#DERP Syndrome

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

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

Also, they usually want money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictably Lacking

Due to a particularly engaging high school teacher, my undergraduate minor was in economics. Upon taking a number of classes in economics at the college level, I realized that most of the assumptions made by economists about how people should be expected to behave were about as useful for understanding human behavior as most of my undergraduate psychology classes; that is to say not very. It was through Dan Ariely’s books that I was initially exposed to behavioral economics; a field which seemed to take a stand against the nonsensical assumptions of traditional economics. Happy as I was to see that first step, my enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by the fact that behavioral economics was not evolutionary economics. Economists, behavioral or otherwise, were still dealing with the human mind, and they lacked a good theory for understanding how and why the mind works. On a related note, I just finished Dan Ariely’s latest offering, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves. (2012).

There’s only room enough in my life for one book with parentheses in the title, and this is that book.

Due to a miscommunication with Amazon, I actually ended up getting my copy of this book for free, and, beyond simply saving money, I’m quite happy I did for a simple reason: I don’t think Dan’s new book is really worth spending the money on, (the book jacket suggested a retail of $27) especially if you’ve already read his first two offerings. In the (ostensibly selfless) interests of saving others time and money, here’s the main finding of the research presented in the book: given the opportunity to cheat, most people will cheat to some (relatively small) degree, with very few will going all out and cheating as much as possible. Of course, the precise degree to which people cheat is flexible, and various contexts make it more or less likely that people will cheat. This might suggest that there are certain parts of the mind monitoring various environmental cues in an attempt to determine when cheating would be profitable, and to what extent one should cheat.

The research that Dan reviews cuts against what he calls the “Simple Model of Rational Crime”, in which people consciously think through the costs and benefits when it comes to deciding whether or not to commit a crime (or act immorally, more generally). Standard economic assumptions don’t seem to pan out well, and anyone familiar with Dan’s previous work will already know that. Unfortunately, Ariely replaces that simple model with his own – arguably simpler – model that goes like this:

In a nutshell, the central thesis is that our behavior is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating as get as much money as possible. (p.27)

Right from the start, Ariely’s central thesis is deeply flawed. As others have pointed out (Kurzban, 2010), “feeling good” about ourselves is not a plausible function for any part of our psychology. Evolution is (metaphorically) blind to what organisms feel; it can only see what organisms do. An organism that feels terrible but does useful things would win out against an organism that feels great but doesn’t do useful things every single time. A quick example should demonstrate why. Let’s say feeling good is actually important, in and of itself. There are two organisms presented with potential benefit from cheating: the first organism cheats, but only cheats a little bit in order to maintain its positive sense that it’s an honest individual; after all, it didn’t cheat that much, and it wasn’t doing any real harm, so it’s probably still a morally upstanding creature. The second organism cheats as much as it can and feels pretty good about its cheating; it doesn’t try to feel good by justifying its behavior, it just feels good about what it does generally.

You know what else feels good? Getting a perfect score.

That example should make the problem with Ariely’s central thesis stand out in stark relief: why should an organism care about seeing itself as a morally upstanding creature, and why should seeing itself as such hinge on its perception of its own integrity? By focusing on a conscience-centric model without making the function of such a perspective clear, Ariely misses the mark. As DeScioli & Kurzban (2009) suggest, we cannot understand the function of conscience without first examining condemnation. In a world where others judge our actions, and those judgments cause those others to behave in certain ways towards us, conscience can serve as a defense mechanism. Rather than risking costly punishment and social sanction from behaving in a manner others perceive as immoral, potentially detrimental actions can be avoided in the first place.

Now one might counter that, in the experiments Ariely reports on, there was no risk of subjects being caught or punished, and further that the subjects knew this; since any fear of punishment should have been, effectively removed, concerns for condemnation can’t explain these results. However, to do so would be to make the basic error of failing to understand the difference between adapted and adaptive. Just because someone might consciously report that they understand there was no real risk, it doesn’t mean other modules in their brain came to the same conclusion.

