Keepin’ It Topical: The Big Facebook Study

I happen to have an iPhone because, as many of you know, I think differently (not to be confused with the oddly-phrased “Think Different”® slogan of the parent company, Apple), and nothing expresses those characteristics of intelligence and individuality about me better than my ownership of one of the most popular phones on the market. While the iPhone itself is a rather functional piece of technology, there is something about it (OK; related to it) that has consistently bothered me: the Facebook app I can download for it. The reason this app has been bugging me is that, at least as far as my recent memory allows, the app seems to have an unhealthy obsession with showing me the always-useless “top stories” news feed as my default, rather than the “most recent” feed I actually want to see. In fact, I recall that the last update to the app actually made it more of a hassle to get to the most recent feed, rather than make it easily accessible. I had always wondered why there didn’t seem to be a simple way to change my default, as this seems like a fairly basic design fix. Not to get too conspiratorial about the whole thing, but this past week, I think I might have found part of the answer.

Which brings us to the matter of the Illuminati…

It’s my suspicion that the “top stories” feed has uses beyond simply trying to figure out which content I might want to see; this would be a good thing, because if the function were to figure out what I want to see, it’s pretty bad at that task. The “top stories” feed might also be used for the sinister purposes of conducting research (then again, the “most recent” feed can probably do that as well; I just really enjoy complaining about the “top stories” one). Since this new story (or is it a “top story”?) about Facebook conducting research with its users has been making the rounds in the media lately, I figured I would add my two cents to the incredibly tall stack of pennies the internet has collectively made in honor of the matter. Don’t get it twisted, though: I’m certainly not doing this in the interest of click-bait to capitalize on a flavor-of-the-week topic. If I were, I would have titled this post “These three things about the Facebook study will blow your mind; the fourth will make you cry” and put it up on Buzzfeed. Such behavior is beneath me because, as I said initially, I think different(ly)…

Anyway, onto the paper itself. Kramer et al (2014) set out to study whether manipulating what kind of emotional content people are exposed to in  other’s Facebook status updates had an effect on that person’s later emotional content in their own status updates. The authors believe such an effect would obtain owing to “emotional contagion”, which is the idea that people can “…transfer positive and negative moods and emotions to others”. As an initial semantic note, I think that such phrasing – the use of contagion as a metaphor – only serves to lead one to think incorrectly about what’s going on here. Emotions and moods are not the kind of things that can be contagious the way pathogens are: pathogens can be physically transferred from one host to another, while moods and emotions cannot. Instead, moods and emotions are things generated by our minds from particular sets of inputs.

To understand that distinction quickly, consider two examples: in the first case, you and I are friends. You are sad and I see you being sad. This, in turn, makes me feel sad. Have your emotions “infected” me? Probably not; consider what would happen if you and I were enemies instead: since I’m a bastard and I like to see people I don’t like fail, your sadness might make me feel happy instead. So it doesn’t seem to be your emotion per se that’s contagious; it might just be the case that I happen to generate similar emotions under certain circumstances. While this might seem to be a relatively minor issue, similar types of thinking about the topic of ideas – specifically, that ideas themselves can be contagious – has led to a lot of rather unproductive thinking and discussions about “memes”. By talking about ideas or moods independently of the minds that create them, we end up with a rather dim view of how our psychology works, I feel.

Which is just what the Illuminati want…

Moving past that issue, however, the study itself is rather simple: for a week in 2012, approximately 700,000 Facebook users had some of their news feed content hidden from them some of the time. Each time one of the subjects viewed their feed, depending on what condition they were in, each post containing certain negative or positive words had a certain probability (between 10-90% chance) of being omitted. Unfortunately, the way the paper is written, it’s a bit difficult to get a sense as to precisely how much content was, on average, omitted. However, as the authors note, this was done a per-viewing basis, so content that was hidden during one viewing might well have showed up were the page to be refreshed (and sitting there refreshing Facebook minute after minute is something many people might actually do). The content was also only hidden on the news feed: if the subject visited a friend’s page directly or sent or received any messages, all the content was available. So, for a week, some of the time, some of the content was omitted, but only on a per-view basis, and only in one particular form (the news feed); not exactly the strongest manipulation I could think of.

The effect of that manipulation was seen when examining what percentage of positive or negative words the subjects themselves used when posting their status updates during the experimental period. Those subjects who saw more positive words in their feed tended to post more positive words themselves, and vice versa for negative words. Sort of, anyway. OK; just barely. In the condition where subjects had access to fewer negative words, the average subject’s status was made up of about 5.3% positive words and 1.7% negative words; when the subjects had access to fewer positive words, these percentages plummeted/jumped to…5.15% and 1.75%, respectively. Compared to the control groups, then, these changes amount to increases or decreases of in between 0.02 and 0.0001 standard deviations of emotional word usage or, as we might say in precise statistical terms, effects so astonishingly small they might as well not be said to exist.

“Can’t you see it? The effect is right there; plain as day!”

What we have here, in sum, then, is an exceedingly weak and probabilistic manipulation that had about as close to no net effect as one could reasonably get, based on an at-least-partially (if only metaphorically) deficient view of how the mind works. The discussion about the ethical issues people perceived with the research appears to have vastly overshadowed the fact that research itself wasn’t really very strong or interesting. So for all of you people outraged over this study for fear that people were harmed: don’t worry. I would say the evidence is good that no appreciable harm came of it.

I would also say that other ethical criticisms of the study are a bit lacking. I’ve seen people raise concerns that Facebook had no business seeing if bad moods would be induced by showing people a disproportionate number of negative status updates; I’ve also seen concerns that the people posting these negative updates might not have received the support they needed if other people were blocked from seeing them. The first thing to note is that Facebook did not increase the absolute number of positive or negative posts; only (kind of) hid some of them from appearing (some of the time, to some people, in one particular forum); the second is that, given those two criticisms, it would seem that Facebook is in a no-win situation: reducing or failing to reduce the number of negative stories leads to them being criticized. Facebook is either failing to get people the help they need or bumming us out by disproportionately exposing us to people who need help. Finally, I would add that if anyone did miss a major life event of a friend – positive or negative – because Facebook might have probabilistically omitted a status update on a given visit, then you’re likely not very good friends with that person anyway, and probably don’t have a close enough relationship with them that would allow you to realistically lend help or take much pleasure from the incident.

References: Kramer, A., Guillory, J., & Hancock, J. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1320040111

Should Evolutionary Psychology Be A History Course?

Imagine for a moment that you happen to live in a Dr. Seuss-style world. Having just graduated from your local institute of educational hobnobbery, you find yourself hired into a lucrative new position: you’re a whatsitdoer. The job description is self-explanatory: it’s your job to examine a series of curious-looking objects and figure out what it is they were designed to do; what their function happens to be. On your first day at work, a shiny metal box comes down the conveyer belt. You begin to examine the object for evidence of special design. That is, does the object appear to be improbably well-designed for a solving various aspects of a particular task with efficiency? You note that the black cord ending in metal prongs running out of the box might suggest that it runs on electricity, the two slots at the top of the box appear to be shaped appropriately so as it fit bread rather well, and there appears to be a heating apparatus within the box. You test each design feature according: the device only functions when plugged it, bread does indeed fit well in the box, and is evenly toasted by the heating element. Importantly, larger items don’t seem to fit in well, smaller items fall in, becoming unreachable, and non-bread items, like CDs tend to melt or catch fire. In other words, the function of this tool appears as if it were designed to use a relatively narrow set of inputs to produce a useful output – toast.

Alternative hypothesis 34: Bath warmer

When you report the results of your tests to your boss, however, he’s not at all pleased with you analysis: “How can you possibly say that this object is designed to make toast when you haven’t recreated the steps of its manufacturing process? Until you have examined the history of how this object has come to be, how the material it is made out of was gathered and shaped, as well as what earlier prototypes of the model might have looked like extending back thousands of years, I can’t accept your suggestion, as you haven’t tested your functional explanation at all!” Now this all strikes you as very strange: you haven’t made any claims about how the object was developed or what earlier versions looked like; you made a claim about how the contemporary object you were given likely functions. As such, understanding the history of the object, while perhaps a neat piece of information that might inform later research on function, is not by any means a requirement for understanding an object’s function. In other words, you should be able to persuade your boss that the toaster is pretty good at making toast without having to give him a complete history of the thing.

Sure; it’s possible that the toaster-like object actually wasn’t designed to make toast at all; toast just happens to be a pretty convenient byproduct of another function it was designed to carry out. However, if we were deriving predictions about what that alternative function was, we still shouldn’t need the history lesson to do that. It’s not that the history information would be necessarily useless: for instance, if you knew the device existed before bread was a thing, then toasting bread certainly couldn’t have been its initial function (though it may well have been co-opted for that function when bread – or pop tarts – became a thing). However, if toasters are well-suited for other functions, you should be able to demonstrate those other functions with design evidence.  History is useful insomuch as it helps inform us about what design evidence to look for, certainly, but does not itself inform us as to functionality.

That said, there have been suggestions that phylogenetic analyzes (examinations of the branching of evolutionary tree) can help inform us as to whether a trait is functional (i.e. an adaptation) or not. Specifically, Fraley, Brumbaugh, & Marks (2005) wrote that, “In order to evaluate the adaptive nature of the relationship between traits, it is necessary to account for phylogenetic relationships among species” (p.733, emphasis mine). The authors go on to note, correctly, that species may be similar to one another because of a shared evolutionary history: rather than all the ape species evolving eyes independently, a common ancestor to all of them might well have had eyes and, because we share that ancestor, we all have eyes as well. Now, as you should be careful to note, this is a claim about the evolutionary history of the trait: whether it was independently evolved multiple times in different lineages, or whether it was evolved once and then maintained into subsequent generations. You should note, however, that this is not a functional claim: it doesn’t tell us what eyes do, what inputs they use, what outputs they generate, and so on. Some examples should make this distinction quite clear.

