Why Non-Violent Protests Work

It’s a classic saying: The pen is mightier than the sword. While this saying communicates some valuable information, it needs to be qualified in a significant way to be true. Specifically, in a one-on-one fight, the metaphorical pens do not beat swords. Indeed, as another classic saying goes: Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. If knives aren’t advisable against guns, then pens are probably even less advisable. This raises the question as to how – and why – pens can triumph over swords in conflicts. These questions are particularly relevant, given some recent happenings in California at Berkeley where a protest against a speaking engagement by Milo Yiannopoulos took a turn for the violent. While those who initiated the violence might not have been students of the school, and while many people who were protesting might not engage in such violence themselves when the opportunity arises, there does appear to be a sentiment among some people who dislike Milo (like those leaving comments over on the Huffington Post piece) that such violence is to be expected, is understandable, and sometimes even morally justified or praiseworthy. The Berkeley riot was not the only such incident lately, either.

The Nazis shooting guns is a very important detail here

So let’s discuss why such violent behavior is often counterproductive for the swords in achieving their goals. Non-violent political movements, like those associated with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, appear to yield results, at least according to the only bit of data on the matter I’ve come across (for the link-shy: nonviolent campaigns combined complete and partial success rate was about 73%, while the comparable violent rate was about 33%). I even came across a documentary recently I intend to watch about a black man who purportedly got over 200 members of the KKK to leave the organization without force or the threat of it; he simply talked to them. That these nonviolent methods work at all seems rather unusual, at least if you were to frame it in terms of any other nonhuman species. Imagine, for instance, that a chimpanzee doesn’t like how he is being treated by the resident dominant male (who is physically aggressive), and so attempts to dissuade that individual from his behavior by nonviolently confronting him. No matter how many times the dominant male struck him, the protesting chimp would remain steadfastly nonviolent until he won over the other chimps in his group, and they all turned against the dominant male (or until the dominant male saw the error of his ways). As this would likely not work out for our nonviolent chimp, hopefully nonviolent protests are sounding a little stranger to you now; yet they often seem to work better than violence, at least for humans. We want to know why.

The answer to that question involves turning our attention back to the foundation of our moral sense: why do we perceive a dimension of right and wrong in the world in the first place? The short answer to this question, I think, is that when a dispute arises, those involved in the dispute find themselves in a state of transient need for social support (since numbers can decide the outcome of the conflict). Third parties (those not initially involved in the dispute) can increase their value as a social asset to one of the disputants by filling that need and assisting them in the fight against the rival. This allows third parties to leverage the transient needs of the disputants to build future alliances or defend existing allies. However, not all behaviors generate the same degree of need: the theft of $10 generates less need than a physical assault. Accordingly, our moral psychology represents a cognitive mechanism for determining what degree of need tends to be generated by behaviors in the interests of guiding where one’s support can best be invested (you can find the longer answer here). That’s not to say our moral sense will be the only input for deciding what side we eventually take – factors like kinship and interaction history matter too – but it’s an important part of the decision.

The applications of this idea to nonviolent protest ought to be fairly apparent: when property is destroyed, people are attacked, and the ability of regular citizens to go about their lives is disrupted by violent protests, this generates a need for social support on the part of those targeted or affected by the violence. It also generates worries in those who feel they might be targeted by similar groups in the future. So, while the protesters might be rioting because they feel they have important needs that aren’t being met (seeking to achieve them via violence, or the threat of it), third parties might come to view the damage inflicted by the protest as being more important or harmful (as they generate a larger, or more legitimate need). The net result of that violence is now that third parties side against the protesters, rather than with them. By contrast, a nonviolent protest does not create as large a need on the part of those it targets; it doesn’t destroy property or harm people. If the protesters have needs they want to see met and they aren’t inflicting costs on others, this can yield more support for the protester’s side.

I’m sure the owner of that car really had this coming…

This brings us to our third classic saying of the post: While I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it. Though such a sentiment might be seldom expressed these days, it highlights another important point: even if third parties agree with the grievances of the protesters (or, in this case, disagree with the behavior of the people being protested), the protesters can make themselves seem like suitably poor social assets by inflicting inappropriately-large costs (as disagreeing with someone generates less harm than stifling their speech through violence). Violence can alienate existing social support (since they don’t want to have to defend you from future revenge, as people who pick fights tend to initiate and perpetuate conflicts, rather than end them) and make enemies of allies (as the opposition now offers a better target of social investment, given their relative need). The answer as to why pens can beat swords, then, is not that pens are actually mightier (i.e., capable of inflicting greater costs), but rather that pens tend to be better at recruiting other swords to do their fighting for them (or, in more mild cases, pens can remove the social support from the swords, making them less dangerous). The pen doesn’t actually beat the sword; it’s the two or more swords the pen has persuaded to fight for it – and not the opposing sword – that do.

