Courting Controversy

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

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

“You have my attention…and it’s gone”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure hope that’s his mother…

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

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

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

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

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

The Connection Between Economics and Promiscuity

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

It will help until the research process is automated, anyway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dual-purpose marriage/friendship ring

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

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

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

Overperception Of Sexual Interest Or Overeager Researchers?

Though I don’t make a habit of watching many shows, I do often catch some funny clips of them that have been posted online. One that I saw semi-recently (which I feel relates to the present post) is a clip from Portlandia. In this video, people are writing a magazine issue about a man living a life that embodies manhood. In this case, they select a man who used to work at an office, but then left his job and now makes furniture. While everyone is really impressed with the idea, it eventually turns out that the man in question does make furniture…but it’s terrible. Faced with the revelation that the man’s work isn’t good – that it probably wasn’t worth leaving his job to do something he’s bad at – the people in question aren’t impressed by his over-confidence in pursuing his furniture work. They don’t seem to find him more attractive because he was overconfident; quite the opposite in fact. The key determent of his attractiveness was the actual quality of his work. In other words, since he couldn’t back up his confidence with his efforts, the ratings of his attractiveness appeared to drop precipitously.

It might not be comfortable, but at least it’s hand-made

What we can learn from an example like this is that something like overconfidence per se – being more confident than one should be and behaving in ways one rightfully shouldn’t because of it – doesn’t appear to be impressive to potential mates. As such, we might expect that people who pursue activities they aren’t well suited for tend to do worse in the mating domain than those who are able to exist within a niche they more suitably fill: if you can’t cut it as a craftsman, better to keep that steady, yet less-interesting office job. This is largely a factor of the overconfident investing their time and effort into pursuits that do not yield positive benefits for them or others. You can think of it like playing the lottery, in a sense: if you are overly-confident that you’ll win the lottery, you might incorrectly invest money into lottery tickets that you could otherwise spend on pursuits that don’t amount to lighting it on fire.

This is likely why the research on the (over)perception of sexual intent turns out the way it does. I’ve written about the topic before, but to give you a quick overview of the main points: researchers have uncovered that men tend to perceive more sexual interest in women than women themselves report having. To put that in a simple example, if you were to ask a woman, “given you were holding a man’s hand, how sexually interested in him are you?” you’ll tend to get a different answer than if you ask a man, “given that a woman was holding your hand, how sexually interested do you think she is in you?” In particular, men tend to think behaviors like hand-holding signal more sexual intent than women report. These kinds of results have been chalked up to men overperceiving sexual intent, but more recent research puts a different spin on the answers: specifically, if you were to ask a woman, “given that another woman (who is not you) is holding a man’s hand, how sexually interested in him do you think she is?” the answers from the women now align with those of the men. Women (as well as men) seem to believe that other women will underreport their sexual intent, while believing their own self-reports are accurate. Taken together, then, both men and women seem to perceive more sexual intent in a woman’s behavior than the woman herself reports. Rather than everyone else overperceiving sexual intent, it seems a bit more probable that women themselves tend to underreport their own sexual intent. In a sentence, women might play a little coy, rather than everyone else in the world being wrong about them.

Today, I wanted to talk about a very recent paper (Murray et al, 2017) by some of the researchers who seem to favor the overperception hypothesis. That is, they seem to suggest that women honestly and accurately report their own sexual interest, but everyone else happens to perceive it incorrectly. In particular, their paper represents an attempt to respond to the point that women overperceive the sexual intent of other women as well. At the outset, I will say that I find the title of their research rather peculiar and their interpretation of the data rather strange (points I’ll get to below). Indeed, I found both things so strange that I had to ask around a little first before I stared writing this post to ensure that I wasn’t misreading something, as I know smart people wrote the paper in question and the issues seemed rather glaring to me (and if a number of smart people seem to be mistaken, I wanted to make sure the error wasn’t simply something on my end first). So let’s get into what was done in the paper and why I think there are some big issues.

“…Am I sure I’m not the crazy one here, because this seems real strange”

Starting out with what was done, Murray et al (2017) collected data from 414 heterosexual women online. These women answered questions about 15 different behaviors which might signal romantic interest. They were first asked these questions about themselves, and then about other women. So, for instance, a woman might be asked, “If you held hands with a man, how likely is it you intend to have sex with him?” They would then be asked the same hand-holding question, but about other women: “If a woman (who is not you) held hands with a man, how likely is it that she would…” and then end with something along the lines of, “say she wants to have sex with him,” or “actually want to have a sex with him.” They were trying to tap this difference between the perceptions of “what women will say” and “what women actually want” responses. They also wanted to see what happened when you ask the “say” or “want” question first.

Crucially, the previous research these authors are responding to found that both men and women tend to report that, in general, women tend to want more than they say. The present research was only looking at women, but it found that same pattern: regardless of whether you ask the “say” or “want” questions first, women seem to think that other women will say they are less interested than they actually are. In short, women believe other women to be at least somewhat coy. In that sense, these results are a direct replication of the previous findings.

