More Evidence Regarding The Causes Of Homosexuality

Many years ago, the initial inspiration for beginning my blog was a critique I had written of the logic underlying a Lady Gaga song, “Born This Way,” which I felt committed itself firmly to the naturalistic fallacy (it’s also where the namesake of the site came from: Pop Psychology, or the psychological theory found within a pop song). Specifically, I felt that many aspects of the development of homosexuality (both the male and female varieties) were not as well understood as they should be in order to make some of the claims that many people felt confident in expressing. Today, however, I’m pleased to report on some new – and very interesting – research that might pave the way for furthering that understanding. Many important questions still remain regarding how to interpret the results of this research, but I believe that they are certainly looking in the right places for useful leads. 

“Ur-u-guay, huh? Sounds like as good as place to start as any…”

There’s a lot to discuss regarding the results of the paper (Skorska et al, 2016), so I wanted to jump right into it. The researchers were examining the possibility that a maternal immune response might play a key role in the developmental of a homosexual orientation in males. This effect is said to be the result of the mother’s immune system having a maladaptive reaction to the male-specific proteins associated with the Y-chromosome during pregnancy. Effectively, then, the mother’s immune system would (sometimes) treat certain male proteins produced by the fetus as a foreign pathogen and attempt to attack it, resulting in a few quirks of development, such as a homosexual orientation or even fetal loss if the reaction was strong enough (i.e. miscarriages). Already there is a lot to like about this hypothesis on a theoretical level, as it doesn’t posit any hidden adaptive benefits for a homosexual orientation (as such proposed benefits have not received sound empirical support historically). The question remains as to how to test for this kind of an effect, however. The method that the authors use is a rather simple one: examining maternal reports of fetal loss and birth weights. The logic here is that higher rates of fetal loss and lower birth weights both index perturbations in development. As such, they could provide indirect evidence for some kind of maternal immune response doing the causing.

The researchers recruited approximately 130 mothers and classified them on the basis of what kind of children they had: those who had at least 1 gay son (n = 54), and those who only had heterosexual sons (n = 72). These mothers were asked about their age, pregnancy history (numbers of miscarriages, stillbirths, and live births), the duration of their pregnancies, and the sex and sexual orientation of their offspring. These mothers were then classified further into one of five groups: those with gay male only-children (n = 8), those with gay male offspring that had no older brothers (n = 23), those with gay male offspring with older brothers (n = 23), those with heterosexual male only-children (n = 11), and those with heterosexual male offspring with siblings (n = 61). 

First, the authors compared the history of fetal loss between these groups of mothers. In total, 62 instances of fetal loss were reported (60 miscarriages, 1 still birth, and 1 unreported). As predicted, the average number of fetal losses were higher in the first group (mothers of gay male only-children; M = 1.25), relative to all the other groups (d = 0.76), which did not significantly differ from each other (respective Ms = 0.43, 0.74, 0.09, and 0.39). When considered in terms of the ratio of miscarriages to live to births, a similar picture emerged: mothers of gay male only-children reported more miscarriages to live births (M = 1.25) than the other groups (d = 1.55), which did not differ from each other (respective Ms = 0.14, 0.24, 0.09, and 0.17).  

Next, the authors sought to compare birth weight between the former groups. As birth weight tends to increase over successive pregnancies, the comparisons were limited to first live-born sons only (n = 63); this left 4 gay male only-children, 7 gay males with no older brothers, 14 heterosexual males with gay younger brothers, 10 heterosexual male only-children, and 28 heterosexual males with siblings. The results mirrored those of the fetal-loss data: mothers of gay male only-children tended to give birth to infants that weighed significantly less (M = 2970 grams), than all other groups (d = 1.21), which did not differ (respective Ms = 3713, 3489, 3506, and 3633). This was the case despite the duration of pregnancies not differing between any of the groups.

“Please just get out of me”

In sum, then, mothers of gay male only-children tended to have a greater number of miscarriages and give birth to significantly lighter offspring than mothers of other kinds. While it’s important to not get carried away with this finding given the relatively small sample size (I wouldn’t put too much stock in an N of 8), there is some suggestive evidence here worth pursuing further that something might be going awry with fetal development in the case of gay male offspring. That said, I’m going to assume for a moment that these results are indicative of more general patterns in order to speculate about what they could mean.

