Social Banking

“Bankers have a limited amount of money, and must choose who to invest it in. Each choice is a gamble: taken together, they must ultimately yield a net profit, or the banker will go out of business. This set of incentives yield a common complaint about the banking system: that bankers will only lend money to individuals who don’t need it. The harsh irony of the banker’s paradox is this: just when individuals need the money most desperately, they are also the poorest credit risk and, therefore, the least likely to be selected to receive a loan” – Tooby & Cosmides (1996, p. 131)

While perhaps more of a set of unfortunately circumstances than an actual paradox (in true Alanis Morrissette fashion), the banker’s paradox can be a useful metaphor for understanding social interactions. Specifically, it can help guide predictions as to how we would expect the victim/perpetrator/third party dynamic to play itself out, and, more importantly, help explain why we would have such expectations. The time and energy we can invest in others socially – in terms of building and maintaining friendships – is a lot like money; we cannot spend it in two places at once. Given that we have a limited budget with which to build and maintain relationships, it’s of vital importance for some cognitive system to assess the probability of social returns from its investment; likewise, individuals have a vested interest in manipulating that assessment in others in order to further their goals.

And, for the record, reading my site will yield a large social return on your investment. Promise.

The first matter to touch on is why a third party would feel compelled to get involved in other people’s disputes. One reason might be the potential for the third party to gain accurate information about the likely behavior of others. If person A claims that person B is a liar, and it’s true, person C could potentially benefit from knowing that. Of course, if it’s not true, then person C would likely have been better off ignoring that information. Further, if the behavior of person B towards person A lacks predictive value of how person B will behave towards person C, then the usefulness of such information is again compromised. For instance, while an older sibling might physically dominate a younger sibling, it does not mean that older sibling will in turn dominate his other classmates or his friends. Given the twin possibilities of either receiving inaccurate information or accurate but useless information, it remains questionable as to how much third party involvement this hypothesis could explain.

Beyond information value, however, third parties may also get involved in others’ conflicts in the service of forming and maintaining valuable social alliances. Here, the accuracy of the information is less of an issue. Even if it’s true that person B is an unsavory character, he may also be a useful person to have as an ally (or at least, not have as enemy; as the now famous quote goes, more or less: “He might be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”). As I touched on previously the accuracy of our perceptions are only relevant to the extent that accuracy leads to useful outcomes; accuracy for its own sake is not something that could be selected for. This suggests that we shouldn’t expect our evaluations of victimhood claims to be objective or consistent; we should expect them to be useful and strategic. Our moral templates shouldn’t be automatically completed in all cases, as our visual templates are for the Kanizsa Triangle; in fact, we should expect inputs to often be erased from our moral templates – something of an automatic removal.

Let’s now return to the banker’s paradox. In the moral realm, our investments come with higher stakes than they do in the friendship realm. To side with one party in a moral judgment is not to simply invest your time in one person over another; it involves actively harming other potential investment partners, potentially alienating them directly and their allies indirectly (and harming them can bring with it associated retribution). That said, aligning yourself with someone making a moral claim can bring huge benefits, in the form of reciprocal social support and building alliances. As Tooby and Cosmides put it:

…[I]f you are unusually or uniquely valuable to someone else – for whatever reason – then that person has an uncommonly strong interest in your survival during times of difficulty. The interest they have in your survival makes them, therefore, highly valuable to you. (p.140)

So the question remains: In the context of claims to victimhood, how does someone make themselves appear valuable to others, in order to recruit their support?

Please say the answer involves trips to the red light district…

There are two distinct ways of doing this which come to mind: making yourself look like a better investment, and/or make others appear to be a worse investment. Victims face a tricky dilemma in regard to the first item: they need to make themselves appear to genuinely have been a victim while not making themselves look too easily victimizable. To make oneself look to victimizable is to make oneself look like a bad investment; one that will frequently need support and be relatively inept at returning the assistance. Going too far in other direction though, by making oneself out to be relatively unharmable, could have a negative effect on your ability to recruit support as well. This is because, as in the banker’s paradox, rich people don’t really need money, and, accordingly, people in strong positions socially are not generally viewed as needing help either; you rarely find people concerned with the plight of the rich and powerful. Those who don’t need help may not be the most grateful for it, nor the most likely to reciprocate it. Tooby and Cosmides (1996) recognized this issue, writing:

“…[I]f a person’s trouble is temporary or they can easily be returned to a position of full benefit-dispersing competence by feasible amounts of assistance…then personal troubles should not make someone a less attractive object of assistance. Indeed, a person who is in this kind of trouble might be a more attractive object of investment than one who is currently safe, because the same delivered investment will be valued more by the person in dire need.” (p.132)

Such a line of reasoning would imply we should expect to find victims trying to manipulate (a) the perceptions others have of their need, (b) their eventual usefulness, and (c) the perceptions others have concerning the needs and usefulness of the perpetrator. Likewise, perpetrators should be engaging counter manipulation along precisely the same dimensions. We would  also expect that victims and perpetrators might try and sway the cost/benefit analysis in third parties via the use of warnings and threats – implicit or explicit – about the consequences of siding with one party or another. Remember, third parties are not making these judgments in a vacuum; if the majority of third parties side with person A, third parties that sided with person B might now find themselves on the receiving end of social sanctions or ostracism.

DeScioli & Kurzban (2012), realizing this issue, posit that human mind contains adaptions for coordinating which side to take in a dispute with other third parties, so as to avoid the costs of potential despotism on the one hand, and the costs of inter-alliance fighting on the other. If a publicly observable signal not tied to one’s individual identity is used for coordinating third party involvement – i.e. all third parties will align together against an actor for doing X (killing, lying, saying the wrong thing, etc), no matter who does it – third parties can solve the problem of discoordination with one another. However, one notable problem with this approach is the informational hurdle I mentioned previously: most people are not witnesses to the vast majority of acts people engage in. Now, if person A suggests that person B has done something morally wrong, and person B denies it, provided the two are the only witnesses to the act, there’s not a whole lot to go on in terms of publicly observable signals. Without such signals (and even with them), the mind needs to use whatever available information it has to make such a judgment, and that information largely revolves around the identity of the actors in question.

And some people just aren’t very good actors.

I’d like to return briefly to a finding I’ve discussed before: men and women agree that women tend to be more discriminated against than men, even in the face of contradictory evidence. This finding might arise because people are perceiving – accurately – that women tend to be objectively more victimized. It might also arise because certain classes of people – in this case, women, relative to men – are viewed as being better investments of limited social capital. For instance, in terms of future rewards, it might be a good idea for a man to align himself with a woman – or, at the very least, not align himself against her – even in the event she’s guilty; moral condemnation does not tend to get the romance following, from my limited understanding of human interaction.

It would follow, then, that the automatic completion vs automatic deletion threshold for our moral templates should vary, contingent on the actor in question: friends and family have a different threshold than strangers; possible romantic interests have a different threshold than those we find romantically repulsive. Alliances might even serve as potential tipping points for third parties. Let’s say person A and B get involved in a dispute; even if person A is clearly in the wrong, if person A already has a large number of partial backers, the playing field is no longer level for third party involvement. Third party involvement can be driven by a large number of factors, and we shouldn’t expect all moral claims to be viewed equally, even in cases where the underlying logic is the same. The goal is usefulness; not consistency.

References: DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2012). A Solution to the Mysteries of Morality Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/a0029065

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

The Myths That Never Were

I recently came across a post over at Psychology Today entitled, “Six Myths About Female Sexuality and Why They’re Myths” by one Susan Whitbourne. I feel the need to discuss it here for two reasons: first, it’s a terrible piece; not only does Susan get a lot wrong, she gets it wrong badly while bad-mouthing my field. So that’s kind of annoying, but it’s not the main reason. That reason is because, at the time I’m writing this, there are five comments on the article; there were ten comments on it before I had left mine last time I had checked it. This means at least six comments (all the highly critical ones, I might add) were deleted. This has, in turn, activated my moral template for automatic completion, and I find myself perceiving an incompetent writer trying to hide criticism instead of engaging it, instead of all the negative comments vanishing into the internet magically.

“Just throw a rug over it and you’re good to go”

I’d like to first mention that the source Susan is drawing her information from is Terri Conley. You know, the one who suggested that sexual reproduction is a byproduct of sexual pleasure. That is to say, sexual reproduction did not directly contribute to reproduction, which is kind of an odd claim to make. The paper itself was also discussed at some length here roughly a year ago, so what I’m doing is largely repetition; you know, standing on the shoulders of giants and all. Anyway, on to the matter of figuring out what institution is giving out psychology PhDs to people who clearly don’t deserve them (I’m looking at you…Columbia University? Really? Well, fancy that).

