Understanding Sex In Advertising

When people post videos on YouTube, one major point of interest for content creators and aggregators is to capture as much attention as possible. Your video is adrift in a sea of information and you’re trying to get as many eyes/clicks on your work as possible. In that realm, first impressions are all important: you want your video to have an attention-grabbing thumbnail image, as that will likely be the only thing viewers see before they actually click (or don’t) on it. So how do people go about capturing attention in that realm? One popular method is to ensure their thumbnail has a very emotive expression on it; a face of shock, embarrassment, stress, or any similar emotion. That’s certainly one way of attracting attention: trying to convince people there is something worth looking at, not unlike articles titled along the lines of five shocking tips for a better sex life (and number 3 will blow your mind!). Speaking of sex, that’s another popular method of grabbing attention: it’s fairly common for video thumbnails to feature people or body parts in various stages of undress. Not much will pull eyes towards a video like the promise of sex (and if you’re feeling an urge to click on that link, you’ll have experienced exactly what I’m talking about).

Case in point: most of that content is unrelated to the featured women

If sex happens to be attention grabbing, the natural question arises concerning what you might do with that attention once you have it. Much of the time, that answer will involve selling some good or service. In other words, sex is used as a form of advertising to try and sell things. “If you enjoyed that picture of a woman wearing a thong, you’ll surely love our reasonably-costed laptops!”. Something along those lines, anyway. Provided that’s your goal, lots of questions naturally start to crop up: How effective is sex at these goals? Does it capture attention well? Does it help people notice and remember your product or brand? Are those who viewed your sexy advert more likely to buy the product you’re selling? How do other factors – the sex of the person viewing the ad – contribute to your success in these realms?

These are some of the questions examined in a recent meta-analysis by Wirtz, Sparks, & Zimbres (2017). The researchers searched the literature and found about 80 studies, representing about 18,000 participants. They sought to find out what effects featuring sexually provocative material had, on average (defined in terms of style of dress, sexual behavior, innuendo, or sexual embeds, which is where hidden messages or images are placed within the ad, like the word “sex” added somewhere to the picture, which is something people apparently think is a good idea sometimes). These ads had to have been compared against a comparable, non-sexual ad for the same product to be included in the analysis to determine which was more effective.

The effectiveness of these ads were assessed across a number of domains as well, including ad recognition (in aided and unaided contexts), whether the brand being advertised in the ad could be recalled (i.e., were people paying attention to just the sex, or did they remember the product?), the positive or negative response people had to the ad, what people thought about the brand being advertised with sex, and whether the ad actually got them interested in purchasing the product (does sex sell?).

Finally, a number of potentially moderating factors that might influence these effects were considered. The first of these was gender: did these ads have different impacts on men and women? Others factors included the gender of the model used in the advertisement, the date the article was published (to see if attitudes shifted over time), the sample used (college students or not), and – most interestingly – product/ad congruity: did the type of product being advertised matter when it came to whether sex was effective? Perhaps sex might help sell a product like sun-tan lotion (as the beach might be a good place to pick up mates), but be much less effective for selling, say, laptops.

Maybe even political views

In terms of capturing attention, sex works. Of the 20 effects looking at the recall for ads, the average size was d = .38. Interesting, this effect was slightly larger for the congruent ads (d = .45), but completely reversed for the incongruent ones (d = -.45). Sex was good at getting people to remember ads selling a sex-related product, but not just generally useful. That said, they seemed better at getting people to remember just the ads. When the researchers turned to the matter of whether the brands within the ads were more likely to be recalled, the 31 effects looking at brand recognition turned out to barely break zero (d = .09). While sex might be attention-grabbing, it didn’t seem especially good at getting people to remember the objects being sold.

Regarding people’s attitudes towards the ads, sex seems like something of a wash (d = -.07). Digging a little deeper revealed a more nuanced pictured of these reactions, though: while sexual ads seemed to be a modest hit with the men (d = .27), they had the opposite effect on women (d = -.38). Women seemed to dislike the ads modestly more than men liked them, as sexual strategies theory would suggest (for the record, the type of model being depicted didn’t make much of a difference. In order, people liked males models the least (d = -.28), then female models (d = -.20), and couples were mildly positive, d = .08).