Appreciating the power of social support helps bolster our understanding of other possible interactions between pens and swords. For instance, when groups are small, swords will likely tend to be more powerful than pens, as large numbers of third parties aren’t around to be persuaded. This is why our nonviolent chimp example didn’t work well: chimps don’t reliably join disputes as third parties on the basis of behavior the way humans do. Without that third-party support, non-violence will fail. The corollary point here is that pens might find themselves in a bit of a bind when it comes to confrontations with other pens. Put in plain terms: nonviolence is a useful rallying cry for drawing social support if the other side of the dispute is being violent. If both sides abstain from violence, however, nonviolence per se no longer persuades people. You can’t convince someone to join your side in a dispute by pointing out something your side shares with the other. This should result in the expectation that people will frequently over-represent the violence of the opposition, perhaps even fabricating it completely, in the interests of persuading others. 

Yet another point that can be drawn from this analysis is that even “bad” ideas or groups (whether labeled as such because of moral or factual reasons) can recruit swords to their side if they are targeted by violence. Returning to the cases we began with – the riot at UC Berkeley and the incident where Richard Spencer got punched – if you hope to exterminate people who hold disagreeable views, then violence might seem like the answer. However, as we have seen, violence against others, even disagreeable others, who are not themselves behaving violently can rally support from third parties, as they might begin to worry that threats to free speech (or other important issues) are more harmful than the opinions and words we find disagreeable (again, hitting someone creates more need than talking does). On the other hand, if you hope to persuade people to join your side (or at least not join the opposition), you will need to engage with arguments and reasoning. Importantly, you need to treat those you hope to persuade as people and engage with the ideas and values they actually hold. If the goal in these disputes really is to make allies, you need to convince others that you have their best interests at heart. Calling those who disagree “baskets of deplorables,” suggesting they’re too stupid to understand the world, or anything to that extent doesn’t tend to win their hearts and minds. If anything, it sends a signal to them that you do not value them, giving them all the more reason to not spend their time helping you achieve your goals.  

“Huh; I guess I really am a moron and you’re right. Well done,” said no one, ever.

As a final matter, we could also discuss the idea that violence is useful at snuffing out threats preemptively. In other words, better to stop someone before they can try and attack you, rather than after their knife is already in your back. There are several reasons preemptive defense is just as suspect, so let’s run through a few: first, there are different legal penalties for acts like murder and attempted murder, as attempted – but incomplete acts – generate less needs than completed ones. As such, they garner less social support. Second, absent very strong evidence that the people targeted for violence would have eventually become violent, the preemptive attacks will not look defensive; they will simply look aggressive, returning to the initial problems violent protests face. Relatedly, it is unlikely to ever make allies of enemies; if anything, it will make deeper enemies of existing ones and their allies. Remember: when you hurt someone, you indirectly inflict costs on their friends, families, and other relations as well. Finally, some people will likely develop reasonable concerns about the probability of being attacked for holding other opinions or engaging in behaviors people find unpleasant or dangerous. With speech already being equated to violence among certain groups, this concern doesn’t seem unfounded. 

In the interests of persuading others – actors and third parties alike – nonviolence is usually the better first step. However, nonviolence alone is not enough, especially if your opposition is nonviolent as well. Not being violent does not mean you’ve already won the dispute; just that you haven’t lost it. It is at that point you need to persuade others that your needs are legitimate, your demands reasonable, and your position in their interests as well, all while your opposition attempts to be persuasive themselves. It’s not an easy task, to be sure, and it’s one many of us are worse at then we’d like to think; it’s just the best way forward.

Mistreated Children Misbehaving

None of us are conceived or born as full adults; we all need to grow and develop from single cells to fully-formed adults. Unfortunately – for the sake of development, anyway – the future world you will find yourself in is not always predictable, which makes development a tricky matter at times. While there are often regularities in the broader environment (such as the presence or absence of sunlight, for instance), not every individual will inhabit the same environment or, more precisely, the same place in their environment. Consider two adult males, one of whom is six-feet tall and 230 pounds of muscle, and the other being five-feet tall and 110 pounds. While the dichotomy here is stark, it serves to make a simple point: if both of these males developed in a psychological manner that led them to pursue precisely the same strategies in life – in this case, say, one involving aggressive contests for access to females – it is quite likely that the weaker male will lose out to the stronger one most (if not all) of the time. As such, in order to be more-consistently adaptive, development must be something of a fluid process that helps tailor an individual’s psychology to the unique positions they find themselves in within a particular environment. Thus, if an organism is able to use some cues within their environment to predict their likely place in it in the future (in this case, whether they would grow large or small), their development could be altered to encourage their pursuit of alternate routes to eventual reproductive success. 

Because pretending you’re cut out for that kind of life will only make it worse

Let’s take that initial example and adapt it to a new context: rather than trying to predict whether one will grow up weak or strong, a child is trying to predict the probability of receiving parental investment in the future. If parental investment is unlikely to be forthcoming, children may need to take a different approach to their development to help secure the needed resources on their own, sometimes requiring their undertaking risky behaviors; by contrast, those children who are likely to receive consistent investment might be relatively less-inclined to take such risky and costly matters into their own hands, as the risk vs. reward calculations don’t favor such behavior. Placed in an understandable analogy, a child who estimates they won’t be receiving much investment from their parents might forgo a college education (and, indeed, even much of a high-school one) because they need to work to make ends meet. When you’re concerned about where your next meal is coming from there’s less time in your schedule for studying and taking out loans to not be working for four years. By contrast, the child from a richer family has the luxury of pursuing an education likely to produce greater future rewards because certain obstacles have been removed from their path.

