Sexism: One More Time With Feeling

For whatever reason, a lot of sexism-related pieces have been crossing my desk lately. It’s not that I particularly mind; writing about these papers is quite engaging, and many people – no matter the side of the issue they tend to find themselves falling on – seem to share a similar perspective when it comes to reading about them (known more colloquially as the Howard Stern Effect). Now, as I’ve said before on several of the occasions I’ve written about them, the interpretations of the research on sexism – or sometimes the research itself – feels rather weak. The main reason I’ve found this research to feel so wanting centers around the rather transparent and socially-relevant persuasive messages that reside in such papers: when people have some vested interest in the outcome of the research – perhaps because it might lend legitimacy to their causes or because it paints a socially-flattering picture of their group – this opens the door for research designs and interpretations of data that can get rather selective. Basically, I have a difficult time trusting that truth will fall out of sexism research for the same reason I wouldn’t take a drug company’s report about the safety of their product at face value; there’s just too much on the line socially to not be skeptical.

“50% of the time it worked 100% of the time. Most of the rats didn’t even die!”

Up for consideration today is a paper examining how men and women perceive the quality of sexism research, contingent on the results of it (Handley et al, 2015). Before getting into the meat of this paper, I want to quote a passage from its introduction to applaud the brilliant tactical move the authors make (and to give you a sense for why I experience a certain degree of distrust concerning sexism research). When discussing how some of the previous research published by one of the authors was greeted with skepticism by predominately men – at least according to an informal analysis of online comments replying to coverage of it – the authors have this to say:

“…men might find the results reported by Moss-Racusin et al. threatening, because remedying the gender bias in STEM fields could translate into favoring women over men, especially if one takes a zero-sum-gain perspective. Therefore, relative to women, men may devalue such evidence in an unintentional implicit effort to retain their status as the majority group in STEM fields.”

This is just a fantastic passage for a few reasons. First, it subtlety affirms the truth of the previous research; after all, if there did not exist a real gender bias, there would be nothing in need of being remedied, so the finding must therefore reflect reality. Second. the passage provides a natural defense against future criticism of their work: anyone who questions the soundness of their research, or their interpretation of the results, is probably just biased against seeing the plainly-obvious truth they have stumbled upon because they’re male and trying to maintain their status in the world. For context, it’s worth noting that I have touched upon the piece in question before, writing, “Off the top of my head, I see nothing glaringly wrong with this study, so I’m fine with accepting the results…“. While I think the study in question seemed fine, I nevertheless questioned how well their results mesh with other findings (I happen to think there are some inconsistencies that would require a rather strange kind of discrimination be at play in the real world) and I was not overly taken with their interpretation of what they found.

With that context in mind, the three studies in the paper followed the same general method: an abstract of some research was provided to men and women (the first two studies used the abstract from one of the authors; the third used a different one). The subjects were asked to evaluate, on a 1-6 scale, whether they agreed with the author’s interpretation of the results, whether the research was important, whether the abstract was well written, and what their overall evaluation of the research was. These scores were then averaged into a single measure for each subject. In the third experiment the abstract itself was modified to either suggest that a bias favoring men and disfavoring women in STEM fields was uncovered by the research, or that no bias was found (why no condition existed in which the bias favored women I can’t say, but I think it would have been a nice addition to the paper). Just as with the previous paper, I see nothing glaringly wrong with their methods (beyond that omission), so let’s consider the results.

The first sample was comprised of 205 Mturk participants, and found that men were somewhat less favorable about the research that found evidence of sexism in STEM fields (M = 4.25) relative to women (M = 4.66). The second sample was made up of 205 academics from an unnamed research university and the same pattern was observed: overall, male faculty assessed the research somewhat less favorably (M = 4.21) than female faculty (M = 4.65). However, an important interaction emerged: the difference in this second sample was due to male-female differences within STEM fields. Male STEM faculty were substantially less positive about the study (M = 4.02) than their female counterparts (M = 4.80); non-STEM faculty did not differ in this respect, both falling right in between those two points (Ms = 4.55). Now it is worth mentioning that the difference between the STEM and non-STEM male faculty was statistically significant, but the difference between the female STEM and non-STEM faculty was not. Handley et al (2015) infer from that result that, “…men in STEM displayed harsher judgments of Moss-Racusin et al.’s research, not that women in STEM exhibited more positive evaluations of it“. This is where I’m going to be sexist and disagree with the author’s interpretation, as I feel it’s also worth noting that the sample size of male STEM faculty (n = 66) was almost twice as large as the female sample (n = 38), which likely contributed to that asymmetry in statistical significance. Descriptively speaking, STEM men were less accepting of the research and STEM women were more accepting of it, relative to the academics for whom this finding would be less immediately relevant.

“The interpretation of this research determines who deserves a raise, so please be honest.”

The third experiment that modified the abstract to contain a finding of either sexism against women or no sexism also used an Mturk sample of 303 people, rather than faculty. The same basic pattern was found here: when the research reported a bias against women, men were less favorable towards it (M = 3.65) than if it found no bias (M = 3.83); women showed the opposite pattern (Ms =  3.86 and 3.59, respectively). So – taken together – there’s some neat evidence here that the relevance of a research finding affects how that finding is perceived. Those who have something to gain by the research finding sexism (women, particularly those in STEM) tended to be slightly more favorable towards research that found it, whereas those who had something to lose (men, particularly those in STEM) tended to be slightly unfavorable towards research finding sexism. This isn’t exactly new – research on the idea has dated back at least two decades - but it fits well with what we know about how motivated reasoning works.

I want to give credit where credit is due: Handley et al (2015) do write that they cannot conclude that one gender is more biased than the other; just that gender appears to – sometimes – bias how sexism research is perceived to some degree. Now that tentative conclusion would be all well and good were it a consistent theme throughout their paper. However, the examples raised in the write-up universally center around how men might find findings of sexism threatening and how women are known to be disadvantaged by it; not on how women might be strategically inclined towards such research because it suits their goals (as, to remedy anti-female bias, female-benefiting plans may well have to be enacted). Even a quick reading of the paper should demonstrate that the authors are clearly of the view that sexism is a rather large problem for STEM fields, writing about how female participation needs to be increased and encouraged. That would seem to imply that anyone who denies the importance of the research reporting sexism is the one with the problematic bias, and that is a much less tentative way to think about the results. In the spirit of furthering their own interests, the authors further note how these biases could be a real problem for people publishing sexism research, as many of the people reviewing research articles are likely to be men and, accordingly, not necessarily inclined towards it (which, they note, makes it harder for them to publish in good journals and get tenure).

Handley et al’s (2015) review of the literature also comes off as rather one-sided, never explicitly discussing other findings that run counter to the idea that women experienced a constant stream of sexist discrimination in academia (like this finding: qualified women are almost universally preferred to qualified men by hiring committees, often by a large margin). Funnily enough, the authors transition from writing about how the evidence of sexism against women in STEM is “mounting” in the introduction to how the evidence is “copious” by the discussion. This one-sided treatment can be seen again around the very end of their discussion (in the “limitations and future directions” section) when Handley et al (2015) note that they failed to find an effect they were looking for: abstracts that were ostensibly written by women were not rated any differently than abstracts presented as being written by men (they hoped to find the female abstracts to be rated as lower quality). For whatever reason, however, they neglected to report this failure in their results section, where it belonged; indeed, they failed to mention that this was a prediction they were making the main paper at all, even though it was clearly something they were looking to find (else why would they include that factor and analyze the data in the first place?). Not mentioning a prediction that didn’t work out upfront strikes me as somewhat less than honest.

