Gender Gaps Vs. Gender Facts

In a now-classic 1994 paper, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides discussed an idea they labeled “instinct blindness”. One of the basic ideas of this paper is that our minds have evolved to become really good at doing particular things; so good, in fact, that we often don’t realize we’re doing them. Vision, for instance, is an incredibly complex problem to solve. Our cognitive systems for vision function so automatically, however, that we don’t realize the depth of the problems inherent in seeing; we simply open our eyes and see, typically without any conscious experience of the task being particularly challenging. A consequence of this instinct blindness is that much of our psychological functioning goes, essentially, unnoticed; in other cases, facets of our psychology are viewed as not needing an explanation (i.e. “It’s just natural that…”) because they just seem so normal. Now instinct blindness doesn’t much matter to most people in everyday life: people not appreciating how many mechanisms are involved in vision probably won’t affect their day or many other people’s days all that often. It’s effect on my life is certainly limited. However, when people begin discussing matters of morality, the effects of that instinct blindness can be a touch more important.

Blindness? Touch? I’ll see myself out…

The moral issue I would like to highlight today is one that I have hit upon many times in the past: gender. Specifically, the issue is that men and women are often found to differ with respect to particular outcomes to some degree: perhaps women, on the whole, tend to make less money than men; perhaps men tend to be sent to jail more often than women, and so on. Now it’s often also the case that people find such differences to be morally offensive. Well, sort of, anyway; more precisely, it’s not that the differences per se are morally offensive, but that the underlying causes of the differences are viewed to be nefarious in some way. It’s not that women make less money than men that is the problem, then, but rather that this fact is perceived to be due to sexism or discrimination against women that’s the problem.

I would like to emphasis the word “perceived” in that last sentence because claims of discrimination or sexism are often made without good supporting evidence, or their extent is, what one might consider, exaggerated to some degree. This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as discrimination or that sexism necessarily plays a minimal or no role in any given disparity, mind you; I don’t want to be misunderstood in that respect. The issue I’m discussing is that when people say things like “women make 70 cents for every dollar a man makes”, the implication being made, implicitly or explicitly, is that this 30 cent difference is due mostly or entirely to sexism and discrimination without consideration that any other factors might play some role in determining who makes how much money. Also, the implication is that such gaps should be reduced, of course. People aren’t just stating these gaps as if they were mere statements of facts; they’re calls to action.

Except that this clearly isn’t the case all the time, which brings us to the current paper (which looks like more of a conference presentation, but that’s besides the point). While not empirical in nature, the paper by Browne (2013) focuses on the following suggestion: gender differences that appear to favor men are far more often to be viewed as “gaps” requiring remediation, while gender differences that appear to favor women are viewed more as “facts” and of little or no moral or social concern. Browne (2013) runs through a few interesting examples of these disparities, among which are: the special focus on violence against women despite men being more likely to be a victim of almost any type of violent crime, women being less likely to be stopped or cited for traffic violations, women being sentenced to less time in jail if convicted of a crime, domestic abuse allegations of men being ignored at greater frequency than women’s, women earning more of the degrees than men in the US, and men making up a bit more than 9 out of every 10 workplace deaths. Despite the existence of these gender disparities, very little seems to ever be mentioned about them nor is much remedy for them sought; they seem to be viewed, more or less, as acceptable, or the unintended result of a system designed to benefit men overall.

“Can you reframe this workplace accident in the form of patriarchy?”

One of my favorite passages from the paper concerned research on one of the former issues: traffic stops. Though it’s lengthy, I wanted to recreate it here in its entirety because I think it demonstrates the focus of the paper rather aptly:

…[W]hen a Massachusetts study of racial and gender profiling found that, contrary to the authors’ expectations, women were substantially less likely to be stopped or cited than men, the authors did not then express concern that maybe there was gender profiling against men; instead, they emphasized the need for further information on “the traffic stop behavior of individual officers . . . to determine if some officers are stopping [a] larger number of female drivers compared to their similarly situated peers.” The fact that all officers, as a whole, were stopping a larger number of male drivers was simply not on the authors’ radar as a problem.

Such a passage suggests rather strongly that some research is conducted with a particular agenda in mind: the researchers seemed pretty sure that some group was being disadvantaged, and when they didn’t find the result they were looking for, they expressed interest in continuing to dig until they found the answer they wanted. The odds are good, I would say, that if the initial research turned up an identical gender “gap” disfavoring women (i.e. women are more likely to be stopped or cited for traffic offenses), it would be taken as evidence of a problem. But since this “gap” disfavored men, it was reported instead as more of a “fact”.

Research on our reasoning abilities has been reaching a similar conclusion for some time now: reasoning appears to function primarily to persuade other people of things, rather than to necessarily be accurate. Certain findings might be ignored or questions not asked if they don’t find the agenda of the researchers. Now it’s all well and good (and fun, too) to throw metaphorical rocks at the research or conclusions of other people and make accusations of particular agendas working against the empirical or theoretical soundness of their work. However, the interesting focus of this issue, to me, anyway, is not that people have biases, but rather why people have certain biases. Despite how many psychologists write on the topic, noticing (or labeling) a bias is not the same thing as explaining it. Something about gender – or some factor relating to it – seems to have a powerful, if perhaps under-appreciated or unrecognized, influence on our moral judgments. Why, then, might women’s welfare appear to be, in general, of more concern than men’s?

The answer to this question, I imagine, will likely turn out to be strategic in nature. Specifically, such a cognitive bias should only be expected to exist if it serves some other useful goal. The underlying logic here is that being wrong about reality can frequently carry costs, and these costs need to be offset by some compensating benefit in order for biases to persist and become common. So what might this other useful goal be? Well, I don’t think current accounts of our moral sentiments have much to offer us in that regard. The accounts of morality that suggest our moral psychology functions to increase group welfare or make people more altruistic/cooperative don’t seem to get us very far, as they don’t straightforwardly explain why one particular subgroup’s welfare (women) is more important than another’s (men). The dynamic coordination account – which posits that people take sides in moral disputes on the basis of observable actions to achieve coordination and reduce punishment costs (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013) – doesn’t seem to get us very far either for two reasons: first, the model explicitly rejects the idea that moral sentiments should be tied to individual identities, so it’s not at all clear why one gender’s issues might be perceived differently and, second, because the observed part – the gender disparity – is not what people seem to be condemning; they are condemning the perceived cause of that disparity, and their perceptions may well be inaccurate on that front).

Because we know gender disparities can never be caused by choice; only sexism against women.

It seems more plausible to me that the selective attention and moral outrage that gets directed against particular gender “gaps” relates more to managing one’s association value to others. That is to say that supporting someone on a moral issue relates more to alliance politics than it does coordination or altruism. If, for instance, women happen to possess some resource (such as their reproductive capacity) that makes them more valuable socially (relative to non-women), then you might well find that people are, in general, more interested in catering to their issues. Even if one is not personally interesting in catering to those issues, however, if enough other people happen to be on the “women’s side” (provided such a term is meaningful, which I don’t think it is, but let’s use it anyway), siding against them can be a bad idea all the same: by doing so you might become a target of condemnation by proxy, even if you have personally done nothing particularly wrong, as you are preventing that group from achieving its goal. Now all of this speculation is founded on the idea that these “pro-women” biases actually exist, and I think that requires more empirical work to be demonstrated with greater certainty, but the anecdotes reviewed by Browne (2013) provide some good initial reasons to think such a phenomenon may well be real.

References: Browne, K. (2013). Mind which gap? The selective concern over sex disparities. Florida International Law Review, 8.

DeScioli, P. & Kurzban, R. (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 477-496.

Begging Questions About Sexualization

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: If a man wants to make a woman happy, it’s really quite simple. All he has to do is be a chef, a carpenter, brave, a friend, a good listener, responsible, clean, warm, athletic, attractive, tender, strong, tolerant, understanding, stable, ambitious, and compassionate. Men should also not forget to compliment a women frequently, give her attention while expecting little in return, give her freedom to do what she wants without asking too many questions, and love to go shopping with her, or at least support the habit. So long as a man does/is all those things, if he manages to never forget birthdays, anniversaries, or other important dates, he should be easily able to make a woman happy. Women, on the other hand, can also make men happily with a few simple steps: show up naked and bring beer. (For the unabridged list, see here). While this joke, like many great jokes, contains an exaggeration, it also manages to capture a certain truth: the qualities that make a man attractive to a woman seem to be a bit more varied than the qualities that make a woman attractive to a man.

“Yeah; he’s alright, I guess. Could be a bit taller and richer…”

Even if men did value the same number of traits in women that women value in men, the two sexes do not necessarily value the same kinds of traits, or value them to the same degree (though there is, of course, frequently some amount of overlap). Given that men and women tend to value different qualities in one another, what should this tell us about the signals that each sex sends to appeal to the other? The likely answer is that men and women might end up behaving or altering their appearance in different ways when it comes to appealing to the opposite sex. As a highly-simplified example, men might tend to value looks and women might tend to value status. If a man is trying to appeal to women under such circumstance, it does him little good to signal his good looks, just as it does a woman no favors to try and signal her high status to men.