Now obviously going to college is not something that humans have psychological adaptations for – it wasn’t a recurrent feature of our evolutionary history as a species – but there are cognitive systems we might expect to follow different developmental trajectories contingent on such estimations of one’s likely place in the environment; these could include systems judging the relative attractiveness of short- vs long-term rewards, willingness to take risks, pursuit of aggressive resolutions to conflicts, and so on. If the future is uncertain, saving for it makes less than taking a smaller reward in the present; if you lack social or financial support, being willing to fight to defend what little you do have might sound more appealing (as losing that little bit is more impactful when you won’t have anything left). The questions of interest thus becomes, “what cues in the environment might a developing child use to determine what their future will look like?” This brings us to the current paper by Abajobir et al (2016).

One potential cue might be your experiences with maltreatment while growing up, specifically at the hands of your caregivers. Though Abajobir et al (2016) don’t make the argument I’ve been sketching out explicitly, that seems to be the direction their research takes. They seem to reason (implicitly) that parental mistreatment should be a reliable cue to the future conditions you’re liable to encounter and, accordingly, one that children could use to alter their development. For instance, abusive or neglectful parents might lead to children adopting faster life history strategies involving risk-taking, delinquency, and violence themselves (or, if they’re going the maladaptive explanatory route, the failure of parents to provide supporting environments could in some way hinder development from proceeding as it usually would, in a similar fashion to not having enough food growing up might lead to one being shorter as an adult. I don’t know which line the authors would favor from their paper). That said, there is a healthy (and convincing) literature consistent with the hypothesis that parental behavior per se is not the cause of these developmental outcomes (Harris, 2009), but rather that it simply co-occurs with them. Specifically, abusive parents might be genetically different from non-abusive ones and those tendencies could get passed onto the children, accounting for the correlation. Alternatively, parents that maltreat their children might just happen to go together with children having peer groups growing up more prone to violence and delinquency themselves. Both are caused by other third variables.

Your personality usually can’t be blamed on them; you’re you all on your own

Whatever the nature of that correlation, Abajobir et al (2016) sought to use parental maltreatment from ages 0 to 14 as a predictor of later delinquent behaviors in the children by age 21. To do so, they used a prospective cohort of children and their mothers visiting a hospital between 1981-83. The cohort was then tracked for substantiated cases of child maltreatment reported to government agencies up to age 14, and at age 21 the children themselves were surveyed (the mothers being surveyed at several points throughout that time). Out of the 7200 initial participants, 3800 completed the 21-year follow up. At that follow up point, the children were asked questions concerning how often they did things like get excessively drunk, use recreational drugs, break the law, lie, cheat, steal, destroy the property of others, or fail to pay their debts. The mothers were also surveyed on matters concerning their age when they got pregnant, their arrest records, martial stability, and the amount of supervision they gave their children (all of these factors, unsurprisingly, predicting whether or not people continued on in the study for its full duration).

In total, of the 512 eventual cases of reported child maltreatment, only 172 remained in the sample at the 21-year follow up. As one might expect, maternal factors like her education status, arrest record, economic status, and unstable marriages all predicted increased likelihood of eventual child maltreatment. Further, of the 3800 participants, only 161 of them met the criteria for delinquency at 21 years. All of the previous maternal factors predicted delinquency as well: mothers who were arrested, got pregnant earlier, had unstable marriages, less education, and less money tended to produce more delinquent offspring. Adjusting for the maternal factors, however, it was reported that childhood maltreatment still predicted delinquency, but only for the male children. Specifically, maltreatment in males was associated with approximately 2-to-3.5 times as much delinquency as the non-maltreated males. For female offspring, there didn’t seem to be any notable correlation.

Now, as I mentioned, there are some genetic confounds here. It seems probable that parents who maltreat their children are, in some very real sense, different than parents who do not, and those tendencies can be inherited. This also doesn’t necessarily point a causal finger directly at parents, as it is also likely that maltreatment correlates with other social factors, like the peer group a child is liable to have or the neighborhoods they grow up in. The authors also mention that it is possible their measures of delinquency might not capture whatever effects childhood maltreatment (or its correlates) have on females, and that’s the point I wanted to wrap up discussing. To really put these findings on context, we would need to understand what adaptive role these delinquent behaviors – or rather the psychological mechanisms underlying them – have. For instance, frequent recreational drug use and problems fulfilling financial obligations might both signal that the person in question favors short-term rewards over long-term ones; frequent trouble with the law or destroying other people’s property could signal something about how the individual in question competes for social status. Maltreatment does seem to predict (even if it might not cause) different developmental courses, perhaps reflecting an active adjustment of development to deal with local environmental demands.

 The kids at school will all think you’re such a badass for this one

As we reviewed in the initial example, however, the same strategies will not always work equally well for every person. Those who are physically weaker are less likely to successfully enact aggressive strategies, all else being equal, for reasons which should be clear. Accordingly, we might expect that men and women show different patterns of delinquency to the extent they face unique adaptive problems. For instance, we might expect that females who find themselves in particularly hostile environments preferentially seek out male partners capable of enacting and defending against such aggression, as males tend to be more physically formidable (which is not to say that the women themselves might not be more physically aggressive as well). Any hypothetical shifts in mating preferences like these would not be captured by the present research particularly well, but it is nice to see the authors are at least thinking about what sex differences in patterns of delinquency might exist. It would be preferable if they were asking about those differences using this kind of a functional framework from the beginning, as that’s likely to yield more profitable insights and refine what questions get asked, but it’s good to see this kind of work all the same.

