The Fight Against Self-Improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skepticism Surrounding Sex

It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies; the only variable is about what

One of my favorite shows from years ago was House; a show centered around a brilliant but troubled doctor who frequently discovers the causes of his patient’s ailments through discerning what they – or others – are lying about. This outlook on people appears to be correct, at least in spirit. Because it is sometimes beneficial for us that other people are made to believe things that are false, communication is often less than honest. This dishonesty entails things like outright lies, lies by omission, or stretching the truth in various directions and placing it in different lights. Of course, people don’t just lie because deceiving others is usually beneficial. Deception – much like honesty – is only adaptive to the extent that people do reproductively-relevant things with it. Convincing your spouse that you had an affair when you didn’t is dishonest for sure, but probably not a very useful thing to do; deceiving someone about what you had for breakfast is probably fairly neutral (minus the costs you might incur from coming to be known as a liar). As such, we wouldn’t expect selection to have shaped our psychology to lie about all topics with equal frequency. Instead, we should expect that people tend to preferentially lie about particular topics in predictable ways.

Lies like, “This college degree will open so many doors for you in life”

The corollary idea to that point concerns skepticism. Distrusting the honesty of communications can protect against harmful deceptions, but it also runs the risk of failing to act on accurate and beneficial information. There are costs and benefits to skepticism as there are to deception. Just as we shouldn’t expect people to be dishonest about all topics equally often, then, we shouldn’t expect people to be equally skeptical of all the information they receive either. This is point I’ve talked about before with regards to our reasoning abilities, whereby information agreeable to our particular interests tends to be accepted less critically, while disagreeable information is scrutinized much more intensely.

This line of thought was recently applied to the mating domain in a paper by Walsh, Millar, & Westfall (2016). Humans face a number of challenges when it comes to attracting sexual partners typically centered around obtaining the highest quality of partner(s) one can (metaphorically) afford, relative to what one offers to others. What determines the quality of partners, however, is frequently context specific: what makes a good short-term partner might differ from what makes a good long-term partner and – critically, as far as the current research is concerned – the traits that make good male partners for women are not the same as those that make good females partner for men. Because women and men face some different adaptive challenges when it comes to mating, we should expect that they would also preferentially lie (or exaggerate) to the opposite sex about those traits that the other sex values the most. In turn, we should also expect that each sex is skeptical of different claims, as this skepticism should reflect the costs associated with making poor reproductive decisions on the basis of bad information.

In case that sounds too abstract, consider a simple example: women face a greater obligate cost when it comes to pregnancy than men do. As far as men are concerned, their role in reproduction could end at ejaculation (which it does, for many species). By contrast, women would be burdened with months of gestation (during which they cannot get pregnant again), as well as years of breastfeeding prior to modern advancements (during which they also usually can’t get pregnant). Each child could take years of a woman’s already limited reproductive lifespan, whereas the man has lost a few minutes. In order to ease those burdens, women often seek male partners who will stick around and invest in them and their children. Men who are willing to invest in children should thus prove to be more attractive long-term partners for women than those who are unwilling. However, a man’s willingness to stick around needs to be assessed by a woman in advance of knowing what his behavior will actually be. This might lead to men exaggerating or lie about their willingness to invest, so as to encourage women to mate with them. Women, in turn, should be preferentially skeptical of such claims, as being wrong about a man’s willingness to invest is costly indeed. The situation should be reversed for traits that men value in their partners more than women.

Figure 1: What men most often value in a woman

Three such traits for both men and women were examined by Walsh et al (2016). In their study, eight scenarios depicting a hypothetical email exchange between a man and woman who had never met were displayed to approximately 230 (mostly female; 165) heterosexual undergraduate students. For the women, these emails depicted a man messaging a woman; for men, it was a woman messaging a man. The purpose of these emails was described as the person sending them looking to begin a long-term intimate relationship with the recipient. Each of these emails described various facets of the sender, which could be broadly classified as either relevant primarily to female mating interests, relevant to male interests, or neutral. In terms of female interests, the sender described their luxurious lifestyle (cuing wealth), their desire to settle down (commitment), or how much they enjoy interacting with children (child investment). In terms of male interests, the sender talked about having a toned body (cuing physical attractiveness), their openness sexually (availability/receptivity), or their youth (fertility and mate value). In the two neutral scenarios, the sender either described their interest in stargazing or board games.

Finally, the participants were asked to rate (on a 1-5 scale) how deceitful they thought the sender was, whether they believed the sender or not, and how skeptical they were of the claims in the message. These three scores were summed for each participant to create a composite score of believability for each of the messages (the lower the score, the less believable it was rated as being). Those scores were then averaged across the female-relevant items (wealth, commitment, and childcare), the male-relevant items (attractiveness, youth, and availability), and the control conditions. (Participants also answered questions about whether the recipient should respond and how much they personally liked the sender. No statistical analyses are reported on those measures, however, so I’m going to assume nothing of note turned up)

The results showed that, as expected, the control items were believed more readily (M = 11.20) than the male (M = 9.85) or female (9.6) relevant items. This makes sense, inasmuch as believing lies about stargazing or interests in board games aren’t particularly costly for either sex in most cases, so there’s little reason to lie about them (and thus little reason to doubt them); by contrast, messages about one’s desirability as a partner have real payoffs, and so are treated more cautiously. However, an important interaction with the sex of the participant was uncovered as well: female participants were more skeptical on the female-relevant items (M = about 9.2) than males were (M = 10.6); similarly, males were more likely to be skeptical in male-relevant conditions  (M = 9.5) than females were (M = 10). Further, the scores for the individual items all showed evidence of the same sex kinds of differences in skepticism. No sex difference emerged for the control condition, also as expected.

In sum, then – while these differences were relatively small in magnitude – men tended to be more skeptical of claims that, if falsely believed, were costlier for them than women, and women tended to be more skeptical of claims that, if falsely believed, were costlier for them than men. This is a similar pattern to that found in the reasoning domain, where evidence that agrees with one’s position is accepted more readily than evidence that disagrees with it.

“How could it possibly be true if it disagrees with my opinion?”

The authors make a very interesting point towards the end of their paper about how their results could be viewed as inconsistent with the hypothesis that men have a bias to over-perceived women’s sexual interest. After all, if men are over-perceiving such interest in the first place, why would they be skeptical about claims of sexual receptivity? It is possible, of course, that men tend to over-perceive such availability in general and are also skeptical of claims about its degree (e.g., they could still be manipulated by signals intentionally sent by females and so are skeptical, but still over-perceive ambiguous or less-overt cues), but another explanation jumps out at me that is consistent with the theme of this research: perhaps when asked to self-report about their own sexual interest, women aren’t being entirely accurate (consciously or otherwise). This explanation would fit well with the fact that men and women tend to perceive a similar level of sexual interest in other women. Then again, perhaps I only see that evidence as consistent because I don’t think men, as a group, should be expected to have such a bias, and that’s biasing my skepticism in turn.

References: Walsh, M., Millar, M., & Westfall, S. (2016). The effects of gender and cost on suspicion in initial courtship communications. Evolutionary Psychological Science, DOI 10.1007/s40806-016-0062-8

Why Women Are More Depressed Than Men

Women are more likely to be depressed than men; about twice as likely here in the US, as I have been told. It’s an interesting finding, to be sure, and making sense of it poses a fun little mystery (as making sense of many things tends to). We don’t just want to know that women are more depressed than men; we also want to know why women are more depressed. So what are the causes of this difference? The Mayo Clinic floats a few explanations, noting that this sex difference appears to emerge around puberty. As such, many of the explanations they put forth center around the problems that women (but not men) might face when undergoing that transitional period in their life. These include things like increased pressure to achieve in school, conflict with parents, gender confusion, PMS, and pregnancy-related factors. They also include ever-popular suggestions such as societal biases that harm women. Now I suspect these are quite consistent with the answers you would get if queried your average Joe or Jane on the street as to why they think women are more depressed. People recognize that depression often appears to follow negative life events and stressors, and so they look for proximate conditions that they believe (accurately or not) disproportionately affect women.

Boys don’t have to figure out how to use tampons; therefore less depression

While that seems to be a reasonable strategy, it produces results that aren’t entirely satisfying. First, it seems unlikely that women face that much more stress and negative life events than men do (twice as much?) and, secondly, it doesn’t do much to help us understand individual variation. Lots of people face negative life events, but lots of them also don’t end up spiraling into depression. As I noted above, our understanding of the facts related to depression can be bolstered by answering the why questions. In this case, the focus many people have is on answering the proximate whys rather than the ultimate ones. Specifically, we want to know why people respond to these negative life events with depression in the first place; what adaptive function depression might have. Though depression reactions appear completely normal to most, perhaps owing to their regularity, we need to make that normality strange. If, for example, you imagine a new mouse mother facing the stresses of caring for her young in a hostile world, a postpartum depression on her part might seem counterproductive: faced with the challenges of surviving and caring for her offspring, what adaptive value would depressive symptoms have? How would low energy, a lack of interest in important everyday activities, and perhaps even suicidal ideation help make her situation better? If anything, they would seem to disincline her from taking care of these important tasks, leaving her and her dependent offspring worse off. This strangeness, of course, wouldn’t just exist in mice; it should be just as strange when we see it in humans.

