Money For Nothing, But The Chicks Aren’t Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Smoking Hot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Conspicuous Consumption (Via Race)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool really does have a cut-off age…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


He’s Got Your Eyes…Right?

Last post, I was discussing paternal investment in children. The point of that post was to draw attention to the fact there are often rather good biological reasons for why we might expect men and women to be differentially interested in investing their time and energy in raising children versus doing other adaptive things. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect men to be interested in investing in children, of course; just that we shouldn’t expect such things to be indiscriminate or motivated by the same factors as women’s altruism. I wanted to expand on one of those ideas a bit more today: specifically, the idea that men lack assurance in their paternity when fertilization takes places inside the female, whereas women can be 100% certain the child they give birth to is theirs. “Certain”, in the former context, refers to the notion that women were unlikely in need of a solution the adaptive problem of maternity certainty, as giving birth to a child was an honest and reliable signal that the child was related to the mother genetically.

“Little does she know it’s not her child” – No one, ever

The first study I wanted to draw attention to concerns the resemblance of a child to their parents. Naturally, as children inherit half of their genes from each parent, we should expect that children tend to resemble their parents with respect to a number of external and internal features. That much is pretty noncontroversial. However, since fathers cannot be assured of their paternity, we might expect men to attend to certain similarities between them and their would-be children when calculating the likelihood that a given child is actually theirs. If an Asian woman gives birth to a Black child, her Asian husband can likely be fairly assured that the child in question is not, in fact, his, and there might have been some infidelity involved somewhere along the line. One might – and, indeed, some have – make the corresponding argument that we might expect children to physically resemble their father more than their mother. The logic would go roughly as follows: if the child resembles their father more, they might receive more parental investment from the father, as he can be more certain the child is his. So, since that tends to be a good thing for the survival and reproductive prospects of the child, we might expect children to bias their resemblance towards their fathers (foregoing for the moment the precise mechanisms through which that might be achieved).

There’s a major issue that such expectations run into, however: reality. In a 1999 paper, Berdart & French collected photos of parents and their children from 28 families. The children’s photographs were taken when they were approximately 1, 3, and 5 years old; the parent’s pictures were all from when the child was about 1 year old. During each trial, the participants (180 undergraduates) were presented with a single picture of a child alongside three women or three men and asked to try and identify the child’s parent. This process was repeated 28 times for each subject. If children tend to resemble their fathers more than their mothers, we should also expect people to be better at matching the child to their father than their mother. This effect failed to materialize, however: for one-year old children, the average correct matching to the father (13/28) was not different than correct matching to the mother (12/28); similar findings obtained for the three-year olds (13/28 and 13/28, respectively) and five-year olds (14/28 and 14/28, respectively).

So while child did certainly tend to resemble their parents consistently (though clearly less than perfectly), they failed to resemble their fathers more than their mothers. Berdart & French (1999) suggested that there might be a rationale for this lack of distinct resemblance: if fathers were good at figuring out which children were theirs, they would presumably also be good at figuring out which children were not theirs, and withhold investment from the latter group. I don’t want to spend too much time on this point other than to note that it’s not a particularly strong one, as it would be good for the ostensible fathers if they had such a skill, and the ill effects on the unrelated child shouldn’t be expected to have an impact on its adaptive nature. Nevertheless, the important point here is that children do not appear to actually resemble their father anymore than their mother. Reality need not always get in the way of perceptions, though.

Fitness is 99% instagram filters

In general, having perceptions that match up to reality is a good thing. If you think you can succeed where you will fail, you’re more likely to waste your time; it you think you will fail when you can succeed, you’ll miss opportunities. Things like that. The exception to that rule concerns contexts of persuasion. There are beliefs I might prefer you to have because they would make me better off, rather than because they are true. So, if some part of my brain that deals with persuading others holds an incorrect belief, that’s not necessarily a problem. As the last post touched on, if people can convince others certain sex differences are due to sexism, that might have some useful implications for certain groups of people to the extent that people are trying to avoid being perceived as sexist and are willing to take steps to remediate the situation. For the present purposes, however, if women are trying to extract investment from men for their children, it would be in those women’s best interest if the man in question believes the child in question is actually related to him, as men are more likely to invest in child on that basis alone. Accordingly, we might predict that women will be more likely to try and convince men that their children resemble them.

Enter some research by Daly & Wilson (1982) that examined the spontaneous utterances of people following the birth of a child. Their first sample consisted of 111 births which had been taped; the fathers were present in 42 of them. From those 111 tapes, approximately 70 comments about the baby’s appearance were recorded. When it was the mother speaking, she remarked on the baby’s resemblance to the father in 16 instances, and the baby’s resemblance to herself 4 times. By contrast, when the father was speaking, he remarked on how the baby resembled the mother 4 times, and himself only once. Further, every time the resemblance to the mother was commented on, the utterance was singular; when the father’s resemblance was being discussed by the mother, however, six of them contained repetitions (e.g. “He looks like you…He’s got your eyes”). Immediately following the birth of a child, then, the resemblance to the father appeared to focused on specifically by the mother. While the mother was nominally more likely to comment on the resemblance to the father in his presence (75%) relative to his absence (47%), this difference didn’t reach significant with the small sample size.

A follow-up study surveyed the responses of mothers, fathers, and the relatives of both concerning the child’s resemblance. Responses came back from about 230 parents and 150 relatives. In all cases, each group suggested the child looks more like the father than the mother by a ratio of at least 2:1. This is in slight opposition to the previous results insomuch as both mothers and fathers said the child looked more like the father. This may have something to do with sampling bias, though, as only about 1/5 of the sample returned any surveys. It seems plausible, as the authors note, that “...fathers rankled by any serious suspicion of nonpaternity would be unlikely to find the questionnaire an amusing diversion“. It possible, then, that fathers might be overstating their physical resemblance to the child in surveys as signals of their unwillingness to abandon investment in the child or relationship, but that’s just speculation on my part. The videos, by contrast, might have proven to be more of an unbiased sample, freer from demand characteristics. Though it’s difficult to say, it’s worth noting that around 25% of the survey respondents reported that “everyone” in their life said the baby looked like the father, as compared with no one reporting comparable utterances about the mother. This is in spite of the finding that children don’t particularly resemble the father over the mother in a matching task, suggesting that such comments might represent social politeness, rather than accurate perceptions.