References: Abajobir, A., Kisely, S., Williams, G., Strathearnd, L., Clavarino, A., & Najman, J. (2016). Gender differences in delinquency at 21 years following childhood maltreatment: A birth cohort study. Personality & Individual Differences, 106, 95-103. 

Harris, J. (2009). The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Free Press.

More About Race And Police Violence

A couple months back, I offered some thoughts on police violence. The most important, take-home message from that piece was that you need to be clear about what your expectations about the world are – as well as why they are that way – before you make claims of discrimination about population level data. If, for instance, you believe that men and women should be approximately equally likely to be killed by police – as both groups are approximately equal in the US population – then the information that approximately 95% or so of civilians killed by police are male might look odd to you. It means that some factors beyond simple representation in the population are responsible for determining who is likely to get shot and killed. Crucially, that gap cannot be automatically chalked up to any other particular factor by default. Just because men are overwhelmingly more likely to be killed by police, that assuredly does not mean police are biased against men and have an interest in killing them simply because of their sex.

“You can tell they just hate men; it’s so obvious”

Today, I wanted to continue on the theme from my last post and ask about what patterns of data we ought to expect with respect to police killing civilians and race. If we wanted to test the hypothesis that police killings tend to be racially-motivated (i.e., driven by anti-black prejudice), I would think we should expect a different pattern of data from the hypothesis that such killings are driven by race-neutral practices (e.g., cases in which the police are defending against perceived lethal threats, regardless of race). In this case, if police killings are driven by anti-black prejudice, we might propose the following hypothesis: all else being equal, we ought to expect white officers to kill black civilians in greater numbers than black officers. This expectation could be reasonably driven by the prospect that members of a group are less likely to be biased against their in-group than out-group members, on average (in other words, the non-fictional Clayton Bigsbys and Uncle Ruckus’s of the world ought to be rare).

If there was good evidence in favor of the racially-motivated hypothesis for police killings, there would be real implications for the trust people – especially minority groups – should put in the police, as well as for particular social reforms. By contrast, if the evidence is more consistent with the race-neutrality hypothesis, then a continuous emphasis of the importance of race could prove a red herring, distracting people from the other causes of police violence and preventing more effective interventions from being discussed. The issue is basically analogous to a doctor trying to treat an infection with a correct or incorrect diagnosis. It is unfortunate (and rather strange, frankly), then, that good data on police killings is apparently difficult to come by. One would think this is the kind of thing that people would have collected more information on, but apparently that’s not exactly the case. Thankfully,  we now have some fresh data on the topic that was just published by Lott & Moody (2016).

The authors collected their own data set of police killings from 2013 to 2015 by digging through Lexis/Nexis, Google, Google Alerts, and a number of other online databases, as well as directly contacting police departments. In total, they were able to compile information on on 2,700 police killings. Compared with the FBI’s information, the authors found about 1,300 more, about 741 more than the CDC, and 18 more than the Washington Post. Importantly, the authors were also able to collect a number of other pieces of information not consistently included in the other sources, including the number of officers on the scene, their age, gender, sex, and race, among a number of other factors. In demonstrating the importance of having good data, whereas the FBI had been reporting a 6% decrease in police killings over that period, the current data actually found a 29% increase. For those curious – and this is preview of what’s to come – the largest increase was attributed to white citizens being killed (312 in 2013 up to 509 in 2015; the comparable numbers for black citizens were 198 and 257).

“Good data is important, you say?”

In general, black civilians represented 25% of those killed by police, but only 12% of the overall population. Many people take this fact to reflect racial bias, but there are other things to consider, perhaps chief among which is that the crime rates were substantially higher in black neighborhoods. The reported violent crime rates were 758 per 100,000 in cities were black citizens were killed, compared with the 480 in which white citizens were killed (the rates of murder were 11.2 and 4.6, respectively). Thus, to the extent that police are only responding to criminal activity and not race, we should expect a greater representation of the black population relative to the overall population (just like we should expect more males than females to be shot, and more young people than older ones).

Turning to the matter of whether the race of the officer mattered, data was available for 904 cases (whereas the race of all those who were killed was known). When that information was entered into a number of regressions predicting the odds of the officer killing a black suspect, it was actually the case that black officers were quite a bit more likely to have killed a black suspect than a white officer in all cases (consistent with other data I’ve talked about before). It should be noted at this point, however, that for 67% of the cases, the race of the officers was unknown, whereas only 2% of the shootings for which race is known involve a black officer. As the CIA data I mentioned earlier highlighted, this unknown factor can be a big deal; perhaps black officers are actually less likely to have shot black suspects but we just can’t see it here. Since the killings of black citizens from the unknown race group did not differ from white officers, however, it seems unlikely that white officers would end up being unusually likely to shoot black suspects. Moreover, the racial composition of the police force was unrelated to those killings.