So when people start making claims about how one sex – typically women – are being “sexualized” to a much greater extent than the other, we should be very specific about what we mean by the term. A recent paper by Hatton & Trautner (2011) set forth to examine (a) how sexualized men and women tend to be in American culture and (b) whether that sexualization has seen a rise over time. The proxy measure they made use of for their analysis were about four decades worth of Rolling Stone covers, spanning from 1967 to 2009, as these covers contain pictures of various male and female cultural figures. The authors suggest that this research has value because of various other lines of research suggesting that these depictions might have negative effects on women’s body satisfaction, men’s negative attitudes about women, as well threatening to increase the amount of sexual harassment that women face. Somewhat surprisingly, in the laundry list of references attesting to these negative effects on women, there is no explicit mention of any possible negative effects on men. I find that interesting. Anyway…

As for the research itself, Hatton & Trautner (2011) examined approximately 1000 covers of Rolling Stone, of which 720 focused on men and 380 focused on women. The pictures were coded with respect to (a) the degree of nudity, from unrevealing to naked on a 6-point scale, (b) whether there was touching, from none to explicitly sexual on a 4-point scale, (c) pose, from standing upright to explicitly sexual on a 3-point scale, (d) mouth…pose (I guess), from not sexual to sexual on a 3-point scale, (e)  whether breasts/chest, genitals, or buttocks were exposed and/or the focal point of the image, all on 3-point scales, (f) whether the text on the cover line related to sex, (g) whether the shot focused on the head or the body, (h) whether the model was engaged in a sex act or not, and finally (i) whether there were hints of sexual role play suggested at. So, on the one hand, it seems like these pictures were analyzed thoroughly. On the other, however, consider this list of variables they were assessing and compare them to the initial joke. By my count, all of them appear to fall more on the end of “what makes men happy” rather than “what makes women happy”.

Which might cause a problem in translation from one sex to the other

Images were considered to be “hypersexualized” if they scored 10 or more points (out of the possible 23), but only regular “sexualized” if they scored from 5 to 9 points. In terms of sexualization, the authors found that it appeared to be increasing over time: in the ’60s, 11% of men and 44% of women were sexualized; by the ’00s these rose to 17% and 89% respectively. So Hatton & Trautner (2011) concluded that men were being sexualized less than women overall, which is reasonable given their criteria. However, those percentages captured both the “sexualized” and “hypersexualized” pictures. Examining the two groups separately, the authors found that around 1-3% of men on the covers were hypersexualized in any given decade, whereas the comparable range for women was 6% to 61%. Not only did women tend to be sexualized more often, they also tended to sexualized to a great degree. The authors go so far as to suggest that the only appropriate label for such depictions of women were as sex objects.

The major interpretative problem that is left unaddressed by Hatton & Trautner (2011) and their “high-powered sociological lens”, of course, is that they fail to consider whether the same kinds of displays make men and women equally sexually appealing. As the initial joke might suggest, men are unlikely to win many brownie points with a prospective date if they showed up naked with beer; they might win a place on some sex-offender list though, which falls short of the happy ending they would have liked. Indeed, many of the characteristics highlighted in the list of ways to make a woman happy – such as warmth, emotional stability, and listening skills – are not quite as easily captured by a picture, relative to physical appearance. To make matters even more challenging for the interpretation of the authors, there is the looming fact that men tend to be far more open to offers of casual sex in the first place. In other words, there might about as much value to signaling that a man is “ready for sex” as there is to signaling that a starving child is “ready for food”. It’s something that is liable to be assumed already.

To put this study in context, imagine I was to run a similar analysis to the authors, but started my study with the following rationale: “It’s well known that women tend to value the financial prospects of their sexual partners. Accordingly, we should be able to measure the degree of sexualization on Rolling Stone covers by assessing the net wealth of the people being photographed”.  All I would have to do is add in some moralizing about how depiction of rich men is bad for poorer men’s self-esteem and women’s preferences in relationships, and that paper would be a reasonable facsimile to the current one. If this analysis found that the depicted men tended to be wealthier than the depicted women, this would not necessarily indicate that the men, rather than the women, were being depicted as more attractive mates. This is due to the simple, aforementioned fact, that we should expect an interaction between signalers and receivers. It doesn’t pay for a signaler to send a signal that the intended receiver is all but oblivious to: rather, we should expect the signals to be tailored to the details of the receptive systems it is attempting to influence.

The sexualization of images like this might go otherwise unnoticed.

It seems that the assumptions made by the authors stacked the deck in favor of them finding what they thought they would. By defining sexualization in a particular way, they partially begged their way to their conclusion. If we instead defined sexualization in other ways that considered variables beyond how much or what kind of skin was showing, we’d likely come to different conclusions about the degree of sexualization. That’s not to say that we would find an equal degree of it between the sexes, mind you, but it would be a realization that there are many factors that can go into making someone sexually attractive which are not always able to be captured in a photo. We’ve seen complaints of sexualization like these leveled against the costumes that superheroes of various sexes tend to wear, and the same oversight is present in them as well. Unless the initial joke would work just as well if the sexes were reversed, these discussions will require more nuance concerning sexualization to be of much profitable use.

References: Hatton E. & Trautner, M. (2011). Equal opportunity objectification? The sexualization of men and women on the cover of Rolling Stone. Sexuality and Culture, 15, 256-278.

Sound The Alarm: Sexist Citations

First things first: I would like to wish a happy two-year anniversary. Here’s looking at many more. That’s enough celebration for now; back to the regularly scheduled events.

When it comes to reading and writing, academics are fairly busy people. Despite these constraints on time, some of us (especially the male sections) still make sure to take the extra time to examine the articles we’re reading to ascertain the gender of the authors so as to systematically avoid citing women, irrespective of the quality of their work. OK; maybe that sounds just a bit silly. Provided people like that actually exist in any appreciable sense of the word, their representation among academics must surely be a vast minority, else their presence would be well known. So what are we to make of the recently-reported finding that, among some political science journals, female academics tend to have their work cited less often than might be expected, given a host of variables (Maliniak, Power, & Walter, 2013)?  Perhaps there might exist some covert bias against female authors, such that the people doing the citing aren’t even aware that they favor the work of men, relative to women. If the conclusions of the current paper are to be believed, this is precisely what we’re seeing (among other things).  Sexism – even the unconscious kind – is a bit of a politically hot topic to handle so, naturally, I suggest we jump right into the debate with complete disregard for the potential consequences; you know, for the fun of it all.

Don’t worry; I’m, like, 70% sure I know what I’m doing.

I would like to begin the review of this paper by noting a rather interesting facet of the tone of the introduction: what it does and does not label as “problematic”. What is labeled as problematic is the fact that women do not appear to earning tenured positions in equal proportion to the number of women earning PhDs. Though they discuss this fact in the light of the political science field, I assume they intend their conclusion to span many fields. This is the well-known leaky pipeline issue about which much has been written. What is not labeled as problematic are the facts in the next two sentences: women make up 57% of the undergraduate population, 52% of the graduate population, and these percentages are only expected to rise in the future. Admittedly, not every gender gap needs to be discussed in every paper that mentions them and, indeed, this gap might not actually mean much to us. I just want to note that women outnumbering men on campus by 1.3-to-1 and growing is mentioned without so much as batting an eye. The focus of the paper is unmistakably on considering the troubles that women will face. Well, sort of; a more accurate way of putting it is that the focus is on the assumed troubles that women will face: difficulty getting cited. As we will see, this citation issue is far from a problem exclusive to women.

Onto the main finding of interest: in the field of international relations, over 3000 articles across 12 influential journals spanning about 3 decades were coded for various descriptors about the article and the authors. Articles that were authored by men only were cited about 5 additional times, on average, than articles authored by women only. Since the average number of citations for all articles was about 25 citations per paper, this difference of 5 citations is labeled as “quite a significant” one, and understandably so; citation count appears to be becoming a more important part of the job process in academia. Importantly, the gap persisted at statistically significant levels even after controlling for factors like the age of the publication, the topic of study, whether it came from an R1 school, the methodological and theoretical approach taken in the paper, and the author’s tenure status. Statistically, being a woman seemed to be bad for citation count.

The authors suggest that this gap might be due to a few factors, though they appear to concede that a majority of the gap remains unexplained. The first explanation on offer is that women might be citing themselves less than men tend to (which they were: men averaged 0.4 self-citations per paper and women 0.25). However, subtracting out self-citation count and the average number of additional citations self-citation was thought to add does not entirely remove the gap either. The other possibility that the authors float involves what are called “citation cartels”, where authors or journals agree to cite each other, formally or informally, in order to artificially inflate citation counts.  While they have no evidence concerning the extent to which this occurs, nor whether it occurs across any gendered lines, they at least report that anecdotes suggest this practice exists. Would that factor help us explain the gender gap? No clue; there’s no evidence. In any case, from these findings, the authors conclude:

“A research article written by a woman and published in any of the top journals will still receive significantly fewer citations than if the same article had been written by a man” (p.29, emphasis mine).

I find the emphasized section rather interesting, as nothing that the authors researched would allow them to reach that conclusion. They were certainly not controlling for the quality of the papers themselves, nor their conclusions. It seems that because they controlled for a number of variables, the authors might have gotten a bit overconfident in assuming they had controlled for all or most of the relevant ones.

“Well, I’m out of ideas. I guess we’re done here”

Like other gender gaps, however, this one may not be entirely what it seems. Means are only one measure of central tendency, and not always preferable for describing one’s sample. For instance, the mean income of 10 people might be a million dollars provided nine have none and one is rather wealthy. A similar example might concern the “average” number of mates your typical male elephant seal has; while some have large harems, others are left out entirely from the mating game. In other words, a skewed distribution can result in means that are not entirely reflective of what many might consider the “true” average of the population. Another possible measure of central tendency we might consider, then, is the median: the value that falls in the middle of all the observed values, which is a bit more robust against outliers. Doing just that, we see that the gender gap in citation count vanishes entirely: not only does it not favor the men anymore, but it slightly favors the women in 2 of the 3 decades considered (the median for men from the 80s, 90s, and 00s are 5, 14, and 13; for women, 6, 14, and 15, respectively). Further, in two of the decades considered, mix-gendered articles appear to be favored by about 2-to-1 over papers with a single gender of author (medians equal 10, 22, and 16, respectively). Overall, the mean citation count looks to be about two-to-three times as high as the median, and the standard deviations of the citation count are huge. For instance, in the 1980s, articles authored by men averaged 17.6 citations per paper (substantially larger than the median of 5), and the SD of that count was 51.63. Yikes. Why is this rather interesting facet of the data not considered in much, if any, depth by the authors? I have no idea.