In general, these results present us with more questions than answers concerning both what might be going on, as well as why it is happening. The first question that comes to mind is why this effect seemed to be specific to gay male only-children, rather than gay male children with siblings? Skorska et al (2016) posit that this might have something to do with some mothers showing a greater immune response against male offspring, resulting in more fetal loss, the net result being that such mothers are both less likely to have any children at all and more likely to have gay male children in particular. While that might have some degree of plausibility to it, it seems that such an effect should be male-specific, and not expected to impact the number of live female births a mother has. In other words, mothers with gay male offspring should be expected to have proportionately more female children owing to a greater male fetal loss. I don’t know of any data bearing on that point, but it seems easy enough to obtain. If mothers of gay men do not tend to have a greater ratio of female-to-male offspring, this would cast some doubt on the explanation (and, since the only data I’ve heard reports that gay men tend to have more older brothers, it seems they would have noticed the sister point by now if it existed). On the other hand, if this is a more general immune reaction against fetal bodies, regardless of their sex, we would not expect such a pattern (it might also predict that mothers taking immunosuppressants would be less likely to have gay offspring/miscarry, but things are unlikely to be that simple owing to the fact that other effects would result too).

Another piece worth considering is the twin data on homosexuality. Identical male twins – those who share both their genetics and maternal fetal environment – only show a concordance rate of homosexuality of approximately 30%. The extent to which this complicates the maternal immune hypothesis is hard to say: it could be possible that one twin tends to get exposed to the brunt of these maternal antibodies despite both being approximately as vulnerable to them, but that remains to be seen.  

On a broader, theoretical level, however, the maternal immune response hypothesis raises an important question. As far as I’m aware, homosexual preferences (not the occasional behavior) do not appear to be well documented in nonhuman species; the only exception I’m aware of is Rams. If it is truly the case that maternal immune responses are the drivers of homosexual development in humans, if would be very curious that similar outcomes don’t appear to obtain across at least other mammalian species. I suppose it’s possible that these outcomes do occur in other species and it’s just the case that no one has really noticed it yet, but I doubt that’s very likely. So the matter of why humans seem rather unique in that regard is a question that needs answering. Has evolution managed to “figure out” a solution to this problem in other species (metaphorically speaking)? If it has, why hasn’t a similar solution arisen in humans and sheep?

It just ran out of square-shaped blocks?

This brings me to the final idea; one that I’ve discussed before. It is indeed possible that looking for something immune-related is in the right ballpark, but maybe in the wrong area. Perhaps what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the result of a maternal immune response against male fetuses, but rather the result of an immune response against an actual infectious agent (or the result of that agent’s behavior itself). Admittedly, I’m no expert in the realm of immune system functioning or infectious agents, but two possibilities come to mind: first, perhaps mothers infected with a particular pathogen during fetal development might ramp up their immune response temporarily, a byproduct of which being that fetal bodies get fewer resources from the mother or caught up in the immune response themselves, both of which could plausibly affect development. Mothers more-chronically affected might have fewer children in general and more gay male children in particular, potentially explaining the current pattern of results. Alternatively, it is possible that some infectious agent itself affects the development of the fetus (such as how pathogens can render people blind or deaf). As a byproduct of that infection, if acquired during a particular critical developmental window, the child comes to develop a homosexual orientation (or is miscarried by the mother). At present, I am not aware of any evidence that speaks to this possibility, but it certainly accords with the known data.

References: Skorska, M., Blanchard, R., VanderLaan, D., Zucker, K., & Bogaert, A. (2016). Gay male only-children: Evidence for low birth weight and high maternal miscarriage rates. Archives of Sexual Behavior, DOI: 10.1007/s10508-016-0829-9

Money For Nothing, But The Chicks Aren’t Free

When people see young, attractive women in relationships with older and/or unattractive men, the usual perception that comes to mind is that the relationship revolves around money. This perception is usual because it tends to be accurate: women do, in fact, tend to prefer men who both have access to financial resources and who are willing to share them.  What is rather notable is that the reverse isn’t quite as a common: a young, attractive man shacking up with an older, rich woman just doesn’t call too many examples to mind. Women seem to have a much more pronounced preference for men with wealth than men have for women. While examples of such preferences playing themselves out in real life exist anecdotally, it’s always good to try and showcase their existence empirically.