The most compelling adaptive account of depression I’ve read (Hagen, 2003) suggests that the ultimate why of depression focuses on social bargaining. I’ve written about it before, but the gist of the idea is as follows: if I’m facing adversity that I am unlikely to be able to solve alone, one strategy for overcoming that problem is to recruit others in the world to help me. However, those other people aren’t always forthcoming with the investment I desire. If others aren’t responding to my needs adequately, it would behoove me to try and alter their behavior so as to encourage them to increase their investment in me. Depression, in this view, is adapted to do just that. The psychological mechanisms governing depression work to, essentially, place the depressed individual on a social strike. When workers are unable to effectively encourage an increased investment from their employers (perhaps in the form of pay or benefits), they will occasionally refuse to work at all until their conditions improve. While this is indeed costly for the workers, it is also costly for the employer, and it might be beneficial for the employer to cave to the demands rather than continue to face the costs of not having people work. Depression shows a number of parallels to this kind of behavior, where people withdraw from the social world – taking with them the benefits they provided to others – until other people increase their investment in the depressed individual to help see them through a tough period.

Going on strike (or, more generally, withdrawing from cooperative relationships), of course, is only one means of getting other people to increase their investment in you; another potential strategy is violence. If someone is enacting behaviors that show they don’t value me enough, I might respond with aggressive behaviors to get them to alter that valuation. Two classic examples of this could be shooting someone in self-defense or a loan-shark breaking a delinquent client’s legs. Indeed, this is precisely the type of function that Sell et al (2009) proposed that anger has: if others aren’t giving me my due, anger motivates me to take actions that could recalibrate their concern for my welfare. This leaves us with two strategies – depression and anger – that can both solve the same type of problem. The question arises, then, as to which strategy will be the most effective for a given individual and their particular circumstances. This raises a rather interesting possibility: it is possible that the sex difference in depression exists because the anger strategy is more effective for men, whereas the depression strategy is more effective for women (rather than, say, because women face more adversity than men). This would be consistent with the sex difference in depression arising around puberty as well, since this is when sex differences in strength also begin to emerge. In other words, both men and women have to solve similar social problems; they just go about it in different ways. 

“An answer that doesn’t depend on wide-spread sexism? How boring…”

Crucially, this explanation should also be able to account for within-sex differences as well: while men are more able to successfully enact physical aggression than women, not all men will be successful in that regard since not all men possess the necessary formidability. The male who is 5’5″ and 130 pounds soaking wet likely won’t win against his taller, heavier, and stronger counterparts in a fight. As such, men who are relatively weak might preferentially make use of the depression strategy, since picking fights they probably won’t win is a bad idea, while those who are on the stronger side might instead make use of anger more readily. Thankfully, a new paper by Hagen & Rosenstrom (2016) examines this very issue; at least part of it. The researchers sought to test whether upper-body strength would negatively predict depression scores, controlling for a number of other, related variables.

To do so, they accessed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), netting a little over 4,000 subjects ranging in age from 18-60. As a proxy for upper-body strength, the authors made use of the measures subjects had provided of their hand-grip strength. The participants had also filled out questions concerning their depression, height and weight, socioeconomic status, white blood cell count (to proxy health), and physical disabilities. The researchers predicted that: (1) depression should negatively correlate with grip-strength, controlling for age and sex, (2) that relationship should be stronger for men than women, and (3) that the relationship would persist after controlling for physical health. About 9% of the sample qualified as depressed and, as expected, women were more likely to report depression than men by about 1.7 times. Sex, on its own, was a good predictor of depression (in their regression, ß = 0.74).

When grip-strength was added into the statistical model, however, the effect of sex dropped into the non-significant range (ß = 0.03), while strength possessed good predictive value (ß = -1.04). In support of the first hypothesis, then, increased upper-body strength did indeed negatively correlate with depression scores, removing the effect of sex almost entirely. In fact, once grip strength was controlled for, men were actually slightly more likely to report depression than women (though this didn’t appear to be significant). Prediction 2 was not supported, however, with their being no significant interaction between sex and grip-strength on measures of depression. This effect persisted even when controlling for socioeconomic status, age, anthropomorphic, and hormonal variables. However, physical disability did attenuate the relationship between strength and depression quite a bit, which is understandable in light of the fact that physically-disabled individuals likely have their formidability compromised, even if they have stronger upper bodies (an example being a man in a wheelchair having good grip strength, but still not being much use in a fight). It is worth mentioning that the relationship between strength and depression appeared to grow larger over time; the authors suggest this might have something to do with older individuals having more opportunities to test their strength against others, which sounds plausible enough. 

Also worth noting is that when depression scores were replaced with suicidal ideation, the predicted sex-by-strength interaction did emerge, such that men with greater strength reported being less suicidal, while women with greater strength reported being more suicidal (the latter portion of which is curious and not predicted). Given that men succeed at committing suicide more often than women, this relationship is probably worth further examination.  

“Not today, crippling existential dread”

Taken together with findings from Sell et al (2009) – where men, but not women, who possessed greater strength reported being quicker to anger and more successful in physical conflicts – the emerging picture is one in which women tend to (not consciously) “use” depression as a means social bargaining because it tends to work better for them than anger, whereas the reverse holds true for men. To be clear, both anger and depression are triggered by adversity, but those events interact with an individual’s condition and their social environment in determining the precise response. As the authors note, the picture is likely to be a dynamic one; not one that’s as simple as “more strength = less depression” across the board. Of course, other factors that co-vary with physical strength and health – like attractiveness – could also being playing a roll in the relationship with depression, but since such matters aren’t spoken to directly by the data, the extent and nature of those other factors is speculative.

What I find very persuasive about this adaptive hypothesis, however – in addition to the reported data – is that many existing theories of depression would not make the predictions tested by Hagen & Rosenstrom (2016) in the first place. For example, those who claim something like, “depressed people perceive the world more accurately” would be at a bit of a loss to explain why those who perceive the world more accurately also seem to have lower upper-body strength (they might also want to explain why depressed people don’t perceive the world more accurately, either). A plausible adaptive hypothesis, on the other hand, is useful for guiding our search for, and understanding of, the proximate causes of depression.

References: Hagen, E.H. (2003). The bargaining model of depression. In: Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, P. Hammerstein (ed.). MIT Press, 95-123

Hagen, E. & Rosenstrom, T. (2016). Explain the sex difference in depression with a unified bargaining model of anger and depression. Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health, 117-132

Sell, A., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15073-78.

Smoking Hot

If the view counts on previous posts have been any indication, people really do enjoy reading about, understanding, and – perhaps more importantly – overcoming the obstacles found on the dating terrain; understandably so, given its greater personal relevance to their lives. In the interests of adding some value to the lives of others, then, today I wanted to discuss some research examining the connection between recreational drug use and sexual behavior in order to see if any practical behavioral advice can be derived from it. The first order of business will be to try and understand the relationship between recreational drugs and mating from an evolutionary perspective; the second will be to take a more direct look at whether drug use has positive and negative effects when it comes to attracting a partner, and in what contexts those effects might exist. In short, will things like drinking and smoking make you smoking hot to others?

So far selling out has been unsuccessful, so let’s try talking sex

We can begin by considering why people care so much about recreational drug use in general: from historical prohibitions on alcohol to modern laws prohibiting the possession, use, and sale of drugs, many people express a deep concern over who gets to put what into their body at what times and for what reasons. The ostensibly obvious reason for this concern that most people will raise immediately is that such laws are designed to save people from themselves: drugs can cause a great degree of harm to users and people are, essentially, too stupid to figure out what’s really good for them. While perceptions of harm to drug users themselves no doubt play a role in these intuitions, they are unlikely to actually be whole story for a number of reasons, chief among which is that they would have a hard time explaining the connection between sexual strategies and drug use (and that putting people in jail probably isn’t all that good for them either, but that’s another matter). Sexual strategies, in this case, refer roughly to an individual’s degree of promiscuity: some people preferentially enjoy engaging in one or more short-term sexual relationships (where investment is often funneled to mating efforts), while others are more inclined towards single, long-term ones (where investment is funneled to parental efforts). While people do engage in varying degrees of both at times, the distinction captures the general idea well enough. Now, if one is the type who prefers long-term relationships, it might benefit you to condemn behaviors that encourage promiscuity; it doesn’t help your relationship stability to have lots of people around who might try to lure your mate away or reduce the confidence of a man’s paternity in his children. To the extent that recreational drug use does that (e.g., those who go out drinking in the hopes of hooking up with others owing to their reduced inhibitions), it will be condemned by the more long-term maters in turn. Conversely, those who favor promiscuity should be more permissive towards drug use as it makes enacting their preferred strategy easier.