Now this is not to say that the mean or the median is necessarily the “correct” measure to consider here, but the fact that they return such different values ought to give us some pause for consideration. Mean values that are over twice as large as the median values with huge standard deviations suggests that we’re dealing with a rather skewed distribution, where some papers garner citation counts which are remarkably higher than others (a trend I wrote about recently with respect to cultural products). Now the authors do state that their results remain even if any outliers above 3 standard deviations are removed from the analysis, but I think that upper limit probably fails to fully capture what’s going on here. This handy graphical representation of citation count provided in the paper can help shed some light on the issue.

This is what science looks like.

What we see is not a terribly-noticeable trend for men to be cited more than women in general, as much as we see a trend for the papers with the largest citation counts to come disproportionately from men.  The work of most of the men, like most of the women, would seem to linger in relative obscurity. Even the mixed-sex papers fail to reach the heights that male-only papers tend to. In other words, the prototypical paper by women doesn’t seem to differ too much from the prototypical male paper; the “rockstar” papers (of which I’d estimate there are about 20 to 30 of in that picture), however, do differ substantially along gendered lines. Gendered lines are not the only way in which they might differ, however. A more accurate way of phrasing the questionable conclusion I quoted earlier would be to say “A research article written by anyone other than the initial author, if published in any of the top journals, might still receive significantly fewer citation even if it was the same article”. Cultural products can be capricious in their popularity, and even minor variations in initial conditions can set the stage for later popularity, or lack thereof.

Except for black; black is always fashionable.

This would naturally raise the question as to precisely why the papers with the largest impact come from men, relative to women. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for that question. There is undoubtedly some cultural inertia to account for; were I to publish the same book as Steven Pinker in a parallel set of universes, I doubt mine would sell nearly as many copies (Steven has over 94,000 twitter followers, whereas I have more fingers and toes than fans). There is also a good deal of noise to consider: an article might not end up being popular because it was printed in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than because of its quality. On the subject on quality, however, some papers are better than others, by whatever metric we’re using to determine such things (typically, that standard is “I know it when I wish I had thought of it first”). Though none of these factors lend themselves to analysis in any straightforward way, the important point is to not jump to overstated conclusions about sexism being the culprit, or to suggest that reviewers “…monitor the ratio of male to female citations in articles they publish” so as to point it out to the authors in the hopes of “remedying” any potential “imbalances”. One might also, I suppose, have reviewers suggest that authors make a conscious effort to cite articles with lower citation counts more broadly, so as to ensure a greater parity among citation counts in all articles. I don’t know why that state of affairs would be preferable, but one could suggest it.

References: Maliniak, D., Powers, R., & Walter, B. (2013). The gender citation gap in international relations. International Organization DOI: 10.1017/S0020818313000209

Two Fallacies From Feminists

Being that it’s summer, I’ve decided to pretend I’m going to kickback once more from working for a bit and write about a more leisurely subject. The last time I took a break for some philosophical play, the topic was Tucker Max’s failed donation to Planned Parenthood. To recap that debacle, there were many people who were so put off by Tucker’s behavior and views that they suggested that Planned Parenthood accepting his money ($500,000) and putting his name on a clinic would be too terrible to contemplate. Today, I’ll be examining two fallacies that likely come from an largely-overlapping set of people: those who consider themselves feminists. While I have no idea how common these views are among the general population or even among feminists themselves, they’ve come across my field of vision enough times to warrant a discussion. It’s worth noting up front that these lines of reasoning are by no means limited strictly to feminists; they just come to us from feminists in these instances. Also, I like the alliteration that singling that group brings in this case. So, without any further ado, let’s dive right in with our first fallacy.

Exhibit A: Colorful backgrounds do not a good argument make.

For those of you not in the know, the above meme is known as the “Critical Feminist Corgi”. The sentiment expressed by it – if you believe in equal rights, then you’re a feminist – has been routinely expressed by many others. Perhaps the most notable instance of the expression is the ever-quotable “feminism is the radical notion that women are people“, but it comes in more than one flavor. The first clear issue with the view expressed here is reality. One doesn’t have to look very far to find people who do not think men can be feminists. Feminist allies, maybe, but not true feminists; that label is reserved strictly for women, since it is a “woman’s movement”. If feminism was simply a synonym for a belief in equal rights or the notion that women are people, then that this disagreement even exists seems rather strange. In fact, were feminism a synonym for a belief in equal rights, then one would need to come to the conclusion that anyone who doesn’t think men can be feminists cannot be a feminist themselves (in much the same way that someone who believes in a god cannot also be an atheist; it’s simply definitional). If those who feel men cannot be feminists can themselves still be considered feminists (perhaps some off-brand feminist, but feminist nonetheless), then it would seem clear that the equal-rights definition can’t be right.

A second issue with this line of reasoning is more philosophical in nature. Let’s use the context of the corgi quote, but replace the specifics: if you believe in personal freedom, then you are a Republican. Here, the problems become apparent more readily. First, a belief in freedom is neither necessary or sufficient for calling oneself a Republican (unlike the previous atheist example, where a lack of belief is both necessary and sufficient). Second, the belief itself is massively underspecified. The boundary conditions on what “freedom” refers to are so vague that it makes the statement all but meaningless. The same notions can said to apply well to the feminism meme: a belief in equal rights is apparently neither necessary or sufficient, and what “equal rights” means depends on who you ask and what you ask about. Finally, and most importantly, the labels “Republican” and “Feminist” appear to represent approximate group-identifications; not a single belief or goal, let alone a number of them. The meme attempts to blur the line between a belief (like atheism) and group-identification (some atheist movement; perhaps the Atheism+ people, who routinely try to blur such lines).

That does certainly raise the question as to why people would try and blur that line, as well as why people would resist the blurring. I feel the answer to the former can be explained in a similar manner to why a cat’s threat display involves puffed-up fur and their backs arched: it’s an attempt to look larger and more intimidating than one actually is. All else being equal, aggressing against a larger or more powerful individual is costlier than the same aggression directed towards a less-intimidating one. Accordingly, it would seem to also follow that aggressing against larger alliances is costlier than aggressing against smaller ones. So, being able to suggest that approximately 62% of people are feminists makes a big difference, relative to suggesting that only 19% of people independently adopt the label. Of course, the 43% of people who didn’t initially identify as feminists might take some issue with their social support being co-opted: it forces an association upon them that may be detrimental to their interests. Further still, some of those within the feminist camp might also wish that others would not adopt the label for related reasons. The more feminists their are, the less social status can be derived from the label. If, for instance, feminism was defined as the belief that women are people, then pretty much every single person would be feminist, and being a feminist wouldn’t tell you much about that person. The signal value of the label gets weakened and the specific goals of certain feminists might become harder to achieve amongst the sea of new voices. This interaction between relative status within a group and signal value may well help us understand the contexts in which this blurring behavior should be expected to be deployed and resisted.

Exhibit B: Humor does not a good argument make either.

The second fallacy comes to us from Saturday Night Live, but they were hardly the innovators of this line of thought. The underlying idea here seems to be that men and women have different and relatively non-overlapping sets of best interests, and the men are only willing to support things that personally inconvenience them. Abortion falls on the female-side of the best interests, naturally. Again, this argument falters on both the fronts of reality and philosophy, but I’ll take them in reverse order this time. The philosophical fallacy being committed here is known as the Ecological Fallacy. In this fallacy, essentially, each individual is viewed as being a small representative of the larger group to which they belong.  An easy example is the classic one about height: just because men are taller than women on average, it does not mean that any given male you pull from the population will be taller than any given female. Another more complicated example could involve IQ. Let’s say you tested a number of men and women on an IQ test and found that men, on average, performed better. However, that gap may be due to some particularly well-performing outlier males. If that’s the case, it may be the case that the “average” man actually scores worse than the “average” woman by in large, but the skewed group distributions tell a different story.

Now, onto the reality issues. When it comes to question of whether gender is the metaphorically horse pulling the cart of abortion views, the answer is “no”. In terms of explaining the variance in support for abortion, gender has very little to do with it, with approximately equal numbers of men and women supporting and opposing it. A variable that seems to do a much better job of explaining the variance in views towards abortion is actually sexual strategy: whether one is more interested in short-term or long-term sexual relationships. Those who take the more short-term strategy are less interested in investing in relationships and their associated costs – like the burdens of pregnancy – and accordingly tend to favor policies and practices that reduce said costs, like available contraceptives and abortions. However, those playing a more long-term strategy are faced with a problem: if the costs to sex are sufficiently low and people are more promiscuous because of that, the value of the long-term relationships declines. This leads those attempting to invest in long-term strategies to support policies and practices that make promiscuity costlier, such as outlawing abortion and making contraceptives difficult to obtain. To the extent that gender can predict views on abortion (which is not very well to begin with), that connection is likely driven predominately by other variables not exclusive to gender.

We are again posed with the matter of why these fallacies are committed here. My feeling is that the tactic being used here is, as before, the manipulation of association values. By attempting to turn abortion into a gendered issue – one which benefits women, no less – the message that’s being sent is that if you oppose abortion, you also oppose most women. In essence, it attempts to make the opposition to abortion appear to be a more powerfully negative signal. It’s not just that you don’t favor abortion; it’s that you also hate women. The often-unappreciated irony of this tactic is that it serves to, at least in part, discredit the idea that we live in a deeply misogynistic society that is biased against women. If the message here is that being a misogynist is bad for your reputation, which it would seem to be, it would seem that state of affairs would only hold in a society where the majority of people are, in fact, opposed to misogyny. Were we to use a sports analogy, being a Yankee’s fan is generally tolerated or celebrated in New York. If that same fan travels to Boston, however, their fandom might now become a distinct cost, as not only are most people there not Yankee’s fans, but many actively despise their baseball rivals. The appropriateness and value of an attitude depends heavily on one’s social context. So, if the implication that one is a misogynist is negative, that tells you something important about the values of wider culture in which the accusation is made.

Unlike that degree in women’s studies.