Curiously, both the men and women seemed to be agreement regarding their stance towards brands that used sex to sell things: negative, on the whole (d – =.22). For women, this makes some intuitive sense: they didn’t see to be a fan of the sexual ads, so they weren’t exactly feeling too ingratiated towards the brand itself. But why were the men negatively inclined towards the brand if they were favorably inclined towards the ads? I can only speculate on that front, but I assume it would have something to do with their inevitable disappointment: either that the brands were promising on sex the male customers likely knew they couldn’t deliver on, or perhaps the men simply wanted to enjoy the sex part and the brand itself ended up getting in their way. I can’t imagine men would be too happy with their porn time being interrupted by an ad for toilet paper or fruit snacks mid-video.

Finally, turning the matter of purchase intentions – whether the ads encouraged people to want to buy the product or not – it seemed that sex didn’t really sell, but it didn’t really seem to hurt, either (d = .01). One interesting exception in that realm was that sex appeals were actually less likely to get people to buy a product when the product being sold was incongruent with the sexual appeal (d = -.24). Putting that into a simple example, the phrase “strip club buffet” probably doesn’t wet many appetites, and wouldn’t be a strong selling point for such a venue. Sex can be something of a disease vector, and associating your food with that might illicit more than a bit of disgust.

“Oh good, I was starving. This seems like as good a place as any”

As I’ve noted before, context matching matters in advertising. If you’re looking to sell people something that highlights their individuality, then doing so in a mating context works better than in a context of fear (as animals aren’t exactly aiming to look distinct when predators are nearby). The same seems to hold for using sex. While it might be useful for getting eyes on your advertisement, sex is by no mean guaranteed to ensure that people like what they see once you have their attention. In that regard, sex – like any other advertising tool – needs to be used selectively, targeting the correct audience in the correct context if it’s going to succeed at increasing people’s interest in buying. Sex in general doesn’t sell. However, it might prove more effective for those with more promiscuous attitudes than those with more monogamous ones; it might prove useful if advertising a product related to sex or mating, but not useful for selling domain names (like the old GoDaddy commercials; coincidentally, GoDaddy was also the brand I used to register this site); it might work better if you associate your product with things that lead to sex (like status), rather than sex itself. These are all avenues worth pursuing further to see when, where, and why sex works or fails.

That said, it is still possible that sex might prove useful, even in some inappropriate contexts. Consider the following hypothetical example: people will consider buying a product only after they have seen an advertisement for it. Advertisement X isn’t sexual, but when paired with the product will increase people’s intentions to buy it by 10%. However, it will also not really get noticed by many people, as the content is bland. By contrast, advertisement Y is sexual, will decrease people’s intentions to buy a product by 10%, but will also get four-times as many eyes on it. The latter ad might well be more successful, as it will capture the eye of more potential customers that may still buy the product despite the inappropriate use of sexWhile targeting advertisements might be more effective, the attention model of advertising shouldn’t be ruled out entirely, especially if targeting advertising would prove too cumbersome.

References: Wirtz, J., Sparks, J., & Zimbres, T. (2017). The effect of exposure to sexual appeals in advertisements on memory, attitude, and purchase intention: A meta-analytic review. International Journal of Advertising, https://doi.org/10.1080/02650487.2017.1334996

 

Divorced Dads And Their Daughters

Despite common assumptions, parents have less of an impact on their children’s future development than they’re often credited with. Twins reared apart usually aren’t much different than twins reared together, and adopted children don’t end up resembling their adoptive parents substantially more than strangers. While parents can indeed affect their children’s happiness profoundly, a healthy (and convincing) literature exists supporting the hypothesis that differences in parenting behaviors don’t do a whole lot of shaping in terms of children’s later personalities (at least when the child isn’t around the parent; Harris, 2009). This makes a good deal of theoretical sense, as children aren’t developing to be better children; they’re developing to become adults in their own right. What children learn works when it comes to interacting with their parents might not readily translate to the outside world. If you assume your boss will treat you the same way your parents would, you’re likely in for some unpleasant clashes with reality. 

“Who’s a good branch manager? That’s right! You are!”