One final point I’d like to touch on is the chapter concerning self-control. Not to rely too heavily on Kurzban (2010) here, but self-control is not like a muscle, and thinking of it as such leads one to an incorrect model of the mind. (For references, see here, here, and here). Since an incorrect model of the mind seems to be the central thesis of the book, it’s at least consistent in that regard. There are, no doubt, some interesting things to be learned from the research in Dan’s book. However, you’ll need to figure them out, more or less, on your own.

References: Ariely, D. (2012). The honest truth about dishonesty: How we lie to everyone else – especially ourselves. New York, NY: HarperCollins

DeScioli P, & Kurzban R (2009). Mysteries of morality. Cognition, 112 (2), 281-99 PMID: 19505683

Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The Game: Not Penetrating All That Much

It’s a dream of many men to achieve the same Herculean level of success with women as bands like Motley Crue and people like myself have had before them. The thought of being able to almost immediately attract female attention and command sexual arousal caters to certain evolved psychological preferences of men the same way my ravishing good looks and winning personality cater to the preferences of women. This fantasy of many men can be exacerbated by their severe to complete lack of sexual access to women. The most recent estimate I’ve heard is that we have about twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors. That is to say, in a hypothetical population with equal numbers of men and women, if every woman had a child, only about half of the men would be fathers. This speaks to a point I made recently, that even promiscuous females are not indiscriminant in their mate choice, and many men are not able to adequately measure up to most women’s standards. For instance, women on Okcupid rated 80% of men as being below average in attractiveness. Ouch.

Given that, it should come as no surprise that anyone promising they have a – or the – secret to help men, any man, become a success at picking up women is selling a potentially very valuable product to a lot of desperate people. The most pressing question on most people’s minds when confronted with a product that claims to have miraculous proprieties is, naturally, “does it work?”

It’s just bulging with potential. It is, however, only held together by prayers and hot glue.

As I had recently run out of new reading material and decent video games, I deciding to evaluate a book that had been recommended to me several times online called The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists - and who could go wrong with random strangers on the internet? I didn’t expect much out of it, which was fortunate. While the book isn’t exactly a “how-to” guide for men looking to get women, the premise of the book is that it’s written about groups of men who claim to be able to teach various methods in picking up, attracting, or otherwise seducing women. Throughout the story, the protagonist and author, Style (aka. Neil Strauss), goes from being a socially awkward writer to becoming a king among the pickup community, having many non-exclusive sexual partners over the course of two years, before finally settling into a long-term relationship and becoming dissatisfied with the state of the community.

How does he make this transformation? In no particular order, the following things happen: a change of hairstyle, a change in wardrobe, going tanning and exercising, paying far out-the-ass to attend a number of seminars, paying far-out-the-ass to travel constantly, buying and reading countless books on the subject, learning about body language and social cues, learning when to lie, learning when to bullshit people, moving into a mansion in Hollywood, and basically, spending every waking moment for two years either hitting on every woman in sight or talking about hitting on every woman in sight with the assistance of several men and a memorized series of routines. Strauss’s newfound success at meeting women in turn seems to give him a reputation within the community and what sounded like one hell of an ego about the whole thing. Like many of the pickup artists in the book, Strauss seemed to feel he had some kind of power over women. Their self-esteem had never been higher.

While I feel there’s a lot to be said for learning how to dress and groom yourself, approach people with confidence, and understanding body language and social cues when it comes to being successful in the dating world – basically, avoid coming off like the sociopathic shy slob you are – the question still looming is “how well does the game work?” I feel the majority of the method written about in The Game can be summed up nicely by David Cross talking about the attitude of a garbage man trying to pick up women while on the job:

I make things happen; I go for it. Whatever, man. I’ll ask a hundred chicks, maybe get ninety-nine “No”s. That’s fine; slide it on, slide it on. Whatever. Maybe that hundredth chick…likes to fuck on a pile of trash”. 