I suppose the positive message to get from all this is that attitudes towards women aren’t nearly as negative as some feminists make them out to be. People tend to believe in equality – in the vague sense, anyway – whether or not they consider themselves feminists, and misogyny – again, in the vague sense – is considered a bad thing. However, if the perceptions about those things are open to manipulation, and if those perceptions can be used to persuade people to help you achieve your personal goals, we ought to expect people – feminist and non-feminist alike – to try and take advantage of that state of affairs. The point in these arguments, so to speak, is to be persuasive; not to be accurate (Mercier & Sperber, 2011). Accuracy only helps insomuch as it’s easier to persuade people of true things, relative to false ones.

References: Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34 (02), 57-74 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X10000968

Why Hang Them Separately When We Can Hang Them Together?

For those of you lucky enough to not have encountered it, there is a concept known as privilege that floats around in predominately feminist-leaning groups. The basic idea of the concept of privilege is that some groups of people have unearned social status or economic benefits provided to them strictly on the basis of their group membership. White people are supposed to be privileged over non-whites; men are supposed to be privileged over women; heterosexuals are supposed to be privileged over homosexuals. An official method for determining which groups are privileged over others appears to largely be absent, so the exercise tends to lean towards the infamous, “I know it when I see it” method of classification. That said, the unofficial method seems to be some combination of the Ecological and Apex fallacies. One curious facet of the idea of privilege is that it’s commonly used as a springboard for various types of moral condemnation. For instance, there are many who assert that sexism = power + prejudice, with power being equated with privilege. Accordingly, if you’re not privileged (i.e. not a male), you can’t be sexist. You can be discriminatory on the basis on sex if you’re a woman, but that is apparently something entirely different and worthy of a distinction (presumably because some people feel one ought to be more punishable than the other).

This sex-based discrimination was so accepted the first time they made a sequel.

Last Easter I discussed the curious case of morally punishing baseball batters for the misdeeds of baseball pitchers on the same team. Some similar underlying psychology seems to be at play in the case of privilege: people seem to perceive the moral culpability or welfare of all group members as being connected. In the case of privilege, if the top of the social hierarchy is predominantly male, males at the bottom of the hierarchy can be viewed as being similarly benefited, even if those men are obviously disadvantaged. In another case, white people might be viewed as being collectively complicit in harms done to non-whites, even if any contemporary white person clearly had no hand in the act, either directly or indirectly. For a final example, harms done to some specific women might be viewed as harms done to all women, with the suffering being co-opted by women who were never victimized by the act in question. Any plausible theory of morality that seeks to explain why people morally condemn others ought to be able to convincingly explain this idea of collective moral responsibility. Today I would like to examine what I consider to be the two major models for understanding moral judgments and see how they fare against a curious case of collective punishment: third-party punishment of genetic relatives of the perpetrator.

I’ll take those two matters in reverse order. A paper by Uhlmann et al (2012) sought to examine whether moral blameworthiness can spill over from the perpetrator to the blood relatives of the perpetrator, even if the perpetrator and their relative never knew one another. The first of the three studies in the paper looked at the misdeeds of someone’s grandfather in past generations. The 106 subjects read a story about Sal, whose grandfather owned a factory during the great depression and was exploitative of the workers. However, Sal received no direct benefit from this act (in that there was no inheritance left to him). Further, Sal’s grandfather was described as being either a biological relative or a non-biological one (only being related by marriage). Sal ended up winning the lottery and wanted to donate some of his winnings to a charity: either the descendants of some of the exploited workers (the purpose of which was to help them go to college) or a hungry children’s fund. Subjects were more likely to recommend that Sal donate money to the college fund of the exploited workers when his grandfather was a blood relative (M = 4.15) compared to when his grandfather was not (M = 5.28, where the scale was 1 to 9, with 1 representing donating to the college fund and a 9 representing donating to the hungry children). Obligations to try and right past wrongs appeared to transfer across generations to some extent.

The second study involved a case of a robbery/murder. A group of 191 subjects read a story about a man who killed a store clerk during a robbery. A video camera had managed to get a clear view of the perpetrator, but this was the only evidence to go on. Two possible perpetrators had been arrested for the crime on account of them looking identical to person in the video. Neither of these perpetrators knew the other, but in one case they were described as twins, whereas in the other they were described as not being related despite their similar appearance. The subjects were asked whether the two should be held in captivity while the police looked for more evidence or whether they should be let go until the matter was resolved (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing held in custody and 7 representing being let go until more evidence came in). The results showed that subjects were more willing to hold both in custody when they were twins (M = 3.03) relative to when they were not (M = 4.21). On top of transferring obligations, then, people also seemed somewhat willing to inflict costs on innocent relatives of a perpetrator.

Better kill them all, just to be on the safe-side

Of course, it’s not enough to just point out that moral judgments seem to have the capacity to be collective; one also needs to explain why this is the case. Collective punishment would seem to require that moral judgments make use of an actor’s identity, rather than an actor’s actions. Such an outcome appears to run directly counter to what is known as the dynamic coordination model (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013). In the dynamic coordination model, third-party moral condemners choose sides in a moral debate on the basis of an individual’s actions as a means to avoid discoordination with other condemners (simply put, you want to be on the side that most other people are, so people opt to use an individual’s actions to judge which side to take. In much the same way, drivers want to avoid hitting other cars, so they decide when to stop and go on the basis of a traffic light). In the case of collective punishment, however, there is no potentially condemnable action on the part of the person being punished. The dynamic coordination model would have to require the mere act of being associated in any way with a perpetrator to be morally condemnable as well for this kind of punishment to make sense. While there might be laws against certain acts – like killing and stealing – being related to someone who committed a crime is typically not against the law (at least not the best of my knowledge. I’ll check with my legal team and get back to you about that).

While the dynamic coordination model would seem to have a good deal of trouble accounting for collective moral judgments, an alliance model would not. As Ulhmann et al (2012) note, the threat of punishment for one’s social allies can serve as a powerful deterrent. This is a point I brought up previously when considering why reputations matter: if I were to harm anyone who associated with person X, regardless of whether the person I was harming actually did anything wrong themselves, any associations with person X naturally have become costlier. If people are disinclined to associate with person X, then person X is all the worse off for it and the punishment successfully reached its ultimate target. If social ties are cut, person X will find it increasing difficult to engage in many behaviors that might ultimately be detrimental to others. This raises a concern to be dealt with, though: in the Ulhmann et al (2012) stories, the kin of the perpetrator were not described as being social allies (just as white males are not all allies, despite them being lumped together in the same group by the privilege term). If they weren’t allies, how can an alliance model account for the collective punishment?

My answer to this concern would be as follows: existing social alliances might only be one proximate cue that moral systems use. The primary targets of collective punishment would seem to be those with whom the perpetrator is perceived to share welfare with, and not all welfare connections are going to be worth targeting, given the costs involved in punishment. My welfare is, all else being equal, more dependent on kin than non-kin. Accordingly, collective punishment directed at kin is likely to be even costlier for that perpetrator, making kin punishment particularly appealing for any moral condemners. This would leave us with the following prediction: the degree to which collective punishment is enacted ought to be mediated by the perception of the degree of shared welfare between the perpetrator and the person being punished. Kin should be punished more than non-kin; close allies should be punished more than distant ones; allies that offer substantial benefits to the perpetrator ought to be punished more than allies who offer more meager benefits. Further, this punishment presents the social allies of a perpetrator with new adaptive problems to solve, specifically: how do they trade-off distancing themselves enough from the perpetrator so as to avoid being condemned with the loss of benefits that such distancing can bring?

Crude, yet effective.

This brings me to one final question: are moral judgments ever impartial? My sense is that no, moral judgments are in fact never impartial. This point requires some clarification. The first point of clarification is that moral judgments can have the appearance of impartiality without actually being generated by mechanisms designed to bring that state of affairs about. In fact, we ought not expect any cognitive mechanisms to be designed to generate impartiality because impartiality per se – much like feeling good – doesn’t do anything useful. One useful outcome that being impartial might bring would be, as DeScioli & Kurzban (2013) suggest, being better able to coordinate with other third-party condemners. Of course, if the target behavior is being on the winning side of a dispute, then we ought to expect mechanisms designed to take sides contingent on which side already has a majority of the support. Those mechanisms, though, should rightly be considered partial, in that they are judging the identity of who is on whose side, rather than neutrally on the basis of who did what to whom. This should be expected, in that the latter is only important insomuch as it predicts the former; being impartial is only useful insomuch as it leads to one being partial.

Oh; I would also like to add that providing you with this analysis of collective punishment was my privilege.

References: DeScioli, P., & Kurzban, R. (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological Bulletin, 139 (2), 477-496 DOI: 10.1037/a0029065

Uhlmann, E., Zhu, L., Pizarro, D., & Bloom, P. (2012). Blood is thicker: Moral spillover effects based on kinship Cognition, 124 (2), 239-243 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.04.010

Tropes Against Video Games

Back in mid-May of last year, Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter project to help fund her video series on portrayals of women in video games called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”. Her initial goal was set at $6000 for a planned goal of making 5 videos (or so I can gather from the Kickstarter page), meaning that she wanted approximately $1200 per video. Her project ended up being funded at close to $160,000 and her intent grew to creating 12 videos. This means that, currently, she has successfully netted a little over $13,000 per video she intends to eventually release; an impressive feat. Her first video was released a few days ago (a few months late, relative to her stated delivery, but here nonetheless) and, hot-button topic that her project was, I felt inclined to watch it and see what $13,000 a video buys in terms of research quality, methodology, and explanatory power. From my impression of Anita’s first video, were I to work under the assumption that she was making a reasonable amount of money for her time, effort, and conclusions in this project, I think I could be so bold as to suggest that I’m wildly underpaid for what I do in terms of research and writing.

I may not be as well-paid, but I make up for it in smug self-satisfaction.

