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.

Discount Engagement Rings

One day, a man is out shopping for an engagement ring in preparation to pop the question to his girlfriend. After a browse through a local jewelry store, he finds what he thinks is the perfect ring: It costs $3000, and even though he’s a man of modest means, he figures he can just afford it. As he prepares to make his purchase, another customer walks up to him and informs the man that the jewelry store down the block is having a going out a business sale and selling an identical ring for only $300.

What’s the boyfriend to do? Clearly, the ring on a 90% discount is the better deal, but something about buying a discount engagement ring just might not sit right with some people. While I don’t have any data on the matter, I could imagine that if the girlfriend in question found out that her (previously) stunning engagement ring was bought at a steep discount, she probably wouldn’t be pleased with her boyfriend’s financial responsibility, and that young bachelor who moved in down the hall might seem just a little more tall, dark, and handsome.

One of these rings will lead to a lifelong marriage and the other to not having a girlfriend; neither one leads to sex with that woman.

Pictured above is a $3000 diamond ring and a $300 cubic zirconia ring; try and tell the difference just by looking (good luck). The reason that a cubic zirconia ring, as opposed to traditional diamond one, would probably not sit well with many women is not because of any noticeable aesthetic quality of the ring itself.  There are, apparently, a number of ways to test and see whether you have a diamond or not, but that these tests exist (and can often be inconclusive to many) demonstrates that untrained people without special tools or knowledge have a hard time telling the two apart (which the comments confirm; many suggest the best way to tell them apart is always to ask an expert). In the specific case I gave initially, the two rings would, in fact, be identical in design and material, so the only difference would be the cost.

In the case of engagement rings, however, cost is the point. The high cost of an engagement ring functions as an honest signal; not honest in sense that they ensure fidelity or a lasting relationship, but honest in the sense that the signal is hard to fake. A poorer man could not afford a more expensive ring and his rent and his drinking problem. Dave Chapelle summed up this principle nicely when he said, “If a man could fuck a woman in a cardboard box, he wouldn’t buy a house”.

Not only does he still get laid all the damn time, but he didn’t have to give up drinking either.

This is precisely the reason people care about whether there’s a diamond or a cubic zirconia in jewelry; while both are sparkly, only one represents an honest signal, where the other is a fake signal that does not reliably distinguish between the ability to invest and inability to do so; one can signal a willingness to invest, whereas the other does not signal as well.

Examples of signaling abound in the biological world, and for good reason: when the sex that does the most investing in offspring – typically the female – is seeking out a mate, they need to assess the quality of the many potential mates. Since the investing one will be stuck with the consequences, good or bad, for a long time, it’s in their best interests to be more selective to get the best package of genes and/or investment. Males displaying costly ornaments – like peacocks – or behaviors – like bowerbirds – are able to demonstrate they can afford to shoulder the hard to fake costs involved in growing/maintaining them and still survive and flourish; they have been “tested” and they passed, guaranteeing their fitness to the choosy opposite sex (Zahavi, 1975).

We’ve all dealt with the inconvenience of pants that are too long at some point: you occasionally step on them, they shred as you walk along the street, they get dirty as they drag, water soaks up the back of them and feels awful on your legs, and that’s only for pants that a slightly too long. Imagine having a pair of jeans that happen to be a few feet too long, that you make yourself, you can never take off, and all your prospective partners will judge you by their quality. Also, lions are trying to eat you.

Seriously, this thing is practically begging to be killed.

Only those who are able to find the required materials, invest the time and skill in building, cleaning, and maintaining the pants would be able to keep them in viewable shape. Further, those pants would be serious inconvenience when it comes to doing just about anything, so only those who were particularly able would be able to maintain garments like them and still function. Lazy, unskilled, careless, and/or clumsy people would reflect those unfavorable qualities in the state of their pants. One could take off the pants to avoid all the wasteful insanity, but in doing so they’d be all but committing themselves to a lifetime of celibacy, as those still wearing the pants would attract the partners.

If you’re a good observer – and I know you are – you’ll probably have noticed that costly signaling can take many forms: from engagement rings, to bodily ornaments, to behavior. Costly signaling is relatively context independent: the important factor is merely that the behavior is hard to fake and expensive, in terms of time, money, energy, foregone opportunities, risk, etc. It can be used for a variety of goals, such as courting mates, impressing potential allies, or intimidating rivals. We all engage in it, to varying degrees, in different ways, for several purposes, likely without realizing most of it (Miller, 2009). It’s something fun to think about next time you slip into an expensive designer shirt or rail against the evils of branded products.

References: Miller, G. Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. New York, NY: Viking

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