One of the things I find strange about the paper, then, is the title: “A Preregistered Study of Competing Predictions Suggests That Men Do Overestimate Women’s Sexual Intent.” Since this study was only looking at women, the use of “men” in the title seems poorly thought out. I assume the intentions of the authors were to say that these results are consistent with the idea that men also overperceive, but even in that case it really ought to say “People Overestimate,” rather than “Men Do.” I earnestly can’t think of a reason to single out the male gender in the title other than the possibility that the authors seem to have forgotten they were measuring something other than what they actually wanted to. That is, they wanted their results to speak to the idea that male perceptions are biased upwards (in order support their own, prior work), but they seem to be a bit overeager to do so and jumped the gun.

“Well women are basically men anyway, right? Close enough”

Another point I find rather curious from the paper – some data the authors highlight – is that the women’s responses did depend (somewhat) on whether you ask the “say” or “want” questions first. Specifically, the responses to both the “say” and “want” scales are a little lower when the “want” question is asked first. However, the relative pattern of the data – the effect of perceived coyness – exists regardless of the order. I’ve attached a slightly-modified version of their graph below so you can see what their results look like.

What this suggests to me is that something of an anchoring effect exists, whereby the question order might affect how people interpret the values on the scale of sexual intent (which goes from 1 to 7). What it does not suggest to me is what Murray et al (2017) claim it does:

These results support the hypothesis that women’s differential responses to the “say” and “want” questions in Perilloux and Kurzban’s study were driven by question-order effects and language conventions, rather than by women’s chronic underreporting of their sexual intentions.”

As far as I can tell, they do nothing of the sort. Their results – to reiterate – are effectively direct replications of what Perilloux & Kurzban found. Regardless of the order in which you ask the questions, women believed other women wanted more than they would let on. How that is supposed to imply that the previously (and presently) observed effects are due to questioning ordering are beyond me. To convince me this was simply an order effect, data would need to be presented that either (a) showed the effect goes away when the order of the questions is changed or (b) showed the effect changes direction when the question order is changed. Since neither of those things happened, I’m hard pressed to see how the results can be chalked up to order effects.

For whatever reason, Murray et al (2017) seem to make a strange contrast on that front:

We predicted that responses to the “say” and “want” questions would be equivalent when they were asked first, whereas Perilloux and Kurzban confirmed their prediction that ratings for the “want” question would be higher than ratings for the “say” question regardless of the order of the questions”

Rather than being competing hypotheses, these two seem like hypotheses that could both be true: you could see that people interpret the values on the scales differently, depending on which question you ask first while also predicting that the ratings for “want” questions will be higher than those for “say” questions, regardless of the order. Basically, I have no idea why the word “whereas” was inserted into that passage, as if to suggest both of those things could not be true (or false) at the same time (I also have no idea why the word “competing” was inserted into the title of their paper, as it seems equally inappropriate there as the word “men”). Both of those hypotheses clearly can both be true and, indeed, seem to be if these results are taken at face value.

“They predict this dress contains the color black, whereas we predict it contains white”

To sum up, the present research by Murray et al (2017) doesn’t seem to suggest that women (and, even though they didn’t look at them in this particular study, men) overperceive other women’s sexual intentions. If anything, it suggests the opposite. Indeed, as their supplementary file points out, “…across both experimental conditions women reported their own sexual intentions to be significantly lower than both what other women say and what they actually want,” and, “…it seems that when reporting on their own behavior, the most common responses for acting either less or more interested are either never engaging in this behavior or sometimes doing so, whereas women seem to believe that other women most commonly engage in both behaviors some of the time.”

So, not only do women believe that other women (who aren’t them) engage in this coy behavior more often than they themselves do (which would be impossible, as not everyone can think that about everyone else and be right), but women also even admit to, at least sometimes, acting less interested than they actually are. When women are actually reporting that, “Yes, I have sometimes underreported my sexual interest,” well, that seems to make the underreporting hypothesis sound a bit more plausible. The underreporting hypothesis would also be consistent with the data that finds women tend to underreport their number of sexual partners when they think others might see that report or lies will not be discovered; by contrast, male reports of partner numbers are more consistent (Alexander & Fisher, 2003).

Perhaps the great irony here, then, is the Murray et al (2017) might have been a little overeager to interpret their results in a certain fashion, and so end up misinterpreting their study as speaking to men (when it only looks at women) and their hypothesis as being a competing one (when it is not). There are costs to being overeager, just as there are costs to being overconfident; better to stick with appropriate eagerness or confidence to avoid those pitfalls. 

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

Murray, D., Murphy, S., von Hippel, W., Trivers, R., & Haselton, M. (2017). A preregistered study of competing predictions suggests that men do overestimate women’s sexual intent. Psychological Science. 

 

What Might Research Ethics Teach Us About Effect Size?