Since Anita suggests that it’s important to think critically about the more problematic aspects of things (in this case, the “damsel in distress” story found in some video games), I’m sure she would agree it would be important to think critically about what she presents in her first video, so let’s do just that. The gist of the video appeared to be that, as noted, women are sometimes portrayed as being placed into peril (typically by a male character) from which a male character saves them. How common are such portrayals in video games? That’s an excellent question; perhaps Anita could have mentioned some data that bear on the point. Are these portrayals more or less common in video games, relative to other forms of media, and have they been getting more or less common over time? Those are some other excellent questions, but you won’t find any discussion of them either. Of course, this was only part 1 of the video, so maybe Anita’s saving all of her research findings for part 2. After all, it would surely seem peculiar if, after asking for several thousand dollars to make these videos that she claimed would take her a substantial amount of time and research, she ended up releasing videos stating her preexisting opinions about the matter, putting very little actual research in. Peculiar indeed.

The first set of points that I would be critical about when evaluating this video, then, is that, in the roughly 25 minutes of it, she presents almost nothing that would typically fall under the umbrella of what many people would consider research: there’s no methodology mentioned, no data presented, and there’s no discussion of how she reached the conclusions that she does. What she does present are some anecdotes and a few assertions. Here’s a good for-instance: Anita notes that the theme of “man-saving-woman” is at least several thousand years old. Despite noting this, she then goes on to suggest that, in 1933, there were two things (Popeye and King Kong, apparently) that led to this theme becoming a foundational element in video games 50 years later. Is this theme a foundational element in gaming? Maybe, but from what Anita presents in her video there’s no way to know (a) what she means by “foundational element”, (b) whether she was correct in that assessment, or (c) whether her posited causal link even exists. That is, if Popeye and King Kong never existed, would video games have come to represent this damsel in distress story line as frequently or infrequently as they do? Given that this theme is at least as old as recorded history accordingly to Anita, one could reasonably suggest that Popeye and King Kong did very little stage-setting at all.

What is notably absent from Anita’s video – on top of any mention of methodology or data – is any attempt at an explanation as for why this theme appears to be relatively ubiquitous. Lacking anything resembling a formal explanation concerning this theme’s popularity, much less any attempts at ruling out alternative explanations, Anita sticks largely to just noting that the theme exists in some unspecified proportion of games and that she doesn’t seem to like it very much. So, to recap, that’s no mention of a method, findings, or an explanation of the topic being investigated. Of course, I’m not here to just be critical of the fact that this video likely cost her backers approximately $260 per minute to make, by my estimation, and ended up with nothing of value to show for it; I also want to see if whether, in a few minutes, I can do better than Anita in discussing important questions, analyzing data, and explaining the issues.

“On your mark, get set…Hey, how come only men are racing in this picture?!”

So why might it be that it’s typically men who are portrayed as the saver of the woman, rather than the reverse? Why might it be that men are portrayed as predominately trying to save women, rather than other men? In order to answer those questions, it is helpful to first consider a third question: why is it the case that when a species of animal has one sex that displays a costly ornament – like peacocks – or one sex that engages in costly competition – like bowerbirds or rams – that this sex is most frequently the males? Here’s one candidate explanation that doesn’t work: peacocks have evolved such decorative plumes that they display for peahens in order to reduce the peahens to mere objects. The display itself serves the function of reducing peahens to powerless objects so that male peacocks can thus be empowered protagonists in their own male power fantasies. Though this explanation might sound silly on the grounds that you think that peacocks and peahens don’t think that way, there’s a better reason for discounting such an explanation: objectifying one sex to empowering the other doesn’t do anything biologically useful. As the explanation stands, it’s incomplete at best. Rather than explaining the phenomenon in question, the explanation phase is just pushed back one step to: why would peacocks benefit by objectify peahens? Where’s the reproductive payoff for a psychology that did that?

Here’s an altogether more plausible alternative explanation: peacocks have evolved this trait and display it because peahens were more inclined to mate with males that had larger, costlier, and harder-to-fake signals of phenotypic quality (Zahavi, 1975). Peahens favored such males because these costly signals served as viable reproductive guarantees of healthy offspring, and male behavior and physiology changed to suit the preferences of females so as to capitalize on the increased potential for reproduction. Peacocks behave this certain way, then, to attract mates; not to objectify or disempower them. To couch this in terms of a specific video game example Anita mentions, Mario doesn’t rush into Bowser’s castle in order to reduce Princess Peach to a helpless object; he does so because, by doing so, he’s increasing the chances he’ll have the opportunity to have or maintain a relationship with her (though whether or not this is his conscious motivating drive is a separate question).

With this explanation in mind, let’s do our best to imagine that peacocks and peahens decided to do distinctly human-like things, such as fantasizing and telling stories. What would the content of such things tend to be,? It seems that the sex of the individual in question would matter a great deal: the males might be enthralled by imagining tales of conflicts between other males with impressive ornaments, both displaying them for a desired female, and fantasize about displaying such an impressive ornament that the female who observed it couldn’t help but fall madly in love with him. Females, on the other hand, might find stories about other females deciding between their various competitors to be altogether more engaging, fantasizing about the social intricacies of deciding upon one male or another. You could think the distinction being something along the lines of the peacocks enjoying movies more along the lines of Die Hard and peahens being more inclined towards Twilight. Both stories involve a good deal of male-male competition, but the focus of the story would either center on the male or female perspective in that competition.

Let’s finally assume that this species of bird came across the technological capabilities to translate their fantasies into video games. Arguably, it’s easier to translate certain aspects of the the typical male fantasy into something resembling a video game that’s entertaining to play. While one could easily imagine a game where a peacock moves from level to level by out-competing his rivals, it’s less easy to imagine a game centered around female choice of partners (more succinctly, while Twilight might make an appealing series of books and movies, it might not make a good video game). Tying this back to Anita’s video, she seems to suggest that male video game designers are trying to tap into male power fantasies to sell more video games and, importantly, that they do this to the exclusion of women. What she did not seem to consider are two alternative explanations: (1) how easily are typically male and female fantasies turned into entertaining video games and/or (2) are the people making these games simply expressing their own preferences for what they find appealing, rather than trying to explicitly appeal to the preferences of others? Regarding that second point, imagine asking men to write a story that they were either trying to sell or not sell: would the content of these stories between the two groups differ significantly in terms of major themes, like the use of a damsel in distress? Certainly an interesting question: perhaps it’s one that Anita might have considered answering…

Or, you know, she could just take pictures in front of video games; that works too.

So we now have the beginnings of a plausible explanation for understanding the first question (why are men typically rescuing women, rather than the reverse) and have considered some alternative explanations as to why such a theme might be as common as it is across time and genres. It might not be too much, but it’s at least a start, providing us with some considerations that help us interpret the meager amount of information Anita offers.

To conclude, let’s briefly consider further why some of Anita’s beliefs about the motivations of male video game characters and designers, are, at the very least, likely in need if revision. There is another research finding that casts severe doubt on the “men view women as helpless objects in need of saving” angle that Anita seems to favor. When a mixed-sex group of 3 people was made up of 2 men and 1 woman, men were found to universally volunteer and end up in a role that caused them discomfort; what awful paternalistic sexist crap, right? Surely women could handle that discomfort just as well as the men, so men must be pushing women out of the hero role to fulfill their own power fantasies. By contrast, however, when then groups were made up of 1 man and 2 women, men ended up in this “protective” role at chance levels (McAndrew & Perilloux, 2012). So unless the hypothesis is to be amended to “men tend to view women as powerless and in need of rescue but only in the presence of other men (or, perhaps, when women are relatively scarce); oh, and also women tend feel the same way about the whole being protected by men thing”, one could conclude there’s likely some wrong with Anita’s hypothesis. If only she had done some kind of research to figure that out…

(I’d also like to note, as a bit of off-topic point, the apparent contrast between Anita’s proposed videos #4 and #9. It looks like she’s exploring the trope of women being sexy and evil in 4, and the trope of being unattractive and evil in 9, both of which are apparently unacceptable. Damned if the villainess is attractive; damned if she isn’t. But hey, only an approximate $260 per minute for this knowledge, right?)

References: McAndrew, F.T. & Perilloux, C. (2012). Is self-sacrifical competitive altruism primarily a male activity? Evolutionary Psychology, 10, 50-65

Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection—A selection for a handicap Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53 (1), 205-214 DOI: 10.1016/0022-5193(75)90111-3





“Nice Guys”, The Friend Zone, And Social Semantics

A little over a year ago, a video entitled, “Why men and women can’t be friends” was uploaded to YouTube. In the video, a man approaches various men and women and presents them with the question, “can men and women just be friends?”. While many of the woman answered in the affirmative, most of the men seemed to answer in the negative, suggesting that men would generally be interested in something more; something sexual. When asked about whether their male friends were interested in having sex them, many of the women seemed to similarly acknowledge that, yes, their male friends probably were interested, so maybe there was more lurking behind that “just friendship”. In a follow-up video, the same man asked whether it would be alright for people in relationships to hang out alone with same-sex friends. While the men seemed to be of relatively one mind (no, it would not be appropriate), women, again, initially stated that opposite-sex friends are fine. However, when confronted with the possibility of their significant other hanging out alone with a member of opposite-sex, the tune seemed to change dramatically: now men and women agreed that they would, indeed, be bothered by that state of events.

“And here I thought his sudden interest in jogging was purely platonic”

So why the discrepancy in women’s responses, but not men’s? Perhaps it’s simply due to the magic of video editing, where only certain responses were kept to make a point, but, working under the assumption that’s not happening, I think there’s something interesting going on here. Understanding what that something is will require us to dig deeper into two concepts that have been floating around for some time: “the friend zone” and “Nice guys”. The friend zone, as many of you know, refers to the context where someone wants a relationship with another, but that other doesn’t return the affection. Since the interest isn’t mutual, the party interested in the relationship settles for a friendship with the target of their affections, often with the hope that someday things will change. “Nice guys” on the other hand, are typically men who are stuck in the friend zone and, upon the eventual realization that their friendship will probably not transition into a relationship, become irritated with the person they were interested in, resulting in the friendship being called off and feelings being hurt. The friendship, after all, is not what they were after; they wanted the full relationship (or at least an occasional hook up).