Susan – who I should remind everyone again says she has a PhD – in her first point suggests that men and women value the traits of status, youth, and attractiveness equally. Since this point is about preferences, it’s wrong on the grounds that massive amounts of evidence from surveys the world over demonstrate precisely that pattern of preferences. However, just because someone has certain preferences, it does not imply that their partner – should they eventually have one – will manifest any or all aspects of those preferences, as tradeoffs need to be made. If everyone expressed an interest for an attractive partner and there are only so many attractive partners to go around, someone’s going to be disappointed; many someones, in fact. Accordingly, it might not be such a good idea to attempt and invest a lot of energy in a long-shot, no matter how attractive the payoff might be (but more about speed dating below).

The second “myth” is that men and women desire (and have) different numbers of partners. In the realm of desire, men do indeed desire a greater number of partners than women. However, when, as Susan suggests, “appropriate statistical controls were used”, this difference goes away. In the current context, “appropriate” means “using the median instead of a mean”, or, as I might put it, ignoring all the inconvenient data. This is not a first time that a median, rather than mean, has been used to ignore data that doesn’t fit preconceptions. Now, of course, men and women need to have the same number of opposite sex partners; that’s just basic statistics. Despite this, men tend to claim to have more partners than women, so someone must be lying. In this case, the person lying is… the author, Susan. She reported that when hooked up to a fake lie detector, men adjusted their number down, which is peculiar, given that the study she’s talking about (Alexander & Fisher, 2003) found that men were consistent across groups; it was the women who were under-reporting. Way to bust myths, Susan.

You clearly put in the effort instead of just bullshitting it.

The third myth is that men think about sex more than women. This myth is a myth, according to Susan, in that it’s true. Men do, in fact, think about sex more, according to Conley et al (2011); they also think about food and sleep more. So let’s examine the logic here: Men do X more than women. Men also do Y and Z more than women. Therefore, men don’t do X more. Sure, that might seem like a basic failure of reasoning abilities, since the conclusion in no way follows from the premises, but, bear in mind, this woman does have a PhD from Columbia, so she clearly must understand this problem better than those who pointed out this huge failing. Better to just delete the comments of people pointing this out, rather than risk Susan wasting her valuable time engaging in debate with them.

Myth four is another one of those true myths: women have orgasms less frequently than men. However, it’s not just a true myth; it’s also one of those things Susan lies about. Susan grants that this orgasm differential exists in hookups, but not in romantic relationships. Conley et al (2011) report on data showing that, during hookups, women orgasm 32% and 49% as frequently as men (in first and repeat hookups respectively). However, in established relationships, women orgasmed 80% as much. Thus, according to Susan, a 20% gap in frequency amounts to no gap. Frankly, I’m surprised that Mythbusters hasn’t snatched Susan up yet, given her impressive logical and basic reading abilities.

Myth five is that, apparently, men like casual sex more than woman. I know; I was shocked to hear people thought that too. I already linked to the discussion of the article Conley (2011) uses to support the notion that men and women like causal sex just as much, but here it is again. The long and short of the paper is that, when women and men considered casual sex offers from very attractive and famous people, there was no difference. Women were also just as likely as men to accept a casual sex offer from a close friend who they thought would provide a positive sexual experience. It might be worth pointing that most people aren’t very attractive, famous, familiar, and skilled in bed, and women tend to judge most men as lacking in this department (given that 0% accepted offers for casual sex in the classic Clark and Hatfield paper), whereas the same dimensions don’t seem to matter to men nearly as much (given the roughly 75% acceptance rate). It might be worth pointing that out, that is, if you know what you’re talking about, which Susan and Conley clearly don’t.

Finally, we arrive at Myth Six: women are choosier than men. The Clark and Hatfield results, along with evidence from every culture across the globe and many species on the planet, might seem to confirm this myth. However, the results of a single speed-dating survey where no sexual behavior actually took place and no sex difference was fully reversed could overturn it all. In this study, depending on who approached who at a speed-dating event, there was  a (relatively minor) effect on feelings of romantic desire, chemistry, and a desire to see the other partner again. That said, women tend to not approach men as much as men approach women in the world outside of the speed-dating scenarios, and when women approached men in the Clark and Hatfield study the men overwhelmingly said “yes” (while the women universally said “no” when approached by a man), and the study didn’t track whether anything ever came of the speed-dating, and a certain type of person might be interested in speed-dating, and speed-dating might not be terribly ecologically valid, and….you get the idea.

But other than being a total failure, your article was a great success.

Susan caps off her article by demonstrating that she doesn’t understand that the nature/nurture debate has long ago ended and that evolutionary psychologists reject such a dichotomy in the first place by asking about whether these behaviors are genetically or environmentally based. It’s nice to see that Susan comes full circle from her introduction where she suggests that she doesn’t understand evolution isn’t working to “keep the species afloat”. Finally, she asked why some people, who ought to know better, favor an evolutionary-based theory in their research. One can only wonder, Susan. I’ll leave it to people like you, who clearly know better, to lead the way. I just hope for all of our sakes that whatever path you end up leading us down doesn’t involve you having to read or understand anything.

References: Alexander MG, & Fisher TD (2003). Truth and consequences: using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self-reported sexuality. Journal of sex research, 40 (1), 27-35 PMID: 12806529

Conley, T.D., Moors, A.C., Matsick, J.L., Ziegler, A., & Valentine, B.A. (2011). Women, Men, and the Bedroom: Methodological and Conceptual Insights That Narrow, Reframe, and Eliminate Gender Differences in Sexuality Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0963721411418467

Assumed Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Motley Crue is a band that’s famous for a lot of reasons, their music least of all. Given their reputation, it was a little strange to see them doing what celebrities do best: selling out by endorsing Kia. At least I assume they were selling out. When I first saw the commercial, I doubted that Motley Crue just happened to really love Kia cars and had offered to appear in one of their commercials, letting it feature one of their many songs about overdosing. No; instead, my immediate reaction to the commercial was that Motley Crue probably didn’t care one way or another when it came to Kia, but since the company likely ponied up a boat-load of cash, Motley Crue agreed to, essentially, make a fake and implicit recommendation on the car company’s behalf. (Like Wayne’s World, but without the irony)

What’s curious about that reaction is that I have no way of knowing whether or not it’s correct; I’ve never talked to any of the band members personally, and I have no idea what the terms of that commercial were. Despite this, I feel, quite strongly, that my instincts on the matter were accurate. More curious still, seeing the commercial actually lowered my opinion of the band. I’m going to say a little more about what I think this reaction reflects later, but first I’d like to review a study with some very interesting results (and the usual set of theoretical shortcomings).

I’m not being paid to say it’s interesting, but I’ll scratch that last bit if the price is right.

The paper, by Inbar et al (2012), examined the question of whether intentionality and causality are necessary components when it comes to attributions of blameworthiness. As it turns out, people appear quite willing to (partially) blame others for outcomes that they had no control over – in this case, natural disasters – so long as said others might only have desired it to happen.

In the first of four experiments, the subjects in one condition read about how a man at a large financial firm was investing in “catastrophe bonds”, which would be worth a good deal of money if an earthquake struck a third world country within a two year period. Alternatively, they read about man investing in the same product, except this time the investment would pay out if an earthquake didn’t hit the country. In both cases, the investment ends up paying off. When subjects were asked about how morally wrong such actions are, and how morally blameworthy the investor was, the investor was rated as being more morally wrong and blameworthy in the condition where he benefited from harm, controlling for how much the subjects liked him personally.

The second experiment expanded on this idea. This time, the researchers varied the outcome of the investment: now, the investments didn’t always work out in the investor’s favor. Some of the people who were betting on the bad outcome actually didn’t profit because the good outcome obtained, and vice versa. The question being asked here was whether or not these judgments of moral wrongness and blameworthiness were contingent on profiting from a bad outcome or just being in the position to potentially benefit. As it turns out, actually benefiting wasn’t required: the results showed that the investor simply desiring the harmful outcome (that one didn’t cause, directly or indirectly) was enough to trigger these moral judgments. This pattern of results neatly mirrors judgments of harm – where attempted but failed harm is rated as being just about as bad as the completed and intended variety.

The third experiment sought to examine whether the benefits being contingent on harm – and harm specifically – mattered. In this case, an investor takes out that same catastrophe bond, but there are other investments in place, such that the firm will make the same amount of money whether or not there’s a natural disaster. In other words, now the investor has no specific reason to desire the natural disaster. In this case, subjects now felt the investor wasn’t morally in the wrong or blameworthy. So long as the investor wasn’t seen as wanting the negative outcome specifically, subjects didn’t seem to care about his doing the same thing. It just wasn’t wrong anymore.

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news…no, wait; that bad news is for you. I’m still rich.”

The final experiment in this study looked at whether or not selling that catastrophe bonds off would be morally exculpatory. As it turned out, it was: while the people who bought the bonds in the first place were not judged as nice people, subsequently selling the bonds the next day to pay off an unexpected offense reduced their blameworthiness. It was only when someone was currently in a position to benefit from harm that they were seen as more morally blameworthy.