Not that this has stopped researchers from seeking to find ways that parent-child interactions might shape children’s future personalities, mind you. Indeed, I came upon a very new paper purporting to do just that this last week. It suggested that the quality of a father’s investment in his daughters causes shifts in his daughter’s willingness to engage in risky sexual behavior (DelPriore, Schlomer, & Ellis, 2017). The analysis in the paper is admittedly a bit tough to follow, as the authors examine three- and even four-way interactions (which are difficult to keep straight in one’s mind: the importance of variable A changes contingent on the interaction between B, C, & D), so I don’t want to delve too deeply into the specific details. Instead, I want to discuss the broader themes and design of the paper.

Previous research looking at parenting effects on children’s development often suffers from the problem of relatedness, as genetic similarities between parents and children make it hard to tease apart the unique effects of parenting behaviors (how the parents treat their children) from natural resemblances (nice parents have nice children). In a simple example, parents who love and nurture their children tend to have children who grow up kinder and nicer, while parents who neglect their children tend to have children who grow up to be mean. However, it seems likely that parents who care for their children are different in some important regards than those who neglect them, and those tendencies are perfectly capable of being passed on through shared genes. So are the nice kids nice because of how their parents treated them or because of inheritance? The adoption studies I mentioned previously tend to support the latter interpretation. When you control for genetic factors, parenting effects tend to drop out.

What’s good about the present research is its innovative design to try and circumvent this issue of genetic similarities between children and parents. To accomplish this goal, the authors examined (among other things) how divorce might affect the development of different daughters within the same family. The reasoning for doing so seems to go roughly as follows: daughters should base their sexual developmental trajectory, in part, on the extent of paternal investment they’re exposed to during their early years. When daughters are regularly exposed to fathers that invest in them and monitor their behavior, they should come to expect that subsequent male parental investment will be forthcoming in future relationships and avoid peers who engage in risky sexual behavior. The net result is that such daughters will engage in less risky sexual behavior themselves. By contrast, when daughters lack proper exposure to an investing father, or have one who does not monitor their peer behavior as tightly (due to divorce), they should come to view future male investment as unlikely, associate with those who engage in riskier sexual behavior, and engage in such behavior themselves.

Accordingly, if a family with two daughters experiences a divorce, the younger daughter’s development might be affected differently than the older daughter’s, as they have different levels of exposure to their father’s investment. The larger this age gap between the daughters, the larger this effect should be. After recruiting 42 sister pairs from intact families and 59 sister pairs from divorced families and asking them some retrospective questions about what their life was like growing up, this is basically the result the authors found. Younger daughters tended to receive less monitoring than older daughters in families of divorce and, accordingly, tended to associate with more sexually-risky peers and engage in such behaviors themselves. This effect was not present in biologically intact families. Do we finally have some convincing evidence of parenting behaviors shaping children’s personalities outside the home?

Look at this data and tell me the first thing that comes to your mind

I don’t think so. The first concern I would raise regarding this research is the monitoring measure utilized. Monitoring, in this instance, represented a composite score of how much information the daughters reported their parents had about their lives (rated from (1) didn’t know anything, (2) knew a little, or (3) knew a lot) in five domains: who their friends were, how they spent their money, where they spent their time after school, where they were at night, and how they spent their free time. While one might conceptualize that as monitoring (i.e., parents taking an active interest in their children’s lives and seeking to learn about/control what they do), it seems that one could just as easily think of that measure as how often children independently shared information with their parents. After all, the measure doesn’t specify, “how often did your parents try to learn about your life and keep track of your behavior?” It just asked about how much they knew.

To put that point concretely, my close friends might know quite a bit about what I do, where I go, and so on, but it’s not because they’re actively monitoring me; it’s because I tell them about my day voluntarily. So, rather than talking about how a father’s monitoring of his daughter might have a causal effect on her sexual behavior, we could just as easily talk about how daughters who engage in risky behavior prefer not to tell their parents about what they’re doing, especially if their personal relationship is already strained by divorce.

