About Jesse Marczyk

An Evolutionary-Minded Psychologist, of All Things

Why Do We Roast The Ones We Love?

One very interesting behavior that humans tend to engage in is murder. While we’re far from the only species that does this (as there are some very real advantages to killing members of your species – even kin – at times), it does tend to garner quite a bit of attention, and understandably so. One very interesting piece of information about this interesting behavior concerns motives; why people kill. If you were to hazard a guess as to some of the most common motives for murder, what would you suggest? Infidelity is a good one, as is murder resulting from other deliberate crimes, like when a robbery is resisted or witnesses are killed to reduce the probability of detection. Another major factor that many might not guess is minor slights or disagreements, such as one person stepping on another person’s foot by accident, followed by an insult (“watch where you’re going, asshole!”), which is responded to with an additional insult, and things kind of get out of hand until someone is dead (Daly & Wilson, 1988). Understanding why seemingly minor slights get blown so far out of proportion is a worthwhile matter in its own right. The short-version of the answer as to why it happens is that one’s social status (especially if you’re a male) can be determined, in large part, by whether other people know they can push you around. If I know you will tolerate negative behavior without fighting back, I might be encouraged to take advantage of you in more extreme ways more often. If others see you tolerating insults, they too may exploit you, knowing you won’t fight back. On the other hand, if I know you will respond to even slight threats with violence, I have a good reason to avoid inflicting costs on you. The more dangerous you are, the more people will avoid harming you.

“Anyone else have something to say about my shirt?! Didn’t think so…”

This is an important foundation for understanding why another facet of human behavior is strange (and, accordingly, interesting): friends frequently insult each other in a manner intended to be cordial. This behavior is exemplified well by the popular Comedy Central Roasts, where a number of comedians will get together to  publicly make fun of each other and their guest of honor. If memory serves, the (unofficial?) motto of these events is, “We only roast the ones we love,” which is intended to capture the idea that these insults are not intended to burn bridges or truly cause harm. They are insults born of affection, playful in nature. This is an important distinction because, as the murder statistics help demonstrate, strangers often do not tolerate these kinds of insults. If I were to go up to someone I didn’t know well (or knew well as an enemy) and started insulting their drug habits, dead loved ones, or even something as simple as their choice of dress, I could reasonably expect anything from hurt feelings to a murder. This raises an interesting series of mysteries surrounding the matter of why the stranger might want to kill me but my friends will laugh, as well as when my friends might be inclined to kill me as well.

Insults can be spoken in two primary manners: seriously and in jest. In the former case, harm is intended, while in the latter it often isn’t. As many people can attest to, however, the line between serious and jesting insults is not always as clear as we’d like. Despite our best intentions, ill-phrased or poorly-timed jokes can do harm in much the same way that a serious insult can. This suggests that the nature of the insults is similar between the two contexts. As the function of a serious insult between strangers would seem to be to threaten or lower the insulted target’s status, this is likely the same function of an insult made in jest between friends, though the degree of intended threat is lower in those contexts. The closest analogy that comes to mind is the difference between a serious fight and a friendly tussle, where the combatants either are, or are not, trying to inflict serious harm on each other. Just like play fighting, however, things sometimes go too far and people do get hurt. I think joking insults between friends go much the same way.

This raises another worthwhile question: as friends usually have a vested interest in defending each other from outside threats and being helpful, why would they then risk threatening the well-being of their allies through such insults? It would be strange if they were all risk and reward, so it would be up to us to explain what that reward is. There are a few explanations that come to mind, all of which focus on one crucial facet of friendships: they are dynamic. While friendships can be – and often are – stable over time, who you are friends with in general as well as the degree of that friendship changes over time. Given that friendships are important social resources that do shift, it’s important that people have reliable ways of assessing the strength of these relationships. If you are not assessing these relationships now and again, you might come to believe that your social ties are stronger than they actually are, which can be a problem when you find yourself in need of social support and realize that you don’t have it. Better to assess what kind of support you have before you actually need it so you can tailor your behavior more appropriately.

“You guys got my back, right?….Guys?….”

Insults between friends can help serve this relationship-monitoring function. As insults – even the joking kind – carry the potential to inflict costs on their target, the willingness of an individual to tolerate the insult – to endure those costs – can serve as a credible signal for friendship quality. After all, if I’m willing to endure the costs of being insulted by you without responding aggressively in turn, this likely means I value your friendship more than I dislike the costs being inflicted. Indeed, if these insults did not carry costs, they would not be reliable indications of friendship strength. Anyone could tolerate behavior that didn’t inflict costs to maintain a friendship, but not everyone will tolerate behaviors that do. This yields another prediction: the degree of friendship strength can also be assessed by the degree of insults willing to be tolerated. In other words, the more it takes to “go too far” when it comes to insults, the closer and stronger the friendship between two individuals. Conversely, if you were to make a joke about your friend that they become incredibly incensed over, this might result in your reevaluating the strength of that bond: if you thought the bond was stronger than it was, you might either take steps to remedy the cost you just inflicted and make the friendship stronger (if you value the person highly) or perhaps spend less time investing in the relationship, even to the point of walking away from it entirely (if you do not).

Another possible related function of these insults could be to ensure that your friends don’t start to think too highly of themselves. As mentioned previously, friendships are dynamic things based, in part, on what each party can offer to the other. If one friend begins to see major changes to their life in a positive direction, the other friend may no longer be able to offer the same value they did previously. To put that in a simple example, if two friends have long been poor, but one suddenly gets a new, high-paying job, the new status that job affords will allow that person to make friends he likely could not before. Because the job makes them more valuable to others, others will now be more inclined to be their friend. If the lower-status friend wishes to retain their friendship with the newly-employed one, they might use these insults to potentially undermine the confidence of their friend in a subtle way. It’s an indirect way of trying to ensure the high-status friend doesn’t begin to think he’s too good for his old friends.

Such a strategy could be risky, though. If the lower-status party can no longer offer the same value to the higher-status one, relative to their new options, that might also not be the time to test the willingness of the higher-status one to tolerate insults. At the same time, times of change are also precisely when the value of reassessing relationship strength can be at its highest. There’s less of a risk of a person abandoning a friendship when nothing has changed, relative to when it has. In either case, the assessment and management of social relationships is likely the key for understanding the tolerance of insults from friends and intolerance of them from strangers.

“Enjoy your new job, sellout. You used to be cool”

This analysis can speak to another interesting facet of insults as well: they’re directed towards the speaker at times, referred to self-deprecating humor when done in jest (and just self-deprecation when not). It might seem strange that people would insult themselves, as it would act to directly threaten their own status. That people do so with some regularity suggests there might be some underlying logic to these self-directed insults as well. One possibility is that these insults do what was just discussed: signal that one doesn’t hold themselves in high esteem and, accordingly, signal that one isn’t “too good” to be your friend. This seems like a profitable place from which to understand self-depreciating jokes. When such insults directed towards the self are not made in jest, they likely carry additional implications as well, such as that expectations should be set lower (e.g., “I’m really not able to do that”) or that one is in need of additional investment, relative to the joking kind. 

References: Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Aldine De Gruyter: NY.

To Meaningfully Talk About Gender

Let’s say I was to tell you I am a human male. While this sentence is short and simple, the amount of information you could glean from it is a potential goldmine, assuming you are starting from a position of near total ignorance about me. First, it provides you with my species identification. In the most general sense, that lets you know what types of organisms in the world I am capable of potentially reproducing with (to produce reproductively-viable offspring in turn). In addition to that rather concrete fact, you also learn about my likely preferences. Just as humans share a great deal of genes in common (which is why we can reproduce with one another), we also share a large number of general preferences and traits in common (as these are determined heavily by our genes). For instance, you likely learn that I enjoy the taste of fruit, that I make my way around the world on two feet, and that hair continuously grows from the top of my head but much more sparingly on the rest of my body, among many other things. While these probable traits might not hold true for me in particular – perhaps I am totally hairless/covered in hair, have no legs, and find fruit vile – they do hold for humans more generally, so you can make some fairly-educated guesses as to what I’m like in many regards even if you know nothing else about me as a person. It’s not a perfect system, but you’ll do better on average with this information than you would if you didn’t have it. To make the point crystal clear, imagine trying to figure out what kind of things I liked if you didn’t even know my species. 

Could be delicious or toxic, depending on my species. Choose carefully.

When you learn that I am a male, you learn something concrete about the sex chromosomes in my body: specifically, that I have an XY configuration and tend to produce particular types of gametes. In addition to that concrete fact, you also learn about my likely traits and preferences. Just as humans share a lot of traits in common, males tend to share more traits in common with each other than they do with females (and vice versa). For instance, you likely learn that the distribution of muscle mass in my upper body is more substantial than females, that I have a general willingness to relax my standards when it comes to casual sex, that I have a penis, and that I’m statistically more likely to murder you than a female (I’m also more likely to be murdered myself, for the record). Again, while these might not all hold true for me specifically, if you knew nothing else about me, you could still make some educated guesses as to what I enjoy and my probable behavior because of my group membership.

One general point I hope these examples illuminate is that, to talk meaningful about a topic, we need to have a clear sense for our terms. Once we know what the terms “human” and “male” mean, we can begin to learn a lot about what membership in those groups entail. We can learn quite a bit about deviations from those general commonalities as well. For instance, some people might have an XY set of chromosomes and no penis. This would pose a biological mystery to us, while someone having an XX set and no penis would pose much less of one. The ability to consistently apply a definition – even an arbitrary one – is the first step in being able to say something useful about a topic. Without clear boundary conditions on what we’re talking about, you can end up with people talking about entirely different concepts using the same term. This yields unproductive discussions and is something to be avoided if you’re looking to cut down on wasted time.

Speaking of unproductive discussions, I’ve seen a lot of metaphorical ink spilled over the concept of gender; a term that is supposed to be distinct from sex, yet is highly related to it. According to many of the sources one might consult, sex is supposed to refer to biological features (as above), while gender is supposed to refer, “…to either social roles based on the sex of the person (gender role) or personal identification of one’s own gender based on an internal awareness (gender identity).” I wanted to discuss the latter portion of that gender definition today: the one referring to people’s feelings about their gender. Specifically, I’ve been getting the growing sense that this definition is not particularly useful. In essence, I’m not sure it really refers to anything in particular and, accordingly, doesn’t help advance our understanding of much in the world. To understand why, let’s take a quick trip through some interesting current events. 