So how might we put this pattern of results into a functional context?. Inbar et al (2012) note that moral judgments typically involve making a judgment about an actor’s character (or personality, if you prefer). While they don’t spell it out, what I think they’re referring to is the fact that people have to overcome an adaptive hurdle when engaging socially with others: they need to figure out which people in their social world to invest their scarce resources in. In order to successfully deal with this issue, one needs to make some (at least semi-accurate) predictions concerning the likely future behavior of others. If one sends the message that their interests are not your interests – such as by their profiting if you lose – there’s probably a good chance that they aren’t going to benefit you in the long term, at least relative to someone who sends the opposite signal.

However, one other aspect that Inbar et al (2012) don’t deal with brings us back to my feelings about Motley Crue. When deciding whether or not to blame someone, the decision needs to be made, typically, in the absence of absolute certainty regarding guilt. In my case, I made a judgment based on zero information, other than my background assumptions about the likely motives of celebrities and advertisers: I judged the band’s message as disingenuous, suggesting they would happily alter their allegiances if the price was right; they were fair-weather friends, who aren’t the best investments. In another case, let’s say that a dead body turns up, and they’ve clearly been murdered. The only witness to this murder was the killer, and whoever it is doesn’t feel like admitting it. When it comes time for the friends of the deceased to start making accusations, who’s going to seem like a better candidate: a stranger, or the burly fellow the dead person was fighting with recently? Those who desired to harm others tended to, historically, have the ability to translate those desires into actions, and, as such, make good candidates for blame.

“I really just don’t see how he could have been responsible for the recent claw attacks”

Now in the current study there was no way the actor in question could have been the cause of the natural disaster, but our psychology is, most likely, not built for dealing with abstract cases like that. While subjects may report that, no, that man was not directly responsible, some modules that are looking for possible candidates to blame are still hard at work behind the scenes, checking for those malicious desires; considering who would benefit from the act, and so on (“It just so happened that I gained substantially from your loss, which I was hoping for,” doesn’t make the most convincing tale). In much the same way, pornography can still arouse people, even though the porn offers no reliable increase in fitness and “the person” “knows” that. What I feel this study is examining, albeit not explicitly, are the input conditions for certain modules that deal in the uncertain and fuzzy domain of morality.

(As an aside, I can’t help but wonder whether the people in the stories – investment firms and third world countries – helped the researchers find the results they were looking for. It seems likely that some modules dealing with determining plausible perpetrators might tap into some variable like relative power or status in their calcuations, but that’s a post for another day.)

References: Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., & Cushman, F. (2012). Benefiting From Misfortune: When Harmless Actions Are Judged to Be Morally Blameworthy Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38 (1), 52-62 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211430232

Know Thyself…And Everyone Else Too, Apparently

“Most of us have experienced frustration in our social or political debates. We feel that the “other side” just “doesn’t get” our point of view, and that agreement could be reached if only we could somehow make those views, and the basis for those views, clear to them… By contrast, we think we get their point of view; we simply reject it as invalid, so that little would be gained from hearing them expound those views in more detail.. .That is, the members of each group feel that they understand the other group better than vice versa – that they are the ones being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or stereotyped, and that it is the other group that stands in need of enlightenment” – Pronin et al (2001)

In the context of debates, perhaps no rhetorical trick has a prouder history than framing. Recently, a bill called the “Paycheck Fairness Act” was voted down in the US. Are we to conclude from that outcome that those who voted against it are in favor of unfair paychecks? On the one hand, no; not unless we’re also supposed to consider plumbing one of the most sexist professions in the US. We encounter a similar frame issue regarding the debates about access to abortion and birth control, or, as it’s known to some, part of “the war on women”. Such a term is most certainly clumsy when it comes to accounting for (a) the large portion of women who consider themselves “pro-life”, and (b) the large number of men who would also be affected negatively were access to contraceptives and abortions limited.

On the other hand, those who create and make use of those frames are trying to get us to conclude precisely that: vote for this bill or it means you favor discrimination; vote on this bill or it means you hate women (or hate freedom, or love terrorists, or hate Capitalism, and so on). The way these issues are framed, then, might tell us more about what intentions or mindset the side doing the framing attributes to their opponents, rather than about the issue itself.

“Our newest line of frames serve to accentuate your overly optimistic sense of self. Now on sale at Michaels stores everywhere!”

It would seem that the frame-generators often feel confident enough in their assessment abilities that they feel they can accurately infer the hidden motives and intentions that guide the behavior of others. In other words, they feel they know their opponent’s “true self” well, perhaps even better than their opponents know themselves. However, if said opponent was to suggest that the framer themselves had some hidden motive they were blind to (or hiding from others), the framer would tend to be incensed at the suggestion. As we all know, it’s always the other side that has bias; not us. This brings us nicely to a paper entitled, “You don’t know me, but I know you: The illusion of asymmetric insight”  by Pronin et al (2001). Across six experiments, the authors sought to examine the extent to which people (a) felt they “knew” others better than those others knew themselves, (b) felt they “knew” themselves better than others knew them, and (c) the discrepancy between those two ratings.

Before I begin to review the paper, I’d like to commend these authors for coming so very close to articulating a coherent rationale for their research. Towards the end of their paper, the authors do speculate about the possible functions (and even potential costs) of the behavior in question. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for that section is dampened somewhat by their initial stated rationale: their everyday experiences, and hunches that they might find some effect. The most useful part seemed more like an afterthought than a guiding force for this research, and I’ll return to that point later.

Now, onto the experiments. The first of the six experiments involved asking 125 undergraduates to rate how knowledgeable they were about a close friend of their choice, how knowledgeable that close friend was about the subject themselves, and to what extent the subject felt their “true self” and their friend’s “true self” was observable to others. On average, the subjects suggested they knew and understood more about their close friend than that close friend knew or understood about them. Further, subjects felt their “true self” was less observable than others “true selves” were (as indicated by circling pictures of partially submerged icebergs). The difference was small (about 4% in all cases), but in the predicted direction. While 24 of the subjects indicated that their close friend knew them better than the reverse, twice as many – 48 – indicated the opposite pattern.

The second study posed similar questions to roommate pairs in order to attempt and deal with certain sources of possible bias. Again, each roommate tended to think they knew their other roommate better than the reverse, and, again, the effect was similar in size. A larger effect (about 8%) was found with respect to self-knowledge: roommates tended to think they knew themselves better than their other roommate knew themselves. While the subjects in this sample did seem to feel that their roommate knew themselves better than the subject did (to the tune of about 10%), when it came to the reverse discrepancy – how well the subject knew themselves, relative to how well their roommate knew them – the size of the gap doubled.

Their entire friendship is based on each one thinking the other isn’t quite a smart.

While there’s more to the paper, it’s much the same as the first two studies (the perception that we can perceive others “true self” better than others can perceive ours), so I’m going to skip ahead to the final study that examined intergroup knowledge; the section the initial quote was drawn from. Eighty subjects were asked about whether they were liberal or conservative, pro-life or pro-choice, and whether they were men or women. Once their group membership was established, subjects were asked at a later date about whether their group had more knowledge or understanding about the other group in question. It’s worth noting there was some agreement here: both men and women agreed that women understood men more than the reverse. At least the genders were on the same page there (more or less; the women did still feel this gap was 2.5 times wider than the men thought it was). Liberals claimed to have greater knowledge of conservatives than they thought conservatives had about them (about a 7% gap), whereas conservatives felt they had about as much knowledge of liberals as liberals did about them. When it came to the abortion issue, pro-choicers felt they knew pro-lifers better than the reverse (11%), whereas pro-lifers thought they understood the pro-choicers more, but the gap wasn’t as wide (3%). However, since those two effects pulled in opposite directions, the gulf between the two groups actually loomed around 14% in that sample.

So where does all this leave us? As was the case in the last post, it would seem that people’s assessment abilities aren’t exactly wired for accuracy in some cases. This raises the inevitable question of precisely what they are wired for. The authors speculate that this pattern of assessment could:

“…lead us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones being misunderstood or judged unfairly. The same convictions can make us reluctant to take advice from others…but all too willing to give advice… But as previous research has pointed out, illusions can be also be helpful. The feeling that one knows another better than is really the case can increase readiness to trust, cooperate, or seek greater intimacy… This same illusion, however, can also increase one’s susceptibility to exploitation, or at least to unwise investments of time, resources, or affection.” (pp. 652-3)

This is the point I had initially commended the authors for, but, as I said, it feels like an afterthought. It feels that way because none of the six studies examined any of those contexts. There was no studies looking at argumentation, or cooperation, or trust, or exploitation. Those are all potential explanations that, frankly, these six studies should have been aimed at testing.

They’re like scientific hipsters; they didn’t test their hypotheses, but they did that ironically.