This is precisely the pattern of results that Quintelier et al (2013) report: in a cross-cultural sample of Belgians (N = 476), Dutch (N = 298), and Japanese (N = 296) college students who did not have children, even after controlling for age, sex, personality variables, political ideology, and religiosity, attitudes towards drug use were still reliably predicted by participant’s sexual attitudes: the more sexually permissive one was, the more they tended to approve of drug use. In fact, sexual attitudes were the best predictors of people’s feelings about recreational drugs both before and after the controls were added (findings which replicated a previous US sample). By contrast, while the non-sexual variables were sometimes significant predictors of drug views after controlling for sexual attitudes, they were not as reliable and their effects were not as large. This pattern of results, then, should yield some useful predictions about how drug use effects your attractiveness to other people: those who are looking for short-term sexual encounters might find drug use more appealing (or at least less off-putting), relative to those looking for long-term relationships.

“I pronounce you man and wife. Now it’s time to all get high”

Thankfully, I happen to have a paper on hand that speaks to the matter somewhat more directly. Vincke (2016) sought to examine how attractive brief behavioral descriptions of men were rated as being by women for either short- or long-term relationships. Of interest, these descriptions included the fact that the man in question either (a) did not, (b) occasionally, or (c) frequently smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. A sample of 240 Dutch women were recruited and asked to rate these profiles with respect to how attractive the men in question would be for either a casual or committed relationship and whether they thought the men themselves were more likely to be interested in short/long-term relationships.

Taking these in reverse order, the women rated the men who never smoked as somewhat less sexually permissive (M = 4.31, scale from 1 to 7) than those who either occasionally or frequently did (Ms = 4.83 and 4.98, respectively; these two values did not significantly differ). By contrast, those who never drank or occasionally did were rated as being comparably less permissive (Ms = 4.04) than the men who drank frequently (M = 5.17). Drug use, then, did effect women’s perceptions of men’s sexual interests (and those perceptions happen to match reality, as a second  study with men confirmed). If you’re interested in managing what other people think your relationship intentions are, then, managing your drug use accordingly can make something of a difference. Whether that ended up making the men more attractive is a different matter, however.

As it turns out, smoking and drinking appear to look distinct in that regard: in general, smoking tended to make men look less attractive, regardless of whether the mating context was short- or long-term, and frequent smoking was worse than occasional smoking. However, the decline in attractiveness from smoking was not as large in short-term contexts. (Oddly, Vincke (2016) frames smoking as being an attractiveness benefit in short-term contexts within her discussion when it’s really just less of a cost. The slight bump seen in the data is neither statistically or practically significant) This pattern can be seen in the left half of the author’s graph. By contrast – on the right side – occasional drinkers were generally rated as more attractive than men who never or frequently drank across conditions across both short- and long-term relationships. However, in the context of short-term mating, frequent drinking was rated as being more attractive than never drinking, whereas this pattern reversed itself for long-term relationships. As such, if you’re looking to attract someone for a serious relationship, you probably won’t be impressing them much with your ability to do keg stands of liquor, but if you’re looking for someone to hook up with that night it might be better to show that off than sip on water all evening.

Cigarettes and alcohol look different from one another in the attractiveness domain even though both might be considered recreational drug use. It is probable that what differentiates them here is their effects on encouraging promiscuity, as previously discussed. While people are often motivated to go out drinking in order to get intoxicated, lose their inhibitions, and have sex, the same cannot usually be said about smoking cigarettes. Singles don’t usually congregate at smoking bars to meet people and start relationships, short-term or otherwise (forgoing for the moment that smoking bars aren’t usually things, unless you count the rare hookah lounges). Smoking might thus make men appear to be more interested in casual encounters because it cues a more general interest in short-term rewards, rather than anything specifically sexual; in this case, if one is willing to risk the adverse health effects in the future for the pleasure cigarettes provide today, then it is unlikely that someone would be risk averse in other areas of their life.

If you want to examine sex specifically, you might have picked the wrong smoke

There are some limitations here, namely that this study did not separate women in terms of what they were personally seeking in terms of relationships or their own interests/behaviors when it comes to engaging in recreational drug use. Perhaps these results would look different if you were to account for women’s smoking/drinking habits. Even if frequent drinking is a bad thing for long-term attractiveness in general, a mismatch with the particular person you’re looking to date might be worse. It is also possible that a different pattern might emerge if men were assessing women’s attractiveness, but what differences those would be are speculative. It is unfortunate that the intuitions of the other gender didn’t appear to be assessed. I think this is a function of Vincke (2016) looking for confirmatory evidence for her hypothesis that recreational drug use is attractive to women in short-term contexts because it entails risk, and women value risk-taking more in short-term male partners than long-term ones. (There is a point to make about that theory as well: while some risky activities might indeed be more attractive to women in short-term contexts, I suspect those activities are not preferred because they’re risky per se, but rather because the risks send some important cue about the mate quality of the risk taker. Also, I suspect the risks need to have some kind of payoff; I don’t think women prefer men who take risks and fail. Anyone can smoke, and smoking itself doesn’t seem to send any honest signal of quality on the part of the smoker.)

In sum, the usefulness of these results for making any decisions in the dating world is probably at its peak when you don’t really know much about the person you’re about to meet. If you’re a man and you’re meeting a woman who you know almost nothing about, this information might come in handy; on the other hand, if you have information about that woman’s preferences as an individual, it’s probably better to use that instead of the overall trends. 

References: Quintelier, K., Ishii, K., Weeden, J., Kurzban, R., & Braeckman, J. (2013). Individual differences in reproductive strategy are related to views about recreational drug use in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Japan. Human Nature, 24, 196-217.

Vincke, E. (2016). The young male cigarette and alcohol syndrome: Smoking and drinking as a short-term mating strategy. Evolutionary Psychology, 1-13.

Who Deserves Healthcare And Unemployment Benefits?

As I find myself currently recovering from a cold, it’s a happy coincidence that I had planned to write about people’s intuitions about healthcare this week. In particular, a new paper by Jensen & Petersen (2016) attempted to demonstrate a fairly automatic cognitive link between the mental representation of someone as “sick” and of that same target as “deserving of help.” Sickness is fairly unique in this respect, it is argued, because of our evolutionary history with it: as compared with what many refer to as diseases of modern lifestyle (including those resulting from obesity and smoking), infections tended to strike people randomly; not randomly in the sense that anyone is equally as likely to get sick, but more in the sense that people often had little control over when they did. Infections were rarely the result of people intentionally seeking them out or behaving in certain ways. In essence, then, people view those who are sick as unlucky, and unlucky individuals are correspondingly viewed as being more deserving of help than those who are responsible for their own situation.

…and more deserving of delicious, delicious pills

This cognitive link between luck and deservingness can be partially explained by examining expected returns on investment in the social world (Tooby & Cosmides, 1996). In brief, helping others takes time and energy, and it would only be adaptive for an organism to sacrifice resources to help another if doing so was beneficial to the helper in the long term. This is often achieved by me helping you at a time when you need it (when my investment is more valuable to you than it is to me), and then you helping me in the future when I need it (when your investment is more valuable to me than it is to you). This is reciprocal altruism, known by the phrase, “I scratch your back and you scratch mine.” Crucially, the probability of receiving reciprocation from the target you help should depend on why that target needed help in the first place: if the person you’re helping is needy because of their own behavior (i.e., they’re lazy), their need today is indicative of their need tomorrow. They won’t be able to help you later for the same reasons they need help now. By contrast, if someone is needy because they’re unlucky, their current need is not as diagnostic of their future need, and so it is more likely they will repay you later. Because the latter type is more likely to repay than the former, our intuitions about who deserves help shift accordingly.

As previously mentioned, infections tend to be distributed more randomly; my being sick today (generally) doesn’t tell you much about the probability of my future ability to help you once I recover. Because of that, the need generated by infections tends to make sick individuals look like valuable targets of investment: their need state suggests they value your help and will be grateful for it, both of which likely translate into their helping you in the future. Moreover, the needs generated by illnesses can frequently be harmful, even to the point of death if assistance isn’t provided. The greater the need state to be filled, the greater the potential for alliances to be formed, both with and against you. To place that point in a quick, yet extreme, example, pulling someone from a burning building is more likely to ingratiate them to you than just helping them move; conversely, failing to save someone’s life when it’s well within your capabilities can set their existing allies against you.

