A Curious Case Of Vegan Moral Hypocrisy

I’ve decided to take one of my always-fun breaks from discussing strictly academic matters to instead examine a case of moral hypocrisy I came across recently involving a vegan: one Piper Hoffman, over at Our Hen House. Piper, as you can no doubt guess, frowns upon at least certain aspects of the lifestyles of almost every American (and probably most people in the world as well). In her words, most of us are, “arrogant flesh eaters“, who are condemnable moral hypocrites for both tending to do things like love our pets and eat other animals. There are so many interesting ideas found in that sentence that it’s hard to know where to start. First is the matter of why people tend to nurture members of other species in a manner resembling the way we nurture our own children. There’s also the matter of why someone like Piper would adopt a moral stance that involves protecting non-human animals. Sure; such a motivation might be intuitively understood when it happens to be people doing it, but the same cannot be said of non-human species. That is, it would appear to be particularly strange if you found, say, a lion that simply refused to eat meat on moral grounds.

She might be a flesh-eater, but at least she’s not all arrogant about it.

The third thing I find interesting about Piper’s particular moral stance is that it’s severely unpopular: less than 1% of the US population would identify as being a vegan and, in practice, even self-reported vegetarians were more likely to have eaten meat in the last 24 hours than to have not done so. Now while diet might often be the primary focus when people think of the word ‘vegan’, Piper assures us that’s there’s more to being a vegan than what you put in your mouth. Here is Piper’s preferred definition:

“Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.”

Accordingly, not only should vegans avoid eating animal-related foods, they also should also not do things like wear fur, leather, wool or silk, as all involve the suffering or exploitation of the animal kingdom. Bear the word “silk” in mind, as we’ll be returning to it shortly.

Taken together, what emerges is the following picture: a member of species X has begun to adopt all sorts of personally-costly behaviors (like avoiding certain types of food or tools) in order to attempt to avoid reducing the welfare of pretty much any other living organisms, irrespective of their identity. Further still, that member of species X is not content with just personally behaving in such a manner: she has also taken it upon herself to attempt to try and regulate the behavior of others around her to do similarly, morally condemning them if they do not. That latter factor is especially curious, given that most other members of her species are not so inclined. This means her moral stance could potentially threaten otherwise-valuable social ties, and is unlikely to receive the broad social support capable of reducing the costs inherent in moral condemnation. I would like to stress again how absolutely bizarre such behavior would seem to be if we observed it in pretty much any other species.

Without venturing a tentative explanation for what cognitive systems might be generating such stances at the present time, I would like to consider another post Piper made on October 21st of this year. While in her apartment, Piper heard some strange sounds and, upon investigation, discovered that a colony of ants had taken over her bedroom. Being a vegan who avoids all form of cruelty and exploitation of animals, Piper did what one might expect from one who displays a reverence for life: she bought some canisters of insect poison, personally gassed thousands of the ants herself, then called in professionals to finish the job and kill the rest of them that were living in the walls. Now one might, as Piper did, suggest that it’s unclear as to whether insects feel pain; perhaps they do, and perhaps they don’t. What is clear, however, is that Piper previously stated a moral rule against wearing products made from silk. Apparently the silk production is exploitative in a way mass murder is not. In any case, the comments on Piper’s blog are what one might expect from a vegan crowd who condemns cruelty and reveres life: unanimous agreement that mass killing was an appropriate response because, after all, people, even vegans, aren’t perfect.

“If it’s any consolation, I felt bad afterwards. I mean, c’mon; no one’s perfect”

This situation raises plenty of debatable and valuable questions. One is the matter of the hypocrisy itself: why didn’t Piper’s conscience stop her from acting? Another is the matter of those who commented on the article: why was Piper supported by other (presumed) vegans, rather than condemned for a clear act of selfish cruelty? A third is that it is clear Piper did not reduce or prevent animal suffering in anyway in the story, so is she, and the vegan code of conduct for generally, truly designed/attempting to reduce suffering per se? If the answer to the last question is “yes”, then one might ask whether or not the vegan lifestyle encourages people to engage in the proper behaviors capable of doing more to reduce suffering. While these are worthwhile questions that can shed light on all sorts of curious aspects of human psychology, I would like to focus on the last point.

Consider the following proposition: humans should exterminate all carnivorous species. This act might seem reasonable from a standpoint of reducing suffering. Why? By their very nature, carnivorous species require that other animals suffer and die so the carnivore can continue living. Since these murder-hungry species are unlikely to respond affirmatively to our polite requests that they kindly stop killing things, we could stop them from doing so, now and forever. Provided one wishes to reduce the suffering in the world, then, there are really only three answers to the question regarding whether we should exterminate all meat-eating species: “Yes”, because they cause more suffering than they offset (however that’s measured); “No”, because they offset more suffering than they cause; or “I don’t know” because we can’t calculate such things for sure.

Though I would find either of the first two answers acceptable from a consistency perspective, I have yet to find anyone who advocated for either of those options. What I have come across are people who posit the third answer with some frequency. I will of course grant that such things are incredibly difficult to calculate, especially with a high degree of accurately, but this clearly do not pose a problem in all cases. Refusing to wear silk clothes, for instance, seemed to be easy enough for Piper to calculate; it’s morally wrong because it involved animal suffering and/or exploitation. Similarly, I imagine most of us would not refrain from judging someone who slowly tortured our pet dog because we can’t be 100% sure that their actions were, on the whole, causing more suffering than they offset. If we cannot calculate welfare tradeoffs in situations like these with some certainty, then any argument for veganism built on the foundation of reducing animal suffering crumbles, as such a goal would be completely ineffective in guiding our actions.

Still having trouble calculating welfare impacts?

All the previous examples do is make people confront a simple fact: they’re often not all that interested in actually “minimizing suffering“. While it sounds like a noble goal – since most people don’t like suffering in the abstract – it’s too broadly phrased to be of any use. This should be expected for a number of reasons, namely that “reducing suffering per se” is a biologically-implausible function for any cognitive mechanism and, even if reducing suffering is the proximate goal in question, there’s pretty much always something else one could do to reduce it. Despite the latter fact, many people, like Piper, effectively give up on the idea once it becomes too much of a personal burden; they’re interested in reducing suffering, just so long as it’s not terribly inconvenient. But if people are not interested in minimizing suffering per se, what is actually motivating that stated interest? Presumably, it has something to do with the signal one sends by taking such moral a stance. I won’t discuss the precise nature of that signal at the present time, but feel free to offer speculations in the comments section.

The Popularity Of Popularity

Whatever your personal views on the book, one would have a hard time denying the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, which has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide. The Harry Potter series manages to dwarf that popularity, having sold over 450 million copies worldwide. While books like these have garnered incredible amounts of attention and fandom, hundreds of thousands of other books linger on in obscurity, while others never even see print. It’s nearly impossible to overstate that magnitude of difference in popularity. Similar patterns hold across other domains of cultural products, like music and academia; some albums or papers are just vastly more notable than the rest. For anyone looking to create, then, whether that creation is a book, music, a scholarly paper, or a clothing brand, being aware of factors that separate out the bestsellers from the bargain bin can potentially make or break the endeavor.

“We’d like to thank our fan for coming out to see us tonight”

One of the problems that continuously vexes those who decide which cultural products to invest in is the matter of figuring out which investments are their best bets. For every Harry Potter, Snuggie, or Justin Bieber, there are millions of cultural products and creators who will likely end up resigned to the dustbin of history (if the seemingly-endless lines of people auditioning for shows like American Idol and (ahem) writing blogs are any indication). Despite this tremendous monetary incentive in finding the next big thing, predicting who or what it will turn out to be is incredibly difficult. Some of these cultural products seem to take on a life all their own, despite initially being passed over: for instance, the Beatles were at one point told they had “no future in show business”  before rocketing to international and intergenerational fame. Whoops. Others draw tremendous amounts of investment, only to come up radically short (the issues surrounding the video game Kingdoms of Amalur serve as a good example).

