I mentioned, the authors also observed an effect for brain activity, but it did not mean people were biased toward shooting black people; quite the opposite, in fact.

The second finding I would like to mention is that, in most cases, the explicit measures of attitudes toward other races being used by researchers (like this one or this one) were also very weakly correlated to the discrimination criterion being assess, though their average correlation was about the same size as the implicit measures at 0.12. Further, this value is apparently substantially below the value achieved by other measures of explicit attitudes, leading the authors to suggest that researchers really ought to think more deeply about what explicit measures they’re using. Indeed, when you’re asking questions about “symbolic racism” or “modern racism”, one might wonder why you’re not just asking about “racism”. The answer, as far as I can tell, is because, proportionately, very few people – and perhaps even fewer undergraduates; the population most often being assessed – actually express openly racist views. If you want to find much racism as a researcher, then, you have to dig deeper and kind of squint a little.

The third finding is that the above two measures – implicit and explicit – really didn’t correlate with each other very well either, averaging only a correlation of 0.14. As Oswald et al (2014) put it:

“These findings collectively indicate, at least for the race domain…that implicit and explicit measures tap into different psychological constructs—none of which may have much influence on behavior…”

In fact, the authors estimate that the implicit and explicit measures collectively accounted for about 2.5% of the variance in discriminatory criterion behaviors concerning race, which each adding about a percent or so over and beyond the other measure. In other words, these effects are small – very small – and do a rather poor job of predicting much of anything.

“Results: Answer was unclear, so we shook the magic ball again”

We’re left with a rather unflattering picture of research in this domain. The explicit measures of racial attitudes don’t seem to do very well at predicting behaviors, perhaps owing to the nature of the questions being asked. For instance, in the symbolic racism scale, the answer one provides to questions like, “How much discrimination against blacks do you feel there is in the United States today, limiting their chances to get ahead?” could have quite a bit to do with matters that have little, if anything, to do with racial prejudice. Sure, certain answers might sound racist if you believe there is an easy answer to that question and anyone who disagrees must be evil and biased, but for those who haven’t already drank that particular batch of kool-aid, some reservations might remain. Using the implicit reaction times also seems to blur the line between actually measuring racist attitudes and many other things, such as whether one holds a stereotype or whether one is aware of a stereotype (foregoing the matter of its accuracy for the moment). These reservations appear to be reflected in how very bad both methods seem to be at predicting much of anything.

So why do (some) people like the IAT so much even if it predicts so little? My guess, again, is that a lot of it’s appeal flows from its ability to provide researchers and laypeople alike with a plausible-sounding story to tell others about how bad a problem is in order to draw more support to their cause. It provides cover for one’s inability to explicitly find what you’re looking for – such as many people voicing opinions of racial superiority – and allows a much vaguer measure to stand in for it instead. Since more people fit that vaguer definition, the result is a more intimidating sounding problem; whether it corresponds to reality can be besides the point if it’s useful.

References: Oswald, F., Blanton, H., Mitchell, G., Jaccard, J., & Tetlock, P. (2014). Predicting racial and ethnic discrimination: A meta-analysis of IAT criterion studies. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 105, 171-192.