“She looks just like both of you…”

To repeat the major point here, there can be benefits to perceiving the world in inaccurate ways when you are trying to convince other people of things. Whether that thing is the resemblance of the child to a parent or whether sex differences are due sexism is quite irrelevant. It is likely, in many of these cases, that the part of the brain doing the talking legitimately believes those perceptions so as to better convince others, while different parts of the brain might disagree. Now, in this case, we happen to have data to suggest that the perceptions – or at least what people say about their perceptions – are incorrect; we also have a relatively straightforward theory for explaining why we might expect this might be the case. In many other cases we are not so fortunate.

References: Berdart, S. & French, R. (1999). Do babies resemble their fathers more than their mothers? A failure to replicate Chistenfeld & Hill (1995). Evolution & Human Behavior, 20, 129-135.

Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1982). Whom are newborn babies said to resemble? Ethology & Sociobiology, 3, 69-78.

Is Morality All About Being Fair?

What makes humans moral beings? This is the question that leads off the abstract of a paper by Baumard et al (2013), and certainly one worth considering. However, before one can begin to answer that question, one should have a pretty good idea in mind as to what precisely they mean by the term ‘moral’. On that front, there appears to be little in the way of consensus: some have equated morality with things like empathy, altruism, impartiality, condemnation, conscience, welfare gains, or fairness. While all of these can be features of moral judgments, none of these intuitions about what morality is tends to differentiate it from the non-moral domain. For instance, mammary glands are adaptations for altruism, but not necessarily adaptations for morality; people can empathize with the plight of sick individuals without feeling that the issue is a moral one. If one wishes to have a productive discussion of what makes humans moral beings, it would seem to beneficial to begin from some solid conceptualization of what morality is and what it has evolved to do. If you don’t start from that point, there’s a good chance you’ll end up talking about a different topic than morality.

Thankfully, academia is no place for productivity.

The current paper up for examination by Baumard et al (2013) is a bit of an offender in that regard: their account explicitly mentions that a definition for the term is harm to agree upon and they use the word “moral” to mean “fair”. To understand this issue, first consider the model that the authors put forth: their account attempts to explain moral sentiments by suggesting that selection pressures might have been expected to shape people to seek out the best possible social deals they could get. In simple terms, the idea contains the following points: (1) people are generally better off cooperating than not, but (2) some individuals are better cooperative partners than others. Since (3) people only have a limited budget of time and energy to spend on these cooperative interactions and can’t cooperate with everyone, we should expect that (4) so long as people have a choice as to whom they cooperate with, people will tend to choose to spend their limited time with the most productive partners. The result is that overly-selfish or unfair individuals will not be selected as partners, resulting in selection pressures generating cognitive mechanisms concerned with fairness or altruism. Their model, in other words, centers around managing the costs and benefits from cooperative interactions. People are moral (fair) because it leads to them be preferred as an interaction partner.

Now that all sounds well and good – and I would agree with each of the points in the line of thought – but it doesn’t sound a whole lot like a discussion about what makes people moral. One way of conceptualizing the idea is to think about a simple context: shopping. If I’m in the market for, say, a new pair of shoes, I have a number of different stores I might buy my shoes from and a number of potential shoes in each store. Shopping around for a shoe that I like with the most for a reasonable price fills all the above criteria in some sense, but shoe-shopping is not itself often a moral task. That a shoe I like is priced at a range higher than I am willing to pay does not necessarily mean I will say that such pricing is wrong the way I might say stealing is wrong. Baumard et al (2013) recognize this issue, noting that a challenge is explaining why people don’t just have selfish motives, but also moral motives that lead to them to respect other people’s interests per se.

Now, again, this would be an excellent time to have some kind of working definition of what precisely morality is, because, if one doesn’t, it might seem a bit peculiar to contrast moral and selfish motivations – which the authors do – as if the two are opposite ends of some spectrum. I say that because Baumard et al (2013) go on to discuss how people who have truly moral concerns for the welfare of others might be chosen as cooperative partners more often because they’re more altruistic, building up a reputation as a good cooperator, and this is, I think, supposed to explain why we have said moral concerns. So the first problem here is that the authors are no longer explaining morality per se, but rather altrustic behaviors. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, mechanisms for altruism need not be moral mechanisms. The second problem I see is that, provided their reasoning about reputation is accurate (and I think it is), it seems perfectly plausible for non-moral mechanisms to make that judgment as well: I could simply be selfishly interested in being altruistic (that is to say, I would care about your interests out of my own interests, the same way people might not murder each other because they’re afraid of going to jail or possibly being killed in the process themselves).The authors never address that point, which bodes poorly for their preferred explanation.

“It’s a great fit if you can just look passed all the holes…”

More troublingly for the partner-choice model of morality, it doesn’t seem to explain why people punish others for acts deemed immoral. The only type of punishment it seems to account for would be, essentially, revenge, where an individual punishes another to secure their own self-interest and defend against future aggression; it might also be able to explain why someone might not wish to continue working in an unfair relationship. This would leave the model unable to explain any kind of moral condemnation from third parties (those not initially involved in the dispute). It would seem to have little to say about why, for instance, an American might care about the woes suffered by North Korean citizens under the current dictatorship. As far as I can tell, this is because the partner-choice account for morality is a conscience-centric account, and conscience does not explain condemnation; that I might wish to cooperate with ‘fair’ people doesn’t explain why I think someone should be punished for behaving unfairly towards a stranger. The model at least posits that moral condemnation ought to be proportional to the offense (i.e. an eye for an eye), seeking to restore fairness, but not only is this insight not a unique prediction, it’s also contradicted by some data on drunk driving I covered before (that is, unless a man hitting a woman while driving his car is more “unfair” than drunk woman hitting a man).