“Yeah; I probably should have mentioned I was drunk before right now. Oops”

Taking these results at face value, we can say that people who are motivated to interpret results in a particular way are going to be less than objective about that work, relative to someone with less to gain or lose. With that in mind, I would be inherently skeptical of the way sexist biases are presented in the literature more broadly and how they’re discussed in the current paper: the authors clearly have a vested interest in their research uncovering particular patterns of sexism, and in their interpretations of their data being accepted by the general and academic populations. That doesn’t make them unique (you could describe almost all academic researchers that way), nor does it make their results incorrect, but it does seem to make their presentation of these impactful issues seem painfully one-sided. This is especially concerning because these are matters which many feel carry important social implications. Bear in mind, I am not taking issue with the methods or the data presented in the current paper; those seem fine; what I take issue with is the interpretation and presentation of them. Then again, perhaps these only seem like issues to me because I’m a male STEM major…

References: Handley, I., Brown, E., Moss-Racusin, C., & Smith, J. (2015). Quality of evidence revealing subtle gender biases in science is in the eye of the beholder. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 112, 13201-13206.

The Very Strange World Of Sexism Research

Just from reading that title, many of you are likely already experiencing a host of emotions concerning the topic of sexism. It’s one of those topics that lights more than the usual number of metaphorical fires under people’s metaphorical asses, as well it should: it’s one of the labels tethered to people’s value as associates in the social world. Being branded a sexist is bad for business, socially, professionally, and otherwise. Conversely, being able to label others as sexist can be helpful for achieving your social goals (as others might acquiesce to your demands to avoid the label), whereas being thought of as someone who throws around the label inappropriately can lead to condemnation of its own. Because there is so much on the line socially when it comes to sexism, the topic tends to be one that migrates away from the realm of truth to the realm of persuasion; a place where truth might or might not be present, but is besides the point anyway. It also yields some truly strange papers with some even stranger claims.

“I’d like to introduce you to my co-authors…”

Some of these strange claims – such as the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory’s (ASI) interpretations of sexism – I’ve written about before. Specifically, I found it to be a rather odd scale for assessing sexism; perhaps being more suited for assessing whether someone is likely to identify as a feminist (which, to head off any comments to the contrary, is not the same thing). For instance, one question on the ASI concerns whether “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist”, which is a nice way of building into your scale a way of denigrating people who think the scale misinterprets certain remarks or acts as indicating sexism. While it’s open to interpretation whether the scale measures what it claims to measure, it’s also an open question as to how well the answers to the inventory relate to actual sexist behaviors. Luckily, the study I wanted to discuss today sought to examine just that very thing, which is a happy little coincidence. Unfortunately, just as the interpretation of sexist attitudes is open to interpretation, the paper’s interpretation of sexist behavior is also rather open to interpretation, as I will soon discuss. Also unfortunately, the study sought to develop an implicit association task (IAT) to measure these sexism scores as well, and my thoughts on IATs have historically been less than positive.

The paper in question (de Oliveira Laux, Ksenofontov, & Becker, 2015) begins with a discussion of two types of sexism (against women) assessed by the ASI: benevolent and hostile sexism. The former refers to attitudes which hold women in high regard and to the prospect that men ought to behave altruistically towards them; the latter type of sexism refers largely to attitudes concerning whether women seek social advantages by overstating complaints and making unreasonable demands. At least that’s my interpretation of what the inventory is measuring when looking at the questions it asks; if you asked the authors of the current paper, they would tell you that hostile sexism inventory is measuring “antipathy towards non-traditional women who are perceived as challenging male power and as posing a threat for men” and that benevolent sexism measures “subjectively positive but patronizing view of women who conform to traditional roles“. These definitions will be important later, so keep them in mind.

In either case, the researchers wondered whether people’s explicit responses to these questions might be hiding their true levels of sexism, as hostile sexism is socially condemned. Accordingly, their first goal was to try and create an IAT that measured implicit hostile and benevolent sexism. They sought to develop this implicit measure despite their (surely a priori) expectation that it would be less predictive of sexist behavior than the explicit measures, which is one of those stranger aspects of this research I mentioned before: they were seeking to create an implicit measure that does worse at predicting behavior than existing, explicit ones. Undeterred by that expectation, the researchers recruited 126 males to take their sexism IATs and fill out the ASI. The benevolent sexism IAT portion had participants view 10 comics in which the man or woman was taking the active role. More precisely, a man/woman was either: (1) protecting the other with a gun, (2) proposing, (3) carrying their spouse through a door, post-marriage, (4) protecting the other with what looks like a stick, and (5) putting a coat on the other. The hostile sexism portion had words – not pictures – referring to “traditional” women (housewife/mother) or “non-traditional” women (feminist/women’s rights activists). Participants were supposed to sort these pictures/words into pleasant and unpleasant categories, I think; the section concerning the methods is less than specific about what the instructions behind the task were.

“Precise reporting is a tool of patriarchy”

Now the study already has a problem here in that it’s unclear what precisely participants are responding too when they see the pictures in the benevolent IAT: might they find the active women or the man cowering behind her the unpleasant part of the picture they’re categorizing? That concern aside, there were indeed correlations between the IATs and their explicit counterpart measures on the ASI: those who were higher in benevolent sexism were quicker to pair women in the protector role with negative words, and those higher in hostile sexism were quicker to pair feminism with negative words. Sure; both of these correlations were about r = .2, but they were not statistically zero. Further, the IAT measures of benevolent and hostile sexism did not correlate with each other (r = -.12), even though the explicit measures on the ASI did (r = .54). Naturally, the authors interpreted this as providing “strong support” for the validity of these IAT measures.

As a quick aside, I find this method a bit peculiar. The authors believe that hostile sexism might be consciously suppressed, meaning that the explicit measures of it might not be particularly good at measuring people’s actual attitudes. However, they’re trying to validate their implicit measures by correlating them with the explicit ones which they just suggested might not be accurate reflections of attitudes. That makes things rather difficult to interpret if you want to know which measure – explicit or implicit – taps into the construct better. Moving on…

In the second phase of the study, 83 of the original participants were brought back to assess their sexist behavior. What kind of behaviors were being assessed as sexist? Funny I should assumed you asked: in the benevolent sexism condition, participants were paired with a female confederate and asked to do a bit of role playing across three scenarios. During these role playing scenarios, the participants could choose between a pre-selected “sexist” action (like paying for the meal on their anniversary, expressing concern over their sister’s safety were she to take an internship counseling rapists, or asking that their female partner to create a shopping list for baking a cake while he allocated himself the job of creating a shopping list for heavy tools) or non-sexist ones (like simply expressing a concern that his sister would be disappointed by the rapist-counseling internship; not that she might be endangered by it, as that would be sexist).

Assessing the hostile sexist behaviors involving pairing the men with other male confederates. The job of this male-male pair was to review and recommend jokes. Each were given 9 cards that contained either a sexist joke and a neutral one, or two neutral ones.  They were asked to take turns choosing which joke they liked more and indicated whether they would recommend it to others. If both agreed it should be recommended to others, it would be passed on to the next group completing the task. Here’s an example of a neutral joke:

“Who invented the Triathlon? – The Polish. They walk to the swimming pool, swim one round and return home on a bike.”

If you can make sense of it, please let me know in the comments, because I certainly can’t parse what’s supposed to be funny about it, or even what it’s supposed to mean. We can also consider the example of a joke tapping hostile sexism:

“Why does a woman have one brain cell more than a horse? So that she doesn’t drink from the bucket while washing the stairs.”

While that joke does indeed sounds mean, I have some reservations as to whether it counts as hostile sexism the way the authors define it: as an antipathy towards non-tradition women who challenge male power structures. In that joke, the woman is not engaged in a non-traditional task, nor is she challenging male power, as far as I can tell. While the joke might correspond to what people think when they hear the words “hostile sexism” – i.e., being mean to women because of their sex –  it does not correspond well to the definition the authors use. It seems there are better examples of jokes that reflect the hostile sexism the authors hope to tap into (though these jokes no doubt tap many other things as well).

Like this one, for instance.

Skipping over one other role-playing task for length constraints, the final part of the hostile sexist behavior assessment examined one last sexist behavior: whether the participant would sign a petition for a men’s rights organization that the male confederate showed him. Signing the petition was counted as a sexist behavior, while not signing was counted as non-sexist. Take from that what you will.