What could have inspired such colossal mistakes? The answer is probably not that the people doing the investing are stupid, wicked, or hate money (in general, at least; some of them may well be any of these things individually); a more likely reason can be summed up by what’s called the Matthew effect. Named after a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the basic principle is that the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer (also summarized in the Alice Cooper song “Lost in America”). Framed in terms of cultural products, the principle is that as something – be a book, song, or anything else – becomes popular, it will become more popular in turn because of that popularity. Obviously this becomes a problem for anyone trying to predict the success of a cultural product, because when they start out that key variable can’t be readily assessed with much precision; it’s simply not one of the inherent characteristics of the product itself. Even if the product itself is solid in every measurable respect, that’s not a guarantee of success.

While such a proximate explanation sounds appealing, solid experimental evidence of such an effect can be difficult to come by; reality is a large and messy place, so parceling out the effect of popularity can be tricky. Thankfully, some particularly clever researchers managed to leverage the power of the internet to study the effect. Salganik, Dodds, & Watts (2006) began their project by asking people on the internet to do one of the things they do best: download music (taking the coveted third-place spot of popular online activites, behind viewing pornography and complaining). The participants (all 14,341 of them) were invited to listen to any of 48 songs from new artists and, afterwards, rate and download them for free if they so desired (they couldn’t download until they listened). In the first condition, people were just presented with the songs in a random grid or list format and left to explore. In the second condition (the social world), everything was the same as the first, except the listeners were given one other key piece of information: how often that song had been downloaded by others.

And you want to like the same music as all those strangers, don’t you?

Further – and this is the rather clever part – there were eight of these different social worlds. This resulted in each world having initially-different numbers of downloads; which songs were the most downloaded initially in one world were not necessarily the most popular in another, depending on who listened and downloaded first. Salganik et al (2006) were able to report a number of interesting conclusions from these different worlds: first, the “intrinsic” quality of the songs themselves – as assessed by their download count in the asocial world – did tend to predict that song’s popularity in the social worlds. Those songs which tended to do good without the social information also tended to do good with it. That said, the social information mattered quite a bit As the authors put it:

the “best” songs never do very badly, and the “worst” songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible.

When the social information was present, the ultimate popularity of a song became harder to predict; this was especially the case when the information was presented as an ordered list, from most popular to least (as bestseller lists often are), relative to the grid format. On top of the greater unpredictability generated by the social information, there was also an increase in the inequality of popularity. That is, the most popular songs were substantially more popular than the least popular in the social conditions, relative to the asocial ones. In short, the information about other people’s preferences generated more of a winner-takes-all type of environment, and who won became increasing difficult to predict.

This study was followed up by a 2008 paper by Salganik & Watts. In this next study, the design was largely the same, but the authors attempted to add a new twist: the possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Might a “bad” song be able to be made popular by manipulating other people’s beliefs about how many others had downloaded it? Another 12,207 subjects were recruited to again listen to, rate, and download songs. Once the social worlds were initially seeded with download information from the first 2,000 people, the researchers then went in and inverted the ordering: the most and least popular songs switched their download counts, then second most and second least popular, and so on until the whole list was reversed. The remaining 10,000 subjects saw the new download counts, but everything else was left the same.

In the initial, unmodified worlds, each person listened to 7.5 of the 48 songs and downloaded 1.4 of them, on average. Unsurprisingly, people tended to download the songs they gave the highest ratings to. Somewhat more surprisingly, the fake download counts also pushed the previously-unpopular songs towards much higher degree of popularity: when the ranks weren’t inverted, there was a good correlation in the pre- and post-manipulation points (r = 0.84); when the ranks were inverted, that correlation dropped off to near non-existence (r = 0.16). The mere illusion of popularity was not absolute, though: over time, the initially “better” songs tended to regain some of their footing after inversion. Further, the songs in the inverted world tended to be listened to (average 6.3) and downloaded (1.1) less overall, suggesting that people weren’t as thrilled about the “lower-quality” songs they were now being exposed to in greater numbers.

“If none of us applaud, maybe we won’t encourage them to keep playing…”

Towards the end of their paper, the authors also dip into some strategic thinking, likening this effect to a tragedy-of-the-commons-style signaling problem: each creator has an interest in sending inflated signals about the popularity of their product, so as to garner more popularity, but as the number of these signals increases, their value decreases, and all the art as a whole suffers (a topic I touched on lately). I think such a speculation is a well-founded beginning, and I would like to see that line of reasoning taken further. For instance, there are some bands who might settle for a more niche-level popularity at the expense of broader appeal (i.e. the big fish in the small pond, talking about how the bigger fish in the bigger pond are all selling out, mass-produced products for crowds of mindless sheep; or just imagine someone going on endlessly about how bad twilight is at every opportunity they get). Figuring out why people might embrace or reject certain kinds of popularity could open the door for new avenues of profitable research.

References: Salganik, M., Dodds, P., & Watts, D. (2006). Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market. Science, 311, 854-856 DOI: 10.1126/science.1121066

Salganik, M., & Watts, D. (2008). Leading the Herd Astray: An Experimental Study of Self-fulfilling Prophecies in an Artificial Cultural Market. Social Psychology Quarterly , 71, 338-355 DOI: 10.1177/019027250807100404

Do People Try To Dishonestly Signal Fairness?

“My five-year old, the other day, one of her toys broke, and she demanded I break her sister’s toy to make it fair. And I did.” – Louis CK

This quote appeared in a post of mine around the middle of last month, in which I wanted to draw attention to the fact that a great deal of caution is warranted in inferring preferences for fairness per se from the end-states of economic games. Just because people behaved in ways that resulted in inequality being reduced, it does not necessarily follow that people were consciously acting in those ways to reduce inequality, or that humans have cognitive adaptations designed to do so; to achieve fairness. In fact, I have the opposite take on matter: since achieving equality per se doesn’t necessarily do anything useful, we should not expect to find cognitive mechanisms designed for achieving that end state. In this view, concerns for fairness are byproducts of cognitive systems designed to do other useful things. Fairness, after all, would be – and indeed can only be – an additional restriction to tack onto the range of possible, consequentially-usefully outcomes. As the Louis CK quote makes clear, concerns for fairness might involve doing things which are actively detrimental, like destroying someone else’s property to maintain some kind of equal distribution of resources. As his quote also makes clear, people are, in fact, sometimes willing to do just that.

Which brings us nicely to the topic of fairness and children.

There has been some research on children where an apparent preference for fairness (the Louis CK kind) has been observed. In the first study in a paper by Shaw et al (2012), children, ages 6 to 8, were asked a series of questions so as to be rewarded with colorful erasers (a valued resource for children). The experimenter also told the child that another, non-present child had finished a similar task and, as such, had also earned some erasers. Initially, the experimenter divided four erasers equally between the two, then left the room to retrieve a final eraser they had ostensibly forgotten. The experimenter returned to the room, and asked the child what they should do with the fifth eraser: should the child themselves get it, should the non-present child get it, or should it be thrown away? A remarkable 80% of children suggested that the eraser should be thrown away, rather than taking it for themselves or giving it to the other child. The first thing worth noting here is that children appeared willing to achieve equality through welfare destruction; equality made no one better off here, and at least one person worse off. This is what I meant when I said that achieving equality only limits the possible range of behaviors. The more interesting finding, though, is what happened when children had the available option for non-transparently unfair behavior.

The two other conditions in this first study tracked the possibility that children only wanted to appear fair, without actually being fair. In these conditions, the erasers were placed inside envelops, so as to be concealed from view. In the first of these two conditions, the child was given 1 eraser while the other non-present child was given two. When the experimenter left the room to retrieve the last eraser, a confederate came in and placed an additional eraser inside the child’s envelop and told the child to keep it secret. Then, the experimenter returned with the final eraser and asked the child what they should do with it. In this condition, only 25% of children said the eraser should be thrown away, with the rest opting instead to keep it for themselves; an unfair distribution. The second version of this condition was the same, except it was the non-present child who got the 1 eraser initially, with the confederate adding the same secret eraser to the non-present child’s envelop. In that condition, 60% of children suggested the experimenter should throw away the last eraser, with the remaining 40% keeping it for themselves (making them appear indifferent between a fair distribution or a selfish, unfair one).