Though I don’t have time to cover every issue I see with the paper in depth (in large part owing to it’s length), the main issue I see with the account is that Baumard et al (2013) never really define what it is they mean by morality in the first place. As a result, the authors appear to just substitute “altruism”  or “fairness” for morality instead. Now if they want to explain either of those topics, they’re more than welcome to; it’s just that calling them morality instead of what they actually mean (fairness) tends to generate quite a bit of well-deserved confusion. In the interests of progress, then, let’s return to the concern I raised about the opening question. When we are asking about what makes people moral, we need to start by considering what morality is. The short answer to that question is that morality is, roughly, a perception: at a basic level, it’s the ability to perceive acts in or states of the world along a dimension of “right” or “wrong” in much the same way we might perceive sensations as painful or pleasure. This spectrum seems to range from the morally-praiseworthy at one end to the morally-condemnable at the other, with a neutral point somewhere in the middle.

Framed in this light, we can see a few, rather large problems with conflating morality with things like fairness. The first of these is that perceiving an outcome as immoral would require that one first perceives it as unfair and then as immoral, as neither the reverse ordering, or one in which both perceptions appeared simultaneously, does not makes any sense. If one can have a perception of fairness divorced from a moral perception, then, it seems that one could use that perception to do the behavioral heavy lifting when it comes to partner choice. Again, people could be selfishly fair. The second problem that becomes apparent is that we can consider whether perceptions of immorality can be generated in response to acts that do not appear to deal with fairness or altruism. As sexual and solitary behaviors (like incest or drug use) are moralized with some frequency, the fairness account seems to be lacking. In fact, there are even issues where altruistic behavior has been morally condemned by others, which is precisely the opposite of what the Baumard et al (2013) model would seem to predict.

If we reconceptualize such behaviors properly, though…

Instead of titling their paper, ”A mutualistic approach to morality”, the authors might have been better served with the title “A mutualistic approach to fairness”. Then again, this would only go so far when it comes to remedying the issue, as Baumard et al (2013) never really define what they mean by “fair” either. Since people seem to disagree on that issue with frequency, we’re still left with more than a bit of a puzzle. Is it fair that very few people in the world hold so much wealth? Would it be fair for that wealth to be taken from them and given to others? People likely have different answers to those questions.

Now the authors argue that this isn’t really that large of a problem for their account, as people might, for instance, disagree as to the truth of a matter while all holding the same concept of truth. Accordingly, Baumard et al (2013) posit that people can disagree about what is fair even if they hold the same concept of fairness. The problem with that analogy, as far as I see it, is that people don’t seem to have competing senses of the word “truth” while they do have different senses of the word “fair”: fairness based on outcome (everyone gets the same amount), based on effort (everyone gets in proportion to what they put in), based on need (those who need the most get the most), and perhaps others still. Which of these concepts people favor is likely going to be context-specific. However, I don’t know of that the same can be said of different senses of the word “true”. Are there multiple senses in which something might or might not be true? Are these senses favored contextually? Perhaps there are different senses of the word, but none come to mind as readily.

Baumard et al (2013) might also suggest that by “fair” they actually mean “mutually beneficial” (writing, “Ultimately, the mutualistic approach considers that all moral decisions should be grounded in consideration of mutual advantage”), but we’d still be left with the same basic set of problems. Bouncing interchangeably between three different terms (moral, fair, and mutually-beneficial) is likely to generate more confusion than clarity. It is better to ensure one has a clear idea of what one is trying to explain before one sets out to explain it.

References: Baumard, N., Andre, JB., & Sperber, D. (2013). A mutualistic approach to morality: The evolution of fairness by partner choice. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 36, 59-122.


Making Your Business My Business (Part 2)

Social little creatures that we happen to be, people are found to frequently, and often unpleasantly, involve themselves in the affairs of others. The unpleasantness seems to result from the fact that people’s involvement in these affairs is hardly ever selfless or unattached. After all, we wouldn’t tend to get involved in regulating the behaviors of others if there was no benefit to doing so. Sometimes people’s motives can be fairly transparent: for instance, that single guy who’s sexually interested in a girl will probably give her somewhat-different relationship advice than that girl’s female friends with no such interest. Now that example happens to be one where a consciously-held proximate motive happens to line up fairly-well with the ultimate reason for that motive’s existence (i.e. the man is sexually interested in the girl, and the advice he gives might have functioned to secure additional mating opportunities for himself). Other cases are less transparent, owing to people not having much conscious insight into the reasons they have certain thoughts or feelings: as another for instance, people might be interested in legislating the sexual behavior of others in order to improve the viability of their sexual strategy. However, on a conscious level all they might experience is a feeling of “that’s gross”, or “that’s not right”.

  “I hate mustard. You shouldn’t be allowed to eat it”

These less-transparent cases pose us with some rather interesting mysteries to solve, mostly because explaining why I might not wish to do something is a much different task than explaining why I might want to stop other people from doing that thing. One such mystery has recently landed at my feet, and I wanted to explore it today in order to try and figure out my own thoughts on the matter (despite the Onion recently telling me such a feat is folly). I came across this example owing to my new-found love for an online card game called Hearthstone. The game operates similar to other existing card games: you have a pool of cards from which you can select a certain number to build your deck. Every player starts out with a beginning pool of cards for free which they can then expand and improve by opening online packs or unlocking certain class-specific cards through playing that class enough. If you’re really into showing off, there are also golden versions of the cards, which function precisely as the normal ones do, but are much rarer and harder to get. They’re basically the spinning rims of the game.

Now having access to all of the cards in the game provides an additional degree of flexibility in terms of what decks you can make. Accordingly, many people would prefer to get full collections. Owing to the free-to-play setup of the game, this either takes a lot of time (spent earning in game packs through play) or a lot of money (you can also buy packs). For the most part, I have taken the former route, and during my time not spent playing, when I should be doing other things, I sometimes like to watch YouTube videos of other people playing to learn and improve (and put off meaningful work). If you’re really looking to kill some time without deluding yourself into thinking you’re spending it productively, though, there are also videos of people just opening online packs. It just so happens that one of those videos happens to be what drew my attention. In the video (which can be viewed here if you have over 2 hours to waste), a man has bought 600 of these online packs for his three-year-old son’s account which he records opening. In real money, that works out to roughly $750.

