Money For Nothing, But The Chicks Aren’t Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Homophobia Isn’t Repressed Homosexuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directions for future research: invasive mind-reading technology

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

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

Skepticism Surrounding Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: What men most often value in a woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoking Hot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute Vs Relative Mate Preferences

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

 If everyone has an iPhone, no one has an iPhone

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

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

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

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

 It’s just that simple!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.