Examining Some Limited Data On Open Relationships

Thanks to Facebook, the topic of non-monogamous relationships has been crossing my screen with some regularity lately. One of the first instances involved the topic of cuckoldry: cases in which a man’s committed female partner will have sex with, and become pregnant by, another another man, often while the man in the relationship is fully aware of the situation; perhaps he’s even watching. The article discussing the matter came from Playboy which, at one point, suggested that cuckoldry porn is the second most common type of porn sought out in online searches; a statement that struck me as rather strange. While I was debating discussing that point – specifically because it doesn’t seem to be true (not only does cuckold porn, or related terms, not hold the number 2 slot in PornHub’s data searches, it doesn’t even crack the top 10 or 20 searches in any area of the world) – I decided it wasn’t worth a full-length feature, in no small part because I have no way of figuring out how such data was collected barring purchasing a book 

“To put our findings in context, please light $30 on fire”

The topic for today is not cuckoldry per se, but it is somewhat adjacent to the matter: open relationships and polyamory. Though the specifics of these relationships vary from couple to couple, the general arrangements being considered are relationships that are consensually non-monogamous, permitting one or more of the members to engage in sexual relationships with individuals outside of the usual dyad pair, at least in some contexts. Such relationships are indeed curious, as a quick framing of the issue in a nonhuman example would show. Imagine, for instance, that a researcher in the field observed a pair-bonded dyad of penguins. Every now and again, the resident male would allow – perhaps even encourage – his partner to go out and mate with another male. While such an arrangement might have its benefits for the female – such as securing paternity from a male of higher status than her mate – it would seem to be a behavior that is quite costly from the male’s perspective. The example can just as easily be flipped with regard to sex: a female that permitted her partner to go off and mate with/invest in the offspring of another female would seem to be suffering a cost, relative to a female that retained such benefits for herself. Within this nonhuman example, I suspect no one would be proposing that the penguins benefit from such an arrangement by removing pressure from themselves to spend time with their partners, or by allowing the other to do things they don’t want to do, like go out dancing. While humans are not penguins, discussing the behavior in the context of others other animals can remove some of less-useful explanations for it that are floated by people (in this case, people might quickly understand that couples can spend time apart and doing different things without needing to have sex with other partners).

The very real costs of such non-monogamous behavior can be seen in the form of psychological mechanisms governing sexual jealousy in men and women. If such behavior did not reliably carry costs for the other partner, mechanisms for sexual jealousy would not be expected to exist (and, in fact, they may well not exist for other species where associations between parents ends following copulation). The expectation of monogamy seems to be the key factor separating pair-bonds from other social associations – such as friendship and kinship – and when that expectation is broken in the form of infidelity, it often leads to the dissolution of the bond. Given that theoretical foundation, what are we to make of open relationships? Why do they exist? How stable are they, compared to monogamous relationships? Is it a lifestyle that just anyone might adopt successfully? At the outset, it’s worth noting that there doesn’t seem to exist a wealth of good empirical data on the matter, making it hard to answer such questions definitively. There are, however, two papers that discuss the topic I wanted to examine today to start making some progress on those fronts. 

The first study (Rubin & Adams, 1986) examined martial stability between monogamous and open relationships over a five-year period from 1978-1983 (though precisely how open these relationships were is unknown). Their total sample was unfortunately small, beginning with 41 demographically-matched couples per group and ending with 34 sexually-open couples and 39 monogamous ones (the authors refer to this as an “embarrassingly small” number). As for why the attrition rate obtained, two of the non-monogamous couples couldn’t be located and five of the couples had suffered a death, compared with one missing and one death in the monogamous group. Why so many deaths appeared to be concentrated in the open group is not mentioned, but as the average age of the sample at follow up was about 46 and the ages of the participants ranged from 20-80, is possible that age-related factors were responsible.

Concerning the stability of these relationships over those five years, the monogamous group reported a separation rate of 18%, while 32% of those in the open relationships reported no longer being together with their primary partner. Though this difference was not statistically significant, those in open relationships were nominally almost twice as likely to have broken up with their primary partner. Again, the sample size here is small, so interpreting those numbers is not a straightforward task. That said, Rubin & Adams (1986) also mention that both monogamous and open couples report similar levels of jealously and happiness in those relationships, regardless of whether they broke up or stayed together. 

However, there’s the matter of representativeness….

It’s difficult to determine how many couples we ought to have expected to have broken up during that time period, however. This study was conducted during the early 80s, and that time period apparently marked a high-point in US divorce frequency. That might put the separation figures in some different context, though it’s not easy to say what that context is: perhaps the monogamous/open couples were unusually likely to have stayed together/broken up, relative to the population they were drawn from. On top of being small, then, the sample might also fail to represent the general population. The authors insinuate as much, noting that they were using an opportunity sample for their research. Worth noting, for instance, is that about 90% of their subjects held a college degree, which is exceedingly high even by today’s standards (about 35% of contemporary US citizens do); a full half of them even had MAs, and 20% had PhDs (11% and 2% today). As such, getting a sense for the demographics of the broader polyamorous community – and how well they match the general population – might provide some hints (but not strong conclusions) as to whether such a lifestyle would work well for just anyone. 

Thankfully, a larger data set containing some demographics from polyamorous individuals does exist. Approximately 1,100 polyamorous people from English-speaking countries were recruited by Mitchell et al (2014) via hundreds of online sources. For inclusion, the participants needed to be at least 19 years old, currently involved in two or more relationships, and have partners that did not participate in the survey (so as to make the results independent of each other). Again, roughly 70% of their sample held an undergraduate degree or higher, suggesting that the more sexually-open lifestyle appear to disproportionately attract the well-educated (that, or their recruitment procedure was only capturing individuals very selectively). However, another piece of the demographic information from that study sticks out: reported sexual orientations. The males in Mitchell et al (2014) reported a heterosexual orientation about 60% of the time, whereas the females reported a heterosexual orientation a mere 20% of the time. The numbers for other orientations (male/female) were similarly striking: bisexual or pansexual (28%/68%), homosexual (3%/4%), or other (7%/9%).

There are two very remarkable things about that finding: first, the demographics from the polyamorous group are divergent – wildly so – from the general population. In terms of heterosexuality, general populations tend to report such an orientation about 97-99% of the time. To find, then, that heterosexual orientations dropped to about 60% in men and 20% in women represents a rather enormous gulf. Now it is possible that those reporting their orientation in the polyamorous sample were not being entirely truthful – perhaps by exaggerating – but I have no good reason to assume that is the case, nor would I be able to accurately estimate by how much those reports might be driven by social desirability concerns, assuming they are at all. That point aside, however, the second remarkable thing about this finding is that Mitchell et al (2014) don’t seem to even notice how strange it is, failing to make mention of that difference at all. Perhaps that’s a factor of it not really being the main thrust of their analysis, but I certainly find that piece of information worthy of deeper consideration. If your sample has a much greater degree of education and incidence of non-heterosexuality than is usual, that fact shouldn’t be overlooked.

Their most common major was in gettin’ down

In general, from this limited peek into the less-monogamous relationships and individuals in the world, the soundest conclusion one might be able to draw is that those who engage in such relationships are likely different than those who do not in some important regards; we can see that in the form of educational attainment and sexual orientation in the present data set, and it’s likely that other, unaccounted for differences exist as well. What those differences might or might not be, I can’t rightly say at the moment. Nevertheless, this non-representativeness could well explain why the polyamorists and monogamists have such difficulty seeing eye-to-eye on the issue of exclusivity. However, sexual topics tend to receive quite a bit of moralization in all directions, and this can impede good scientific progress in understanding the issue. If, for instance, one is seeking to make polyamory appear to be more normative, important psychological differences between groups might be overlooked (or not asked about/reported in the first place) in the interests of building acceptance; if one views them as something to be discouraged, one’s interpretation of the results will likely follow suit as well.

References: Mitchell, M., Bartholomew, K., & Cobb, R. (2014). Need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 21, 329-339.

Rubin, A. & Adams, J. (1986). Outcomes of sexually open marriages. The Journal of Sex Research, 22, 311-319.

Savvy Shoppers Seeking Sex

There exists an idea in the economic field known as revealed preferences theory. People are often said to have preferences for this or that, but preferences are not the kind of thing that can be directly observed (just as much of our psychology cannot). As such, you need to find a way to infer information about these underlying preferences through something observable. In the case of revealed preferences, the general idea is that people’s decisions about what to buy and how much to spend are capable of revealing that information. For instance, if you would rather buy a Honda instead of a Ford for the same price, I have learned that your preferences – at least in the current moment – favor Hondas; if I were interested in determining the degree of that preference, I could see how much more you were willing to pay for the Honda. There are some criticisms of this approach – such as the the issue that people sometimes prefer A to B when compared to each other directly, but prefer B to A when presented with a third, irrelevant option – but the general principle behind it seems sound: people’s willingness to purchase goods and services positively correlates with their desires, despite some peculiarities. The more someone is willing to pay for something, the more valuable they perceive it to be.

“Marrying you is worth about $1,500 to me”

Now this is by no means groundbreaking information; it’s a facet of our psychology we are all already intimately familiar with. It does, however, yield an interesting method for examining people’s mating preferences when it’s turned on prostitution. In this case, a new paper by Sohn (2016) sought to examine how well men’s self-reported mating preferences for youthful partners were reflected in the prostitution market, where encounters are often short in duration, fairly anonymous, and people can seek out what they’re interested in, so long as they can afford it. It is worth mentioning at the outset that seeking youth per se is not exactly valuable in the adaptive sense of the word; instead, youth is valued (at least in humans) because of how it relates to both reproductive potential and fertility. Reproductive potential refers to how many expected years of future reproduction a woman has remaining before she reaches menopause and loses that capability. As such, this value is highest around the time she reaches menarche (signaling the onset of her reproductive ability) in her mid-teens and decreases over time until it reaches zero at menopause. Fertility, by contrast, refers to a woman’s likelihood of successful conception following intercourse, and tends to peak around her early twenties, being lower both prior to and after that point.