Figure 1: This ugly bird

Let’s consider, as an example, two species of birds: the ostrich and any variety of parrot you’d prefer. In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t know how recently the two species shared a common ancestor, but at some point we can say they did. Further, for the sake of argument, let’s say that this common ancestor between ostriches and parrots had feathers. The fact that both ostriches and parrots have feathers, then, can be said to be the result of homology (i.e. shared ancestry). However, this does not tell us anything about what the function(s) of these feathers are in their respective species, nor what selective pressures are responsible for their initial appear or maintenance across time. For instance, parrots are capable of flight while ostriches are not. We might expect that parrot feathers show some adaptations for that function, whereas such adaptive designs might have been degraded or lost entirely in ostriches (presuming the common ancestor flew, that is). However, the feathers might also serve other, identical functions in both species: perhaps feathers are also used to keep both species warm, or are advertised during sexual displays. Whatever the respective functions (or lack thereof) of these feathers in different species, we are unable to deduce that function from a phylogenetic analysis alone. What we need are considerations of what adaptive tasks the feathers might serve, and what design evidence we might expect to find because of that.

Fraley et al (2005) go on to suggest that if two traits repeatedly evolve together across species, these, “…correlation[s] between the traits…strongly suggests a functional relationship” (p. 734, emphasis mine). Again, the claim being made is that we can go from history – the two traits tend to show up together – to function. On top of the problems outlined above, such a statement runs into another large obstacle: non-functional or maladaptive byproducts of traits should be expected to correlate as well as adaptive ones. Let’s start with a non-functional example: imagine that placental mammals evolved multiple times over the course of history. If you were examining many different species, you’d probably see a good correlation between the evolution of placentas and presence of belly-buttons. However, the correlation between these two traits doesn’t tell you anything at all about the function (or lack thereof) of either placentas or belly-buttons. In another case, you might notice that there’s a pretty decent correlation between animals with a taste for sugar and the development of cavities in their teeth, but this in no way implies that a preference for sugar has any functional relationship with cavities; bacteria dissolving your teeth generally has poor fitness outcomes, and wouldn’t be selected for.

One final example might help make the point crystal clear: human male investment in children. Let’s say you have two males displaying the same behavior: buying food for their child. That’s awfully charitable of them. However, in one case, the man is the genetic father of the child, whereas the other male is only the child’s stepfather. These behaviors, while ostensible similar, might actually be serving distinct functions. In the case of the genetic father, the investment in that child might involve mechanisms designed for kin-directed altruism (i.e. investing in the child because the child carries some of his genes) and/or mechanisms designed for mating effort (i.e. investing in the child as a means of increasing sexual access to the mother). In contrast, we might expect the stepfather to be investing for the latter reason, but not the former. In other words, we have the same behavior – investing in children – being driven by two very different functional mechanisms. The predictions that can be drawn from these alternative functions are testable even without any reference at all to history or phylogeny: as it turns out, genetic fathers living with the mother invest more than genetic fathers not living with the mother, but genetic fathers continue to invest in offspring even lacking the relationship. On the other hand, stepfathers will invest in children when living with the mother, but when the relationship ends their investment tends to all but dry up entirely. Further, when both are living with the mother, genetic fathers invest more than stepfathers (Anderson, Kaplan, & Lancaster, 1999). This evidence is consistent with a role for both mechanisms designed for investing in children for inclusive fitness and mating reasons. Despite the surface level similarities, then, the investment of these two males might actually be being driven by different functional considerations.

And we didn’t even need a fossil record to figure that out.

So, when it comes to testing claims of biological function, there is no necessity for information about phylogeny: you don’t need to know where traits originated or what earlier versions of the trait were like in order to test competing hypotheses. That’s not to say that such information might not be useful: if you didn’t know about bread, you might have a more difficult time understanding some of the toaster’s design, just as if you didn’t know about toasters you might be hard pressed to explain the shape of pop-tarts (or their name, for that matter). Similarly, correlations between traits do not “strongly suggest” any evidence of a functional relationship either; some correlations might be consistent with a particular functional relationship, sure, but the correlation itself tells you comparatively little when compared with evidence of function (just like correlations between ice cream sales and murder do not strongly suggest any causal relationship, though an experiment examining whether feeding people ice cream made them more violent might). Claims about function should be kept distinct from claims about history. Why the two seem to get conflated from time to time is certainly an interesting matter.

References: Anderson, K., Kaplan, H., & Lancaster, J. (1999). Parental care by genetic fathers and stepfathers I: Reports from Albuquerque men. Evolution and Human Behavior, 20, 405-431.

Fraley, R., Brumbaugh, C., & Marks, M. (2005). The evolution and function of adult attachment: A comparative and phylogenetic analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 731-746.

Truth And Non-Consequences

A topic I’ve been giving some thought to lately concerns the following question: are our moral judgments consequentialist or nonconsequentialist? As the words might suggest, the question concerns to what extent our moral judgments are based in the consequences that result from an action or the behavior per se that people engage in. We frequently see a healthy degree of inconsistency around the issue. Today I’d like to highlight a case I came across while rereading The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker. Here’s part of what Steven had to say about whether any biological differences between groups could justify racism or sexism:

“So could discoveries in biology turn out to justify racism and sexism? Absolutely not! The case against bigotry is not a factual claim that humans are biologically indistinguishable. It is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups to which the individual belongs.”

This seems like a reasonable statement, on the face of it. Differences between groups, on the whole, does not necessarily mean any differences on the same trait between any two given individuals. If a job calls for a certain height, in other words, we should not discriminate against women just because men tend to be taller. That average difference does not mean that many men and women are the not same height, or that the reverse relationship never holds.

Even if it generally does…

Nevertheless, there is something not entirely satisfying about Steven’s position, namely that people are not generally content to say “discrimination is just wrong“. People like to try and justify their stance that it is wrong, lest the proposition be taken to simply be an arbitrary statement with no more intrinsic appeal than “trimming your beard is just wrong“. Steven, like the rest us, thus tries to justify his moral stance on the issue of discrimination:

Regardless of IQ or physical strength or any other trait that can vary, all humans can be assumed to have certain traits in common. No one likes being enslaved. No one likes being humiliated. No one likes being treated unfairly, that is, according to traits that the person cannot control. The revulsion we feel toward discrimination and slavery comes from a conviction that however much people vary on some traits, they do not vary on these.”

Here, Steven seems to be trying to have his nonconsequentialist cake and eat it too*. If the case against bigotry is “absolutely not” based on discoveries in biology or a claim that people are biologically indistinguishable, then it seems peculiar to reference biological facts concerning some universal traits to try and justify one’s stance. Would the discovery that certain people might dislike being treated unfairly to different degrees justify doing so, all else being equal? If it would, the first quoted idea is wrong; if it would not, the second statement doesn’t make much sense. What is also notable about these two quotes is that they are not cherry-picked from difference sections of the book; the second quote comes from the paragraph immediately following the first. I found their juxtaposition is rather striking.

With respect to the consequentialism debate, the fact that people try to justify their moral stances in the first place seems strange from a nonconsequentialist perspective: if a behavior is just wrong, regardless of the consequences, then it needs no explanation. or justification. Stealing, in that view, should be just wrong; it should matter who stole from who, or the value of the stolen goods. A child stealing a piece of candy from a corner store should be just as wrong as an adult stealing a TV from Best Buy; it shouldn’t matter that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, because stealing is wrong no matter the consequences and he should be condemned for it. Many people would, I imagine, agree that not all acts of theft are created equal though. On the topic of severity, many people would also agree that murder is generally worse than theft. Again, from a nonconsequentialist perspective, this should only be the case for arbitrary reasons, or at least reasons that have nothing at all to do with the fact that murder and theft have different consequences. I have tried to think of what those other, nonconsequentialist reasons might be, but I appear to suffer from a failure of imagination in that respect.

Might there be some findings that one might ostensibly support the notion that moral judgments are, at least in certain respects, nonconsequentialist? Yes; in fact there are. The first of these are a pair of related dilemmas known as the trolley and footbridge dilemmas. In both contexts one life can be sacrificed so that five lives are saved. In the former dilemma, a train heading towards five hikers can be diverted to a side track where there is only a single hiker; in the latter, a train heading towards five hikers can be stopped by pushing a person in front of it. In both cases the welfare outcomes are identical (one dead; five not), so it seems that if moral judgments only track welfare outcomes, there should be no difference between these scenarios. Yet there are: about 90% of people will support diverting the train, and only 10% tend to support pushing (Mikhail, 2007). This would certainly be a problem for any theory of morality that claimed the function of moral judgments more broadly is to make people better off on the whole. Moral judgments that fail to maximize welfare would be indicative of poor design for such a function.

Like how this bathroom was poorly optimized for personal comfort.

There are concerns with the idea that this finding supports moral nonconsequentialism, however: namely, the judgments of moral wrongness for pushing or redirecting are not definitively nonconsequentialist. People oppose pushing others in front of trains, I would imagine, because of the costs that pushing inflicts on the individual being pushed. If the dilemma was reworded to one in which acting on a person would not harm them but save the lives of others, you’d likely find very little opposition to it (i.e. pushing someone in front a train in order to send a signal to the driver, but with enough time so the pushed individual can exit the track and escape harm safely). This relationship holds in the trolley dilemma: when an empty side track is available, redirection to said track is almost universally preferred, as might be expected (Huebner & Hauser, 2011).  One who favors the nonconsequentialist account might suggest that such a manipulation is missing the point: after all, it’s not that pushing someone in front a train is immoral, but rather that killing someone is immoral. This rejoinder would seem to blur the issue, as it suggests, somewhat confusingly, that people might judge certain consequences non-consequentially. Intentionally shooting someone in the head, in this line of reasoning, would be wrong not because it results in death, but because killing is wrong; death just so happens to be a necessary consequence of killing. Either I’m missing some crucial detail or distinction seems unhelpful, so I won’t spend anymore time on it. 