The sum total of this reasoning is that people should intuitively perceive the sick as more deserving of help than those suffering from other problems that cause need. The particular other problem that Jensen & Petersen (2016) contrast sickness with is unemployment, which they suggest is a fairly modern problem. The conclusion drawn by the authors from these points is that the human mind – given its extensive history with infections and their random nature – should automatically tag sick individuals as deserving of assistance (i.e., broad support for government healthcare programs), while our intuitions about whether the unemployed deserve assistance should be much more varied, contingent on the extent to which unemployment is viewed as being more luck- or character-based. This fits well with the initial data that Jensen & Petersen (2016) present about the relative, cross-national support for government spending on healthcare and unemployment: not only is healthcare much more broadly supported than unemployment benefits (in the US, 90% vs 52% of the population support government assistance), but support for healthcare is also quite a bit less variable across countries.

Probably because the unemployed don’t have enough bake sales or ribbons

Some additional predictions drawn by the authors were examined across a number of studies in the paper, only two of which I would like to focus on for length constraints. The first of these studies presented 228 Danish participants with one of four scenarios: two in which the target was sick and two in which the target was unemployed. In each of these conditions, the target was also said to be lazy (hasn’t done much in life and only enjoys playing video games) or hardworking (is active and does volunteer work; of note, the authors label the lazy/hardworking conditions as high/low control, respectively, but I’m not sure that really captures the nature of the frame well). Participants were asked how much an individual like that deserved aid from the government when sick/unemployed on a 7-point scale (which was converted to a 0-1 scale for ease of interpretation).

Overall, support for government aid was lower in both conditions when the target was framed as being lazy, but this effect was much larger in the case of unemployment. When it came to the sick individual, support for healthcare for the hardworking target was about a 0.9, while support for the lazy one dipped to about 0.75; by contrast, the hardworking unemployed individual was supported with benefits at about 0.8, while the lazy one only received support around the 0.5 point. As the authors put it, the effect of the deservingness information was about 200% less influential when it came to sickness.

There is an obvious shortcoming in that study, however: being lazy has quite a bit less to do with getting sick than it does to getting a job. This issue was addressed better in the third study where the stimuli were more tailored to the problems. In the case of unemployed individuals, they were described as being unskilled workers who were told to get further training by their union, with the union even offering to help. The individual either takes or does not take the additional training, but either way eventually ends up unemployed. In the case of healthcare, the individual is described as being a long-term smoker who was repeatedly told by his doctor to quit. The person either eventually quits smoking or does not, but either way ends up getting lung cancer. The general pattern of results from study two replicated again: for the smoker, support for government aid hovered around 0.8 when he quit and 0.7 when he did not; for the unemployed person, support was about 0.75 when he took the training and around 0.55 when he did not.

“He deserves all that healthcare for looking so cool while smoking”

While there does seem to be evidence for sicknesses being cognitively tagged as more deserving of assistance than unemployment (there were also some association studies I won’t cover in detail), there is a recurrent point in the paper that I am hesitant about endorsing fully. The first mention of this point is found early on in the manuscript, and reads:

“Citizens appear to reason as if exposure to health problems is randomly distributed across social strata, not noting or caring that this is not, in fact, the case…we argue that the deservingness heuristic is built to automatically tag sickness-based needs as random events…”

A similar theme is mentioned later in the paper as well:

“Even using extremely well-tailored stimuli, we find that subjects are reluctant to accept explicit information that suggests that sick people are undeserving.”

In general I find the data they present to be fairly supportive of this idea, but I feel it could do with some additional precision. First and foremost, participants did utilize this information when determining deservingness. The dips might not have been as large as they were for unemployment (more on that later), but they were present. Second, participants were asked about helping one individual in particular. If, however, sickness is truly being automatically tagged as randomly distributed, then deservingness factors should not be expected to come into play when decisions involve making trade-offs between the welfare of two individuals. In a simple case, a hospital could be faced with a dilemma in which two patients need a lung transplant, but only a single lung is available. These two patients are otherwise identical except one has lung cancer due to a long history of smoking, while the other has lung cancer due to a rare infection. If you were to ask people which patient should get the organ, a psychological system that was treating all illness as approximately random should be indifferent between giving it to the smoker or the non-smoker. A similar analysis could be undertaken when it comes to trading-off spending on healthcare and non-healthcare items as well (such as making budget cuts to education or infrastructure in favor of healthcare). 

Finally, there are two additional factors which I would like to see explored by future research in this area. First, the costs of sickness and unemployment tend to be rather asymmetric in a number of ways: not only might sickness be more often life-threatening than unemployment (thus generating more need, which can swamp the effects of deservingness to some degree), but unemployment benefits might well need to be paid out over longer periods of time than medical ones (assuming sickness tends to be more transitory than unemployment). In fact, unemployment benefits might actively encourage people to remain unemployed, whereas medical benefits do not encourage people to remain sick. If these factors could somehow be held constant or removed, a different picture might begin to emerge. I could imagine deservingness information mattering more when a drug is required to alleviate discomfort, rather than save a life. Second - though I don’t know to what extent this is likely to be relevant – the stimulus materials in this research all ask about whether the government ought to be providing aid to sick/unemployed people. It is possible that somewhat different responses might have been obtained if some measures were taken about the participant’s own willingness to provide that aid. After all, it is much less of a burden on me to insist that someone else ought to be taking care of a problem relative to taking care of it myself.

References: Jensen, C. & Petersen, M. (2016). The deservingness heuristic and the politics of health care. American Journal of Political Science, DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12251

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

Absolute Vs Relative Mate Preferences

As the comedian Louis CK quipped some time ago, “Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy.” In that instance he was referring to the massive technological improvements that have arisen in the fairly-recent past which served to make our lives easier and more comfortable. Reflecting on the level of benefit that this technology has added to our lives (e.g., advanced medical treatments, the ability to communicate with people globally in an instant, or to travel globally in the matter of a few hours, etc), it might feel kind of silly that we aren’t content with the world; this kind of lifestyle sure beats living in the wilderness in a constant contest to find food, ward off predators and parasites, and endure the elements. So why aren’t we happy all the time? There are many ways to answer this question, but I wanted to focus on one in particular: specifically, given our nature as a social species, much of our happiness is determined by relative factors. If everyone is fairly well off in the absolute sense, you being well off doesn’t help you when it comes to being selected as a friend, cooperative partner, or mate because it doesn’t signal anything special about your value to others. What you are looking for in that context is not to be doing well on an absolute level, but to be doing better than others.

 If everyone has an iPhone, no one has an iPhone

To place this in a simple example, if you want to get picked for the basketball team, you’re looking to be taller than other people; increasing everyone’s height by 3 inches doesn’t uniquely benefit you, as your relative position and desirability has remained the same. On a related note, if you are doing well on some absolute metric but could be doing better, remaining content with one’s lot in life and forgoing those additional benefits is not the type of psychology one would predict to have proven adaptive. All else being equal, the male satisfied with a single mate that foregoes an additional one will be out-reproduced by the male who takes the second as well. Examples like these help to highlight the positional aspects of human satisfaction: even though some degree of our day-to-day lives are no doubt generally happier because people aren’t dying from smallpox and we have cell phones, people are often less happy than we might expect because so much of that happiness is not determined by one’s absolute state. Instead, our happiness is determined by our relative state: how good we could be doing relative to our current status, and how much we offer socially, relative to others.

A similar logic was applied in a recent paper by Conroy-Beam, Goetz, & Buss (2016) that examined people’s relationship satisfaction. The researchers were interested in testing the hypothesis that it’s not about how well one’s partner matches their ideal preferences on some absolute threshold when it comes to relationship satisfaction; instead, partner satisfaction is more likely to be a product of (a) whether more attractive alternative partners are available and (b) whether one is desirable enough to attract one of them. One might say that people are less concerned with how much they like their spouse and more concerned with whether they could get a better possible spouse: if one can move up in the dating world, then their satisfaction with their current partner should be relatively low; if one can’t move up, they ought to be satisfied with what they already have. After all, it makes little sense to abandon your mate for not meeting your preferences if your other options are worse.

These hypotheses were tested in a rather elegant and unique way across three studies, all of which utilized a broadly-similar methodology (though I’ll only be discussing two). The core of each involved participants who were currently in relationships completing four measures: one concerning how important 27 traits would be in an ideal mate (on a 7-point scale), another concerning how well those same traits described their current partner, a third regarding how those traits described themselves, and finally rating their relationship satisfaction.

To determine how well a participant’s current partner fulfilled their preferences, the squared difference between the participant’s ideal and actual partner was summed for all 27 traits and then the square root of that value was taken. This process generated a single number that provided a sense for how far off from some ideal an actual partner was across a large number of traits: the larger this number, the worse of a fit the actual partner was. A similar transformation was then carried out with respect to how all the other participants rated their partners on those traits. In other words, the authors calculated what percentage of other people’s actual mates fit the preferences of each participant better than their current partner. Finally, the authors calculated the discrepancy in mate value between the participant and their partner. This was done in a three-step process, the gist of which is that they calculated how well the participant and their partner met the average ideals of the opposite sex. If you are closer to the average ideal partner of the opposite sex than your partner, you have the higher mate value (i.e., are more desirable to others); if you are further away, you have the lower mate value.