Since the type of intercourse sought by men visiting prostitutes is usually short-term in nature, we ought to expect the male preference for traits that cue high fertility to be revealed by the relative price they’re willing to pay for sex with women displaying them (since short-term encounters are typically aimed at immediate successful reproduction, rather than monopolizing a woman’s reproductive potential in the future). As such fertility cues tend to peak at the same ages as fertility itself, we would predict that women in their early twenties should command the highest price on the sexual market price, and this value should decline as women get older or younger. There are some issues with studying the subject matter, of course: sex with minors – much like prostitution in general – is often subject to social and legal sanctions. While the former issue cannot (and, really, should not) be skirted, the latter issue can be. One way of getting around the legal sanctions of prostitution in general is to study it in areas in the world where it is legal. In this instance, Sohn (2016) reports on a data set derived from approximately 8,600 prostitutes in Indonesia, ranging from ages 17-40, where, we are told, prostitution is quasi-legal.

The variable of interest in this data set concerns how much money the prostitutes received during their last act of commercial sex. This single-act method was employed in the hopes of minimizing any kinds of reporting inaccuracies that might come with trying to estimate how much money is being earned on average over long periods of time. While this choice necessarily limits the scope of the emerging picture concerning the price of sex, I believe it to be a justifiable one. Age was the primary predictor of this sex-related income, but a number of other variables were included in the analysis, such as frequency of condom use, years of schooling, age of first sex, and time selling sex. Overall, these predictor variables were able to account for over half of the variance in the price of sex, which is quite good.

“Priced to move!”

Supporting the hypothesis that men really do value these cues of fertility, the price of sex nominally rose from age 17 until it peaked at 21 (though this rise was not too appreciable), tracking fertility, rather than reproductive potential. Following that peak, the price of sex began to quickly and continuously decline through age 40, though the decline slowed passed 30. Descriptively, the price of sex at its minimum value was only about half the price of sex at peak fertility (which is a helpful tip for all you bargain-seekers out there…). Indeed, when age alone was considered, each additional year reduced the price of sex, on average, by about 4.5%; the size of that decrease uniquely attributable to age was reduced to about 2% per year when other factors were added into the equation, but both numbers tell the same story. A more detailed examination of this decrease grouped women into blocks of 5-year age periods. When considering age alone, there was no statistical difference between women in the 17-19 and 20-25 range. After that period, however, differences emerged: those in the 26-30 range earned 22% less, on average; a figure which fell to 42% less in the 30-34 group, and about 53% in the the 35-40 group.

This decrease in the price of sex over a woman’s lifespan is the opposite of how income usually works in non-sexual careers, where income rises with time and experience. It would be quite strange to work at a job where you saw your pay get cut by 2% each year you were with the company. It is likely for this reason that prostitutes in the 20-25 range were the most common (representing 32.6% of the sample), and those in older age groups were represented less heavily (27.6% in the 26-30 group, all the way down to 12% in the 35-40 range). When shopping for sex, then, men were not necessarily seeking the most experienced candidate for the position(s), but rather the most fertile one. As fertility declined, so too did the price. As price declined, women tended to leave the market. 

There were a few other findings of note, though the ‘whys’ explaining them are less straightforward. First, more educated prostitutes commanded a higher average asking price than their less educated peers, to the tune of about a 5% increase in price per extra year of school. As men and women both value intelligence highly in long-term partners, it is possible that cues of intelligence remain attractive, even in short-term contexts. Second, controlling for age, each year of selling sex tended to decrease the average price by about 1.5%. It is possible that the effects of prostitution visibly wear down the cues that men find appealing over time. Third, prostitutes who had ever used drugs or drank alcohol earned 12% more than their peers who abstained. Though I don’t know precisely why, it’s unlikely a coincidence that moral views about recreational drug use happen to be well predicted by views about the acceptability of casual sex (data from OKCupid, for instance, tells us the single best predictor of a woman’s interest in casual sex is whether she enjoys the taste of beer). Finally, prostitutes who proposed using condoms more often earned about 10% more than those who never did. I agree with Sohn’s (2016) assessment that this probably has to do with more desirable prostitutes being attractive enough to effectively bargain for condom use, whereas less attractive women compromise there in order to bring in clients. While men prefer sex without condoms, they appear willing to put that preference aside in the face of an attractive-enough prospect.  

“Disappointment now sold in bulk”

So what has been revealed about men’s preferences for sex with these data? Unfortunately, interpretation of prices is less straightforward than simply examining the raw numbers: their correspondence to other sources of data and theory should be considered. For instance, at least when seeking short term encounters, men seem to value fertility highly, and are willing to pay a premium to get it. This “real world” data accords well with the self-reports of men in survey and laboratory settings and, as such, seems to be easily interpretable. On other hand, men usually prefer sex without condoms, so the price premium among prostitutes who always suggest they be used would seem to, at face value, ‘reveal’ the wrong preference. Instead, it is more likely that prostitutes who already command a high price are capable of bargaining effectively for their use. In order to test such an explanation, you would need to pit the prospect of sex with the same prostitute with and without a condom against each other, both at the same price. Further, more educated prostitutes seemed to command a higher price on the sexual market: is this because men value intelligence in short-term encounters, educated women are more effective at bargaining, intelligence correlates with other cues of fertility or developmental stability (and thus attractiveness), or because of some other alternative? While one needs to step outside the raw pricing data obtained from these naturalistic observations to answer such questions effectively, the idea of using price data in general seems like a valuable method of analysis; whether it is more accurate, or a “truer” representation of our preferences than our responses to surveys is debatable but, thankfully, this need not be an either/or type of analysis.

References: Sohn, K. (2016). Men’s revealed preferences regarding women’s ages: Evidence from prostitution. Evolution & Human Behavior, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.01.002 

Benefits To Bullying

When it comes to assessing hypotheses of evolutionary function, there is a troublesome pair of intuitions which frequently trip many people up. The first of these is commonly called the naturalistic fallacy, though it also goes by the name of an appeal to nature: the idea that because something is natural, it ought to be good. As a typical argument using this line might go, because having sex is natural, we ought to – morally and socially – approve of it. The corresponding intuition to this is known as the moralistic fallacy: if something is wrong, then it’s not natural (or, alternatively, if something is good, it is natural). An argument using this type of reasoning might (and has, more or less) gone, because rape is morally wrong, it cannot be a natural behavior. In both cases, ‘natural’ is a bit of a wiggle word but, in general, it seems to refer to whether or not a species possesses some biological tendency to engage in the behavior in question. Put another way, ‘natural’ refers to whether a species possesses an adaptation(s) that functions so as to bring about a particular outcome. Extending these examples a little further, we might come up with the arguments that, because humans possess cognitive mechanisms which motivate sexual behavior, sex must be a moral good; however, because rape is a moral wrong, the human must not contain any adaptations that were selected for because they promoted such behavior.

An argument with which many people appear to disagree, apparently

This type of thinking is, of course, fallacious, as per the namesakes of the two fallacies. It’s quite easy to think of many moral wrong which might increase one’s reproductive fitness (and thus select for adaptations that produce them), just as it is easy to think of morally-virtuous behaviors that could lower one’s fitness: infanticide is certainly among the things people would consider morally wrong, and yet there is often an adaptive logic to be found in the behavior; conversely, while the ideal of universal altruism is praised by many as morally virtuous, altruistic behavior is often limited to contexts in which it will later be reciprocated or channeled towards close kin. As such, it’s probably for the best to avoid tethering one’s system of moral approval to natural-ness, or vice versa; you end up in some weird places philosophically if you do. Now this type of thinking is not limited to any particular group of people: scientists and laypeople alike can make use of these naturalistic and moralistic intuitions (intentionally or not), leading to cases where hypotheses of function are violently rejected for even considering that certain condemned behaviors might be the result of an adaptation for generating them, or other cases where weak adaptive arguments are made in the service of making other behaviors with which the arguer approves seem more natural and, accordingly, more morally acceptable.

With that in mind, we can turn to the matter of bullying: aggression enacted by more powerful individuals against weaker ones, typically peaking in frequency during adolescence. Bullying is a candidate behavior that might fall prey to the former fallacies because, well, it tends to generate many consequences people find unpleasant: having their lunch money taken, being hit, being verbally mocked, having slanderous rumors about them being spread, or other such nastiness. As bullying generates such proximately negative consequences for its victims, I suspect that many people would balk at the prospect that bullying might reflect a class of natural, adaptive behaviors, resulting in the bully gaining greater access to resources and reputation; in other words, doing evolutionarily useful things. Now that’s not to say that if you were to start bullying people you would suddenly find your lot in life improving, largely because bullying others tends to carry consequences; many people will not sit idly by and suffer the costs of your bullying; they will defend themselves. In order for bullying to be effective, then, the bully needs to possess certain traits that minimize, withstand, or remove the consequences of this retaliation, such as a greater physical formidability than their victim, a stronger social circle willing to protect them, or other means of backing up their aggression.

Accordingly, only those in certain conditions and possessing particular traits are capable of effectively bullying others (inflicting costs without suffering them in turn). Provided that is the case, those who engaged in bullying behaviors more often might be expected to achieve correspondingly greater reproductive success, as the same traits that make bullying an effective strategy also make the bully an attractive mating prospect. It’s probably worse to select a mate unable to defend themselves from aggression, relative to one able and willing to do so; not only would your mate (and perhaps you) be exploited more regularly, but such traits may well be passed onto your children in turn, leaving them open for exploitation as well. Conversely, the bully able to exploit others can likely can access to more plentiful resources, protect you from exploitation, and pass such useful traits along to their children. That bullying might have an adaptive basis was the hypothesis examined in a recent paper by Volk et al (2015). As noted in their introduction, previous data on the subject is consistent with the possibility that bullies are actually in relatively better condition than their victims, with bullies displaying comparable or better mental and physical health, as well as improved social and leadership skills, setting the stage for the prospect of greater mating success (as all of those traits are valuable in the mating arena). Findings like those run counter to some others suggestions floating around the wider culture that people bully others precisely because they lack social skills, intelligence, or are unhappy with themselves. While I understand that no one is particularly keen to paint a flattering picture of people they don’t like and their motives for engaging in behavior they seek to condemn, it’s important to not lose sight of reality while you try reduce the behavior and condemn its perpetrators.