What drew my interest was not the video itself; that part is actually quite dull. Instead, I found my reaction to it rather noteworthy: when I saw the video, the first thought to cross my mind was, in essence, “This guy is an asshole for spending so much money on those packs”. This sentiment was apparently not unique to me, judging by some comments. Choice selections of them include: he’s an idiot (“Blizzard won the battle. Got this idiot to spend more than $750 for his son…“), he’s neglectful of his children (“This isn’t a good dad in any way…I’d take love and care above 600 hearthstone packs anyday“), or just an all-around bad person (“Who is this twat?”). I find my initial reaction, as well as the ones in the comments section, rather puzzling. Specifically, why do such harsh, negative reactions arise to someone spending his money on, at worst, something he likes, and, at best, a gift for his child? At first glance, it certainly doesn’t seem like this purchase is doing any harm to the world.

“Who does that bitch think she is, buying gifts for her child?!”

There are a number of candidate explanations for this apparent moral outrage we might explore. One of these explanations is that perhaps people were outraged because they thought this man was buying a competitive advantage for himself or his child. This is a common complaint leveled by gamers against ostensibly “free-to-play” games: while the game might be “free” to play, one might need to “pay-to-win”, barring an incredible investment of time and energy which very few people with real responsibilities can make. In one respect, then, buying all those packs might have been condemned for the same reason that people condemned wealthy individuals for “renting” disabled tour guides to skip the lines at busy theme parks. If the father is paying to make his child better off relative to other people, then those other people might understandably get a bit salty about their newly-found competitive disadvantage. Without going too in-depth into the mechanics of the game, however, this explanation seems to hinge on the idea that having access to all those cards provides a competitive edge one could not get without them, and there’s a good deal of evidence to suggest that the advantage of the additional cards, if it exists, might be relatively minimal in some cases. In any case, I wouldn’t rule that explanation out as part of the overall picture.

Nevertheless, I don’t think this could possibly be the whole story. I say that for a number of reasons. First, there was a story that I discussed semi-recently: the reactions another comments section had to Kim Kardashian donating 10% of her eBay auction proceeds to charity. In this case, she was not disadvantaging anyone – quite the opposite – but was still branded as a horrible person by many commenters. Second, I try to imagine whether or not people would have the same reaction to the initial father in question buying 600 packs for someone, but instead of that someone being his son, that someone was a stranger. Though I have no data to support this intuition at moment, I would predict that you’d see a marked decrease in the amount of condemnation the act would receive if it were directed towards non-kin, despite the fact that the competitive edge it provides did not change. By contrast, I think people would still condemn my buying a handicapped tour guide for someone else to skip the lines at Disney world. I also get the sense that if the father bought his child a $750 toy (or $750 worth of them) instead, people would similarly condemn his for doing so, even though toys provide no real competitive edge in any sense.

Here’s an alternative explanation, and what I think is going on here: in brief, I think the ultimate function of morality, broadly defined, is to manage association values (how valuable you are to me as an ally relative to others, all things considered). The reason acts like Kim’s or this father’s receive moral condemnation is that they evidence a very low welfare-tradeoff-ratio towards others (which is just what it sounds like; how willing I am to trade my welfare off for yours). To use a simple example, the world is full of people who need various things: let’s use food in this instance. As I acquire food, the marginal value of each additional bit of it drops. That is to say the first bite of food on an empty stomach is worth more than the second bite, which is worth more than the third, and so on. So, as I consumed food, the value of additional food for me drops until it’s hit the point where I am, on a practical level, not getting any real benefit from having more.

However, as I consume food, other people’s desire for it does not change. The value of the resource for me has thus hit negligible returns at a certain point, whereas the value of that resource for others has not diminished. By continuing to acquire resources for myself at that point, my actions would, implicitly, be suggesting that I value my having a relatively small benefit over someone else having a relatively large one. Given that kin share our genes, acquiring those resources for closely-related others likely sends the same message: I care about my own interests much more than I can about others. This, in many instances, can make me seem like a poor associate. A very selfish friend doesn’t tend to be a very good one. It’s for this reason that taking care of an orphaned child receives more praise than caring for one’s own child. If one instead acquires a vast amount of resources for someone else, however, there is still that diminishing returns issue, but you would instead be demonstrating a rather high welfare-tradeoff-ratio towards others, rather than yourself (“I value someone else getting this resource much more than I value myself getting it”). Accordingly, people should probably condemn it less, if not outright praise it.

“Sure; someone has to buy it, and they’re going to hell, but at least you’re good”

While such ultimate considerations might be responsible for shaping the cognitive mechanisms that generated the feelings people expressed in these comments sections, that’s no guarantee that people will understand them as such consciously. All that’s required is that people take the appropriate behavioral actions, such as morally condemning and insulting those who appear to behave overly selfish, or refusing to associate themselves with such individuals. Proximately, all people might experience is a feeling of moral outrage or disgust. They might not be able to tell you why they experience those things, but that’s probably because understanding the why is much less relevant. In much the same way, animals don’t need to know that sex leads to reproduction in order to have it feel good and thus be motivated to engage in it. If the moral condemnation leads people to make different, other-benefiting choices in the future, so much the better for those others. It doesn’t hurt that by expressing how selfish we think other people are we might be able to make ourselves look like better associates in the process (i.e. “I find your behavior overly selfish, so I must not be similarly self-interested…”).

Does Grief Help Recalibrate Behavior?

Here’s a story which might sound familiar to all of you: one day, a young child is wandering around in the kitchen while his parents are cooking. This child, having never encountered a hot stove before, reaches up and brushes his hand against the hot metal. Naturally, the child experiences a physical pain and withdraws his hand. In order to recalibrate his behavior so as to not avoid future harms, then, the child spends the next week unable to get out of bed – owing to a persistent low-energy – and repeatedly thinks about touching the hot stove and how sad it made him feel. For the next year, the child returns to the spot where he burned his hand, leaving flowers on the spot, and cries for a time in remembrance. OK; so maybe that story doesn’t sound familiar at all. In fact, the story seems absurd on the face of it: why would the child go through all that grief in order to recalibrate their stove-touching behavior when they could, it seems, simply avoid touching the hot stove again? What good would all that additional costly grief and depression do? Excellent question.