The second concern I have concerns divorce itself. Divorce can indeed affect the personal relationships of children with their parents. However, that’s not the only thing that happens after a divorce. There are other effects that extend beyond emotional closeness. An important example of these other factors are the financial ones. If a father has been working while the mother took care of the children – or if both parents were working – divorce can result in massive financial hits for the children (as most end up living with their mother or in a joint custody arrangement). The results of entering additional economic problems into an already emotionally-upsetting divorce can entail not only additional resentment between children and parents (and, accordingly, less sharing of information between them; the reduced monitoring), but also major alterations to the living conditions of the children. These lifestyle shifts could include moving to a new home, upsetting existing peer relations, entering new social groups, and presenting children with new logistical problems to solve.

Any observed changes in a daughter’s sexual behavior in the years following a divorce, then, can be thought of as a composite of all the changes that take place post-divorce. While the quality and amount of the father-daughter relationship might indeed change during that time, there are additional and important factors that aren’t controlled for in the present paper.

Too bad the house didn’t split down the middle as nicely

The final concern I wanted to discuss was more of a theoretical one, and it’s slightly larger than the methodological points above. According to the theory proposed at the beginning of the paper:

“…the quality of fathering that daughters receive provides information about the availability and reliability of male investment in the local ecology, which girls use to calibrate their mating behavior and expectations for long-term investment from future mates.”

This strikes me as a questionable foundation for a few reasons. First, it would require that the relationship of a daughter’s parents are substantially predictive of the relationships she is likely to encounter in the world with regard to male investment. In other words, if your father didn’t invest in your mother (or you) that heavily (or at least during your childhood), that needs to mean that many other potential fathers are likely to do the same to you (if you’re a girl). This would further require, then, that male investment be appreciably uniform across time in the world. If male investment wasn’t stable between males and across time within a given male, then trying to predict the general availability of future male investment from your father’s seems like a losing formula for accuracy.

It seems unlikely the world is that stable. For similar reasons, I suggested that children probably can’t accurately gauge future food availability from their access to food at a young age. Making matters even worse in this regard is that, unlike food shortages, the presence or absence of male parental investment doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that will be relatively universal. Some men in a local environment might be perfectly willing to invest heavily in women while others are not. But that’s only considering the broad level: men who are willing to invest in general might be unwilling to invest in a particular woman, or might be willing or unwilling to invest in that woman at different stages in her life, contingent on her mate value shifting with age. Any kind of general predictive power that could be derived about men in a local ecology seems weak indeed, especially if you are basing that decision off a single relationship: the one between your parents. In short, if you want to know what men in your environment are generally like, one relationship should be as informative as another. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to assume your parents will be particularly informative.

Matters get even worse for the predictive power of father-daughter relationships when one realizes the contradiction between that theory and the predictions of the authors. The point can be made crystal clear simply by considering the families examined in this very study. The sample of interest was comprised of daughters from the same family who had different levels exposure to paternal investment. That ought to mean, if I’m following the predictions properly, that the daughters – the older and younger one – should develop different expectations about future paternal investment in their local ecology. Strangely, however, these expectations would have been derived from the same father’s behavior. This would be a problem because both daughters cannot be right about the general willingness of males to invest if they hold different expectations. If the older daughter with more years of exposure to her father comes to believe male investment will be available and the younger daughter with fewer years of exposure comes to believe it will be unavailable, these are opposing expectations of the world.

However, if those different expectations are derived from the same father, that alone should cast doubt on the ability of a single parental relationship to predict broad trends about the world. It doesn’t even seem to be right within families, let alone between them (and it’s probably worth mentioning at this point that, if children are going to be right about the quality of male investment in their local ecology more generally, all the children in the same area should develop similar expectations, regardless of their parent’s behavior. It would be strange for literal neighbors to develop different expectations of general male behavior in their local environment just because the parents of one home got divorced while the other stayed together. Then again, it should strange for daughters of the same home to develop different expectations, too).

Unless different ecologies have rather sharp boarders

On both a methodological and theoretical level, then, there are some major concerns with this paper that render its interpretation suspect. Indeed, at the heart of the paper is a large contradiction: if you’re going to predict that two girls from the same family develop substantially different expectations about the wider world from the same father, then it seems impossible that the data from that father is very predictive of the world. In any case, the world doesn’t seem as stable as it would need to be for that single data point to be terribly useful. There ought not be anything special about the relationship of your parents (relative to other parents) if you’re looking to learn something about the world in general.