Some very colorful, current events…

In this recent controversy, a woman called Rachel Dolezal claimed her racial identity was black. The one complicating factor in her story is that she was born to white parents.  Again, there’s been a lot of metaphorical ink spilled over the issue (including the recent mudslinging directed at Rebecca Tuvel who published a paper on the matter), with most of the discussions seemingly unproductive and, from what I can gather, mean-spirited. What struck me when I was reading about the issue is how little of those discussions explicitly focused on what should have been the most important, first point: how are we defining our terms when it comes to race? Those who opposed Rachel’s claims to be black appear to fall back on some kind of implicit hereditary definition: that one or more of one’s parents need to be black in order to consider oneself a member of that group. That’s not a perfect definition as we need to then determine what makes a parent black, but it’s a start. Like the definition of sex I gave above, this concept of race references some specific feature of the world that determines one racial identity and I imagine it makes intuitive sense to most people. Crucially, this definition is immune to feelings. It doesn’t matter if one is happy, sad, indifferent, or anything else with respect to their ethnic heritage; it simply is what it is regardless of those feelings. In this line of thinking, Rachel is white regardless of how she feels about it, how she wears her hair, dresses, acts, or even whether we want to accept her identification as black and treat her accordingly (whatever that is supposed to entail). What she – or we – feel about her racial identity is a different matter than her heritage.

On the other side of the issue, there are people (notably Rachel herself) who think that what matters is how you feel when it comes to determining identity. If you feel black (i.e., your internal awareness tells you that you’re black), then you are black, regardless of biological factors or external appearances. This idea runs into some hard definitional issues, as above: what does it mean to feel black, and how is it distinguished from other ethnic feelings? In other words, when you tell me that you feel black, what am I supposed to learn about you? Currently, that’s a big blank in my mind. This definitional issue is doubly troubling in this case, however, because if one wants to say they are black because they feel black, then it seems one first needs to identify a preexisting group of black people to have any sense at all for what those group members feel like. However, if you can already identify who is and is not black from some other criteria, then it seems the feeling definition is out of place as you’d already have another definition for your term. In that case, one could just say they are white but feel like they’re black (again, whatever “feeling black” is supposed to mean). I suppose they could also say they are white and feel unusual for that group, too, without needing to claim they are a member of a different ethnic group.

The same problems, I feel, apply to the gender issue despite the differences between gender and race. Beginning with the feeling definition, the parallels are clear. If someone told me they feel like a woman, a few things have to be made clear for that statement to mean anything. First, I’d need to know what being a woman feels like. In order to know what being a woman feels like, I’d need to already have identified a group of women so the information could be gathered. This means I’d need to know who was a woman and who was not in advance of learning about their specific feelings. However, if I can do that – if I can already determine who is and is not a woman – then it seems I don’t need to identify them on the basis of their feelings; I would be doing so with some other criteria. Presumably, the most common criteria leveraged in such a situation would be sex: you’d go out and find a bunch of females and ask them about what it was like to be a woman. If those responses are to be meaningful, though, you need to consider “female” to equate to “woman” which, according to definitions I listed above, it does not. This leaves us in a bit of a catch-22: we need to identify women by how they feel, but we can’t say how they feel until we identify them. Tricky business indeed (even forgoing the matter of claims that there are other genders).

Just keep piling the issues on top of each other and hope that sorts it out

On the other hand, let’s say gender is defined by some objective criteria and is distinct from sex. So, someone might be a male because of their genetic makeup but fall under the category of “woman” because, say, their psychology has developed in a female-typical pattern for enough key traits. Perhaps enough of their metaphorical developmental dials have been turned towards the female portion. Now that’s just a hypothetical example, but it should demonstrate the following point well enough: regardless of whether the male in question wants to be identified as a female or not, it wouldn’t matter in terms of this definition. It might matter a whole bunch if you want to be polite and nice to them, but not for our definition. Once we had a sense for what dials – or how many of them – needed to be flipped to “female” and had a way of measuring that for a male to be considered a woman, one’s internal awareness seems to be besides the point.

While this definition helps us talk more meaningfully about gender, at least in principle, it also seems like the gender term is a little unnecessary. If we’re just using “man” as a synonym for “male” and “woman” as one for “female”, then the entire sex/gender distinction kind of falls apart, which defeats the whole purpose. You wouldn’t feel like a man; you’d feel like a male (whatever that feels like, and I say that as a male myself). Rather than calling our female-typical male a woman, we could also call him an atypical man.

The second issue with this idea nagging at me is that almost all traits do not run on a spectrum from male to female. Let’s consider traits with psychological sex differences, like depression or aggression. Since females are more likely to experience depression than males, we could consider experiencing depression as something that pushes one towards the “woman” end of the gender spectrum. However, when one feels depressed, they don’t feel like a woman; they feel sad and hopeless. When someone feels aggressive, they don’t feel like a man; they feel angry and violent. The same kind of logic can be applied to most other traits as well, including components of personality, risk-seeking, and so on. These don’t run on a spectrum between male/masculine and female/feminine, as it would make no sense to say that one has a feminine height.

If this still all sounds very confusing to you, then you’re on the same page as me. As far as I’ve seen, it is incredibly difficult for people to verbalize anything of a formal definition or set of standards that tells us who falls into one category or the other when it comes to gender. In the absence of such a standard, it seems profitable to just discard the terms and find something better – something more precise – to use instead.

Unusual Names In Learning Research

Learning new skills and bodies of knowledge takes time, repetition, and sustained effort. It’s a rare thing indeed for people to learn even simple skills or bodies of knowledge fluently with only a single exposure to them if they’re properly motivated. Given the importance of learning to succeed in life, a healthy body of literature in psychology examines people’s ability to learn and remember information. This literature extends both to how we learn successfully and the contexts in which we fail. Good research in this realm will often leverage something in the way of adaptive function for understanding why we learn what we do. It is unfortunate that this theoretical foundation appears to be lacking in much of the research on psychology in general, with learning and memory research being no exception. In the course I taught on the topic last semester, for instance, I’m not entirely sure the world “relevance” appeared once in the textbook I was using to help the reader understand our memory mechanisms. There was, however, a number of parts of that book which caught my attention, though not for the best reasons.

You have my attention, but no longer have a working car.

Recently, for instance, I came upon a reference to a phenomenon called the labor-in-vain effect through this textbook. In it, the effect was summarized as such: 

Here’s the basic methodology. Nelson and Leonesio (1988) asked participants to study words paired with nonsense syllables (e.g., monkey–DAX). Participants made judgments of learning in an initial stage. Then, when given a chance to study the items again, each participant could choose the amount of time to study for each item. Finally, in a cued recall test, participants were given the English word and asked to recall the nonsense syllable….Even though they spent most of their time studying the difficult items, they were still better at remembering the easy ones. For this reason, Nelson and Leonesio labeled the effect labor in vain because their experiment showed that participants were unable to compensate for the difficulty of those items

As I like to be thorough when preparing the materials for my course, I did what every self-respecting teacher should do (even though not all of them will): I went to go track down and read the primary literature upon which this passage was based. Professors (or anyone who wants to talk about these findings) ought to go read the source material themselves for two reasons: first, because you want to be an expert in the material you’re teaching your students about (why else would they be listening to you?) and, second, because textbooks – really secondary sources in general – have a bad habit of getting details wrong. What I found in this case was not only that the textbook mischaracterized the effect and failed to provide crucial details about the research, but the original study itself was a bit ambitious in their naming and assessment of the phenomenon. Let’s take those points in order.

First, to see why the textbook’s description wasn’t on point, let’s consider the research itself (Nelson & Leonesio, 1988). The general procedure in their experiments was as follows: participants (i.e., undergraduate students looking for extra credit) were given lists to study. In the first experiment these were trigrams (like BUG or DAX), in the second they were words paired with trigrams (like Monkey-DAX), and in the third they were tested on general-information questions they had failed to answer correctly (like, “what is the capital of Chile?”). During each experiment, the participants would be broken up into groups that either emphasized speed or accuracy in learning. Both groups were told they could study the target information at their own pace and that the goal was to remember as much of the information as possible, but the speed groups were told their study time would count against their eventual score. Following that study phase, participants were then given a recall task after a brief delay to see how successful their study time had been. 

As one might expect, the speed-emphasis groups studied the information for less time than the accuracy-emphasis groups. Crucially, the extra study time invested by the participants did not yield statistically significant gains in their ability to subsequently recall the information in 2 of the 3 experiments (in experiment three, the difference was significant). This was dubbed the labor-in-vain effect because participants were putting in extra labor for effectively little to no gain.

We can see from this summary that the textbook’s description of the labor-in-vain effect isn’t quite accurate. The labor in vain effect does not refer to the fact that participants were unable to make up the difference between the easy and hard items (which they actually did in one of the three studies); instead, it refers to the idea that the participants were not gaining anything at all from their extra study time. To quote the original paper: 

We refer to this finding of substantial extra study time yielding little or no gain in recall as the labor-in-vain effect. Although we had anticipated that extra study time might yield diminishing (i.e., negatively accelerated) gains in recall, the present findings are quite extreme in showing not even a reliable gain in recall after more than twice as much extra study time.

This mischaracterization might seem like a minor error speaking to the meticulousness of the author, but that’s not the only problem with the book’s presentation of the information. Specifically, the textbook provided no sense as for the exact methodological details, the associated data, and whether the interpretation of these findings were accurate. So let’s turn to those now.

If the labor will all be in vain, why bother laboring at all?

The general summary of the research I just provided is broadly true, but very important details are missing that help contextualize it. The first of these involves how the study phases of the experiments took place. Let’s just consider the first experiment, as the methods are broadly similar across the three. In the study phase, the participants had 27 trigrams to commit to memory. The participants were seated at a computer, and one of these trigrams would appear on the screen at a time. After the participants felt they had studied it enough, they would hit the enter key to advance to the next item, but they could not go back to previous items once they did. This meant there was no ability to restudy or practice test oneself in advance of the formal test. To be frank, this method of study resembles no kind that I know humans to naturally engage in. Since the context of studying in the experiment is so strange, I would be hesitant to say that it tells us much about how learning occurs in the real word, but the problems get worse than that.

As I mentioned before, these are undergraduate participants trying to earn extra credit. With that mental picture of the samples in mind, we might come to expect that the participants are a little less than motivated to deliver a flawless performance. If they’re anything like the undergraduates I’ve known, they likely just want to get the experiment over and done with so they can go back to doing things they actually want to. In terms of the interests of college students, learning nonsense syllables isn’t high on that list; in fact, I don’t think that task is high on anybody’s list. The practical information value of what they’re learning is nonexistent, and very little is riding on their success. It might come as no surprise, then, that the participants dedicated effectively no time to studying these items. Bear in mind, there were 27 of these trigrams to learn. In the speed group, the average number of seconds devoted to study was 1.9 per trigram. Two whole seconds of learning per bit of nonsense. In the accuracy group, this study time skyrocketed to a substantial…5.4 seconds.