Had experiments been done to examine those contexts, the results might have been a bit more impressive. At the very least, it would allow us to begin to arbitrate between potential functions for this biased assessment of proportional understanding. For instance, one of the largest effects concerned a highly contentious issue: abortion. When arguing against someone – as the initial frame example showed – it would be beneficial to (perhaps incorrectly) believe you have a very strong grasp of your opponents motives if that confidence allows you to better persuade others. “The potential war on certain women” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as the “war on (all) women”; neither does the “There might be some active discrimination against women in regards to their salary in certain fields, but then again, there might not be…act”.

Claiming that you not only already understand your opponent’s position (which typically comes complete with some nefarious hidden motive), but also that your opponent doesn’t understand yours, is a rhetorical one-two punch. So long as you can effectively convey that message – as well as defend against such accusations when they’re directed your way – you’re in a very strong social position. When making such proclamations, being accurate is only useful insomuch as it would aid in being convincing.

References: Pronin, E., Kruger, J., Savtisky, K., & Ross, L. (2001). You don’t know me, but I know you: The illusion of asymmetric insight. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (4), 639-656 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.81.4.639

I’m (Not) Sexy And I (Don’t) Know It

Imagine, for a moment, that someone you know tells you that they hate tomatoes, and how people who like tomatoes are seriously intellectually misguided. Later, you find that same person enjoying a BLT, going on about how much they really love the tasty red fruit between the lettuce and the bread. You might be rightly confused, and, if you’re someone who happens to like tomatoes, perhaps a bit put-off by their attitude about the whole thing.

On a related note, there are many critics of evolutionary psychology out there. Well, I say critics of evolutionary psychology, but what they’re actually critical of has little or nothing to do with anything found here. They just don’t know what they’re talking about. In fact, some of the ostensible critics of evolutionary psychology actually agree with many (or all) of the theoretical assumptions of field without even knowing it. Not only are these critics not experts about the topic they’re talking about (the politest possible way of putting it), but they are completely unaware of that fact. They display the same quality of self-assessment that is found in the recently iconic “I’m sexy and I know it”.

“Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle.” -LMFAO

Not so recently, Kruger and Dunning (1999) examined self-generated judgments, asking people to rate their performance on various task of logic, humor, and grammar, and then compared those judgments to people’s actual performance. At this point, I doubt that I’m spoiling anything by telling you that people aren’t very good at delivering accurate self-assessments in certain contexts, humor, logical, and grammatical abilities being three of them.

The first of the four studies in this paper concerned humor. Thirty ostensible jokes were rated by a panel of professional comedians on a scale of 1 to 11, yielding an average humor score for each item. These 30 items were then rated on the same scale by participants; those who assessed the jokes with a similar score to the comedians were said to have performed well, and the further the scores deviated, the worse their performance was rated as being. Subjects then rated their performance in assessing the quality of jokes, relative to their peers. On average, people in the sample rated themselves to have performed in the 66th percentile; moderately above average. Among those who scored in the lowest quarter of the distribution when it came to assessment – the worst performers – they still rated themselves, on average, to be in the 58th percentile; mildly above average in their ability.

The second study looked at performance on tests of logical reasoning. The logical domain has an advantage over humor in that there are objective answers to the questions being examined, rather than subjective ones. Forty-five subjects completed a 20-item test of logical reasoning and were then asked to estimate both their logical reasoning abilities, relative to their peers, and also how many of the 20 questions they got right. Again, on average, the subjects placed their performance in the 66th percentile. In this case, perceived performance on the task was not significantly correlated to actual performance. Also again, the worst performers – the ones in the bottom forth of the sample – rated their logical reasoning ability in the 68th percentile and their performance in the 62nd. Whereas they thought they had answers 14.2 questions correctly, they had in fact only answer 9.5 right, on average. Lest I bore you with more repetition, a set of nearly identical results were also obtained for measures of grammatical ability in the third study.

“So many people wasted their time getting a degree they won’t use; completely unlike me!”

The forth study found that training can, to some extent, help participants become a bit more realistic in their self-assessments. In fact, those subjects that actually fell into the bottom quarter of all subjects had initially rated their performance as being in the 55th percentile. After training, when they realized some of the mistakes they had made, those estimates were revised…to be in the 44th percentile. So they went from rating themselves as slightly above average to slightly below average. They were now off by a mere 30 points, rather than 40, but that’s progress, I suppose.

Kruger and Dunning (1999) attempt to explain this pattern of results by suggesting that those who lack the skills to perform in certain domains tend to, as a result, lack the ability to judge competent from incompetent performance. The two, as the authors suggest, “are often the very same skills” (p.1121 – my emphasis). While that may sound like a plausible explanation at first glance, I find it lacking. As the authors note, is that this effect is not found universally across domains: my ability to recognize some badly performed karaoke is not dependent on my ability to produce good karaoke, and I won’t be attempting to dunk on Michael Jordan anytime soon even though I’m not good at basketball. As I’ve written before, these positively biased self-assessments (known as the ‘above-average effect’) would appear to be more prevalent in fuzzy domains. When skills (like whether you can successfully skate down three flights of stairs) or physical traits (like your height or eye color) are readily observable, we shouldn’t expect to see much in the way of biased self-assessment. This is because, outside of certain social contexts involving persuasion, being wrong about them tends to carry costs that aren’t going to be reliably offset by the benefits.

Further, it seemed to be the case that the accuracy of self ratings had more to do with chance than assessment proficiency in the present study (Burson et al., 2006). Most everyone seems to hover around a self-assessment set of point of mildly-to-moderately above-average. For those who perform at or around that level, those kind of assessments will tend to be accurate; for anyone performing above or below that point, you’ll find that self-assessments get less and less accurate. Since most people, by definition, perform below that point, you’ll see the worst misrepresenters there, which we do. However, it also works in the opposite direction; the best performers, for instance, consistently underestimated how competent they were, relative to others. If assessment abilities are supposed to be tied to production abilities, it’s unclear why that gap exists. Kruger and Dunning (1999) suggest that this is because of a false consensus effect among the highly knowledgable (i.e. “I assume other people know what I do”), which is more of a restatement of the original finding than an explanation of it.

Thanks again, field of psychology.

This non-explanation is similar to Kruger and Dunning’s (1999) suggestion that a lack of metacognitive abilities among the worst performers are responsible for their very poor assessments. They are bad at assessing their performance because they lack metacognitive abilities. What are metacognitive abilities, you ask? They’re the abilities required to accurately assess performance. So the fact that people are bad at assessing their performance is explained by the fact that those people are bad at assessing their performance. All this theoretical spinning is making me dizzy.

I feel these results can be better explained (by which I mean actually explained) by considering a persuasion framework. There are certain things that might make me better off if others believe them (i.e. I’m a desirable mate or a reliable friend). In the service of persuading others about them, it helps me to be strategically wrong about them myself (Kurzban, 2010). However, when it comes to things that can’t be persuaded (like gravity) or cases where persuasion seems implausible (like your ability to speak a foreign language you can’t actually speak), self-assessments should tend to head towards a more accurate assessment, provided relevant feedback information is present. The important thing to bear in mind here is that it’s not the accuracy of these self-assessments, per se, that matter; what matters is what those self-assessments ultimately end up leading an organism to do. Evolution is blind to what you feel but not blind to what you do. These self-assessments should be considered in light of their consequences, not their accuracy.

References: Burson KA, Larrick RP, & Klayman J (2006). Skilled or unskilled, but still unaware of it: how perceptions of difficulty drive miscalibration in relative comparisons. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90 (1), 60-77 PMID: 16448310

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 (6), 1121-1134 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.77.6.1121

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

Making Your Business My Business

“The government has no right to do what it’s doing, unless it’s doing what I want it to do” – Pretty much everyone everywhere.

As most people know by now, North Carolina recently voted on and approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that legally barred gay marriage. Many supporters of extending marriage rights to the homosexual community understandably found this news upsetting, which led the predictable flood of opinions about how it’s none of the government’s business who wants to marry who. I found the whole matter to be interesting on two major fronts: first, why would people support/oppose gay marriage in general, and, secondly, why on earth would people try to justify their stance using a line of reasoning that is (almost definitely) inconsistent with other views they hold?

Especially when they aren’t even running for political office.

Let’s deal with these issues in reverse order. First, let’s tackle the matter of inconsistency. We all (or at least almost all) want sexual behavior legislated, and feel the government has the right to do that, despite many recent protests to the contrary. As this helpful map shows, there are, apparently, more states that allow for first cousin marriage than gay marriage (assuming the information there is accurate). That map has been posted several times, presumably in support of gay marriage. Unfortunately, the underlying message of that map would seem to be that, since some people find first cousin marriage gross, it should be shocking that it’s more legal that homosexuality. What I don’t think that map was suggesting is that it’s not right that first cousin marriage isn’t more legal, as the government has no right legislating sexuality. As Haidt’s research on moral dumbfounding shows, many people are convinced that incest is wrong even when they can’t find a compelling reason why, and many people likewise feel it should be made illegal.