So, just to recap, children will publicly attempt to achieve a fair outcome, even though doing so results in worse consequentialist outcomes (there is no material benefit to either child to throwing away an otherwise-valued eraser). However, privately, children are perfectly content to behave unfairly. The proffered explanation for these findings is that children wanted to send a signal of fairness to others publicly, but actually preferred to behave unfairly, and when they had some way of obscuring that they were doing so, they would make use of it. Indeed, findings along these same lines have been demonstrated across a variety of studies in adults as well – appear publicly fair and privately selfish – so the patterns of behavior appear sound. While I think there is certainly something to the signaling model proposed by Shaw et al (2012), I also think the signaling explanation requires some semantic and conceptual tweaking in order to make it work since, as it stands, it doesn’t make good sense. These alterations focus on two main areas: the nature of communication itself and the necessary conditions for signals to evolve, and also on how to precisely conceptualize what signal is – or rather isn’t – being sent, as well as why we ought to expect that state of affairs. Let’s begin by talking honesty.

Liar, Liar, I’m bad a poetry and you have third degree burns now.

The first issue with the signaling explanation involves a basic conceptual point about communication more generally: in order for a receiver to care about a signal from a sender in the first place, the signal needs to (generally) be honest. If I publicly proclaim that I’m a millionaire when I’m actually not, it would behoove listeners to discount what it is I have to say. A dishonest signal is of no value to the receiver. The same logic holds throughout the animal kingdom, which is why ornaments that signal an animal’s state – like the classic peacock tail – are generally very costly to grow, maintain, and survive with. These handicaps ensure the signal’s honesty and make it worth the peahen’s while to respond to. If, on the other hand, the peacocks could display a train without actually being in better condition, the signal value of the trait is lost, and we should expect peahens to eventually evolve in the direction of no longer caring about the signal. The fairness signaling explanation, then, seems to be phrased rather awkwardly: in essence, it would appear to say that, “though people are not actually fair, they try to signal that they are because other people will believe them”. This requires positing that the signal itself is a dishonest one and that receivers care about it. That’s a conceptual problem.

The second issue is that, even if one was actually fair in terms of resource distribution both publicly and privately, it seems unclear to me that one would benefit in any way by signaling that fact about themselves. Understanding why should be fairly easy: partial friends – one’s who are distinctly and deeply interested in promoting your welfare specifically – are more desirable allies than impartial ones. Someone who would treat all people equally, regardless of preexisting social ties, appears to pose no distinct benefits as an association partner. Imagine, for instance, how desirable a romantic partner would be who is just as interested in taking you out for dinner as they are in taking anyone else out. If they don’t treat you special in any way, investing your time in them would be a waste. Similarly, a best friend who is indifferent between spending time with you or someone they just met works as well for the purposes of this example. Signaling you’re truly fair, then, is signaling that you’re not a good social investment. Further, as this experiment demonstrated, achieving fairness can often mean worse outcomes for many. Since the requirement of fairness is a restriction on the range of possible behaviors on can engage it, fairness per se cannot lead to better utilitarian outcomes. Not only would signaling true fairness make you seem like a poor friend, it would also tell others that you’re the type of person who will tend to make worse decisions, overall. This doesn’t paint a pretty picture of fair individuals.

So what are we to make of the children’s curious behavior of throwing out an eraser? My intuition is that children weren’t trying to send a signal of fairness so much as they were trying to avoid sending a signal of partiality. This is a valuable distinction to make, as it makes the signaling explanation immediately more plausible: now, instead of a dishonest signal that needs to be believed, we’re left with the lack of a distinct signal that need not be considered either honest or dishonest. The signal is what’s important, but the children’s goal is avoid letting signals leak, rather than actively sending them. This raises the somewhat-obvious question of why we might expect people to sometimes forgo personal benefits to themselves or others so as to avoid sending a signal of partiality. This is an especially important consideration, as not throwing away a resource can (potentially) be beneficial no matter where it ends up: either directly beneficial in terms of gaining a resource for yourself, or beneficial in terms of initiating or maintaining new alliances if generously given to others. Though I don’t have a more-definite response to that concern, I do have some tentative suggestions.

Most of which sadly request that I, “Go eat a…”, well, you know.

An alternative possibility is that people might wish to, at times, avoid giving other people information pertaining to the extent of their existing partial relationships. If you know, for instance, that I am already deeply invested in friendships with other people, that might make me look like a bad potential investment, as I have, proportionately, fewer available resources to invest in others than if I didn’t have those friendships; I would also have less of a need for additional friends (as I discussed previously). Further, social relationships can come with certain costs or obligations, and there are times where initiating a new relationship with someone is not in your best interests: even if that person might treat you well, associating with them might carry costs from others your new partner has mistreated in the past. Though these potentials might not necessarily explain why the children are behaving the way they do with respect to erasers, it at least gives us a better theoretical grounding from which to start considering the question. What I feel we can be confident about is that the strategy that children are deploying resembles poker players trying to avoid letting other people see what cards they’re holding, rather than trying to lie to other people about what they are. There is some information that it’s not always wise to send out into the world, and some information it’s not worth listening to. Since communication is a two-way street, it’s important to avoid trying to think about each side individually in these matters.

References: Shaw A, Montinari N, Piovesan M, Olson KR, Gino F, & Norton MI (2013). Children Develop a Veil of Fairness. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 23317084

Tropes Against Video Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

How Much Does Amanda Palmer Trust Her Fans?

A new TED talk was put out today (though it won’t be today anymore by the time you read this) by Amanda Palmer entitled, “The Art of Asking”, which you can watch here. If the comments on the YouTube page of the talk are to be believed, it truly was an inspiring affair. Professional cynic that I am, the talk didn’t do much to inspire me; at least not in the way that Amanda probably intended it to. Now, for those of who you don’t know her, Amanda is (primarily, I think) famous for her music in The Dresden Dolls. One of the main thrusts of her talk centers around the question she poses towards the end: how do we let people pay for music, rather than how do we get people to pay for music. Part of Amanda’s answer to this question was to allow people to download her music on her website and let them pay whatever price they wanted for the download. So, if someone downloaded Amanda’s music from her site, they had the option of paying $0, $1, $5, $10, $15, $20, or $100 for it. Amanda further suggests that she views this as a sort of “trust” in her fans, presumably because she had given people the option of paying nothing, which is the option most economists would consider the “rational” one. While her talk is delivered with a strong emotional tone and the message is ostensibly positive, Amanda is still a human, so my guess is that there’s more to her trust than meets the eye.

And more than meets the shaved-off eyebrows as well

Admittedly, I don’t know much about Amanda beyond what I just heard. Though I am familiar with her music to some degree, I’ve never followed her personal life at all. Here’s what I do know: a quick browsing of her website shows me that while she will indeed allow people to choose their own price for her music and download it, she doesn’t seem to have that same policy towards shirts, CDs, vinyl, posters, art books, or the shipping and handling required to send any of them out. Something (the tour section of her website) also tells me the venues she plays at – which I’m imagining represent a substantial proportion of her income – don’t allow anyone to come in to see the show and pay whatever they feel like for tickets. It would seem that telling people, rather than asking them, to pay is the norm; not her exception. This raises the inevitably question: to what extent does the choose-your-own-price option reflect a genuine leap of faith, and how much of her TED talk is actually cheap talk?

Cheap talk is just what it sounds like: it’s a signal that is easy to produce. Like all signals, it functions to attempt and persuade another individual to change their behavior. Cheap talk, however, is of very questionable value precisely because it’s so easy to manufacture. For instance, let’s say that a man tries to convince a woman at a bar to have sex with him. He tells her that he’s fabulously wealthy, will remain faithful to her throughout his life, and see to it that she wants for nothing if she agrees. Tempting offer no doubt, but what’s guaranteeing that any of the information that the man is sending is true? It costs the man almost nothing to say the words, and once the two have sex, he’s free to go back on his word without penalty. However, if that same offer is made after a month of courtship where the man has paid for multiple dates, consistently dressed in expensive clothes, and accompanies the offer with a diamond ring, wedding ceremony, and legal contract that entitles the woman to half of everything he owns, we’ve stepped out the realm of cheap talk into costly signals. Because of those high costs, the signal is much harder to fake, so its honesty can be better guaranteed.