An increase of 3.3 seconds per item does not strike me as anything I’d refer to as labor, even if the amount of study time was nominally over twice as long. A similar pattern emerged in the other two experiments. The speed/accuracy study times were 4.8 and 15.2 in the second study, and 1.2 and 8.4 in the third. Putting this together up to this point, we have (likely unmotivated, undergraduate) participants studying useless information in unnatural ways for very brief periods of time. Given that, why on Earth would anyone expect to find large differences in later recall performance?

Speaking of eventual performance, though, let’s finally consider how well each group performed during the recall task; how much of that laboring was being done in vain. In the first experiment, the speed group recalled 43% of the trigrams; the accuracy group got 49% correct. That extra study time of about 3 seconds per item yields a 6% improvement in performance. The difference wasn’t statistically significant but, again, exactly how large of an improvement should have been expected, given the context? In the second study, these percentages were 49% and 57%, respectively (a gain of 8%); in the third, they were 75% and 83% (another 8% difference that actually was statistically significant given the larger sample size for experiment 3). So, across three studies, we do not see evidence of people laboring in vain; not really. Instead, what we see is that very small amounts of extra time devoted to studying nonsense in unusual ways by people who want to be doing other things yields corresponding small – but consistent – gains in recall performance. It’s not that this labor was in vain; it’s that not much labor was invested in the first place, so the gains were minimal.  

If you want to make serious gains, you’ll need more than baby weight

On a theoretical level, it sure would be strange if people would spend substantially extra time laboring in study to make effectively no gains. Why waste all that valuable time and energy doing something that has no probability of paying off? That’s not something anyone should posit a brain would do if they were using evolutionary theory to guide their thinking. It would be strange to truly observe a labor-in-vain effect in the biological sense of the word. However, given a fuller picture of the methods of the research and the data it uncovered, it doesn’t seem like the name of that effect is particularly apt. The authors of the original paper seem to have tried to make these results sound more exciting than they are (through their naming of the effect and the use of phrases like, “…substantial extra study time,” and differences in study time that are, “highly significant,” as well as an exclamation point here and there). That the primary literature is a little ambitious is one thing, but we also saw that the secondary summary of the research by my textbook was less than thorough or accurate. Anyone reading the textbook would not leave with a good sense for what this research found. It’s not hard to imagine how this example could extend further to a student summarizing the summary they read to someone else, at which point all the information to be gained from the original study is effectively gone.

The key point to take away from this is that textbooks (indeed, secondhand sources in general) should certainly not be used as an end-point for research; they should be used as a tentative beginning to help track down primary literature. However, that primary literature is not always to be taken at face value. Even assuming the original study was well-designed and interpreted properly, it would still only represent a single island of information in the academic ocean. Obtaining true and useful information from that ocean takes time and effort which, unfortunately, you often cannot trust others to do on your behalf. To truly understand the literature, you need to dive into it yourself.

References: Nelson, T. & Leonesio, R. (1988). Allocation of self-paced study time and the “Labor-in-Vain Effect”. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 14, 676-686.

Income Inequality Itself Doesn’t Make People Unhappy

There’s an idea floating around the world of psychology referred to as Social Comparison Theory. The basic idea is that people want to know how well they measure up to others in the world and so will compare themselves to others. While there’s obviously more to it than that (including some silly suggestions along the lines of people comparing themselves to others to feel better, rather than to do something adaptive with that information), the principle has been harnessed by researchers examining inequality. Specifically, it has been proposed that inequality itself makes people sad. According to the status-anxiety hypothesis, when it comes to things like money and social status, people make a lot of upwards comparisons between themselves and those doing better. Seeing that other people in the world are doing better than them, they become upset, and this is supposed to be why inequality is bad. I think that’s the idea, anyway. Feel free to add in any additional, more-refined versions of the hypothesis if you’re sitting on them.

“People are richer than me,” now warrants a Xanax prescription

As it turns out, that idea seems to be a little less than true. Before getting to that, though, I wanted to make a few general points (or warnings) about the research I’ve encountered on inequality aversion; the idea that people dislike inequality itself and seek to reduce it when possible (especially the kind that leaves them with less than others). The important point to make about research on inequality is that, if you are looking to get a solid measure of the effects of inequality itself, you need to get everything that is not inequality out of your measures. That’s a basic point for any research, really. 

For instance, when examining research on inequality in the past, I kept noticing that the papers on the topic almost always contained confounding details which impeded the ability of the authors to make the interpretations of the data they were interested in making. Several papers looked at the effects of inequality on punishment in taking games. The basic set up here is that you and I would start with some amount of money. I then take some of that money from you for myself. Because I have taken from you, we either end up with you being better off, me being better off, or both of us being equal. After I take from you, you would be given the option to punish me for my behavior and, as it turns out, people preferentially punish when the taker ends up with more money than them. So if I took money from you, you’d be more likely to punish me if I ended up better off, relative to cases where we were equal or you were still better off. (This happens in research settings with experimental demand characteristics, anyway. In a more naturalistic setting when someone mugs you, I can’t imagine many people’s first thoughts are, “He probably needs the money more than me, so this is acceptable.”)

While such research can tell us about the effects of inequality to some extent, it cannot tell us about the effects of inequality that are distinct from takingTo put that in concrete example, my subsequent research (Marczyk, 2017) used that same taking game to replicate the results while adding two other inequality-generating conditions: one in which I could increase my payment with no impact on you, and another where I could decrease your payment at no benefit to myself. In those two conditions, I found that inequality didn’t appear to have any appreciable impact on subsequent punishment: if I wasn’t harming you, then you wouldn’t punish me even if I generated inequality; if I was harming you, you would punish me even if I was worse off. This new piece of information tells us something very important: namely, that people do not consistently want to achieve equality. When we have been harmed, we usually want to punish, even if punishing generates more inequality than originally existed. (That said, there are still demand characteristics in my work worth addressing. Specifically, I’d bet any effects of inequality would be reduced even further when the money the participants get is earned, rather than randomly distributed by an experimenter)

In terms of the research I want to talk about today, this is relevant because this new – and incredibly large – analysis sought to examine the effects of income inequality on happiness as distinct from the overall economic development of a country (Kelley & Evans, 2017). Apparently lots of previous work had been looking at the relationship between inequality within nations and their happiness without controlling for other important variables. The research question of this new work was, effectively, all else being equal, does inequality itself tend to make people unhappy? The simple example of this question they put forth was to imagine twins: John and James. John lives in a country with relatively low income-inequality and makes $20,000 a year. James lives in a country with relatively high income-inequality and makes $20,000 a year. Will John or James be happier? They sought to examine, on the national level, this connection between inequality and life satisfaction/happiness. 

“At least we’re all poor together”

In order to get that all else to be equal, there are a number of things you need to control for that might be expected to affect life satisfaction. The first of these is GDP per capita; how much a nation tends to produce per person. This is important because it might mean a lot less for your happiness that everyone is equal if that equality means everyone lives in extreme poverty. If that happens to the be the case, then increasing industrialization of a nation can actually increase opportunities for economic advancement while also increasing inequality (as the rewards of such a process aren’t shared equally among the population, at least initially. After a time, a greater percentage of the population will begin to share in those rewards and the relationship between inequality and economic development decreases).  

The other factors you need to control for are individual ones. Just because a society might be affluent, that does not mean that the person answering your survey happens to be. This means controlling for personal income as well, as making more money tends to make for happier people. The authors also controlled for known correlates of happiness including sex, age, marriage status, education, and religious attendance. It’s only once all these factors have been controlled for that you can begin to consider the effect of national inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) on life satisfaction ratings. That’s not to say these are all the relevant controls, but they’re a pretty good start. 

Enacting these controls is exactly what the researchers did, pooling data from 169 surveys in 68 societies, representing over 200,000 individuals. If there’s a connection between inequality and life satisfaction to be found, it should be evident here. Countries were categorized as a member of either developing nations (those below 30% of the US per-captial GDP) or advanced ones (those above the 30% mark), and the same analyses was run on each. The general findings of the research are easy to summarize: in developing nations, inequality was predictive of an increase in societal happiness (about 8 points on a 1-100 scale); among the advanced nations, there was no relationship between inequality and happiness. This largely appeared to be the case because, as previously outlined, the onset of development in poorer countries generated initial periods of greater inequality. As development advances, however, this relationship disappears.

A separate analysis was also run on families in the bottom 10% of a nation in terms of income, compared with the families in the top 10% since much of the focus on inequality has discussed the divide between the poor and the rich. As expected, rich people tended to be happier than poor ones, but the presence of inequality was, as before, a boon for happiness and life satisfaction in both groups. It was not that inequality made the poor feel bad while the rich felt good. Whatever the reason for this, it does not seem like poor people were looking up at rich people and feeling like their life was terrible because others had more.

“Some day, all this could be yours…”

All this is not to say that inequality itself is going to make people happy as much as the things that inequality represents can. Inequality can signal the onset of industrialization and development, or it can signal there is hope of improving one’s lot in life through hard work. These are positives for life satisfaction. Inequality might also represent that the warlord in the next town over is very good at stealing resources. This would be bad. However, whatever the reason for these correlations, it does not seem to be the case that inequality per se is what makes people unhappy with life (though living in nations with high GDP and earning good salaries seem to put a smile on some faces).

I like this interpretation of the data, unsurprisingly, because it happens to fit well with my own. In my experiments, people didn’t seem to be punishing inequality itself; they were punishing particular types of behaviors – like the stealing or destruction of resources – that just so happened to generate inequality at times. In other words, people are responding primarily to the means through which inequality arises, rather than the inequality itself. This appears to be the case in the present paper as well. Most telling of this interpretation, I feel, is a point mentioned within the paper without much discussion (as its the topic of a separate one): the national data was collected from non-communist nations. Things are a little different in the communist countries. For those cohorts who lived their formative years in communist nations, inequality appears to have a negative relationship with happiness, though that dissipates in new, post-communist generations. From that finding, it seems plausible to speculate that communists might have different ideas about the means through which inequality arises (mostly negative) which they push rather aggressively, relative to non-communists. That said, those attitudes do not seem to persist without consistent training.

Reference: Kelley, J. & Evans, M. (2017). Societal inequality and individual subjective well-being: Results from 68 societies and over 200,000 individuals, 1981-2008. Social Science Research, 62, 1-23.