Unfortunately, chain emails do not offer learning trials for recalibration.

In the case of the hot stove, we could conclude that grief would likely not add a whole lot to the child’s ability to recalibrate their behavior away from stove-touching. It doesn’t seem like a very efficient way of doing so, and the fit between the design features of grief and recalibration seem more than a bit mismatched. I bring these questions up in response to a suggestion I recently came across by Tooby & Cosmides, with whom I generally find myself in agreement with (it’s not a new suggestion; I just happened to come across it now). The pair, in discussing emotions, have this to say about grief:

Paradoxically, grief provoked by death may be a byproduct of mechanisms designed to take imagined situations as input: it may be intense so that, if triggered by imagination in advance, it is properly deterrent. Alternatively-or additionally-grief may be intense in order to recalibrate weightings in the decision rules that governed choices prior to the death. If your child died because you made an incorrect choice (and given the absence of a controlled study with alternative realities, a bad outcome always raises the probability that you made an incorrect choice), then experiencing grief will recalibrate you for subsequent choices. Death may involve guilt, grief, and depression because of the problem of recalibration of weights on courses of action. One may be haunted by guilt, meaning that courses of action retrospectively judged to be erroneous may be replayed in imagination over and over again, until the reweighting is accomplished.

So Tooby and Cosmides posit two possible functions for grief here: (1) there isn’t a function per se; it’s just a byproduct of a mechanism designed to use imagined stimuli to guide future behavior, and (2) grief might help recalibrate behavior so as to avoid outcomes that previously have carried negative fitness consequences. I want to focus on the second possibility because, as I initially hinted at, I’m having a difficult time seeing the logic in it.

One issue I seem to be having concerns the suggestion that people might cognitively replay traumatic or grief-inducing events over and over in order to better learn from them. Much like the explanation often on offer for depression, then, grief might function to help people make better decisions in the future. That seems to be the suggestion Tooby & Cosmides are getting at, anyway. As I’ve written before, I don’t think this explanation in plausible on the face of it. At least in terms of depression, there’s very little evidence that depression actually helps people make better decisions. Even if it did, however, it would raise the question as to why people ever don’t make use of this strategy. Presumably, if people could learn better by replaying events over and over, one might wonder why we ever don’t do that; why would we ever perform worse, when we could be performing better?  In order to avoid making what I nicknamed the Dire Straits fallacy ( from their lyric “money for nothing and the chicks for free“), the answer to that question would inevitably involve referencing some costs to replaying events over and over again. If there were no such costs to replay, and replay led to better outcomes, replay should be universal, which it isn’t; at least not to nearly the same degree. Accordingly, any explanation for understanding why people use grief as a mechanism for improved learning outcomes would need to make some reference as to why grief-struck individuals are more able to suffer those costs for the benefits continuous replay provides. Perhaps such an explanation exists, but it’s not present here.

One might also wonder what replaying some tragic event over and over would help one learn from it. That is, does the replaying the event actually help one extract additional useful information from the memory? As we can see from the initial example, rumination is often not required to quickly and efficiently learn connections between behaviors and outcomes. To use the Tooby & Cosmides example, if your child died because you made an incorrect choice, why would ruminating for weeks or longer help you avoid making that choice again? The answer to that question should also explain why rumination would not be required for effective learning in the case of touching the hot stove.

It should only be a few more weeks of this until she figures out that babies need food.

One might also suggest that once the useful behavioral-recalibration-related information has been extracted from the situation, replaying the grief-inducing event would seem to be wasted time, so the grief should stop. Tooby & Cosmides make this suggestion, writing:

After the 6-18 month period, the unbidden images suddenly stop, in a way that is sometimes described as “like a fever breaking”: this would be the point at which the calibration is either done or there is no more to be learned from the experience

The issue I see with that idea, however, is that unless one is positing it can take weeks, months, or even years to extract the useful information from the event, then it seems unlikely that much of that replay involves helping people learn and extract information. Importantly, to the extent that decisions like these (i.e. “what were you doing that led to your child’s death that you shouldn’t do again”) were historically recurrent and posed adaptive problems, we should expect evolved cognitive decision making modules to learn from them fast and efficiently. A mechanism that takes weeks, months, or even years to learn from an event by playing it over and over again should be at a massive disadvantage, relative to a mechanism that can make those same learning gains in seconds or minutes. A child that needed months to learn to not touch a hot stove might be at a risk of touching the stove again; if the child immediately learned to not do so, there’s little need to go over grieving about it for months following the initial encounter. Slow learning is, on the whole, a bad thing which carries fitness costs; not a benefit. Unless there’s something special about grief-related learning that requires it takes so long – some particularly computationally-demanding problem – then the length of grief seems like a peculiar design feature for recalibrating one’s own behavior.

This, of course, all presumes that the grief-recalibration learning mechanisms know how to recalibrate behavior in the first place. If your child died because of a decision you made, there are likely very many decisions that you made which might or might not have contributed to that outcome. Accordingly, there are very many ways in which you might potentially recalibrate your behavior to avoid such a future outcome again, very few of which will actually be of any use. So your grief mechanism should need to know which decisions to focus on at a minimum. Further still, the mechanism would need to know if recalibration was even possible in the first place. In the case of a spouse dying from something related to old age or a child dying from an illness or accident, all the grieving in the world wouldn’t necessarily be able to effect any useful change the next time around. So we might predict that people should only tend to grieve selectively: when doing so might help avoid such outcomes in the future. This means people shouldn’t tend to grieve when they’re older (since they have less time to potentially change anything) or about negative outcomes beyond their control (since no recalibration would help). As far as I know (which, admittedly, isn’t terribly far in this domain) this isn’t that case. Perhaps an astute reader could direct me to research where predictions like these have been tested.