As for the results of this second portion, the participant’s behavioral sexism scores did not correlate with their IAT measures of benevolent sexism at all, whether that behavior was supposed to count as benevolent or hostile. The IAT measure of hostile sexism did, for whatever reason, correlate with both benevolent and hostile behaviors, but correlated more strongly with benevolent sexism (rs = .33 and .21, respectively), which, as far as I can tell, was not predicted. Perhaps the evidence in favor the validity of these IAT measures was not quite as strong as the authors had claimed earlier. Also, as apparently expected, the implicit measures correlated less well with behavior than the explicit measures in all cases anyway (the correlations between explicit answers and behavior were both about .6), making one wonder why they were developed.

Interpreting these results generously, we might conclude that explicit attitudes predict behaviors –  a finding that many would not consider particularly unique – and that implicit associations predict behaviors less well or not at all. Interpreting these results less charitably, we might conclude that we don’t really learn much about sexism or attitudes, but learn instead that the authors likely identify as feminists and, perhaps, feel that those who disagree with them ought to be labeled as sexists, as they’re willing to stretch the definition of sexism far beyond its normal meaning while only studying the behavior of men. If you lean towards that second interpretation, however, it probably means you’re sexist.

References: de Oliveira Laux, S., Ksenofontov, I., & Becker, J. (2015). Explicit but not implicit sexist beliefs predict benevolent and hostile sexist behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 702-715.

Tilting At The Windmills Of Stereotype Threat

If I had the power to reach inside your mind and effect your behavior, this would be quite the adaptive skill for me. Imagine being able to effortless make your direct competitors less effective than you, those who you find appealing more interested in associating with you, and, perhaps, even reaching inside your own mind, improving your performance to levels you couldn’t previously reach. While it would be good for me to possess these powers, it would be decidedly worse for other people if I did. Why? Simply put, because my adaptive best interests and theirs do not overlap 100%. Improving my standing in the evolutionary race will often come at their expense, and being able to manipulate them effectively would do just that. This means that they would be better off if they possessed the capacity to resist my fictitious mind-control powers. To bring this idea back down to reality, we could consider the relationship between parasites and hosts: parasites often make their living at their host’s expense, and the hosts, in turn, evolve defense mechanisms – like immune systems – to fight off the parasites.

 Now with 10% more Autism!

This might seem rather straightforward: avoiding manipulative exploitation is a valuable skill. However, the same kind of magical thinking present in the former paragraph seems to present in psychological research from time to time; the line of reasoning that goes, “people have this ability to reach into the minds of others and change their behavior to suit their own ends”. Admittedly, the reasoning is a lot more subtle and requires some digging to pick up on, as very few psychologists would ever say that humans possess such magical powers (with Daryl Bem being one notable exception). Instead, the line of thinking seems to go something like this: if I hold certain beliefs about you, you will begin to conform to those beliefs; indeed, even if such beliefs exist in your culture more generally, you will bend your behavior to meet them. If I happen to believe you’re smart, for example, you will become smarter; if I happen to believe you are a warm, friendly person, you will become warmer. This, of course, is expected to work in the opposite direction as well: if I believe you’re stupid, you will subsequently get dumber; if I believe you’re hostile, you will in turn become more hostile. This is a bit of an oversimplification, perhaps, but it captures the heart of these ideas well.

The problem with this line of thinking is precisely the same as the problem I outlined initially: there is a less than perfect (often far less than perfect) overlap between the reproductive best interests of the believers and the targets. If I allowed your beliefs about me to influence my behavior, I could be pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions I would rather not go in. Those who would rather not see me succeed could believe that I will fail, which would, generally, have negative implications for my future prospects (unless, of course, other people could fight that belief by believing I would succeed, leading to an exciting psychic battle). It would be better for me if I ignored their beliefs and simply proceeded forward on my own. In light of that, it would be rather strange to expect that humans possess cognitive mechanisms which use the beliefs of others as inputs for deciding our own behavior in a conformist fashion. Not only are the beliefs of others hard to accurately assess directly, but conforming to them is not always a wise idea even if they’re inferred correctly.

This hasn’t stopped some psychologists from suggesting that we do basically that, however. One such line of research that I wanted to discuss today is known as “stereotype threat”. Pulling a quick definition from “Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group”. From the numerous examples they list, a typically research paradigm involves some variant of the following: (1) get two groups together to take a test that (2) happen to differ with respect to cultural stereotypes about who will do well. Following that, you (3) make salient their group membership in some way. The expected result is that the group that is on the negative end of the stereotype will perform worse when they’re aware of their group membership. To turn that into an easy example, men are believed to be better at math than women, so if you remind women about their gender prior to a math test, they ought to do worse than women not so reminded. The stereotype of women doing poorly on math actually makes women perform worse.

The psychological equivalent of getting Nancy Kerrigan’d

In the interests of understanding more about stereotype threat – specifically, its developmental trajectory with regard to how children of different ages might be vulnerable to it – Ganley et al (2013) ran three stereotype threat experiments with 931 male and female students, ranging from 4th to 12th grade. In their introduction, Ganley et al (2013) noted that some researchers regularly talk about the conditions under which stereotype threat is likely to have its negative impact: perhaps on hard questions, relative to easy ones; on math-identified girls but not non-identified ones; ones in mixed-sex groups but not single-sex groups, and so on. While some psychological phenomenon are indeed contextually specific, one could also view all that talk of the rather specific contexts required for stereotype threat to obtain as a post-hoc justification for some sketchy data analysis (didn’t find the result you wanted? Try breaking the data into different groups until you do find it). Nevertheless, Ganley et al (2013) set up their experiments with these ideas in mind, doing their best to find the effect: they selected high-performing boys and girls who scored above the mid-point of math identification, used evaluative testing scenarios, and used difficult math questions.

Ganley et al (2013) even used some rather explicit stereotype threat inductions: rather than just asking students to check off their gender (or not do so), their stereotype-threat conditions often outright told the participants who were about to take the test that boys outperform girls. It doesn’t get much more threatening than that. Their first study had 212 middle school students who were told either that boys showed more brain activation associated with math ability and, accordingly, performed better than girls, or that both sexes performed equally well. In this first experiment, there was no effect of condition: the girls who were told that boys do better on math tests did not under-perform, relative to the girls who were told that both sexes do equally well. In fact, the data went in the opposite direction, with girls in the stereotype threat condition performing slightly, though not significantly, better. Their next experiment had 224 seventh-graders and 117 eighth-graders. In this stereotype threat condition, they were asked to indicate their gender on a test before than began it because boys tended to outperform girls on these measures (this wasn’t mentioned in the control condition). Again, the results found no stereotype threat at either grade and, again, their data went in the opposite direction, with stereotype threat groups performing better.

Finally, their third study contained 68 forth-graders, 105 eighth-graders, and 145 twelfth-graders. In this stereotype threat condition, students first solved an easy math problem concerning many more boys being on the math team than girls before taking their test (the control condition’s problem did not contain the sex manipulation). They also tried to make the test seem more evaluative in the stereotype threat condition (referring to it as a “test”, rather than “some problems”). Yet again, no stereotype threat effects emerged at any grade level, with two of the three means going in the wrong direction. No matter how they sliced it, no stereotype threat effects fell out. Their data wasn’t even consistently in the direction of stereotype threat being a negative thing. Ganley et al (2013) even took their analysis just a little further in the discussion section, noting that published studies of such effects found some significant effect 80% of the time. However, these effects were also reported among other, non-significant findings. In other words, these effects were likely found after cutting the data up in different ways. By contrast, the three unpublished dissertations on stereotype threat all found nothing, suggesting the possibility that both data cheating and publication bias were probably at work in the literature (and they’re not the only ones).