“Sure, he does hit me regularly, but he’s a really great guy otherwise”

Volk et al (2015) examined the mating success of bullies by correlating people’s self-reports of their bullying behavior with their reports of dating and sexual behavior across two samples: 334 younger adolescents (11-18 years old) and 143 college freshman, all drawn from Canada. Both groups answered questions concerning how often they engaged in, and were a victim of, bullying behaviors, whether they have had sex and, if they had, how many partners they’ve had, whether they have dated and, if so, how many people they’ve dated, as well as how likable and attractive they found themselves to be. Self-reports are obviously not the ideal measures of such things, but at times they can be the best available option.

Focusing on the bullying results, Volk et al (2015) reported a positive relationship between bullying and engaging in dating and sexual relationships in both samples: controlling for age, sex, reported victimization, attractiveness, and likability, bullying not only emerged a positive predictor as to whether the adolescent had dated or had sex at all (about 1.3 to 2 times more likely), but also correlated with the number of sexual and, sometimes, dating partners; those who bullied people more frequently tended to have a greater number of sexual partners, though this effect was modest (bs ranging from 0.2 to 0.26). By contrast, being a victim of bullying did not consistently or appreciably effect the number of sexual partners one had (while victimization was positively correlated with participant’s number of dating partners, it was not correlated with their number of sexual partners. This might reflecting the possibility that those who seek to date frequently might be viewed as competitors by other same-sex individuals and bullied in order to prevent such behavior from taking place, though that much is only speculation).

While this data is by no means conclusive, it does present the possibility that bullying is not indicative of someone who is poor shape physically, mentally, or socially; quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, that is probably why bullying often appears to be so one-sided: those being victimized are not doing more to fight back because they are aware of how well that would turn out for them. Understanding this relationship between bullying and sexual success might prove rather important for anyone looking to reduce the prevalence of bullying. After all, if bullying is providing access to desirable social resources – including sexual partners – it will be hard to shift the cost/benefit analysis away from bullying being the more attractive option barring some introduction of more attractive alternatives for achieving that goal. If, for instance, bullying serves a cue that potential mates might use for assessing underlying characteristics that make the bully more attractive to others, finding new, less harmful ways of signaling those traits (and getting bullies to use those instead) could represent a viable anti-bully technique.

But, until then, this kid is going to get so laid

As these relationships are merely correlational, however, there are other ways of interpreting them. It could be possible, for example, that the relationship between bullying and sexual success is accounted for by those who bully being more coercive towards their sexual partners as well as their victims, achieving a greater number of sexual partners, but not in the healthiest fashion. This interpretation would be somewhat complicated by the lack of a sex differences between men and women in the current data, however, as it seems unlikely that women who bully are also more likely to coerce their male partners into sex they don’t really want. The only sex difference reported involved the relationship between bullying and dating, with the older sample of women who bullied people more often having a greater number of dating relationships (r = 0.5), relative to men (r = 0.13), as well as a difference in the younger sample with respect to desire for dating relationships (female r = 0.28, male r = 0.03). It is possible, then, that men and women might bully others, at least at times, to obtain different goals, which ought to be expected when the interests of each sex diverge. Understanding those adaptive goals should prove key for effectively reducing bullying; at least I feel that understanding would be more profitable than positing that bullies are mean because they wish to make others as miserable as they are, crave attention, or other such implausible evolutionary functions.

References: Volk, A., Dane, A., Marini, Z., & Vaillancourt, T., (2015). Adolescent bullying, dating, and mating: Testing an evolutionary hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, DOI: 10.1177/1474704915613909

Some…Interesting…Research On STI Stigma

Today I have the distinct pleasure of examining some research from the distinguished Terri Conley once again. Habitual readers of my writing might know the name; in fact, they might even know that I have written about her work before. The first time I did, it was only to mention, briefly, that Terri had proposed that sexual reproduction was a byproduct of sexual pleasure. To put that claim into easily-understandable terms, it would go something like, “sexual reproduction does not itself contribute to reproduction, but is the result of sexual pleasure, which does contribute to reproduction”. I’m sure many of you might be thinking that doesn’t make any sense, and for a very good reason. The second time I wrote about her work, it involved a number of sex differences which had been labeled myths; in this case, they were myths in the sense of “they are all true”, which is a peculiar usage of the term. On the block for today is a claim about how people are irrational about the risks posed by STIs, complete with a paper that meets the high standards set by the previous two pieces.

I think it might be time to finally see a doctor about that problem

I will start my examination of the piece, by Conley et al (2015), by noting that – like so much psychology work before it and like so much more that is sure to come – the predictions made by the authors are made in the absence of anything resembling a theoretical justification. In other words, sections which might include phrases like, “we predicted we would find this effect because…” are not present. With that in mind, the main hypothesis of the current paper is that people are irrationally biased against STIs and those infected by them, perceiving sexual behavior as exceedingly risky and the diseases as especially harmful. The idea was tested in an assortment of ways. In the first study, 680 participants were asked about the number of people (out of 1000) who would be expected to die on either (a) a 300-mile drive or (b) as the result of contracting an HIV infection from a single instance of unprotected sex with a non-injection drug user. Conley et al (2015) note that people are about 20-times as likely to die on that car ride than they are to contract HIV and die from it as the result of a single sexual encounter.

Sure enough, Conley et al (2015) report that their participants were wildly off the mark: while they overestimated both rates of death, the number of people estimated to die from HIV was far, far higher (M = 72, SD = 161) than from a car accident (M = 4, SD = 15). While people were statistically 20-times more likely to die from a car accident, they believed they were 17-times more likely to die from HIV. What a bias! Some things about those numbers does not sit right with me, though. For instance, it seems unlikely that people are that inaccurate: do people really believe that a little less than 1% of causal sexual encounters result in death from HIV? The variance of those estimates also seems to be exceedingly large, at least for STI risk (the standard deviation of which is over 10 times as large as the car accidents). So what’s going on? I think that answer has a lot to do with the particular question Conley et al (2015) asked:

“Assume that 1,000 people had unprotected intercourse (sex without a condom) yesterday. None of the 1,000 people who had sex were previous intra-venous drug users. How many of these 1,000 individuals who had unprotected sex would you expect to die from HIV contracted from the sexual encounter”

This phrasing is unfortunately – perhaps even purposefully – vague. One possible way of interpreting that question is that it is asking about how many people will die given they have become infected. Asking about how many people will become infected and die is much different than asking about how many infected people will die, and that vagueness could account for the widely-varying estimates being reported. As the wording is not at all clear, the estimates of mortality could be overestimated, at least relative to what the authors think they’re measuring. How this point was not addressed by any editors or reviewers is beyond me.

Their second study examined how people perceived those who (sort of) unknowingly transmitted either a sexual- or non-sexual infection to their sexual partner: H1N1 or chlamydia. That is, they knew they had symptoms of something, but wrote it off as either allergies or a UTI. Again, we find Conley et al (2015) going to great pains to emphasis that H1N1 is the much more harmful bug of the pair, so as to suggest people should believe it worse to transmit the flu. In this study, 310 participants were asked to read brief stories about the infection being spread after some unprotected sex, and then assessed the target who spread it on some 6-points scales. The person who had spread the infection was rated as slightly more selfish (Ms = 3.9/3.6), risky (Ms = 4.8/4.4), and dumb (Ms = 4.3/3.9) when they had spread the sexually-transmitted one (sexual/non-sexual means, respectively). Of course, as the transmission of the STI could have been prevented through the use of, say, a condom when encountering a new sexual partner, whereas the same option is not available for the flu, it’s hard to conclude that the participants are irrational or wrong in their judgments. While Conley et al (2015) note this possibility, they do nothing to test it, asserting instead that their data nevertheless represents an ample amount of evidence in favor of their hypothesis.

Too bad these don’t protect against bad interpretations of data

The third study is perhaps the funniest of them all. It’s not an experiment, but rather a retrospective analysis of information provided on government websites concerning the prevention of driving accidents and contracting STIs (tying into their first study). Conley et al’s (2015) bold prediction was that:

“…government public information websites would promote abstinence as the best way to avoid acquiring an STI, but that these websites would not promote abstinence from driving, which is, statistically, riskier.”

You are reading that correctly: the prediction is that government websites will not advocate that people avoid driving entirely, as opposed to avoiding having sex (or, rather, postponing it until certain criteria have been met, such as marriage). This is not what I would consider a “prediction”, inasmuch as I’m sure they knew what they would find. In any case, 86% of state websites discussed STI prevention, with 72% mentioning that abstinence is the most effective way of avoiding one (a claim which is true beyond dispute); by contrast, 78% of state websites discussed driving accidents and, shockingly, none of them advocated that people avoid driving altogether. What an astounding bias!

Now perhaps that is because, as the authors briefly mention, navigating one’s daily life without the use of a car (or some form of transportation) is all but impossible for many. However, the authors feel that – because sex, not driving, is biologically motivated – asking people to give up (or rather, postpone) sex is more unnatural and difficult. Foregoing the matter of what that is supposed to mean, I remain skeptical as to whether this lack of asking people to avoid driving entirely is evidence of “inappropriately negative” reactions to STIs in particular, despite Conley et al’s (2015) enthusiasm for that interpretation.

There was one detail of the paper which really stood out to me throughout all of this, however. It wasn’t their weak methods or poor interpretations of the data, either, but rather the following sentence:

“This component of the study provides strong evidence for the hypothesis that people who transmit STIs are unjustly stigmatised in society.”