While I fully expect that children’s lives following their parents divorce will be different – and those differences can affect development, depending on when they occur – I’m not so sure that the personal relationship between fathers and daughters is the causal variable of primary interest.

References: DelPriore, D., Schlomer, G., & Ellis, B. (2017). Impact of Fathers on Parental Monitoring of Daughters and Their Affiliation With Sexually Promiscuous Peers: A Genetically and Environmentally Controlled Sibling Study. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000327

Harris, J. (2009) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Free Press, NY.

To Meaningfully Talk About Gender

Let’s say I was to tell you I am a human male. While this sentence is short and simple, the amount of information you could glean from it is a potential goldmine, assuming you are starting from a position of near total ignorance about me. First, it provides you with my species identification. In the most general sense, that lets you know what types of organisms in the world I am capable of potentially reproducing with (to produce reproductively-viable offspring in turn). In addition to that rather concrete fact, you also learn about my likely preferences. Just as humans share a great deal of genes in common (which is why we can reproduce with one another), we also share a large number of general preferences and traits in common (as these are determined heavily by our genes). For instance, you likely learn that I enjoy the taste of fruit, that I make my way around the world on two feet, and that hair continuously grows from the top of my head but much more sparingly on the rest of my body, among many other things. While these probable traits might not hold true for me in particular – perhaps I am totally hairless/covered in hair, have no legs, and find fruit vile – they do hold for humans more generally, so you can make some fairly-educated guesses as to what I’m like in many regards even if you know nothing else about me as a person. It’s not a perfect system, but you’ll do better on average with this information than you would if you didn’t have it. To make the point crystal clear, imagine trying to figure out what kind of things I liked if you didn’t even know my species. 

Could be delicious or toxic, depending on my species. Choose carefully.

When you learn that I am a male, you learn something concrete about the sex chromosomes in my body: specifically, that I have an XY configuration and tend to produce particular types of gametes. In addition to that concrete fact, you also learn about my likely traits and preferences. Just as humans share a lot of traits in common, males tend to share more traits in common with each other than they do with females (and vice versa). For instance, you likely learn that the distribution of muscle mass in my upper body is more substantial than females, that I have a general willingness to relax my standards when it comes to casual sex, that I have a penis, and that I’m statistically more likely to murder you than a female (I’m also more likely to be murdered myself, for the record). Again, while these might not all hold true for me specifically, if you knew nothing else about me, you could still make some educated guesses as to what I enjoy and my probable behavior because of my group membership.

One general point I hope these examples illuminate is that, to talk meaningful about a topic, we need to have a clear sense for our terms. Once we know what the terms “human” and “male” mean, we can begin to learn a lot about what membership in those groups entail. We can learn quite a bit about deviations from those general commonalities as well. For instance, some people might have an XY set of chromosomes and no penis. This would pose a biological mystery to us, while someone having an XX set and no penis would pose much less of one. The ability to consistently apply a definition – even an arbitrary one – is the first step in being able to say something useful about a topic. Without clear boundary conditions on what we’re talking about, you can end up with people talking about entirely different concepts using the same term. This yields unproductive discussions and is something to be avoided if you’re looking to cut down on wasted time.

Speaking of unproductive discussions, I’ve seen a lot of metaphorical ink spilled over the concept of gender; a term that is supposed to be distinct from sex, yet is highly related to it. According to many of the sources one might consult, sex is supposed to refer to biological features (as above), while gender is supposed to refer, “…to either social roles based on the sex of the person (gender role) or personal identification of one’s own gender based on an internal awareness (gender identity).” I wanted to discuss the latter portion of that gender definition today: the one referring to people’s feelings about their gender. Specifically, I’ve been getting the growing sense that this definition is not particularly useful. In essence, I’m not sure it really refers to anything in particular and, accordingly, doesn’t help advance our understanding of much in the world. To understand why, let’s take a quick trip through some interesting current events. 