Finally, humans are far from the only species which might need to recalibrate their behavior. Now it’s difficult to say precisely as to what other species feel, since you can’t just ask them, but do other species feel grief the same way humans do? The grief-as-recalibration model might predict that they should. Now, again, the depth of my knowledge on grief is minimal, so I’m forced to ask these questions out of genuine curiosity: do other species evidence grief-related behaviors? If so, in what contexts are these behaviors common, and why might those contexts be expected to require more behavioral recalibration than non-grief-inducing situations? If animals do not show any evidence of grief-related behaviors, why not? These are all matters which would need to be sorted out. To avoid the risk of being critical without offering any alternative insight, I would propose an alternative function for grief similar to what Ed Hagen proposed for depression: grief functions to credibly signal one’s social need.

“Aww. Looks like someone needs a hug”

Events that induce grief – like the loss of close social others or other major fitness costs – might tend to leave the griever in a weakened social position. The loss of mates, allies, or access to resources poses major problems to species like us. In order to entice investment from others to help remedy these problems, however, you need to convince those others that you actually do have a legitimate need. If your need is not legitimate, then investment in your might be less liable to payoff. The costly extended periods of grief, then, might help signal to others that one’s need is legitimate, and make one appear to be a better target of subsequent investment. The adaptive value of grief in this account lies not in what it makes the griever do per se; what the griever is doing is likely maladaptive in and of itself. However, that personally-maladaptive behavior can have an effect on others, leading them to provide benefits to the grieving individuals in an adaptive fashion. In other words, grief doesn’t serve to recalibrate the griever’s behavior so much as it serves to recalibrate the behavior of social others who might invest in you.

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.

Towards Understanding The Action-Omission Distinction

In moral psychology, one of the most well-known methods of parsing the reasons outcomes obtain involves the categories of actions and omissions. Actions are intuitively understandable: they are behaviors which bring about certain consequences directly. By contrast, omissions represent failures to act that result in certain consequences. As a quick example, a man who steals your wallet commits an act; a man who finds your lost wallet, keeps it for himself, and says nothing to you commits an omission. Though actions and omissions might result in precisely the same consequences (in that case, you end up with less money and the man ends up with more), they do not tend to be judged the same way. Specifically, actions tend to be judged as more morally wrong than comparable omissions and more deserving of punishment. While this state of affairs might seem perfectly normal to you or I, a deeper understanding of it requires us to take a step back and consider why it is, in fact, rather strange.

And so long as I omit the intellectual source of that strategy, I sound more creative.

From an evolutionary standpoint this action-omission distinction is strange for a clear reason: evolution is a consequentialist process. If I’m worse off because you stole from me or because you failed to return my wallet when you could have, I’m still worse off. Organisms should be expected to avoid costs, regardless of their origin. Importantly, costs need not only be conceptualized as what one might typically envision them to be, like inflictions of physical damage or stealing resources; they can also be understood as failures to deliver benefits. Consider a new mother: though the mother might not kill the child directly, if she fails to provision the infant with food, the infant will die all the same. From the perspective of the child, the failure of the mother to provide food could well be considered a cost inflicted by negligence. So, if someone could avoid harming me – or could provide me with some benefit -  but does not, why should it matter whether that outcome obtained because of an action or an omission?

The first part of that answer concerns a concept I mentioned in my last post: the welfare tradeoff ratio. Omissions are, generally speaking, less indicative of one’s underlying WTR than acts. Let’s consider the wallet example again: when a wallet is stolen, this act expresses that one is willing to make me suffer a cost so they can benefit; when the wallet is found and not returned, this represents a failure of an individual to deliver a benefit to me at some cost to themselves (the time required to track me down and forgoing the money in my wallet). While the former expresses a negative WTR, the latter simply fails to express an overtly-positive one. To the extent that moral punishment is designed to recalibrate WTRs, then, acts provide us with more accurate estimates of WTRs, and might subsequently tend to recruit those cognitive moral systems to a greater degree. Unfortunately, this explanation is not entirely fulfilling yet, owing to the consequentialist facts of the matter: it can be as good, from my perspective, to increase the WTR of the thief towards me as it is for me to increase the omitter’s WTR. Doing either means I would have more money than if I had not, which is a useful outcome. Costs and benefits, in this world, are tallied on the same score board.

The second part of the answer, then, needs to invoke the costs inherent in enacting this modification of WTRs through moral punishment. Just as it’s good for me if others hold a high WTR with respect me, it’s similarly good for others if I held a high WTR with respect to them. This means that people, unsurprisingly, are often less-than-accommodating when it comes to giving up their welfare for another without the proper persuasion; persuasion which happens to take time and energy to enact, and comes with certain risks of retaliation. Accordingly, we ought to expect mechanisms that function to enact moral condemnation strategically: when the costs of doing so are sufficiently low or the benefits to doing so are sufficiently high. After all, it’s the case that every living person right now could, in principle, increase their WTR towards you, but trying to morally condemn every living person for not doing so is unlikely to be a productive strategy. Not only would such a strategy result in the condemner undertaking many endeavors that are unlikely to be successful relative to the invested effort, but someone increasing their WTR towards you requires they lower their WTR towards someone else, and those someone elses would typically not be tickled by the prospect.

“You want my friend’s investment? Then come and take it, tough guy”

Given the costs involved in indiscriminate moral condemnation on non-maximal WTRs, we can focus the considerations of the action-omission distinction down to the following question: what is it about punishing omissions that tends to be less-productive than punishing actions? One possible explanation comes from DeScioli, Bruening, & Kurzban (2011). The trio posit that omissions are judged less harshly than actions because omissions tend to leave less overt evidence of wrongdoing. As punishment costs tend to decrease as the number of punishers increases, if third party punishers make use of evidence in deciding whether or not to become involved, then material evidence should make punishment easier to enact. Unfortunately, the design that the researchers used in their experiments does not appear to definitively speak to their hypothesis. Specifically, they found the effect they were looking for – namely, the reduction of the action-omission effect – but they only managed to do so via reframing an omission (failing to turn a train or stop a demolition) into an action (pressing a button that failed to turn a train or stop a demolition). It is not clear that such a manipulation solely varied the evidence available without fundamentally altering other morally-relevant factors.