Another matter of evidence touted as evidence of moral nonconsequentialism is the research done on moral dumbfounding (Haidt et al, 2000). In brief, research has found that when presented with cases where objective harms are absent, many people continue to insist that certain acts are wrong. The most well-known of these involves a bother-sister case of consensual incest on a single occasion. The sister is using birth control and the brother wears a condom; they keep their behavior a secret and feel closer because of it. Many subjects (about 80%) insisted that the act was wrong. When pressed for an explanation, many initially referenced harms that might occur as a result, those these harms were always countered by the context (no pregnancy, no emotional harm, no social stigma, etc). From this, it was concluded that conscious concerns for harm appear to represent post hoc justifications for an intuitive moral intuition.

One needs to be cautious in interpreting these results as evidence of moral nonconsequentialism, though, and a simple example would explain why. Imagine in that experiment what was being asked about was not whether the incest itself was wrong, but instead why the brother and sister pair had sex in the first place. Due to the dual contraceptive use, there was no probability of conception. Therefore, a similar interpretation might say, this shows that people are not consciously motivated to have sex because of children. While true enough that most acts of intercourse might not be motivated by the conscious desire for children, and while the part of the brain that’s talking might not have access to information concerning how other cognitive decision rules are enacted, it doesn’t mean the probability of conception plays no role shaping in the decision to engage in intercourse; despite what others have suggested, sexual pleasure per se is not adaptive. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the moral dumbfounding results are only particularly interesting because, most of the time, harm is expected to play a major role in our moral judgments. Pornography manages to “trick” our evolved sexual motivation systems by providing them with inputs similar to those that reliably correlate with the potential for conception; perhaps certain experimental designs – like the case of brother-sister incest – manage to similarly “trick” our evolved moral systems by providing them with inputs similar to those that reliably correlated with harm.

Or illusions; whatever your preferred term is.

In terms of making progress the consequentialism debate, it seems useful to do away with the idea that moral condemnation functions to increase welfare in general: not only are such claims clearly empirically falsified, they could only even be plausible in the realm of group selection, which is a topic we should have all stopped bothering with long ago. Just because moral judgments fail the test of group welfare improvement, however, it does not suddenly make the nonconsequentialist position tenable. There are more ways of being consequentialist than with respect to the total amount of welfare increase. It would be beneficial to turn our eye towards considering strategic welfare consequences that likely to accrue to actors, second parties, and third parties as a result of these behaviors. In fact, we should be able to use such considerations to predict contexts under which people should flip back and forth from consciously favoring consequentialist and nonconsequentialist kinds of moral reasoning. Evolution is a consequentialist process, and we should expect it to produce consequentialist mechanisms. To the extent we are not finding them, the problem might owe itself more to a failure of our expectations for the shape of these consequences than an actual nonconsequentialist mechanism.

References: Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (2000). Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. Unpublished manuscript.

Huebner, B. & Hauser, M. (2011). Moral judgments about altruistic self-sacrifice: When philosophical and folk intuitions clash. Philosophical Psychology, 24, 73-94.

Mikhail, J. (2007). Universal moral grammar: Theory, evidence, and the future. Trends in Cognitive Science, 11, 143-151.


*Later, Steven writes:

“Acknowledging the naturalistic fallacy does not mean that facts about human nature are irrelevant to our choices…Acknowledging the naturalistic fallacy implies only that discoveries about human nature do not, by themselves, dictate our choices…”

I am certainly sympathetic to such arguments and, as usual, Steven’s views on the topic are more nuanced than the these quotes alone are capable of displaying. Steven does, in fact, suggest that all good justifications for moral stances concern harms and benefits. Those two particular quotes are only used to highlight the frequent inconsistencies between people’s stated views.

The “Side-Effect Effect” And Curious Language

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

That now famous quote was uttered by the character Inigo Montoya in the movie, The Princess Bride. In recent years, the phrase has been co-opted for its apparent usefulness in mocking people during online debates. While I enjoy a good internet argument as much as the next person, I do try to stay out of them these days due to time constraints, though I did used to be something of a chronic debater. (As an aside, I started this blog, at least in part, for reasons owing to balancing my enjoyment of debates with those time constraints. It’s worked pretty well so far). As any seasoned internet (or non-internet) debater can tell you, one of the underlying reasons debates tend to go on so long is that people often argue past one another. While there are many factors that explain why people do so, the one I would like to highlight today is semantic in nature: definitional obscurity. There are instances where people will use different words to allude to the same concept or use the same word to allude to different concepts. Needless to say, this makes agreement hard to reach.

But what’s the point of arguing if it means we’ll ever agree on something?

This brings us to the question of intentions. Defined by various dictionaries, intentions are aims, plans, or goals. By contrast, the definition of a side effect is just the opposite: an unintended outcome. Were these terms used consistently, then, one could never say a side effect was intended; foreseen, maybe, but not intended. Consistency, however, is rarely humanity’s strongest suit – as we ought expect it not to be – since consistency does not necessarily translate into “useful”: there are many cases in which I would be better off if I could both do X and stop other people from doing X (fill in ‘X’ however you see fit: stealing, having affairs, murder, etc). So what about intentions? There are two facts about intentions which make them prime candidates for expected inconsistency: (1) intentionally-committed acts tend to receive a greater degree of moral condemnation than unintentional ones, and (2) intentions are not readily observable, but rather need to be inferred.

This means that if you want to stop someone else from doing X, it is in your best interests to convince others if someone did X, that X was intended, so as to make punishment less costly and more effective (as more people might be interested in punishing, sharing the costs). Conversely, if you committed X, it is in your best interests to convince others that you did not intend X. It is on the former aspect – condemnation of others – that we’ll focus on here. In the now classic study by Knobe (2003), 39 people were given the following story:

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.” The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’”They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

When asked whether the chairman intentionally harmed the environment, 82% of the participants agreed that he had. However, when the word “harm” was replaced with “help”, now 77% of the subjects said that the benefits to environment were unintentional (this effect was also replicated using a military context instead). Now, strictly speaking, the only stated intention the chairman had was to make money; whether that harmed or helped the environment should to be irrelevant, as both effects would side effects of that primary intention.Yet that’s not how people rated them.

Related to the point about moral condemnation, it was also found that participants said the chairman who brought about the negative side effect deserved substantially more punishment (4.8 on a 0 to 6 scale) than the chairman who brought about the positive impact deserved praise (1.4), and those ratings correlated pretty well with the extent to which the participants thought the chairman has brought about the effect intentionally. This tendency to asymmetrically see intentions behind negative, but not positive, side effects was dubbed “the side-effect effect”. There exists the possibility, however, that this label is actually not entirely accurate. Specifically, it might not be exclusive to side effects of actions; it might also hold for the means by which an effect is achieved as well. You know; the things that were actually intended.

Just like how this was probably planned by some evil corporation.

The paper that raised this possibility (Cova & Naar, 2012) began by replicating Knobe’s basic effect with different contexts (unintended targets being killed by a terrorist bombing as the negative side effect, and an orphanage expanding due to the terrorist bombing as the positive side effect). Again, negative side effects were seen as more intentional and more blameworthy than positive side effects were rated as intentional and praiseworthy. The interesting twist came when participants were asked about the following scenario:

A man named André tells his wife: “My father decided to leave his immense fortune to only one of his children. To be his heir, I must find a way to become his favorite child. But I can’t figure how.” His wife answers: “Your father always hated his neighbors and has declared war to them. You could do something that would really annoy them, even if you don’t care. Andre decides to set fire to the neighbors’ car.

Unsurprisingly, many people here (about 80% of them) said that Andre had intentionally harmed his neighbors. He planned to harm them, because doing so would further another one of his goals (getting money) A similar situation was also presented, however, where instead of burning down the neighbor’s car, Andre donates to a humanitarian-aid society because his father would have liked that. In that case, only 20% of subjects reported that Andre had intended to give money to the charity.

Now that answer is a bit peculiar. Surely, Andre intended to donate the money, even if his reason for doing so involved getting money from his father. While that might not be the most high-minded reason to donate, it ought not make the donating itself any less intentional (though perhaps it seems a bit grudging). Cova & Naar (2012) raise the following alternative explanation: the way the philosophers tend to use the word “intention” is not the only game in town. There are other possible conceptions that people might have of the word based on the context in which it’s found, such as, “something done knowingly for which an agent deserves praise of blame“. Indeed, taking these results at face value, we would need something else beyond the dictionary definitions of intention and side effect, since they don’t seem to be applying here.

This returns us to my initial point about intentions themselves. While this is an empirical matter (albeit a potentially difficult one), there are at least two distinct possibilities: (a) people mean something different by “intention” in moral and nonmoral contexts (we’ll call this the semantic account), or (b) people mean the same thing in both cases, but they do actually perceive it differently (the perceptual account). As I mentioned before, intentions are not the kinds of things which are readily observable, but rather need to be inferred, or perceived. What was not previously mentioned, however, is that it is not as if people only have a single intention at any given time; given the modularity of the mind, and the various goals one might be attempting to achieve, it is perfectly possible, at least conceptually, for people to have a variety of different intentions at once – even ones that pull in opposite directions. We’re all intimately familiar with the sensation of having conflicting intentions when we find ourselves stuck between two appealing, but mutually-exclusive options: a doctor may intend to do no harm, intend to save people’s lives, and find himself in a position where he can’t do both.