Early attempts were made by Dr. West, but replications are required

This brings me to a new paper by Arnocky et al (2016) that examined how altruism affects mating success in humans (as this is still psychology research, “humans” translates roughly as “undergraduate psychology majors”, but such is the nature of convenience samples). The researchers first sought (a) to document that more altruistic people really were preferred as mating partners (spoilers: they are), and then (b) to try and explain why we might expect them to be. Let’s begin with what they found, as that much is fairly straightforward. In their first study, Arnocky et al (2016) recruited 192 women and 105 men from a Canadian university and asked them to complete a few self-report measures: an altruism scale (used to measure general dispositions towards providing aid to others when reciprocation is unlikely), a mating success scale (measuring perceptions of how desirable one tends to be towards the opposite sex), their numbers of lifetime sexual partners, as well as the number of those that were short-term, the number of times over the last month they had sex with their current partner (if they had one, which about 40% did), and a measure of their personality more generally.

These measures were then entered into a regression (controlling for personality). When it came to predicting perceived mating success, reported altruism was a significant predictor (ß = 0.25), but neither sex nor the altruism-sex interaction was. This suggests that both men and women tend become more attractive to the opposite sex if they behave more altruistically (or, conversely, that people who are more selfish are less desirable, which sounds quite plausible). However, what it means for one to be successful in the mating domain varies by sex: for men, having more sexual partners usually implies a greater level of success, whereas the same does not hold true for women as often (as gametes are easy to obtain for women, but investment is difficult). In accordance with this point, it was also found that altruism predicted the number of lifetime sexual partners overall (ß = .16), but this effect was specific to men: more altruistic men had more sexual partners (and more casual ones), whereas more altruistic women did not. Finally, within the contexts of existing relationships, altruism also (sort of) predicted the number of times someone had sex with their partner in the last month (ß = .27); while there was not a significant interaction with sex, a visual inspection of the provided graphs suggest that if this effect existed, it was being predominately carried by altruistic women having more sex within a relationship; not the men.

Now that’s all well and good, but the authors wanted to go a little further. In their second study, rather than just asking participants about how altruistic they were, they offered participants the opportunity to be altruistic: after completing the survey, participants could indicate how much (if any) of their earnings they wanted to donate to a charity of their choice. That way, you get what might be a less-biased measure of one’s actual altruism (rather than their own perception of it). Another 335 women and 189 men were recruited for this second phase and, broadly, the results follow the same general pattern, but there were some notable differences. In terms of mating success, actual altruistic donations (categorized as either making a donation or not, rather than the amount donated) were not a good predictor (ß = -.07). In terms of number of lifetime dating and sexual partners, however, the donation-by-sex interaction was significant, indicating that more charitable men – but not women – had a greater number of relationships and sexual partners (perhaps suggesting that charitable men tend to have more, but shorter, relationships, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for the women involved). Donations also failed to predict the amount of sex participants had been having in their relationship in the last month.

Guess the blood drive just isn’t a huge turn on after all

With these results in mind, there are two main points I wanted to draw attention to. The first of these concerns the measures of altruism in general: effectively charitable behaviors to strangers. While such a behavior might be a more “pure” form of altruistic tendencies as compared with, say, helping a friend move or giving money to your child, it does pose some complications for the present topic. Specifically, when looking for a desirable mate, people might not want someone who is just generally altruistic. After all, it doesn’t always do me much good if my committed partner is spending time and investing resources in other people. I would probably prefer that resources be preferentially directed at me and those I care about, rather than strangers, and I might especially dislike it if altruism directed towards strangers came at my expense (as the same resources can’t be invested in me and someone else most of the time). While it is possible that such investments in strangers could return to me later in the form of them reciprocating such aid to my partner, it seems unlikely that deficit would be entirely and consistently made up, let alone surpassed.

To make the point concrete, if someone was equally altruistic towards all people, there would be little point in forming as kind of special relationship with that kind person (friendships or otherwise) because you’d get the same benefits from them regardless of how much you invested in them (even if that amount was nothing).

This brings me to the second point I wanted to discuss: the matter of why people like the company of altruists. There are two explanations that come to mind. The first explanation is simple: people like access to resources, and altruists tend to provide them. This explanation should hardly require much in the way of testing given its truth is plainly obvious. The second explanation is more complex, and it’s one the authors favor: altruism honestly signals some positive, yet difficult-to-observe quality about the altruist. For instance, if I were to donate blood, or my time to clean up a park, this would tell you something about my underlying genetic qualities, as an individual in worse condition couldn’t shoulder the costs of altruism effectively. In this sense, altruism functions in a comparable manner to a peacock’s tail feathers; it’s a biologically-honest signal because it’s costly.