On top of incest, there’s also the matter of age. Most people will agree that children below a certain age should not be having sex, and, typically, that agreement is followed with some justification about how children aren’t mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions. What’s odd about that justification is that people don’t go on to then say that people should be allowed to have sex at any age, just so long as they can demonstrate that they understand the consequences of their actions through some test. Conversely, they also don’t say that people above the age of consent should be forbade from having sex until they can pass such a test. There are two points to make about this: the first is that no such maturity test exists in the first place, so when people make the judgments about maturity they’re just assuming that some people aren’t mature enough to make those kinds of decisions; in other words, children shouldn’t be allowed to consent to sex because they don’t think children should be allowed to consent to sex. The second point is, more importantly, even if such a test existed, suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to have sex without passing it would still be legislating sexuality. It would still be the government saying who can and can’t have sex and under what circumstances.

Those are just two cases, and there are many more. Turns out people are pretty keen on legislating the sexual behavior of others after all. (We could have an argument about those not being cases of sexuality per se, but rather about harm, but it turns out people are pretty inconsistent about defining and legislating harm as well) The point here, to clarify, is not that legalizing gay marriage would start us on a slippery slope to legalizing other, currently unacceptable, forms of sexuality; the point is that people try to justify their stances on matters of sexuality with inconsistently applied principles. Not only are these justifications inconsistent, but they may also have little or nothing to do with the actual reasons you or I end up coming to whatever conclusions we do, despite what people may say. As it turns out, our powers of introspection aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Letting some light in might just help you introspect better; it is dark in there…

Nisbett and Wilson (1977) reviewed a number of examples concerning the doubtful validity of introspective accounts. One of these finding concerned a display of four identical nylon stockings. Subjects were asked about which of the four pairs was the best quality, and, after they had delivered their judgment, why they had picked the pair the did. The results showed that people, for whatever reason, tended to overwhelmingly prefer the garment on the right side of the display (they preferred it four-times as much, relative to the garment on the left side). When queried about their selection, unsurprisingly, zero of the 52 subjects made mention of the stocking’s position in the lineup. When subjects were asked directly about whether the position of the pair of stockings had any effect on their judgment, again, almost all the subjects denied that it did.

While I will not re-catalog every example that Nisbett and Wilson (1977) present, the unmistakable conclusion arose that people have, essentially, little to no actual conscious insight into the cognitive processes underlying their thoughts and behavior. They often were unable to report that an experimental manipulation had any effect (when it did), or reported that irrelevant manipulations actually had (or would have had) some effect. In some cases, they were unable to even report that there was any effect at all, when there had in fact been one. As the authors put it:

… [O]thers have argued persuasively that “we can know more than we can tell,” by which it is meant that people can perform skilled activities without being able to describe what they are doing and can make fine discriminations without being able to articulate their basis. The research described above suggest that that converse is also true – that we sometimes tell more than we can know. More formally, people sometimes makes assertions about mental events to which they may have no access and these assertions may bear little resemblance to the actual events.

This – coupled with the inconsistent use of principled justifications – casts serious doubts on the explicit reasons people often give for either supporting or opposing gay marriage. For instance, many people might support gay marriage because they think it would make gay people happier, on the whole. For the sake of argument, suppose that you discovered gay marriage actually made gay people unhappier, on the whole: would you then be in favor of keeping it illegal? Presumably, you would not be (if you were in favor of legalization to begin with, that is). While making people happy might seem like a plausible and justifiable reason for supporting something, it does not mean that it was the – or a – cause of your judgment.

Marriage: a known source of lasting happiness

If the typical justifications that people give for supporting or opposing gay marriage are not likely to reflect the actual cognitive process that led to their decisions, what cognitive mechanisms might actually be underlying them? Perhaps the most obvious class of mechanisms are those that involve an individual’s mating strategy. Weeden et al. (2008) note that the decision to pursue a more short or long-term mating strategy is a complicated matter, full of tradeoffs concerning local environmental, individual, and cultural factors. They put forth what they call the Reproductive Religiosity Model, which posits that a current function of religious participation is to help ensure the success of a certain type of mating strategy: a more monogamous, long-term, high-fertility mating style. Men pursuing this strategy tend to forgo extra-pair matings in exchange for an increase in paternity certainty, whereas women similarly tend to forgo extra-pair matings for better genes in exchange for increased levels of paternal investment.

As Chris Rock famously quipped, “A man is only as faithful as his options”, though the sentiment would apply equally well to women. It does the long-term mating strategy no good to have plenty of freely sexually available conspecifics hanging around. Thus, according to this model, participation in religious groups helps to curb the risks involved in this type of mating style. This is why certain religious communities might want to decrease the opportunities for promiscuity and increase the social costs for engaging in it.  In order to decrease sexual availability, then, you might find religious groups doing things like opposing and seeking to punish people for engaging in: divorce, birth control use, abortion, promiscuity, and, relevant to the current topic, sexual openness or novelty (like pornography, sexual experimentation, or homosexuality). In support of this model, Weeden et al (2008) found that, controlling for non-reproductive variables, sexual variables were not only predictive of religious attendance, but also that, controlling for sexual variables, the non-reproductive variables were no longer predictive of religious attendance.

While the evidence is not definitively causal in nature, and there is likely more to this connection than a unidirectional arrow, it seems highly likely that cognitive mechanisms responsible for determining one’s currently preferred mating strategy also play a role in determining one’s attitudes towards the acceptability of other’s behaviors. It is also highly likely that the reasons people tend to give for their attitudes will be inconsistent, given that they don’t often reflect the actual functioning of their mind. We all have an interest in making other people’s business our business, since other people’s behaviors tend to eventually have an effect on us – whether that effect is relatively distant or close in the causal chain, or whether it is relatively direct or indirect. We just tend to not consciously understand why.

References: Nisbett, R., & Wilson, T. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84 (3), 231-259 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.84.3.231

Weeden, J., Cohen, A., & Kenrick, D. (2008). Religious attendance as reproductive support Evolution and Human Behavior, 29 (5), 327-334 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.03.004

I Know I Am, But What Are You? Competitive Use Of Victimhood

It’s no secret; I’m a paragon of mankind. Beyond simply being a wildly-talented genius, I’m also in such peak physical form that it’s common for people to mistake me for a walking Statue of David with longer hair. As the now-famous Old Spice commercial says, “Sadly, you are not me”, but wouldn’t it be nice for you if you could convince other people that you were? There’s no need to answer that; of course it would be, but the chances of you successfully pulling such a feat off are slim to none.

The more general point here is that, in the social world, you can benefit yourself by strategically manipulating what and how other people think about you and those around you. Further, this manipulation is going to be easier to pull off the less objectively observable the object of that manipulation is. For instance, if I could convince you that my future prospects are good – that I would be a powerful social ally – you might be more inclined to invest in maintaining a relationship with me and giving me assistance in the hopes that I will repay you in kind at some later date. However, I would have harder time trying to convince you I have blue eyes when you can easily verify that they are, in fact, brown.

He’s going to have a hell of a time convincing his boyfriend he’s gay now.

As I’ve written about before, one of those fuzzy concepts open to manipulation is victimhood. Given that legitimate victimhood status can be a powerful resource in the social world, and victimhood requires there be one or more perpetrators, it should come as no surprise that people often find themselves in disagreement about almost every facet of it: from harm, to intent, to blame, and far beyond. Different social contexts – such as morally condemning others vs. being morally condemned yourself – pose people with different adaptive problems to solve, and we should expect that people will process information in different ways, contingent on those contexts. A recent paper by Sullivan et al. (2012) examined the matter over the course of five studies, asking about people’s intuitions concerning the extent of their own victimhood in three contexts: one in which there was no harm being done, one in which a group they belong to was accused of doing harm, and one in which another group was accused of doing harm.

In the first study, 49 male undergrads were presented with a news story (though it was actually a fake news story because psychologists are tricksters) that had one of three conclusions: (a) men and women had equal opportunities in modern society, (b) women were discriminated against in modern society, but it was due to their own choices and biology, or (c) women were discriminated against, and this discrimination was intentionally perpetrated by men. Following this, the men indicated on a 7-point scale whether they thought men or women suffered more relative discrimination in modern society (where 1 indicated men suffered less, 4 indicated they suffered equally, and 7 indicated men suffered more). When confronted with the story where women were not discriminated against, men averaged a 1.69 on the scale; a similar set of results was found when women were depicted as suffering from self-inflicted discrimination, averaging a 1.87. However, when men were depicted as being the perpetrators of this discrimination, the ratings of perceived male oppression rose to 2.61. When men, as a group, were accused of causing harm, they reacted by suggesting they were themselves a victim of more discrimination, as if to suggest that the discrimination women faced wasn’t so bad.

What’s curious about those results is that men didn’t rate the discrimination they faced, relative to women, as more equal when the news article suggested equality in that domain. Rather, they only adjusted their ratings up when their group was painted as the perpetrators of discrimination. The information they were being given didn’t seem to phase them much until it got personal, which is pretty neat.

