Understanding Male Investment In Children

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

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

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

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

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

“HA; Got one! Bring on the ladies!”

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

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

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

“Ladies…”

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

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

“There Are No Girls On The Internet”

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

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

Always take proper precautions when venturing into the internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for your thoughtful message, XxXx420NoScopeFgtxXxX”

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

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

“That’ll show ‘em…”

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

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

Punch-Ups In Bars

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

Dictators are not historically known for their benevolence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Counterintuitive About Discrimination?

One of the main concerns I have with some research in psychology (and while I have no data on the matter, I don’t think I’m alone in it) is that some portion of it is, explicitly or otherwise, agenda-driven. Specifically, the researchers have a particular social goal in mind that they seek to call attention to with their work. Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, especially if there actually happens to be some troubling social issue that needs to be addressed. Nothing necessarily wrong, however, does not imply that it doesn’t frequently lead to problems with the research, either in its design or its interpretation. In other words, when people want to see a particular problem, or a particular interpretation of their results, they’re often pretty good at finding it. As it turns out, people in the social sciences are also pretty keen on trying to find racism and sexism.

“The clouds must be discriminating; they’re all white”

Now I want to be absolutely clear on one point at the outset: people do discriminate. They do so all the time for a variety of reasons, whether we’re talking about sexual partners or hiring people for jobs. Some of these reasons for discrimination happen to be more socially acceptable than others, so one ought to be caution when making accusations that someone – or some group – is discriminating the basis of them. The implications of being call a racist or a sexist, for instance, can be rather large. So, with that said, let’s consider some research that suggests the whole of academia in the US is both of those things. Not explicitly, of course: it just suggests that certain types of people are “plagued” by “barriers” on the basis of their sex and/or race caused by “biases” and are “underrepresented” in certain professions, violating claims to “fairness”. Certainly, this is a much different type of claim than an outright accusation of racism or sexism, and could not possibly be interpreted in any damning manner. Certainly…

Anyway, in the paper – by Milkman et al (2014) – the researchers have a very particular meaning for the word “underrepresented”: women and minority groups are not represented in academic positions in equal percentages to their representation in the population. In that sense, one might consider such groups underrepresented. In another sense – perhaps a more meaningful one – we might consider underrepresentation instead in terms of the various talents, preferences, and willingness of different groups. That is to say 99% or so of plumbers are men, but women aren’t underrepresented in that field largely because most women seem to express no interest in entering the field, at least relative to their alternatives. This sense of underrepresentation is more difficult to determine however, and might undercut any points about racism or sexism, so, needless to say, most researchers examining racism or sexism don’t ever seem to use it; at least not as far as I’ve seen.

In any case, Milkman et al (2014) wanted to examine how discrimination on the basis of sex or race might pose barriers to women or minorities entering academia. Towards examining this issue, the researchers sent out around 6,500 stock emails to professors at around 250 universities across 109 different fields of study. This email reads as follows:

Subject Line: Prospective Doctoral Student (On Campus Today/[Next Monday])
Dear Professor [Surname of Professor Inserted Here],
I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.
I will be on campus today/[next Monday], and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
Sincerely,
[Student’s Full Name Inserted Here]

The student’s name was varied to either be typical of man or a woman, and/or typical of a White, Black, Hispanic, Chinese, or Indian person. The names were intentionally made to be as stereotypical as possible so as to avoid any confusion on the recipient’s part. They also kept track of which professors were receiving the emails, both in terms of their sex, race, and field of study.

With a message like that, I’m surprised they got a single response.

Some of the results are unlikely to be terribly surprising to most people: in general, the fake emails from minority groups and women tended to receive fewer responses than those from white males. There were some exceptions, as the size of this effect fluctuated markedly and which group it favored fluctuated moderately (the main exception to the general rule seemed to be fine arts programs, which discriminated more against the white male emails). Also, the higher-paid fields tended to respond to women and minorities less (the authors speculate more than once that this might be due to those in high-paying jobs having different values but, remember, this isn’t about calling anyone a racist or a sexist). Don’t worry, though; your moral outrage about these results might be tempered somewhat by the following additional finding: no matter how the researchers tried to slice it, this discrimination was independent of the professor’s race or sex. A black female professor did the same thing as a white male professor no matter the sex or race of the ostensible sender. Fancy that.

Now what I find particularly interesting about this paper is what the authors say about that last set of results: it’s “counterintuitive”. The result would only be counterintuitive, it seems, if you had a particular model as to who might discriminate and why already in your head. Specifically, the authors seem to write as if the only reason people might discriminate is on the basis of biases that have no bearing in reality; it must be people’s “values” or discrimination of the basis of a stereotype (which isn’t true, of course). To give credit where it’s do, the authors note that, sure, their study can’t actually tell if any racial/gender bias is responsible for these results or whether these patterns of discrimination were based on some other factors. Unfortunately, this point is placed at the end of the paper as more of an afterthought. If this point was placed at the beginning of the paper and expanded upon in almost any detail whatsoever, I imagine this paper would be a much different read. As it is, however, the point feels added in at the end as a halfhearted acknowledge that their research doesn’t actually tell us anything meaningful about the points they spent the entire introduction discussing. So allow me to expand on that point a bit more.

I want you to consider the following hypothetical: you’re a doctor, and a patient has come to you with a list of symptoms. These symptoms are consistent with one of two life-threatening conditions and there’s no time to test them to find out which condition it is. You have a drug for each condition, but you can only administer one (let’s say because both together would be fatal). Which drug should you give your patient? Well, that depends: which condition is more common? If both are equally as common, both drugs should receive an approximately equal chance of being administered; if one disease happens to be more common, then that’s the one you should treat for. The point is basic enough: you don’t want to ignore base-rates To make this less of a metaphor, if you’re a professor with limited time and energy, you can’t respond to every unsolicited message you get unless you want other parts of your life to suffer (work/life balance, and all that). This message is about as vague as can be: it might be coming from a student that cares and would be valuable, or might be coming from a student that sent the same bland email out to dozens of people and is wasting your time. You only have two choices: respond or ignore. What do you do?

It all depends on who you think is on the other side…

Well, that’s contingent on what information you have: a name. The name tells you gender and race. Now here comes the part that most people don’t want to acknowledge: do those two things tell you anything of value? The answer to that question that you’d receive from people would, I imagine, depend in part on one’s preferred definition for “underrepresented”. While I won’t pretend that I can tell you what information might or might not be present in a name (i.e. what factors tend to correlate with sex and/or race that predict one’s ability to be a worthwhile graduate student), what I will tell you is that research on the subject of stereotypes has a very bad habit of never bothering to test for the stereotype’s accuracy. There’s a lot of work on trying to demonstrate discrimination without much work trying to understand it. That professors of all races and sexes seemed to show the same bias might suggest that there is something there worth paying attention to in a name when one lacks any other useful source of information. Perhaps such a point should be the topic of research, rather than an end note to it.

References: Milkman, K., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2014). What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations.

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 Popsych.org 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