Imagine for a moment that you’re in charge of overseeing medical research approval for ethical concerns. One day, a researcher approaches you with the following proposal: they are interested in testing whether a food stuff that some portion of the population occasionally consumes for fun is actually quite toxic, like spicy chilies. They think that eating even small doses of this compound will cause mental disturbances in the short term – like paranoia and suicidal thoughts – and might even cause those negative changes permanently in the long term. As such, they intend to test their hypothesis by bringing otherwise-healthy participants into the lab, providing them with a dose of the possibly-toxic compound (either just once or several times over the course of a few days), and then see if they observe any negative effects. What would your verdict on the ethical acceptability of this research be? If I had to guess, I suspect that many people would not allow the research to be conducted because one of the major tenants of research ethics is that harm should not befall your participants, except when absolutely necessary. In fact, I suspect that were you the researcher – rather than the person overseeing the research – you probably wouldn’t even propose the project in the first place because you might have some reservations about possibly poisoning people, either harming them directly and/or those around them indirectly.

“We’re curious if they make you a danger to yourself and others. Try some”

With that in mind, I want to examine a few other research hypotheses I have heard about over the years. The first of these is the idea that exposing men to pornography will cause a number of harmful consequences, such as increasing how appealing rape fantasies were, bolstering the belief that women would enjoy being raped, and decreasing the perceived seriousness of violence against women (as reviewed by Fisher et al, 2013). Presumably, the effect on those beliefs over time is serious as it might lead to real-life behavior on the part of men to rape women or approve of such acts on the parts of others. Other, less-serious harms have also been proposed, such as the possibility that exposure to pornography might have harmful effects on the viewer’s relationship, reducing their commitment, making it more likely that they would do things like cheat or abandon their partner. Now, if a researcher earnestly believed they would find such effects, that the effects would be appreciable in size to the point of being meaningful (i.e., are large enough to be reliably detected by statistical test in relatively small samples), and that their implications could be long-term in nature, could this researcher even ethically test such issues? Would it be ethically acceptable to bring people into the lab, randomly expose them to this kind of (in a manner of speaking) psychologically-toxic material, observe the negative effects, and then just let them go? 

Let’s move onto another hypothesis that I’ve been talking a lot about lately: the effects of violent media on real life aggression. Now I’ve been specifically talking about video game violence, but people have worried about violent themes in the context of TV, movies, comic books, and even music. Specifically, there are many researchers who believe that exposure to media violence will cause people to become more aggressive through making them perceive more hostility in the world, view violence as a more acceptable means of solving problems, or by making violence seem more rewarding. Again, presumably, changing these perceptions is thought to cause the harm of eventual, meaningful increases in real-life violence. Now, if a researcher earnestly believed they would find such effects, that the effects would be appreciable in size to the point of being meaningful, and that their implications could be long-term in nature, could this researcher even ethically test such issues? Would it be ethically acceptable to bring people into the lab, randomly expose them to this kind of (in a manner of speaking) psychologically-toxic material, observe the negative effects, and then just let them go?

Though I didn’t think much of it at first, the criticisms I read about the classic Bobo doll experiment are actually kind of interesting in this regard. In particular, researchers were purposefully exposing young children to models of aggression, the hope being that the children will come to view violence as acceptable and engage in it themselves. The reason I didn’t pay it much mind is that I didn’t view the experiment as causing any kind of meaningful, real-world, or lasting effects on the children’s aggression; I don’t think mere exposure to such behavior will have meaningful impacts. But if one truly believed that it would, I can see why that might cause some degree of ethical concerns. 

Since I’ve been talking about brief exposure, one might also worry about what would happen to researchers were to expose participants to such material – pornographic or violent – for weeks, months, or even years on end. Imagine a study that asked people to smoke for 20 years to test the negative effects in humans; probably not getting that past the IRB. As a worthy aside on that point, though, it’s worth noting that as pornography has become more widely available, rates of sexual offending have gone down (Fisher et al, 2013); as violent video games have become more available, rates of youth violent crime have done down too (Ferguson & Kilburn, 2010). Admittedly, it is possible that such declines would be even steeper if such media wasn’t in the picture, but the effects of this media – if they cause violence at all – are clearly not large enough to reverse those trends.

I would have been violent, but then this art convinced me otherwise

So what are we to make of the fact that these research was proposed, approved, and conducted? There are a few possibility to kick around. The first is that the research was proposed because the researchers themselves don’t give much thought to the ethical concerns, happy enough if it means they get a publication out of it regardless of the consequences, but that wouldn’t explain why it got approved by other bodies like IRBs. It is also possible that the researchers and those who approve it believe it to be harmful, but view the benefits to such research as outstripping the costs, working under the assumption that once the harmful effects are established, further regulation of such products might follow ultimately reducing the prevalence or use of such media (not unlike the warnings and restrictions placed on the sale of cigarettes). Since any declines in availability or censorship of such media have yet to manifest – especially given how access to the internet provides means for circumventing bans on the circulation of information – whatever practical benefits might have arisen from this research are hard to see (again, assuming that things like censorship would yield benefits at all) .