A similar pattern of findings arose for women in a following experiment. One-hundred forty-two women read a fictional news story about how men were discriminated against when it came to hiring practices, and this discrimination either came from other men or women. Following that, the women filled out the same 7-point scale as before. When men were depicted as responsible for the discrimination against other men, women averaged a 5.16 on the scale, but when women were depicted as being the cause of that discrimination, that number rose to a 5.42. While this rise in ratings of victimhood was smaller than the rise seen with the men, it was still statistically significant. The difference in the scale of these results might be due to the subjects, (the males were undergrads whereas the women were recruited on Mturk) or perhaps the nature of the stories themselves, which were notably different across experiments.

Sexist male behavior is the cause of all the problems for women across society. On the other hand, 65% of women might not hire a man. Seems even-handed to me.

Two of the five experiments also examined whether one group discriminating against another in general was enough to trigger competitive victimhood, or whether one’s own group had to be the perpetrator of the discrimination to cause the behavior. Since they had similar results, I’ll focus on the one regarding race. In this experiment, 51 White students read a story about how Black students tended to be discriminated against when it came to university admissions, and this discrimination was perpetrated either predominately by other White people, or by Asian people. Following this, they filled out that same 7-point scale. When Blacks were being discriminated against by Asians, the White participants averaged a 2.0 on the scale, but when it was Whites discriminating against Black students, this average rose to 2.78. What these results demonstrate is that it’s not enough for some group to just be claiming victimhood status; in order to trigger competitive victimhood, your group needs to be named as the perpetrator.

These results fit neatly with previous research demonstrating that when it comes to assigning blame, people are less likely to assign blame to a victim, relative to a non-victim or hero. When people are being blamed for causing some harm, they tend to see themselves as greater victims, likely in order to better dissuade others from engaging in punishment. However, when people are not being blamed, there is no need to deflect punishment, and, accordingly, the bias to see oneself as a victim diminishes.

There is one part of the paper that bothered me in a big way: the authors’ suggestions about which groups face more victimization objectively. As far as I can tell, there is no good way to measure victimhood objectively, and, as the results of this experiment show, subjective claims and assessments of victimhood themselves are likely to modified by outside factors. For example, consider two cases: (a) a woman suggests that her boyfriend is physically abusing her, vs. (b) a man suggesting that his girlfriend is physically abusing him. Strictly in terms of which claim is more likely to be believed – regardless of whether it’s true or not – I would put the man’s claim at a disadvantage. Further, if it is believed, there are likely different costs and benefits for men and women surrounding such a claim. Perhaps women would be more likely to receive support, where a man might just be painted as a wimp and lose status among both his male and female peers.

Whether that pattern itself actually holds is besides the point. The larger issue here is that this strategy of claiming victimhood may not work equally well for all people, and it’s important to consider that when assessing people’s judgments of their victimhood. The third-parties that are assessing these claims are not merely passive pawns waiting to be manipulated by others; they have their own adaptive problems to solve when it comes to assessment. To the extent that these problems entailed reproductive costs and benefits, selection would have fashioned psychological mechanisms to deal with them. A man might have more of a vested interest in concerning himself with an attractive woman’s claim to victimhood over a sexually unappealing man, as preferentially helping one of the two might tend to be more reproductively useful.

How often do you come across stories of knights rescuing strange “dudes in distress”, relative to strange damsels?

It should be noted that claiming victimhood is not the only way of deflecting punishment; shifting the blame back towards the victim would likely work as well. The results indicated that competitive victimhood was not triggered in those contexts, presumably because there was no need for it. That’s not to say that they two could not work together – i.e. you’re the cause of your own misfortune as well as the cause of mine – but rather to note that different strategies are available, and will likely be utilized differently by different groups, contingent on their relative costs and benefits. Further work is going to want to not only figure out what those other tactics are, but assess their effectiveness, as rated by third-parties.

I’d like to conclude by talking briefly about the quality of the “theory” put forth by the authors in this paper to explain their results: social identity theory. Here is how they define it in the introduction:

Individuals are motivated to maintain a positive moral evaluation of their social group…we argue that when confronted with accusations of in-group harm doing…individuals will defensively attempt to bolster the in-group’s moral status in order to diffuse the threat.

As Steven Pinker has noted, explanations like these are most certainly not theories; they are simply restatements of findings that need a theory to explain them. Unfortunately, non-evolutionary minded researchers will often resort to this kind of circularity as they lack any way of escaping it. To suggest that people have all these cognitive biases to just “feel good” about themselves or their group is nonsense (Kurzban, 2010). Feeling good, on its own, is not something that could possibly have been selected for in the first place, but even if it could have been, it would be curious why people wouldn’t simply just feel good about their social group, rather than going through cognitive gymnastics to try and justify it. I find the evolutionary framework to provide a much more satisfying answer to the question, as well as illuminating future directions for research. As far as I can tell, the “feel good” theory does not.

References: Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sullivan, D., Landau, M.J., Branscombe, N.R., & Rothschild, Z.K. (2012). Competitive victimhood as a response to accusations of ingroup harm doing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 778-795.

Tucker Max V. Planned Parenthood

My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead. -Tucker Max

It should come as no surprise that there are more than a few people in this world who don’t hold Tucker Max in high esteem. He makes no pretenses of being what most would consider a nice person, and makes no apologies for his behavior; behavior which is apparently rewarded with tons of sex and money. Recently, however, this reputation prevented him from making a $500,000 donation to Planned Parenthood. Naturally, this generated something of a debate, full of plenty of moral outrage and inconsistent arguments. Since I’ve been thinking and writing about reasoning and arguing lately, I decided to treat myself and indulge in a little bit. I’ll do my best to make this educational as well as personal, but I make no promises; this is predominately intellectual play for me.

Sometimes you just have to kick back and treat yourself in a way that avoids going outside enjoying the nice weather.

So here’s the background, as it’s been recounted: Tucker find himself with a tax burden that can be written off to some extent if he donates money charitably. Enterprising guy that he is, he also wants to donate the money in such a way that it can help generate publicity for his new book. After some deliberation, he settles on a donation of $500,000 to Planned Parenthood, as he describes himself as always having been pro-choice, having been helped by Planned Parenthood throughout his life, and, perhaps, finding the prospect funny. His condition for the donation is that he wanted his name on a clinic, which apparently is something Planned Parenthood will consider if you donate enough money. A meeting is scheduled to hammer out the details, but is cancelled a few hours before it was set to take place – as Tucker is driving to it – because Planned Parenthood suddenly became concerned about Tucker’s reputation and backs out of the meeting without offering any alternative options.

I’ll start by stating my opinion: Planned Parenthood made a bad call, and those who are arguing that Planned Parenthood made the correct call don’t have a leg to stand on.

Here’s what wasn’t under debate: whether Planned Parenthood needed money. Their funding was apparently cut dramatically in Texas, where the donation was set to take place, and the money was badly needed. So if Planned Parenthood needed money and turned down such a large sum of it, one can only imagine they had some reasons to do so. One could also hope those reasons were good. From the various articles and comments on the articles that I’ve read defending Planned Parenthood’s actions, there are two sets of reasons why they feel this decision was the right one. The first set I’ll call the explicit arguments – what people say – and the second I’ll call the implicit motivations – what I infer (or people occasionally say) the motivations behind the explicit arguments are.

…but didn’t have access to any reproductive care, as the only Planned Parenthood near me closed.

The explicit arguments contain two main points. The first thrust of the attack is that Tucker’s donation is selfish; his major goal is writing off his taxes and generating publicity, and this taints his action. That much is true, but from there this argument flounders. No one is demanding that Planned Parenthood only accept truly selfless donations. Planned Parenthood itself did not suggest that Tucker’s self-interest had anything at all to do with why they rejected the offer. This explicit argument serves only one real purpose, and that’s character assassination by way of framing Tucker’s donation in the worst possible light. One big issue with this is that I find it rather silly to try and malign Tucker’s character, as he does a fine job of that himself; his self-regarding personality is responsible for a good deal of why he’s famous. Another big issue is that Tucker could have donated that money to any non-profit he wanted, and I doubt Planned Parenthood was the only way he could have achieved his main goals. Just because caring for Planned Parenthood might not have been his primary motive with the donation, it does not mean it played no part in motivating the decision. Similarly, just because someone’s primary motivation for working at their job is money, it does not mean money is the only reason they chose the job they did, out of all the possible jobs they could have picked.

The second explicit argument is the more substantial half. Since Tucker Max is a notable asshole, many people voiced concerns that putting his name on a clinic would do Planned Parenthood a good deal of reputational damage, causing other people to withdraw or withhold their financial or political support. Ultimately, the costs of this reputational damage would end up outweighing Tucker’s donation, so really, it was a smart economic (and political, and moral) move. In fact, one author goes so far as to suggest that taking Tucker’s donation could have put the future of Planned Parenthood as a whole in jeopardy. This argument, at it’s core, suggests that Planned Parenthood lost the battle (Tucker’s donation) to win the war (securing future funding).