 It’s just that simple!

In the interests of weeding out the mathematical complexity, there were three values calculated. Assuming you were taking the survey, they would correspond to (1) how well your actual partner matched your ideal (2) what percent of possible real mates out in the world are better overall fits, and (3) how much more or less desirable you are to others, relative to your partner. These values were then plugged into a regression predicting relationship satisfaction. As it turned out, in the first study (N = 260), the first value – how well one’s partner matched their ideal – barely predicted relationship satisfaction at all (ß = .06); by contrast, the number of other potential people who might make better fits was a much stronger predictor (ß = -.53), as was the difference in relative mate value between the participant and their partner (ß = .11). There was also an interaction between these latter two values (ß = .21). As the authors summarized these results:

Participants lower in mate value than their partners were generally satisfied regardless of the pool of potential mates; participants higher in mate value than their partners became increasingly dissatisfied with their relationships as better alternative partners became available”

So, if your partner is already more attractive than you, then you probably consider yourself pretty lucky. Even if there are a great number of better possible partners out there for you, you’re not likely to be able to attract them (you got lucky once dating up; better to not try your luck a second time). By contrast, if you are more attractive than your partner, then it might make sense to start looking around for better options. If few alternatives exist, you might want to stick around; if many do, then switching might be beneficial.

The second study addressed the point that partners in these relationships are not passive bystanders when it comes to being dumped; they’re wary about the possibility of their partner seeking greener pastures. For instance, if you understand that your partner is more attractive than you, you likely also understand (at least intuitively) that they might try to find someone who suits them better than you do (because they have that option). If you view being dumped as a bad thing (perhaps because you can’t do better than your current partner) you might try to do more to keep them around. Translating that into a survey, Conroy et al (2016) asked participants to indicate how often they engaged in 38 mate retention tactics over the course of the past year. These include a broad range of behaviors, including calling to check up on one’s partner, asking to deepen commitment to them, derogating potential alternative mates, buying gifts, or performing sexual favors, among others. Participants also filled out the mate preference measures as before.

The results from the first study regarding satisfaction were replicated. Additionally, as expected, there was a positive relationship between these retention behaviors and relationship satisfaction (ß = .20): the more satisfied one was with their partner, the more they behaved in ways that might help keep them around. There was also a negative relationship between trust and these mate retention behaviors (ß = -.38): the less one trusted their partner, the more they behaved in ways that might discourage them from leaving. While that might sound strange at first – why encourage someone you don’t trust to stick around? – it is fairly easy to understand to the extent that the perceptions of partner trust are intuitively tracking the probability that your partner can do better than you: it’s easier to trust someone who doesn’t have alternatives than it is to trust one who might be tempted.

It’s much easier avoid sinning when you don’t live around an orchard

Overall, I found this research an ingenious way to examine relationship satisfaction and partner fit across a wide range of different traits. There are, of course, some shortcomings to the paper which the authors do mention, including the fact that all the traits were given equal weighting (meaning that the fit for “intelligent” would be rated as being as important as the fit for “dominant” when determining how well your partner suited you) and the pool of potential mates was not considered in the context of a local sample (that is, it matters less if people across the country fit your ideal better than your current mate, relative to if people in your immediate vicinity do). However, given the fairly universal features of human mating psychology and the strength of the obtained results, these do not strike me as fatal to the design in any way; if anything, they raise the prospect that the predictive strength of this approach could actually be improved by tailoring it to specific populations.

References: Conroy-Beam, D., Goetz, C., & Buss, D. (2016). What predicts romantic relationship satisfaction and mate retention intensity: mate preference fulfillment or mate value discrepancies? Evolution & Human Behavior, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.04.003

Morality, Alliances, And Altruism

Having one’s research ideas scooped is part of academic life. Today, for instance, I’d like to talk about some research quite similar in spirit to work I intended to do as part of my dissertation (but did not, as it didn’t end up making the cut in the final approved package). Even if my name isn’t on it, it is still pleasing to see the results I had anticipated. The idea itself arose about four years ago, when I was discussing the curious case of Tucker Max’s donation to Planned Parenthood being (eventually) rejected by the organization. To quickly recap, Tucker was attempting to donate half-a-million dollars to the organization, essentially receiving little more than a plaque in return. However, the donation was rejected, it would seem, under fear of building an association between the organization and Tucker, as some people perceived Tucker to be a less-than-desirable social asset. This, of course, is rather strange behavior, and we would recognize it as such if it were observed in any other species (e.g., “this cheetah refused a free meal for her and her cubs because the wrong cheetah was offering it”); refusing free benefits is just peculiar.

“Too rich for my blood…”

As it turns out, this pattern of behavior is not unique to the Tucker Max case (or the Kim Kardashian one…); it has recently been empirically demonstrated by Tasimi & Wynn (2016), who examined how children respond to altruistic offers from others, contingent on the moral character of said others. In their first experiment, 160 children between the ages of 5 and 8 were recruited to make an easy decision; they were shown two pictures of people and told that the people in the pictures wanted to give them stickers, and they had to pick which one they wanted to receive the stickers from. In the baseline conditions, one person was offering 1 sticker, while the other was offering either 2, 4, 8, or 16 stickers. As such, it should come as no surprise that the person offering more stickers was almost universally preferred (71 of the 80 children wanted the person offering more, regardless of how many more).

Now that we’ve established that more is better, we can consider what happened in the second condition where the children received character information about their benefactors. One of the individuals was said to always be mean, having hit someone the other day while playing; the other was said to always be nice, having hugged someone the other day instead. The mean person was always offering more stickers than the nice one. In this condition, the children tended to shun the larger quantity of stickers in most cases: when the sticker ratio was 2:1, less than 25% of children accepted the larger offer from the mean person; the 4:1 and 8:1 ratios were accepted about 40% of the time, and the 16:1 ratio 65% of the time. While more is better in general, it is apparently not better enough for children to overlook the character information at times. People appear willing to forgo receiving altruism when it’s coming from the wrong type of person. Fascinating stuff, especially when one considers that such refusals end up leaving the wrongdoers with more resources than they would otherwise have (if you think someone is mean, wouldn’t you be better off taking those resources from them, rather than letting them keep them?).

This line was replicated in 64 very young children (approximately one-year old). In this experiment, the children observed a puppet show in which two puppets offered them crackers, with one offering a single cracker and the other offering either 2 or 8. Again, unsurprisingly, the majority of children accepted the larger offer, regardless of how much larger it was (24 of 32 children). In the character information condition, one puppet was shown to be a helper, assisting another puppet in retrieving a toy from a chest, whereas the other puppet was a hinderer, preventing another from retrieving a toy. The hindering puppet, as before, now offered the greater number of crackers, whereas the helper only offered one cracker. When the hindering puppet was offering 8 crackers, his offer was accepted about 70% of the time, which did not differ from the baseline group. However, when the hindering puppet was only offering 2, the acceptance rate was a mere 19%. Even young children, it would seem, are willing to avoid accepting altruism from wrongdoers, assuming the difference in offers isn’t too large.

“He’s not such a bad guy once you get $10 from him”

While neat, these results beg for a deeper explanation as to why we should expect such altruism to be rejected. I believe hints of this explanation are provided by the way Tasimi & Wynn (2016) write about their results:

Taken together, these findings indicate that when the stakes are modest, children show a strong tendency to go against their baseline desire to optimize gain to avoid ‘‘doing business” with a wrongdoer; however, when the stakes are high, children show more willingness to ‘‘deal with the devil…”

What I find strange about that passage is that children in the current experiments were not “doing business” or “making deals” with the altruists; there was no quid pro quo going on. The children were no more doing business with the others than they are doing business with a breastfeeding mother. Nevertheless, there appears to an implicit assumption being made here: an individual who accepts altruism from another is expected to pay that altruism back in the future. In other words, merely receiving altruism from another generates the perception of a social association between the donor and recipient.

This creates an uncomfortable situation for the recipient in cases where the donor has enemies. Those enemies are often interested in inflicting costs on the donor or, at the very least, withholding benefits from him. In the latter case, this makes that social association with the donor less beneficial than it otherwise might, since the donor will have fewer expected future resources to invest in others if others don’t help him; in the former case, not only does the previous logic hold, but the enemies of your donor might begin to inflict costs on you as well, so as to dissuade you from helping him. Putting this into a quick example Jon – your friend – goes out an hurts Bob, say, by sleeping with Bob’s wife. Bob and his friends, in response, both withhold altruism from Jon (as punishment) and might even be inclined to attack him for his transgression. If they perceive you as helping Jon – either by providing him with benefits or by preventing them from hurting Jon – they might be inclined to withhold benefits from or punish you as well until you stop helping Jon as a means of indirect punishment. To turn the classic phrase, the friend of my enemy is also my enemy (just as the enemy of my enemy is my friend).