There is another aspect to consider as well: during discussions of this research outside of academia – such as on social media – I have not noted a great deal of outrage expressed by consumers of these findings. Anecdotal as this is, when people discuss such research, they do not appear to raising the concern that the research itself was unethical to conduct because it will doing harm to people’s relationships or women more generally (in the case of pornography), or because it will result in making people more violent and accepting of violence (in the video game studies). Perhaps those concerns exist en mass and I just haven’t seen them yet (always possible), but I see another possibility: people don’t really believe that the participants are being harmed in this case. People generally aren’t afraid that the participants in those experiments will dissolve their relationship or come to think rape is acceptable because they were exposed to pornography, or will get into fights because they played 20 minutes of a video game. In other words, they don’t think those negative effects are particularly large, if they even really believe they exist at all. While this point would be a rather implicit one, the lack of consistent moral outrage expressed over the ethics of this kind of research does speak to the matter of how serious these effects are perceived to be: at least in the short-term, not very. 

What I find very curious about these ideas – pornography causes rape, video games cause violence, and their ilk – is that they all seem to share a certain assumption: that people are effectively acted upon by information, placing human psychology in a distinctive passive role while information takes the active one. Indeed, in many respects, this kind of research strikes me as remarkably similar to the underlying assumptions of the research on stereotype threat: the idea that you can, say, make women worse at math by telling them men tend to do better at it. All of these theories seem to posit a very exploitable human psychology capable of being manipulated by information readily, rather than a psychology which interacts with, evaluates, and transforms the information it receives.

For instance, a psychology capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy can play a video game without thinking it is being threatened physically, just like it can watch pornography (or, indeed, any videos) without actually believing the people depicted are present in the room with them. Now clearly some part of our psychology does treat pornography as an opportunity to mate (else there would be no sexual arousal generated in response to it), but that part does not necessarily govern other behaviors (generating arousal is biologically cheap; aggressing against someone else is not). The adaptive nature of a behavior depends on context.

Early hypotheses of the visual-arousal link were less successful empirically

As such, expecting something like a depiction to violence to translate consistently into some general perception that violence is acceptable and useful in all sorts of interactions throughout life is inappropriate. Learning that you can beat up someone weaker than you doesn’t mean it’s suddenly advisable to challenge someone stronger than you; relatedly, seeing a depiction of people who are not you (or your future opponent) fighting shouldn’t make it advisable for you to change your behavior either. Whatever the effects of this media, they will ultimately be assessed and manipulated internally by psychological mechanisms and tested against reality, rather than just accepted as useful and universally applied.  

I have seen similar thinking about information manipulating people another time as well: during discussions of memes. Memes are posited to be similar to infectious agents that will reproduce themselves at the expense of their host’s fitness; information that literally hijacks people’s minds for its own reproductive benefits. I haven’t seen much in the way of productive and successful research flowing from that school of thought quite yet – which might be a sign of its effectiveness and accuracy – but maybe I’m just still in the dark there. 

References: Ferguson, C. & Kilburn, J. (2010). Much ado about nothing: The misestimation and overinterpretation of violent video game effects in eastern and western nations: Comment on Anderson et al (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 136, 174-178.

Fisher, W., Kohut, T., Di Gioacchino, L., & Fedoroff , P. (2013). Pornography, sex crime, and paraphilia. Current Psychiatry Reports, 15, 362.

Sensitive Topics: Not All That Sensitive

Standards and Practices are a vital link in keeping good and funny ideas away from you, the television viewer

If you’ve ever been involved in getting an academic research project off the ground, you likely share some form of frustration with the Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) that you had to go through before you could begin. For those of you not the know, the IRB is an independent council set up by universities tasked with assessing and monitoring research proposals associated with the university for possible ethical violations. Their main goal is in protecting subjects – usually humans, but also nonhumans – from researchers who might otherwise cause them harm during the course of research. For instance, let’s say a researcher is testing an experimental drug for effectiveness in treating a harmful illness. The research begins by creating two groups of participants: one who receive the real drug and one who receives a placebo. Over the course of the study, if it becomes apparent that the experimental drug is working, it would be considered unethical for the researcher to withhold the effective treatment from the placebo group. Unfortunately, ethical breaches like that have happened historically and (probably) continue to happen today. It’s the IRB’s job to help reduce the prevalence of such issues.

Because the research ethics penguin just wasn’t cutting it

Well-intentioned as the idea is, the introduction of required IRB approval to conduct any research involving humans – including giving them simple surveys to fill out – places some important roadblocks in the way of researcher efficiency; in much the same way, after the 9/11 attacks airport security became much more of a headache to get through. First and foremost, the IRB usually requires a lot of paperwork and time for the proposal to be processes and examined. It’s not all that unusual for what should be a straightforward and perfectly ethical research project to sit in the waiting room of the IRB for six-to-eight weeks just to get green lit. That approval is not always forthcoming, though, with the IRB sending back revisions or concerns about projects regularly; revisions which, in turn, can hold the process up for additional days or weeks. For any motivated researcher, these kinds of delays can be productivity poison, as one’s motivation to conduct a project might have waned somewhat over the course of the two or three months since its inception. If you’re on a tight deadline, things can get even worse.