A number of other interesting findings cropped up as well. First, there was no effect of body cameras on police killings. This might suggest that when officers do kill someone – given the extremity and possible consequences of the action – it is something they tend to undertake earnestly out of fear for their life. Consistent with that idea, the greater the number of officers on the scene, the greater the reduction in the police killing anyone (about a 14-18% decline per additional officer present). Further, white female officers (though their numbers were low in the data) were also quite a bit more likely to shoot unarmed citizens (79% more), likely as a byproduct of their reduced capabilities to prevail in a physical conflict during which their weapon might be taken or they could get killed. To the extent these shootings are being driven by legitimate fears on the parts of the officers, all this data would appear to consistently fit together.

“Unarmed” does not always equal “Not Dangerous”

In sum, there doesn’t appear to be particularly strong empirical evidence that white officers are killing black citizens at higher rates than black officers; quite the opposite, in fact.  While such information might be viewed as a welcome relief, to those who have wed themselves to the idea that black populations are being targeted for lethal violence by police this data will likely be shrugged off. It will almost always be possible for someone seeking to find racism to manipulate their expectations into the world of empirical unfalsifiability. For example, given the current data of a lack of bias against black civilians by white officers, the racism hypothesis could be pushed one step back to some population-level bias whereby all officers, even black ones, are impacted by anti-black prejudice in their judgments (regardless of the department’s racial makeup, the presence of cameras, or any other such factor). It is also entirely possible that any racial biases don’t show up in the patterns of police killings, but might well show up in other patterns of less-lethal aggression or harassment. After all, there are very real consequences for killing a person – even when the killings are deemed justified and lawful – and many people would rather not subject themselves to such complications. Whatever the case, white officers do not appear unusually likely to shoot black suspects. 

References: Lott, J. & Moody, C. (2016). Do white officers unfairly target black suspects? (November 15, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2870189

What Might Research Ethics Teach Us About Effect Size?

Imagine for a moment that you’re in charge of overseeing medical research approval for ethical concerns. One day, a researcher approaches you with the following proposal: they are interested in testing whether a food stuff that some portion of the population occasionally consumes for fun is actually quite toxic, like spicy chilies. They think that eating even small doses of this compound will cause mental disturbances in the short term – like paranoia and suicidal thoughts – and might even cause those negative changes permanently in the long term. As such, they intend to test their hypothesis by bringing otherwise-healthy participants into the lab, providing them with a dose of the possibly-toxic compound (either just once or several times over the course of a few days), and then see if they observe any negative effects. What would your verdict on the ethical acceptability of this research be? If I had to guess, I suspect that many people would not allow the research to be conducted because one of the major tenants of research ethics is that harm should not befall your participants, except when absolutely necessary. In fact, I suspect that were you the researcher – rather than the person overseeing the research – you probably wouldn’t even propose the project in the first place because you might have some reservations about possibly poisoning people, either harming them directly and/or those around them indirectly.

“We’re curious if they make you a danger to yourself and others. Try some”

With that in mind, I want to examine a few other research hypotheses I have heard about over the years. The first of these is the idea that exposing men to pornography will cause a number of harmful consequences, such as increasing how appealing rape fantasies were, bolstering the belief that women would enjoy being raped, and decreasing the perceived seriousness of violence against women (as reviewed by Fisher et al, 2013). Presumably, the effect on those beliefs over time is serious as it might lead to real-life behavior on the part of men to rape women or approve of such acts on the parts of others. Other, less-serious harms have also been proposed, such as the possibility that exposure to pornography might have harmful effects on the viewer’s relationship, reducing their commitment, making it more likely that they would do things like cheat or abandon their partner. Now, if a researcher earnestly believed they would find such effects, that the effects would be appreciable in size to the point of being meaningful (i.e., are large enough to be reliably detected by statistical test in relatively small samples), and that their implications could be long-term in nature, could this researcher even ethically test such issues? Would it be ethically acceptable to bring people into the lab, randomly expose them to this kind of (in a manner of speaking) psychologically-toxic material, observe the negative effects, and then just let them go? 

Let’s move onto another hypothesis that I’ve been talking a lot about lately: the effects of violent media on real life aggression. Now I’ve been specifically talking about video game violence, but people have worried about violent themes in the context of TV, movies, comic books, and even music. Specifically, there are many researchers who believe that exposure to media violence will cause people to become more aggressive through making them perceive more hostility in the world, view violence as a more acceptable means of solving problems, or by making violence seem more rewarding. Again, presumably, changing these perceptions is thought to cause the harm of eventual, meaningful increases in real-life violence. Now, if a researcher earnestly believed they would find such effects, that the effects would be appreciable in size to the point of being meaningful, and that their implications could be long-term in nature, could this researcher even ethically test such issues? Would it be ethically acceptable to bring people into the lab, randomly expose them to this kind of (in a manner of speaking) psychologically-toxic material, observe the negative effects, and then just let them go?

Though I didn’t think much of it at first, the criticisms I read about the classic Bobo doll experiment are actually kind of interesting in this regard. In particular, researchers were purposefully exposing young children to models of aggression, the hope being that the children will come to view violence as acceptable and engage in it themselves. The reason I didn’t pay it much mind is that I didn’t view the experiment as causing any kind of meaningful, real-world, or lasting effects on the children’s aggression; I don’t think mere exposure to such behavior will have meaningful impacts. But if one truly believed that it would, I can see why that might cause some degree of ethical concerns. 