What cues might they use to determine if you’re Jon’s ally? Well, one likely useful cue is whether Bob directs altruism towards you. If you are accepting his altruism, this is probably a good indication that you will be inclined to reciprocate it later (else risk being labeled a social cheater or free rider). If you wish to avoid condemnation and punishment by proxy, then, one route to take is to refuse benefits from questionable sources. This risk can be overcome, however, in cases where the morally-questionable donor is providing you a large enough benefit which, indeed, was precisely the pattern of results observed here. What will determine what counts as “large enough” should be expected to vary as a function of a few things, most notably the size and nature of the transgressions, as well as the degree of expected reciprocity. For example, receiving large donations from morally-questionable donors should be expected to be more acceptable to the extent the donation is made anonymously vs publicly, as anonymity might reduce the perceived social associations between donor and recipient.

You might also try only using “morally clean” money

Importantly (as far as I’m concerned) this data fits well within my theory of morality – where morality is hypothesized to function as an association-management mechanism – but not particularly well with other accounts: altruistic accounts of morality should predict that more altruism is still better, dynamic coordination says nothing about accepting altruism, as giving isn’t morally condemned, and self-interest/mutualistic accounts would, I think, also suggest that taking more money would still be preferable since you’re not trying to dissuade others from giving. While I can’t help but feel some disappointment that I didn’t carry this research out myself, I am both happy with the results that came of it and satisfied with the methods utilized by the authors. Getting research ideas scooped isn’t so bad when they turn out well anyway; I’m just happy enough to see my main theory supported.  

References: Tasimi, A. & Wynn, K. (2016). Costly rejection of wrongdoers by infants and children. Cognition, 151, 76-79.

Morality, Empathy, And The Value Of Theory

Let’s solve a problem together: I have some raw ingredients that I would like to transform into my dinner. I’ve already managed to prepare and combine the ingredients, so all I have left to do is cook them. How am I to solve this problem of cooking my food? Well, I need a good source of heat. Right now, my best plan is to get in my car and drive around for a bit, as I have noticed that, after I have been driving for some time, the engine in my car gets quite hot. I figure I can use the heat generated by driving to cook my food. It would come as no surprise to anyone if you have a couple of objections with my suggestion, mostly focused on the point that cars were never designed to solve the problems posed by cooking. Sure, they do generate heat, but that’s really more of a byproduct of their intended function. Further, the heat they do produce isn’t particularly well-controlled or evenly-distributed. Depending on how I position my ingredients or the temperature they require, I might end up with a partially-burnt, partially-raw dinner that is likely also full of oil, gravel, and other debris that has been kicked up into the engine. Not only is the car engine not very efficient at cooking, then, it’s also not very sanitary. You’d probably recommend that I try using a stove or oven instead.

“I’m not convinced. Get me another pound of bacon; I’m going to try again”

Admittedly, this example is egregious in its silliness, but it does make its point well: while I noted that my car produces heat, I misunderstood the function of the device more generally and tried to use it to solve a problem inappropriately as a result. The same logic also holds in cases where you’re dealing with evolved cognitive mechanisms. I examined such an issue recently, noting that punishment doesn’t seem to do a good job as a mechanism for inspiring trust, at least not relative to its alternatives. Today I wanted to take another run at the underlying issue of matching proximate problem to adaptive function, this time examining a different context: directing aid to the great number of people around the world who need altruism to stave off death and non-lethal, but still quite severe, suffering (issues like alleviating malnutrition and infectious diseases). If you want to inspire people to increase the amount of altruism directed towards these needy populations, you will need to appeal to some component parts of our psychology, so what parts should those be?

The first step in solving this problem is to think about what cognitive systems might increase the amount of altruism directed towards others, and then examine the adaptive function of each to determine whether they will solve the problem particularly efficiently. Paul Bloom attempted a similar analysis (about three years ago, but I’m just reading it now), arguing that empathetic cognitive systems seem like a poor fit for the global altruism problem. Specifically, Bloom makes the case that empathy seems more suited to dealing with single-target instances of altruism, rather than large-scale projects. Empathy, he writes, requires an identifiable victim, as people are giving (at least proximately) because they identify with the particular target and feel their pain. This becomes a problem, however, when you are talking about a population of 100 or 1000 people, since we simply can’t identify with that many targets at the same time. Our empathetic systems weren’t designed to work that way and, as such, augmenting their outputs somehow is unlikely to lead to a productive solution to the resource problems plaguing certain populations. Rather than cause us to give more effectively to those in need, these systems might instead lead us to over-invest further in a single target. Though Bloom isn’t explicit on this point, I feel he would likely agree that this has something to do with empathetic systems not having evolved because they solved the problems of others per se, but rather because they did things like help the empathetic person build relationships with specific targets, or signal their qualities as an associate to those observing the altruistic behavior.

Nothing about that analysis strikes me as distinctly wrong. However, provided I have understood his meaning properly, Bloom goes on to suggest that the matter of helping others involves the engagement of our moral systems instead (as he explains in this video, he believes empathy “fundamentally…makes the world worse,” in the moral sense of the term, and he also writes that there’s more to morality – in this case, helping others – than empathy). The real problem with this idea is that our moral systems are not altruistic systems, even if they do contain altruistic components (in much the same way that my car is not a cooking mechanism even if it does generate heat). This can be summed up in a number of ways, but simplest is in a study by Kurzban, DeScioli, & Fein (2012) in which participants were presented with the footbridge dilemma (“Would you push one person in front of a train – killing them – to save five people from getting killed by it in turn?”). If one was interested in being an effective altruist in the sense of delivering the greatest number of benefits to others, pushing is definitely the way to go under the simple logic that five lives saved is better than one life spared (assuming all lives have equal value). Our moral systems typically oppose this conclusion, however, suggesting that saving the lives of the five is impermissible if it means we need to kill the one. What is noteworthy about the Kurzban et al (2012) paper is that you can increase people’s willingness to push the one if the people in the dilemma (both being pushed and saved) are kin.

Family always has your back in that way…

The reason for this increase in pushing when dealing with kin, rather than strangers, seems to have something to do with our altruistic systems that evolved for delivering benefits to close genetic relatives; what we call kin-selected mechanisms (mammary glands being a prime example). This pattern of results from the footbridge dilemma suggests there is a distinction between our altruistic systems (that benefit others) and our moral ones; they function to do different things and, as it seems, our moral systems are not much better suited to dealing with the global altruism problem than empathetic ones. Indeed, one of the main features of our moral systems is nonconsequentialism: the idea that the moral value of an act depends on more than just the net consequences to others. If one is seeking to be an effective altruist, then, using the moral system to guide behavior seems to be a poor way to solve that problem because our moral system frequently focuses on behavior per se at the expense of its consequences. 

That’s not the only reason to be wary of the power of morality to solve effective altruism problems either. As I have argued elsewhere, our moral systems function to manage associations with others, most typically by strategically manipulating our side-taking behavior in conflicts (Marczyk, 2015). Provided this description of morality’s adaptive function is close to accurate, the metaphorical goal of the moral system is to generate and maintain partial social relationships. These partial relationships, by their very nature, oppose the goals of effective altruism, which are decidedly impartial in scope. The reasoning of effective altruism might, for instance, suggest that it would be better for parents to spend their money not on their child’s college tuition, but rather on relieving dehydration in a population across the world. Such a conclusion would conflict not only with the outputs of our kin-selected altruistic systems, but can also conflict with other aspects of our moral systems. As some of my own, forthcoming research finds, people do not appear to perceive much of a moral obligation for strangers to direct altruism towards other strangers, but they do perceive something of an obligation for friends and family to help each other (specifically when threatened by outside harm). Our moral obligations towards existing associates make us worse effective altruists (and, in Bloom’s sense of the word, morally worse people in turn).

While Bloom does mention that no one wants to live in that kind of strictly utilitarian world – one in which the welfare of strangers is treated equally to the welfare of friends and kin – he does seem to be advocating we attempt something close to it when he writes:

Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.

Appreciation of the fact that the lives of others have value is decidedly not the same thing as behaving as if they have the same value as the ones we love. Like most everyone else in the world, I want my friends and family to value my welfare above the welfare of others; substantially so, in fact. There are obvious adaptive benefits to such relationships, such as knowing that I will be taken care of in times of need. By contrast, if others showed no particular care for my welfare, but rather just sought to relieve as much suffering as they could wherever it existed in the world, there would be no benefit to my retaining them as associates; they would provide with me assistance or they wouldn’t, regardless of the energy I spent (or didn’t) maintaining social relationship with them. Asking the moral system to be a general-purpose altruism device is unlikely to be much more successful than asking my car to be an efficient oven, that people to treat others the world over as if they were kin, or that you empathize with 1000 people. It represents an incomplete view as to the functions of our moral psychology. While morality might be impartial with respect to behavior, it is unlikely to be impartial with regard to the social value of others (which is why, also in my forthcoming research, I find that stealing to defend against an outside agent of harm is rated as more morally acceptable than doing so to buy recreational drugs).  