Now Amanda would like us to think that her choose-your-own-price option represents a costly signal of trust towards her fans. Indeed, she may well consciously believe that it is one, just as most people consciously believe they’re better than average at things that the majority of other people or less likely to have bad things happen to them. Since her personal, potentially self-serving feelings about the whole thing don’t necessarily reflect reality, this brings us back to the “how costly is her gesture?” question. As the internet stands right now, whether a musician provides the option for free downloading on their own website or not, the option likely exists somewhere. It took me all of three seconds to find a list of websites where I could have downloaded Amanda’s album for free anyway. In other words, if someone wanted to download her album without paying, they likely could have. This suggests that her pay-nothing option isn’t as trusting as it initially comes across. Not only is she not creating that option where it didn’t exist before, but, in all likelihood, it would exist regardless of whether she wanted it to or not. Counting this as “trust” is a bit like my saying that I “trust” gravity to do what it does; I don’t really have a choice in the matter.

Physics has yet to disappoint

On top of that preexisting problem of music downloads already being available, there’s another: to the best of my knowledge, the costs to letting someone download her album are minimal. While one could argue about how much money she would lose on account of people not paying, I’m talking more about the physical costs of sending the information to someone’s computer. Since there really is no cost there – and because the option to download for free would exist with or without Amanda’s seal of approval – Amanda is essentially undertaking zero risk in providing her ostensibly-trusting option. It requires no investment and no need for desire. Without that risk, assessing the credibility of the signal becomes very difficult, as was the case with the sex example above. How trusting would Amanda be when there are some actual risks involved? When she has the ability to create that trusting option, will she? This is where Amanda’s other merchandise comes to the rescue.

Things like shirts, posters, and physical copies of CDs cost actual money to produce, and the option to get these things for free doesn’t already exist. Nothing is stopping Amanda from paying out of pocket to have these items made and allowing her fans to pay whatever they want for them (from $0 a shirt a $100, for instance), yet this isn’t what she does. Once actual risk enters the picture – once Amanda needs to make a real initial investment – her trust sees to dry up in a hurry. Apparently, she doesn’t trust her fans enough to adequately compensate her on a shirt and the shipping cost when she has the option to. One could argue, I suppose, that a handful of amoral people could, in principle, ruin her financially by ordering dozens or hundreds of shirts from her for free online, and that same risk isn’t posed by the downloading of a CD. That would be a fair point, except there are multiple ways around it: the requirement of a credit card for the purchase (whatever the purchase price ended up being), a limit on the number of free or cheap items, or the option available to pay whatever you want for the merchandise, but only at live concerts. Admittedly, I don’t know if she does the last one; I just suspect she doesn’t offer it as default option.

Forgetting about the merchandise, we could also discuss ticket prices to the shows as well. A quick browsing of the links for tickets on her tour schedule shows tickets that can range from $15 to $60. Now of course ticket prices aren’t being set by Amanda herself, but, then again, venues aren’t set in stone either. Presumably Amanda could, if she wanted to, only schedule herself to play at venues where ticket prices could be determined (at least largely) by the willingness of the people who show up to pay. I’m sure there are plenty of venues – though not necessarily traditional ones – that would at least consider such an offer. Rather than take this approach, however, Amanda’s “art of asking” seems to involve first demanding people pay full price for tickets and merchandise and, in addition, asking them to then pay more, whether that more came in the form of additional money placed into a hat she passes around the crowd, giving her food, places to stay, practice space, or other items of interest.

“How can we let people pay $7 for a cup of coffee and then let them pay us even more?”

Now none of this is to say that Amanda is a bad person. As I said, I don’t know nearly enough about her to make that judgment one way or the other. This is merely to point out that the “trust” Amanda has in her fans certainly has its limits – many of them – as pretty much anyone’s does. That’s just the point though; there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special going on here. Despite there being nothing special about it, Amanda seems to be trying to play it off as if it’s some great exercise in trust. The impossible-to-assess pretense is the part of the talk that inspired this post. There’s also the matter of the kickstarter she mentions. Amanda asked for $100,000 on kickstarter and ended up making over a million. Now I don’t find anything particularly egregious about that; if her fans wanted to support her, nothing was stopping them. What I did find curious, though, what her analysis of how that money would be spent. It seemed that she had a legitimate need for almost the full million. While that’s fine if she does, what’s curious about that was is if she needed the full million, why didn’t she ask for, well, the full million? Why only ask for the hundred thousand that clearly would have been grossly insufficient for her plans? Something about that analysis strikes me as off as well. Then again, if a pretense of trust is easy to manufacture, so is a pretense of need.

Depressed To Impress

Reflecting on this morning’s usual breakfast cake brought to mind a thought that only people like myself think: the sugar in my breakfast is not sweet. Sweetness, while not a property of the sugar, is an experience generated by our mind when sugar is present on the tongue. We generally find the presence of sugar to be a pleasant experience, and often times find ourselves seeking out similar experiences in the future. The likely function of this experience is to motivate people to preferentially seek out and consume certain types of foods, typically the high-calorie variety. As dense packages of calories can be very beneficial to an organism’s survival, especially when they’re rare, the tendency to experience a pleasant sweetness in the presence of sugar was selected for; individuals who were indifferent between eating sand or honey were no one’s ancestors.

On a related note, there’s nothing intrinsically painful about damage done to your body. Pain, like sweetness, is an important signal; pain signals when your body is being damaged, in turn motivating people to stop doing or get away from whatever is causing the harm and avoiding making current injuries worse. Pain feels so unpleasant because, if it didn’t, the proper motivation would not be provided. However, in order to feel pain, an organism must have evolved that ability; it’s not present as a default, as evidenced by the rare people born without the ability to feel pain. As one could imagine, those who were indifferent to the idea of having their leg broken rarely ended up reproducing as well as others who found the experience excruciating.

Walk it off.

Sensations like pain or sweetness can be explained neatly and satisfyingly through these functional accounts. With these accounts we can understand why things that feel pleasant – like gorging myself on breakfast cake – are not always a good thing (when calories are abundant), whereas unpleasant feelings – like sticking your arm in a wood-chipper – can be vital to our survival. Conversely, lacking these functional accounts can lead to poor outcomes. For instance, treating a fever as a symptom of an infection to be reduced, rather than a body’s adaptive response to help fight the infection, can actually lead to a prolonging and worsening of said infection (Nesse & Williams, 1994). Before trying to treat something as a problem and make it go away just because it feels unpleasant, or not treat a problem because it might be enjoyable, it’s important to know what function those feelings might serve and what costs and benefits of reducing or indulging in them might entail. This brings us to the omnipresent subject of unpleasant feelings that people want to make go away in psychology: depression.

Depression, I’m told, is rather unpleasant to deal with. Most commonly triggered by a major, negative life event, depression leads to a loss of interest and engagement in almost all activities, low energy levels, and, occasionally, even suicide. Despite these apparent costs, depression continues to be a fairly prevalent complaint the world over, and is far more common among women than men. Given its predictability and prevalence, might there be a function behind this behavior? Any functional account of depression would need to both encompass these known facts, as well as purpose subsequent gains that would tend to outweigh these negative consequences. As reviewed by Hagen (2003), previous models of depression suggested that sadness served as a type of psychic pain: when one is unsuccessful in navigating the social world in some way, it is better to disengage from a failing strategy than to continue to pursue it, as one would be wasting time and energy that could be spent elsewhere. However, such a hypothesis fails to account for major depression, positing instead that major depression is simply a maladaptive byproduct of an otherwise useful system. Certainly, activities like eating shouldn’t be forgone because an unrelated social strategy has failed, nor should one engage in otherwise harmful behaviors (potentially suicidal ones) for similar reasons; it’s unclear from the psychic pain models why these particular maladaptive byproducts would arise and persist in the first place. For example, touching a hot pan causes one to rapid withdraw their hand, but it does not cause people to stop cooking food altogether for weeks on end.