Since I’ve been talking about brief exposure, one might also worry about what would happen to researchers were to expose participants to such material – pornographic or violent – for weeks, months, or even years on end. Imagine a study that asked people to smoke for 20 years to test the negative effects in humans; probably not getting that past the IRB. As a worthy aside on that point, though, it’s worth noting that as pornography has become more widely available, rates of sexual offending have gone down (Fisher et al, 2013); as violent video games have become more available, rates of youth violent crime have done down too (Ferguson & Kilburn, 2010). Admittedly, it is possible that such declines would be even steeper if such media wasn’t in the picture, but the effects of this media – if they cause violence at all – are clearly not large enough to reverse those trends.

I would have been violent, but then this art convinced me otherwise

So what are we to make of the fact that these research was proposed, approved, and conducted? There are a few possibility to kick around. The first is that the research was proposed because the researchers themselves don’t give much thought to the ethical concerns, happy enough if it means they get a publication out of it regardless of the consequences, but that wouldn’t explain why it got approved by other bodies like IRBs. It is also possible that the researchers and those who approve it believe it to be harmful, but view the benefits to such research as outstripping the costs, working under the assumption that once the harmful effects are established, further regulation of such products might follow ultimately reducing the prevalence or use of such media (not unlike the warnings and restrictions placed on the sale of cigarettes). Since any declines in availability or censorship of such media have yet to manifest – especially given how access to the internet provides means for circumventing bans on the circulation of information – whatever practical benefits might have arisen from this research are hard to see (again, assuming that things like censorship would yield benefits at all) .

There is another aspect to consider as well: during discussions of this research outside of academia – such as on social media – I have not noted a great deal of outrage expressed by consumers of these findings. Anecdotal as this is, when people discuss such research, they do not appear to raising the concern that the research itself was unethical to conduct because it will doing harm to people’s relationships or women more generally (in the case of pornography), or because it will result in making people more violent and accepting of violence (in the video game studies). Perhaps those concerns exist en mass and I just haven’t seen them yet (always possible), but I see another possibility: people don’t really believe that the participants are being harmed in this case. People generally aren’t afraid that the participants in those experiments will dissolve their relationship or come to think rape is acceptable because they were exposed to pornography, or will get into fights because they played 20 minutes of a video game. In other words, they don’t think those negative effects are particularly large, if they even really believe they exist at all. While this point would be a rather implicit one, the lack of consistent moral outrage expressed over the ethics of this kind of research does speak to the matter of how serious these effects are perceived to be: at least in the short-term, not very. 

What I find very curious about these ideas – pornography causes rape, video games cause violence, and their ilk – is that they all seem to share a certain assumption: that people are effectively acted upon by information, placing human psychology in a distinctive passive role while information takes the active one. Indeed, in many respects, this kind of research strikes me as remarkably similar to the underlying assumptions of the research on stereotype threat: the idea that you can, say, make women worse at math by telling them men tend to do better at it. All of these theories seem to posit a very exploitable human psychology capable of being manipulated by information readily, rather than a psychology which interacts with, evaluates, and transforms the information it receives.

For instance, a psychology capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy can play a video game without thinking it is being threatened physically, just like it can watch pornography (or, indeed, any videos) without actually believing the people depicted are present in the room with them. Now clearly some part of our psychology does treat pornography as an opportunity to mate (else there would be no sexual arousal generated in response to it), but that part does not necessarily govern other behaviors (generating arousal is biologically cheap; aggressing against someone else is not). The adaptive nature of a behavior depends on context.

Early hypotheses of the visual-arousal link were less successful empirically

As such, expecting something like a depiction to violence to translate consistently into some general perception that violence is acceptable and useful in all sorts of interactions throughout life is inappropriate. Learning that you can beat up someone weaker than you doesn’t mean it’s suddenly advisable to challenge someone stronger than you; relatedly, seeing a depiction of people who are not you (or your future opponent) fighting shouldn’t make it advisable for you to change your behavior either. Whatever the effects of this media, they will ultimately be assessed and manipulated internally by psychological mechanisms and tested against reality, rather than just accepted as useful and universally applied.  

I have seen similar thinking about information manipulating people another time as well: during discussions of memes. Memes are posited to be similar to infectious agents that will reproduce themselves at the expense of their host’s fitness; information that literally hijacks people’s minds for its own reproductive benefits. I haven’t seen much in the way of productive and successful research flowing from that school of thought quite yet – which might be a sign of its effectiveness and accuracy – but maybe I’m just still in the dark there. 

References: Ferguson, C. & Kilburn, J. (2010). Much ado about nothing: The misestimation and overinterpretation of violent video game effects in eastern and western nations: Comment on Anderson et al (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 136, 174-178.

Fisher, W., Kohut, T., Di Gioacchino, L., & Fedoroff , P. (2013). Pornography, sex crime, and paraphilia. Current Psychiatry Reports, 15, 362.