On the subject of concerns the IRB might express over research, today I wanted to talk about a matter referred to as sensitive topics research. Specifically, there are some topics – such as those related to sexual behavior, trauma, and victimization – that are deemed to pose greater than minimal risk to participants being asked about them. The fear in this case stems from the assumption that merely asking people (usually undergraduates) about these topics could be enough to re-traumatize them and cause them psychological distress above and beyond what they would experience in daily life. In that sense, then, research on certain topics can deemed above minimal risk, resulting in such projects being put under greater scrutiny and ultimately subjected to additional delays or modifications (relative to more “low-risk” topics like visual search tasks or personality measures, anyway).

That said, the IRBs are not necessarily composed of experts on the matter of ethics, nor do their concerns need empirical grounding to be raised; the mere possibility that harm might be caused can be considered grounds enough for not taking any chances and risking reputational or financial damage to the institution (or the participants, of course). That these concerns were raised frequently (but not supported) led Yeater et al (2012) to examine the matter empirically. The authors sought to subject their participants to a battery of questions and measures designated to be either (a) minimal risk, which were predominately cognitive tasks, or (b) above minimal risk, which were measures that asked about matters like sexual behavior and trauma. Before and after each set of measures, the participants would have their emotional states measured to see if any negative or positive changes resulted from taking part in the research.

The usual emotional response to lengthy surveys is always positive

The sample for this research involved approximately 500 undergraduates assigned to either the trauma-sex condition (n = 263) or the cognitive condition (n = 241). All of the participants first completed some demographic and affect measures designed to assess their positive and negative emotions. After that, those in the trauma-sex condition filled out surveys concerning their dating behavior, sexual histories, the rape myth acceptance scale, questions concerning their interest in short-term sex, sexual confidence, trauma and post-traumatic checklists, and childhood sexual and trauma histories. Additionally, females answered questions about their body, menstrual cycle, and sexual victimization histories; males completed similar surveys asking about their bodies, masturbation schedules, and whether they had sexually victimized women. Those in the cognitive condition filled out a similarly-long battery of tests measuring things like their verbal and abstract reasoning abilities.

Once these measures were completed, the emotional state of all the participants was again assessed along with other post-test reaction questions, including matters like whether they perceived any costs and benefits from engaging in the study, how mentally taxing their participation felt, and how their participation measured up to other life stressors in life like losing $20, getting a paper cut, a bad grade on a test, or waiting on line in the bank for 20 minutes.

The results from the study cut against the idea that undergraduate participants were particularly psychologically vulnerable to these sensitive topics. In both conditions, participants reported a decrease in negative affect over the course of the study. There was even an increase in positive affect, but only for the trauma-sex group. While those in the trauma-sex condition did report greater post-test negative emotions, the absolute value of those negative emotions were close to floor levels for both groups (both means were below a 2 on a scale of 1-7). That said, those in the trauma-sex condition also reported lower mental costs to taking part in the research and perceived greater benefits overall. Both groups reported equivalent positive emotions.

Some outliers were then considered. In terms of those reporting negative emotions, 2.1% of those in the cognitive condition (5 participants) and 3.4% of those in the trauma-sex condition (9 participants) reported negative emotions above the midpoint of the scale. However, the maximum value for those handful of participants were 4.15 and 5.52 (respectively) out of 7, falling well short of the ceiling. Looking specifically at women who had reported histories of victimization, there was no apparent difference between conditions with regard to affect on almost any of the post-test measures; the one exception was that women who had experienced a history of victimization reported the trauma-sex measures to be slightly more mentally taxing, but that could be a function of their having to spend additional time filling out the large number of extensive questionnaires rather than any kind of serious emotional harm. Even those who had been harmed in the past didn’t seem terribly bothered by answering some questions.

“While we have you here, would you like to answer a quick survey about your experience?”

The good news is that it would seem undergraduates are more resilient than they are often given credit for and not so easily triggered by topics like sex or abuse (which are frequently discussed on social platforms like Facebook and news sources). The sensitive topics didn’t seem to be all that sensitive; certainly not substantially more so than the standard types of minimal risk questions asked on other psychological measures. Even for those with histories of victimization. The question remains as to whether such a finding would be enough to convince those making the decisions about the risks inherent in this kind of research. I’d like to be optimistic on that front, but it would rely on the researchers being aware of the present paper (as you can’t rely on the IRB to follow the literature on that front, or indeed any front) and the IRB being open to hearing evidence to the contrary. As I have encountered reviewers who seem uninterested in hearing contrary evidence concerning deception, it’s a distinct possibility that the present research might not have the intended effect on mollifying IRB concerns. I certainly wouldn’t rule out it’s potential effectiveness, though, and this is definitely a good resource for researchers to have in their pocket if they encounter such issues.

References: Yeater, E., Miller, G., Rinehart, J., & Nason, E. (2012). Trauma and sex surveys meet minimal risk standards: Implications for institutional review boards. Psychological Science, 23, 780-787.