     ”Gone fishing for P-values”

The current findings appear to build upon the trend of the frequently non-replicable nature of psychological research. More importantly, however, the type of thinking that inspired this research doesn’t seem to make much sense in the first place, though that part doesn’t seem to be discussed at all. There are good reasons to not let the beliefs of others affect your performance; an argument needs to made as to why we would be sensitive to such things, especially when they’re hypothesized to make us worse, and it isn’t present. To make that point crystal clear, try and apply stereotype threat thinking to any non-human species and see how plausible it sounds. By contrast, a real theory, like kin selection, applies with just as much force to humans as it does to other mammals, birds, insects, and even single-cell organisms. If there’s no solid (and plausible) adaptive reasoning in which one grounds their work – as there isn’t with stereotype threat – it should come as no surprise that effects flicker in and out of existence.

References: Ganley, C., Mingle, L., Ryan, A., Ryan, K., Vasilyeva, M., & Perry, M. (2013). An examination of stereotype threat effects on girls’ mathematical performance. Developmental Psychology, 49, 1886-1897.

Examining The Performance-Gender Link In Video Games

Like many people around my age or younger, I’m a big fan of video games. I’ve been interested in these kinds of games for as long as I can remember, and they’ve been the most consistent form of entertainment in my life, often winning out over the company of other people and, occasionally, food. As I – or pretty much anyone who has spent time within the gaming community – can attest to, the experience of playing these games with others can frequently lead to, shall we say, less-than-pleasant interactions with those who are upset by losses. Whether being derided for your own poor performance, good performance, good luck, or tactics of choice, negative comments are a frequent occurrence in the competitive online gaming environment. There are some people, however, who believe that simply being a woman in such environments yields a negative reception from a predominately-male community. Indeed, some evidence consistent with this possibility was recently published by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) but, as you will soon see, the picture of hostile behavior towards women that emerges in much more nuanced than it is often credited as being.

Aggression, video games, and gender relations; what more could you want to read about?

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that some topics – sexism being among them – tend to evade clear thinking because people have some kind of vested social interest in what they have to say about the association value of particular groups. If, for instance, people who play video games are perceived negatively, I would likely suffer socially by extension, since I enjoy video games myself (so there’s my bias). Accordingly, people might report or interpret evidence in ways that aren’t quite accurate so as to paint certain pictures. This issue seems to rear its head in the current paper on more than one occasion. For example, one claim made by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) is that “…men and women are equally likely to play competitive video games”. The citation for this claim is listed as “Essential facts about the computer and video game industry (2014)“. However, in that document, the word “competitive” does not appear at all, let alone a gender breakdown of competitive game play. Confusingly, the authors subsequently claim that competitive games are frequently dominated by males in terms of who plays them, directly contradicting the former idea. Another claim made by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) is that women are “more often depicted as damsels in distress”, though the paper they link to to support that claim does not appear to contain any breakdown of women’s actual representation in video games as characters, instead measuring people’s perceptions of women’s representation in them. While such a claim may indeed be true – women may be depicted as in need of rescue more often than they’re depicted in other roles and/or relative to men’s depictions – it’s worth noting that the citation they use does not contain the data they imply it does.

Despite these inaccuracies, Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) take a step in the right direction by considering how the reproductive benefits to competition have shaped male and female psychologies when approaching the women-in-competitive-video-games question. For men, one’s place in a dominance hierarchy was quite relevant for determining their eventual reproductive success, leading to more overt strategies of social hierarchy navigation. These overt strategies include the development of larger, more muscular upper-bodies in men, suited for direct physical contests. By contrast, women’s reproductive fitness was often less affected by their status within the social hierarchy, especially with respect to direct physical competitions. As men and women begin to compete in the same venues where differences in physical strength no longer determine the winner – as is the case in online video games – this could lead to some unpleasant situations for particular men who have the most to lose by having their status threatened by female competition.

In the interests of being more explicit about why female involvement in typically male-style competitions might be a problem for some men, let’s employ some Bayesian reasoning. In terms of physical contests, larger men tend to dominate smaller ones; this is why most fighting sports are separated into different classes based on the weight of the combatants. So what are we to infer when a smaller fighter consistently beats a larger one? Though these aren’t mutually exclusive, we could infer either that the smaller fighter is very skilled or that the larger fighter is particularly unskilled. Indeed, if the larger fighter is losing both to people of his own weight class and of a weight class below him, the latter interpretation becomes more likely. It doesn’t take much of a jump to replace size with sex in this example: because men tend to be stronger than women, our Bayesian priors should lead us to expect that men will win in direct physical competition over women, on average. A man who performs poorly against both men and women in physical competition, is going to suffer a major blow to his social status and reputation as a fighter.

It’ll be embarrassing for him to see that replayed five times from three angles.

While winning in competitive video games does not rely on physical strength, a similar type of logic applies there as well: if men tend to be the ones overwhelming dominating a video game in terms of their performance, then a man who performs poorly has the most to lose from women becoming involved in the game, as he now might compare poorly both to the standard reference group and to the disfavored minority group. By contrast, men who are high performers in these games would not be bothered by women joining in, as they aren’t terribly concerned about losing to them and having their status threatened. This yields some interesting predictions about what kind of men are going to become hostile towards women. By comparison, other social and lay theories (which are often hard to separate) do not tend to yield such predictions, instead suggesting that both high and low performing men might be hostile towards women in order to remove them from a type of male-only space; what one might consider a more general sexist discrimination.

To test these hypotheses, Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) reported on some data collected while they were playing Halo 3, during which time all matches and conversations within the game were recorded. During these games, the authors had approximately a dozen neutral phrases prerecorded with either a male or female voice they would play during appropriate times in the match. These phrases served to cue the other players as to the ostensible gender of the researcher. The matches themselves were 4 vs 4 games in which the objective for each is to kill more members of the enemy team than they kill of yours. All in-game conversations were transcribed, with two coders examined the transcripts for comments directed towards the researcher playing the game, classifying them as positive, negative, or neutral. The performance of the players making these comments were also recorded with respect to whether the game was won or lost, that player’s overall skill level, and the number of their kills and deaths in the match, so as to get a sense for the type of player making them.

The data represented 163 games of Halo, during which 189 players directed comments towards the researcher across 102 of the games. Of those 189 players who made comments, all of them were males. Only the 147 of those commenters that came from a teammate were retained for analysis. In total, then, 82 players directed comments towards the female-voiced player, whereas 65 directed comments towards the male-voiced player.

A few interesting findings emerged with respect to the gender manipulation. While I won’t mention all of them, I wanted to highlight a few. First, when the researcher used the female voice, higher-skill male players tended to direct significantly more positive comments towards them, relative to low-skill players (β = -.31); no such trend was observed for the male-voiced character. Additionally, as the difference between the female-voiced researcher and the commenting player grew larger (specifically, as the person making the comment was of progressively higher ranks than the female-voiced player), the number of positive comments tended to increase. Similarly, high-skill male players tended to direct fewer negative comments towards the female-voiced research as well (β = -.18). Finally, in terms of their kills during the match, poor performing males directed more negative comments towards female voiced characters, relative to high-performing men (β = .35); no such trend was evident for the male-voiced condition.

“I’m bad at this game and it’s your fault people know it!”

Taken together, the results seem to point in a pretty consistent direction: low-performing men tended to be less welcoming of women in their competitive game of choice, perhaps because it highlighted their poor performance to a greater degree. By contrast, high-performing males were relatively less troubled by the ostensible presence of women, dipping over into being quite welcoming of them. After all, a man being good at the game might well be an attractive quality to women who also enjoy the world of Esports, and what better way to kick off a potential relationship than with a shared hobby? As a final point, it is worth noting that the truly sexist types might present a different pattern of data, relative to people who were just making positive or negative comments: only 11 of the players (out of 83 who made negative comments and 189 who made any comments) were classified as making comments considered to be “hostile sexism”, which did not yield a large enough sample for a proper analysis. The good news, then, seems to be such comments are at least relatively rare.

References: Kasumovic, M. & Kuznekoff, J. (2015). Insights into sexism: Male status and performance moderates female-directed hostile and amicable behavior. PLoS One, 10: e0131613. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131613

Are Video Games Making People Sexist?