Violence In Games Does Not Cause Real-Life Violence

Violence is a strategic act. What I mean by this is that a threat to employ physical aggression against someone else unless they do what you want is one that needs to be credible to be useful. If a 5-year-old child threatened to beat up her parents if they don’t stop for ice cream, the parents understand that the child does not actually pose a real physical risk and, if push came to shove, the parents would win a physical contest; by contrast, if you happen to be hanging out with a heavy-weight MMA fighter and he demands you pull over for ice cream, you should be more inclined to take his request seriously. If you cannot realistically threaten others with credible claims of violence – if you are not likely to be able to inflict harmful costs on others physically – then posturing aggressively shouldn’t be expected to do you any favors; if anything, adopting aggressive stances you cannot back up will result in your suffering costs inflicted by others, and that’s generally an outcome to be avoided. It’s for this reason that – on a theoretical level – we should have expected research on power poses to fail to replicate: simply acting more dominant will not make you more able to actually back up those boasts, and people shouldn’t be expected to take such posturing seriously. If you apply that same logic to nonhumans – say Rams – a male who behaves dominantly will occasionally encourage another male who will challenge that dominance. If neither backs down the result is a physical conflict, and the subsequent realization that writing metaphorical checks you cannot cash is a bad idea.

“You have his attention; sure hope you also have a thick skull, too”

This cursory analysis already suggests there might be a theoretical problem with the idea that people who are exposed to violent content in media will subsequently become more aggressive in real life. Yes, watching Rambo or playing Dark Souls might inspire some penchant for spilling fantasy blood (at least in the short term), but seeing violence doesn’t suddenly increase the advisability of your pursuing such a strategy, as you are no more likely to be able effectively employ it than you were before your exposure. Again, to place that in a nonhuman example (always a good idea when you’re dealing with psychology research to see if an idea still make sense; if it only makes sense for humans, odds are it’s lacking in interpretation), if you exposed a male ram to media depicting males aggressively slamming their horns into other males, that doesn’t suddenly mean your subject ram will be inspired to run out and challenge a rival. His chances of winning that contest haven’t changed, so why should his behavior?

Now the matter is more complex than this analysis lets on, admittedly, but it does give us something of a starting point for understanding why violent content in media – video games in particular – should not be expected to have uniform or lasting impacts on the player’s subsequent behavior. Before I get into the empirical side of this issue, however, I think it’s important I lay my potential bias on the table: I’m a gamer; have been my entire life, at least as far as I can remember. I’ve played games in all sorts of mediums – video, card, board, and sometimes combinations of those – and across a variety of genres, including violent ones. As such, when I see someone leveling accusations against one of my more cherished hobbies, my first response is probably defensive. That is, I don’t perceive people who research the link between violent games and aggression to be doing so for no particular reason; I assume they have some specific goals in mind (consciously understood or not) that center around telling other people what they shouldn’t do or enjoy, perhaps even ranging as far as trying to build a case for the censorship of such materials. As such, I’m by no means an unbiased observed in this matter, but I am also something of an expert in the subject matter as well, which can provide me with insights that others might not possess.

That disclaimer out the way, I wanted to examine some research today which examines the possibility that the relationship people have sometimes spotted between violent video game content and aggression isn’t casual (Przybylski et al, 2014; I say sometimes because apparently this link between the two is inconsistently present, possibly only short-term in nature, and the subject of some debate). The thrust of this paper focuses on the idea that human aggression (proximately) is a response to having one’s psychological needs thwarted. I think there are better ways to think about what aggression is, but this general idea is probably close enough to that truth to do us just fine. In brief, the idea motivating this paper is that people play video games (again, proximately), in part, because they provide feelings of competency and skill growth. Something about the challenges games offers to be overcome proves sufficiently motivating for players to get pleasure out of the experience. Importantly, this should hold true across gaming content: people don’t find content appealing because it is violent generally, but rather because it provides us abilities to test, display, and strengthen certain competencies. As such, manipulating the content of the games (from violent to non-violent) should be much less effective at causing subsequent aggression than manipulating the difficulty of the game (from easy/intuitive to difficult/confusing).    

“I’ll teach him a lesson about beating me in Halo”

This is a rather important factor to consider because the content of a game (whether it is violent or not, for instance) might be related to how difficult the game is to learn or master. As such, if researchers have been trying to vary the content without paying much mind to the other factors that correlate with it, that could handicap the usefulness of subsequent interpretations. Towards that end, Przybylski et al (2014) report on the results of seven studies designed to examine just that issue. I won’t be able to go over all of them in depth, but try to provide a general adequate summary of their methods and findings. In their first study, they examined how 99 participants reacted to playing a simple but non-violent game (about flying a paper airplane through rings) or a complex but violent one (a shooter with extensive controls). The players were then asked about their change in aggressive feelings (pre- and post-test difference) and mastery of the controls. The quick summary of the results was that aggressive content did not predict change in aggression scores above and beyond the effects of frustrations over the controls, while the control scores did predict aggression.

Their second study actually manipulated the content and complexity factors (N = 101). Two versions of the same game (Half-Life 2) were created, such that one contained violent content and the other did not, while the overall environment and difficulty were held constant. Again, there were no effects of content on aggression, but there was an effect of perceived mastery. In other words, people felt angry when they were frustrated with the game; not because of the content. Their third study (N = 104) examined what happened when a non-violent puzzle game (Tetris) was modified to either contain simple or complex control interface. As before, those who had to deal with the frustrating controls were quicker to access aggressive thoughts and terms than those in the intuitive control condition. Study 4 basically repeated that design with some additional variables and found the same type of results: perceived competency in the game correlated negatively with aggression and that people become more aggressive the less they enjoyed the game, among a few other things.The fifth study had 112 participants all play a complex game that was either (a) violent or non-violent, but also gave them either (b) 10 minutes of practice time with the game or no experience with it. As expected, there was an effect of being able to practice on subsequent aggression, but no effect of violent content.