Marczyk, J. (2017). Human punishment is not primarily motivated by inequality. PLOS One, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171298

Semen Quality And The Menstrual Cycle

One lesson I always try to drive home in any psychology course I teach is that biology (and, by extension, psychology) is itself costly. The usual estimate on offer is that our brains consume about 20% of our daily caloric expenditure, despite making up a small portion of our bodily mass. That’s only the cost of running the brain, mind you; growing and developing it adds further metabolic costs into the mix. When you consider the extent of those costs over a lifetime, it becomes clear that – ideally – our psychology should only be expected to exist in an active state to the extent it offers adaptive benefits that tend to outweigh them. Importantly, we should also expect that cost/benefit analysis to be dynamic over time. If a component of our biology/psychology is useful during one point in our lives but not at another, we might predict that it would switch on or off accordingly. This line of thought could help explain why humans are prolific language learners early in life but struggle to learn a second language in their teens and beyond; a language-learning mechanism active during development it would be useful up to a certain age for learning a native tongue, but later becomes inactive when its services are no longer liable to required, so to speak (which they often wouldn’t be in an ancestral environment in which people didn’t travel far enough to encounter speakers of other languages).

“Good luck. Now get to walking!”

The two key points to take away from this idea, then, are (a) that biological systems tend to be costly and, because of that, (b) the amount of physiological investment in any one system should be doled out only to the extent it is likely to deliver adaptive benefits. With those two points as our theoretical framework, we can explain a lot about behavior in many different contexts. Consider mating as a for instance. Mating effort intended to attract and/or retain a partner is costly to engage in (in terms of time, resource invest, risk, and opportunity costs), so people should only be expected to put effort into the endeavor to the extent they view it as likely to produce benefits. As such, if you happen to be a hard “5″ on the mating market, it’s not worth your time pursuing a mate that’s a “9″ because you’re probably wasting your effort; similarly, you don’t want to pursue a “3″ if you can avoid it, because there are better options you might be able to achieve if you invest your efforts elsewhere.

Speaking of mating effort, this brings us to the research I wanted to discuss today. Sticking to mammals just for the sake of discussion, males of most species endure less obligate parenting costs than females. What this means is that if a copulation between a male and female results in conception, the female bears the brunt of the biological costs of reproduction. Many males will only provide some of the gametes required for reproduction, while the females must provide the egg, gestate the fetus, birth it, and nurse/care for it for some time. Because the required female investment is substantially larger, females tend to be more selective about which males they’re willing to mate with. That said, even though the male’s typical investment is far lower than the female’s, it’s still a metabolically-costly investment: the males need to generate the sperm and seminal fluid required for conception. Testicles need to be grown, resources need to be invested into sperm/semen production, and that fluid needs to be rationed out on a per-ejaculation basis (a drop may be too little, while a cup may be too much). Put simply, males cannot afford to just produce gallons of semen for fun; it should only be produced to the extent that the benefits outweigh the costs.

For this reason, you tend to see that male testicle size varies between species, contingent on the degree of sperm competition typically encountered. For those not familiar, sperm competition refers to the probability that a female will have sperm from more than one male in her reproductive tract at a time when she might conceive. In a concrete sense, this translates into a fertile female mating with two or more males during her fertile window. This creates a context that favors the evolution of greater male investment into sperm production mechanisms, as the more of your sperm are in the fertilization race, the greater your probability of beating the competition and reproducing. When sperm competition is rare (or absent), however, males need not invest as many resources into mechanisms for producing testes and they are, accordingly, smaller.

Find the sperm competition

This logic can be extended to matters other than sperm competition. Specifically, it can be applied to cases where a male is (metaphorically) deciding how much to invest into any given ejaculate, even if he’s the female’s only sexual partner. After all, if the female you’re mating with is unlikely to get pregnant at the time, whatever resources are being invested into an ejaculate are correspondingly more likely to represent wasted effort; a case where the male would be better off investing those resources to things other than his loins. What this means is that – in addition to between-species differences of average investment in sperm/semen production – there might also exist within-individual differences in the amount of resources devoted to a given ejaculate, contingent on the context. This idea falls under the lovely-sounding name, the theory of ejaculate economics. Put into a sentence, it is metabolically costly to “buy” ejaculates, so males shouldn’t be expected to invest in them irrespective of their adaptive value.

A prediction derived from this idea, then, is that males might invest more in semen quality when the opportunity to mate with a fertile female is presented, relative to when that same female is not as likely to conceive. This very prediction happens to have been recently examined by Jeannerat et al (2017). Their sample for this research consisted of 16 adult male horses and two adult females, each of which had been living in a single-sex barn. Over the course of seven weeks, the females were brought into a new building (one at a time) and the males were brought in to ostensibly mate with them (also one at a time). The males would be exposed to the female’s feces on the ground for 15 seconds (to potentially help them detect pheromones, we are told), after which the males and females were held about 2 meters from each other for 30 seconds. Finally, the males were led to a dummy they could mount (which had also been scented with the feces). The semen sample from that mount was then collected from the dummy and the dummy refreshed for the next male.

This experiment was repeated several times, such that each stallion eventually provided semen after exposure to each mare two or three times. The crucial manipulation, however, involved the mares: each male had provided a semen sample for each mare once when she was ovulating (estrous) and two to three times when she was not (dioestrous). These samples were then compared against each other, yielding a within-subjects analysis of semen quality.

The result suggested that the stallions could – to some degree – accurately detect the female’s ovulatory status: when exposed to estrous mares, the stallions were somewhat quicker to achieve erections, mount the dummy, and to ejaculate, demonstrating a consistent pattern of arousal. When the semen samples themselves were examined, another interesting set of patterns emerged: relative to dioestrous mares, when the stallions were exposed to estrous mares they left behind larger volumes of semen (43.6 mL vs 46.8 mL) and more motile sperm (a greater percentage of active, moving sperm; about 59 vs 66%). Moreover, after 48 hours, the sperm samples obtained from the stallions exposed to estrous mares showed less of a decline of viability (66% to 65%) relative to those obtained from dioestrous exposure (64% to 61%). The estrous sperm also showed reduced membrane degradation, relative to the dioestrous samples. By contrast, sperm count and velocity did not significantly differ between conditions.

“So what it was with a plastic collection pouch? I still had sex”

While these differences appear slight in the absolute sense, they are nevertheless fascinating as they suggest males were capable of (rather quickly) manipulating the quality of the ejaculate they provided from intercourse, depending on the fertility status of their mate. Again, this was a within-subjects design, meaning the males are being compared against themselves to help control for individual differences. The same male seemed to invest somewhat less in an ejaculate when the corresponding probability of successful fertilization was low.

Though there are many other questions to think about (such as whether males might also make long-term adjustments to semen characteristics depending on context, or what the presence of other males might do, to name a few), one that no doubt pops into the minds of people reading this is whether other species – namely, humans – do something similar. While it is certainly possible, from the present results we clearly cannot say; we’re not horses. An important point to note is that this ability to adjust semen properties depends (in part) on the male’s ability to accurately detect female fertility status. To the extent human males have access to reliable cues regarding fertility status (beyond obvious ones, like pregnancy or menstruation), it seems at least plausible that this might hold true for us as well. Certainly an interesting matter worth examining further.   

References: Jeannerat, E., Janett, F., Sieme, H., Wedekind, C., & Burger, D. (2017). Quality of seminal fluids varies with type of stimulus at ejaculation. Scientific Reports. 7, DOI: 10.1038/srep44339

 

Academic Perversion

As an instructor, I have made it my business to enact a unique kind of assessment policy for my students. Specifically, all tests are short-essay style and revisions are allowed after a grade has been received. This ensures that students always have some motivation to figure out what they got wrong and improve on it. In other words, I design my assessment to incentivize learning. From the standpoint of some abstract perspective on the value of education, this seems like a reasonable perspective to adopt (at least to me, though I haven’t heard any of my colleagues argue with the method). It’s also, for lack of a better word, a stupid thing for me to do, from a professional perspective. What I mean here is that – on the job market – my ability to get students to learn successfully is not exactly incentivized, or at least that’s the impression that others with more insight have passed on to me. Not only are people on hiring committees not particularly interested in how much time I’m willing to devote to my students learning (it’s not the first thing they look at, or even in the top 3, I think), but the time I do invest in this method of assessment is time I’m not spending doing other things they value, like seeking out grants or trying to publish as many papers as I can in the most prestigious outlets available.

“If you’re so smart, how come you aren’t rich?”

And my method of assessment does involve quite a bit of time. When each test takes about 5-10 minutes to grade and make comments on and you’re staring down a class of about 100 students, some quick math tells you that each round of grading will take up about 8 to 16 hours. By contrast, I could instead offer my students a multiple choice test which could be graded almost automatically, cutting my time investment down to mere minutes. Over the course of a semester, then, I could devote 24 to 48 hours to helping students learn (across three tests) or I could instead provide grades for them in about 15 minutes using other methods. As far as anyone on a hiring committee will be able to tell, those two options are effectively equivalent. Sure, one helps students learn better, but being good at getting students to learn isn’t exactly incentivized on a professional level. Those 24 to 48 hours could have instead been spent seeking out grant funding or writing papers and – importantly – that’s per 100 students; if you happen to be teaching three or more classes a semester, that number goes up.

These incentives don’t just extend to tests and grading, mind you. If hiring committees aren’t all that concerned with my student’s learning outcomes, that has implications as for how much time I should spend designing my lecture material as well. Let’s say I was faced with the task of having to teach my students about information I was not terribly familiar with, be that the topic of the class as a whole or a particular novel piece of information within that otherwise-familiar topic. I could take the time-consuming route and familiarize myself with the information first, tracking down relevant primary sources, reading them in depth, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, as well as search out follow-up research on the matter. I could also take the quick route and simply read the abstract/discussion section of the paper or just report on the summary of the research provided by textbook writers or publisher’s materials.

If your goal is prep about 12-weeks worth of lecture material, it’s quite clear which method saves the most time. If having well-researched courses full of information you’re an expert on isn’t properly incentivized, then why would we expect professors to take the latter path? Pride, perhaps – many professors want to be good at their job and helpful to their students – but it seems other incentives push against devoting time to quality education if one is looking to make themselves an attractive hire*. I’ve heard teaching referred to as a distraction by more than one instructor, hinting strongly as to where they perceive incentives exist.