The emphasis on “unjustly” in that passage was made by the authors; not me. While it’s possible I am reading too much into their emphasis, that strikes me as an (unintentional?) slip that puts the biases of the authors on display rather prominently. Taken together with the general poor quality of their work, it appears that there is a particular social agenda which is being pushed by this research. Perhaps that agenda is noble; perhaps it isn’t. Regardless of which it happens to be, once agendas begin to make their way into research, the soundness of the interpretations of data often suffer serious damage. In this case, Conley et al (2015) seem to be doing all they can to make people look irrational and, importantly, wrong, rather than earnestly assessing their work. They’re trying to game the system and their research suffers because of it.

 ”People are unjustly biased against living in my house”

Now, to be clear, I do feel there exists a certain percentage of the population with a vested interest in pushing ideas that make other people more or less likely to engage in certain kinds of intercourse, be that intercourse promiscuous or monogamous in nature. That is, if I want there to be more sexually-available options in the population, I might try to convince others that casual sex is really quite good for them, regardless of the truth in my claim. The current research is not a solid demonstration of people doing this, however; it’s not even a decent one. Ironically, the current research paper instead seems to serve as an example of that very bias it is hoping to find in others. After all, making it seem like STIs really aren’t that big of a deal would do wonders for making the costs associated with short-term encounters seem far less relevant. Also ironically, if such efforts were successful, the costs of casual encounters would likely rise over time, as more promiscuous people less concerned with STIs will likely lead to them spreading the things more regularly, and the STIs mutating into more harmful strains (as they no longer need to keep their host alive as long to successfully reproduce themselves). All that aside, with the glaring problems in this paper, I find it remarkable it ever saw the light of publication.

References: Conley, T., Moors, A., Matsick, J., & Ziegler, A. (2015). Sexuality-related risks are judged more harshly than comparable health risks. International Journal of Sexual Health, DOI: 10.1080/19317611.2015.1063556.

Understanding Conspicuous Consumption (Via Race)

Buckle up, everyone; this post is going to be a long one. Today, I wanted to discuss the matter of conspicuous consumption: the art of spending relatively large sums of money on luxury goods. When you see people spending close to $600 on a single button-up shirt, two-months salary on engagement rings, or tossing spinning rims on their car, you’re seeing examples of conspicuous consumption. A natural question that many people might (and do) ask when confronted with such outrageous behavior is, “why do you people seem to (apparently) waste money?” A second, related question that might be asked once we have an answer to the first question (indeed, our examination of this second question should be guided by – and eventually inform – our answer to the first) is how can we understand who is most likely to spend money in a conspicuous fashion? Alternatively, this question could be framed by asking about what contexts tend to favor conspicuous consuming behavior. Such information should be valuable to anyone looking to encourage or target big-ticket spending or spenders or, if you’re a bit strange, you could also try to create contexts in which people spend their money more responsibly.

But how fun is sustainability when you could be buying expensive teeth  instead?

The first question – why do people conspicuously consume – is perhaps the easier question to initially answer, as it’s been discussed for the last several decades. In the biological world, when you observe seemingly gaudy ornaments that are costly to grow and maintain – peacock feathers being the go-to example – the key to understanding their existence is to examine their communicative function (Zahavi, 1975). Such ornaments are typically a detriment to an organism’s survival; peacocks could do much better for themselves if they didn’t have to waste time and energy growing the tail feathers which make it harder to maneuver in the world and escape from predators. Indeed, if there was some kind of survival benefit to those long, colorful tail feathers, we would expect that both sexes would develop them; not just the males.

However, it is because these feathers are costly that they are useful signals, since males in relatively poor condition could not shoulder their costs effectively. It takes a healthy, well-developed male to be able to survive and thrive in spite of carrying these trains of feathers. The costs of these feathers, in other words, ensures their honesty, in the biological sense of the word. Accordingly, females who prefer males with these gaudy tails can be more assured that their mate is of good genetic quality, likely leading to offspring well-suited to survive and eventually reproduce themselves. On the other hand, if such tails were free to grow and develop – that is, if they did not reliably carry much cost – they would not make good cues for such underlying qualities. Essentially, a free tail would be a form of biological cheap talk. It’s easy for me to just say I’m the best boxer in the world, which is why you probably shouldn’t believe such boasts until you’ve actually seen me perform in the ring.

Costly displays, then, owe their existence to the honesty they impart on a signal. Human consumption patterns should be expected to follow a similar pattern: if someone is looking to communicate information to others, costlier communications should be viewed as more credible than cheap ones. To understand conspicuous consumption we would need to begin by thinking about matters such as what signal someone is trying to send to others, how that signal is being sent, and what conditions tend to make the sending of particular signals more likely? Towards that end, I was recently sent an interesting paper examining how patterns of conspicuous consumption vary among racial groups: specifically, the paper examined racial patterns of spending on what was dubbed visible goods: objects which are conspicuous in anonymous interactions and portable, such as jewelry, clothing, and cars. These are good designed to be luxury items which others will frequently see, relative to other, less-visible luxury items, such as hot tubs or fancy bed sheets.

That is, unless you just have to show off your new queen mattress

The paper, by Charles et al (2008), examined data drawn from approximately 50,000 households across the US, representing about 37,000 White 7,000 Black, and 5,000 Hispanic households between the ages of 18 and 50. In absolute dollar amounts, Black and Hispanic households tended to spend less on all manner of things than Whites (about 40% and 25%, respectively), but this difference needs to be viewed with respect to each group’s relative income. After all, richer people tend to spend more than poorer people. Accordingly, the income of these households was estimated through their reports of their overall reported spending on a variety of different goods, such as food, housing, etc. Once a household’s overall income was controlled for, a better picture of their relative spending on a number of different categories emerged. Specifically, it was found that Blacks and Hispanics tended to spend more on visible  goods (like clothing, cars, and jewelry) than Whites by about 20-30%, depending on the estimate, while consuming relatively less in other categories like healthcare and education.

This visible consumption is appreciable in absolute size, as well. The average white household was spending approximately $7,000 on such purchases each year, which would imply that a comparably-wealthy Black or Hispanic household would spend approximately $9,000 on such purchases. These purchases come at the expense of all other categories as well (which should be expected, as the money has to come from somewhere), meaning that the money spent on visible goods often means less is spent on education, health care, and entertainment.

There are some other interesting findings to mention. One – which I find rather notable, but the authors don’t see to spend any time discussing – is that racial differences in consumption of visible goods declines sharply with age: specifically, the Black-White gap in visible spending was 30% in the 18-34 group, 23% in the 35-49 group, and only 15% in the 50+ group. Another similarly-undiscussed finding is that visible consumption gap appears to decline as one goes from single  to married. The numbers Charles et al (2009) mention estimate that the average percentage of budgets used on visible purchases was 32% higher for single Black men, 28% higher for single Black women, and 22% higher for married Black couples, relative to their White counterparts. Whether these declines represent declines in absolute dollar amounts or just declines in racial differences, I can’t say, but my guess is that it represents both. Getting old and getting into relationships tended to reduce the racial divide in visible good consumption.

Cool really does have a cut-off age…

Noting these findings is one thing; explaining them is another, and arguably the thing we’re more interested in doing. The explanation offered by Charles et al (2009) goes roughly as follows: people have a certain preference for social status, specifically with respect to their economic standing. People are interested in signaling their economic standing to others via conspicuous consumption. However, the degree to which you have to signal depends strongly on the reference group to which you belong. For example, if Black people have a lower average income than Whites, then people might tend to assume that a Black person has a lower economic standing. To overcome this assumption, then, Black individuals should be particularly motivated to signal that they do not, in fact, have a lower economic standing more typical of their group. In brief: as the average income of a group drops, those with money should be particularly inclined to signal that they are not as poor as other people below them in their group.

In support of this idea, Charles et al (2008) further analyzed their data, finding that the average spending on visible luxury goods declined in states with higher average incomes, just as it also declined among racial groups with higher average incomes. In other words, raising the average income of a racial group within a state tended to strongly impact what percentage of consumption was visible in nature. Indeed, the size of this effect was such that, controlling for the average income of a race within a state, the racial gaps almost entirely disappeared.

Now there are a few things to say about this explanation, first of which being that it’s incomplete as stands. From my reading of it, it’s a bit unclear to me how the explanation works for the current data. Specifically, it would seem to posit that people are looking to signal that they are wealthier than those immediately below them in the social ladder. This could explain the signaling in general, but not the racial divide. To explain the racial divide, you need to add something else; perhaps that people are trying to signal to members of higher income groups that, though one is a member of a lower income group, one’s income is higher than the average income. However, that explanation would not explain the age/marital status information I mentioned before without adding on other assumption, nor would directly explain the benefits which arise from signaling one’s economic status in the first place. Moreover, if I’m understanding the results properly, it wouldn’t directly explain why visible consumption drops as the overall level of wealth increases. If people are trying to signal something about their relative wealth, increasing the aggregate wealth shouldn’t have much of an impact, as “rich” and “poor” are relative terms.

“Oh sure, he might be rich, but I’m super rich; don’t lump us together”

So how might this explanation be altered to fit the data better? The first step is to be more explicit about why people might want to signal their economic status to others in the first place. Typically, the answer to this question hinges on the fact that being able to command more resources effectively makes one a more valuable associate. The world is full of people who need things – like food and shelter – so being able to provide those things should make one seem like a better ally to have. For much the same reason, being in command of resources also tends to make one appear to be a more desirable mate as well. A healthy portion of conspicuous signaling, as I mentioned initially, has to do with attracting sexual partners. If you know that I am capable of providing you with valuable resources you desire, this should, all else being equal, make me look like a more attractive friend or mate, depending on your sexual preferences.