Hagen (2003) puts forth the idea that depression functions primarily as a social bargaining mechanism. Given this function, Hagen suggests the following contexts should tend to provoke depressive episodes: a person should experience a perceived negative life event, the remedy to this event should be difficult or impossible to achieve on their own, and there must be conflict over other people’s willingness to provide assistance in achieving a remedy. Conflict is ubiquitous in the social realm of life; that much is uncontested. When confronted with a major negative life event, such as the death of a spouse or the birth of an unwanted child, social support from others can be its most important. Unfortunately for those in need, others people are not always the most selfless when it comes to providing for those needs, so the needy require methods of eliciting that support. While violence is one way to make others do what you’d like, it is not always the most reliable or safest method, especially if the source you’re attempting to persuade is stronger than you or outnumber you. Another route to compelling a more powerful other to invest in you is to increase the costs of not investing, and this can be done by simply withholding benefits that you can provide others until things change. Essentially, depression serves as a type of social strike, the goal of which is to credibly signal that one is not sufficiently benefiting from their current state, and is willing to stop providing benefits to others until the terms of their social contract have been renegotiated.

“What do we want? A more satisfying life. When do we want it? I’ll just be in bed until that time…whatever”

Counter-intuitive as it may sound, despite depression feeling harmful to the person suffering from it, the function of depression would be to inflict costs on others who have an interest in you being productive and helpful. By inflicting costs on yourself (or, rather, failing to provide benefits to others), you are thereby motivating others to help you to so they can, in turn, help themselves by regaining access to whatever benefits you can provide. Then again, perhaps this isn’t as counter-intuitive as it may sound, taking the case of suicide as an example. Suicide definitely represents a cost to other people in one’s life, from family members, to spouses, to children, to friends, or trade partners. It’s much more profitable to have a live friend or spouse capable of providing benefits to you than a dead one. Prior to any attempt being made, suicidal people tend to warn others of their intentions and, if any attempt is made, they are frequently enacted in manners which are unreliably lethal. Further still, many people, whether family or clinicians, view suicidal thoughts and attempts as cries for help, rather than as a desire to die per se, suggesting people have some underlying intuitions about the ultimate intentions of such acts. That a suicide is occasionally completed likely represents a maladaptive outcome of an evolutionary arms race between the credibility of the signal and the skepticism that others view the signal with. Is the talk about suicide just that – cheap talk – or is it actually a serious threat?

There are two social issues that depression needs to deal with that can also be accounted for in this model. The first issue concerns how depressed individuals avoid being punished by others. If an individual is taking benefits from other group members, but not reciprocating those benefits (whether due to depression or selfishness), they are likely to activate the cheater-detection module of the mind. As we all know, people don’t take kindly to cheaters and do not tend to offer them more support to help out. Rather, cheaters tend to be punished, having further costs inflicted upon them. If the goal of depression is to gain social support, punishment is the last thing that would help achieve that goal. In order to avoid coming off as a cheater, a depressed individual may need to forgo accepting many benefits that others provide, which would help explain why depressed individuals often give up activities like eating or even getting out of bed. A more-or-less complete shutdown of behavior might be required in order to avoid coming off as a manipulative cheater.

The second issue concerns the benefits that a depressed individual can provide. Let’s use the example of a worker going on strike: if this worker is particularly productive, having him not show up to work will be a genuine cost on the employer. However, if this worker either poorly skilled – thus able to deliver little, if any, benefits to the employer – or easily replaceable, not showing up to work won’t cause the employer any loss of sleep or money. Accordingly, in order for depression to be effective, the depressed individual needs to be socially valuable, and the more valuable they are seen as being, the more of a monopoly they hold over the benefits they provide, the more effective depression can be in achieving its goal. What this suggests is that depression would work better in certain contexts, perhaps when population sizes are smaller and groups more mutually dependent on one another – which would have been the social contexts under which depression evolved. What this might also suggest is that depression may become more prevalent and last longer the more replaceable people become socially due to certain novel features of our social environment; there’s little need to give a striking worker a raise if there are ten other capable people already lined up for his position.

You should have seen the quality of resumes I was getting last time I was single.

That depression is more common among women would suggest, then, that depression is a more profitable strategy for women, relative to men. There are several reasons this might be the case. First, women might be unable to engage in direct physical aggression as effectively as men, restricting their ability to use aggressive strategies to gain the support of others. Another good possibility is that, reproductively, women tend to be a more valuable resource (or rather, a limiting one) relative to men. Whereas almost all women had a valuable resource they could potentially restrict access to, not all men do. If men are more easily replaceable, they hold less bargaining power by threatening to strike. Another way of looking at the matter is that the costs men incur by being depressed and shutting down are substantially greater than the costs women do, or the costs they are capable of imposing on others aren’t as great. A depressed man may quickly fall in the status hierarchy, which would ultimately do more harm than the depressive benefits would be able to compensate for. It should also be noted that one of the main ways depression is alleviated is following a positive life change, like entering into a new relationship or getting a new job, which is precisely what the bargaining model would predict, lending further support to this model.

So given this likely function of depression, is it a mental illness that requires treatment? I would say no to the first part and maybe to the second. While generally being an unpleasant experience, depression, in this model, is no more of a mental illness than the experience of physical pain is. Whether or not it should be treated is, of course, up to the person suffering from it. There are very real costs to all parties involved when depression is active, and it’s certainly understandable why people would want to make them go away. What this model suggests is that, like treating a fever, just making the symptoms of depression go away may have unintended social costs elsewhere, either in the short- or long-term. While keeping employees from striking certainly keeps them working, it also removes some of their ability to bargain for better pay or working conditions. Similarly, simply relieving depression may keep people happier and more productive, but it may also lead them to accept less fulfilling or supportive circumstances in their life.

References: Hagen, E.H. (2003). The bargaining model of depression. In: Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, P. Hammerstein (ed.). MIT Press, 95-123

Nesse, R.M., & Williams G.C. (1994). Why We Get Sick: The New Science Of Darwinian Medicine. Vintage books.

Tucker Max, Hitler, And Moral Contagion.

Disgust is triggered off not primarily by the sensory properties of an object, but by ideational concerns about what it is, or where it has been…The first law, contagion, states that “things which have once been in contact with each other continue ever afterwards to act on each other”…When an offensive (or revered) person or animal touches a previously neutral object, some essence or residue is transmitted, even when no material particles are visible. – Haidt et al. (1997, emphasis theirs).

Play time is over; it’s time to return to the science and think about what we can learn of human psychology from the Tucker Max and Planned Parenthood incident. I’d like to start with a relevant personal story. A few years ago I was living in England for several months. During my stay, I managed to catch my favorite band play a few times. After one of their shows, I got a taxi back to my hotel, picked up my guitar from my room, and got back to the venue. I waited out back with a few other fans by the tour bus. Eventually, the band made their way out back, and I politely asked if they would mind signing my guitar. They agreed, on the condition that I not put it on eBay (which I didn’t, of course), and I was soon the proud owner of several autographs. I haven’t played the guitar since for fear of damaging it.

This is my guitar; there are many like it, but this one is mine…and some kind of famous people wrote on it once.

My behavior, and other similar behavior, is immediately and intuitively understandable by almost all people, especially anyone who enjoys the show Pawnstars, yet very few people take the time to reflect on just how strange it is. By getting the signatures on the guitar, I did little more than show it had been touched very briefly by people I hold in high esteem. Nothing I did fundamentally altered the guitar in anyway, and yet somehow it was different; it was distinguished in some invisible way from the thousands of others just like it, and no doubt more valuable in the eyes of other fans. This example is fairly benign; what happened with Planned Parenthood and Tucker Max was not. In that case, the result of such intuitive thinking was that a helpful organization was out $500,000 and many men and women lost access to their services locally. Understanding what’s going on in both cases better will hopefully help people not make mistakes like that again. It probably won’t, but wouldn’t it be nice if did?