If the warnings of certain pop-culture critics are correct, there’s a harm being perpetuated against women in the form of video games, where women are portrayed as lacking agency, sexualized, or prizes to be won by male characters. The harm comes from the downstream effects of playing these games, as it would lead to players – male and female – developing beliefs about the roles and capabilities of men and women from their depictions, entrenching sexist attitudes against women and, presumably, killing women’s aspirations to be more than mere ornaments for men as readily as one kills the waves of enemies that run directly into their crosshairs in any modern shooter. It’s a very blank slate type of view of human personality; one which suggests that there’s really not a whole lot inside our heads but a mound of person-clay, waiting to be shaped by the first set of media representations we come across. This blank slate view also happens to be a widely-implausible one lacking much in the way of empirical support.

Which would explain why my Stepford wife collection was so hard to build

The blank slate view of the human mind, or at least one of its many varieties, has apparently found itself a new name lately: cultivation theory. In the proud tradition of coming up with psychological theories that are not actually theories, cultivation theory restates an intuition: that the more one is exposed to or uses a certain type of media, the more one’s views will come to resemble what gets depicted in that medium. So, if one plays too many violent video games, say, they should be expected to turn into more violent people over time. This hasn’t happened yet, and violent content per se doesn’t seem to be the culprit of anger or aggression anyway, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying to push the idea that it could, will, or is currently happening. A similar idea mentioned in the introduction would suggest that if people are playing games in which women are depicted in certain ways – or not depicted at all – people will develop negative attitudes to them over time as they play more of these games.

What’s remarkable about these intuitions is how widely they appear to be held, or at least entertained seriously, in the absence of any real evidence that this cultivation of attitudes actually happens. Recently, the first longitudinal test of this cultivation idea was reported by Breuer et al (2015). Drawing on some data from German gamers, the researchers were able to examine how video game use and sexist attitudes changed from 2011 to 2013 among men and women. If there’s any cultivation going on, a few years ought to be long enough to detect at least some of it. The study ended up reporting on data from 824 participants (360 female), ages 14-85 (M = 38) concerning their sex, education level, frequency of game use, preference of genre of game, and sexist attitudes. The latter measure was derived from agreement on a scale from 1 to 5 concerning three questions: whether men should be responsible for major decisions in the family, whether men should take on leadership roles in mixed-sex groups, and whether women should take care of the home, even if both partners are wage earners.

Before getting into the relationships between video game use and sexist attitudes, I would like to note at the outset a bit of news which should be good for almost everyone: sexist attitudes were quite low, with each question garnering about an average agreement of about 1.8. As the scale is anchored from “strongly disagree” to “agree completely”, these scores would indicate that the sexist statements were met with rather palpable disagreement on the whole. There was a modest negative correlation between education and acceptance of those views, as well as a small, and male-specific, negative correlation with age. In other words, those who disagreed with those statements the least tended to be modestly less educated and, if they were male, younger. The questions of the day, though, are whether those people who play more video games are more accepting of such attitudes and whether that relationship grows larger over time.

Damn you, Call of Duty! This is all your fault!

As it turns out, no; they are not. In 2011, the regression coefficients for video game use and sexist attitudes were .04 and .06 for women and men, respectively (in 2013, these numbers were -.08 and -.07). Over time, not much changed: the female association between video game use in 2011 and sexist attitudes in 2013 was .12, while the male association was -.08. If video games were making people more accepting of sexism, it wasn’t showing up here. The analysis was attempted again, this time taking into account specific genres of gaming, including role-playing, action, and first-person shooters; genres in which women are thought to be particularly underrepresented or represented in sexist fashions (full disclosure: I don’t know what a sexist depiction of a woman in a game is supposed to look like, though it seems to be an umbrella term for a lot of different things from presence vs absence, to sexualization, to having women get kidnapped, none of which strike me as sexist, in the strict sense of the word. Instead, it seems to be a term that stands in for some personal distaste on the part of the person doing the assessment). However, considerations of specific genres yielded no notable associations between gaming and endorsement of the sexist statements either, which would seem to leave the cultivation theory dead in the water.

Breuer et al (2015) note that their results appear inconsistent with previous work by Stermer & Burkley (2012) that suggested a correlation exists between sexist video game exposure and endorsement of “benevolent sexism”. In that study, 61 men and 114 women were asked about the three games they played the most, ranked each on a 1-7 scale concerning how much sexism was present in them (again, this term doesn’t seem to be defined in any clear fashion), and then completed the ambivalent sexism scale; a dubious measure I have touched upon before. The results reported by Stermer & Burkley (2012) found participants reporting a very small amount of perceived sexism in their favorite games (M = 1.87 for men and 1.54 for women) and, replicating past work, also found no difference of endorsement of benevolent sexism between men and women on average, nor among those who played games they perceived to be sexist and those who did not, though men who perceived more sexism in their games endorsed the benevolent items relatively more (β = 0.21). Finally, it’s worth noting there was no connection between the hostile sexism score and video game playing. One issue might raise about this design concerns asking people explicitly about whether their leisure time activities are sexist and then immediately asking them about how much they value women and feel they should be protected. People might be right to begin thinking about how experimental demand characteristics could be effecting the results at that point.

Tell me about how much you hate women and why that’s due to video games

So is there much room to worry about when it comes to video games turning people into sexists? According to the present results, I would say probably not. Not only was the connection between sexism and video game playing small to the point of nonexistence in the larger, longitudinal sample, but the overall endorsement and perception of sexism in these samples is close to a floor effect. Rather than shaping our psychology in appreciable ways, a more likely hypothesis is that various types of media – from video games to movies and beyond - reflect aspects of it. To use a simple example, men aren’t drawn to being soldiers because of video games, but video games reflect the fact that most soldiers are men. For whatever reason, this hypothesis appears to receive considerably less attention (perhaps because it makes for a less exciting moral panic?). When it comes to video games, certain features our psychology might be easier to translate into compelling game play, leading to certain aspects more typical of men’s psychology being more heavily represented. In that sense, it would be rather strange to say that women are underrepresented in gaming, as one needs a reference point to what appropriate representation would mean and, as far as I can tell, that part is largely absent; kind of like how most research on stereotypes begins by assuming that they’re entirely false.

References: Breuer, J., Kowert, R., Festl, R., & Quandt, T. (2015). Sexist games = sexist gamers? A longitudinal study on the relationship between video game use and sexist attitudes. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 18, 1-6.

Stermer, P. & Burkley, M. (2012). SeX-Box: Exposure to sexist video games predicts benevolent sexism. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4, 47-56.

Should Men Have A Voice In The Abortion Debate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, see this rather strange quote

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

Keeping It Topical: That Catcalling Video

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

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

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

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

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

  Divine intervention, perhaps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Male Investment In Children

As a rather social species, humans seem to have a fairly advanced theory of mind. By that, I mean we attribute things like beliefs, intentions, desires, and so on to other people in efforts to understand, explain, predict, and manipulate the behavior of others. The adaptive value of this skill can be hard to overstate and, accordingly, we ought to expect people to be pretty accurate at figuring out the mental states of others. That said, doing so with perfect accuracy is not an easy task, despite our general proficiency with it. Part of the reason, of course, is that things like beliefs and desires are not themselves directly observable, requiring us to make certain assumptions about the reasons for the observable behavior of others. Another part of the reason, however, is that people often have a vested interest in convincing others about certain internal states of affairs, and that interest persists even in the absence of truth value. For instance, if my suffering tends to draw investment from others in the form of social or material resources, it might pay for some cognitive mechanism of mine to over-represent how much I am suffering publicly to others.

“No, really; I am in that much pain. Just come a little closer and see…”

As an example of the trickier aspects of figuring out the intentions and motivations of others, I wanted to use a case of paternal investment in humans. In many mammalian species, males do not tend to assist in the raising of offspring at all. This is owing largely to the fact that males cannot be assured of their paternity the way females can “know” the child they give birth to is theirs. Human males, by stark contrast, often offer substantial investment in children. However it came about, males in our species managed to largely solve the adaptive problem of paternity uncertainty. The key word in that last sentence, though, is largely: we still can’t be sure that a child is ours 100%, so we might expect that, in general, men are less interested in investing in children than women tend to be, especially if the specter to infidelity has been raised. We might also expect that outcome to obtain owing to opportunity costs; what else we could be doing with the time spent investing in children. Time and energy that I spend investing in raising a child is often time and energy I can’t spend doing other adaptive things, like pursuing additional mating opportunities. As the obligate costs to reproduction are lower for men than women, we might also expect men are more interested in putting their time into pursuing mating opportunities and less interested in putting into investment in children, relative to women.