While it does have some plausibility, this signaling explanation runs into some complications. First, as the authors note, women donated more than men did (70% to 57%), despite donating predicting sexual behavior better for men. If women were donating to signal some positive qualities in the mating domain, it’s not at all clear it was working. Further, patterns of charitable donations in the US show a U-shaped distribution, whereby those with access to the most and  the fewest financial resources tend to donate more than those in the middle. This seems like a pattern the signaling explanation should not predict if altruism is meaningfully and consistently tied to important, but difficult-to-observe biological characteristics. Finally, while the argument could be made that altruism directed towards friends, sexual partners, and kin are not necessarily indicative of someone’s willingness to donate to strangers (i.e., how altruistic they are dispositionally might not predict how nepotistic they are), well, that’s kind of a problem for the altruism-as-signaling model. If donations towards strangers are fairly unpredictive of altruism towards closer relations, then they don’t really tell you what you want to know.  Specifically, if you want to know how good of a friend or dating partner someone would be for you, a better cue is how much altruism they direct towards their friends and romantic partners; not how much they direct to strangers.

“My boyfriend is so altruistic, buying drinks for other women like that”

Last, we can consider the matter of why people behave altruistically, with respect to the mating domain. (Very) broadly speaking, there are two primary challenges people need to overcome: attracting a mate and retaining them. Matters get tricky here, as altruism can be used for both of these tasks. As such, a man who is generally altruistic towards lot of people might be using altruism as a means of attracting the attention of prospective mates without necessarily intending to keep them around. Indeed, the previous point about how altruistic men report having more relationships and sexual partners could be interpreted in just such a light. There are other explanations, of course, such as the prospect that generally selfish people simply don’t have many relationships at all, but these need to be separated out. In either case, in terms of how much altruism we provide to others, I suspect that the amount provided to strangers and charitable organizations only makes up a small fraction; we give much more towards friends, family, and lovers regularly. If that’s the case, measuring someone’s willingness to donate in those fairly uncommon contexts might not capture their desirability as partner as well as we would like.

References: Arnocky, S., Piche, T., Albert, G., Ouellette, D., & Barclay, P. (2016). Altruism predicts mating success in humans. British Journal of Psychology, DOI:10.1111/bjop.12208


Homophobia Isn’t Repressed Homosexuality

In the wake of the Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub, there were quite a number of speculations floating around my social media that the shooter himself had been harboring homosexual urges that he had been trying to repress. Repression – being the odd thing that it apparently is – in this case involved his visiting gay nightclubs and using gay dating apps to communicate – and presumably have sex – with other gay men; he might have even been doing all those things while telling himself he had no interest in such activities, that they were morally wrong, or at the very least while trying to keep it secret from other people in his life. The shooting resulted, then, at least in part from this unsuccessful repression of his homosexual urges; an inward loathing directed outwards at others. Or so the story went, anyway. Subsequent official investigations into Omar Mateen’s life revealed no evidence of such behavior: no gay dating apps, no credible homosexual partners, and no gay pornography. Perhaps he was just very good at covering his tracks, but a more parsimonious explanation jumps out at me: he probably wasn’t grappling with homosexual urges.

“Keep grappling with those urges! Don’t stop! You’re almost there…”

The underlying idea in that case – that some degree of homophobia is actually explained by the homophobes in question trying to deny their own homosexual urges – remains a somewhat popular speculation. It has roots as far back as Freud, and I’ve already discussed one piece of more modern research on the idea from the mid-90s. This homosexuality repression hypothesis is also even a subplot in one of my favorite movies, American Beauty. For an idea with such a long history, it does seem rather peculiar that more empirical research on the topic doesn’t seem to exist. Perhaps the most obvious guess as to why such research doesn’t exist is that its not exactly the easiest thing in the world to measure someone’s implicit sexual attraction (provided such a thing can even be said to exist at all). If the subjects themselves aren’t even aware of it, a failure to uncover any evidence of its existence might not mean it’s not there; it might just mean that you don’t know how to uncover it. Designing the proper experiments and accurately interpreting the data resulting from them thus becomes troublesome.