Some very colorful, current events…

In this recent controversy, a woman called Rachel Dolezal claimed her racial identity was black. The one complicating factor in her story is that she was born to white parents.  Again, there’s been a lot of metaphorical ink spilled over the issue (including the recent mudslinging directed at Rebecca Tuvel who published a paper on the matter), with most of the discussions seemingly unproductive and, from what I can gather, mean-spirited. What struck me when I was reading about the issue is how little of those discussions explicitly focused on what should have been the most important, first point: how are we defining our terms when it comes to race? Those who opposed Rachel’s claims to be black appear to fall back on some kind of implicit hereditary definition: that one or more of one’s parents need to be black in order to consider oneself a member of that group. That’s not a perfect definition as we need to then determine what makes a parent black, but it’s a start. Like the definition of sex I gave above, this concept of race references some specific feature of the world that determines one racial identity and I imagine it makes intuitive sense to most people. Crucially, this definition is immune to feelings. It doesn’t matter if one is happy, sad, indifferent, or anything else with respect to their ethnic heritage; it simply is what it is regardless of those feelings. In this line of thinking, Rachel is white regardless of how she feels about it, how she wears her hair, dresses, acts, or even whether we want to accept her identification as black and treat her accordingly (whatever that is supposed to entail). What she – or we – feel about her racial identity is a different matter than her heritage.

On the other side of the issue, there are people (notably Rachel herself) who think that what matters is how you feel when it comes to determining identity. If you feel black (i.e., your internal awareness tells you that you’re black), then you are black, regardless of biological factors or external appearances. This idea runs into some hard definitional issues, as above: what does it mean to feel black, and how is it distinguished from other ethnic feelings? In other words, when you tell me that you feel black, what am I supposed to learn about you? Currently, that’s a big blank in my mind. This definitional issue is doubly troubling in this case, however, because if one wants to say they are black because they feel black, then it seems one first needs to identify a preexisting group of black people to have any sense at all for what those group members feel like. However, if you can already identify who is and is not black from some other criteria, then it seems the feeling definition is out of place as you’d already have another definition for your term. In that case, one could just say they are white but feel like they’re black (again, whatever “feeling black” is supposed to mean). I suppose they could also say they are white and feel unusual for that group, too, without needing to claim they are a member of a different ethnic group.

The same problems, I feel, apply to the gender issue despite the differences between gender and race. Beginning with the feeling definition, the parallels are clear. If someone told me they feel like a woman, a few things have to be made clear for that statement to mean anything. First, I’d need to know what being a woman feels like. In order to know what being a woman feels like, I’d need to already have identified a group of women so the information could be gathered. This means I’d need to know who was a woman and who was not in advance of learning about their specific feelings. However, if I can do that – if I can already determine who is and is not a woman – then it seems I don’t need to identify them on the basis of their feelings; I would be doing so with some other criteria. Presumably, the most common criteria leveraged in such a situation would be sex: you’d go out and find a bunch of females and ask them about what it was like to be a woman. If those responses are to be meaningful, though, you need to consider “female” to equate to “woman” which, according to definitions I listed above, it does not. This leaves us in a bit of a catch-22: we need to identify women by how they feel, but we can’t say how they feel until we identify them. Tricky business indeed (even forgoing the matter of claims that there are other genders).

Just keep piling the issues on top of each other and hope that sorts it out

On the other hand, let’s say gender is defined by some objective criteria and is distinct from sex. So, someone might be a male because of their genetic makeup but fall under the category of “woman” because, say, their psychology has developed in a female-typical pattern for enough key traits. Perhaps enough of their metaphorical developmental dials have been turned towards the female portion. Now that’s just a hypothetical example, but it should demonstrate the following point well enough: regardless of whether the male in question wants to be identified as a female or not, it wouldn’t matter in terms of this definition. It might matter a whole bunch if you want to be polite and nice to them, but not for our definition. Once we had a sense for what dials – or how many of them – needed to be flipped to “female” and had a way of measuring that for a male to be considered a woman, one’s internal awareness seems to be besides the point.

While this definition helps us talk more meaningfully about gender, at least in principle, it also seems like the gender term is a little unnecessary. If we’re just using “man” as a synonym for “male” and “woman” as one for “female”, then the entire sex/gender distinction kind of falls apart, which defeats the whole purpose. You wouldn’t feel like a man; you’d feel like a male (whatever that feels like, and I say that as a male myself). Rather than calling our female-typical male a woman, we could also call him an atypical man.