However, recognition of that underlying logic helps make a corollary point: the added value that I can bring you, owing to my command of resources, diminishes as overall wealth increases. To place it in an easy example, there’s a big difference between having access to no food and some food; there’s less of a difference between having access to some food and good food; there’s less of a difference still between good food and great food. The same holds for all manner of other resources. As the marginal value of resources decreases as access to resources increases overall, we can explain the finding that increases in average group wealth decrease relative spending on visible goods: there’s less of a value in signaling that one is wealthier than another if that wealth difference isn’t going to amount to the same degree of marginal benefit.

So, provided that wealth has a higher marginal value in poorer communities – like Black and Hispanic ones, relative to Whites – we should expect more signaling of it in those contexts. This logic could explain the racial gap on spending patterns. It’s not that people are trying to avoid a negative association with a poor reference group as much as they’re only engaging in signaling to the extent that signaling holds value to others. In other words, it’s not about my signaling to avoid being thought of as poor; it’s about my signaling to demonstrate that I hold a high value as a partner, socially or sexually, relative to my competition.

Similarly, if signaling functions in part to attract sexual partners, we can readily explain the age and martial data as well. Those who are married are relatively less likely to engage in signaling for the purposes of attracting a mate, as they already have one. They might engage in such purchases for the purposes of retaining that mate, though such purchases should involve spending money on visible items for other people, rather than for themselves. Further, as people age, their competition in the mating market tends to decline for a number reasons, such as existing children, inability to compete effectively, and fewer years of reproductive viability ahead of them. Accordingly, we see that visible consumption tends to drop off, again, because the marginal value of sending such signals has surely declined.

“His most attractive quality is his rapidly-approaching demise”

Finally, it is also worth noting other factors which might play an important role in determining the marginal value of this kind of conspicuous signaling. One of these is an individual’s life history. To the extent that one is following a faster life history strategy – reproducing earlier, taking rewards today rather than saving for greater rewards later – one might be more inclined to engage in such visible consumption, as the marginal value of signaling you have resources now is higher when the stability of those resources (or your future) is called into question. The current data does not speak to this possibility, however. Additionally, one’s sexual strategy might also be a valuable piece of information, given the links we saw with age and martial status. As these ornaments are predominately used to attract the attention of prospective mates in nonhuman species, it seems likely that individuals with a more promiscuous mating strategy should see a higher marginal value in advertising their wealth visibly. More attention is important if you’re looking to get multiple partners. In all cases, I feel these explanations make more textured predictions than the “signaling to not seem as poor as others” hypothesis, as considerations of adaptive function often do.

References: Charles, K., Hurst, E., & Roussanov, N. (2008). Conspicuous consumption and race. The Journal of Quarterly Economics, 124, 425-467.

Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection – A selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53, 205-214.

 

Examining Arousal And Homophobia

In my last post, I mentioned that the idea of people misplacing or misinterpreting their arousal as being a silly one (as I also did previously here). Today, I wanted to talk about that arousal issue again. In the wake of the supreme court’s legalization of same-sex marriage here in the US, let’s consider arousal in the context straight men’s penises reacting to gay, straight, and lesbian pornography. Specifically, I wanted to discuss a rather strange instance where some people have interpreted men’s physiological arousal as sexual arousal, despite the protests of those men themselves, in the apparent interests of making a political point about homophobia. The political point in question happens to be that a disproportionate number of homophobes are actually latent homosexual themselves who, in true Freudian fashion, are trying to deny and suppress their gay urges in the form of their homophobic attitudes  (see here and here for some examples).

Homosexual individuals, on the other hand, are only repressing a latent homophobia

The paper in question I wanted to examine today is a 1996 piece by Adams, Wright, & Lohr. The paper was designed to test a Freudian idea about homophobia: namely, as mentioned above, that individuals might express homophobic attitudes as a result of their own internal struggle regarding some unresolved homosexual desires. As an initial note, this idea seems rather on the insane side of things, as many Freudian ideas tend to seem. I won’t get too mired in the reasons the idea is crazy, but it should be sufficient to note that the underlying idea appears to be that people develop maladaptive sexual desires in early childhood (long before puberty, when they’d be relevant) which then need to be suppressed by different mechanisms that don’t actually do that job very well. In other words, the idea seems to be positing that we have cognitive mechanisms whose function is generate maladaptive sexual behavior, only to develop different mechanisms later that (poorly and inconsistently) suppress the maladaptive ones. If that isn’t torturous logic, I don’t know what would be.

In any case, the researchers recruited 64 men from their college’s subject pool who had all previously self-identified as 100% straight. These men were then given the internalized homophobia scale (IHP), which, though I can’t access the original paper with the questions, appears to contain 25 questions aimed at assessing people’s emotional reactions to homosexuals, largely focused on their level of comfort/dread being around them. The men were divided into two groups: those who scored above the midpoint on the scale (the men labeled as homophobes) and those who scored below the midpoint (the non-homophobes). Each subject was provided with a stain gauge to attach to their penis which functioned to measure changes in penile diameter; basically how erect the men were getting. Each subject then watched three, four-minute long pornographic scenes: one depicting heterosexual intercourse, another gay intercourse, and another for lesbian intercourse. After each clip, they were asked how sexually aroused they were and how erect their penis was, before being given a change to return to flaccid before the next clip was shown.

In terms of the arousal to the heterosexual and lesbian pornography, there was no difference between the homophobic and non-homophobic groups with respect to how erect the men got and how aroused they reported being. However, in the gay porn condition, the homophobic men became more erect. Framed in terms of the degree of tumescence (engorgement), the non-homophobic men displayed no tumescence 66% of the time, modest tumescence 10% of the time, and definite tumescence 24% of the time in response to the gay porn; the corresponding numbers for the homophobic group were 20%, 26%, and 55%, respectively, while there was no difference between the homophobic and non-homophobic groups with respect how aroused they reported being, the physiological arousal did seem to differ. So what’s going on here? Does homophobia have its roots in some latent homosexual desires being denied?

And does ignoring those desires place you in the perfect position for penetration?

I happen to think that such an idea is highly implausible. There are a few reasons I feel that way, but let’s start with the statistical arguments for why that interpretation probably isn’t right. In terms of the number of men who identify as homosexual or bisexual at a population level, we’re only looking about 1-3%. Given that rough estimate, with a sample size of 60 individuals, you should expect about 1.5 gay people if you were sampling randomly. However, this sampling was anything but random: the subjects were selected specifically because they identified as straight. This should bias the number of gay or bisexual participants in the study downward. Simply put, this sample size is not large enough to expect that any gay or bisexual male participants were in it at all, let alone in large enough numbers to detect any kind of noticeable effect. That problem gets even worse in that they’re looking to find participants that are both bisexual/gay and homophobic, which cuts the probability down even further.

The second statistical reason to be wary of these results is that bisexual men tend to be less common that gay men by a ratio of approximately 1:2. However, the pattern of results observed in the paper from the homophobic group could better be described as bisexual than gay: each group reported the same degree of subjective and physiological arousal to the straight and lesbian porn; there was only the erection difference observed during the homosexual porn. This means that the sample would have been needed to have been compromised of many bisexual homophobes who publicly identified as straight, which seems outlandishly unlikely.

Moreover, the sheer number of the participants displaying “definite tumescence” requires some deeper consideration. If we assume that the physiological arousal translates directly into some kind of sexual desire, then about 25% of non-homophobic men and 55% of homophobic men are sexually interested in homosexual intercourse despite, as I mentioned before, only about 1-3% of the population saying they are gay or bisexual. Perhaps that rather strange state of affairs holds, but a much likelier explanation is that something has gone wrong in the realm of interpretation somewhere. Adams et al (1996) note in their discussion that another interpretation of their results involves the genital swelling being the result of other arousing emotions, such as anxiety, rather than sexual arousal per se. While I can’t say whether such an explanation is true, I can say that it certainly sounds a hell of a lot more plausible than the idea that most homophobes (and about 1-in-4 non-homophobes) are secretly harboring same-sex desires. At least the anxiety-arousal explanation could, in principle, explain why 25% of non-homophobic men’s penises wiggled a little when viewing guy-on-guy action; they’re actually uncomfortable.

Maybe they’re not as comfortable with gay people as they like to say they are…

Now don’t get me wrong: to the extent that one perceives there to be social costs associated with a particular sexual orientation (or social attitude), we should expect people to try and send the the message that they do not possess such things to others. Likewise, if I’ve stolen something, there might be a good reason for me to lie about having stolen it publicly if I don’t want to suffer the costs of moral condemnation for having done so. I’m not saying that everyone will be accurate or truthful about themselves at all times to others; far from it. However, we should also expect that others will not be accurate or truthful about others either, at least to the extent they are trying to persuade people about things. In this case, I think people are misinterpreting data on physiological arousal to imply a non-existent sexual arousal for the purposes of making some kind of social progress. After all, if homophobes are secretly gay, you don’t need to take their points into consideration to quite the same degree you might have otherwise (since once we reach a greater level of societal acceptance, they’ll just come out anyway and probably thank you for it, or something along those lines). I’m all for social acceptance; just not at the expense of accurately understanding reality.

References: Adams, H., Wright L., & Lohr, B. (1996). Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105, 440-445.

Much Ado About Penis Size

Let’s say you’re trying out for the NBA. You’ve had dreams of being a professional basketball player your whole life and have been eagerly awaiting this chance to finally show off what you can do. There’s only one thing standing between you and basketball fame: you’re a fairly average player. Your skills happen to fall right about on the population mean, however one decides to measure that. While you manage to hit a few layups and jump shots, you also miss a number of them, and you don’t excel at blocking other players either. As a result, the recruiters are not impressed by your skills and decide to move forward with other players. When you go to tell your friends and family, they do their best to try and console you by assuring you that many people aren’t as good as you at the game and most people don’t really care that much about basketball anyway. A valiant effort on their part, but, ultimately, it is unlikely to prove effective.