 

Money For Nothing, But The Chicks Aren’t Free

When people see young, attractive women in relationships with older and/or unattractive men, the usual perception that comes to mind is that the relationship revolves around money. This perception is usual because it tends to be accurate: women do, in fact, tend to prefer men who both have access to financial resources and who are willing to share them.  What is rather notable is that the reverse isn’t quite as a common: a young, attractive man shacking up with an older, rich woman just doesn’t call too many examples to mind. Women seem to have a much more pronounced preference for men with wealth than men have for women. While examples of such preferences playing themselves out in real life exist anecdotally, it’s always good to try and showcase their existence empirically.

Early attempts were made by Dr. West, but replications are required

This brings me to a new paper by Arnocky et al (2016) that examined how altruism affects mating success in humans (as this is still psychology research, “humans” translates roughly as “undergraduate psychology majors”, but such is the nature of convenience samples). The researchers first sought (a) to document that more altruistic people really were preferred as mating partners (spoilers: they are), and then (b) to try and explain why we might expect them to be. Let’s begin with what they found, as that much is fairly straightforward. In their first study, Arnocky et al (2016) recruited 192 women and 105 men from a Canadian university and asked them to complete a few self-report measures: an altruism scale (used to measure general dispositions towards providing aid to others when reciprocation is unlikely), a mating success scale (measuring perceptions of how desirable one tends to be towards the opposite sex), their numbers of lifetime sexual partners, as well as the number of those that were short-term, the number of times over the last month they had sex with their current partner (if they had one, which about 40% did), and a measure of their personality more generally.

These measures were then entered into a regression (controlling for personality). When it came to predicting perceived mating success, reported altruism was a significant predictor (ß = 0.25), but neither sex nor the altruism-sex interaction was. This suggests that both men and women tend become more attractive to the opposite sex if they behave more altruistically (or, conversely, that people who are more selfish are less desirable, which sounds quite plausible). However, what it means for one to be successful in the mating domain varies by sex: for men, having more sexual partners usually implies a greater level of success, whereas the same does not hold true for women as often (as gametes are easy to obtain for women, but investment is difficult). In accordance with this point, it was also found that altruism predicted the number of lifetime sexual partners overall (ß = .16), but this effect was specific to men: more altruistic men had more sexual partners (and more casual ones), whereas more altruistic women did not. Finally, within the contexts of existing relationships, altruism also (sort of) predicted the number of times someone had sex with their partner in the last month (ß = .27); while there was not a significant interaction with sex, a visual inspection of the provided graphs suggest that if this effect existed, it was being predominately carried by altruistic women having more sex within a relationship; not the men.

Now that’s all well and good, but the authors wanted to go a little further. In their second study, rather than just asking participants about how altruistic they were, they offered participants the opportunity to be altruistic: after completing the survey, participants could indicate how much (if any) of their earnings they wanted to donate to a charity of their choice. That way, you get what might be a less-biased measure of one’s actual altruism (rather than their own perception of it). Another 335 women and 189 men were recruited for this second phase and, broadly, the results follow the same general pattern, but there were some notable differences. In terms of mating success, actual altruistic donations (categorized as either making a donation or not, rather than the amount donated) were not a good predictor (ß = -.07). In terms of number of lifetime dating and sexual partners, however, the donation-by-sex interaction was significant, indicating that more charitable men – but not women – had a greater number of relationships and sexual partners (perhaps suggesting that charitable men tend to have more, but shorter, relationships, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for the women involved). Donations also failed to predict the amount of sex participants had been having in their relationship in the last month.

Guess the blood drive just isn’t a huge turn on after all

With these results in mind, there are two main points I wanted to draw attention to. The first of these concerns the measures of altruism in general: effectively charitable behaviors to strangers. While such a behavior might be a more “pure” form of altruistic tendencies as compared with, say, helping a friend move or giving money to your child, it does pose some complications for the present topic. Specifically, when looking for a desirable mate, people might not want someone who is just generally altruistic. After all, it doesn’t always do me much good if my committed partner is spending time and investing resources in other people. I would probably prefer that resources be preferentially directed at me and those I care about, rather than strangers, and I might especially dislike it if altruism directed towards strangers came at my expense (as the same resources can’t be invested in me and someone else most of the time). While it is possible that such investments in strangers could return to me later in the form of them reciprocating such aid to my partner, it seems unlikely that deficit would be entirely and consistently made up, let alone surpassed.

To make the point concrete, if someone was equally altruistic towards all people, there would be little point in forming as kind of special relationship with that kind person (friendships or otherwise) because you’d get the same benefits from them regardless of how much you invested in them (even if that amount was nothing).

This brings me to the second point I wanted to discuss: the matter of why people like the company of altruists. There are two explanations that come to mind. The first explanation is simple: people like access to resources, and altruists tend to provide them. This explanation should hardly require much in the way of testing given its truth is plainly obvious. The second explanation is more complex, and it’s one the authors favor: altruism honestly signals some positive, yet difficult-to-observe quality about the altruist. For instance, if I were to donate blood, or my time to clean up a park, this would tell you something about my underlying genetic qualities, as an individual in worse condition couldn’t shoulder the costs of altruism effectively. In this sense, altruism functions in a comparable manner to a peacock’s tail feathers; it’s a biologically-honest signal because it’s costly.