There is another experiment that did manage to substantially reduce the action-omission effect without introducing such a confound, however: Haidt & Baron (1996). In this paper, the authors presented subjects with a story about a person selling his car. The seller knows that there is a 1/3 chance the car contains a manufacturing defect that will cause it to fall apart soon; a potential defect specific to the year the car was made. When a buyer inquires about the year of the manufacturing defect the seller either (a) lies about it or (b) doesn’t correct the buyer, who had suddenly exclaimed that they remember which year it was, though they were incorrect. When asked how wrong it was for the seller to do (or fail to do) what they did, the action-omission effect was observed when the buyer was not personally known to the seller. However, if the seller happened to be good friends with the buyer, the degree of the effect was reduced by almost half. In other words, when the buyer and seller were good friends, it mattered less whether the seller cheated the buyer through action or omission; both were deemed to be relatively unacceptable (and, interestingly, both were deemed to be more wrong overall as well). However, when the buyer and the seller were all but strangers, people rated the cheat via omission to be relatively less wrong than the action. Moral judgments in close relationships appeared to generally become more consequentialist.

If evidence was the deciding factor in the action-omission distinction, then the closeness of the relationship between the actor or omitted and the target should not be expected to have any effect on moral judgments (as the nature of the relationship does not itself generate any additional observable evidence). While this finding does not rule out the role of evidence in the action-omission distinction altogether, it does suggest that evidence concerns alone are insufficient for understanding the distinction. The nature of the relationship between the actor and victim is, however, predicted to have an effect when considering the WTR model. We expect our friends, especially our close friends, to have relatively high WTRs with respect to us; we might even expect them to go out of their way to suffer costs to help us if necessary. Indications that they are unwilling to do so – whether through action or omission – represent betrayals of that friendship. Further, when a friend behaves in a manner indicating a negative WTR towards us, the gulf between the expected (highly positive) and actual (negative) WTR is far greater than if a stranger behaved comparably (as we might expect a neutral starting point for strangers).

“I hate when girls lie online about having a torso!”

Though this analysis does not provide a complete explanation of the action/omission distinction by any means, it does point us in the right direction. It would seem that actions actively advertise WTRs, whereas omissions do not necessarily do likewise. Morally condemning all those who do not display positive WTRs per se does not make much sense, as the costs involved in doing so are so high as to preclude efficiency. Further, those who simply fail to express a positive WTR towards you might be less liable to inflict future costs, relative to those who express a negative one (i.e. the man who fails to return your wallet is not necessarily as liable to hurt you in the future as the one who directly steals from you). Selectively directing that condemnation at those who display negative appreciably low or negative WTRs, then, appears to be a more viable strategy: it could help direct condemnation towards where it’s liable to do the most good. This basic premise should hold especially given a close relationship with the perpetrator: such relationships entail more frequent contact and, accordingly, more opportunities for one’s WTR towards you to matter.

References: DeScioli, P., Bruening, R., & Kurzban. R. (2011). The omission effect in moral cognition: Toward a functional explanation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 204-215.

Haidt, J. & Baron, J. (1996). Social roles and the moral judgment of acts and omissions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 201-218.

When Giving To Disaster Victims Is Morally Wrong

Here’s a curious story: Kim Kardashian recently decided to sell some personal items on eBay. She also mentioned that 10% of the proceeds would be donated to typhoon relief in the Philippines. On the face of it, there doesn’t appear to be anything morally objectionable going on here: Kim is selling items on eBay (not an immoral behavior) and then giving some of her money freely to charity (not immoral). Further, she made this information publicly available, so she’s not lying or being deceitful about how much money she intends to keep and how much she intends to give (also not immoral). If the coverage of the story and the comments about it are any indication, however, Kim has done something morally condemnable. To select a few choice quotes, Kim is, apparently “the centre of all evil in the universe“, is “insulting” and “degrading” people, is “greedy” and “vile“. She’s also a “horrible bitch” and anyone who takes part in the auction is “retarded“. One of the authors expressed the hope that ”…[the disaster victims] give you back your insulting “portion of the proceeds” which is a measly 10% back to you so you can choke on it“. Yikes.

Just shred the money, add some chicken and ranch, and you’re good to go.

Now one could wonder whether the victims of this disaster would actually care that some of the money being used to help them came from someone who only donated 10% of her eBay sales. Sure; I’d bet the victims would likely prefer to have more money donated from every donor (and non-donor), but I think just about everyone in the world would rather have more money than they currently do. Though I might be mistaken, I don’t think there are many victims who would insist that the money be sent back because there wasn’t enough of it. I would also guess that, in terms of the actual dollar amount provided, Kim’s auctions probably resulted in more giving than many or most other actual donors, and definitely more than anyone lambasting Kim who did not personally give (of which I assume there are many). Besides the elements of hypocrisy that are typical to disputes on this nature, there is one facet of this condemnation that really caught my attention: people are saying Kim is a bad person for doing this not because she did anything immoral per se, but because she failed to do something laudable to a great-enough degree. This is akin to suggesting someone should be punished for only holding a door open for five people, despite them not being required to hold it open for anyone.