Simple solution: do neither.

For whatever it’s worth, of the two options, I favor the perceptual account over the semantic account for the following reason: there doesn’t seem to be a readily-apparent reason for definitions to change strategically, though there are reasons for perceptions to change. Let’s return to the Andre case to see why. One could say that Andre had at least two intentions: get the inheritance, and complete act X required to achieve the inheritance. Depending on whether one wants to praise or condemn Andre for doing X, one might choose to highlight different intentions, though in both cases keeping the definition of intention the same. In the event you want to condemn Andre for setting the car on fire, you can highlight the fact that he intended to do so; if you don’t feel like praising him for his ostensibly charitable donation, you can choose instead to highlight the fact that (you perceive) his primary intention was to get money – not give it. However, the point of that perceptual change would be to convince others that Andre ought to be punished; simply changing the definition of “intention” when talking with others about the matter wouldn’t seem to accomplish that goal quite as well, as it would require the other speaker to share your definition.

References: Cova, F., & Naar, H. (2012). Side-Effect Effect Without Side Effect: Revisiting Knobe’s Asymmetry. Philosophical Psychology, 25, 837-854

Knobe, J. (2003). Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language. Analysis, 63, 190-193 DOI: 10.1093/analys/63.3.190

How Much Does Amanda Palmer Trust Her Fans?

A new TED talk was put out today (though it won’t be today anymore by the time you read this) by Amanda Palmer entitled, “The Art of Asking”, which you can watch here. If the comments on the YouTube page of the talk are to be believed, it truly was an inspiring affair. Professional cynic that I am, the talk didn’t do much to inspire me; at least not in the way that Amanda probably intended it to. Now, for those of who you don’t know her, Amanda is (primarily, I think) famous for her music in The Dresden Dolls. One of the main thrusts of her talk centers around the question she poses towards the end: how do we let people pay for music, rather than how do we get people to pay for music. Part of Amanda’s answer to this question was to allow people to download her music on her website and let them pay whatever price they wanted for the download. So, if someone downloaded Amanda’s music from her site, they had the option of paying $0, $1, $5, $10, $15, $20, or $100 for it. Amanda further suggests that she views this as a sort of “trust” in her fans, presumably because she had given people the option of paying nothing, which is the option most economists would consider the “rational” one. While her talk is delivered with a strong emotional tone and the message is ostensibly positive, Amanda is still a human, so my guess is that there’s more to her trust than meets the eye.

And more than meets the shaved-off eyebrows as well

Admittedly, I don’t know much about Amanda beyond what I just heard. Though I am familiar with her music to some degree, I’ve never followed her personal life at all. Here’s what I do know: a quick browsing of her website shows me that while she will indeed allow people to choose their own price for her music and download it, she doesn’t seem to have that same policy towards shirts, CDs, vinyl, posters, art books, or the shipping and handling required to send any of them out. Something (the tour section of her website) also tells me the venues she plays at – which I’m imagining represent a substantial proportion of her income – don’t allow anyone to come in to see the show and pay whatever they feel like for tickets. It would seem that telling people, rather than asking them, to pay is the norm; not her exception. This raises the inevitably question: to what extent does the choose-your-own-price option reflect a genuine leap of faith, and how much of her TED talk is actually cheap talk?

Cheap talk is just what it sounds like: it’s a signal that is easy to produce. Like all signals, it functions to attempt and persuade another individual to change their behavior. Cheap talk, however, is of very questionable value precisely because it’s so easy to manufacture. For instance, let’s say that a man tries to convince a woman at a bar to have sex with him. He tells her that he’s fabulously wealthy, will remain faithful to her throughout his life, and see to it that she wants for nothing if she agrees. Tempting offer no doubt, but what’s guaranteeing that any of the information that the man is sending is true? It costs the man almost nothing to say the words, and once the two have sex, he’s free to go back on his word without penalty. However, if that same offer is made after a month of courtship where the man has paid for multiple dates, consistently dressed in expensive clothes, and accompanies the offer with a diamond ring, wedding ceremony, and legal contract that entitles the woman to half of everything he owns, we’ve stepped out the realm of cheap talk into costly signals. Because of those high costs, the signal is much harder to fake, so its honesty can be better guaranteed.

Now Amanda would like us to think that her choose-your-own-price option represents a costly signal of trust towards her fans. Indeed, she may well consciously believe that it is one, just as most people consciously believe they’re better than average at things that the majority of other people or less likely to have bad things happen to them. Since her personal, potentially self-serving feelings about the whole thing don’t necessarily reflect reality, this brings us back to the “how costly is her gesture?” question. As the internet stands right now, whether a musician provides the option for free downloading on their own website or not, the option likely exists somewhere. It took me all of three seconds to find a list of websites where I could have downloaded Amanda’s album for free anyway. In other words, if someone wanted to download her album without paying, they likely could have. This suggests that her pay-nothing option isn’t as trusting as it initially comes across. Not only is she not creating that option where it didn’t exist before, but, in all likelihood, it would exist regardless of whether she wanted it to or not. Counting this as “trust” is a bit like my saying that I “trust” gravity to do what it does; I don’t really have a choice in the matter.

Physics has yet to disappoint

On top of that preexisting problem of music downloads already being available, there’s another: to the best of my knowledge, the costs to letting someone download her album are minimal. While one could argue about how much money she would lose on account of people not paying, I’m talking more about the physical costs of sending the information to someone’s computer. Since there really is no cost there – and because the option to download for free would exist with or without Amanda’s seal of approval – Amanda is essentially undertaking zero risk in providing her ostensibly-trusting option. It requires no investment and no need for desire. Without that risk, assessing the credibility of the signal becomes very difficult, as was the case with the sex example above. How trusting would Amanda be when there are some actual risks involved? When she has the ability to create that trusting option, will she? This is where Amanda’s other merchandise comes to the rescue.

Things like shirts, posters, and physical copies of CDs cost actual money to produce, and the option to get these things for free doesn’t already exist. Nothing is stopping Amanda from paying out of pocket to have these items made and allowing her fans to pay whatever they want for them (from $0 a shirt a $100, for instance), yet this isn’t what she does. Once actual risk enters the picture – once Amanda needs to make a real initial investment – her trust sees to dry up in a hurry. Apparently, she doesn’t trust her fans enough to adequately compensate her on a shirt and the shipping cost when she has the option to. One could argue, I suppose, that a handful of amoral people could, in principle, ruin her financially by ordering dozens or hundreds of shirts from her for free online, and that same risk isn’t posed by the downloading of a CD. That would be a fair point, except there are multiple ways around it: the requirement of a credit card for the purchase (whatever the purchase price ended up being), a limit on the number of free or cheap items, or the option available to pay whatever you want for the merchandise, but only at live concerts. Admittedly, I don’t know if she does the last one; I just suspect she doesn’t offer it as default option.

Forgetting about the merchandise, we could also discuss ticket prices to the shows as well. A quick browsing of the links for tickets on her tour schedule shows tickets that can range from $15 to $60. Now of course ticket prices aren’t being set by Amanda herself, but, then again, venues aren’t set in stone either. Presumably Amanda could, if she wanted to, only schedule herself to play at venues where ticket prices could be determined (at least largely) by the willingness of the people who show up to pay. I’m sure there are plenty of venues – though not necessarily traditional ones – that would at least consider such an offer. Rather than take this approach, however, Amanda’s “art of asking” seems to involve first demanding people pay full price for tickets and merchandise and, in addition, asking them to then pay more, whether that more came in the form of additional money placed into a hat she passes around the crowd, giving her food, places to stay, practice space, or other items of interest.

“How can we let people pay $7 for a cup of coffee and then let them pay us even more?”

Now none of this is to say that Amanda is a bad person. As I said, I don’t know nearly enough about her to make that judgment one way or the other. This is merely to point out that the “trust” Amanda has in her fans certainly has its limits – many of them – as pretty much anyone’s does. That’s just the point though; there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special going on here. Despite there being nothing special about it, Amanda seems to be trying to play it off as if it’s some great exercise in trust. The impossible-to-assess pretense is the part of the talk that inspired this post. There’s also the matter of the kickstarter she mentions. Amanda asked for $100,000 on kickstarter and ended up making over a million. Now I don’t find anything particularly egregious about that; if her fans wanted to support her, nothing was stopping them. What I did find curious, though, what her analysis of how that money would be spent. It seemed that she had a legitimate need for almost the full million. While that’s fine if she does, what’s curious about that was is if she needed the full million, why didn’t she ask for, well, the full million? Why only ask for the hundred thousand that clearly would have been grossly insufficient for her plans? Something about that analysis strikes me as off as well. Then again, if a pretense of trust is easy to manufacture, so is a pretense of need.

“Nice Guys”, The Friend Zone, And Social Semantics

A little over a year ago, a video entitled, “Why men and women can’t be friends” was uploaded to YouTube. In the video, a man approaches various men and women and presents them with the question, “can men and women just be friends?”. While many of the woman answered in the affirmative, most of the men seemed to answer in the negative, suggesting that men would generally be interested in something more; something sexual. When asked about whether their male friends were interested in having sex them, many of the women seemed to similarly acknowledge that, yes, their male friends probably were interested, so maybe there was more lurking behind that “just friendship”. In a follow-up video, the same man asked whether it would be alright for people in relationships to hang out alone with same-sex friends. While the men seemed to be of relatively one mind (no, it would not be appropriate), women, again, initially stated that opposite-sex friends are fine. However, when confronted with the possibility of their significant other hanging out alone with a member of opposite-sex, the tune seemed to change dramatically: now men and women agreed that they would, indeed, be bothered by that state of events.