Just like you at basketball

The moral of that short story is that, in many social contexts, average is often not preferable. When people are recruiting basketball players, they aren’t looking for average ones; they’re looking for people better than average. The same frequently holds true for mating contexts: when people are seeking mates, they are not often looking for average ones; they’re seeking individuals who possess certain desirable traits at above average levels, regardless of whether those traits are physical or psychological in nature. Some notable examples might be traits like physical symmetry, intelligence, and ambition, with increasing amounts of these characteristics tending to make their bearer more sexually attractive in the eyes of others. If you want to do well for yourself in the mating world, you would do well to possess above-average amounts of those traits; if you don’t have them, all the worse for your prospects of attracting and retaining someone desirable.

One such trait that has made the news lately has been male penis size. A recent paper by Veale et al (2014) sought to assess the average male penis size, both flaccid and erect. As my posts dealing with sex tend to be the most popular, it was unsurprising to see the story gain traction in news headlines. One of the primary motivations for this study, as evidenced by both its title (beginning “Am I normal?”) and introduction, was to try and provide some degree of psychological comfort to men who are insecure about their size of their penis, despite falling within the average range. To do so, the authors conducted a metanalysis, examining reported penis size measurements across a number of studies. To be included in the analysis, the studies needed to, among other things, report mean and standard deviations of penis size collected by a health professional, and the study needed to have included 50 or more males over the age of 17. This left Veale et al (2014) with a total of 20 studies on penis size, representing approximately 1,500 subjects.

The analysis yielded the following picture: the average flaccid and erect lengths of a penis were about 9 and 13 centimeters, respectively, or 3.5 and 5.1 inches. The standard deviation of these measures were 1.5 and 1 centimeters, or 0.6 and 0.4 inches, respectively. While the sample was predominately from white populations, the data from non-white populations (about 700 individuals) did not appear to be exceptional. The authors end their paper as they began: by noting that previous research has found that knowledge of average male penis length can lead to men anxious about their size becoming more secure. While I don’t have any particular interest in making men uncomfortable about their penis size, as with the initial basketball example, I would note that data concerning the average size of a male penis doesn’t necessarily tell us much about whether a given man would be – for lack of a better word – rightly insecure about their penis size. The key piece of information missing from that picture concerns women’s preferences.

“…you’re welcome”

I would find it a rather strange state of affairs if men were anxious about the size of their penis (or bank account, or biceps, or….) if such matters weren’t actually important to others – in this case, women making mating decisions. So what do men and women think about penis size? After some fuss about cultural messages concerning penis size and products which promise to increase it, a 2006 paper by Lever, Fredrick, & Peplau report on some survey data from about 50,000 men and women between ages 18-65 concerning penis size. In this survey, penis size was assessed by having participants rate whether their or their partner’s penis was smaller than average, average, or larger than average; a similar question was asked regarding whether the participants wished their penis was smaller, larger, or neither.

About 66% of men rated their penis as being ‘average’ in size – which would accord well with a normal distribution – with 12% reporting that their penis was small and 22% reporting it was large – which would not. Men either seemed to be doing a little bit of rounding up, so to speak, or men with larger penises were biased towards taking the survey. In terms of male satisfaction with their size, 91% who rated their penis as small wanted to be bigger, 46% of men who rated it average wanted more, and 14% of those who said they were large wanted even more still. In general, the larger a man thought his penis was, the happier he was with it, and almost no men reported wanting a smaller penis.

How did the men’s ratings stack up against the women’s? About 67% of women reported that their partner’s penis size was about average, 27% thought it was large, and 6% thought it was small. Again, there either seemed to be some rounding up going on or a biased sample was obtained (perhaps because women weren’t sticking around in large numbers with partners who had small penises). On the matter of satisfaction, 84% of women reported being satisfied with their partner’s size, 14% wanted something a bit bigger, and 2% wanted their partner to be smaller. Those numbers are not quite the whole story, though: among women who rated their partner as ‘average’ or ‘large’, there was a high degree of satisfaction (86 and 94%, respectively); when women rated their partner as small, however, 68% wished he was bigger. Men’s worries are certainly not without a foundation, it would seem, and the market that tries to cater to those worries will likely continue to exist.

“…Step 3: Firmly attach cucumber to groin area and stitch into place”

There are two important conclusions to take away from this data. The first is to suggest, as many would, that women are largely satisfied with their partner’s penis, so long as it’s average or above. The second point is that when women did express a preference for size, it tends to be towards the larger end of things; in fact, women were about 7-times more likely to desire a larger penis in their partner, relative to a smaller one. So men’s concerns in that area are anything but unfounded.

There are also two caveats to bear in mind: the first is that, as I mentioned, the sample of people filling out the penis survey might be biased away from the small side, or that their self-reports might not be entirely accurate. The second and more important point is that the response choices available on this survey might underestimate women’s preferences somewhat. For instance, this handy chart (which I have not fact checked) suggests that women’s ideal penis preferences might hang around the range of 6.5 to 8.5 inches in length, though many other sizes might prove to be enjoyable (if a bit less enjoyable than they otherwise might be). So while many men might be curious as to whether they’re normal, the corollary point is that women’s average ideal size would reside several standard deviations above the mean, using that 5 inches estimate. In much the same way, many men might be relatively unconcerned with a female partner’s smaller breast size – even satisfied with it – but find women with larger-than-average breasts more appealing, all else being equal. The question many men might be concerned with, then, is not whether they’re average relative to other men, but how well they manage to fill women’s desires.

References: Lever, J., Fredrick, D., & Peplau, L. (2006). Does size matter? Men and women’s views on penis size across the lifespan. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 7, 129-143.

Veale, D., Miles, S., Bramley, S., Muir, G., & Hodsoll, J. (2014). Am I normal? A systematic review and construction of nomagrams for flaccid and erect penis lengths and circumferences in up to 15,215 men. BJU International, doi:10.1111/bju.13010

Should Men Have A Voice In The Abortion Debate?

I recently found myself engaged in an interesting discussion on the matter of abortion (everyone’s favorite topic for making friends and civil conversation). The unique thing about this debate was that I found myself in agreement with the other party when it came to the heart of the matter: whether abortions should be legally available and morally condemned (our answers would be “yes” and “no”, respectively). With such convergent views, one might wonder what there is left to argue about. Well, the discussion centered on whether I, as a man, should be able to have any opinion about abortion (positive or negative), or whether such opinions – and corresponding legislation – should be restricted to women. In this case, my friend suggested that I was, in fact, not entitled to hold any views about abortion because of my gender, going on to state that she was not interested in hearing any men’s opinions on the issue. She even went as far as to suggest that the feelings of a woman who disagreed with her stance about abortion would be more valid than mine on the matter. This struck me as a frankly sexist and bigoted view (in case you don’t understand why it sounds that way, imagine I ended this post by saying “I’m not interested in hearing any women’s views on this subject” and you should get the picture), but one I think is worth examining a bit further, especially because my friend’s view was not some anomaly; it’s a perspective I’ve heard before.

So it’s worth having my thoughts ready for future reference when this comes up again

As for the disagreement itself, I was curious why my friend felt this way: specifically, why she did she believe men are precluded from having opinions on abortions? Her argument was that men cannot understand the issue because they are not the one carrying the babies, having periods, taking hormonal birth control, feeling the day-to-day effects of pregnancy on one’s body, and so on. The argument, then, seems to involve the idea that women have privileged access to some relevant information (based on firsthand experience, or at least the potential of it) which men do not, as well as the idea that women are the ones enduring the lion’s share of the consequences resulting from pregnancy. I wanted to examine each of these claims to show why they do not yield the conclusion she felt they did.

The first piece of information I wanted to discuss is one I mentioned sometime ago: men and women do not appear to differ appreciably in their views regarding abortion. According to some Gallup data from 1975-2009 concerning the matter, between 22-35% of women believed abortion should be legal in all circumstance, 15-21% believed it should be illegal in all, and 48-55% of women believed it should be legal in some circumstances; the corresponding ranges for men were  21-29%, 13-19%, and 54-59%, respectively. From those numbers, we can see that men and women seem to hold largely similar views about abortion. My friend expressed a disinterest in hearing about this information, presumably because she did not feel it had any relevance to the argument at hand.

However, I feel there is a real relevance to those numbers that speaks to the first point my friend made: that women have privileged access to certain experiences and information men do not. It’s true enough that men and women have different experiences and perceptions in certain domains on average; I don’t know anyone who would deny that. However, those differences in experiences do not appear to yield substantial differences in opinion on the matter of abortion. This is a rather curious point. How are we to interpret this lack of a difference? Here are two ways that come to mind: first, we could continue to say that women have access to some privileged source of information bearing on the moral acceptability of abortion which men do not, but, despite this asymmetry in information, both sexes come to agreement about the topic in almost equal numbers anyway. In this case, then, we would be using a variable factor to explain a lack of differences between the sexes (i.e., “men and women come to agree on abortion almost perfectly owing to their vastly different experiences that the other sex cannot understand).

There might also just be a very similar person behind the mirror

This first interpretation strikes me as particularly unlikely, though not impossible. The second (and more likely) interpretation that comes to mind is that, despite frequent contentions to the contrary, variables relating to one’s sex per se – such as having periods or being the ones to give birth – are not actually the factors primarily driving views on abortion. If abortion views are driven instead by, say, one’s sexual strategy (whether one tends to prefer more long-term, monogamous or short-term, promiscuous mating arrangements), then the idea that men cannot understand arguments for or against abortion because of some unique experiences they do not have falls apart. Men and women both possess cognitive adaptions for long- and short-term mating strategies so, if those mechanisms are among the primary drivers of abortion views, the issue seems perfectly understandable for both sexes. Indeed, I haven’t heard an argument for or against abortion that has just left me baffled, as if it were spoken in a foreign language, regardless of whether I agree or not with it. Maybe I’m just not hanging out at the right parties and not hearing the right arguments.