The first order of business in understanding what happened is to take a step back and consider the universal phenomenon of disgust. One function of our disgust psychology is to deal with the constant threat of microbial and parasitic organisms. By avoiding ingesting or contacting potentially contaminated materials, the chances of contracting costly infections or harmful parasites are lowered. Further, if by sheer force of will or accident a disgusting object is actually ingested, it’s not uncommon for a vomiting reaction to be triggered, serving to expel as much of the contaminant as possible. While a good portion of our most visceral disgust reactions focus on food, animals, or bodily products, not all of them do; the reaction extends into the realm of behavior, such as deviant sexual behavior, and perceived physical abnormalities, like birth defects or open wounds. Many of the behaviors that trigger some form of disgust put us in no danger of infection or toxic exposure, so there must be more to the story than just avoiding parasites and toxins.

One way Haidt et al. (1997) attempt to explain the latter part of this disgust reaction is by referencing concerns about humans being reminded of their animal nature, or thinking of their body as a temple, which are, frankly, not explanations at all. All such an “explanation” does is push the question back a step to, “why would being reminded of our animal nature or profaning a temple cause disgust?” I feel there are two facts that stand out concerning our disgust reaction that help to shed a lot of light on the matter: (1) disgust reactions seem to require social interaction to develop, meaning what causes disgust varies to some degree from culture to culture, as well as within cultures, and (2) disgust reactions concerning behavior or physical traits tend to focus heavily on behaviors or traits that are locally abnormal in some way. So, the better question to ask is: “If the function of disgust is primarily related to avoidance behaviors, what are the costs and benefits to people being disgusted by whatever they are, and how can we explain the variance?” This brings us nicely to the topic of Hitler.

Now I hate V-neck shirts even more.

As Haidt et al. (1997) note, people tend to be somewhat reluctant to wear used clothing, even if that clothing had been since washed; it’s why used clothing, even if undamaged, is always substantially cheaper than a new, identical article. If the used clothing in question belonged to a particularly awful person – in this case, Hitler – people are even less interested in wearing it. However, this tendency is reversed for items owned by well-liked figures, just like my initial example concerning my guitar demonstrated. I certainly wouldn’t let a stranger draw on my guitar, and I’d be even less willing to let someone I personally disliked give it a signature. I could imagine myself even being averse to playing an instrument privately that’s been signed by someone I disliked. So why this reluctance? What purpose could it possibly serve?

One very plausible answer is that the core issue here is signaling, as it was in the Tucker Max example. People are morally disgusted by, and subsequently try and avoid, objects or behaviors that could be construed as sending the wrong kind of signal. Inappropriate or offensive behavior can lead to social ostracism, the fitness consequences of which can be every bit as extreme as those from parasites. Likewise, behavior that signals inappropriate group membership can be socially devastating, so you need to be cautious about what signal you’re sending. One big issue that people need to contend with is that signals themselves can be interpreted many different ways. Let’s say you go over to a friend’s house, and find a Nazi flag hanging in the corner of a room; how should you interpret what you’re seeing? Perhaps he’s a history buff, specifically interested in World War II; maybe a relative fought in that war and brought the flag home as a trophy; he might be a Nazi sympathizer; it might even be the case that he doesn’t know what the flag represents and just liked the design. It’s up to you to fill in the blanks, and such a signal comes with a large risk factor: not only could an interpretation of the signal hurt your friend, it could hurt you as well for being seen as complicit in his misdeed.

Accordingly, if that signaling model is correct, then I would predict that signal strength and sign should tend to outweigh the contagion concerns, especially if that signal can be interpreted negatively by whoever you’re hoping to impress. Let’s return to the Hitler example: the signaling model would predict that people should prefer to publicly wear Hitler’s actual black V-neck shirt (as it doesn’t send any obvious signals) over wearing a brand new shirt that read “I Heart Hitler”. This parallels the Tucker Max example: people were OK with the idea of him donating money so long as he did so in a manner that kept his name off the clinic. Tucker’s money wasn’t tainted because of the source as much as it was tainted because his conditions made sure the source was unambiguous. Since people didn’t like the source and wanted to reject the perceived association, their only option was to reject the money.

This signaling explanation also sheds light on why the things that cause disgust are generally seen as, in some way, abnormal or deviant. Those who physically look abnormal may carry genes that are less suited for the current environment, or be physically compromised in such a way as it’s better to avoid them than invest in them. Those who behave in a deviant, inappropriate, or unacceptable manner could be signaling something important about their usefulness, friendliness, or their status as a cooperative individual, depending on the behavior. Disgust of deviants, in this case, helps people pick which conspecifics they’d be most profitably served by, and, more generally, helps people fit into their group. You want to avoid those who won’t bring you much reward for your investment, and avoid doing things that get on other people’s bad side. Moral disgust would seem to serve both functions well.

Which is why I now try and make new friends over mutual hatreds instead of mutual interests.

Now returning one final time to the Planned Parenthood issue, you might not like the idea of Tucker Max having his name on a clinic because you don’t like him. I understand that concern, as I wouldn’t like to play a guitar that was signed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church. On that level, by criticizing those who don’t like the idea of a Tucker Max Planned Parenthood clinic, I might seem like a hypocrite; I would be just as uncomfortable in a similar situation. There is a major difference between the two positions though, as a quick example will demonstrate.

Let’s say there’s a group of starving people in a city somewhere that you happen to be charge of. You make all the calls concerning who gets to bring anything into your city, so anyone who wants to help needs to go through you. In response to the hunger problem, the Westboro Baptist Church offers to donate a truck load of food to those in need, but they have one condition: the truck that delivers the food will bear a sign reading “This food supplied courtesy of the Westboro Baptist Church”. If you dislike the Church, as many people do, you have something of a dilemma: allow an association with them in order to help people out, or turn the food away on principle.

For what it’s worth, I would rather see people eat than starve, even if it means that the food comes from a source I don’t like. If your desire to help the starving people eat is trumped by your desire to avoid associating with the Church, don’t tell the starving people you’re really doing it for their own good, because you wouldn’t be; you’d be doing it for your own reasons at their expense, and that’s why you’d be an asshole.

References: Haidt, J., Rozin, P., McCauley, C., & Imada, S. (1997). Body, psyche, and culture: The relationship between disgust and morality. Psychology and Developing Societies, 9, 107-131.

Tucker Max V. Planned Parenthood

My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead. -Tucker Max

It should come as no surprise that there are more than a few people in this world who don’t hold Tucker Max in high esteem. He makes no pretenses of being what most would consider a nice person, and makes no apologies for his behavior; behavior which is apparently rewarded with tons of sex and money. Recently, however, this reputation prevented him from making a $500,000 donation to Planned Parenthood. Naturally, this generated something of a debate, full of plenty of moral outrage and inconsistent arguments. Since I’ve been thinking and writing about reasoning and arguing lately, I decided to treat myself and indulge in a little bit. I’ll do my best to make this educational as well as personal, but I make no promises; this is predominately intellectual play for me.

Sometimes you just have to kick back and treat yourself in a way that avoids going outside enjoying the nice weather.

So here’s the background, as it’s been recounted: Tucker find himself with a tax burden that can be written off to some extent if he donates money charitably. Enterprising guy that he is, he also wants to donate the money in such a way that it can help generate publicity for his new book. After some deliberation, he settles on a donation of $500,000 to Planned Parenthood, as he describes himself as always having been pro-choice, having been helped by Planned Parenthood throughout his life, and, perhaps, finding the prospect funny. His condition for the donation is that he wanted his name on a clinic, which apparently is something Planned Parenthood will consider if you donate enough money. A meeting is scheduled to hammer out the details, but is cancelled a few hours before it was set to take place – as Tucker is driving to it – because Planned Parenthood suddenly became concerned about Tucker’s reputation and backs out of the meeting without offering any alternative options.

I’ll start by stating my opinion: Planned Parenthood made a bad call, and those who are arguing that Planned Parenthood made the correct call don’t have a leg to stand on.

Here’s what wasn’t under debate: whether Planned Parenthood needed money. Their funding was apparently cut dramatically in Texas, where the donation was set to take place, and the money was badly needed. So if Planned Parenthood needed money and turned down such a large sum of it, one can only imagine they had some reasons to do so. One could also hope those reasons were good. From the various articles and comments on the articles that I’ve read defending Planned Parenthood’s actions, there are two sets of reasons why they feel this decision was the right one. The first set I’ll call the explicit arguments – what people say – and the second I’ll call the implicit motivations – what I infer (or people occasionally say) the motivations behind the explicit arguments are.