There are two big problems with this second argument. Most importantly, the negative outcome of accepting Tucker’s donation is purely imagined. It might have happened, it might not have happened, and there’s absolutely zero way of confirming whether it would have. That does not stop people from assuming that the worst would have happened, as making that assumption gives those defending Planned Parenthood an unverifiable potential victim. As I’ve mentioned before, having a victim on your side of the debate is crucial for engaging the moral psychology of others, and when people are making moral pronouncements they do actively search for victims. The other big problem with this second argument is that it’s staggering inconsistent with the first. Remember, people were very critical of Tucker’s motivations for the donation. One of the most frequently trotted out lines was, “If Tucker really cared about Planned Parenthood, he would have made the donation anonymously anyway. Then, he could have helped the women out and avoided the reputational harm he would have done to Planned Parenthood. Since he didn’t donate anonymously (or at least, I think he didn’t; that’s kind of the rub with anonymous donations), he’s just a total asshole”.

“I was going to refill my birth control prescription here, but if Tucker Max helped keep this clinic open, maybe I’ll just get pregnant instead”

The inconsistency is as follows: people assume that other donors would avoid or politically attack Planned Parenthood if Tucker Max was associated with it. Perhaps some women would even avoid the clinic itself, because it would make them feel upset. Again, maybe that would happen, maybe it wouldn’t. Assuming that it would, one could make the case that if those other supporters really cared about Planned Parenthood, then they shouldn’t let something like an association of a single clinic with Tucker Max dissuade them. The only reason that someone who previously supported Planned Parenthood would be put off would be for personal, self-interested reasons. The very same kind of motivation they criticized Tucker for initially. Instead of bloggers and commenters writing well-reasoned posts about how people shouldn’t stop supporting Planned Parenthood just because Tucker Max has his name on one, they instead praise excluding his sizable donation. One would think anyone who truly supported Planned Parenthood would err on the side of making arguments concerning why people should continue to support it, not why it would be justifiable for people to pull their support in fear of association with someone they don’t like.

Which brings us very nicely to the implicit motivations. The core issue here can be best summed up by Tucker himself:

Most charities are not run to help people, they are run because they are ways for people to signal status about themselves to other people…I wasn’t the “right type” of person to take money from so they’d rather close clinics. It’s the worst kind of elitism, the kind that cloaks itself in altruism. They care more about the perception of themselves and their organization than they care about its effectiveness at actually serving the reproductive needs of women.

People object to Tucker Max’s donation on two main fronts: (1) they don’t want to do anything that benefits Tucker in any way, and (2) they don’t personally want to be associated with Tucker Max in any way. Those two motivations are implicitly followed by a, “…and that’s more important to me than ensuring Planned Parenthood can continue to serve the women and men of their communities”. It looks a lot like a costly display on the part of those who supported the decision. They’re demonstrating their loyalty to their group, or to their ideals, and they’re willing to endure a very large, very real cost to do so. At least, they’re willing to let other people suffer that cost, as I don’t assume all, or even most, of the bloggers and commenters will be directly impacted by this decision.

Whatever ideal it is that they’re committed to, whatever group they’re displaying for, it is not Planned Parenthood. Perhaps they feel they’re fighting to end what they perceive as sexism, or misogyny, or a personal slight because Tucker wrote something about fat girls they found insulting. What they’re fighting for specifically is irrelevant. What is relevant is that they’re willing to see Planned Parenthoods close and men and women lose access to their services before they’re willing to compromise whatever it is they’re primarily fighting for. They might dress their objections up to make it look like they aren’t self-interested or fighting some personal battle, but the disguise is thin indeed. One could make the case that such behavior, co-opting the suffering of another group to bolster your own cause, is rather selfish; the kind of thing a real asshole would do.

Communication As Persuasion

Can you even win debates? I’ve never heard someone go, “My opponent makes a ton of sense; I’m out.” -Daniel Tosh

In my younger days, I lost a few years of my life to online gaming. Everquest was the culprit. Now, don’t get me wrong, those years were perhaps some of the happiest in my life. Having something fun to do at all hours of the day with thousands of people to do it with has that effect. Those years just weren’t exactly productive. While I was thoroughly entertained, when the gaming was over I didn’t have anything to show for it. A few years after my gaming phase, I went through another one: chronic internet debating. Much like online gaming, it was oddly addictive and left me with nothing to show for it when it all ended. While I liked to try and justify it to myself – that I was learning a lot from the process, refining my thought process and arguments, and being a good intellectual – I can say with 72% certainty that I had wasted my time again, and this time I wasn’t even having as much fun doing it. Barring a few instances of cleaning up grammar, I’m fairly certain no one changed my opinion about a thing and I changed about as many in return. You’d think with all the collective hours my fellow debaters and I had logged in that we might have been able to come to an agreement about something. We were all reasonable people seeking the truth, after all.

Just like this reasonable fellow.

Yet, despite that positive and affirming assumption, debate after debate devolved into someone – or everyone – throwing their hands up in frustration, accusing the other side of being intentionally ignorant, too biased, intellectually dishonest, unreasonable, liars, stupid, and otherwise horrible monsters (or, as I like to call it, suggesting your opponent is a human). Those characteristics must have been the reason the other side of the debate didn’t accept that our side was the right side, because our side was, of course, objectively right. Debates are full of logical fallacies like those personal attacks, such as: appeals to authority, straw men, red herrings, and question begging, to name a few, yet somehow it only seems like the other side was doing it. People relentless dragged issues into debates that didn’t have any bearing on the outcome, and they always seemed to apply their criticisms selectively.

Take a previously-highlighted example from Amanda Marcotte: when discussing the hand-grip literature on resisting sexual assault, she complained that, “most of the studies were conducted on small, homogeneous groups of women, using subjective measurements.” Pretty harsh words for a  study comprised of 232 college women between the ages of 18 and 35. When discussing another study that found results Amanda liked – a negligible difference in average humor ratings between men and women – she raised no concerns about “…small, homogeneous groups of women, using subjective measurements”. That she didn’t is hypocritical, considering the humor study had only 32 subjects (16 men and women, presumably undergraduates from some college) and used caption writing as the only measure of humor. So what gives: does Amanda care about the number of subjects when assessing the results or not?

The answer, I feel is a, “Yes, but only insomuch as it’s useful to whatever point she’s trying to make”. The goal in debates – and communication more generally – is not logical consistency; it’s persuasion. If consistency (or being accurate) gets in the way of persuasion, the former can easily be jettisoned for the latter. While being right, in some objective sense, is one way of persuading others, being right will not always make your argument the more persuasive one; the resistance to evolutionary theory has demonstrated as much. Make no mistake, this behavior is not limited to Amanda or the people that you happen to disagree with; research has shown that this is a behavior pretty much everyone takes part in at some point, and that includes you*. A second mistake I’d urge you not to make is to see this inconsistency as some kind of flaw in our reasoning abilities. There are some persuasive reasons to see inconsistency as reasoning working precisely how it was designed to, annoying as it might be to deal with.

Much like my design for the airbag that deploys when you start the car.

As Mercier and Sperber (2011) point out, the question, “Why do humans reason?” is often left unexamined. The answer these authors provide is that our reasoning ability evolved primarily for an argumentative context: producing arguments to persuade others and evaluating the arguments others present. It’s uncontroversial that communication between individuals can be massively beneficial. Information which can be difficult or time consuming to acquire at first can be imparted quickly and almost without effort to others. If you discovered how to complete some task successfully – perhaps how to build a tool or a catch fish more effectively – perhaps through a trial-and-error process, communicating that information to others allows them to avoid the need to undergo that same process themselves. Accordingly, trading information can be wildly profitable for all parties involved; everyone gets to save time and energy. However, while communication can offer large benefits, we also need to contend with the constant risk of misinformation. If I tell you that your friend is plotting to kill you, I’d have done you a great service if I was telling the truth; if the information I provided was either mistaken or fabricated, you’d have been better off ignoring me. In order to achieve these two major goals – knowing how to persuade others and when to be persuaded yourself – there’s a certain trust barrier in communication that needs to be overcome.

This is where Mercier and Sperber say our reasoning ability comes in: by giving others convincing justifications to accept our communications, as well as being able to better detect and avoid the misinformation of others, our reasoning abilities allow for more effective and useful communication. Absent any leviathan to enforce honesty, our reasoning abilities evolved to fill the niche. It is worth comparing this perspective to another: the idea that reasoning evolved as some general ability to improve or refine our knowledge across the board. In this scenario, our reasoning abilities more closely resemble some domain-general truth finders. If this latter perspective is true, we should expect no improvements in performance on reasoning tasks contingent on whether or not they are placed in an argumentative context. That is not what we observe, though. Poor performance on a number of abstracted reasoning problems, such as the Wason Selection Task, is markedly improved when those same problems are placed in an argumentative context.