“And here I thought his sudden interest in jogging was purely platonic”

So why the discrepancy in women’s responses, but not men’s? Perhaps it’s simply due to the magic of video editing, where only certain responses were kept to make a point, but, working under the assumption that’s not happening, I think there’s something interesting going on here. Understanding what that something is will require us to dig deeper into two concepts that have been floating around for some time: “the friend zone” and “Nice guys”. The friend zone, as many of you know, refers to the context where someone wants a relationship with another, but that other doesn’t return the affection. Since the interest isn’t mutual, the party interested in the relationship settles for a friendship with the target of their affections, often with the hope that someday things will change. “Nice guys” on the other hand, are typically men who are stuck in the friend zone and, upon the eventual realization that their friendship will probably not transition into a relationship, become irritated with the person they were interested in, resulting in the friendship being called off and feelings being hurt. The friendship, after all, is not what they were after; they wanted the full relationship (or at least an occasional hook up).

“Nice guys”, in other words, are only being nice because they want to get sex, so they’re not really nice, people seem to feel; hence the quotation marks. Further, “nice guys” are frequently socially maligned, seemingly because of their (actually held or assumed to be held) attitude that women are obligated to have sex or start a relationship with them because they are nice (whether any substantial number of them consciously think this is another matter entirely). Alternatively, “nice guys” are looked down on because they view the friendship – or the friend zone – as, at best, a consolation prize to what they were actually going after or, at worst, something they couldn’t care less about having. The nerve of these people; insisting that just a friendship isn’t enough! There are some very peculiar things about the label of “nice guy”, though; things that don’t quite fit at first glance. The first of these is that the earning of the “nice guy” label appears to be contingent on the target of the affections not returning them. If whomever the “nice guy” is interested in does return the affections, there is no way to tell whether he was “nice guy” or one of those actually nice guys. In other words, you could have two identical guys enacting identical sets of behavior right up to the moment of truth: if the target returns the man’s affections, he’s a nice guy; if she doesn’t and the man doesn’t find that state of affairs satisfactory, he is now a “nice guy”; not a nice guy.

That, however, is only a surface issue. The much more substantial issue is in the label itself, which would, given its namesake, seem to imply that the problem is the nice behavior of the guys, rather than the attitude of entitlement that the label is ostensibly aimed at. This is very curious. If the entitled attitude is what is supposed to be the problem of the people this term is aimed at, why would the label focus on their otherwise nice behavior; behavior that might not differ in any substantial way from the behavior of genuine nice guys? Further, why is the label male-specific (it’s “nice guys” not “nice people”, and even when it’s a woman doing it, well, she’s just being a “nice guy” too)? With these two questions in mind, we’re now prepared to begin to tackle the initial question: why do women’s response to the friendship questions, but not men’s, seem discrepant?

“Thanks for taking me shopping; I’m so lucky to have a friend like you…”

Let’s take the questions in a partially-reversed order: the first is why the term focuses on the nice behavior. The answer here is would seem to revolve around the matter of cooperation and reciprocity more generally. In the social world, when an altruistic individual provides you with a benefit at a cost to themselves, the altruist generally expects repayment at some point down the line. It’s what’s called reciprocal altruism – or, less formally, cooperation – and forms the backbone of pretty much every successful social relationship among non-kin (Trivers, 1971). However, sometimes relationships are not quite as reciprocal in nature: one individual will continuously reap the benefits of altruism without returning them in kind. Names for those types of individuals abound, though the most common are probably exploiters or cheaters. Having a reputation as a cheater is, generally speaking, bad for business when it comes to making and maintaining friendships, so it’s helpful to maintain a good reputation amongst others.

The implications for why the “nice guy” label focuses on otherwise nice behavior should be immediately apparent: if someone is behaving nicely towards you – even if that nice behavior might be unwanted – it creates the expectation of reciprocity, both among the altruist and potentially other third parties. Failing to return the favor, then, can make one look like a social cheater. This obviously puts the recipient in a bind: while they would certainly like to enjoy the benefits of the nice individual’s behavior (free meals, social support, and so on), they don’t want to have the obligation to repay it if it’s avoidable (it’s that expectation that makes people uncomfortable about accepting gifts; not because they don’t want said gifts). So how can that obligation be effectively avoided? One way seems to be to question the altruist’s motives: if the altruist was only giving to get something else (like sex), and if that something else is viewed to be of substantially more valuable than what was initially given (also like sex tends to be), one can frame the ostensible altruist as the exploiter, the cheater, or, in this case, the “nice guy”. If a woman wants to either (a) reap the benefits of nice guys, (b) avoid the costs in not reciprocating what the nice guy wants, or (c) both, then the label of “nice guy” can be quite effective. Since there behavior wasn’t actually nice, there’s no need to reciprocate it.

Bear in mind, none of this needs to be consciously entertained. In fact, in some cases it’s better to not have conscious awareness of such things. For instance, to make that reframing (nice to “nice”) more successful, the person doing the reframing has to come off as having innocent motives themselves: if the woman in question was explicit about her desire to take advantage of men’s niceness towards her with no intentions of any repayment, she’s back to being the cheater in the situation (just as the “nice guy’s” behavior is back to just being plain old nice, if a bit naive). Understanding this point helps us answer the third question: why are women’s responses to the friendship question seemingly discrepant? Conscious awareness of these kinds of mental calculations will typically do a woman no favors, as they might “leak out” into the world, so to speak. To think of it in another way, you’ll have an easier time trying to convince people that you didn’t do something wrong if you legitimately can’t access any memories of you doing something wrong (as opposed to having access to those memories and needing to suppress them). To relate this to the answers in the videos, when a woman is receiving benefits from her male friends, keeping the knowledge that her male friends are trying to get something more from her out of mind can help her defend against the criticism of being a social cheater, as well as avoid the need to pay her male friends back. On the other hand, when it’s her boyfriend who’s now being “nice” to other women, there are benefits to her being rather aware of the underlying motives.

“I swear I was just giving her my opinion about her new bra as a friend!”

Finally, we turn to the answer to second question, the answer to which ought to be obvious by now: why is the “nice guy” term male-specific? This answer has a lot to do with the simple fact that, all else being equal, women do prefer men who invest in them, both in the short and long term, but investment plays a substantially lessened role for women in drawing and maintaining male interest (Buss, 2003). Put simply, males invest because females tend to find that investment attractive. So, to sum up, women want to receive investment and males are generally willing to provide that investment. However, male investment typically comes contingent on the possibility or reality of mating, and when that possibility is withdrawn, so too does male investment wane. The term “nice guy” might serve to both avoid the costs that come with receiving that investment but not returning it, as well as a potential shaming tactic for men who withdraw their niceness when it becomes clear that niceness will not pay off as intended. Similarly, a woman might doubt her partner’s “niceness” when it’s directed towards another. This analysis, however, only examines the female-end of things; males face a related set of problems, just from a different angle. Further, the underlying male strategy is, I assure you, not any less strategic.

References: Buss, D. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. Basic Books: New York

Trivers, R. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism The Quarterly Review of Biology, 46 (1) DOI: 10.1086/406755

What Should We Mean When We Say “Universal”?

My last post prompted a series of spirited discussions, each of which I found interesting for slightly different reasons. Over the course of one of those discussion, a commenter over at Psychology Today (H/T to Anthro_girl) referred me to an article entitled “Darwin in mind: New opportunities for evolutionary psychology” (Bolhuis et al. 2011). I haven’t yet decided if I this will turn into a series of posts on the ideas presented in that article, but there is one point in particular I would like to focus in on for the current purposes, and it’s entirely semantic in nature: what the term “universal” ought to mean. Attempts on clearing up semantic confusion tend to be unproductive in my experience, but I think it’s important to at least give these matters a deeper consideration, as they can breed the appearance of disagreement, despite two parties saying essentially the same thing (what has been previously called “violent agreement“, and I think represents the bulk of the ideas found in the article).

“You’re absolutely right and I respect your position, which is also my own!”

The first point I would like to mention is that I find Bolhuis et al’s (2011) wording quite peculiar: they seem to, at least at some points, contrast “flexibility” with universality. It sounds as if they are trying to contrast “genetic determinism” with flexibility instead, which seems to be a fairly common mistake people make when criticizing what they think evolutionary psychology assumes. Since that point is a fairly common misunderstanding, there’s little need to go over it again here, but it does give me an opportunity to think about what it means for a trait to be universal, using their example of sexual selection. The authors suggest that as a number of environmental cues (encounter rates, cost of parental investment, etc) change, so too should we expect mating strategies to change: change the inputs to a system, change the outputs. Now nothing about that analysis strikes me as particularly incorrect, but the implication that follows it does: specifically, a universal trait ought not to show much, if any, variation. Well, OK, they don’t really imply it so much as they flat-out say it:

“Arguably, the more flexible and variable the exhibited behaviour, the less explanatory power can be attributed to evolved structure in the mind.”  

Their analysis seems to misstep in regard to why those other variables might matter in determining variation. In order for variables, like encounter rates or the likely costs of parental investment, to matter in the first place, some other psychological mechanisms need to be sensitive to those inputs; other evolved structures of the mind. If no evolved structures are sensitive to those inputs, or the structures which are sensitive to those variables aren’t hooked up to the structures that determine sexual behavior, there wouldn’t be any consistent effect of their presence or absence. Thus, finding variation in a trait, like sexual selectively, doesn’t tell you much about whether the mechanisms involved in determining said behavior are universal or not. This does, however, raise in inevitable question about universality: do we need to expect a near-perfectly consistent expression of a trait in order to call it universal?