The implications of these concerns about incentives extend beyond any personal frustrations I might have and they’re beginning to get a larger share of the spotlight. One of the more recent events highlighting this issue was dubbed the replication crisis, where many published findings did not show up again when independent research teams sought them out. This wasn’t some appreciable minority, either; in psychology it was well over 50% of them. There’s little doubt that a healthy part of this state of affairs owes its existence to researchers purposefully using questionable methods to find publishable results, but why would they do so in the first place? Why are they so motivated to find these results. Again, pride factors into the equation but, as is usually the case, another part of that answer revolves around the incentive structure of academia: if academics are judged, hired, promoted, and funded on their ability to publish results, then they are incentivized to publish as many of those results as they can, even if the results themselves aren’t particularly trustworthy (they’re also disincentivized from trying to publish negative results, in many instances, which causes other problems).

Incentives so perverse I’m sure they’re someone’s fetish

A new paper has been making the rounds discussing these incentives in academia (Edwards & Roy, 2017), which begins with a simple premise: academic researchers are humans. Like other humans, we tend respond to particular incentives. While the incentive structures within academia might have been created with good intentions in mind, there is always a looming threat from the law of unintended consequences. In this case, those unintended consequences as referred to as Goodhart’s Law, which can be expressed as such: “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes,” or, “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In essence, this idea means that people will follow the letter of the law, rather than the spirit.

Putting that into an academic example, a university might want to hire intelligent and insightful professors. However, assessing intelligence and insight are difficult to do, so, rather than assess those traits, the university assesses proxy measures of them; something that tends to be associated with intelligence and insight, but is not itself either of those things. In this instance, it might be noticed that intelligent, insightful professors tend to publish more papers than their peers. Because the number of papers someone publishes is much easier to measure, the university simply measures that variable instead in determining who to hire and promote. While publication records are initially good predictors of performance, once they become the target of assessment, that correlation begins to decline. As publishing papers per se became the target behavior people are assessed on, they begin to maximize that variable rather than the thing it was intended to measure in the first place. Instead of publishing fewer quality papers full of insight, they publish many papers that do a worse job of helping us understand the world. 

In much the same vein, student grades on a standardized test might be a good measure of a teacher’s effectiveness; more effective teachers tend to produce students that learn more and subsequently do better on the test. However, if the poor teachers are then penalized and told to improve their performance or find a new job, the teachers might try to game the system. Now, instead of teaching their students about a subject in a holistic fashion that results in real learning, they just start teaching to the test. Rather than being taught, say, chemistry, students begin to get taught how to take a chemistry test, and the two are decidedly not the same thing. So long as teachers are only assessed on the grades of their students that take those tests, this is the incentive structure that ends up getting created.

Pictured: Not actual chemistry

Beyond just impacting the number of papers that academics might publish, a number of other potential unintended consequences of incentive structures are discussed. One of which involves measures of the quality of published work. We might expect that theoretically and empirically meaningful papers will receive more citations than weaker work. However, because the meaningfulness of a paper can’t be assessed directly, we look at proxy measures, like citation count (how often a paper is cited by other papers or authors). The consequence? People citing their own work more often and peer reviewers requesting their work be cited by people seeking to publish in the field. The number of pointless citations are inflated. There are also incentives for publishing in “good” or prestigious journals; those which are thought to preferentially publish meaningful work. Again, we can’t just assess how “good” a journal is, so we use other metrics, like how often papers from that journal are cited. The net result here is much the same, where journals would prefer to publish papers that cite papers they have previously published. Going a step further, when universities are ranked on certain metrics, they are incentivized to game those metrics or simply misreport them. Apparently a number of colleges have been caught just lying on that front to get their rankings up, while others can improve their rankings without really improving their institution. 

There are many such examples we might run though (and I recommend you check out the paper itself for just that reason), but the larger point I wanted to discuss was what all this means on a broader scale. To the extent that those who are more willing to cheat the system are rewarded for their behavior, those who are less willing to cheat will be crowded out, and there we have a real problem on our hands. For perspective, Fanelli (2009) reports that 2% of scientists admit to fabricating data and 10% report engaging in less overt, but still questionable practices, on average; he also reports that when asked about if they know of a case of their peers doing such things, those numbers are around 14% and 30%, respectively. While those numbers aren’t straightforward to interpret (it’s possible that some people cheat a lot, several people know of the same cases, or that one might be willing to cheat if the opportunity presented itself even if it hasn’t yet, for instance), they should be taken very seriously as a cause for concern.

(It’s also worth noting that Edwards & Roy misreport the Fanelli findings by citing his upper-bounds as if they were the average, making the problem of academic misconduct seem as bad a possible. This is likely just a mistake, but it highlights the possibility that mistakes likely follow the incentive structure as well; not just cheating. Just as researchers have incentives to overstate their own findings, they also have incentives to overstate the findings of others to help make their points convincingly)

Which is ironic for a paper complaining about incentives to overstate results

When it’s not just the case that a handful of bad apples within academia are contributing to a problem of, say, cheating with their data, but rather an appreciable minority of them are, this has the potential to have at least two major consequences. First, it can encourage more non-cheaters to become cheaters. If I were to observe my colleagues cheating the system and getting rewarded for it, I might be encouraged to cheat myself just to keep up when faced with (very) limited opportunities for jobs or funding. Parallels can be drawn to steroid use in sports, where those who do not initially want to use steroids might be encouraged to if enough of their competitors did.

The second consequence is that, as more people take part in that kind of culture, public faith in universities – and perhaps scientific research more generally – erodes. With eroding public faith comes reduced funding and increased skepticism towards research findings; both responses are justified (why would you fund researchers you can’t trust?) and worrying, as there are important problems that research can help solve, but only if people are willing to listen.    

*To be fair, it’s not that my ability as a teacher is entirely irrelevant to hiring committees; it’s that not only is this ability secondary to other concerns (i.e., my teaching ability might be looked at only after they narrow the search down by grant funding and publications), but my teaching ability itself isn’t actually assessed. What is assessed are my student evaluations and that is decidedly not the same thing.

References: Edwards, M. & Roy, S. (2017). Academic research in the 21st century: Maintaining scientific integrity in a climate of perverse incentives and hypercompetition. Environmental Engineering Science, 34, 51-61.

Fanelli, D. (2009). How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. PLoS One. 4, e5738

Courting Controversy

“He says true but unpopular things. If you can’t talk about problems, you can’t fix them.”

The above quote comes to us from an interview with Trump supporters. Regardless of what one thinks about Trump and the truth of what he says, that idea holds a powerful truth itself: the world we live in can be a complicated one, and if we want to figure out how to best solve the problems we face, we need to be able to talk about them openly; even if the topics are unpleasant or the ideas incorrect. That said, there are some topics that people tend to purposefully avoid talking about. Not because the topics themselves are in some way unimportant or uninteresting, but rather because the mere mention of them is not unlike the prodding of a landmine. They are taboo thoughts: things that are made difficult to even think without risking moral condemnation and social ostracism. As I’m no fan of taboos, I’m going to cross one of them today myself, but in order to talk about those topics with some degree of safety, one needs to begin by talking about other topics which are safe. I want to first talk about something that is not dangerous, and slowly ramp up the danger. As a fair warning, this does require that this post be a bit longer than usual, but I think it’s a necessary precaution. 

“You have my attention…and it’s gone”

Let’s start by talking about driving. Driving is a potentially dangerous task, as drivers are controlling heavy machinery traveling at speeds that regularly break 65 mph. The scope of that danger can be highlighted by estimates that put the odds of pedestrian death – were they to be struck by a moving vehicle – at around 85% at only 40 mph. Because driving can have adverse consequences for both the driver and those around them, we impose restrictions on who is allowed to drive what, where, when, and how. The goal we are trying to accomplish with these restrictions is to minimize harm while balancing benefits. After all, driving isn’t only risky; it’s also useful and something people want to do. So, how are we going to – ideally – determine who is allowed the ability to drive and who is not? The most common solution, I would think, is to determine what risks we are trying to minimize and then ensure that people are able to surpass some minimum threshold of demonstrated ability. Simply put, we want to know people are good drivers.

Let’s make that concrete. In order to safely operate a vehicle you need to be able: (a) see out of the windows, (b) know how to operate the car mechanically, (c) have the physical strength and size to operate the car, (d) understand the “rules of the road” and all associated traffic signals, (e) have adequate visual acuity to see the world you’ll be driving through, (f) possess adequate reaction time to be able to respond to the ever-changing road environment, and (g) possess the psychological restraint to not take excessive risks, such as traveling at unreasonably high speeds or cutting people off. This list is non-exhaustive, but it’s a reasonable place to start.

If you want to drive, then, you need to demonstrate that you can see out of the car while still being able to operate it. This would mean that those who are too small to accomplish both tasks at once – like young children or very short adults – shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Similarly, those who are physically large enough to see out of the windows but possess exceptionally poor eyesight should similarly be barred from driving, as we cannot trust they will respond appropriately. If they can see but not react in time, we don’t want them on the road either. If they can operate the car, can see, and know the rules but refuse to obey them and drive recklessly, we either don’t grant them a license or revoke it if they already have one.

In the service of assessing these skills we subject people to a number of tests: there are written tests that must be completed to determine knowledge of the rules of the road; there are visual tests; there are tests of driving ability. Once these tests are passed, they are still reviewed from time to time, and a buildup of infractions can yield to a revocation of driving privileges.

However, we do not test everyone for these abilities. All of these things that we want a driver’s license to reflect – like every human trait – need to develop over time. In other words, they tend to fall within some particular distribution – often a normal one – with respect to age. As such, younger drivers are thought to pose more risk than adult drivers along a number of these desired traits. For instance, while not every person who is 10 years old is too small to operate a vehicle, the large majority of them are. Similarly, your average 15-year-old might not appropriately understand the risks of reckless driving and avoid it as we would hope. Moreover, the benefits that these young individuals can obtain from driving are lower as well; it’s not common for 12-year-olds to need a car to commute to work.

Accordingly, we also set minimum age laws regarding when people can begin to be considered for driving privileges. These laws are not set because it is impossible that anyone below the specific age set by it might have need of a car and be able to operate it safely and responsibly, but rather a recognition that a small enough percentage of them can that it’s not really worth thinking about (in the case of two-year-olds, for instance, that percentage is 0, as none could physically operate the vehicle; in the case of 14-year-olds it’s non-zero, but judged to be sufficiently low all the same). There are even proposals floating around concerning something like a maximum driving age, as driving abilities appear to deteriorate appreciably in older populations. As such, it’s not that we’re concerned about the age per se of the drivers – we don’t just want anyone over the age of 18 on the road – but age is a still a good correlate of other abilities and allows us to save a lot of time in not having to assess every single individual for driving abilities from birth to death under every possible circumstance.