…but didn’t have access to any reproductive care, as the only Planned Parenthood near me closed.

The explicit arguments contain two main points. The first thrust of the attack is that Tucker’s donation is selfish; his major goal is writing off his taxes and generating publicity, and this taints his action. That much is true, but from there this argument flounders. No one is demanding that Planned Parenthood only accept truly selfless donations. Planned Parenthood itself did not suggest that Tucker’s self-interest had anything at all to do with why they rejected the offer. This explicit argument serves only one real purpose, and that’s character assassination by way of framing Tucker’s donation in the worst possible light. One big issue with this is that I find it rather silly to try and malign Tucker’s character, as he does a fine job of that himself; his self-regarding personality is responsible for a good deal of why he’s famous. Another big issue is that Tucker could have donated that money to any non-profit he wanted, and I doubt Planned Parenthood was the only way he could have achieved his main goals. Just because caring for Planned Parenthood might not have been his primary motive with the donation, it does not mean it played no part in motivating the decision. Similarly, just because someone’s primary motivation for working at their job is money, it does not mean money is the only reason they chose the job they did, out of all the possible jobs they could have picked.

The second explicit argument is the more substantial half. Since Tucker Max is a notable asshole, many people voiced concerns that putting his name on a clinic would do Planned Parenthood a good deal of reputational damage, causing other people to withdraw or withhold their financial or political support. Ultimately, the costs of this reputational damage would end up outweighing Tucker’s donation, so really, it was a smart economic (and political, and moral) move. In fact, one author goes so far as to suggest that taking Tucker’s donation could have put the future of Planned Parenthood as a whole in jeopardy. This argument, at it’s core, suggests that Planned Parenthood lost the battle (Tucker’s donation) to win the war (securing future funding).

There are two big problems with this second argument. Most importantly, the negative outcome of accepting Tucker’s donation is purely imagined. It might have happened, it might not have happened, and there’s absolutely zero way of confirming whether it would have. That does not stop people from assuming that the worst would have happened, as making that assumption gives those defending Planned Parenthood an unverifiable potential victim. As I’ve mentioned before, having a victim on your side of the debate is crucial for engaging the moral psychology of others, and when people are making moral pronouncements they do actively search for victims. The other big problem with this second argument is that it’s staggering inconsistent with the first. Remember, people were very critical of Tucker’s motivations for the donation. One of the most frequently trotted out lines was, “If Tucker really cared about Planned Parenthood, he would have made the donation anonymously anyway. Then, he could have helped the women out and avoided the reputational harm he would have done to Planned Parenthood. Since he didn’t donate anonymously (or at least, I think he didn’t; that’s kind of the rub with anonymous donations), he’s just a total asshole”.

“I was going to refill my birth control prescription here, but if Tucker Max helped keep this clinic open, maybe I’ll just get pregnant instead”

The inconsistency is as follows: people assume that other donors would avoid or politically attack Planned Parenthood if Tucker Max was associated with it. Perhaps some women would even avoid the clinic itself, because it would make them feel upset. Again, maybe that would happen, maybe it wouldn’t. Assuming that it would, one could make the case that if those other supporters really cared about Planned Parenthood, then they shouldn’t let something like an association of a single clinic with Tucker Max dissuade them. The only reason that someone who previously supported Planned Parenthood would be put off would be for personal, self-interested reasons. The very same kind of motivation they criticized Tucker for initially. Instead of bloggers and commenters writing well-reasoned posts about how people shouldn’t stop supporting Planned Parenthood just because Tucker Max has his name on one, they instead praise excluding his sizable donation. One would think anyone who truly supported Planned Parenthood would err on the side of making arguments concerning why people should continue to support it, not why it would be justifiable for people to pull their support in fear of association with someone they don’t like.

Which brings us very nicely to the implicit motivations. The core issue here can be best summed up by Tucker himself:

Most charities are not run to help people, they are run because they are ways for people to signal status about themselves to other people…I wasn’t the “right type” of person to take money from so they’d rather close clinics. It’s the worst kind of elitism, the kind that cloaks itself in altruism. They care more about the perception of themselves and their organization than they care about its effectiveness at actually serving the reproductive needs of women.

People object to Tucker Max’s donation on two main fronts: (1) they don’t want to do anything that benefits Tucker in any way, and (2) they don’t personally want to be associated with Tucker Max in any way. Those two motivations are implicitly followed by a, “…and that’s more important to me than ensuring Planned Parenthood can continue to serve the women and men of their communities”. It looks a lot like a costly display on the part of those who supported the decision. They’re demonstrating their loyalty to their group, or to their ideals, and they’re willing to endure a very large, very real cost to do so. At least, they’re willing to let other people suffer that cost, as I don’t assume all, or even most, of the bloggers and commenters will be directly impacted by this decision.

Whatever ideal it is that they’re committed to, whatever group they’re displaying for, it is not Planned Parenthood. Perhaps they feel they’re fighting to end what they perceive as sexism, or misogyny, or a personal slight because Tucker wrote something about fat girls they found insulting. What they’re fighting for specifically is irrelevant. What is relevant is that they’re willing to see Planned Parenthoods close and men and women lose access to their services before they’re willing to compromise whatever it is they’re primarily fighting for. They might dress their objections up to make it look like they aren’t self-interested or fighting some personal battle, but the disguise is thin indeed. One could make the case that such behavior, co-opting the suffering of another group to bolster your own cause, is rather selfish; the kind of thing a real asshole would do.

The Science Of White Knighting

As a male, it’s my birthright to be a chauvinistic sexist, sort of like original sin. I still remember the day, though I was still very young, that some representatives from the Patriarchy approached me with my membership card. They extended their invitation to join the struggle to keep gender roles distinct, help maintain male privilege, and make sure the women got the short end of the social stick despite both genders being identical in every way. I’m proud to report that towards this end I’ve watched many movies and played many games where the male protagonist saves an attractive woman from the clutches of some evil force (typically another male character), and almost none where the roles have been reversed. Take that, 19th amendment!

While we having yet figured out how to legally bar women from playing video games, we can at least patronize them while they do.

I have some lingering doubts as to whether I, as a man, am doing enough to maintain my privileged position in the world. Are sexism and recurrent cultural accidents the only reasons that the theme of man-saves-woman is so popular in the media, but the woman-saves-man theme is far less common? While I certainly hope it is to maximize the oppression factor, there have been two recent papers that suggest the theme of a damsel in distress being rescued by their white knight (or Mario, if you’re into short Italian plumbers) has more to do with getting the girl than oppressing her by reinforcing the idea that women need men to save them. A worrying thought for you other sexist pigs, I know.

While there’s always an interest in studying heroic behavior, researchers can’t put people into life-and-death scenarios for experimental purposes without first filling out the proper paperwork, and that can be quite tedious. The next best thing that we’re able to do is to get subjects to volunteer for self-inflicted discomfort. Towards this end, McAndrew & Perilloux (2012) brought some undergraduates into the lab under the pretenses of a “group-problem solving study”, when the actual objective was to see who would volunteer for discomfort. The undergrads were tested in groups of three and given three minutes to assign each group member one of three jobs: astronaut, diver, and pitcher. The astronaut’s job was to write down arguments in favor of taking three items from a hypothetical crashed spaceship. The diver was tasked with, first, submerging their arm in icy water for forty seconds, and then sit under a large water-balloon that the pitcher would attempt to break by throwing balls at a target (in keeping with the “3″ theme, the pitcher had three minutes to accomplish this task).  Needless to say, this would soak the diver, which was pretty clearly the worst job to have. Afterwards, the subjects decided how to split up the $45 payment privately. People who volunteered for the diver role were accordingly paid and liked more, on average.

If that’s where the experiment ended there wouldn’t be much worth caring about. The twist is that the groups were either made up of two men and one women, or two women and one man. In the latter groups, men and women ended up in each role at chance levels. However, when the group was made up of two men and a woman, the men ended up in the diver role 100% of the time, and the pitcher role almost as often (the one exception being a woman who was actually a pitcher for a softball team). It seemed to be that the presence of another man led the men to compete for the position of altruist, as if to show off for the woman and show-up the other man. If we were to translate this result into the world of popular movie themes, a close fit would probably be “male friend tries to convince a girl he really cares about her and he has has been the one for all along, not that jerk of a boyfriend she’s had”.