Even if women were privy to some experiences which men could not understand and those unique experiences shaped their views on abortion, that still strikes me as a strange reason to disallow men from having opinions about it. Being affected by an issue in some unique way – or even primarily – does not mean you’re the only one affected by it, nor that other people can’t hold opinions about how you behave. One example I would raise to help highlight that point would be a fictional man I’ll call Tom. Tom happens to be prone to random outbursts of anger during which he has a habit of yelling at and fighting other people. I would not relate to Tom well; he is uniquely affected by something I am not and he likely sees the world much differently than I would. However, social species that we happen to be, his behavior resulting from those unique experiences has impacts on other people, allowing the construction of moral arguments for why he should or should not be condemned for doing what he does.

To say that abortion is a woman’s issue, or that they’re the only ones allowed to have opinions about it because they bear most of the consequences, is to overlook a lot of social impact. Men have mothers, sisters, friends, and sexual partners would who be affected by the legality of abortion; some men who do not wish to become fathers are certainly affected by abortion laws, just as men who wish to become fathers might be. To again turn to an analogy, one could try to make the argument that members of the military are the people most affected by the decision to go to war (they’re the ones who will be fighting and dying), so they should be the only one’s allowed to vote on the matter of whether our country enters armed combat. Objections to this argument might include propositions such as, “but civilians will be impacted by the war too” which, well, is kind of the whole point.

For example, see this rather strange quote

While one is free to hold to a particular political position without any reason beyond “that’s how I feel”, a position that ends up focusing on the sex of a speaker instead of their ideas seems like the kind of argument that socially-progressive individuals would want to avoid and fight against. To be clear, I’m not saying that sex is never relevant when it comes to determining one’s political and moral views: in my last post, for instance, I discussed the wide gap that appears between men and women with respect to their views about legalized prostitution, with men largely favoring it and women more often opposing it; a gap which widens when presented with information about how legalized prostitution is safer. What’s important to note in that case is that when sex is a relevant factor in the decision-making process we see differences in opinion between men and women’s views; not similarities. Those differences don’t imply that one sex’s average opinion is correct, mind you, but they serve as a cue that factors related to sex – such as mating interests – might be pulling some strings. In such cases, men and women might literally have a hard time understanding the opinion of the opposite sex, just as some people have trouble seeing the infamous dress as either black and blue or gold and white. That just doesn’t seem to be the case for abortion.

Bonding (Physically) With Same-Sex Individuals

Humans face the adaptive problem of forming and maintaining social bonds with others. Our ability to bond is rather extraordinary. As one example of our capacity to bond, like many people, I am a (habitual) pet owner. My personal preference – though I like most mammals – is towards cats, and I’ve had at least one cat for about as long as I can remember. Also, like many pet owners, I have a habit of holding, hugging, and kissing my cats. Though I can’t say for certain, my intuition is that this affiliation is mutually pleasurable: when I return home after some time out, my cat will greet me with a series of meows, purrs, and rubs; she will even crawl into my lap while I’m sitting at my computer. The relationship between pets and owners often appears to resemble the relationship parents have towards children in a number of respects and it should come as no surprise, then, that we often also observe parents touching, hugging and kissing their children. While people don’t need to bond with animals socially, we often can as a byproduct of our ability to bond with other people (in this case, probably offspring).

And since one won’t need college, the superior bonding choice is clear

Now perhaps all this kissing and touching parents do with children and people do with pets reflects our bonds with them. That is to say that this behavior is a signal of our love and affection, rather than it’s cause. Then again, maybe kissing children and pets deepens those bonds. Let’s assume for the present discussion that it’s actually the latter. Why might it do this? According to a recent paper by Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians (2014), the why might have something to do with some parts of the cognitive mechanisms that evolved for sexual pair bonding being co-opted. The basic logic in their paper, I think, is that there exist cognitive mechanisms that find erotic (i.e., arousing) acts typically rewarding (pleasurable). As social bonds are often centered around pleasurable interactions, acts associated with erotic or sexual behavior – like kissing or genital touching – can be used to strengthen bonds between people as it leads to additional pleasurable interactions, reinforcing a relationship. It’s worth noting that their paper isn’t focused on explaining kissing per se, but rather homosexual/homoerotic behavior: the argument is that homoerotic behavior functions to build social bonds between same-sex others. By that train of thought, I imagine, those who engage in more “erotic” behavior with each other should be more socially bonded because of it.

I find several facets of that explanation for homoerotic behavior to be a bit strange. One of those facets is that parents and offspring (or pets, for that matter) need to avoid engaging in sexual intercourse, as intercourse with genetically-close others, other species, and those too young to reproduce, tends to carry some reproductive consequences (or fails to carry any benefits). Accordingly, those who found kissing their close kin, animals, or pre-reproductive others erotic should be at a fitness disadvantage, relative to those who did not. In other words, as kin need to bond with one another socially, they also need to avoid engaging in sexual intercourse; any system that blurred the lines between sexual arousal and social bonding in that context might end up with poor fitness outcomes, relative to a system that did not blur that line. So, as one might expect, people who kiss their children, siblings, or pets rarely experience the behavior as erotic.

Similarly, one might expect that the cognitive system designed for governing sexual arousal should be relatively autonomous from systems designed to bond socially with same-sex others, as homosexual behavior is a bit of a reproductive dead-end. Most kin and social bonding appears to be successfully navigated without any erotic behavior taking place (Kirkpatrick, 2000), so we can safely say that homoerotic behavior is in no way a requirement of bonding for humans. That’s not to say that many people don’t engage in some kind of same-sex behavior at some point in their life with an individual or two (sometimes girls kiss girls and they might even like it, though if they’re young it might not have any erotic or sexual overtones), but to say that such behaviors do not appear to be a hallmark of forming social bonds.

Foregoing those issues, though, the affiliation hypothesis for homoerotic behavior would not necessarily tell us much about the existence of homosexual orientations. It’s one thing to say that my providing erotic experiences to others of my sex could increase the degree of concern they might have in my welfare; it’s quite another to say that I should not only prefer to engage in erotic behavior with them over opposite sex individuals if I had to choose, but that I would actively avoid engaging in heterosexual intercourse when presented with the opportunity if I didn’t. After all, having same-sex allies would only be selected for insomuch as they afford additional opportunities for heterosexual opportunities. Indeed,  Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians (2014) reported that men primed with sexual words saw no increase in their homoerotic motivation, though there was a slight increase in the affiliation primed group. It seems, by their own logic, we should not predict homoerotic motivations to stop heterosexual ones (they predict the opposite, in fact).

This makes the apparent distaste for heterosexual erotic behavior in homosexual populations appear rather curious. Perhaps that point could be skirted if one posits that there exists some variance in people’s preferences for bonding with same/opposite sex individuals (in the same way people vary in their height), that the two desires trade off against each other for some reason (such that being aroused by men means you couldn’t also be aroused by women), and that this explains the variance in sexual preferences.

Figure 1: Not what the distribution of sexual orientation looks like

This would predict that sexual orientation follows something of a normal distribution – with most people being bisexual – which it clearly doesn’t. Instead, sexual orientation is heavily skewed towards heterosexual (as one should expect from a fitness standpoint), with around 97-99% of people identifying as such. The distribution problem is even worse when considering male sexual orientation, which finds most men reporting a heterosexual orientation, homosexual being second most common, and very few indicating being bisexual. This is not the kind of variation you see in many other adaptations (like height, which is much more normally distributed, like the above graph). It is possible, I suppose, that there exist many more male bisexuals out there than the surveys typically find; Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians (2014) suggest that many (male) bisexuals don’t want to admit to their bisexuality owing to some social stigma against it. While that’s possible, I don’t think we want to venture into the realm of question begging in the interests of making the available evidence fit the theory.

On the topic of social stigma, though, if the function of homoerotic behavior is to bond with others socially, it seems peculiar that so many moral injunctions against homosexual behavior exist in many cultures worldwide. Yes, the tolerance of such behavior does vary across time and place, but that people condemn it at all seems rather strange if the function is social bonding; surely everyone wants to be able to make friends. It’s even stranger because people don’t seem to be condemning other acts of social bonding, like doing favors or exchanging gifts; they seem to condemn the sexual thoughts and behaviors associated with same-sex erotic behavior. Even if it’s the case that homoerotic behaviors might have only become condemned in relatively recent times (I don’t know if that’s true or not), that would still leave us with the matter of why there was an uptick in homoerotic condemnation.

Even more peculiar is that same-sex behavior appears to be quite rare if it functions as an affiliation-building mechanism. By that I don’t mean that many people haven’t engaged in something resembling homoerotic behavior (like a man kissing a man on the lips) at any point in their life, but rather that I feel we should see otherwise-straight male friends (especially good friends) kissing each other goodbye (erotically) every day, or male businessmen engaging in some light genital petting after a meeting to keep up the impression of being a friendly, valuable asset to one another. If homoerotic behavior helped cement social bonds, it seems like it should be as common as handshakes or hugs. Perhaps such practices are more common elsewhere in the world that I am unaware of, but that they are not much more common than they appear to be, at least here in the US, seems out of place if the bonding explanation is true.

I say that because if we were talking about another adaptation – like vision – we might be curious if we found that one-in-four males had the ability to see (at some point in their life), whereas the remaining 80% of men were blind. Adaptions – because of their reproductive benefits – tend to be common (generally universal) in populations. This is why pretty much everyone has two hands and a functioning liver, barring some environmental insult. Yet homoerotic behavior is anything but ubiquitous. Kirkpatrick (2000) cites a number of studies finding that around 20% of men (and women, but let’s stick to the men for now) report having homosexual intercourse at some point in their lives (though most of this behavior – about two thirds of it – seems to take place before the age of 19). Assuming these numbers are representative, that people found all of those encounters erotic even when they were younger children, and that the behavior wasn’t coerced by others, we would still be looking at around 4 out of 5 males who have never engaged in homosexual intercourse at any point in their life. For a purported adaptation with social benefits, this seems strange; why would 80% (or 93% if we’re talking about 19+ year olds) of the male population be foregoing the social-bonding benefits of a bit of buggery?