Now these are theoretically-sound evolutionary reasons for expecting the sex with less obligate investment and genetic certainty (typically males) to be less interested in parenting efforts. The logic of managing these adaptive problems should be instantiated in the psychologies of men and women, and to the extent that men and women face different problems, we should perceive the world and behave in different ways. However, some people don’t like the idea that there is any difference between men and women with respect to how interested they are in raising children. As an example, I would offer this article over at Patheos calling Sam Harris a sexist for suggesting men and women have some different interests when it comes to raising children. In it, the author puts forth two hypotheses: that women being the ones to disproportionately cut their careers short to raise children is due to either “…biology or sexism“. In this case, the author favors the “sexism” explanation which, I think, is that men and women and psychologically indistinguishable with respect to their interest in raising children, and would be just as likely to do so were it not for whatever culture is setting different standards. The author’s theory of mind, then, says that men are just as interested in raising children as women (or at least that’s what one part of her mind says publicly). The notable quote I would consider to outline this hypothesis is, “There is no biological reason men and women cannot share the responsibility of childrearing“. No biological reason making such an outcome impossible, sure; just that a host of them make an equitable distribution of interest in doing so fairly unlikely.

The piece and subsequent comments sections are full of anecdotes about how people know men who are supremely nurturing towards children. I don’t doubt that’s the case, just like I don’t doubt that there are some women who are taller than most men. Variance is a thing, after all, and males in our species do tend to invest in children. It doesn’t follow, though, that there are no aggregate differences in desire rear children between the sexes owing to more than sexist culture. The important thing worth noting here is that desires to invest in children are being inferred from the behavior of investing. The problem with doing so is that people might enact behavior for reasons other than desiring to enact the behavior itself. An easy example is a man visiting a prostitute: just because the man gives the prostitute money, it does not mean his motives are altruistic; he is giving her money instrumentally. If he didn’t have to give her money for the sex, he probably wouldn’t. That sounds simple, I’m sure, but how about the hypothesis that men invest in child rearing for reasons owing to mating effort, rather than parenting effort?

“HA; Got one! Bring on the ladies!”

This brings me to a paper by Anderson, Kaplan, & Lancaster (1999). Now this study doesn’t speak to the matter of sex differences in interest in children, as it only focuses on male behavior, but it makes the point well that inferring motives from behavior can be a problem. The study examined male investment in children in conjunction with their relationship status with the child’s mother. There were four groups the men were placed into: (1) those who had genetic children and were in a relationship with the mother, (2) those who had genetic children and were not in a relationship with the mother, (3) those who had stepchildren with a woman they were in a relationship with, and (4) those who had stepchildren from a past relationship. The researchers had a sample of approximately 1,300 men with offspring in one or more of those categories. The question at hand was whether or not a male’s investment in said children varied as a function of the male’s relationship status with the child’s mother and the children themselves. The male’s investment was considered in four groups: (1) Time spent with the child, (2) money spent on the child, (3) whether the child attended college, and (4) how much support the child received for college.

I want to focus on the monetary investment category, as I feel it’s the easiest to think about, (and because all four classes of investment showed basically the same pattern). With respect to monetary investments over the past year to children 17 or younger, genetic children from a previous relationship received, on average, about $700 less than similarly-aged genetic children from the current relationship (less, in this case, refers to how much a statistical model accounting for a number of factors predicted the typical child should get). By contrast, stepchildren from the current relationship received only around $150 less than genetic children from a current relationship.Stepchildren from a previous relationship received about $1,500 less than genetic children from the current relationship, and $900 less than genetic children from previous relationships. For children age 18-24, the same pattern held, with the exception of the genetic children from past marriages receiving more money than stepchildren from the current one, though the two categories did not differ significantly.

These results found that men do indeed tend to invest in children; often substantial amounts. This fact was never in question. However, the amount they invested in the child, whether in terms of time or money, varied contingent on their genetic relatedness to the child and relationship with the child’s mother. Some of men’s interest in investing in children, like women’s, owes to their relatedness to the child: genetic children from past relationships received much more investment than stepchildren from past relationship. This is classic kin selection. I presume very few people would suggest that parents tend to invest in their own children more because “their culture tells them to do so”, rather than positing some kind of biologically-grounded reason. It also seems like a hefty portion of the investment in children by men could reflect mating effort towards the mother: the men behaved as if they were trying to build or maintain a relationship with a woman through investing in her children. Sure; it might not be as romantic as a dinner date, but investment is investment. It follows that men might well be less interested in raising children per se, but quite interested in maintaining a relationship with the mother, so they invest at certain levels despite their lack of intrinsic interest. Put another way, it is quite plausible that women with children do not generally wish to be in relationships with partners that abuse or neglect the child, so men try to avoid that in order to not be ruled out as mates.


Now, again, I don’t have comparable data for women, but the point at hand is that just because you find men investing in children, it doesn’t mean that their sole motivation is in the investing per se. We could very well find that men and women invested relatively equally (or unequally) in children and that their motives for doing so differ substantially. It is also possible that the people agreeing with the sentiments expressed in the Patheos article represent something of a biased sample, insomuch as they don’t know many men who dislike taking care of children because they wouldn’t want to (and purposefully don’t) associate with such men in the first place. At the very least, I doubt any of them are giving fathers who ran out on their children pats on the back and telling them they understand. Finally, it is also possible that people might be inferring certain motivations on the part of one sex or the other in hopes of convincing people of some particular political viewpoint or to affect a change in their behavior. Though I don’t have much time to speculate about it, if people have a vested interest in seeing sexism as being responsible for a difference between men and women, you can bet they will find it. Similarly, psychological researchers often have a vested interest in finding certain statistical results and, lo and behold, they tend to find them too. If you’d like to speculate more about men and women’s interest in raising children, sexist biases, and the like, I’ll leave you with some helpful places to do just that.

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

“There Are No Girls On The Internet”

“I’ve discovered through the internet you can do anything you want so long as no one sees your face; it’s like the wild west over here” -Carl

Today is another leisurely day for me, so I’ll be writing about something less research based and more in the realm of argumentative fun. Many people have recently become aware of the site 4chan, owing to the site being the platform for the recent massive leak of celebrity nude photos acquired from breaches of their accounts on iCloud servers. The leak has been dubbed “The Fappening”, which seamlessly combines the internet’s collective love of both masturbation and M. Night Shyamalan puns. In any case, as anyone remotely familiar with 4chan should know, the users, at least some and perhaps most of them, pride themselves on the fact that the site is widely considered to be a cesspool of the internet’s waste. This allows them a certain leisure in expressing views which are, shall we say, less than orthodox. There is a saying originating from the site that goes, “There are no girls on the internet”, though most of you have probably heard it by another name: “Tits or gtfo”. Examining this phrase in somewhat greater detail provides us with an interesting window in men and women’s psychology: both in terms of how we tend to perceive the world, and how others in the world tend to perceive and react to us in turn. Buckle up, because today should be fun.

Always take proper precautions when venturing into the internet

So let’s start with a quick breakdown of the phrase, “There are no girls on the internet”. One 4chan user helpfully provides the meaning of the phrase here, and the heart of the idea is as follows: in offline life, people tend to respond to women in certain, positive ways simply because they are women, rather than because of anything else particularly noteworthy about them. By contrast, the user implies that life on the internet is more of a meritocracy where gender should play no particular role in how people respond to you. Accordingly, when women try to draw attention to their gender online, they are trying to cheat the system and receive a certain type of preferential treatment on that basis alone; the implication is that people online don’t, or shouldn’t, take kindly to that kind of behavior. This idea of, “there are no girls on the internet” was then morphed into the phrase “tits or gtfo”, with the latter phrase suggesting that if women want to call attention to their gender, they should just post a naked picture of themselves as an admission that there is nothing else interesting about them and they can’t stand on their own personality and intellect without relying on their gender to support them.