“You have just as much value to me as anyone else; even people who aren’t alive yet”

To top this discussion off, it is also worth mentioning those pesky, unintended consequences that sometimes accompany even the best of intentions. By relieving deaths from dehydration, malaria, and starvation today, you might be ensuring greater harm in future generations in the form of increasing the rate of climate change, species extinction, and habitat destruction brought about by sustaining larger global human populations. Assuming for the moment that was true, would that mean that feeding starving people and keeping them alive today would be morally wrong? Both options – withholding altruism when it could be provided and ensuring harm for future generations – might get the moral stamp of disapproval, depending on the reference group (from the perspective of future generations dealing with global warming, it’s bad to feed; from the perspective of the starving people, it’s bad to not feed). This is why the slight majority of participants in Kurzban et al (2012) reported that pushing and not pushing can both be morally unacceptable courses of action.  If we are relying on our moral sense to guide our behavior in this instance, then, we would unlikely be very successful in our altruistic endeavors.

References: Kurzban, R., DeScioli, P., & Fein, D. (2012). Hamilton vs. Kant: Pitting adaptations for altruism against adaptation for moral judgment. Evolution & Human Behavior, 33, 323-333.

Marczyk, J. (2015). Moral alliance strategies theory. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1, 77-90.

Punishment Might Signal Trustworthiness, But Maybe…

As one well-known saying attributed to Maslow goes, “when all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you can only do one thing, you will often apply that thing as a solution to a problem it doesn’t fit particularly well. For example, while a hammer might make for a poor cooking utensil in many cases, if you are tasked with cooking a meal and given only a hammer, you might try to make the best of a bad situation, using the hammer as an inefficient, makeshift knife, spoon, and spatula. That you might meet with some degree of success in doing so does not tell you that hammers function as cooking implements. Relatedly, if I then gave you a hammer and a knife, and tasked with you the same cooking jobs, I would likely observe that hammer use drops precipitously while knife use increases quite a bit. It is also worth bearing in mind that if the only task you have to do is cooking, the only conclusion I’m realistically capable of drawing concerns whether a tool is designed for cooking. That is, if I give you a hammer and a knife and tell you to cook something, I won’t be able to draw the inference that hammers are designed for dealing with nails because nails just aren’t present in the task.

Unless one eats nails for breakfast, that is

While all that probably sounds pretty obvious in the cooking context, a very similar set up appears to have been used recently to study whether third-party punishment (the punishment of actors by people not directly affected by their behavior; hereafter TPP) functions to signal the trustworthiness of the punisher. In their study, Jordan et al (2016) has participants playing a two-stage economic game. The first stage was a TPP game. In this game, there are three players: player A is the helper, and is given 30 cents, player B is the recipient, and given nothing, and player C is the punisher, given 20 cents. The helper can choose to either give the recipient 15 cents or nothing. If the helper decides to give nothing, the punisher then has the option to pay 5 cents to reduce the helper’s pay by 15 cents, or not do so. In this first stage, the first participant would either play one round as a helper or a punisher, or play two rounds: one in the role of the helper and another in the role of the punisher.

The second stage of this game involved a second participant. This participant observed the behavior of the people playing the first game, and then played a trust game with the first participant. In this trust game, the second participant is given 30 cents and decides how much, if any, to send to the first participant. Any amount sent is tripled, and then the first participant decides how much of that amount, if any, to send back. The working hypothesis of Jordan et al (2016) is that TPP will be used a signal of trustworthiness, but only when it is the only possible signal; when participants have an option to send better signals of trustworthiness – such as when they are in the roll of the helper, rather than the punisher – punishment will lose its value as a signal for trust. By contrast, helping should always serve as a good signal of trustworthiness, regardless of whether punishment is an option.

Indeed, this is precisely what they found. When the first participant was only able to punish, the second participant tended to trust punishers more, sending them 16% more in the trust game than non-punishers; in turn, the punishers also tended to be slightly more trustworthy, sending back 8% more than non-punishers. So, the punishers were slightly, though not substantially, more trustworthy than the non-punishers when punishing was all they could do. However, when participants were in the helper role (and not the punisher role), those who transferred money to the recipient were in turn trusted more – being sent an average of 39% more in the trust game than non-helpers – and were, in fact, more trustworthy – returning an average of 25% more than non-helpers. Finally, when the first participant was in the role of both the punisher and the helper, punishment was less common (30% of participants in both roles punished, whereas 41% of participants who were only punishers did) and, controlling for helping, punishers were only trusted with 4% more in the second stage and actually returned 0.3% less.

The final task was less about trust and more about upper-body strength

To sum up, then, when people only had the option to punish others, punishment behavior was used by observers as a cue to trustworthiness. However, when helping was possible as well, punishment ceased to predict trustworthiness. From this set of findings, the authors make the rather strange conclusion that “clear support” was found for their model of punishment as signaling trustworthiness. My enthusiasm for that interpretation is a bit more tepid. To understand why, we can return to my initial example: you have given people a tool (a hammer/punishment) and a task (cooking/a trust game). When they use this tool in the task, you see some results, but they aren’t terribly efficient (16% more trusted and 8% more returned). Then, you give them a second tool (a knife/helping) to solve the same task. Now the results are much better (39% more trusted, 25% more returned). In fact, when they have both tools, they don’t seem to use the first one to accomplish the task as much (punishment falls 11%) and, when they do, they don’t end up with better outcomes (4% more trusted, 0.3% less returned). From that data alone, I would say that the evidence does not support the inference that punishment is a mechanism for signaling trustworthiness. People might try using it in a pinch, but its value seems greatly diminished compared to other behaviors.  

Further, the only tasks people were doing involved playing a dictator and trust game. If punishment serves some other purpose beyond signaling trustworthiness, you wouldn’t be able to observe it there because people aren’t in the right contexts for it to be observed. To make that point clear, we could consider other examples. First, let’s consider murder. If I condemn murder morally and, as a third party, punish someone for engaging in murder, does this tell you that I am more trustworthy than someone else who doesn’t punish it themselves? Probably not; almost everyone condemns murder, at least in the abstract, but the costs of engaging in punishment aren’t the same for all people. Someone who is just as trustworthy might not be willing or able to suffer the associated costs. What about something a bit more controversial: let’s say that, as a third party, I punish people for obtaining or providing abortions. Does hearing about my punishment make me seem like a more trustworthy person? That probably depends on what side of the abortion issue you fall on.

To put this in more precise detail, here’s what I think is going on: the second participant – the one sending money in the trust game, so let’s call him the sender – primarily wants to get as much money back as possible in this context. Accordingly, they are looking for cues that the first participant – the one they’re trusting, or the recipient – is an altruist. One good cue for altruism is, well, altruism. If the sender sees that the recipient has behaved altruistically by giving someone else money, this is a pretty good cue for future altruism. Punishment, however, is not the same thing as altruism. From the point of the view of the person benefiting from the punishment, TPP is indeed altruistic; from the point of view of the target of that TPP, the punishment is spiteful. While punishment can contain this altruistic component, it is more about trading off the welfare of others, rather than providing benefits to people per se. While that altruistic component of punishment can be used as a cue for trustworthiness in a pinch when no other information is available, that does not suggest to me sending such a signal is its only, or even its primary function.

Sure, they can clean the floors, but that’s not really why I hired them

In the real world, people’s behaviors are not ever limited to just the punishment of perpetrators. If there are almost always better ways to signal one’s trustworthiness, then TPP’s role in that regard is likely quite low. For what it’s worth, I happen to think that the roll of TPP has more to do with using transient states of need to manage associations (friendships) with others, as such an explanation works well outside the narrow boundaries of the present paper when things other than unfairness are being punished and people are seeking to do more than make as much money as possible. Finding a good friend is not the same thing as finding a good altruist, and friendships do not usually resemble trust games. However, when all you are observing is unfairness and cooperation, TPP might end up looking a little bit like a mechanism for building trust. Sometimes. If you sort of squint a bit.

References: Jordan, K., Hoffman, M., Bloom, P. & Rand. D. (2016). Third-party punishment as a costly signal of trustworthiness. Nature, 530, 473-476.

Thoughtful Suggestions For Communicating Sex Differences

Having spent quite a bit of time around the psychological literature – both academic and lay pieces alike – there are some words or phrases I can no longer read without an immediate, knee-jerk sense of skepticism arising in me, as if they taint everything that follows and precedes them. Included in this list are terms like bias, stereotype, discrimination, and, for the present purposes, fallacy. The reason these words elicit such skepticism on my end is due to the repeated failure of people using them to  consistently produce high-quality work or convincing lines of reasoning. This is almost surely due to the perceived social stakes when such terms are being used: if you can make members of a particular group appear uniquely talented, victimized, or otherwise valuable, you can subsequently direct social support towards and away from various ends. When the goal of argumentation becomes persuasion, truth is not a necessary component and can be pushed aside. Importantly, the people engaged in such persuasive endeavors do not usually recognize they are treating information or arguments differently, contingent on how it suits their ends.