That’s what I’ve been saying; you just have to convince my good buddies.

We could, as Fleischman, Fessler, & Cholakians (2014) do, expand the definition away from just homoerotic intercourse to behavior that doesn’t include the genitals, but this (a) runs us back into the problem that most men don’t seem to be kissing their good friends good-bye erotically and (b) that we should expect behavior that resulted in orgasm to be more rewarding – and thus bonding – than non-orgasmic results, if I follow the logic here correctly. No matter how I try to slice it, I keep ending up at the idea that, if homoerotic behavior functions to cement social bonds – that we should be seeing a lot more of it in terms of prevalence, frequency, and intensity. As it stands, it’s as if most of the male population doesn’t seem to want to improve their social bonds, which would be odd.

The only way I see to side-step that issue is to suggest homoerotic bonding is a facultative adaptation: one which responds to specific environment contexts. While such an explanation is not out of the question, it would need to identify some feature of the environment that encourages same-sex bonding via erotic behaviors for some individuals but not (most) others. As far as know, no such context is currently on offer, so there’s not much more to say about it.

In the interests of adding some testable suggestions to hopefully move the debate forward, one analysis that would be relevant to the current functional explanation would be to examine what factors make same-sex partners erotic. If these erotic relationships function to help build productive friendships, we might expect the criteria for a same-sex erotic friend to look a bit different from, say, a heterosexual erotic partner. As a for instance, when seeking mates, heterosexual men tend to value youth in women, as youth tends to correlate well with reproductive potential. When seeking friends, however, I don’t get the sense that youth is perceived to be as desirable of a trait. A question of interest, then, would be whether, when seeking erotic encounters with other men, do gay men value youth or not? Presumably, these homoerotic encounters should be driven by friendship-relevant, rather than mating-relevant variables, if the function is friendship building. Another interesting avenue would be to examine mating and friendships in a short-term versus long-term contexts. Admittedly, it sounds a bit strange to talk about short-term, casual, no-strings attached friendship, which is why I happen to think that men aren’t using Grindr to meet one-night friends and people at glory holes aren’t looking for help moving; I could be wrong about that, though.

Separating the variables into more distinctly mate-selection and friend-selection driven might be difficult – as many of the qualities that make one a good mate, like kindness, might also make one a good friend – but I’m sure that analysis could be taken in a number of interesting directions.

References: Fleischman, D., Fessler, D., & Cholakians, A. (2014). Testing the affiliation hypothesis of homoerotic motivation in humans: The effects of progesterone and priming. Archives of Sexual Behavior, DOI: 10.1007/s10508-014-0436-6

Kirkpatrick, R. (2000). The evolution of human homosexual behavior. Current Anthropology, 41, 385-413.

Keeping It Topical: That Catcalling Video

Viral fame is an interesting thing. It can come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly; not unlike a firework. It can also be rather difficult to predict, due to the fact that eventual popularity can often be determined largely by preexisting popularity. This week, one such story that appears to have been caught up in a popularity spiral has been the subject of catcalling: specifically, a video of a woman documenting around 100 instances of unsolicited comments she accumulated while wandering the streets of New York City for 10 hours (which is about one such comment each 6 minutes). At time of writing, the video has around 33 million views, not counting the various clone videos (which is around 6 million such views a day, making for such pleasant numerical symmetry). Unsurprisingly, there’s been a lot of talk about the video; a pile which I’m about to add to. Perhaps the most common conversations have been had concerning whether it’s appropriate to call some of the unsolicited comments the woman received “harassment” (for example, “Have a nice evening”, said in passing, or the various comments suggesting she is “beautiful”).

  Can’t a girl be dating a guy for two years and not get bombarded with harassing proposals?

On that front, there are some natural barriers in perspective that might make consensus hard to reach, owing to what these propositions are thought to represent: solicitations for causal sex. Men, for instance, would likely find such solicitations or comments generally pleasant when receiving them from women, whereas women tend to have precisely the opposite reaction (Clark & Hatfield, 1989). Given the perceptual flavor that such comments often have, men might tend to see them as less of a big deal than women (though sex is hardly all there is too it; such an effect would also be influenced by one’s mating strategy – whether they prefer long- or short-term sexual relationships – as well as other such interacting variables). A second barrier to consensus on the matter is the concentrated nature of such comments: whereas the woman in the video might have received over 100 comments that she views as annoying, they are also coming from over 100 different men. If individual comments aren’t viewed as a problem, but an aggregate of them is (kind of like pollution), discussions over whether they should be condemned might hit some snags in attempting to reach agreement.

A second discussion that has been had about the video concerns the racial component. In the viral video, the majority of the men on the street making these comments are non-white. Subsequent analysis of the video led to the conclusion that around 60% of the comments in question were received on a single street in Harlem. Whether this location was specifically selected in order to solicit more comments, whether certain comments from other people in other areas were edited out, or whether the comments were simply received primarily from the people in that area are unknown, but it does leave a lot to be desired in terms of research methods. It’s important to bear in mind that this video was not a research project for the sake of gathering new information: it was a video designed to go viral that ends with a donation link. Any video which failed to generate appropriate reactions from people on the street would be unlikely to be used, as I can’t imagine video of someone walking around the street without incident encourages people to empty their wallets effectively.

In the interests of furthering that discussion, it’s also worth considering a reported cross-cultural replication attempt of this study. Psychological research has often been criticized for relying on WEIRD samples, and reliance on a single person (with an agenda) from largely a single street should not be taken to be representative of people’s experiences more generally (either in that city or aboard). So, when a woman in New Zealand apparently tried the same thing – wandering the streets of a city for, I presume, 10 hours – it’s worth noting that the video reports her receiving a total of two comments, one of which was a man asking for directions. Assuming the walking time was the same, that’s the difference between a comment every 6 minutes and a comment, with different content, every 300. As seems to be the case in psychology research, flashy, attention-grabbing results don’t always replicate, leaving one wondering what caused the initial set of results to be generated in the first place. Statistical variance? Experimental demand characteristics? Improper sampling?

  Divine intervention, perhaps?

It’s difficult to say precisely what caused the difference in men’s behavior between videos, as well as why most of the comments were made in one specific area in the first one. The default answer most people would likely fall back on would, I imagine, be “cultural differences”, but that answer is sufficiently vague to not actually be one. This is the part where I need to be disappointing and say that I don’t actually have an answer to the questions. However, I would like to begin some speculation as to the psychology underlying the sending of these unsolicited comments and, from there, we might be able to figure out some variables which are doing some of the proverbial lifting here.

One possibility is that these comments are used by men specifically to intimidate women, or make them feel otherwise uncomfortable and unwelcome. As some might suggest, these comments are just an extension of a male culture that hates women because they’re women and will take about every chance it gets to ruin their day (variants of this hypothesis abound). I find such an explanation implausible for a number of reasons, chief among which is that calling someone beautiful is unlikely to be the most effective way of expressing contempt for them. When black people in America were marching for civil rights, they were not met with protesters telling them to “have a great day” or admiring their bodies with a suggestive “damn”. Such an explanation likely mistakes an outcome of an event for its motivating cause: because some women feel uncomfortable with these comments, some people think the comments are made in order to make women uncomfortable. This conclusion is likely the result of people wishing to condemn such comments and, in order to do so, they paint the perpetrators in the worst possible light.

However, it’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, there are some women who either (a) express flattery at these comments or (b) sadness that they are not the targets of such comments, taking the lack of comments to say something negative about their attractiveness (which might not be inaccurate). While such sentiments may or may not be in the minority (I have no formal data speaking to the issue), they paint a much different picture of the matter. Typically, people experiencing violence, oppression, and/or hatred, do not, I think, need to be assured that they aren’t actually being complimented; the two are quite easy to tell apart most of the time. In fact, in the original video, at least one of the men is explicit about the notion that he is complimenting the girl (though admittedly he does go about it in a less than desirable fashion), while another man asks whether the reason the woman isn’t talking to him is that he’s ugly. If, as these ancedotes might suggest, catcalling is tied to factors like whether she is attractive or unattractive, or the response to it tied to the man’s desirability, it would be difficult to tie these factors in with misogyny or intentional harassment more generally.

“Why does my friend always get the harassment? Is it my hair?”

There is, of course, also the other end of this issue: men getting catcalled. While, again, I have no data on the issue, the misogyny explanation would be hard to reconcile with gay men or women making such comments towards men (even if such comments are likely less common owing to the historical costs and benefits of short-term sexual encounters for each sex). The simpler explanation would seem to be that such unsolicited comments, while not necessarily desired by the recipient, are earnest – if clumsy – attempts to start conversations or lead to a sexual encounter. Given that similar comments tend to be made in first messages on dating websites, this alternative seems reasonable (women who complain about receiving too many one line messages online should see the parallels immediately). The problem with such attempts is unlikely to be with any particular one being deplorable so much as it is their sheer volume.

Now it is quite unlikely that these comments ever yield successful encounters, as I mentioned above. This could be one reason they are often considered to be something other than friendly or sexual in nature (i.e., “since this behavior rarely results in sex, it can’t be about getting sex”; the same kind of error I mentioned earlier). The rarity of sexual encounters resulting from them is also likely why the proportion of men making them is really very low even though they’re rather cheap – in terms of time and energy – to make. While 100 comments in 10 hours might seem like a lot, one also needs to consider how many men the woman in question passed in that time, in one of the largest cities in the world, who said nothing. For every comment there were likely several dozen (or hundred) men who made no attempt to talk to the actress. Any explanation for these comments, then, would need to pinpoint some differences between those who do and do not make them; general aspersions against an entire gender or culture won’t do when it comes to predictive accuracy. For what it’s worth, I think a healthy portion of that variance will be accounted for by one’s sexual strategy, one’s current relationship status, the attractiveness of the person in question, and whether the target is sending any signals correlated with sexual receptivity.

What predictions can be drawn from alternative perspectives I leave up to you.