I would think not. This gets at a distinction highlighted by Norenzayan & Heine (2005) between various types of universality, specifically the “functional” and “accessible” varieties. The functional type refers to traits that use the same underlying mechanisms and solve the same kinds of problems (so if people in all cultures use hammers to beat in nails, hammers would be functionally universal); the accessible type is the same as the functional type, only that it is used to pretty much the same degree across different cultures (all cultures would need to use their hammers approximately the same amount). In other words, then, different cultures might differ with respect to how sexually selective men tend to be relative to women, but in all people there are still the same underlying mechanisms at work and they are still used to solve the same kinds of problems, so we can still feel pretty good about calling that difference in sexual selectivity a universal. While that’s all well and good, it does create a new problem, though: how much variation counts as “a lot of it”, or at least enough of it to warrant one classification or the other?

Fairly mundane for basketball, but maybe the most exciting soccer match ever.

Two examples should help clear this up. Let’s say you’re a fairly boring kind of researcher and find yourself examining finger length cross-culturally, trying to determine if finger length is universal. You get your ruler out, figure out a way to convince thousands of people the world over to let you examine their hands in dozens of different languages, and locate a nice grant to cover all your travel costs (along with the time you won’t be spending doing other things like teaching or seeing your friends and family). After months of hard work, you’re finally able to report your findings: you have found that middle fingers are approximately 2.75 inches in length and, between cultures, that mean varies between 2.65 inches and 3.25 inches. From this, are we to conclude that middle finger length is or is not universal?

The answer to this question is by no means straight forward; it seems to be more of an “I know it when I see it” kind of judgment call. There clearly is some variation, but is there enough variation there to be meaningful? Would middle fingers be classified as a “functional” universal or an “accessible” universal (if such labels made sense in case of fingers, that is)?  While the finger might seem a bit strange as an example, it has a major benefit: it involves a trait that is rather easy to find a generally agreed upon definition and form of measurement. Let’s say that you’re interested in looking at something a more difficult to assess, like the aforementioned sexually selectively. Now all sorts of new questions will come creeping in: is your test the best way of assessing what you hope to? Is your method one that is likely to be interpreted in a consistent manner across cultures? The initial question still needs to be answered as well: how much variation is enough? If the difference in sexual selectively between men and women is twice as large in culture A, relative to culture B, does that make it a functional or an accessible universal? What is that difference was only 1.5 times the size from culture to culture, or 3 times the size? From what I could gather, there really is no hard or fast rule for determining this, so the distinction might appear to be more arbitrary than real.

While these are all worthwhile questions to consider and difficult ones to answer, let’s assume that we were able to provide answers to them, in some form and find that sexually selectively, while functionally universal, is not what we would consider an accessible universal (that is there is a significant amount, whatever that happens to be, of variance between cultures in its size). While the variance you turned up is all well and good, what precisely is that variance a product of? There are many cognitive mechanisms that play a role in determining sexual selectivity, and our finding that sexual selectively isn’t an accessible universal doesn’t answer the question as to which components that determine that trait are or are not accessible universals. Perhaps approach rate is an accessible universal, but the male/female ratio in a population is only a functional universal. This could, in particular cases, even lead us to some odd conclusions: if one of the mechanisms that helps determines sexual selectivity isn’t an accessible universal in that instance, it might well be considered an accessible universal in another where its output is used to determine some other trait. For instance, hypothetically, sex ratio might not be an accessible universal when it comes to sexual selectivity, but could be one when it comes to determining some propensity for violence. In other cases, sex ratio might be a functional or accessible universal, but only depending on what test you’re using (on a Likert scale, it might only be functionally universal; in a singles bar, it might be accessibly universal).

Riveting as I’m sure you all find this, I’ll try and wrap it up.

So, as before, attempts to clear up semantic confusion have not necessarily been successful. Then again, if matters like this were simple, it’s doubtful that these kinds of disagreement would have cropped up in the first place. Hopefully, some the issues between focusing on the outputs of mechanisms versus the mechanisms themselves have at least been highlighted. There are two final points to make about the idea of universality: first, if there was no underlying universal human nature, cross-cultural research would be all but impossible to conduct, as foreign cultures would not be able to be understood at all in the first place. Secondly, that point is demonstrated well by what I would call cross-cultural cross-fostering. More precisely, as Norenzayan & Heine (2005) note, when infants from other cultures are raised in a new one (say an Asian family immigrates to America), within two or three generations, the children of that family will be all but indistinguishable from their “new” cultural peers. Without an underlying set of universal psychological mechanisms, it’s unclear precisely how such adaptation would be possible.

So yes, while WEIRD undergraduates might not give you a complete picture of human psychology, it doesn’t mean that they offer nothing, or even very little. The differences between cultures can hide the oceans of similarity that lurk right underneath the surface. It’s important to not lose sight of the forest for a few trees.

References: Bolhuis JJ, Brown GR, Richardson RC, & Laland KN (2011). Darwin in mind: new opportunities for evolutionary psychology. PLoS biology, 9 (7) PMID: 21811401

Norenzayan, A., & Heine, S. (2005). Psychological Universals: What Are They and How Can We Know? Psychological Bulletin, 131 (5), 763-784 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.5.763


The Fight Over Mankind’s Essence

All traits of biological organisms require some combination and interaction of genetic and non-genetic factors to develop. As Tooby and Cosmides put it in their primer:

Evolutionary psychology is not just another swing of the nature/nurture pendulum. A defining characteristic of the field is the explicit rejection of the usual nature/nurture dichotomies — instinct vs. reasoning, innate vs. learned, biological vs. cultural. What effect the environment will have on an organism depends critically on the details of its evolved cognitive architecture.

The details of that cognitive architecture are, to some extent, what people seem to be referring to when they use the word “innate”, and figuring out the details of that architecture is a monumental task indeed. For some reason, this task of figuring out what’s “innate” also draws some degree of what I feel is unwarranted hostility and precisely why it does is a matter of great interest. One might posit that some of this hostility is due to the term itself. “Innate” seems to be a terribly problematic term for the same two reasons that most other contentious terms are: people can’t seem to agree on a clear definition for the word or a  context to apply it in, but they still use it fairly often despite that. Because of this, interpersonal communication can get rather messy, much like two teams trying to play a sport in which each is playing the game under a different set of rules; a philosophical game of Calvinball. I’m most certainly not going to be able to step into this debate and provide the definition for “innate” that all parties will come to intuitively agree upon and use consistently in the future. Instead, my goal is to review two recent papers that examined the contexts in which people’s views of innateness vary.

“Just add environment!” (Warning: chicken outcome will vary with environment)

Anyone with a passing familiarity in the debates that tend to surround evolutionary psychology will likely have noticed that most of these debates tend to revolve around issues of sex differences. Further, this pattern tends to hold whether it’s a particular study being criticized or the field more generally; research on sex differences just seems to catch a disproportionate amount of the criticism, relative to most other topics, and that criticism can often get leveled at the entire field by association (even if the research is not published in an evolutionary psychology, and even if the research is not conducted by people using an evolutionary framework). While this particular observation of mine is only an anecdote, it seems that I’m not alone in noticing it. The first of the two studies on attitudes towards innateness was conducted by Geher & Gambacorta (2010) on just this topic. They sought to determine the extent to which attitudes about sex differences might be driving opposition to evolutionary psychology and, more specifically, the degree to which those attitudes might be correlated with being an academic, being a parent, or being politically liberal.

Towards examining this issue, Geher & Gambacorta (2010) created questions aimed at assessing people attitudes in five domains: (1) human sex differences in adulthood, (2) human sex differences in childhood, (3) behavioral sex differences in chickens, (4) non-sex related human universals, and (5) behavioral differences between dogs and cats. Specifically, the authors asked about the extent to which these differences were due to nature or nurture. As mentioned in the introduction, this nature/nurture dichotomy is explicitly rejected in the conceptual foundations of evolutionary psychology and is similarly rejected by the authors as being useful. This dimension was merely used in order to capture the more common attitudes about the nature of biological and environmental causation, where the two are often seen as fighting for explanatory power in some zero-sum struggle.

Of the roughly 270 subjects who began the survey, not all of them completed every section. Nevertheless, the initial sample included 111 parents and 160 non-parents, 89 people in academic careers and 182 non-academics, and the entire sample was roughly 40 years old and mildly politically liberal, on average. The study found that political orientation was correlated with judgments of whether sex differences in humans (children and adults) were due to nature or environment, but not the other three domains (cats/dogs, chickens/hens, or human universals): specifically, those with more politically liberal leanings were also more likely to endorse environmental explanations for human sex differences. Across other domains there were some relatively small and somewhat inconsistent effects, so I wouldn’t make much of them just yet (though I will mention that women’s studies and sociology fields seemed consistently more inclined to chalk each domain – excepting the differences between cats and dogs – up to nurture, relative to other fields; I’ll also mention their sample was small). There was, however, a clear effect that was not discussed in the paper:subjects were more likely to chalk non-human animal behavior up to nature, relative to human behavior, and this effect seemed more pronounced with regards to sex differences specifically. With these findings in mind, I would echo the conclusion of the paper that there is appears to be some political, or, more specifically, moral dimension to these judgments of the relative roles of nature and nurture. As animal behavior tends to fall outside of the traditional human moral domain, chalking their behavior up to nature seemed less unpalatable for the subjects.

See? Men and women can both do the same thing on the skin of a lesser beast.