While it does have some plausibility, this signaling explanation runs into some complications. First, as the authors note, women donated more than men did (70% to 57%), despite donating predicting sexual behavior better for men. If women were donating to signal some positive qualities in the mating domain, it’s not at all clear it was working. Further, patterns of charitable donations in the US show a U-shaped distribution, whereby those with access to the most and  the fewest financial resources tend to donate more than those in the middle. This seems like a pattern the signaling explanation should not predict if altruism is meaningfully and consistently tied to important, but difficult-to-observe biological characteristics. Finally, while the argument could be made that altruism directed towards friends, sexual partners, and kin are not necessarily indicative of someone’s willingness to donate to strangers (i.e., how altruistic they are dispositionally might not predict how nepotistic they are), well, that’s kind of a problem for the altruism-as-signaling model. If donations towards strangers are fairly unpredictive of altruism towards closer relations, then they don’t really tell you what you want to know.  Specifically, if you want to know how good of a friend or dating partner someone would be for you, a better cue is how much altruism they direct towards their friends and romantic partners; not how much they direct to strangers.

“My boyfriend is so altruistic, buying drinks for other women like that”

Last, we can consider the matter of why people behave altruistically, with respect to the mating domain. (Very) broadly speaking, there are two primary challenges people need to overcome: attracting a mate and retaining them. Matters get tricky here, as altruism can be used for both of these tasks. As such, a man who is generally altruistic towards lot of people might be using altruism as a means of attracting the attention of prospective mates without necessarily intending to keep them around. Indeed, the previous point about how altruistic men report having more relationships and sexual partners could be interpreted in just such a light. There are other explanations, of course, such as the prospect that generally selfish people simply don’t have many relationships at all, but these need to be separated out. In either case, in terms of how much altruism we provide to others, I suspect that the amount provided to strangers and charitable organizations only makes up a small fraction; we give much more towards friends, family, and lovers regularly. If that’s the case, measuring someone’s willingness to donate in those fairly uncommon contexts might not capture their desirability as partner as well as we would like.

References: Arnocky, S., Piche, T., Albert, G., Ouellette, D., & Barclay, P. (2016). Altruism predicts mating success in humans. British Journal of Psychology, DOI:10.1111/bjop.12208

 

Homophobia Isn’t Repressed Homosexuality

In the wake of the Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub, there were quite a number of speculations floating around my social media that the shooter himself had been harboring homosexual urges that he had been trying to repress. Repression – being the odd thing that it apparently is – in this case involved his visiting gay nightclubs and using gay dating apps to communicate – and presumably have sex – with other gay men; he might have even been doing all those things while telling himself he had no interest in such activities, that they were morally wrong, or at the very least while trying to keep it secret from other people in his life. The shooting resulted, then, at least in part from this unsuccessful repression of his homosexual urges; an inward loathing directed outwards at others. Or so the story went, anyway. Subsequent official investigations into Omar Mateen’s life revealed no evidence of such behavior: no gay dating apps, no credible homosexual partners, and no gay pornography. Perhaps he was just very good at covering his tracks, but a more parsimonious explanation jumps out at me: he probably wasn’t grappling with homosexual urges.

“Keep grappling with those urges! Don’t stop! You’re almost there…”

The underlying idea in that case – that some degree of homophobia is actually explained by the homophobes in question trying to deny their own homosexual urges – remains a somewhat popular speculation. It has roots as far back as Freud, and I’ve already discussed one piece of more modern research on the idea from the mid-90s. This homosexuality repression hypothesis is also even a subplot in one of my favorite movies, American Beauty. For an idea with such a long history, it does seem rather peculiar that more empirical research on the topic doesn’t seem to exist. Perhaps the most obvious guess as to why such research doesn’t exist is that its not exactly the easiest thing in the world to measure someone’s implicit sexual attraction (provided such a thing can even be said to exist at all). If the subjects themselves aren’t even aware of it, a failure to uncover any evidence of its existence might not mean it’s not there; it might just mean that you don’t know how to uncover it. Designing the proper experiments and accurately interpreting the data resulting from them thus becomes troublesome.

Before considering some new research on the hypothesis, then, I wanted to take a step back and consider why, on a theoretical level, we shouldn’t expect implicit or repressed homosexual urges to predict homophobic attitudes particularly well. The first starting point is to note that explicit homosexuality is rare in humans (about 1-3%). This should be expected, as homosexuality does not appear to be adaptive; same-sex attraction just isn’t a good way to reproduce ones’ genes directly or indirectly (whether through kin or alliance formation). Further, open homosexuals don’t tend to be particularly homophobic; at least not as far as I know. Given that rarity, then, if something around even 20% of the population is homophobic, then there is either a lot of homophobia unrelated to homosexuality, or repressed homosexuality is very, very common. In other words, one of two statements follow, neither of which bode well for the homophobia-as-repressed-attraction hypothesis: (a) lots of people who are homophobic harbor no homosexual urges or (b) many of those who are homophobic harbor such urges.