“Tell me more about all the men you date who aren’t me. I’m selflessly concerned with all your problems and can take the pain; not like those Jerks.”

Now it’s worth pointing out that the mating motive I’m suggesting as an explanation is an assumed one, as nothing in the study directly tested whether the behavior in the two male groups was intended to get the girl. One could be left wondering why the two female groups did not universally have the male volunteering for the diver position as well, were that the case. It could be that a man would only feel the need to compete (i.e. display) when there’s an alternative to him available; when there’s little to no choice for the women (one man, take him or leave him), the motivation to endure these costs and show off might not be aroused. While that answer may be incomplete, it’s at least a plausible starting point.

A second paper paints a broader picture of this phenomena and helps us infer sexual motives more clearly. In this study, Van Vugt & Iredale (2012) looked at contributions to public goods – sacrificing for the good of the group – rather than the willingness to get a little wet. In the first experiment, subjects played an anonymous public goods game with either no observer, an attractive observer of the same sex sitting close by, or one of the opposite sex. Across the three conditions, women were equally as likely to donate money to a group account. Men, however, donated significantly more to the account, but only when being observed by a member of the opposite sex. Further, the amount men donated correlated with how attractive they thought that observer was; the more attractive the men felt the woman was, the nicer the men were willing to behave. I’m sure this facet of the male psychology has not escaped the notice of almost any woman on Earth. To the infuriation of many girlfriends, their significant others will seem to take on a new persona around other women that’s just so friendly and accommodating, leading to all manner of unpleasant outcomes for everyone.

The next experiment in the paper also looked at male-male competition for behaving altruistically in a public goods game. Male subjects were brought into the lab one at a time and photographed. Their photos were then added alongside two others so subjects could see who they were playing with. Feedback on how much money participants gave was made available after each of the five rounds. Additionally, some participants were led to believe there would be an attractive observer – either of the same or opposite sex – watching the game, and the photos of the fake observers were included as well. Finally, at the conclusion of the experiment, participants were asked to make a commitment to a charitable organization. The results showed that men tended to increase their contribution between the beginning and the end of the game, but only when they thought they were being observed by an attractive woman; when they weren’t contributions steadily declined. Similarly, men also volunteered for more charity time following the experiment if they had been observed by an attractive woman.

All the sudden, the plight of abused children just became a lot more real.

While male behavior was only studied under these two situations, I don’t see any reasons to suspect that the underlying psychological mechanisms don’t function similarly in others. Men are willing to compete for women, and that competition can take many forms, altruism being one of them. Everyone is familiar with the stereotypical guy who befriends a woman, is always there to help her, and is constantly looking out for her, with the end goal of course being sex (however vehemently it may be denied). Given that women tend to value kindness and generosity in a partner, being kind and generous as a way to someone’s pants isn’t the worst idea in the world. Demonstrating your ability and willingness to invest is a powerful attractant. That comes with a caveat: it’s important for some frustrated men out there to bear in mind that those two factors are not the only criteria that women use to make decisions about who to hook up with.

I say that because there are many men who bemoan how women always seem to go for “jerks”, though most women – and even some men – will tell you that most guys are pretty nice overall, and being nice does not make one exceptionally attractive. They’ll also tell you that women, despite the stereotype and for the most part, don’t like being with assholes. Real jerks fail to provide many benefits and even inflict some heavy costs than nicer men would. To the extent that women go for guys who don’t really treat them well or care about them, it’s probably due in large part to those men being either exceptionally good looking, rich, or high-status (or all three, if you’re lucky like I am). Those men are generally desirable enough, in one way or another, that they are able to effectively play the short-term mating strategy, but it’s worth bearing in mind their jerkiness is not what makes them more attractive generally; it makes them less attractive, they can just make up for it in other ways. Then again, denigrating your competition has a long and proud history in the world of mating, so calling other guys jerks or uncaring probably isn’t a terrible tactic either.

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

 

Van Vugt, M. & Iredale, W. (2012). Men behaving nicely: Public goods as peacock tails. British Journal of Psychology, Article first published online : 1 FEB 2012

Performance Enhancing Surgery

In the sporting world – which I occasionally visit via a muted TV on at a bar – I’m told that steroid use is something of hot topic. Many people don’t seem to take too kindly to athletes that use these performance enhancing drugs, as they are seen as being dangerous and giving athletes an unfair advantage. As I’ve written previously, when concerns for “fairness” start getting raised, you can bet there’s more than just a hint of inconsistency lurking right around the corner.

It starts with banning steroids, then, before you know it, I won’t be able to use my car in the Tour de France.

On the one hand, steroids certainly allow people to surpass the level of physical prowess they could achieve without them; I get that. How that makes them unfair isn’t exactly obvious, though. Surely, other athletes are just as capable of using steroids, which would level the playing field. “But what about those athletes who don’t want to use steroids?” I already hear you objecting. Well, what about those athletes who don’t want to exercise? Exercise and exercise equipment also allows people to surpass the level of physical prowess they could achieve without them, but I don’t see anyone lining up to ban gym use.

Maybe the gym and steroids differ in some important, unspecified way. Sure, people who work out more may have an advantage of those who eschew the gym, but those advantages are not due to the same underlying reason that come with steroid use. How about glasses or contacts? Now, to the best of my provincial knowledge of the sporting world, no one has proposed we ban athletes from correcting their vision. As contact lenses allow one to artificially improve their natural vision, that could be a huge leg up, especially for any sports that involve visual acuity (almost all of them). A similar tool that allowed an athlete to run a little faster, throw a little faster, or hit a little harder, to makeup for some pre-existing biological deficit in strength would probably be ruled out of consideration from the outset.

“Just try and tackle me now, you juiced up clowns!”

I don’t think this intuition is limited to sports; we may also see it in the animosity directed towards plastic surgery. Given that most people in the world haven’t been born with my exceptional level of charm and attractiveness, it’s understandable that many turn to plastic surgery. A few hundred examples of people’s thoughts surrounding plastic surgery can be found here. If you’re not bored enough to scroll through them, here’s a quick rundown of the opinions you’ll find: I would definitely get it; I would never get it; I would only get it if I was disfigured by some accident – doing it for mere vanity is wrong.
Given that the surgery generally makes people more attractive (Dayan, Clark, & Ho, 2004), the most interesting question is why wouldn’t people want it, barring a fear of looking better? The opposition towards plastic surgery – and those who get it – probably has a lot to do with the sending and receiving of honest signals. In order for a signal to be honest, it needs to be correlated to some underlying biological trait. Artificially improving facial attractiveness by normalizing traits somewhat, or improving symmetry, may make the bearer more physically attractive, but those attractive traits would not be passed on to their future offspring. It’s the biological equivalent of paying for a purchase using counterfeit bills.

“I couldn’t afford plastic surgery, so these discount face tattoos will have to do”

Similar opposition can sometimes be seen even towards people who choose to wear makeup. Any attempts to artificially increase one’s attractiveness have a habit of drawing its fair share of detractors. As for why there seems to be a difference between compensating for a natural disadvantage (in the case of contacts) in some cases, but not for surpassing natural limits (in the case of steroids or plastic surgery) in others, I can’t definitively say. Improving vision is somehow more legitimate than improving one’s appearance, strength, or speed (in ways that don’t involve lifting weights and training, anyway).

Perhaps it has something to do with people viewing attractiveness, strength, and speed as traits capable of being improved through “natural” methods – there’s no machine at the gym for improving your vision, no matter how many new years resolutions you’ve made to start seeing better. Of course, there’s also no machine at the gym for improving for your facial symmetry, but facial symmetry plays a much greater role in determining your physical attractiveness relative to visual acuity, so surgery could be viewed as form of cheating, in the biological sense, to a far greater extent than contacts.

References: Dayan, S., Clark, K., & Ho, A.A. (2004). Altering first impressions after plastic surgery. Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 28, 301-306.