The second issue with this idea nagging at me is that almost all traits do not run on a spectrum from male to female. Let’s consider traits with psychological sex differences, like depression or aggression. Since females are more likely to experience depression than males, we could consider experiencing depression as something that pushes one towards the “woman” end of the gender spectrum. However, when one feels depressed, they don’t feel like a woman; they feel sad and hopeless. When someone feels aggressive, they don’t feel like a man; they feel angry and violent. The same kind of logic can be applied to most other traits as well, including components of personality, risk-seeking, and so on. These don’t run on a spectrum between male/masculine and female/feminine, as it would make no sense to say that one has a feminine height.

If this still all sounds very confusing to you, then you’re on the same page as me. As far as I’ve seen, it is incredibly difficult for people to verbalize anything of a formal definition or set of standards that tells us who falls into one category or the other when it comes to gender. In the absence of such a standard, it seems profitable to just discard the terms and find something better – something more precise – to use instead.

Semen Quality And The Menstrual Cycle

One lesson I always try to drive home in any psychology course I teach is that biology (and, by extension, psychology) is itself costly. The usual estimate on offer is that our brains consume about 20% of our daily caloric expenditure, despite making up a small portion of our bodily mass. That’s only the cost of running the brain, mind you; growing and developing it adds further metabolic costs into the mix. When you consider the extent of those costs over a lifetime, it becomes clear that – ideally – our psychology should only be expected to exist in an active state to the extent it offers adaptive benefits that tend to outweigh them. Importantly, we should also expect that cost/benefit analysis to be dynamic over time. If a component of our biology/psychology is useful during one point in our lives but not at another, we might predict that it would switch on or off accordingly. This line of thought could help explain why humans are prolific language learners early in life but struggle to learn a second language in their teens and beyond; a language-learning mechanism active during development it would be useful up to a certain age for learning a native tongue, but later becomes inactive when its services are no longer liable to required, so to speak (which they often wouldn’t be in an ancestral environment in which people didn’t travel far enough to encounter speakers of other languages).

“Good luck. Now get to walking!”

The two key points to take away from this idea, then, are (a) that biological systems tend to be costly and, because of that, (b) the amount of physiological investment in any one system should be doled out only to the extent it is likely to deliver adaptive benefits. With those two points as our theoretical framework, we can explain a lot about behavior in many different contexts. Consider mating as a for instance. Mating effort intended to attract and/or retain a partner is costly to engage in (in terms of time, resource invest, risk, and opportunity costs), so people should only be expected to put effort into the endeavor to the extent they view it as likely to produce benefits. As such, if you happen to be a hard “5″ on the mating market, it’s not worth your time pursuing a mate that’s a “9″ because you’re probably wasting your effort; similarly, you don’t want to pursue a “3″ if you can avoid it, because there are better options you might be able to achieve if you invest your efforts elsewhere.

Speaking of mating effort, this brings us to the research I wanted to discuss today. Sticking to mammals just for the sake of discussion, males of most species endure less obligate parenting costs than females. What this means is that if a copulation between a male and female results in conception, the female bears the brunt of the biological costs of reproduction. Many males will only provide some of the gametes required for reproduction, while the females must provide the egg, gestate the fetus, birth it, and nurse/care for it for some time. Because the required female investment is substantially larger, females tend to be more selective about which males they’re willing to mate with. That said, even though the male’s typical investment is far lower than the female’s, it’s still a metabolically-costly investment: the males need to generate the sperm and seminal fluid required for conception. Testicles need to be grown, resources need to be invested into sperm/semen production, and that fluid needs to be rationed out on a per-ejaculation basis (a drop may be too little, while a cup may be too much). Put simply, males cannot afford to just produce gallons of semen for fun; it should only be produced to the extent that the benefits outweigh the costs.

For this reason, you tend to see that male testicle size varies between species, contingent on the degree of sperm competition typically encountered. For those not familiar, sperm competition refers to the probability that a female will have sperm from more than one male in her reproductive tract at a time when she might conceive. In a concrete sense, this translates into a fertile female mating with two or more males during her fertile window. This creates a context that favors the evolution of greater male investment into sperm production mechanisms, as the more of your sperm are in the fertilization race, the greater your probability of beating the competition and reproducing. When sperm competition is rare (or absent), however, males need not invest as many resources into mechanisms for producing testes and they are, accordingly, smaller.