Before considering some new research on the hypothesis, then, I wanted to take a step back and consider why, on a theoretical level, we shouldn’t expect implicit or repressed homosexual urges to predict homophobic attitudes particularly well. The first starting point is to note that explicit homosexuality is rare in humans (about 1-3%). This should be expected, as homosexuality does not appear to be adaptive; same-sex attraction just isn’t a good way to reproduce ones’ genes directly or indirectly (whether through kin or alliance formation). Further, open homosexuals don’t tend to be particularly homophobic; at least not as far as I know. Given that rarity, then, if something around even 20% of the population is homophobic, then there is either a lot of homophobia unrelated to homosexuality, or repressed homosexuality is very, very common. In other words, one of two statements follow, neither of which bode well for the homophobia-as-repressed-attraction hypothesis: (a) lots of people who are homophobic harbor no homosexual urges or (b) many of those who are homophobic harbor such urges.

If the first idea is true, then very little homophobia could even be explained in principle by homosexual urges. Most people who were homophobic just wouldn’t have homosexual urges, and an absent variable can’t explain a present trait.

If the second idea is true, however, then repression-via-homophobia strategy would be fairly ineffective. In order to understand why, we need to start with the following point: people are only repressing homosexual urges to convince others that they are not gay. From an adaptive point of view, an organism does not need to deceive itself about its desires. False beliefs, in that sense, just don’t do anything functionally useful, and there is no “self” to be deceived in the first place, given the modular nature of the mind. Taking that as a given for the moment, if you’re trying to convince others that you don’t have a desire, you will only be successful to the extent you engage in behaviors that someone with that desire would usually not. Placed into a simple example, if you’re trying to convince others that you’re not hungry, you turn down food. Eating a lot isn’t a particularly good way to do that, as people who aren’t hungry don’t normally eat a lot. So, if lots of people who do have homosexual urges were homophobic, then adopting a homophobic stance should actually be expected to positively signal that one is a homosexual, as being homophobic is something lots of (closeted) homosexual people actually do.

Thus the dilemma of the homophobia-as-repression hypothesis is highlighted: if only few homophobes are meaningful homosexual, then homosexuality can’t explain much; if many homophobes actually are homosexual, then homophobia will be ineffective at persuading others one is straight.

“They’re trying to signal they’re gay so much that they must be straight!”

As such, it should come as little surprise that some recent research finds no evidence for this homophobia-as-repressed-homosexuality hypothesis. MacInnis & Hodson (2013) sought to examine whether any link exists between a measure of implicit sexual attraction and explicit homophobia in heterosexuals. In order to do this, the authors used an implicit association task (IAT) adapted to sexual attraction: a task in which participants have to categorize pictures as male/female and words as sexually attractive/unattractive, and the speed at which they do so should tell you something about the cognitive association between the two. I’m wary of the interpretations of IATs for a number of reasons, but I’ll assume for the time being that such a test does indeed kind of measure what they hope. Participants were also asked about their explicit sexual attractions to men and women, and their attitudes towards gay/lesbian and heterosexual populations. In total, their sample represented 237 Canadian undergraduates (85 men).

As I would expect, the IAT results only correlated modestly with explicit measures of sexual attraction (r = .37 for men, r = .15 for women). The correlations between those IAT measures and negative, explicit evaluations of homosexuals for men was r = -.06, and for women, r = -.24. In other words, not only were such correlations quite small, but they nominally went in the opposite direction of the repression account: as people showed more implicit attraction to the same sex, they also showed less explicit negativity. On a similar note, men’s explicit attractions to the same sex negatively correlated with their homophobia as well (r = -.31), meaning that as men reported more conscious attraction to other men, they were also more positive towards homosexuals. People tend to be more positive towards those that resemble them – for good reason – so this isn’t terribly shocking.

The researchers tried additional analyses as well to address other interpretations of the repression-to-attraction account. First, they divided the data such that those who showed positive homosexual implicit attraction were compared to those who on the negative side. The male sample, it’s worth noting, could not be analyzed here as only 4 of the 85 men had such a score (perhaps there’s just not much implicit attraction floating around?); for women, the same finding as before emerged: those showing more implicit attraction were less negative towards homosexuals. Next, the authors tried to examine only those in the upper-half of homophobia score, and then those in the more extreme ends. However, the implicit attraction scores did not differ between those high and low in prejudice for men or women. The repression hypothesis wasn’t even supported when the authors tried to isolate those participants whose explicit and implicit attraction scores were maximally different from one another (the authors frame this as participants overstating their heterosexuality on an explicit level, but I suspect the actual interpretation is that the IAT isn’t too great of a tool).