“Nice guys”, in other words, are only being nice because they want to get sex, so they’re not really nice, people seem to feel; hence the quotation marks. Further, “nice guys” are frequently socially maligned, seemingly because of their (actually held or assumed to be held) attitude that women are obligated to have sex or start a relationship with them because they are nice (whether any substantial number of them consciously think this is another matter entirely). Alternatively, “nice guys” are looked down on because they view the friendship – or the friend zone – as, at best, a consolation prize to what they were actually going after or, at worst, something they couldn’t care less about having. The nerve of these people; insisting that just a friendship isn’t enough! There are some very peculiar things about the label of “nice guy”, though; things that don’t quite fit at first glance. The first of these is that the earning of the “nice guy” label appears to be contingent on the target of the affections not returning them. If whomever the “nice guy” is interested in does return the affections, there is no way to tell whether he was “nice guy” or one of those actually nice guys. In other words, you could have two identical guys enacting identical sets of behavior right up to the moment of truth: if the target returns the man’s affections, he’s a nice guy; if she doesn’t and the man doesn’t find that state of affairs satisfactory, he is now a “nice guy”; not a nice guy.

That, however, is only a surface issue. The much more substantial issue is in the label itself, which would, given its namesake, seem to imply that the problem is the nice behavior of the guys, rather than the attitude of entitlement that the label is ostensibly aimed at. This is very curious. If the entitled attitude is what is supposed to be the problem of the people this term is aimed at, why would the label focus on their otherwise nice behavior; behavior that might not differ in any substantial way from the behavior of genuine nice guys? Further, why is the label male-specific (it’s “nice guys” not “nice people”, and even when it’s a woman doing it, well, she’s just being a “nice guy” too)? With these two questions in mind, we’re now prepared to begin to tackle the initial question: why do women’s response to the friendship questions, but not men’s, seem discrepant?

“Thanks for taking me shopping; I’m so lucky to have a friend like you…”

Let’s take the questions in a partially-reversed order: the first is why the term focuses on the nice behavior. The answer here is would seem to revolve around the matter of cooperation and reciprocity more generally. In the social world, when an altruistic individual provides you with a benefit at a cost to themselves, the altruist generally expects repayment at some point down the line. It’s what’s called reciprocal altruism – or, less formally, cooperation – and forms the backbone of pretty much every successful social relationship among non-kin (Trivers, 1971). However, sometimes relationships are not quite as reciprocal in nature: one individual will continuously reap the benefits of altruism without returning them in kind. Names for those types of individuals abound, though the most common are probably exploiters or cheaters. Having a reputation as a cheater is, generally speaking, bad for business when it comes to making and maintaining friendships, so it’s helpful to maintain a good reputation amongst others.

The implications for why the “nice guy” label focuses on otherwise nice behavior should be immediately apparent: if someone is behaving nicely towards you – even if that nice behavior might be unwanted – it creates the expectation of reciprocity, both among the altruist and potentially other third parties. Failing to return the favor, then, can make one look like a social cheater. This obviously puts the recipient in a bind: while they would certainly like to enjoy the benefits of the nice individual’s behavior (free meals, social support, and so on), they don’t want to have the obligation to repay it if it’s avoidable (it’s that expectation that makes people uncomfortable about accepting gifts; not because they don’t want said gifts). So how can that obligation be effectively avoided? One way seems to be to question the altruist’s motives: if the altruist was only giving to get something else (like sex), and if that something else is viewed to be of substantially more valuable than what was initially given (also like sex tends to be), one can frame the ostensible altruist as the exploiter, the cheater, or, in this case, the “nice guy”. If a woman wants to either (a) reap the benefits of nice guys, (b) avoid the costs in not reciprocating what the nice guy wants, or (c) both, then the label of “nice guy” can be quite effective. Since there behavior wasn’t actually nice, there’s no need to reciprocate it.

Bear in mind, none of this needs to be consciously entertained. In fact, in some cases it’s better to not have conscious awareness of such things. For instance, to make that reframing (nice to “nice”) more successful, the person doing the reframing has to come off as having innocent motives themselves: if the woman in question was explicit about her desire to take advantage of men’s niceness towards her with no intentions of any repayment, she’s back to being the cheater in the situation (just as the “nice guy’s” behavior is back to just being plain old nice, if a bit naive). Understanding this point helps us answer the third question: why are women’s responses to the friendship question seemingly discrepant? Conscious awareness of these kinds of mental calculations will typically do a woman no favors, as they might “leak out” into the world, so to speak. To think of it in another way, you’ll have an easier time trying to convince people that you didn’t do something wrong if you legitimately can’t access any memories of you doing something wrong (as opposed to having access to those memories and needing to suppress them). To relate this to the answers in the videos, when a woman is receiving benefits from her male friends, keeping the knowledge that her male friends are trying to get something more from her out of mind can help her defend against the criticism of being a social cheater, as well as avoid the need to pay her male friends back. On the other hand, when it’s her boyfriend who’s now being “nice” to other women, there are benefits to her being rather aware of the underlying motives.

“I swear I was just giving her my opinion about her new bra as a friend!”

Finally, we turn to the answer to second question, the answer to which ought to be obvious by now: why is the “nice guy” term male-specific? This answer has a lot to do with the simple fact that, all else being equal, women do prefer men who invest in them, both in the short and long term, but investment plays a substantially lessened role for women in drawing and maintaining male interest (Buss, 2003). Put simply, males invest because females tend to find that investment attractive. So, to sum up, women want to receive investment and males are generally willing to provide that investment. However, male investment typically comes contingent on the possibility or reality of mating, and when that possibility is withdrawn, so too does male investment wane. The term “nice guy” might serve to both avoid the costs that come with receiving that investment but not returning it, as well as a potential shaming tactic for men who withdraw their niceness when it becomes clear that niceness will not pay off as intended. Similarly, a woman might doubt her partner’s “niceness” when it’s directed towards another. This analysis, however, only examines the female-end of things; males face a related set of problems, just from a different angle. Further, the underlying male strategy is, I assure you, not any less strategic.

References: Buss, D. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. Basic Books: New York

Trivers, R. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism The Quarterly Review of Biology, 46 (1) DOI: 10.1086/406755

Why Does Stephen Hate Bob (More Than His Wife)?

“If a wife left her husband with three kids and no job/ to run off to fuck in Hawaii with some doctor named Bob/ you could skin them and drain them of blood so they die…especially Bob. Then you would be justice guy”. – Stephen Lynch, “Superhero”

For those of you not in the know, Stephen Lynch is a popular comedic musician. In the song, “Superhero”, Stephen gives the above description of what he would do were he “Justice Guy”. As one can gather, in this story, Stephen’s wife has run off with another man, resulting in Mr. Lynch temporarily experiencing a Predator-like urge for revenge. The interesting thing about this particular song is the emphasis that Stephen puts on his urge to kill Bob. It’s interesting in that it doesn’t make much sense, morally speaking: it’s not as if Bob, a third party who was not involved in any kind of relationship with Stephen, had any formal obligation to respect the boundaries of Stephen’s relationship with his wife. Looking out for the relationship, it seems, ought to have been his wife’s job. She was the person who had the social obligation to Stephen that was violated, so it seems the one who Stephen ought to mad at (or, at least madder at) would be his wife. So why does Stephen wish to especially punish Bob?

“I swear I’ll get you Bob, even if it’s the last thing I do!”

There are two candidate explanations I’d like to consider today to help explain the urge for this kind of Bob-specific punishment: one is slightly more specific to the situation at hand and the other applies to punishment interactions more generally, so let’s start off with the more specific case. Stephen wants his wife to behave cooperatively in terms of their relationship, and she seems less than willing to do so herself; presumably, some mating mechanisms in her brain is suggesting that the payoffs would be better for her to ditch her jobless husband to run off with a wealthy, high-status doctor. In order to alter the cost/benefit ratio to certain actions, then, Stephen entertains the idea of enacting punishment. If Stephen’s punishment makes his wife’s infidelity costlier than remaining faithful, her behavior will likely adjust accordingly. While punishing his wife can potentially be an effective strategy for enforcing her cooperation, it’s also a risky venture for Stephen on two fronts: (1) too much punishing of his wife – in this case, murder, though it need not be that extreme – can be counterproductive to his goals, as it would render her less able to deliver the benefits she previously provided to the relationship; the punishment might also be counterproductive because (2) the punishment makes the relationship less valuable still to his wife as new costs mount, resulting in her urge to abandon the relationship altogether for a better deal elsewhere growing even stronger.

The punishing of potential third parties – in this case, Bob – does not hold these same costs, though. Provided Bob was a stranger, Stephen doesn’t suffer any loss of benefits, as benefits were never being provided by Bob in the first place. If Stephen and Bob were previously cooperating in some form the matter gets a bit more involved, but we won’t concern ourselves with that for now; we’ll just assume the benefits his wife could provide are more valuable than the ones Bob could. With regard to the second cost – the relationship becoming costlier for the person punishment is directed at – this is, in fact, not a cost when that punishment is directed at Bob, but rather the entire point. If the relationship is costlier for a third party to engage in, due to the prospect of a potentially-homicidal partner, that third party may well think twice before deciding whether to pursue the affair any further. Punishing Bob would seem to look like the better option, then. There’s just one major hitch: specifically, punishing is costly for Stephen, both in terms of time, energy, and risk, and he may well need to direct punishment towards far more targets if he’s attempting to prevent his wife from having sex with other people.