Don’t worry; he’s watched plenty of Fast & Furious movies

This brings us to first point of ramping up the controversy. Let’s talk a bit about drunk driving. We have laws against operating vehicles while drunk because of the effects that drinking has: reduced attention and reaction time, reduced inhibitions resulting in more reckless driving, and impaired ability to see or stay awake, all of which amount to a reduction in driving skill and increase potential for harmful accidents. Reasonable as these laws sound, imagine, if you would, two hypothetical drivers: the worst driver legally allowed to get behind a wheel, as well as the best driver. Sober, we should expect the former to pose a much greater risk to himself and others than the latter but, because they both pass the minimum threshold of ability, both are allowed to drive. It is possible, however, that the best driver’s abilities while he is drunk still exceed those of the worst driver’s while he is sober.

Can we recognize that exception to the spirit of the law against drunk driving without saying it is morally or legally acceptable for the best driver to drive drunk? I think we can. There are two reasons we might do so. The first is that we might say even if the spirit of the rule seems to be violated in this particular instance, the rule is still one that holds true more generally and should be enforced for everyone regardless. That is, sometimes the rule will make a mistake (in a manner of speaking), but it is right often enough that we tolerate the mistake. This seems perfectly reasonable, and is something we accept in other areas of life, like medicine. When we receive a diagnosis from a doctor, we accept that it might not be right 100% of the time, but (usually) believe it to be right often enough that we act as if it were true. Further, the law is efficient: it saves us the time and effort in testing every driver for their abilities under varying levels of intoxication. Since the consequences of making an error in this domain might outweigh the benefits of making a correct hit, we work on maximizing the extent to which we avoid errors. If such methods of testing driving ability were instantaneous and accurate, however, we might not need this law against drunk driving per se because we could just be looking at people’s ability, rather than blood alcohol content. 

The second argument you might make to uphold the drunk driving rule is to say that even if the best drunk driver is still better than the worst sober one, the best drunk driver is nevertheless a worse driver than he is while sober. As such, he would be imposing more risk on himself and others than he reasonably needs to, and should not be allowed to engage in the behavior because of that. This argument is a little weaker – as it sets up a double standard – but it could be defensible in the right context. So long as you’re explicit about it, driving laws could be set such that people need to pass a certain threshold of ability and need to be able to perform within a certain range of their maximum ability. This might do things like make driving while tired illegal, just like drunk driving. 

The larger point I hope to hit on here is the following, which I hope we all accept: there are sometimes exceptions (in spirit) to rules that generally hold true and are useful. It is usually the case that people below a certain minimum driving age shouldn’t be trusted with the privilege, but it’s not like something magical happens at that age where an ability appears fully-formed in their brain. People don’t entirely lack the ability to drive at 17.99 years old and possess it fully at 18.01 years. That’s just not how development works for any trait in any species. We can recognize that some young individuals possess exceptional driving abilities (at least for their age, if not in the absolute sense, like this 14-year-old NASCAR driver) without suggesting that we change the minimum age driving law or even grant those younger people the ability to drive yet. It’s also not the case (in principle) that every drunk driver is incapable of operating their vehicle at or above the prescribed threshold of minimum safety and competency. We can recognize those exceptional individuals as being unusual in ability while still believing that the rule against drunk driving should be enforced (even for them) and be fully supportive of it.

That said, 14-year-old drunk drivers are a recipe for disaster

Now let’s crank up the controversy meter further and talk about sex. Rather than talking about when we allow people to drive cars and under what circumstances, let’s talk about when we accept their ability to consent to have sex. Much like driving, sex can carry potential costs, including pregnancy, emotional harm, and the spread of STIs. Also like driving, sex tends to carry benefits, like physical pleasure, emotional satisfaction and, depending on your perspective, pregnancy. Further, much like driving, there are laws set for the minimum age at which someone can be said to legally consent to sex. These laws seem to be set in balancing the costs and benefits of the act; we do not trust the individuals below certain ages are capable of making responsible decisions about when to engage in the act, with whom, in what contexts, and so on. There is a real risk that younger individuals can be exploited by older ones in this realm. In other words, we want to ensure that people are at least at a reasonable point in their physical and psychological development that can allow them to make an informed choice. Much like driving (or signing contracts), we want people to possess a requisite level of skills before they are allowed to give consent for sex.

This is where the matter begins to get complicated because, as far as I have seen throughout discussions on the matter, people are less than clear about what skills or bodies of knowledge people should possess before they are allowed to engage in the act. While just about everyone appears to believe that people should possess a certain degree of psychological maturity, what that precisely means is not outlined. In this regard, consent is quite unlike driving: people do not need to obtain licenses to have sex (excepting some areas in which sex outside of marriage is not permitted) and do not need to demonstrate particular skills or knowledge. They simply need to reach a certain age. This is (sort of) like giving everyone over the age of, say, 16, a license to drive regardless of their abilities. This lack of clarity regarding what skills we want people to have is no doubt as least partially responsible for the greater variation in age of consent laws, relative to age of driving laws, across the globe.   

The matter of sex is complicated by a host of other factors, but the main issue is this: it is difficult for people to outline what psychological traits we need to have in order to be deemed capable of engaging in the behavior. For driving, this is less of a problem: pretty much everyone can agree on what skills and knowledge they want other drivers to have; for sex, concerns are much more strategic. Here’s a great for instance: one potential consequence (intended for some) to sex is pregnancy and children. Because sex can result in children and those children need to be cared for, some might suggest that people who cannot reasonably be expected to be able to provide well enough for said children should be barred from consenting to sex. This proposal is frequently invoked to justify the position that non-adults shouldn’t be able to consent to sex because they often do not have access to child-rearing resources. It’s an argument that has intuitive appeal, but it’s not applied consistently. That is, I don’t see many people suggesting that the age of consent should be lowered for rich individuals who could care for children, nor that people who fall below a certain poverty line be barred from having sex because they might not be able to care for any children it produced.

There are other arguments one might consider on that front as well: because the biological consequences of sex fall on men and women differently, might we actually hold different standards for men and women when considering whether they are allowed to engage in the behavior? That is, would it be OK for a 12-year-old boy to consent to sex with a 34-year-old woman because she can bear the costs of pregnancy, but not allow the same relationship when the sexes were reversed? Legally we have the answer: no, it’s not acceptable in either case. However, there are some who would suggest such the former relationship is actually acceptable. Even in the realm of law, it would seem, a sex-dependent standard has been upheld in the past. 

Sure hope that’s his mother…

This is clearly not an exhaustive list of questions regarding how age of consent laws might be set, but the point should be clear enough: without a clear standard about what capabilities one needs to possess to be able to engage in sex, we end up with rather unproductive discussions. Making things even trickier, sex is more of a strategic act than driving, yielding greater disagreements over the matter and inflamed passions. It is very difficult to make explicit what abilities we want people to demonstrate in order to be able to consent to sex and reach consensus on them for just this reason. Toss in the prospect of adults taking advantage of teenagers and you have all the makings of a subject people really don’t want to talk about. As such, we are sometimes left in a bit of an awkward spot when thinking about whether exceptions to the spirit of age of consent laws exist. Much like driving, we know that nothing magical happens to someone’s body and brain when they hit a certain age: development is a gradual process that, while exhibiting regularities, does not occur identically for all people. Some people will possess the abilities we’d like them to have before the age of consent; some people won’t possess those abilities even after it.

Importantly – and this is the main point I’ve been hoping to make – this does not mean we need to change or discard these laws. We can recognize that these laws do not fit every case like a glove while still behaving as if they do and intuitively judging them as being about right. Some 14-year-olds do possess the ability to drive, but they are not allowed to legally; some 14-year-olds possess whatever requisite abilities we hope those who consent to sex will have, but we still treat them as if they do not. At least in the US: in Canada, the age of consent is currently 16, up from 14 a few years ago, in some areas of Europe it is still 14, and in some areas of Mexico it can be lower than that.

“Don’t let that distract from their lovely architecture or beaches, though”

Understanding the variation in these intuitions both between countries, between individuals, and over time are interesting matters in their own right. However, there are some who worry about the consequences of even discussing the issue. That is, if we acknowledge that even a single individual is an exception to the general rule, we would be threatening the validity of the rule itself. Now I don’t think this is the case, as I have outlined above, but it is worth adding the following point to that concern: recognizing possible exceptions to the rule is an entirely different matter than the consequences of doing so. Even if there are negative consequences to discussing the matter, that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. If your argument requires that you fail to recognize parts of reality because it might upset people – or that your decree, from the get go, that certain topics cannot be discussed – then your argument should be refined.

There is a fair bit of danger in accepting these taboos: while it might seem all well and good when the taboo is directed against a topic you feel shouldn’t be discussed, a realization needs to be made that your group is not always going to be in charge of what topics fall under that umbrella, and to accept it as legitimate when it benefits you is to accept it as legitimate when it hurts you as well. For instance, not wanting to talk about sex with children out of fear it would cause younger teens to become sexually active yielded the widely-ineffective abstinence-only sex education (and, as far as I can tell, talking comprehensive sex education does not result in worse outcomes, but I’m always open to evidence that it does). There is a real hunger in people to understand the world and to be able to voice what is on their mind; denying that comes with very real perils.

The Connection Between Economics and Promiscuity

When it comes to mating, humans are a rather flexible species. In attempting to make sense of this variation, a natural starting point for many researchers is to try and tackle what might be seen as the largest question: why are some people more inclined to promiscuity or monogamy than others? Though many answers can be given to that question, a vital step in building towards a plausible and useful explanation of the variance is to consider the matter of function (as it always is). That is, we want to be asking ourselves the question, “what adaptive problems might be solved by people adopting long- or short-term mating strategies?” By providing answers to this question we can, in turn, develop expectations for what kind of psychological mechanisms exist to help solve these problems, explanations for how they could solve them, and then go examine the data more effectively for evidence of their presence or absence.

It will help until the research process is automated, anyway

The current research I wanted to talk about today begins to answer the question of function by considering (among other things) the matter of resource acquisition. Specifically, women face greater obligate biological costs when it comes to pregnancy than men. Because of this, men tend to be the more eager sex when it comes to mating and are often willing to invest resources to gain favor with potential mates (i.e., men are willing to give up resources for sex). Now, if you’re a woman, receiving this investment is an adaptive benefit, as it can be helpful in ensuring the survival and well-being of both yourself and your offspring. The question then becomes, “how can women most efficiently extract these resources from men?” As far as women are concerned, the best answer – in an ideal world – is to extract the maximum amount of investment from the maximum amount of men.