Directions for future research: invasive mind-reading technology

With all the dividing of their sample, MacInnis & Hodson (2013) gave their data every possible advantage to find somethingeven some spurious relationship – but essentially nothing arose. They broke the data down by men and women; attitudes towards gays, lesbians, and homosexuals in general; those high or low in prejudice; those whose implicit and explicit attractions diverged. No matter how it was sliced, support was not found for the repression idea. When relationships did exist between implicit attraction and explicit attitudes, it usually ran in the opposite direction of the repression hypothesis: those who showed implicit attraction were less negative towards homosexuals (albeit quite modestly). I don’t suspect this will stop those who fancy the repression hypothesis to abandon it – likely because they value it for reasons beyond its established truth value, which is currently dubious at best –  but it is a possible starting point for that journey.   

References: MacInnis, C. & Hodson, G. (2013). Is homophobia associated with an implicit same-sex attraction? Journal of Sex Research, 50, 777-785.

The Fight Against Self-Improvement

In the abstract, most everyone wants to be the best version of themselves they can. More attractive bodies, developing and improving useful skills, a good education, achieving career success; who doesn’t want those things? In practice, lots of people, apparently. While people might like the idea of improving various parts of their life, self-improvement takes time, energy, dedication, and restraint; it involves doing things that might not be pleasant in the short-term with the hope that long-term rewards will follow. Those rewards are by no means guaranteed, though, either in terms of their happening at all or the degree to which they do. While people can usually improve various parts of their life, not everyone can achieve the levels of success they might prefer no matter how much time they devote to their crafts. All of those are common reasons people will sometimes avoid improving themselves (it’s difficult and contains opportunity costs), but they do not straightforwardly explain why people sometimes fight against others improving.

“How dare they try to make a better life for themselves!”

I was recently reading an article about the appeal of Trump and came across this passage concerning this fight against the self-improvement of others:

“Nearly everyone in my family who has achieved some financial success for themselves, from Mamaw to me, has been told that they’ve become “too big for their britches.”  I don’t think this value is all bad.  It forces us to stay grounded, reminds us that money and education are no substitute for common sense and humility. But, it does create a lot of pressure not to make a better life for yourself…”

At first blush, this seems like a rather strange idea: if people in your community – your friends and family – are struggling (or have yet to build a future for themselves), why would anyone object to the prospect of their achieving success and bettering their lot in life? Part of the answer is found a little further down:

“A lot of these [poor, struggling] people know nothing but judgment and condescension from those with financial and political power, and the thought of their children acquiring that same hostility is noxious.”

I wanted to explore this idea in a bit more depth to help explain why these feelings might rear their head when faced with the social or financial success of others, be they close or distant relations.

Understanding these feelings requires drawing on a concept my theory of morality leaned heavily on: association value. Association value refers to the abstract value that others in the social world have for each other; essentially, it asks the question, “how desirable of a friend would this person make for me (and vice versa)?” This value comes in two parts: first, there is the matter of how much value someone could add to your life. As an easy example, someone with a lot of money is more capable of adding value to your life than someone with less money; someone who is physically stronger tends to be able to provide benefits a weaker individual could not; the same goes for individuals who are more physically attractive or intelligent. It is for this reason that most people wish they could improve on some or all of these dimensions if doing so were possible and easy: you end up as a more desirable social asset to others.

The second part of that association value is a bit trickier, however, reflecting the crux of the problem: how willing someone is to add value to your life. Those who are unwilling to help me have a lower value than those willing to make the investment. Reliable friends are better than flaky ones, and charitable friends are better than stingy ones. As such, even if someone has a great potential value they could add to my life, they still might be unattractive as associates if they are not going to turn that potential into reality. An unachieved potential is effectively the same thing as having no potential value at all. Conversely, those who are very willing to add to my life but cannot actually do so in meaningful ways don’t make attractive options either. Simply put, eager but incompetent individuals wouldn’t make good hires for a job, but neither would competent yet absent ones.