Now one might suggest that what Kim did wasn’t actually praiseworthy because she made money off of it: Kim is self-interested and is using this tragedy to advance her personal interests, or so the argument goes. Perhaps Kim was banking on the idea that giving 10% to charity would result in people paying more for the items themselves and offsetting the cost. Even if that was the case, however, it still wouldn’t make what she was doing wrong for two reasons: first, people profit from selling good or services continuously, and, most of the time, people don’t deem those acts as morally wrong. For instance, I just bought groceries, but I didn’t feel a moral outrage that the store I bought them from profited off me. Secondly, it would seem that even if Kim did benefit by doing this, it’s a win-win situation for her and the typhoon victims. While mutual benefit make make gauging Kim’s altruistic intentions difficult, it would not make the act immoral per se. Furthermore, it’s not as if Kim’s charity auction coerced anyone into paying more than they otherwise would have; how much to pay would be the decision of the buyers, whom Kim could not directly control. If Kim ended up making more money off those than she otherwise would have, it’s only because other people willingly gave her more. So why are people attempting to morally condemn her? She wasn’t dishonest, she didn’t do anyone direct harm, she didn’t engage in any behavior that is typically deemed “immoral”, and the result of her actions were that people were better off. If one wants to locate the focal point of people’s moral outrage about Kim’s auction, then, it will involve digging a little deeper psychologically.

One promising avenue to begin our exploration of the matter is a chapter by Petersen, Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides (2010) that discussed our evolved intuitions about criminal justice. In it, they discuss the concept of a welfare tradeoff ratio (WTR). A WTR is, essentially, one person’s willingness to give up some amount of personal welfare to deliver some amount of welfare to another. For instance, if you were given the choice between $6 for yourself and $1 for someone else or $5 for both of you, choosing the latter would represent a higher WTR: you would be willing to forgo $1 so that another individual could have an additional $4. Obviously, it would be good for you if other people maintained a high WTR towards you, but others are not so willing to give up their own welfare without some persuasion. One way (among many) of persuading someone to put more stock in your welfare is to make yourself look like a good social investment. If benefiting you will benefit the giver in the long run – perhaps because you are currently experiencing the bad luck of a typhoon destroying your home, but you can return to being a productive associate in the future if you get help – then we should expect people to up-regulate their WTR towards you.

Some other pleas for assistance are less liable to net good payoffs.

The intuition that Kim’s moral detractors appear to be expressing, then, is not that Kim is wrong for displaying a mildly positive WTR per se, but that the WTR she displayed was not sufficiently high, given her relative wealth and the disaster victim’s relative need. This makes her appear to be a potentially-poor social investment, as she is relatively-unwilling to give up much of her own welfare to help others, even when they are in desperate need. Framing the discussion in this light is useful insomuch as it points us in the right direction, but it only gets us so far. We are left with the matter of figuring out why, for instance, most other people who were giving to charity were not condemned for not giving as much as they realistically could have, even if it meant them foregoing or giving up some personal items or pleasurable experiences themselves (i.e. “if you ate out less this week, or sold some of your clothing, you too could have contributed more to the aid efforts; you’re a greedy bitch for not doing so”).

It also doesn’t explain why anyone would suggest that it would have been better for Kim to have given nothing at all instead of what she did give. Though we see that kind of rejection of low offers in bargaining contexts – like ultimatum games – we typically don’t see as much of it in altruistic ones. This is because rejecting the money in bargaining contexts has an effect on the proposer’s payoff; in altruistic contexts, rejection has no negative effect on the giver and should effect their behavior far less. Even more curious, though: if the function of such moral condemnation is to increase one’s WTR towards others more generally, suggesting that Kim giving no amount would have been somehow better than what she did give is exceedingly counterproductive. If increasing WTRs was the primary function of moral condemnation, it seems like the more appropriate strategy would be to start with condemning those people – rich or not – who contributed nothing, rather than something (as those who give nothing, arguably, displayed a lower WTR towards the typhoon victims than Kim did). Despite that, I have yet to come across any articles berating specific individuals or groups for not giving at all; they might be out there, but they generated much less publicity if they were. We need something else to complete the account of why people seem to hate Kim Kardashian for not giving more.

Perhaps that something more is that the other people who did not donate were also not trying to suggest they were behaving altruistically; that is, they were not trying to reap the benefits of being known as an altruist, whereas Kim was, but only halfheartedly. This would mean Kim was sending a less-than-honest signal. A major complication with that account, however, is that Kim was, for all intents and purposes, acting altruistically; she could have been praised very little for what she did, rather than condemned. Thankfully, the condemnation towards Kim is not the only example of this we have to draw upon. These kinds of claims have been advanced before: when Tucker Max tried to donate $500,000 to planned parenthood, only to be rejected because some people didn’t want to associate with him. The arguments being made against accepting that sizable donation centered around (a) the notion that he was giving for selfish reasons and (b) that others would stop supporting planned parenthood if Tucker became associated with them. My guess is that something similar is at play here. Celebrities can be polarizing figures (for reasons which I won’t speculate about here), drawing overly hostile or positive reactions from people who are not affected by them personally. For whatever reason, there are many people who dislike Kim and would like to either avoid being associated with her altogether and/or see her fall from her current position in society. This no doubt has an effect on how they view her behavior. If Kim wasn’t Kim, there’s a good chance no one would care about this kind of charity-involving auction.

Much better; now giving only 10% is laudable.

As I mentioned in my last post, children appear to condone harming others with whom they do not share a common interest. The same behavior – in this case, giving 10% of your sales to help others – is likely to be judged substantially differently contingent on who precisely is enacting the behavior. Understanding why people express moral outrage at welfare-increasing behaviors requires a deeper examination of their personal strategic interests in the matter. We should expect that state of affairs for a simple reason: benefiting others more generally is not universally useful, in the evolutionary sense of the word. Sometimes it’s good for you if certain other people are worse off (though this argument is seldom made explicitly). Now, of course, that does mean that people will, at times, ostensibly advocate for helping a group of needy people, but then shun help, even substantial amounts of help, when it comes from the “wrong” sources. They likely do what they do because such condemnation will either harm those “wrong” sources directly or because allowing the association could harm the condemner in some way. Yes; that does mean the behavior of these condemners has a self-interested component; the very thing they criticized Kim for. Without considerations of these strategic, self-interested motivations, we’d be at a loss for understanding why giving to typhoon victims is sometimes morally wrong.

References: Petersen, M.B., Sell, A., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2010). Evolutionary psychology and criminal justice: A recalibration theory of punishment and reconciliation. In Human Morality & Sociality: Evolutionary & Comparative Perspectives, edited by Hogh-Oleson, H., Palgrace MacMillian, New York.