The Game reads more like a sheer numbers game strategy at heart. For all of you out there who don’t live in an area with a large enough population, this strategy would probably not serve you well. It seemed common for Strauss and his friends to go out each night to several different bars to talk to many, many different women at various stages of drunkenness at each. Sometimes they would end up with phone numbers (the vast majority of which never ended up going anywhere further, if the woman on the other end even remembered who they gave their number to), sometimes they’d get a kiss, and sometimes they’d even get sex eventually, provided they weren’t too particular about who that sex was with. What this turns into is a case of counting the hits and not the misses. Any successes that an aspiring pickup artist meets with are chalked up to their masterful use of the game; the failures, which far outnumber the successes, are simply forgotten about. The failures aren’t seen as failures in the method, just failures in its execution or part of the learning process.

My trick coin; fifty-percent of the time, it lands on “heads” a hundred-percent of the time.

As a result, one should be hard-pressed to conclude that The Game holds any secrets for seducing any, or even most, women, nor should one conclude that it offers any revolutionary insights into female psychology. The sample is simply too biased. This should become even more apparent when one stops and thinks about the following: Strauss was successful with women and that earned him a reputation among the community. What that suggests to me is that the majority of these pickup artists were not being met with even close to the same degree of success, despite using what is described as an almost identical method to Strauss. If they were seeing the same results, Strauss wouldn’t stand out. Indeed, one man mentioned in the book claims to had approached over 1000 women in a month without managing to seal the deal sexually with a single one. A thousand failures and not one success; if that doesn’t reek of a numbers game, I don’t know what does.

What’s also worth pointing out is that many of the men who get involved in this community begin as either virgins or just-barely not virgins. They also tend to possess minimal levels of social skills and plenty of anxiety. These are typically men who have a great deal of frustration in their sexual life, earning them the nickname AFCs, or angry frustrated chumps. In short, for these men there is nowhere to go but up, and each success, no matter how minor, will likely take on a much greater importance. I feel this would only serve to deepen the issue of counting the hits and not the misses when trying to determine how successful the method actually was, or whether all that effort could have been more profitably spent elsewhere.

Further, there’s no control group against which to compare the methods described in The Game with any kind of alternative treatments or placebos. Any good treatment should outperform an inert one, and throughout the book several different methods rise and fall, each claiming to be the tried and true way to success. To approximate a placebo, I’d like to contrast the approach outlined in The Game with simple cold-propositioning. The classic Clark and Hatfield (1989) research project had men and women approach total strangers on a college campus that they’d actually consider having sex with and say the following: “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be very attractive.” Following that, they’d close with one of three suggestions: going on a  date, returning to an apartment together, or having sex. Unsurprisingly, women propositioned for sex by men universally rejected the offer. Also unsurprisingly, men propositioned for sex by women accepted about 75% of the time. However, of interest to the current comparison is the percentage that agreed to a date: about 50% for both sexes.

While we don’t have precise numbers at our disposal to speak for how successful Strauss and his friends were, those numbers may help to add some perspective. Remember, the 50% of men who were able to get a woman to agree to a date had invested precisely zero time and money into buying books, attending seminars, or losing their job and failing out of school because they spent all your time talking with guys about meeting girls and trying to meet girls.

It may have cost me my job, several thousand dollars, and a year of my life, but I finally had sex once! Totally better than seeing a prostitute.

Somewhat surprisingly, the book had been recommended by people who seemed to think highly of evolutionary psychology, though by my rough estimate the subject itself was mentioned in any context all of three to four times, at the rate of about a sentence each time. Dawkins, Ridley, and Baker are listed as required reading in the group, but that seems to be about the extent of it. If there were any particular insights draw from evolutionary theory, they aren’t mentioned here. The Game speaks far more highly and more often of hypnosis than it does about evolutionary psychology, so take that as you will.