Punishing third parties versus punishing one’s partner can be thought of, by way of analogy, to treating the symptoms or the cause of a disease, respectively. Treating the symptoms (deterring other interested men), in this case, might be cheaper than treating the underlying cause on an individual basis, but you may also need to continuously treat the symptoms (if his wife is rather interested with the idea of having affairs more generally). Depending on the situation, then, it might be ultimately cheaper and more effective to treat either the cause or the symptoms of the problem. It’s probably safe to assume that the relative cost/benefit calculations being worked out cognitively might ultimately be represented to some degree in our desires: if some part of Stephen’s mind eventually comes to the conclusion, for whatever reasons, that punishing one or more third parties would be the cheaper of the two options, he might end up feeling especially interested in punishing Bob.

All things considered, I’d say Bob had a pretty good run…

There is another, unexamined, set of costs, though, which brings us to the more general account. Stephen is not deciding whether to punish his wife and/or Bob in a social vacuum: what other people think about his punishment decisions will, in turn, likely effect Stephen’s perceptions of their attractiveness as options. If people are relatively lined up behind Stephen’s eventual decision, punishment suddenly becomes far less costly for Stephen to implement; by contrast, if others feel Stephen has gone to far and they align against him, his punishment would now become costlier and less effective (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2012). This brings us to a question I’ve raised before: would Stephen’s punishing of Bob result in the same social costs as the same punishment directed towards his wife? Strictly on the grounds that Bob is a man and Stephen’s wife is a woman, the answer to that question would seem to be “no”.

A paper by Glaeser and Sacerdote (2003) examined whether victim characteristics (like age and gender) were predictive of sentencing lengths for various crimes. The authors examined a sample of 1,772 cases in which manslaughter or murder charges were brought and a sentence was delivered, either due to a plea bargain or a conviction. Some of the expected racial bias seemed to raise its head, in that when the victim in question was black, the person sentenced for the killing was given less time (17.6 years, on average), overall, than when the victim was white (19.8 years). As was also the case in my last discussion of this topic, when the victim was a woman, sentence lengths were substantially shorter than when the victim was a man (17.5 vs 22.4 years, respectively). The difference is even starker when you consider the interaction between the gender of the person doing and kill and the gender of the person who got killed: when the victim was a man, if the killer was also a man, he would get about 18 years, on average; if the killer was a woman, that number drops to 11.3. For comparison’s sake, when the victim was a woman and the killer a woman, she would get about 17.5 years; if the killer was a man, that average was 23.1 years.

Those numbers, however, refer to all types of killings, so the sample was further restricted to vehicular homicides (about 7% of all homicides); essentially cases of people being killed by drunk drivers. These cases in particular are interesting because the victims here are, more or less, random; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were not being targeted. Since these killings are relatively random, so to speak, the characteristics of the victim should be irrelevant to sentencing length, but they again were not. In these cases, if the person driving the car and doing the killing was a woman, she could expect a sentence of about 3 years for killing a man and 4.5 for killing another woman. If you replace the driver with a male, those numbers rise to 4.7 and 10.4 years respectively. Killing a woman netted a higher sentence in general, no matter your gender, but being a man doing the killing put you in an especially bad situation.

“Oh, good; we only hit a man. I was worried for a second there.”

So where does all that leave Stephen? If other people are more likely to align against Stephen for punishing his wife, relative to his punishing Bob, that, to some extent, makes the appeal of threatening or harming Bob seem (proportionally) all the sweeter. This analysis is not specifically targeted at gender (or race, or age), but at social value more generally. When deciding who to align with in these kinds of moral contexts, we should expect people to do so, in part, by cognitively computing (though not necessarily consciously) where their social investments will be most likely to yield a good return. Of course, determining the social value of others is not always easy task, as the variables which determine it will vary both in content and degree across people and across time. The larger point is simply that one’s social value can be determined not only by what you think of them, but by what others think of them as well. So even though Stephen’s wife was the only person cheating, Bob gets to be the party more likely to targeted for punishment, in no small part because of his gender.

References: Descioli, P. & Kurzban, R. (2012). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological Bulletin, 1-20.

Glaeser, E., & Sacerdote, B. (2003). Sentencing in Homicide Cases and the Role of Vengeance The Journal of Legal Studies, 32 (2), 363-382 DOI: 10.1086/374707

My Eyes Are Up Here (But My Experiences Aren’t)

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, objectification is a central notion to feminist theory. Among the listed features of objectification found there, I’d like to focus on number seven in particular: 

Denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Non-living objects – and even some living ones – are not typically perceived to have a mind capable of experiences. Cars, for instance, are not often thought of as possessing the capacity to experience things the way sentient beings do, like pain or sound (though that doesn’t always stop drivers from verbally bargaining with their cars or physically hitting them when they “refuse” to start). Accordingly, people find different behaviors more socially justifiable when they’re directed towards an object, as opposed to a being capable of having subjective experiences. For instance, many people might say that it’s morally wrong to hit a person, because, in part, being hit hurts; hitting a car, by contrast, while silly or destructive, isn’t as morally condemned, as the car feels no pain. As people generally don’t wish to be treated in the same fashion as objects, their objections or being objectified would seem to follow naturally.

It has often been asserted that focusing on someone’s (typically a woman’s) physical characteristics (typically the sexual ones) results in the objectification of that person; objectification which strips them of their mind, and with it their capacity for experiences. They’re reduced to the status of “tool” for sexual pleasure, rather than “person”. This assertion makes a rather straightforward prediction: increasing the focus on someone’s body ought to diminish perceptions of their capacity to experience things.

Like the pain of his daily steroid injections.

When that prediction was put to the test by Gray et al (2011), however, the researchers found precisely the opposite pattern of results across six experiments: increasing the focus on a person’s physical characteristics resulted in the perception that the person was more capable of subjective experiences. In the first of these experiments, subjects were presented with either a male or female face alone, or those same faces complete with a portion of their exposed upper body, followed by questions about the ability of the pictured person to do (behave morally, control themselves) or feel (hunger, desire) certain things, relative to others. When more of the person’s body was on display, they were rated as slightly less likely to be able to do things (2.90 vs 3.23 out of 5), but slightly more able to experience things (3.65 vs 3.38), relative to the face-alone condition. It’s also worth noting that a score of 3 on this scale denoted being average, relative to others, in either agency or experience, so showing more skin certainly didn’t remove the perception of the person having a mind (they were still about average); it just altered what kind of mind was being perceived.

The basic effect was replicated in the second of these studies. Subjects were asked to assess pictures of two women along either physical or professionalism variables. Subsequently, the subjects were asked which of two women they thought was more capable of doing or feeling certain things as before.  When the woman in the picture had been assessed along the physical variables, they were rated as being slightly more capable of experiences, but slightly less agentic; when that same woman was instead assessed along the professionalism variables, the reverse pattern held – more agency and less patiency.

The researchers turned up the sex in the next two studies. In the third experiment, subjects saw one of ten target men or women in a picture, either clothed or naked (with the sexy parts tastefully blurred, of course), and assessed the target along the same agency or experiential dimensions. The naked targets were rated as having a greater capacity for experience, relative to their clothed pictures (3.28 vs 3.18), while also having less agency (2.92 vs 3.26). Further, though I didn’t mention this before, it was the female targets that were ascribed more overall mind in this study, as was also the case in the first study, though this difference was small (just to preemptively counter the notion that women were being universally perceived as having less of a mind). On a possibly related note, there was also a positive correlation between target attractiveness and mind perception: the more attractive the person in the picture was, the more capable of agency and experience they was rated as being.

Taking that last experiment one step further, one of the female targets that had previously been represented was again presented to subjects either clothed or naked, but a third condition was added: that woman also happened to have done an adult film, and the (highly sexualized) picture of her on the cover was rated along the same dimensions as the other two. In terms of her capacity for agency, there was a steady decline over the clothed, naked, and sexualized pictures (2.92, 2.76, and 2.58), whereas there was a steady incline on the experiential dimension (2.91, 3.18, and 3.45). Overall, the results really do make a for a very good-looking graph.

Results  so explicit they might not be suitable for minors

Skipping the fifth study, the final experiment looked at how a person might be treated, contingent on how much skin is on display. Subjects were presented with a picture of a male confederate who was hooked up to some electrodes and either clothed or shirtless. It was the subject’s job to decide which tasks to give to the confederate (i.e. have the confederate do task X or task Y), and some of those tasks ostensibly involved painful shocks. The subjects were told to only administer as many shock tasks as they thought would be safe, as their goal was to protect the confederate (while still gathering shock data, that is). Of interest was how often the subjects decided to assign the shock task to the confederate out of the 40 opportunities they had to do so. In the shirtless condition, the subjects tended to think of the confederate more in terms of his body rather than his mind, as was hoped; they also liked the confederate just as much, no matter his clothing situation. Also, as predicted, subjects administered fewer shocks to the shirtless confederates (8 times, on average, as compared with almost 14). Focusing on a person’s body seemed to make these subjects less inclined to hurt them, fitting nicely with the increases we just saw in perceptions of capacity for experience.

Just to summarize, focusing on someone’s physical characteristics, whether that someone was a man or a woman, did not lead to diminished attributions of their capacity to have experiences; just their agency. People were perceiving a mind in the “objectified” targets; they were just perceiving different sorts – or focusing on different aspects – of minds. Now perhaps some people might counter that this paper doesn’t tell us much about objectification because there wasn’t any – sexual or otherwise – going on, as “sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own“. Indeed, all the targets in these experiments were viewed as having both experiences and agency, and the ratings of those two dimensions hovered closely around the midpoints of the scales; they clearly weren’t be viewed as mindless objects in any meaningful sense, so maybe there was no objectification going on here. However, the same website that provided the sexual objectification definition goes on to list pornography and the representation of women in media as good examples of sexual objectification, both of which could be considered to have been represented in the current paper. For such a criticism to have any teeth, the use of the term “objectification” would need to be reined in substantially, restricted to cases where depersonalization actually occurs (meaning things like pointing a video camera at someone’s body don’t qualify).