Now this sentiment might strike some people as profoundly misogynistic, perhaps owing to the manner in which it is expressed. At it’s core, though, it seems to be a rather egalitarian idea: gender shouldn’t matter when it comes to how people interact with each other and preferential treatment on that basis should be done away with. The reason I’m discussing this sentiment is to contrast it with another perspective I’ve come across recently; one that suggests women aren’t welcome on the internet. This perspective holds that women online – and offline, for that matter – are subject to disproportionate amounts of harassment simply because they are women, rather than owing to any kind of behavior they enact or things they say. These two perspectives seem to be at substantial odds with one another with respect to one critical detail: do people like women for being women, or do people hate women for being women?

Obviously, the question is too simplistic and paints the issues with far too broad of a brush to be a meaningful one, but let’s try to answer it anyway; just for fun. To answer such a question one needs to begin with some kind of standard as for what counts as appropriate or inappropriate treatment. Let’s return to the Fappening as an example. Some posts on find it appalling that certain sites won’t take down the nude pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, citing concerns for the privacy and sensitivity of the women in question as the justification for their being removed. Other posts suggest that it is good that charitable donations motivated by the Fappening are being refused, because the money isn’t coming from the right places. Now that we know Jezebel’s stance on the matter of respecting people’s privacy, we can turn to their sister site, (both sites are owned by Gawker Media). Gawker seemed more than happy to take a stand against respecting people’s privacy by previously posting links to the Hulk Hogan sex tape, suggesting that “we love to watch famous people have sex” and are not terribly troubled by the fact that Hogan was secretly filmed and did not want this video to be released; they were so unimpressed by Hogan’s complaints, in fact, that they tried to refuse to comply with his request to have it removed.

Sure, the situations are a bit different: Jennifer had her privacy breached by people breaking into her online account, whereas Hogan was covertly and unknowingly filmed. While I can’t say for certain whether the writers at Jezebel would be totally happy with someone filming himself having sex with Jennifer without her knowledge and releasing the tape despite her protests, my inclination is to think they would condemn such actions. Also, to the best of my knowledge, no one has claimed that whoever released the Hulk Hogan tape “loathes men” and “wants to punish men just for existing”, though some have suggested this as being the motivation for the Fappening pictures being stolen, just substituting “women” for “men”.

“The only conceivable reason to want to see her naked is because you hate women…”

Though not conclusive by any means, these two cases suggest that it’s plausible that the same behavior directed at, or enacted by, men and women will not always be met with a uniform response. Maddox, over at The Best Page In The Universe, recently put out a new article and video outlining other instances of this kind of double stand with respect to comic book characters; a topic which I have touched on before myself with respect to both superheroes and Rolling Stone covers. In the video, Maddox shows, quite clearly, that Spiderman and Spiderwoman have been depicted in almost identical poses on the cover of comics, but the female version was apparently perceived to be overly sexualized and an embarrassment by some, despite the male version apparently never being noticed. There’s also the research I’ve covered before suggesting that women appear to get reduced sentences for similar crimes, relative to men, if you’re looking for something less anecdotal.

Now none of this is intended to generate some kind of competition over whether men or women, as groups, have it worse. Rather, the point of this analysis is to suggest that men and women, on the whole, tend to have it differently. There are relatively-unique adaptive problems that each sex has tended to face over our evolutionary history, and, as such, we should expect some differences in the psychological modules possessed by men and women. This can cause something of a problem when it comes to discourse regarding whether, say, women are facing a disproportionate amount of harassment online, because what counts as harassment in the first place might be perceived differently; we are all swimming in seas of subjective perceptions that our minds create, rather than bringing them in from the outside world in some kind of objective fashion. What is “threatening” to one person might be innocuous to another, depending on the precise nature of the stimulus and of the mind perceiving it.

For instance, Amanda Hess references an uncited study that found “accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.” Why are “sexually explicit” and “threatening” messages grouped together in that sentence? Well, if the results of Clark and Hatfield’s classic 1989 study are any indication, it’s likely because women might perceive a good deal of unsolicited sexual attention as unpleasant or harassment. However, men might receive that same sexual attention as pleasant and welcome. It is also likely that women will receive a lot more unsolicited sexual attention from men than men will from women, owing the minimum requisite biological costs to reproduction. Grouping “threatening” or “harassment” in the same category as “propositioning” strikes me as precisely the type of thing that can lead to disagreement over how much harassment is going on online. (I think this study is what Amanda is referring to, in which case “feeling horny?” counts as a threatening or sexually explicit message; it’s certainly one of those things, anyway…)

This is a somewhat long-winded way of suggesting that men and women might, and likely do, tend to both perceive the world differently and expect to be treated in particular fashions. If people expect some standard of treatment they are not receiving, they might come to perceive the treatment they get as being overly hostile, unwelcoming, or unfair even if they receive the same treatment as everyone else. This point works just as well for people reacting to the treatment of others: if I expect you to get a certain level of treatment and you don’t, I might try to come to your aid and condemn others for how they behaved on your behalf. That’s not to say that people are, in fact, getting equal treatment in all cases regardless of gender (they often don’t); just to point out that our perceptions of it might differ even if they were.

I’m not saying that such treatment isn’t hostile either; plenty of treatment people receive online is downright threatening, from death threats, to abuse fantasies, to plain old public shaming and ridicule. I’ve received a series of what one might consider abusive messages from strangers online after winning a game we were playing, and that was only after 30 seconds to five minutes of interacting without even talking in a recreational activity; an experience not unique to me by any means. One could imagine that the frequency and intensity of this abuse increases substantially as one becomes more publicly known or begins voicing controversial opinions widely (like calling an entire subculture bigoted or not supporting dedicated servers for your FPS).

“Thanks for your thoughtful message, XxXx420NoScopeFgtxXxX”

In fact, one very reasonable suggestion is that the vitriol present in some of the harassment people receive online is designed specifically to get a rise out of the person receiving it; it’s the M.O. of the internet troll. When it comes to women receiving harassment, for instance, we might expect that women receive particular types of abuse because women tend to be most bothered by it, but they do not receive abuse because they are women. The goal of those sending the abuse is not to make some kind of social or political statement about an issue or express contempt for an entire gender; it’s just to get under someone’s skin.  However, when a different group is being targeted for harassment, the content of the harassment should be expected to shift accordingly.

A good example of this would be 4chan’s trolling of the MMA fighter War Machine (which, I am told, is now his legal name): when users on 4chan found out that War Machine’s father had died after his son’s unsuccessful CPR attempt, they began to tell War Machine he had killed his father (on the anniversary of the death, I would add). This harassment didn’t take that form because people hate those who perform CPR, fathers, MMA fighters, or men more generally; it only took that form because it was what people thought would get the best rise out of him. Judging from the subsequent self-inflicted injuries War Machine documented publicly, the attempt was pretty successful.

“That’ll show ‘em…”

However, just like the immediate point of many trolling comments is to upset others, rather than to make some honest statement, the reactions people have to online harassment should be expected to be every bit as strategic as the trolls themselves, even if not consciously so. Just like the Gawker sites don’t appear to be consistently concerned with privacy (“Yes” with respect to Jennifer, “No” with respect to Hogan), and just like people don’t perceive Spiderman and Spiderwoman to be equally sexualized despite near identical poses on their covers, so too might outrage over online harassment not be evenly spread between targets, even if the harassment itself is quite similar. So, whether the internet is a place of general equality with respect to gender or hostility towards women depends, in no small part, on what kind of treatment people are expecting each gender to receive.

That said I wouldn’t want to accuse any person or group of over-reacting to the harassment they receive just for being them; I’m sure that harassment is particularly unique, and evidence of a widespread bias against you and your friends.