Rather than a “how-to” guide for seducing women, The Game reads more like a “how-to” guide for seducing men. It manages this by giving them the hope they would be able to pick up women left and right if they only buy these books (The Game comes in an attractive black exterior, with gold-edged pages and a built in bookmark for the low retail cost of $30), spend several hundred dollars to attend these seminars (which began in the book at $500 a head, an amount that roughly tripled by the end of the book), and invest staggering amounts of time that seems to lead frequently to the neglect of friends, family, and jobs. Strauss likened the community to a cult on at least one occasion, and, given his description of it, I’d have to agree there are some similarities.

For all you AFCs out there, don’t waste your time and money on these false prophets of the pickup community. If you want to know the real secret to getting any girl you want quick and easy, send me an email, along with $2000 (cash or money order only), and I’ll get you started on the path to being a hook up master. No refunds, by the way.

References: Clark, R.D. & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 21, 39-55.

Strauss, N. (2005). The Game: Penetrating the secret society of pickup artists. New York: HarperCollins

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

I recently finished the latest book by Robert Trivers (2011), The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, which is an odd title considering how little of the book is devoted to the logic of the intended topic. A better title would probably have been Things Robert Trivers Finds Interesting. After straining to stay awake through most of the 337 tedious pages of the book, I can’t say I came away with any new insights or information on the subject of deception, though I did get the sense Trivers enjoys flirting with undergrads.

And who wouldn’t? It’s just one of the many, many benefits of getting tenure.

As Matt Ridley notes, Robert Kurzban (2010) also released a book not too long ago called Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite – which I can’t recommend highly enough – that made a solid case for why “self” based research is problematic in the first place. The mind isn’t a singular entity, but is rather a collection of different mental organs, each a functionally specific information processing mechanism. Any real mention of modularity is absent from Trivers’ book, much less an active appreciation of it. I’d hesitate to say Trivers takes any idea further (as Matt does); if anything, Trivers stalls and rolls slightly backwards. Another impression I got from reading the book is that I can expect an angry phone call from Trivers if he ever reads this.

I’d like to discuss the merits of your recent review of my book in a calm, academic fashion.

How might this false conception of a self effect thinking in other domains? One good example could be in the domain of morality. In this area, I get the sense the concept of the self has been tied heavily to moral culpability, where consciousness is king. Influences that are seen as originating outside the realm of conscious awareness are often used as attempts to exculpate various behaviors.

As an example, I’d offer up a paper by Sumithran et al (2011), examining how overweight people on diets often relapse and gain weight back after initial success at dropping some pounds. The authors measured various hormone levels in subject’s bodies that are known to influence hunger and related behaviors, like energy expenditure and food intake, finding that dieting leads to changes in these circulating hormone levels. This could be the reason, they argue, that many dieters don’t show long-term maintenance of weight loss. Fine. However, the authors lose me when they write this:

“…[A]n important finding of this study is that many of these alterations persist for 12 months after weight loss, even after the onset of weight regain, suggesting that the high rate of relapse among obese people who have lost weight has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits.” (p. 1602, emphasis mine)

Apparently, the authors find it interesting that they found a physiological basis for people not keeping the weight off, contrasting it with “voluntary” actions. My question would be, “What else would you even expect to find; a non-physiological basis?” After all, we are physical beings, so any changes in our thoughts or behaviors need to be the result of other physical changes. The implication seems to be that truly voluntary actions are supposed to be uninfluenced by physiology, while somehow having an influence on the behavior of the physical body.

“It’s not my choice, as I happen to have hormones”

This doesn’t seem to be a terribly uncommon thought process; while sometimes people actively deny any influences of biology on behavior out of fear of justifying it, or claim (correctly) that biological doesn’t justify behavior, those same people can very quickly accept behavior as being biologically based in the hopes of making it acceptable by saying “it’s not a choice”. That’s some interesting hypocrisy there. Did I mention there’s a very interesting – and a not so interesting – book that deals with that topic?

References: Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sumithran, P., Prendergast, L.A., Delbridge, E., Purcell, K., Shulks, A., Kriketos, A.K., & Proietto, J. (2011). Long-term persistence of hormonal adaptations to weight loss. The New England Journal of Medicine, 365, 1597-1604.

Trivers, R. (2011). The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. New York, NY: Basic Books.