The next paper is a new release from Knobe & Samuels (2013). You might remember Knobe from his other work in asking people slightly different questions and getting vastly different responses, and it’s good to see he’s continuing on with that proud tradition. Knobe & Samuels begins by asking the reader to imagine how they’d react to the following hypothetical proposition:

Suppose that a scientist announced: ‘I have a new theory about the nature of intention. According to this theory, the only way to know whether someone intended to bring about a particular effect is to decide whether this effect truly is morally good or morally bad.’

The authors predict that most people would reject this piece of folk psychology made explicit; value judgments are supposed to be a different matter entirely from tasks like assessing intentionality or innateness, yet these judgments do not appear to be truly be independent from each other in practice. Morally negative outcomes are rated as being more intentional than morally positive ones, even if both are brought about as a byproduct of another goal. Knobe & Samuels (2013) sought to extent this line of research in the realm of attitudes about innateness.

In their first experiment, Knobe & Samuels asked subjects to consider an infant born with a rare genetic condition. This condition ensures that if a baby breastfeeds in the first two weeks of life it will either have extraordinarily good math abilities (condition one) or exceedingly poor math skills (condition two). While the parents could opt to give the infant baby formula that would ensure the baby would just turn out normal with regard to its math abilities, in all cases the parents were said to have opted to breastfeed, and the child developed accordingly. When asked about how “innate” the child’s subsequent math ability was, subjects seemed to feel that baby’s abilities were more innate (4.7 out of 7) when they were good, relative to when those abilities were poor (3.4). In both cases, the trait depended on the interaction of genes and environment and for the same reason, yet when the outcome was negative, this was seen as being less of an innate characteristic. This was followed up by a second experiment where a new group of subjects were presented with a vignette describing a fake finding about human’s genes: if people experienced decent treatment (condition one) or poor treatment (condition two) by parents at least sometimes, then a trait would reliability develop. Since most all people do experience decent or poor treatment by their parents on at least some occasions, just about everyone in the population comes to develop this trait. When asked about how innate this trait was, again, the means through which it developed mattered: traits resulting from decent treatment were rated as more innate (4.6) than traits resulting from poor treatment (2.7).

Skipping two other experiments in the paper, the final study presented these cases either individually, with each participant seeing only one vignette as before, or jointly, with some subjects seeing both versions of the questions (good/poor math abilities, decent/poor treatment) one immediately after the other, with the relevant differences highlighted. When subjects saw the conditions independently, the previous effects were pretty much replicated, if a bit weakened. However, even seeing these cases side-by-side did not completely eliminate the effect of morality on innateness judgments: when the breastfeeding resulted in worse math abilities this was still seen as being less innate (4.3) than the better math abilities (4.6) and, similarly, when poor treatment led to a trait developing it was viewed as less innate (3.8) than when it resulted from better treatment (3.9). Now these differences only reached significance because of the large sample size in the final study as they were very, very small, so I again wouldn’t make much of them, but I do still find it somewhat surprising that there were still small differences to be talked about at all.

Remember: if you’re talking small effects, you’re talking psychology.

While these papers are by no means the last word on the subject, they represent an important first step in understanding the way that scientists and laypeople alike represent claims about human nature. Extrapolating these results a bit, it would seem that strong opinions about research in evolutionary psychology are held, at least to some extent, for reasons that have little to do with the field per se. This isn’t terribly surprising, as it’s been frequently noted that many critics of evolutionary psychology have a difficult time correctly articulating the theoretical commitments of the field. Both studies do seem to suggest that moral concerns play some role in the debate, but precisely why the moral dimension seems to find itself represented in the debate over innateness is certainly an interesting matter that neither paper really gets into. My guess is that it has something to do with the perception that innate behaviors are less morally condemnable than non-innate ones (hinting at an argumentative function), but that really just pushes the question back a step without answering it. I look forward to future research on this topic – and research on explanations, more generally – to help fill in the gaps of our understanding of this rather strange phenomenon.

References: Geher, G., & Gambacorta, D. (2010). Evolution is Not Relevant to Sex Differences in Humans Because I Want it That Way! Evidence for the Politicization of Human Evolutionary Psychology EvoS: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium , 2, 32-47

Knobe, J., & Samuels, R. (2013). Thinking like a scientist: Innateness as a case study Cognition, 126 (1), 72-86 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.09.003

Is The Exotic Erotic? Probably Not…

Last time I wrote about the likely determinants of homosexuality, I ended up favoring the pathogen hypothesis that was put forth by Cochran, Ewald, and Cochran (2000) as the theory that had the most currently going for it. What is particularly interesting about my conclusion is how much empirical evidence directly confirms the theory: none. Don’t get me wrong; the pathogen hypothesis is certainly consistent with the known findings about homosexuality – such as the widely-varying reported concordance rates and the large fitness costs associated with the orientation – but being consistent with certain findings is not the same as being demonstrated by that evidence. If the currently most plausible theory for explaining homosexuality has, in essence, no direct evidence in its favor, that clearly must not be saying a lot about the alternative prospects. The two theories I covered last time – kin selection and sexually antagonistic selection – can’t even seem to account well for the existing evidence, so a neutral point with regard to the evidence is actually preferable. There was one theory that I neglected to mention last time, however, and this is a theory that purports to be able to explain both how heterosexual and homosexual orientations come to develop, and in both sexes, no less. If such a theory proved to have anything to it, then, it would be a highly valuable perspective indeed, so it deserves careful inspection.

“Nope; still not finding any indication of plausibility yet. Get the bigger microscope”

The theory, known as “Exotic Becomes Erotic” (EBE) was proposed by Daryl Bem (1996). If that name sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same Daryl Bem who also thought he found evidence for “extra-sensory porn-ception” in 2011, so we’re already not off to a good start. Pressing ahead despite that association, EBE puts the causal emphasis of developing a preferential attraction towards one sex or another on an individual’s perceptions of feeling different from other members of one sex: for instance, if a boy happens to not like sports, he will feel different from the majority of the other boys who do seem to like sports; if he does like sports, he’d feel different from the girls who did not. Following this perception of one sex as exotic, EBE posits that individuals will come to experience “non-specific, autonomic arousal” to the exotic group in question and, subsequently, that arousal will be transformed into an erotic preference for members of the initially exotic group. So, if you feel different from the boys or the girls, regardless of whether you’re a boy or a girl, you’ll come to be vaguely aroused by that sex – either by apprehension, anger, fear, curiosity, or really anything works, so long as it’s physiologically arousing – and then your body will, at some point, automatically turn that arousal into lasting sexual preferences.

Like most of the theories regarding homosexuality I discussed previously, this one also have very little actual evidence to support it. What it does have is a correlation between retrospective reports of childhood gender nonconformity and current sexual orientation. In fact, that single, underwhelming correlation is about all that EBE has going for it; everything else in the model is an assumption that’s largely built off that correlation. While a retrospective correlation is slightly better than having no evidence at all, it’s not better by a whole lot (in much the same way that 53% accuracy at guessing where some stimuli will show up between two options isn’t much better than 50%, yet apparently both are publishable). So, now that we’ve covered what the theory has going for it, let’s consider some of the things that EBE does not have going for it. You might want to take a break now to use the bathroom or get a snack, because this is a long list.

Let’s begin with the matter of this “non-specific physiological arousal”: at a bare minimum, EBE would require that the sex an individual perceived to be the least exotic ought to be consistently less physiologically arousing, on average, than the gender that individual did identify with. Without that arousal, there would be nothing to eventually convert into later sexual preference. So what does Bem have to say about the presence or absence of this arousal?

“To my knowledge, there is no direct evidence for the first step in this sequence beyond the well-documented observation that novel (“exotic”) stimuli produce heightened physiological arousal in many species, including our own”

So, in other words, there is no empirical evidence for this suggestion whatsoever. The problems, however, do not stop there: EBE is also massively under-specified in regards to how this hypothetical “non-specific arousal” is turned into eroticism in some cases but not others. While Bem (1996) proposes three possible mechanisms through which that transition might take place – sexual imprinting, the opponent process, and the extrinsic arousal effect – there are clearly non-human stimuli that produce a great deal of arousal (such as spiders, luxury cars, or, if we are talking about children, new toys) that does not get translated into later sexual attraction. Further, there are also many contexts in which gender-conforming children of the same sex will be around other while highly physiologically aroused (such as when boys are playing sports and competing against a rival team), but EBE would seem to posit that these high-aroused children would not develop any short- or long-term eroticism towards each other.

Nope; nothing even potentially erotic about that…

Bem might object that this kind of physiological arousal is somehow different, or missing a key variable. Perhaps, he might say, that in addition to this yet-to-be-demonstrated arousal, one also needs to feel different from the target of that arousal. Without being both exotic and arousing, there will be no lasting sexual preference developed. While such a clarification might seem to rescue EBE conceptually in this regard, the theory again falters by being massively under-specified. As Bem (1996) writes:

“…[T]he assertion that exotic becomes erotic should be amended to exotic – but not too exotic – becomes erotic. Thus, an erotic or romantic preference for partners of a different sex, race, or ethnicity is relatively common, but a preference for lying with the beasts in the field is not.”

In addition to not figuring out whether the arousal required for the model to work is even present, in no treatment of the subject does Bem specify precisely how much arousal and/or exoticism ought to be required for eroticism to develop, or how these two variables might interact in ways that are either beneficial or detrimental to that process. While animals might be both “exotic” and “highly arousing” to children, very rarely does a persistent sexual preference towards them develop; the same can be said for feelings between rival groups of boys, though in this case the arousal is generated by fear or anger. EBE does not deal with this issue so much as it avoids it through definitional obscurity.