Punch-Ups In Bars

For those of you unfamiliar with the literature in economics, there is a type of experimental paradigm called the dictator game. In this game, there are two players, one of which is given a sum of money and told they can do whatever they want with it. They could keep it all for themselves, or they could divide it however they want between themselves and the other player. In general, you often find that many dictators – the ones in charge of dividing the money – give at least some of the wealth to the other player, with many people sharing it evenly. Some people have taken that finding to suggest there is something intrinsically altruistic about human behavior towards others, even strangers. There are, however, some concerns regarding what those results actually tell us. For instance, when you take the game out of the lab and into a more naturalistic setting, dictators don’t really tend to give other people any money at all, suggesting that most, or perhaps all, of the giving we see in these experiments is being driven by the demand characteristics of the experiment, rather than altruism per se. This should ring true to anyone who has even had a wallet full of money and not given some of it away to a stranger for no reason. Real life, it would seem, is quite unlike dictator games in many respects.

Dictators are not historically known for their benevolence.

Relatedly, around two years ago, Rob Kurzban wondered to what extent the role of ostensibly altruistic punishment had been overstated by laboratory experiments. Altruistic punishment refers to cases in which someone – the punisher – will incur costs themselves (typically by paying a sum of money in these experiments) to inflict costs on others (typically by deducting a sum of money from another person). What inspired this wondering was a video entitled “bike thief“, where a man tries to steal his own bike, using a crowbar, hacksaw, and power tool to cut the locks securing the bike to various objects. Though many people pass by the man as he tries to “steal” his bike, almost no one intervenes to try and determine what’s going on. This video appears to show the same pattern of results as a previous one also dealing with bike theft: in that video, third parties are somewhat more likely to intervene when a white man tries to steal the bike than in the first video one, but, in general, they don’t tend to involve themselves much, if at all (they are more likely to intervene if the ostensible thief is black or a woman. In the former case, people are more likely to confront him or call the police; in the latter case, some people intervened to help the woman, not to condemn her).

I have long found these videos fascinating, in that I feel they raise a lot of questions worthy of further consideration. The first of these is how do people decide when to become involved in the affairs of others? The act itself (sawing through a bike lock) is inherently ambiguous: is the person trying to steal the bike, or is the bike theirs but they have lost the key? Further, even if the person is stealing the bike, there are certain potential risks to confronting them about it that might be better avoided. The second question is, given someone has decided to become involved, what do they do? Do they help or hinder the thief? Indeed, when the “thief” suggests that they lost the key, the third parties passing by seem willing to help, even when the thief is black; similarly, even when the woman all but says she is stealing the bike, people (typically men) continue to help her out. When third parties opt instead to punish someone, do they do so themselves, or do they try to enlist others to do the punishing (like police and additional third parties)? These two questions get at the matter of how prevalent/important is third-party punishment outside of the lab, and under what circumstance might that importance be modified?

Though there is a lack of control one faces from moving outside of the lab into naturalistic field studies, the value of these studies for understanding punishment should be hard to overstate. As we saw initially with the dictator games, it is possible that all the altruistic behavior we observe in the lab is due to experimental demand characteristics; the same might be true of third-party moral condemnation. Admittedly, naturalistic observations of third-party involvement in conflicts is rare, likely owing to how difficult it is to get good observations of immoral acts that people might prefer you didn’t see (i.e. real bike thieves likely go through some pains to not be seen so others might be unlikely to become involved, unlike the actors in the videos). One particularly useful context for gathering these observations, then, is one in which the immoral act is unlikely to be planned and people’s inhibitions are reduced: in this case, when people are drinking at bars. As almost anyone who has been out to a bar can tell you, when people are drinking tempers can flare, people overstep boundaries, and conflicts break out. When that happens, there often tends to be a number of uninvolved third parties who might intervene, making it a fairly ideal context for studying the matter.

“No one else wears this shirt on my watch. No one”

A 2013 paper by Parks et al examined around 800 such incidents of what was deemed to be verbal or physical aggression to determine what kinds of conflicts arose, what types people tends to get involved in them, and how they became involved. As an initial note – and this will become relevant shortly – aggression was defined in a particular way that I find to be troublesome: specifically, there was physical aggression (like hitting or pushing), verbal aggression (like insults), and unwanted or persistent sexual overtures. The problem here is that though failed or crude attempts at flirting might be unwanted, they are by no means aggressive in the same sense that hitting someone is, so aggression might have been defined too broadly here. That said, the “aggressive” acts were coded for severity and intent, third-party intervention was coded as present or absent and, when present, whether it was an aggressive or non-aggressive intervention, and all interactions were coded for the sex of the parties and their level of intoxication.

The first question is obviously how often did third parties become involved in an aggressive encounter? The answer is around a third of the time on average, so third-party involvement in disputes is by no means an infrequent occurrence. Around 80% of the third parties that intervened were also male. Further, when third parties did become involved, they were about twice as likely to become involved in an non-aggressive fashion, relative to an aggressive one (so they were more often trying to diffuse the situation, rather than escalating it). Perhaps unsurprising in the fact that most disputes tended to be initiated by people who appeared to be relatively more intoxicated, and the aggressive third parties tended to be drunker than the non-aggressive ones. So, as is well known, being drunk tended to lead to people being more aggressive, whether it came to initiating conflicts or joining them. Third parties also tended to become more likely to get involved in disputes as the severity of the disputes rose: minor insults might not lead to much involvement on the parts of others, while throwing a punch or pulling out a knife will. This also meant that mutually-aggressive encounters – ones that are likely to escalate – tended to draw more third-party involvement that one-sided aggression.

Of note is that the degree of third party involvement did fluctuate markedly: the disputes that drew the most third-party involvement were the male-on-male mutually-aggressive encounters. In those cases, third parties got involved around 70% of the time; more than double the average involvement level. By contrast, male-on-female aggression drew the least amount of third-party intervention; only around 17% of the time. This is, at first, a very surprising finding, given that women tend to receive lighter sentences for similar crimes, and violence against women appears to be less condoned than violence against men. So why would women garner less support when men are aggressing against them? Well, likely because unwanted sexual attention falls under the umbrella term of aggression in this study. Because “aggressive” does not equate to “violent” in the paper, all of the mixed-sex instances of “aggression” need to be interpreted quite cautiously. The authors note as much, wondering if male-on-female aggression generated less third-party involvement because it was perceived as being less severe. I think that speculation is on the right track, but I would take it further: most of the mixed-sex “aggression” might have not been aggressive at all. By contrast, when it was female-female mutual aggression (less likely to be sexual in nature, likely involving a fight or the threat of one), third parties intervened around 60% of the time. In other words, people were perfectly happy to intervene on behalf of either sex, so long as the situation was deemed to be dangerous.

“It’s only one bottle; let’s not be too hasty to get involved yet…”

Another important caveat to this research is that the relationship of the third parties that became involved to the initial aggressors was not known. That is, there was no differentiation between a friend or a stranger coming to someone’s aid when aggression broke out. If I had to venture a guess – and this is probably a safe one – I would assume that most of the third parties likely had some kind of a relationship to the people in the initial dispute. I would also guess that non-violent involvement (diffusing the situation) would be more common when the third parties had some relationship to both of the people involved in the initial dispute, relative to when it was their friend against a stranger. I happen to feel that the relationship between the parties who become involved in these disputes has some rather large implications for understanding morality more generally but, since that data isn’t available, I won’t speculate too much more about it here. What I will say is that the focus on how strangers behave towards one another in the lab – as is standard for most research on moral condemnation – is likely missing a large part of how morality works, just like how experimental demand characteristics seemed to make people look more altruistic than they are in naturalistic settings. Getting friends together for research poses all sorts of logistically issues, but it is a valuable source of information to start considering.

 References: Parks, M., Osgood, D., Felson, R., Wells, S., & Graham, K., (2013). Third party involvement in barroom conflicts. Aggressive Behavior, 39, 257-268.