While these results are all pretty neat, one thing this paper seriously wants for is an explanation for them. Gray et al (2011) only redescribe their findings in terms of “common-sense dualism”, which is less than satisfying and it doesn’t seem to account for the findings on attractiveness very well either. The question they seem to be moving towards involves examining the ways we perceive others more generally; when and why certain aspects of someone’s mind become relatively more salient. Undoubtedly, the ways these perceptions shift will turn out to be quite complex and context-specific. For instance, if I was going in for, say, a major operation, I might be very interested in, to some extent, temporarily “reducing” the person doing my surgery from a complex person with all sorts of unique attributes and desires to being simply a surgeon because, at that moment, their other non-surgery-related traits aren’t particularly relevant.

“A few more people are coming over for dinner; which of you guys are the flattest?”

While it’s not particularly poetic, what’s important in that situation – and many other situations more generally – is whether the person in question can help you do something useful; whether they’re a useful “tool” for the situation at hand (admittedly, they’re rather peculiar kinds of tools that need to be properly motivated to work, but the analogy works well enough). If you need surgery, someone’s value as a mate won’t be particularly relevant there; after you’ve recovered, left the hospital, and found a nice bar, the situation might be reversed. Which of a person’s traits are most worthy of focus will depend on the demands of the task at hand: what goals are being sought, how they might be achieved, and whom they might be most profitably achieved with. Precisely what problem the aforementioned perceptual shifts between agency and experience are supposed to solve – what useful thing they allow the perceivers to do – is certainly a matter worthy of deeper consideration for anyone interested in objectification.

References: Gray, K., Knobe, J., Sheskin, M., Bloom, P., & Barrett, L. (2011). More than a body: Mind perception and the nature of objectification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (6), 1207-1220 DOI: 10.1037/a0025883

The Sometimes Significant Effects Of Sexism

Earlier this week I got an email from a reader, Patrick, who recommended I review a paper entitled, “More than “just a joke”: The prejudice-releasing function of sexist humor” by Ford et al (2007). As I happen to find discussions of sexism quite interesting and this article reviewable, I’m happy to share some of my thoughts about it. I would like to start by noting that the title of the article is a bit off-putting for me due to the author’s use of word “function”. While I’m all for more psychological research taking a functionalist perspective, their phrasing would, at least in my academic circle, carry the implication that the use of sexist humor evolved because of its role in releasing prejudice, and I’m fairly certain that is not the conclusion that Ford et al (2007) intended to convey. Though Ford et al (2007) manage to come close to something resembling a functionalist account (there is some mention of costs and the avoiding of them), it’s far from close enough for the coveted label of “function” to be applied. Until their account has been improved in that regard, I feel the urge to defend my academic semantic turf.

So grab your knife and best dancing shoes.

Concerning the study itself, Ford et al (2007) sought to demonstrate that sexist humor would lead men who were high in “hostile sexism” to act in a discriminatory fashion towards women. Broadly speaking, the authors suggest that people who hold sexist beliefs often try to suppress the expression of those beliefs in the hopes of avoiding condemnation by others who are less sexist; however, when condemnation is perceived to be unlikely, those who hold sexist beliefs will stop suppressing them, at least to some extent. The authors further suggest that humor can serve to create an atmosphere where condemnation of socially unpopular views is perceived as less likely. Stringing this all together, we end up with the conclusion that sexist humor can create an environment that sexist men will perceive as more welcoming for their sexist attitudes, which they will subsequently be more likely to express.

Across two studies, Ford et al (2007) found support for this conclusion. In the first study, male subject’s hostile sexism scores were assessed through the “Ambivalent Sexism Inventory” 2 to 4 weeks prior to the study. The study itself involved presenting the males with one of three vignettes that included sexist jokes, sexist statements, or neutral jokes, followed by asking them how much they would hypothetically be willing to donate to a woman’s organization. The results showed that while measures of hostile sexism alone did not predict how much men were willing to donate, when confronted with sexist humor, those men who scored higher on the sexism measure tended to donate less of their hypothetical $20 to a woman’s group. Further, neither the sexist statements or neutral joke conditions had any effect on a man’s willingness to donate, regardless of his sexism score. In fact, though it was not significant, men who scored higher in hostile sexism were more likely to donate more to a woman’s group relative to those who scored low, following the sexist statements.

There are two important points to consider regarding this first set of findings. The first of these points relates to the sexist statement condition: if the mechanism through which Ford et al (2007) are proposing hostile sexism becomes acted upon is the perception of tolerance of sexist beliefs, the sexist statements condition is rather strange. In that condition, it would appear rather unambiguous that there is a local norm for the acceptance of sexism against women, yet the men high in sexism don’t seem to “release” theirs. This is a point that the authors don’t engage with, and that seems like a rather major oversight. My guess is that the point isn’t engaged in because it would be rather difficult for the author’s model to account for, but perhaps they had some other reason for not considering it (even though it easily could have easily and profitably been examined in their second study). The second point that I wanted to deal with concerns the way in which Ford et al (2007) seem to write about sexism. Like many people (presumably) concerned about sexism, they only appear concerned with one specific type of sexism: the type where men appear biased against women.

“If he didn’t want to get hit, he shouldn’t have provoked her!”

For instance, in the first study, the authors report, truthfully, that men higher in hostile sexism tended to donate less to a woman’s group then men lower in hostile sexism did. What they do not explicitly mention is how those two groups compare to a control: the neutral joke condition. Regardless of one’s sexism score, people donated equally in the neutral condition. In the sexist joke condition, those men high in hostile sexism donate less, relative to the neutral condition; on the other hand, those men low in hostile sexism donated more in the sexist humor condition, relative to the neutral control. While the former is taken as an indication of a bias against women, the latter is not discussed as a bias in favor of women. As I’ve written about before, only discussing one set of biases does not appear uncommon when it comes to sexism research, and I happen to find that peculiar. This entire study is dedicated towards looking at the result of ostensibly sexist attitudes held by men against women; there is no condition where women’s biases (either towards men or women) are assessed before and after hearing sexist jokes about men. Again, this is a rather odd omission if Ford et al (2007) are seeking to study gender biases (that is, unless the costs for expressing sexist beliefs are lower for women, though this point is never talked about either). The authors do at least mention in a postscript that women’s results on the hostile sexism scale don’t predict their attitudes towards other women, which kind of calls into question what this measure of “hostile sexism” is actually supposed to be measuring (but more on that later).

The second study had a few (only 15 per condition) male subjects watching sexist or non-sexist comedic skits in small groups, after which they were asked to fill out a measure concerning how they would allocate a 20% budget cut among 5 different school groups, one of which was a woman’s group (the others were an African American, Jewish, study abroad, and Safe Arrival for Everyone). Following this, subjects were asked how people in their group might approve of their budget cuts, as well as how others outside of the group might approve of their cuts. As before, those who were higher in hostile sexism were more likely to reduce more of the budget of the woman’s group, but only in the sexist joke condition. Those with higher hostile sexism scores were also more likely to deduct more money from the African American group as well, but only in the neutral humor condition, though little is said about this effect (the authors do mention it is unlikely to be driven by the same mechanism; I think it might just reflect chance). Those in the high sexism, sexist humor group were also likely to believe that others in their condition would approve of their budget reductions to the woman’s group, though they were no more likely to think students at large would approve of their budget cuts than other groups.

The sample size for this second study is a bit concerning. There were 30 subjects total, across two groups, and the sample was further divided by sexism scores. If we assume there were equal numbers of subjects with high and low sexism scores, we’re looking at only about 7 or 8 subjects per condition, and that’s only if we divide the sample by sexism scores above and below the mid-point. I can’t think of a good reason for collecting such a small sample, and I have some concerns that it might reflect data-peaking, though I have no evidence that it does. Nevertheless, the authors make a lot of the idea that subjects higher in sexism felt there was more consensus about the local approval rating of their budget cuts, but only in the sexist humor condition; that is, they might have perceived the local norms about sexism to be less condemning of sexist behavior following the sexist jokes. As I mentioned before, it would have been a good idea for them to test their mechanism using other, non-humor conditions, such as the sexist statement they used initially and subsequently dropped. There’s not much more to say about that except that Ford et al (2009) mention in their introduction the statement manipulations seemed to work as a releaser for racial bias without mentioning why they didn’t work for gender.

So it might be safer to direct any derogatory comments you have to the right…

I would like to talk a bit more about the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory before finishing up. I took the test online in order to see what items were being used as research for this post (and you can as well, by following the link above) and I have some reservations as to what precisely it’s measuring. Rather than measuring sexism, per se, the hostile portion of the inventory appears to deal, at least in part, with whether one or one agrees with certain feminist ideas. For instance, two questions which stand out as being explicit about this are (1) “feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men”, and (2) “feminists are not seeking for women to have more power than men”. Not only do such questions not necessarily reflect one’s views of women more generally (provided one can be said to have a view of women more generally), but they are so hopelessly vague in their wording that they can be interpreted to have a unacceptably wide range of meanings. As the two previous studies and the footnote demonstrate, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent main effect of one’s score on this test, so I have reservations as to whether it’s really tapping sexism per se.

The other part of the sexism inventory involves what is known as “benevolent sexism” – essentially the notion that men ought to do things for women, like gain their affection or protect and provide for them, or that women are in some respects “better” than men. As the website with the survey helpfully informs us, men and women don’t seem to differ substantially in this type of sexism. However, this type of benevolent sexism is also framed as sexism against women that could turn “ugly” for them; not as sexism directed against men, which I find curious, given certain questions (such as, “Women, compared to men, tend to have a superior moral sensibility.” or “Men should be willing to sacrifice their own well being in order to provide financially for the women in their lives.”). Since this is already getting long, I’ll just wonder aloud why no data of the measures of benevolent sexism appear in this paper anywhere, given that the authors appears to have collected it.

References: Ford, T., Boxer, C., Armstrong, J., & Edel, J. (2007). More Than “Just a Joke”: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (2), 159-170 DOI: 10.1177/0146167207310022