Find the sperm competition

This logic can be extended to matters other than sperm competition. Specifically, it can be applied to cases where a male is (metaphorically) deciding how much to invest into any given ejaculate, even if he’s the female’s only sexual partner. After all, if the female you’re mating with is unlikely to get pregnant at the time, whatever resources are being invested into an ejaculate are correspondingly more likely to represent wasted effort; a case where the male would be better off investing those resources to things other than his loins. What this means is that – in addition to between-species differences of average investment in sperm/semen production – there might also exist within-individual differences in the amount of resources devoted to a given ejaculate, contingent on the context. This idea falls under the lovely-sounding name, the theory of ejaculate economics. Put into a sentence, it is metabolically costly to “buy” ejaculates, so males shouldn’t be expected to invest in them irrespective of their adaptive value.

A prediction derived from this idea, then, is that males might invest more in semen quality when the opportunity to mate with a fertile female is presented, relative to when that same female is not as likely to conceive. This very prediction happens to have been recently examined by Jeannerat et al (2017). Their sample for this research consisted of 16 adult male horses and two adult females, each of which had been living in a single-sex barn. Over the course of seven weeks, the females were brought into a new building (one at a time) and the males were brought in to ostensibly mate with them (also one at a time). The males would be exposed to the female’s feces on the ground for 15 seconds (to potentially help them detect pheromones, we are told), after which the males and females were held about 2 meters from each other for 30 seconds. Finally, the males were led to a dummy they could mount (which had also been scented with the feces). The semen sample from that mount was then collected from the dummy and the dummy refreshed for the next male.

This experiment was repeated several times, such that each stallion eventually provided semen after exposure to each mare two or three times. The crucial manipulation, however, involved the mares: each male had provided a semen sample for each mare once when she was ovulating (estrous) and two to three times when she was not (dioestrous). These samples were then compared against each other, yielding a within-subjects analysis of semen quality.

The result suggested that the stallions could – to some degree – accurately detect the female’s ovulatory status: when exposed to estrous mares, the stallions were somewhat quicker to achieve erections, mount the dummy, and to ejaculate, demonstrating a consistent pattern of arousal. When the semen samples themselves were examined, another interesting set of patterns emerged: relative to dioestrous mares, when the stallions were exposed to estrous mares they left behind larger volumes of semen (43.6 mL vs 46.8 mL) and more motile sperm (a greater percentage of active, moving sperm; about 59 vs 66%). Moreover, after 48 hours, the sperm samples obtained from the stallions exposed to estrous mares showed less of a decline of viability (66% to 65%) relative to those obtained from dioestrous exposure (64% to 61%). The estrous sperm also showed reduced membrane degradation, relative to the dioestrous samples. By contrast, sperm count and velocity did not significantly differ between conditions.

“So what it was with a plastic collection pouch? I still had sex”

While these differences appear slight in the absolute sense, they are nevertheless fascinating as they suggest males were capable of (rather quickly) manipulating the quality of the ejaculate they provided from intercourse, depending on the fertility status of their mate. Again, this was a within-subjects design, meaning the males are being compared against themselves to help control for individual differences. The same male seemed to invest somewhat less in an ejaculate when the corresponding probability of successful fertilization was low.

Though there are many other questions to think about (such as whether males might also make long-term adjustments to semen characteristics depending on context, or what the presence of other males might do, to name a few), one that no doubt pops into the minds of people reading this is whether other species – namely, humans – do something similar. While it is certainly possible, from the present results we clearly cannot say; we’re not horses. An important point to note is that this ability to adjust semen properties depends (in part) on the male’s ability to accurately detect female fertility status. To the extent human males have access to reliable cues regarding fertility status (beyond obvious ones, like pregnancy or menstruation), it seems at least plausible that this might hold true for us as well. Certainly an interesting matter worth examining further.   

References: Jeannerat, E., Janett, F., Sieme, H., Wedekind, C., & Burger, D. (2017). Quality of seminal fluids varies with type of stimulus at ejaculation. Scientific Reports. 7, DOI: 10.1038/srep44339

 

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