However, men have their own interests too; while they might be willing to pay-to-play, as it were, the amount they’re willing to give up depends on what they’re getting in return. What men are looking for (metaphorically or literally speaking) is what women have: a guarantee of sharing genes with their offspring. In other words, men are looking for paternity certainty. Having sex with a woman a single time increases the odds of being the father of one of her children, but only by a small amount. As such, men should be expected to prefer extended sexual access over limited access. Paternity confidence can also be reduced if a woman is having sex with one or more other men at the same time. This leads us to expect that men adjust their willingness to invest in women upwards if that investment can help them obtain one or both of those valued outcomes.

This line of reasoning lead the researchers to develop the following hypothesis: as female economic dependence on male investment increases, so too should anti-promiscuity moralization. That is, men and women should both increase their moral condemnation of short-term sex when male investment is more valuable to women. For women, this expectation arises because promiscuity threatens paternity confidence, and so their engaging in mating with multiple males should make it more difficult for them to obtain substantial male investment. Moreover, other women engaging in short-term sex similarly makes it more difficult for even monogamous women to demand male investment, and so would be condemned for their behavior as well. Conversely, since men value paternity certainty, they too should condemn promiscuity to a greater degree when their investment is more valuable, as they are effectively in a better position to bargain for what they want.

In sum, the expectation in the present study was that as female economic dependence increases, men and women should become more opposed to promiscuous mating.

“Wanted: Looking for paternity certainty. Will pay in cash”

This was tested in two different ways: in the first study, 656 US residents answered questions about their perceptions of female economic dependence on male investment in their social network, as well as their attitudes about promiscuity and promiscuous people. The correlation between the measures ended up being r = .28, which is a good proof of concept, though not a tremendous relationship (which is perhaps to be expected, given that multiple factors likely impact attitudes towards promiscuity). When economic dependence was placed into a regression to predict this sexual moralization, controlling for age, sex, religiosity, and conservatism in the first step, it was found that female economic dependence accounted for approximately 2% of the remaining variance in the wrongness of promiscuity ratings. That’s not nothing, to be sure, but it’s not terribly substantial either.

In the second study, 4,626 participants from across the country answered these same basic questions, along with additional questions, like their (and their partner’s) personal income. Again, there was a small correlation (r = .23) between female economic dependence and wrongness of promiscuity judgments. Also again, when entered into a regression, as before, an additional 2% of the variance in these wrongness judgments was predicted by economic dependence measures. However, this effect became more substantial when the analysis was conducted at the level of the states, rather than at the level of individuals. At the state level, the correlation between female economic dependence and attitudes towards promiscuity now rose to r = .66, with the dependence measure predicting 9% of the variance of promiscuity judgments in the regression with the other control factors.

Worth noting is that, though a women’s personal income was modestly predictive of her attitudes towards promiscuity, it was not as good of a predictor as her perception of the dependence of women she knows. There are two ways to explain this, though they are not mutually exclusive: first, it’s possible that women are adjusting their attitudes so as to avoid condemnation of others. If lots of women rely on this kind of investment, then she could be punished for being promiscuous even if it was in her personal interests. As such, she adopts anti-promiscuity attitudes as a way of avoiding punishment preemptively. The second explanation is that, given our social nature, our allies are important to us, and adjusting our moral attitudes so as to gain and maintain social support is also a viable strategy. It’s something of the other side of the same social support coin, and so both explanations can work together.

The dual-purpose marriage/friendship ring

Finally, I wanted to discuss a theoretical contradiction I find myself struggling to reconcile. Specifically, in the beginning of the paper, the authors mention that females will sometimes engage in promiscuous behavior in the service of obtaining resources from multiple males. A common example of this kind of behavior is prostitution, where a woman will engage in short-term intercourse with men in explicit exchange for money, though the strategy need not be that explicit or extreme. Rather than obtaining lots of investment from a single male, then, a viable female strategy should be to obtain several smaller investments from multiple males. Following this line of reasoning, then, we might end up predicting that female economic dependence on males might increase promiscuity and, accordingly, lower moral condemnation of it, at least in some scenarios.

If that were the case, the pattern of evidence we might predict is that, when female economic dependence is high, we should see attitudes towards promiscuity become more bi-modal, with some women more strongly disapproving of it while others become more strongly approving. As such, looking at the mean impact of these economic factors might be something of a wash (as they kind of were on the individual level). Instead, one might be interested in looking at the deviations from the mean instead, and see if those areas in which female economic dependence is the greatest show a larger standard deviation from the average moralization value than those in areas of lower dependence. Perhaps there are some theoretical reasons that this is implausible, but none are laid out in the paper.

References: Price, M., Pound, N., & Scott, I. (2014). Female economic dependence and the morality of promiscuity. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43, 1289-1301.

Why Non-Violent Protests Work

It’s a classic saying: The pen is mightier than the sword. While this saying communicates some valuable information, it needs to be qualified in a significant way to be true. Specifically, in a one-on-one fight, the metaphorical pens do not beat swords. Indeed, as another classic saying goes: Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. If knives aren’t advisable against guns, then pens are probably even less advisable. This raises the question as to how – and why – pens can triumph over swords in conflicts. These questions are particularly relevant, given some recent happenings in California at Berkeley where a protest against a speaking engagement by Milo Yiannopoulos took a turn for the violent. While those who initiated the violence might not have been students of the school, and while many people who were protesting might not engage in such violence themselves when the opportunity arises, there does appear to be a sentiment among some people who dislike Milo (like those leaving comments over on the Huffington Post piece) that such violence is to be expected, is understandable, and sometimes even morally justified or praiseworthy. The Berkeley riot was not the only such incident lately, either.

The Nazis shooting guns is a very important detail here

So let’s discuss why such violent behavior is often counterproductive for the swords in achieving their goals. Non-violent political movements, like those associated with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, appear to yield results, at least according to the only bit of data on the matter I’ve come across (for the link-shy: nonviolent campaigns combined complete and partial success rate was about 73%, while the comparable violent rate was about 33%). I even came across a documentary recently I intend to watch about a black man who purportedly got over 200 members of the KKK to leave the organization without force or the threat of it; he simply talked to them. That these nonviolent methods work at all seems rather unusual, at least if you were to frame it in terms of any other nonhuman species. Imagine, for instance, that a chimpanzee doesn’t like how he is being treated by the resident dominant male (who is physically aggressive), and so attempts to dissuade that individual from his behavior by nonviolently confronting him. No matter how many times the dominant male struck him, the protesting chimp would remain steadfastly nonviolent until he won over the other chimps in his group, and they all turned against the dominant male (or until the dominant male saw the error of his ways). As this would likely not work out for our nonviolent chimp, hopefully nonviolent protests are sounding a little stranger to you now; yet they often seem to work better than violence, at least for humans. We want to know why.

The answer to that question involves turning our attention back to the foundation of our moral sense: why do we perceive a dimension of right and wrong in the world in the first place? The short answer to this question, I think, is that when a dispute arises, those involved in the dispute find themselves in a state of transient need for social support (since numbers can decide the outcome of the conflict). Third parties (those not initially involved in the dispute) can increase their value as a social asset to one of the disputants by filling that need and assisting them in the fight against the rival. This allows third parties to leverage the transient needs of the disputants to build future alliances or defend existing allies. However, not all behaviors generate the same degree of need: the theft of $10 generates less need than a physical assault. Accordingly, our moral psychology represents a cognitive mechanism for determining what degree of need tends to be generated by behaviors in the interests of guiding where one’s support can best be invested (you can find the longer answer here). That’s not to say our moral sense will be the only input for deciding what side we eventually take – factors like kinship and interaction history matter too – but it’s an important part of the decision.

The applications of this idea to nonviolent protest ought to be fairly apparent: when property is destroyed, people are attacked, and the ability of regular citizens to go about their lives is disrupted by violent protests, this generates a need for social support on the part of those targeted or affected by the violence. It also generates worries in those who feel they might be targeted by similar groups in the future. So, while the protesters might be rioting because they feel they have important needs that aren’t being met (seeking to achieve them via violence, or the threat of it), third parties might come to view the damage inflicted by the protest as being more important or harmful (as they generate a larger, or more legitimate need). The net result of that violence is now that third parties side against the protesters, rather than with them. By contrast, a nonviolent protest does not create as large a need on the part of those it targets; it doesn’t destroy property or harm people. If the protesters have needs they want to see met and they aren’t inflicting costs on others, this can yield more support for the protester’s side.

I’m sure the owner of that car really had this coming…

This brings us to our third classic saying of the post: While I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it. Though such a sentiment might be seldom expressed these days, it highlights another important point: even if third parties agree with the grievances of the protesters (or, in this case, disagree with the behavior of the people being protested), the protesters can make themselves seem like suitably poor social assets by inflicting inappropriately-large costs (as disagreeing with someone generates less harm than stifling their speech through violence). Violence can alienate existing social support (since they don’t want to have to defend you from future revenge, as people who pick fights tend to initiate and perpetuate conflicts, rather than end them) and make enemies of allies (as the opposition now offers a better target of social investment, given their relative need). The answer as to why pens can beat swords, then, is not that pens are actually mightier (i.e., capable of inflicting greater costs), but rather that pens tend to be better at recruiting other swords to do their fighting for them (or, in more mild cases, pens can remove the social support from the swords, making them less dangerous). The pen doesn’t actually beat the sword; it’s the two or more swords the pen has persuaded to fight for it – and not the opposing sword – that do.

Appreciating the power of social support helps bolster our understanding of other possible interactions between pens and swords. For instance, when groups are small, swords will likely tend to be more powerful than pens, as large numbers of third parties aren’t around to be persuaded. This is why our nonviolent chimp example didn’t work well: chimps don’t reliably join disputes as third parties on the basis of behavior the way humans do. Without that third-party support, non-violence will fail. The corollary point here is that pens might find themselves in a bit of a bind when it comes to confrontations with other pens. Put in plain terms: nonviolence is a useful rallying cry for drawing social support if the other side of the dispute is being violent. If both sides abstain from violence, however, nonviolence per se no longer persuades people. You can’t convince someone to join your side in a dispute by pointing out something your side shares with the other. This should result in the expectation that people will frequently over-represent the violence of the opposition, perhaps even fabricating it completely, in the interests of persuading others. 