While truth tends to win in cases like the Wason Selection Task being argued over, let’s not get a big-head about it and insist that it implies our reasoning abilities will always push towards truth. It’s important to note how divorced from reality situations like that one are: it’s not often you find people with a mutual interest in truth, arguing over a matter they have no personal stake in, that also has a clearly defined and objective solution. While there’s no doubt that reasoning can sometimes lead people to make better choices, it would be a mistake to assume that’s the primary function of the ability, as reasoning frequently doesn’t seem to lead people towards that destination. To the extent that reasoning tends to push us towards correct, or improved, answers, this is probably due to correct answers being easier to justify than incorrect ones.

As the Amanda Marcotte example demonstrated, when assessing an argument, often “[people] are not trying to form an opinion: They already have one. Their goal is argumentative rather than epistemic, and it ends up being pursed at the expense of epistemic soundness…People who have an opinion to defend don’t really evaluate the arguments of their interlocutors in search for genuine information but rather consider them from the start as counterarguments to be rebutted.” This behavior of assessing information by looking for arguments that support one’s own views and rebut the views of others is known as motivated reasoning. If reasoning served some general knowledge-refining ability, this would be a strange behavior indeed. It seems people often end up strengthening not their knowledge about the world, but rather their existing opinions, a conclusion that fits nicely in the argumentative theory. While opinions that cannot be sustained eventually tend to get tossed aside, as reality does impose some constraints (Kunda, 1990), on fuzzier matters for which there aren’t clear, objective answers – like morality – arguments have gotten bogged down for millenia.

I’m not hearing anymore objections to the proposal that “might makes right”. Looks like that debate has been resolved.

Further still, the argumentative theory can explain a number of findings that economists tend to find odd. If you have a choice between two products that are equally desirable, adding a third and universally less-desirable option should not have any effect on your choice. For instance, let’s say you have a choice between $5 today and $6 tomorrow; adding an additional option of $5 tomorrow to the mix shouldn’t have any effect, according to standard economic rationality, because it’s worse than either option. Like many assumptions of economics, it turns out to not hold up. If you add that additional option, you’ll find people start picking the $5 today option more than they previously did. Why? Because it gives them a clear justification for their decision, as if they were anticipating having to defend it. While $5 today or $6 tomorrow might be equally as attractive, $5 today is certainly more attractive than $5 tomorrow, making the $5 decision more justifiable. Our reasoning abilities will frequently point us towards decisions that are more justifiable, even if they end up not making us more satisfied.

Previous conceptualizations about the function of reasoning have missed the mark, and, as a result, had been trying to jam a series of square pegs into the same round hole. They have been left unable to explain vast swaths of human behaviors, so researchers simply labeled those behaviors that didn’t fit as biases, neglects, blind spots, errors, or fallacies, without ever succeeding in figuring out why they existed; why our reasoning abilities often seemed so poorly designed for reasoning. By placing all these previously anomalous findings under a proper theoretical lens and context, they suddenly start to make a lot more sense. While the people you find yourself arguing with may still seem like total morons, this theory may at least help you gain some insight into why they’re acting so intolerable.

*As a rule, it doesn’t apply to me, so if you find yourself disagreeing with me, you’re going to want to rethink your position. Sometimes life’s just unfair that way.

References: Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108,  480-498.

Mercier, H. & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 57-111.

Is It A Paradox, Or Are You Stupid?

Let’s say you’re an intellectual type, like I am. As an intellectual type, you’d probably enjoy spending a good deal of time researching questions of limited scope and even more limited importance. There’s a high probably that your work will be largely ignored, flawed in some major way, or your results interpreted incorrectly by yourself or others. While you may not be the under-appreciated genius that you think you are, you may still be lucky enough to have been paid to do your poor work. Speaking of poor work that someone is getting paid for, here’s a recent piece by Stanton Peele, over at Psychology Today.

I’m fairly certain he wrote his dissertation about his own smug sense of self-satisfaction.

The article itself is your fairly standard piece of moral outrage about how rich and/or powerful people are cheaters who should not be trusted. According to Stanton, research suggests that people who perceive themselves to be high in power are likely to be “deficient in empathy”. This claim strikes me as a little fishy, especially coming from someone who feels so self-important that he links to other pieces he’s written on five separate occasions in an article no longer than a few sentences. Such a display of ego suggests that Stanton thinks he’s particularly high in power, and thus calls into question his empathy and honesty. It also suggests to me he’s a sock-sniffer.

The title of his piece, “Cheaters Always Win – The Paradox of Getting Ahead in America”, along with Stanton’s idea that powerful people are “deficient in empathy” both work well to display the bias in his thinking. In the case of his title, there’s only a paradox if one assumes that people who cheat would not win. We might not like when someone wins because they aren’t playing by the rules, but I don’t see any reason to think a (successful) cheater wouldn’t win; they cheat because it tends to put them at an advantage. In the case of his empathy suggestion, Stanton seems to assume there is some level of empathy people high in power lack that they should otherwise have. However, one could just as easily phrase the suggestion in an opposite fashion: people low in power have too much empathy. How that correlation gets framed says more, I feel, about the preconceptions of the person making it, than the correlation itself.

Though that brings us to the matter of whether or not that claim is true. Are powerful people universally deficient in empathy in some major way? (Across-the-board, as Peele puts it) According to one of the papers Peele mentions, people who rate themselves high in their sense of power were less compassionate and experienced less distress when listening to a highly distressed speaker, relative to those who ranked themselves low in power (van Kleef et al, 2008). See? The powerful people really are “turning a blind eye to the suffering of others” (which is, in fact, the subtitle of the paper).

The next model will also cover the ears in order to block out the sounds from all the people begging for their lives.

It would seem that van Kleef et al (2008) share Peele’s affection for hyperbole. The difference they found in self-reports of compassion and empathic distress between those highest and lowest in power was about a 0.65 on a scale of 1 to 7, or about 9%. We’re not talking about some radical difference in kind, just one of mild degree. However, that difference only existed in the condition where the speaker was highly distressed; when the speaker was low in distress, the effect was reversed, with the higher power subjects reporting more compassion and distress to the speaker’s story, to the tune of about 0.5 on the same scale. What conclusion one wants to draw from that study about the compassion and distress of high and low power individuals depends on which part of the data one is looking at. If you’re looking at a highly distressed speaker, those who feel higher in power are less compassionate and empathic; if you’re looking at a speaker lower in distress, those who feel they have more about are more compassionate and empathic. That would imply Peele is either giving the data a selective reading, or he never even bothered to read it.

A second paper Peele mentions, by Piff et al (2012), found that self-reported social class was correlated with cheating behavior; the higher one was in social class, the more likely they were to cheat or otherwise behave like a asshole across a few different scenarios. However, this effect of class disappeared when the researchers controlled for attitudes towards greed. As it turns out, people who think greed is just dandy tend to cheat a bit more, whether they’re low or high status. Further, asking those low in social status to write about three benefits of greed also eliminated this effect; those from lower social classes now behaving identically to those in the upper social class. It’s almost as if these low status individuals experienced sudden onset empathy-deficiency syndrome.

I’m skimming over most of the details of these papers because there’s another, more pressing, matter I’d like to deal with. These papers that Peele uses are notably devoid of anything that could be considered a theory. They present a series of findings, but no framework to understand them in: Why might people who have some degree of social power be more or less prone to doing something? What cost and benefits accompany these actions for each party and how might they change? Are the actions of those in the upper and lower classes deployed strategically? How might these strategies change as context does? This sounds like just the kind of research that could really be guided and assisted by embracing an evolutionary perspective.

Sadly, some people don’t take too kindly to our theoretical framework.

Unfortunately, because Peele is stupid, he has some harsh criticisms of genetic determinism that he directs at evolutionary psychologists:

“They also seem inconsistent with evolutionary psychologists who have been arguing lately (following “The Selfish Gene“) that altruism is a species-inherited genetic destiny [emphasis, mine].…So, which is it? Do humans progress by being kinder to others and understanding the plights of the downtrodden, or do they do better to ignore these depressing stories?  Do societies advance by displaying empathy towards others outside of their borders and with different customs from their own?

Such questions are about on the level of asking whether people are better off eating every waking moment or never eating again, followed by a self-congratulatory high-five. There are trade-offs to be made, and people aren’t always going to be better served by doing one, and only one, thing at all times. This should not be a difficult point to understand, but, on the other hand, understanding things is clearly not Peele’s strong suit; sock-sniffing is. I don’t mind if, as he finishes writing his ramblings, Peele leans in to get a good whiff of his own odor after a long day battling positions held by legions of imaginary evolutionary psychologists. I just don’t understand why Psychology Today feels the need to give his nonsense a platform.

References: Piff, P.K., Stancato, D.M., Cote, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

van Kleef, G.A., Oveis, C., van der Lowe, H., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J.,  Keltner, D. (2008). Power, distress and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science, 19, 1315-1322