If the first idea is true, then very little homophobia could even be explained in principle by homosexual urges. Most people who were homophobic just wouldn’t have homosexual urges, and an absent variable can’t explain a present trait.

If the second idea is true, however, then repression-via-homophobia strategy would be fairly ineffective. In order to understand why, we need to start with the following point: people are only repressing homosexual urges to convince others that they are not gay. From an adaptive point of view, an organism does not need to deceive itself about its desires. False beliefs, in that sense, just don’t do anything functionally useful, and there is no “self” to be deceived in the first place, given the modular nature of the mind. Taking that as a given for the moment, if you’re trying to convince others that you don’t have a desire, you will only be successful to the extent you engage in behaviors that someone with that desire would usually not. Placed into a simple example, if you’re trying to convince others that you’re not hungry, you turn down food. Eating a lot isn’t a particularly good way to do that, as people who aren’t hungry don’t normally eat a lot. So, if lots of people who do have homosexual urges were homophobic, then adopting a homophobic stance should actually be expected to positively signal that one is a homosexual, as being homophobic is something lots of (closeted) homosexual people actually do.

Thus the dilemma of the homophobia-as-repression hypothesis is highlighted: if only few homophobes are meaningful homosexual, then homosexuality can’t explain much; if many homophobes actually are homosexual, then homophobia will be ineffective at persuading others one is straight.

“They’re trying to signal they’re gay so much that they must be straight!”

As such, it should come as little surprise that some recent research finds no evidence for this homophobia-as-repressed-homosexuality hypothesis. MacInnis & Hodson (2013) sought to examine whether any link exists between a measure of implicit sexual attraction and explicit homophobia in heterosexuals. In order to do this, the authors used an implicit association task (IAT) adapted to sexual attraction: a task in which participants have to categorize pictures as male/female and words as sexually attractive/unattractive, and the speed at which they do so should tell you something about the cognitive association between the two. I’m wary of the interpretations of IATs for a number of reasons, but I’ll assume for the time being that such a test does indeed kind of measure what they hope. Participants were also asked about their explicit sexual attractions to men and women, and their attitudes towards gay/lesbian and heterosexual populations. In total, their sample represented 237 Canadian undergraduates (85 men).

As I would expect, the IAT results only correlated modestly with explicit measures of sexual attraction (r = .37 for men, r = .15 for women). The correlations between those IAT measures and negative, explicit evaluations of homosexuals for men was r = -.06, and for women, r = -.24. In other words, not only were such correlations quite small, but they nominally went in the opposite direction of the repression account: as people showed more implicit attraction to the same sex, they also showed less explicit negativity. On a similar note, men’s explicit attractions to the same sex negatively correlated with their homophobia as well (r = -.31), meaning that as men reported more conscious attraction to other men, they were also more positive towards homosexuals. People tend to be more positive towards those that resemble them – for good reason – so this isn’t terribly shocking.

The researchers tried additional analyses as well to address other interpretations of the repression-to-attraction account. First, they divided the data such that those who showed positive homosexual implicit attraction were compared to those who on the negative side. The male sample, it’s worth noting, could not be analyzed here as only 4 of the 85 men had such a score (perhaps there’s just not much implicit attraction floating around?); for women, the same finding as before emerged: those showing more implicit attraction were less negative towards homosexuals. Next, the authors tried to examine only those in the upper-half of homophobia score, and then those in the more extreme ends. However, the implicit attraction scores did not differ between those high and low in prejudice for men or women. The repression hypothesis wasn’t even supported when the authors tried to isolate those participants whose explicit and implicit attraction scores were maximally different from one another (the authors frame this as participants overstating their heterosexuality on an explicit level, but I suspect the actual interpretation is that the IAT isn’t too great of a tool).

Directions for future research: invasive mind-reading technology

With all the dividing of their sample, MacInnis & Hodson (2013) gave their data every possible advantage to find somethingeven some spurious relationship – but essentially nothing arose. They broke the data down by men and women; attitudes towards gays, lesbians, and homosexuals in general; those high or low in prejudice; those whose implicit and explicit attractions diverged. No matter how it was sliced, support was not found for the repression idea. When relationships did exist between implicit attraction and explicit attitudes, it usually ran in the opposite direction of the repression hypothesis: those who showed implicit attraction were less negative towards homosexuals (albeit quite modestly). I don’t suspect this will stop those who fancy the repression hypothesis to abandon it – likely because they value it for reasons beyond its established truth value, which is currently dubious at best –  but it is a possible starting point for that journey.   

References: MacInnis, C. & Hodson, G. (2013). Is homophobia associated with an implicit same-sex attraction? Journal of Sex Research, 50, 777-785.

Skepticism Surrounding Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: What men most often value in a woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoking Hot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute Vs Relative Mate Preferences

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

 If everyone has an iPhone, no one has an iPhone

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

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

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

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

 It’s just that simple!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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