Continuing along this thread of under-specificity, the only definition of “exotic” that Bem offers involves a perception of being different. Unfortunately for EBE, there are a near incalculable number of potential ways that children might feel different from each other, and almost none of those potential representations are predicted to result in later eroticism. While Bem (1996) does note that feeling different about certain things – interest in sports seems to be important here – appears to be important for predicting later homosexual orientation, he does not attempt to explain why feeling different about gender-related variables ought to be the determining factor, relative to non-gender related variables (such as intelligence, social status, or hair color). While erotic feelings do typically develop along gendered lines, EBE gives no a priori reason for why this should be expected. One could imagine a hypothetical population of people who develop preferential sexual attractions to other individuals across any number of non-gendered grounds, and EBE would have little to say about why this outcome does not obtain in any known human population.

The problem with this loose definition of exotic does not even end there. According to the data presented by Bem, many men and women who later reported a homosexual attraction also reported having enjoyed gender-typical activities (37 and 37%, respectively), having been averse to gender-atypical activities (52 and 19%), and having most of their childhood friends be of their same sex (58 and 40%). While these percentages are clearly different between homosexual and heterosexual respondents – with homosexuals reporting enjoying typical activities less, atypical ones more, and being more likely to predominately have friends of the opposite sex – EBE would seem to be at loss when attempting to explain why roughly half of homosexual men and women do not seem to report differing from their heterosexual counterparts in these important regards. If many homosexuals apparently did not view their own sex to be particularly exotic during childhood, there could be no hypothetical arousal and, accordingly, no eroticism. This is, of course, provided these retrospective accounts are even accurate in the first place and do not retroactively inflate the perceptions of feeling different to accord with their current sexual orientation.

“In light of not being hired, I can now officially say I never wanted your stupid job”

On a conceptual level, however, EBE runs into an even more serious concern. Though Bem (1996) is less than explicit about this, it would seem his model suggests that homosexuality is a byproduct of an otherwise adaptive system designed for developing heterosexual mate preferences. While Bem (1996) is likely correct in suggesting that homosexuality is not adaptive itself, his postulated mechanism for developing mate preference would likely have been far too detrimental to have been selected for. Bem’s model would imply that the mechanism responsible for generating sexual attraction, when functioning properly, functions so poorly that it would, essentially, render a rather large minority of the population effectively sterile. This would generate an intense selection pressure either towards any modification of the mechanism that did not preclude its transfer from one generation to the next or decisive selection towards a much greater gender conformity. Neither outcome seems to have obtained, which poses a new set of questions regarding why.

Precisely how such a poorly-functioning mechanism would have even come to exist in human populations in the first place is a matter that Bem never addresses. A major issue with the EBE perspective, then, is that it more-or-less takes for granted the base rate existence of homosexuality in human populations without asking why it ought to be that prevalent for humans but almost no other known species. Though Bem does not discuss it, almost every other species appears to navigate the process of developing sexual attraction in ways that do not result in large numbers of males or females developing exclusive same-sex attractions. If this was any other key adaptation, such a vision, and significant minorities of the population consistently went blind at very young ages in a world where being able to see is adaptive, we would want a better explanation for that failure than the kind that EBE can provide. Now if only the creator of EBE has some kind of ability to see into the future – an extra-sensory ability, if you will – to help him predict that his theory would run into these problems, they might have been avoided or dealt with…

References:Bem, D. (1996). Exotic becomes erotic: A developmental theory of sexual orientation. Psychological Review, 103 (2), 320-335 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.103.2.320

Cochran, G., Ewald, P., & Cochran, K. (2000). Infectious Causation of Disease: An Evolutionary Perspective Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 43 (3), 406-448 DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2000.0016

Differentiating Between Effects And Functions

A few days ago, I had the misfortune of forgetting my iPod when I got to the gym. As it turns out, I hadn’t actually forgotten it; it had merely fallen out of my bag in the car and I hadn’t noticed, but the point is that I didn’t have it on me. Without the music that normally accompanies my workout I found the experience to be far less enjoyable than it normally is; I would even go so far as to say that it was more difficult to lift what I normally do without much problem. When I mentioned the incident to a friend of mine she expressed surprise that I actually managed to stick around to finish my workout without it; in fact, on the rare occasions I end up arriving at the gym without any source of music, I typically don’t end up even working out at all, demonstrating the point nicely.

“If you didn’t want that bar to be crushing your windpipe, you probably shouldn’t have forgotten your headphones…”

In my experience, listening to music most certainly has the effect of allowing me to enjoy my workout more and push myself harder. The question remains, however, as to whether such effects are part of the function of music; that is to ask do we have some cognitive adaptation(s) designed to generate that outcome from certain given inputs? On a somewhat related note, I recently got around to reading George C Williams book, Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966). While I had already been familiar with most of what he talked about, it never hurts to actually go back and read the classics. In the book, Williams makes a lot of the above distinction between effects and functions throughout the book; what we might also label as byproducts and adaptations respectively. A simple example would demonstrate the point: while a pile of dung might serve as a valuable resource for certain species of insects, the animals which produce such dung are not doing so because it benefits the insects; the effect in this case (benefiting insects) is not the function of the behavior (excreting wastes).

This is an important theoretical point; one which Williams repeatedly brings to bear against the group selection arguments that people were putting forth at the time he was writing. Just because populations of organisms tend to have relatively stable population sizes – largely by virtue or available resources and predation – that effect does not imply there is a functional group-size-regulation adaptation activity generating that outcome. While effects might be suggestive of functions, or at least preliminary requirements for demonstrating function, they are not alone sufficient evidence for them. Adapted functionality itself is often a difficult thing to demonstrate conclusively, which is why Williams offered his now famous quote about adaptation being an onerous concept.

This finally brings us to a recent paper by Dunbar et al (2012) in which the authors find an effect of performing music on pain tolerance; specifically, it’s the performance of music per se, not the act of passively listening to it, that results in an increased pain tolerance. While it’s certainly a neat effect, effects are a dime a dozen; the question of relevance would seem to be whether this effect bears on a possible function for music. While Dunbar et al (2012) seem to think it does, or at least that it might, I find myself disagreeing with that suggestion rather strongly; what they found strikes me more as an effect without any major theoretical implications.

If that criticism stings too much, might I recommend some vigorous singing?

First, a quick overview of the paper: subjects were tested twice for their pain tolerance (as measured by the time people could stand the application of increasing pressure or holding cold objects), both before and after a situation in which they either performed music (singing, drumming, dancing, or practicing) or listened to it (varying the tempo of the music). In most cases it was the active performance of music which led to a subsequent increase in pain tolerance, rather than listening. The exception to that set of findings was that the groups that were simply practicing in a band setting did not show this increase, a finding which Dunbar et al (2012) suggest has to do with the vigor, likely the physical kind, with which the musicians were engaged in their task, not the performance of music per se.

Admittedly, that last point is rather strange from the point of view of trying to build a functional account for music. If it’s the physical activity that causes an increase in pain tolerance, that would not make the performance of music special with respect to any other kind of physical activity. In other words, one might be able to make a functional account for pain sensitivity, but it would be orthogonal to music. For example, in their discussion, the authors also note that laughter can also lead to an increase in pain tolerance as well. So really there isn’t much in this study that can speak to a function of music specifically. Taking this point further, Dunbar et al (2012) also fail to provide a good theoretical account as to how one goes from an increased pain tolerance following music production to increases in reproductive success. From my point of view, I’m still unclear as to why they bothered to examine the link between music production and pain the first place (or, for that matter, why they included dancing, since while dancing can accompany music, it is not itself a form of music, just like my exercise can accompany music, but it not music-related itself).

Dunbar et al (2012) also mention in passing at the end of their paper that music might provide some help to the ability to entrain synchronized behavior, which in turn could lead to increases in group cooperation which, presumably, they feel would be a good thing, adaptively speaking, for the individuals involved in said group. Why this is in the paper is also a bit confusing to me, since it appears to have nothing to do with anything they were talking about or researching up to that point. While it would appear to be, at least on the face of it, a possible theoretical account for a function of music (or at least a more plausible one than their non-existent reason for examining pain tolerance) nothing in the paper seems to directly or indirectly speak to it.

And believe you me, I know a thing or two about not being spoken to…

While this paper serves as an excellent example of some of the difficulties in going from effect to function, another point worth bearing in mind is how little gets added to this account by sketching out the underlying physical substrates through which this effect is generated. Large sections of the Dunbar et al paper is dedicated to these physiological outlines of the effect without many apparent payoff. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that exploring the physiological pathways through which adaptations act is a useless endeavor, it’s just that such sketches do not add anything to an account that’s already deficient in the first place. They’re the icing on top of the cake; not it’s substance. Physiological accounts, while they can be neat if they’re your thing, are not sufficient for demonstrating functionality for exactly the same reasons that effects aren’t; all physiological accounts are, essentially, simply detailed accounts of effects, and byproducts and adaptations alike both have effects.

While this review of the paper itself might have been cursory, there are some valuable lessons to learn from it: (1) always try and start your research with some clearly stated theoretical basis, (2) finding effects does not mean you’ve found a function, (3) sketching effects in greater detail at a physiological level does not always help for developing a functional account, and (4) try and make sure the research you’re doing maps onto your theoretical basis, as tacking on an unrelated functional account at the end of your paper is not good policy; that account should come first, not as an afterthought.

References: Dunbar RI, Kaskatis K, Macdonald I, & Barra V (2012). Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: Implications for the evolutionary function of music. Evolutionary psychology : an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior, 10 (4), 688-702 PMID: 23089077

Williams, G.C. (1966). Adaptation and natural selection: A critique of some current evolutionary thought. Princeton University Press: NJ