“Of course I’m being fair about this”

There are few areas of research that seem to engender as much conflict – philosophically and socially – as sex differences, and it is here those words appear regularly. As there are social reasons people might wish to emphasize or downplay sex differences, it has steadily become impossible for me to approach most of the writing I see on the topic with the assumption it is at least sort of unbiased. That’s not to say every paper is hopelessly mired in a particular worldview, rejecting all contrary data, mind you; just that I don’t expect them to reflect earnest examinations of the capital-T, truth. Speaking of which, a new paper by Maney (2016) recently crossed my desk; a the paper that concerns itself with how sex differences get reported and how they ought to be discussed. Maney (2016) appears to take a dim view of the research on sex differences in general and attempts to highlight some perceived fallacies of people’s understandings of them. Unfortunately, for someone trying and educate people about issues surrounding the sex difference literature, the paper does not come off as one written by someone possessing a uniquely deep knowledge of the topic.

The first fallacy Maney (2016) seeks to highlight is the idea that sexes form discrete groups. Her logic for explaining why this is not the case revolves around the idea that while the sexes do indeed differ to some degree on a number of traits, they also often overlap a great deal on them. Instead, Maney (2016) argues that we ought to not be asking whether the sexes differ on a given trait, but rather by how much they do. Indeed, she even puts the word ‘differences’ in quotes, suggesting that these ‘differences’ between sexes aren’t, in many cases, real. I like this brief section, as it highlights well why I have grown to distrust words like fallacy. Taking her points in reverse order, if one is interested in how much groups (in this case, sexes) differ, then one must have, at least implicitly, already answered the question as whether or not they do. After all, if the sexes did not differ, it would pointless to talk about the extent of those non-differences; there simply wouldn’t be variation. Second, I know of zero researchers whose primarily interest resides in answering the question of whether the sexes differ to the exclusion of the extent of those differences. As far as I’m aware, Maney (2016) seems to be condemning a strange class of imaginary researchers who are content to find that a difference exists and then never look into it further or provide more details. Finally, I see little value in noting that the sexes often overlap a great deal when it comes to explaining the areas in which they do not. In much the same way, if you were interested in understanding the differences between humans and chimpanzees, you are unlikely to get very far by noting that we share a great deal of genes in common. Simply put, you can’t explain differences with similarities. If one’s goal is to minimize the perception of differences, though, this would be a helpful move.  

The second fallacy that Maney (2016) seeks to tackle is that idea that the cause of a sex differences in behavior can be attributed to differing brain structures. Her argument on this front is that it is logically invalid to do the following: (1) note that some brain structure between men and women differ, (2) note that this brain structure is related to a given behavior on which they also differ, and so (3) conclude that a sex difference in brain structure between men and women is responsible for that different behavior. Now while this argument is true within the rules of formal logic, it is clear that differences in brain structure will result in differences in behavior; the only way that idea could be false would be if brain structure was not connected to behavior, and I don’t know of anyone crazy enough to try and make that argument. The researchers engaging in the fallacy thus might not get the specifics right all the time, but their underlying approach is fine: if a difference exists in behavior (between sexes, species, or individuals), there will exist some corresponding structural differences in the brain. The tools we have for studying the matter are a far cry from perfect, making inquiry difficult, but that’s a different issue. Relatedly, then, noting that some formal bit of logic is invalid is assuredly not the same thing as demonstrating that a conclusion is incorrect or the general approach misguided. (Also worth noting is that the above validity issue stops being a problem when conclusions are probabilistic, rather than definitive.)

“Sorry, but it’s not logical to conclude his muscles might determine his strength”

The third fallacy Maney (2016) addresses is the idea that sex differences in the brain must be preprogrammed or fixed, attempting to dispel the notion that sex differences are rooted in biology and thus impervious to experience. In short, she is arguing against the idea of hard genetic determinism. Oddly enough, I have never met a single genetic determinist in person; in fact, I’ve never even read an article that advanced such an argument (though maybe I’ve just been unusually lucky…). As every writer on the subject I have come across has emphasized – often in great detail – the interactive nature of genes and environments in determining the direction of development, it again seems like Maney (2016) is attacking philosophical enemies that are more imagined than real. She could have, for instance, quoted researchers who made claims along the lines of, “trait X is biologically-determined and impervious to environmental inputs during development”; instead, it looks like everyone she cites for this fallacy is making a similar criticism of others, rather than anyone making the claims being criticized (though I did not check those references myself, so I’m not 100% there). Curiously, Maney (2016) doesn’t seem to be at all concerned about the people who, more-or-less, disregard the role of genetics or biology in understanding human behavior; at the very least she doesn’t devote any portion of her paper to addressing that particular fallacy. That rather glaring omission – coupled with what she does present – could leave one with the impression that she isn’t really trying to present a balanced view of the issue.

With those ostensibly fallacies out of the way, there are a few other claims worth mentioning in the paper. The first is that Maney (2016) seems to have a hard time reconciling the idea of sexual dimorphisms – traits that occur in one form typical of males and one typical of females – with the idea that the sexes overlap to varying degrees on many of them, such as height. While it’s true enough that you can’t tell someone’s sex for certain if you only know their height, that doesn’t mean you can’t make some good guesses that are liable to be right a lot more often than they’re wrong. Indeed, the only dimorphisms she mentions are the presence of sex chromosomes, external genitalia, and gonads and then continues to write as if these were of little to no consequence. Much like height, however, there couldn’t be selection for any physical sex differences if the sexes did not behave differently. Since behavior is controlled by the brain, physical differences between the sexes, like height and genitalia, are usually also indicative of some structural differences in the brain. This is the case whether the dimorphism is one of degree (like height) or kind (like chromosomes).

Returning to the main point, outside of these all-or-none traits, it is unclear what Maney (2016) would consider a genuine difference, much less any clear justification for that standard. For example, she notes some research that found a 90% overlap in interhemispheric connectivity between the male and female distributions, but then seems to imply that the corresponding 10% non-overlap does not reflect a ‘real’ sex difference. We would surely notice a 10% difference in other traits, like height, IQ, or number of fingers but, I suppose in the realm of the brain, 10% just doesn’t cut it.

Maney (2016) also seems to take an odd stance when it comes to explanations for these differences. In one instance, she writes about a study on multitasking that found a sex difference favoring men; a difference which, we are told, was explained by a ‘much larger difference in video game experience,’ rather than sex per se. Great, but what are we to make of that ‘much larger’ sex difference in video game experience? It would seem that that finding too requires an explanation, and one is not present. Perhaps video game experience is explained more by, I don’t know, competitiveness than sex, but then what are we to explain competitiveness with? These kinds of explanations usually end up going nowhere in a hurry unless they eventually land on some kind of adaptive endpoint, as once a trait’s reproductive value is explained, you don’t need to go any further. Unfortunately, Maney (2016) seems to oppose evolutionary explanations for sex differences, scolding those who propose ‘questionable’ functional or evolutionary explanations for sex differences for being genetic determinists who see no role for sociocultural influences. In her rush to condemn those genetic determinists (who, again, I have never met or read, apparently), Maney’s (2016) piece appears to fall victim to the warning laid out by Tinbergen (1963) several decades ago: rather than seeking to improve the shape and direction of evolutionary, functional analyses, Maney (2016) instead recommends that people simply avoid them altogether.

“Don’t ask people to think about these things; you’ll only hurt their unisex brains”

This is a real shame, as evolutionary theory is the only tool available for providing a deeper understanding of these sex differences (as well as our physical and psychological form more generally). Just as species will differ in morphology and behavior to the extent they have faced different adaptive problems, so too will the sexes within a species. By understanding the different challenges faced by the sexes historically, one can get a much clearer sense as to where psychological and physical difference will – and will not – be expected to exist, as well as why (this extra level of ‘why’ is important, as it allows you to better figure out where an analysis has gone wrong if the predictions don’t work). Maney (2016), it would seem, even missed a golden opportunity within her paper to explain to her readers that evolutionary explanations complement, rather than supplant, more proximate explanations when quoting an abstract that seemed to contrast the two. I suspect this opportunity was missed because she is either legitimately unaware of that point, or does not understand it (judging from the tone of her paper), believing (incorrectly) instead that evolutionary means genetic, and therefore immutable. If that is the case, it would be rather ironic for someone who does not seem to have much understanding of the evolutionary literature lecturing others on how it ought to be reported.

References: Maney, D. (2016). Perils and pitfalls of reporting sex differences. Philosophical Transactions B, 371, 1-11.

Tinbergen, N. (1964). On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 20, 410-433.