Yet another point that can be drawn from this analysis is that even “bad” ideas or groups (whether labeled as such because of moral or factual reasons) can recruit swords to their side if they are targeted by violence. Returning to the cases we began with – the riot at UC Berkeley and the incident where Richard Spencer got punched – if you hope to exterminate people who hold disagreeable views, then violence might seem like the answer. However, as we have seen, violence against others, even disagreeable others, who are not themselves behaving violently can rally support from third parties, as they might begin to worry that threats to free speech (or other important issues) are more harmful than the opinions and words we find disagreeable (again, hitting someone creates more need than talking does). On the other hand, if you hope to persuade people to join your side (or at least not join the opposition), you will need to engage with arguments and reasoning. Importantly, you need to treat those you hope to persuade as people and engage with the ideas and values they actually hold. If the goal in these disputes really is to make allies, you need to convince others that you have their best interests at heart. Calling those who disagree “baskets of deplorables,” suggesting they’re too stupid to understand the world, or anything to that extent doesn’t tend to win their hearts and minds. If anything, it sends a signal to them that you do not value them, giving them all the more reason to not spend their time helping you achieve your goals.  

“Huh; I guess I really am a moron and you’re right. Well done,” said no one, ever.

As a final matter, we could also discuss the idea that violence is useful at snuffing out threats preemptively. In other words, better to stop someone before they can try and attack you, rather than after their knife is already in your back. There are several reasons preemptive defense is just as suspect, so let’s run through a few: first, there are different legal penalties for acts like murder and attempted murder, as attempted – but incomplete acts – generate less needs than completed ones. As such, they garner less social support. Second, absent very strong evidence that the people targeted for violence would have eventually become violent, the preemptive attacks will not look defensive; they will simply look aggressive, returning to the initial problems violent protests face. Relatedly, it is unlikely to ever make allies of enemies; if anything, it will make deeper enemies of existing ones and their allies. Remember: when you hurt someone, you indirectly inflict costs on their friends, families, and other relations as well. Finally, some people will likely develop reasonable concerns about the probability of being attacked for holding other opinions or engaging in behaviors people find unpleasant or dangerous. With speech already being equated to violence among certain groups, this concern doesn’t seem unfounded. 

In the interests of persuading others – actors and third parties alike – nonviolence is usually the better first step. However, nonviolence alone is not enough, especially if your opposition is nonviolent as well. Not being violent does not mean you’ve already won the dispute; just that you haven’t lost it. It is at that point you need to persuade others that your needs are legitimate, your demands reasonable, and your position in their interests as well, all while your opposition attempts to be persuasive themselves. It’s not an easy task, to be sure, and it’s one many of us are worse at then we’d like to think; it’s just the best way forward.

On The Need To Evolutionize Memory Research

This semester I happen to be teaching a course on human learning and memory. Part of the territory that comes with designing and teaching any class is educating yourself on the subject: brushing up on what you do know and learning about what you do not. For the purposes of this course, much of my preparations come from the latter portion. Memory isn’t my main specialty, so I’ve been spending a lot of time reading up on it. Wandering into a relatively new field is always an interesting experience, and on that front I consider myself fortunate: I have a theoretical guide to help me think about and understand the research I’m encountering – evolution. Rather than just viewing the field of memory as a disparate collection of facts and findings, evolutionary theory allows me to better synthesize and explain, in a satisfying way, all these novel (to me) findings and tie them to one another. It strikes me as unfortunate that, as with much of psychology, there appears to be a distinct lack of evolutionary theorizing on matters of learning and memory, at least as far as the materials I’ve come across would suggest. That’s not to say there has been none (indeed, I’ve written about some before), but rather that there certainly doesn’t seem to have been enough. It’s not the foundation of the field, as it should be. 

“How important could a solid foundation really be?”

To demonstrate what I’m talking about, I wanted to consider an effect I came across during my reading: the generation effect in memory. In this case, generation refers not to a particular age group (e.g., people in my generation), but rather to the creation of information, as in to generate. The finding itself – which appears to replicate well – is that, if you give people a memory task, they tend to be better at remembering information they generated themselves, relative to remembering information that was generated for them. To run through a simple example, imagine I was trying to get you to remember the word “bat.” On the one hand, I could just have the word pop up on a screen, tell you to read and remember it. On the other hand, I could give you a different word, say, “cat” and ask you to come up with a word that rhymes with “cat” that can complete the blanks in “B _ _.” Rather than my telling you the word “bat,” then, you would generate the word on your own (even if the task nudges you towards generating it rather strongly). As it turns out, you should have a slight memory advantage for the words you generated, relative to the words you were just given.

Now that’s a neat finding at all – likely one that people would read about and thoughtfully nod their head in agreement – but we want to explain it: why is memory better for words you generate? On that front, the textbook I was using was of no use, offering nothing beyond the name of the effect and a handful of examples. If you’re trying to understand the finding – much less explain it to a class full of students – you’ll be on your own. Textbooks are always incomplete, though, so I turned to some of the referenced source material to see how the researchers in the field were thinking about it. These papers seemed to predominately focus on how information was being processed, but not necessarily on why it was being processed that way. As such, I wanted to advance a little bit of speculation on how an evolutionary approach could help inform our understanding of the finding (I say could because this is not the only possible answer to the question one could derive from evolutionary theory; what I hope to focus on is the approach to answering the question, rather than the specific answer I will float. Too often people can talk about an evolutionary hypothesis that was wrong as a reflection of the field, neglecting that how an issue was thought through is a somewhat separate matter from the answer that eventually got produced).

To explain the generation effect I want to first take it out of an experimental setting and into a more naturalistic one. That is, rather than figuring out why people can remember arbitrary words they generated better than ones they just read, let’s think about why people might have a better memory for information they’ve created in general, relative to information they heard. The initial point to make on that front is that our memory systems will only retain a (very) limited amount of the information we encounter. The reason for this, I suspect, is that if we retained too much information, cognitively sorting through it for the most useful pieces of information would be less efficient, relative to a case where only the most useful information was retained in the first place. You don’t want a memory (which is metabolically costly to maintain) chock-full of pointless information, like what color shirt your friend wore when you hung out 3 years ago. As such, we ought to expect that we have a better memory for events or facts that carry adaptively-relevant consequences.

“Yearbooks; helping you remember pointless things your brain would otherwise forget”

Might information you generate carry different consequences than information you just hear about? I think there’s a solid case to be made that, at least socially, this can be true. In a quick example, consider the theory of evolution itself. This idea is generally considered to be one the better ones people (collectively) have had. Accordingly, it is perhaps unsurprising that most everyone knows the name of the man who generated this idea: Charles Darwin. Contrast Darwin with someone like me: I happen to know a lot about evolutionary theory and that does grant me some amount of social prestige within some circles. However, knowing a lot about evolutionary theory does not afford me anywhere near the amount of social acclaim that Darwin receives. There are reasons we should expect this state of affairs to hold as well, such as that generating an idea can signal more about one’s cognitive talents than simply memorizing it does. Whatever the reasons for this, however, if ideas you generate carry greater social benefits, our memory systems should attend to them more vigilantly; better to not forget that brilliant idea you had than the one someone else did.

Following this line of reasoning, we could also predict that there would be circumstances in which information you generated is recalled less-readily than if you had just read about it: specifically, in cases when the information would carry social costs for the person who generated it.

Imagine, for instance, that you’re a person who is trying to think up reasons to support your pet theory (call that theory A). Initially, your memory for that reasoning might be better if you think you’ve come up with an argument yourself than if you had read about someone else who put forth that same idea. However, it later turns out that a different theory (call that theory B) ends up saying your theory is wrong and, worse yet, theory B is also better supported and widely-accepted. At that point, you might actually observe that the person’s memory for the initial information supporting theory A is worse if they generated those reasons themselves, as that reflects more negatively on them than if they had just read about someone else being wrong (and memory would be worse, in this case, because you don’t want to advertise the fact that you were wrong to others, while you might care less about talking about why someone who wasn’t you was wrong).

In short, people might selectively forget potentially embarrassing information they generated but was wrong, relative to times they read about someone else being wrong. Indeed, this might be why it’s said truth passes through three stages: ridicule, opposition, and acceptance. This can be roughly translated to someone saying of a new idea, “That’s silly,” to, “That’s dangerous,” to, “That’s what I’ve said all along.” This is difficult to test, for sure, but it’s a possibility worth mulling over.

How you should feel reading over old things you forgot you wrote

With the general theory described, we can now try and apply that line of thinking back into the unnatural environment of memory research labs in universities. One study I came across (deWinstanley & Bjork, 1997) claims that the generation effect doesn’t always have an advantage over reading information. In their first experiment, the researchers had conditions where participants would either read cue-word pairs (like “juice” – “orange”, and, “sweet” – “pineapple”) or read a cue and then generate a word (e.g., “juice” – “or_n_ _”). The participants would later be tested on how many of the target words (the second one in the pair) they could recall. When participants were just told there would be a recall task later, but not the nature of that test, the generate group had a memory advantage. However, when both groups were told to focus on the relationship between the targets (such as them all being fruits), the read group’s ability to remember now matched that of the generate group.

In their second experiment, the researchers then changed the nature of the memory task: instead of asking participants to just freely recall the target words, they would be given the cue word and asked to recall the associated target (e.g., they see “juice” and need to remember “orange”). In this case, when participants were instructed to focus on the relationship between the cue and the target, it was the read participants with the memory advantage; not the generate group.

One might explain these findings within this framework I discussed as follows: in the first experiment, participants in the “read” condition were actually also in an implicit generate condition; they were being asked to generate a relationship between the targets to be remembered and, as such, their performance improved on the associated memory task. By contrast, in the second experiment, participants in the read condition were still in the implicit “generate” condition: being asked to generate connections between the cues and targets. However, those in the explicit generate condition were only generating the targets; not their cues. As such, it’s possible participants tended to selectively attend to the information they had created over the information they did not. Put simply, the generate participant’s ability to better recall the words they created was interfering with their ability to remember their associations with the words they did not create. Their memory systems were focusing on the former over the latter.

A more memorable meal than one you go out and buy

If one wanted to increase the performance of those in the explicit generate condition for experiment two, then, all a researcher might have to do would be to get their participants to generate both the cue and the target. In that instance, the participants should feel more personally responsible for the connections – it should reflect on them more personally – and, accordingly, remember them better. 

Now whether that answers I put forth get it all the way (or even partially) right is besides the point. It’s possible that the predictions I’ve made here are completely wrong. It’s just that what I have been noticing is that words like “adaptive” and “relevance” are all but absent from this book (and papers) on memory. As I hope this post (and my last one) illustrates, evolutionary theory can help guide our thinking to areas it might not otherwise reach, allowing us to more efficiently think up profitable avenues for understanding existing research and creating future projects. It doesn’t hurt that it helps students understand the material better, either.

References: deWinstanley, P. & Bjork, E. (1997). Processing instructions and the generation effect: a test of the multifactor transfer-appropriate processing theory. Memory, 5, 401-421.