“I could help you pay down your crippling debt. Won’t do it, though”

With this understanding of association value, there is only one piece left to add to equation: the zero-sum nature of friendship. Friendship is a relative term; it means that someone values me more than they value others. If someone is a better friend to me, it means they are a worse friend to others; they would value my welfare over the welfare of others and, if a choice had to be made, would aid me rather than someone else. Having friends is also useful in the adaptive sense of the word: they help provide access to desirable mates, protection, provisioning, and can even help you exploit others if you’re on the aggressive side of things. Putting all these pieces together, we end up with the following idea: people generally want access to the best friends possible. What makes a good friend is a combination of their ability and willingness to invest in you over others. However, their willingness to do so depends in turn on your association value to them: how willing and able you are to add things to their lives. If you aren’t able to help them out – now or in the future – why would they want to invest resources into benefiting you when they could instead put those resources into others who could?

Now we can finally return to the matter of self-improvement. By increasing your association value through various forms of self-improvement (e.g., making yourself more physically attractive and stronger through exercise, improving your income by moving forward in your career, learning new things, etc) you make yourself a more appealing friend to others. Crucially, this includes both existing friends and higher-status individuals who might not have been willing to invest in you prior to your ability to add value to their life materializing. In other words, as your value as an associate rises, unless the value of your existing associates rises in turn, it is quite possible that you can now do better than them socially, so to speak. If you have more appealing social prospects, then, you might begin to neglect or break-off existing contacts in favor of newer, more-profitable friendships or mates. It is likely that your existing contacts understand this – implicitly or otherwise – and might seek to discourage you from improving your life, or preemptively break-off contact with you if you do, under the assumptions you will do likewise to them in the future. After all, if you’re moving on eventually they would be better off building new connections sooner, rather than later. They don’t want to invest in failing relationships anymore than you do.

In turn, those who are thinking about self-improvement might actually decide against pursuing their goals not necessarily because they wouldn’t be able to achieve them, but because they’re afraid that their existing friends might abandon them, or even that they themselves might be the ones who do the abandoning. Ironically, improving yourself can sometimes make you look like a worse social prospect.

To put that in a simple example, we could consider the world of fitness. The classic trope of weak high-schooler being bullied by the strong, jock type has been ingrained in many stories in our culture. For those doing the bullying, their targets don’t offer them much socially (their association value to others is low, while the bully’s is high) and they are unable to effectively defend themselves, making exploitation appear as an attractive option. In turn, those who are the targets of this bullying are, in some sense, wary of adopting some of the self-improvement behaviors that the jocks engage in, such as working out, because they either don’t feel they can effectively compete against the jocks in that realm (e.g., they wouldn’t be able to get as strong, so why bother getting stronger) or because they worry that improving their association value by working out will lead to them adopting a similar pattern of behavior to those they already dislike, resulting in their losing value to their current friends (usually those of similar, but relatively-low association value). The movie Mean Girls is an example of this dynamic struggle in a different domain.

So many years later, and “Fetch” still never happened…

This line of thought has, as far as I can tell, also been leveraged (again, consciously or otherwise) by one brand within the fitness community: Planet Fitness. Last I heard an advertisement for their company on the radio, their slogan appeared to be, “we’re not a gym; we’re planet fitness.” An odd statement to be sure, because they are a gym, so what are we to make of it? Presumably that they are in some important respects different from their competition. How are they different from other gyms? The “About” section on their website lays their differences out in true, ironic form:

“Make yourself comfy. Because we’re Judgement Free…you deserve a little cred just for being here. We believe no one should ever feel Gymtimidated by Lunky behavior and that everyone should feel at ease in our gyms, no matter what his or her workout goals are…We’re fiercely protective of our Planet and the rights of our members to feel like they belong. So we create an environment where you can relax, go at your own pace and just do your own thing without ever having to worry about being judged.”

This marketing is fairly transparent pandering to those who currently do not feel they can compete with those who are very fit or are worried about becoming a “lunk” themselves (they even have an alarm in the gym designed to bet set off if someone is making too much noise while lifting, or wearing the wrong outfit). However, in doing so, they devalue those who are successful or passionate in their pursuits of self-improvement. While I have never seen a gym more obsessed with judging their would-be members than Planet Fitness, so long as that judgment is pointed at the right targets, they try to appeal (presumably effectively) to certain portions of the population untapped by other gyms. Planet Fitness wants to be your friend; not the friend of those jerks who make you feel bad.

There is value in not letting success go to one’s head; no one wants a fair-weather friend who will leave the moment it’s expedient. Such an attitude undermines loyalty. The converse, however, is that using that as an excuse to avoid (or condemn) self-improvement will make you and others worse-off in the long term. A better solution to this dilemma is to improve yourself so you can improve those who matter the most to you, hoping they reciprocate in turn (or improve together for even better success).