Study 6 asked participants to first submerge their arm in ice water for 25 seconds (a time period ostensibly determined by the last participant), then play a game of Tetris for a few minutes that was modified to be either easy or difficult (but not because of the controls this time). Those assigned to play the more difficult version of Tetris also reported more aggressive feelings, and assigned the next subject to submerge their arm for about 30 seconds in the ice water (relative to the 22 second average assignment in the easy group). The final study surveyed regular players about their experiences gaming over the last month and aggressive feelings, again finding that the ratings of content did not predict aggressive self-reported reactions to gaming, but frustrations with playing the game did.

“I’m going to find the developer of this game and kill him for it!”

In summation, then, violent content per se does not appear to make players more aggressive; instead, frustration and losing seem to play a much larger role. It is at this point that my experience as a gamer comes in handy, because such an insight should be readily apparent to anyone who has watched many other people play games. As an ever-expanding library of YouTube rage-quit videos document, a gamer can become immediately enraged by losing at almost any game, regardless of the content (for those of you not in the know, rage-quitting refers to aggressively quitting out of a game following a loss, often accompanied by yelling, frustrating, and broken controllers). I’ve seen people losing their minds over shooters, sports games, card games, board games, and storming off while shouting. Usually such outbursts are short-term affairs – you don’t see that person the next day and notice they’re visibly more aggressive towards others indiscriminately – but the important part is that they almost always occur in response to losses (and usually losses deemed to be unfair, in some sense).

As a final thought, in addition to the introductory analysis and empirical evidence presented here, there are other reasons one might not predict that violent content per se would be related to subsequent aggression even if one wants to hold onto the idea that mere exposure to content is enough to alter future behavior. In this case, most of the themes found within games that have violent content are not violence and aggression as usually envisioned (like The Onion‘s piece on Close Range: the video game about shooting people point blank in the face). Instead, those themes usually focus on the context in which that violence is used: defeating monsters or enemies that threaten the safety of you or others, killing corrupt and dangerous individuals in positions of power, or getting revenge for past wrongs. Those themes are centered more around heroism and self-defense than aggression for the sake of violence. Despite that, I haven’t heard of many research projects examining whether playing such violent games could lead to increased psychological desires to be helpful, or encourage people to take risks to save others from suffering costs.

References: Przybylski, A., Rigby, C., Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2014). Competent-impeding electronic games and players’ aggressive feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 16, 441-457.

Sensitive Topics: Not All That Sensitive

Standards and Practices are a vital link in keeping good and funny ideas away from you, the television viewer

If you’ve ever been involved in getting an academic research project off the ground, you likely share some form of frustration with the Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) that you had to go through before you could begin. For those of you not the know, the IRB is an independent council set up by universities tasked with assessing and monitoring research proposals associated with the university for possible ethical violations. Their main goal is in protecting subjects – usually humans, but also nonhumans – from researchers who might otherwise cause them harm during the course of research. For instance, let’s say a researcher is testing an experimental drug for effectiveness in treating a harmful illness. The research begins by creating two groups of participants: one who receive the real drug and one who receives a placebo. Over the course of the study, if it becomes apparent that the experimental drug is working, it would be considered unethical for the researcher to withhold the effective treatment from the placebo group. Unfortunately, ethical breaches like that have happened historically and (probably) continue to happen today. It’s the IRB’s job to help reduce the prevalence of such issues.

Because the research ethics penguin just wasn’t cutting it

Well-intentioned as the idea is, the introduction of required IRB approval to conduct any research involving humans – including giving them simple surveys to fill out – places some important roadblocks in the way of researcher efficiency; in much the same way, after the 9/11 attacks airport security became much more of a headache to get through. First and foremost, the IRB usually requires a lot of paperwork and time for the proposal to be processes and examined. It’s not all that unusual for what should be a straightforward and perfectly ethical research project to sit in the waiting room of the IRB for six-to-eight weeks just to get green lit. That approval is not always forthcoming, though, with the IRB sending back revisions or concerns about projects regularly; revisions which, in turn, can hold the process up for additional days or weeks. For any motivated researcher, these kinds of delays can be productivity poison, as one’s motivation to conduct a project might have waned somewhat over the course of the two or three months since its inception. If you’re on a tight deadline, things can get even worse.

On the subject of concerns the IRB might express over research, today I wanted to talk about a matter referred to as sensitive topics research. Specifically, there are some topics – such as those related to sexual behavior, trauma, and victimization – that are deemed to pose greater than minimal risk to participants being asked about them. The fear in this case stems from the assumption that merely asking people (usually undergraduates) about these topics could be enough to re-traumatize them and cause them psychological distress above and beyond what they would experience in daily life. In that sense, then, research on certain topics can deemed above minimal risk, resulting in such projects being put under greater scrutiny and ultimately subjected to additional delays or modifications (relative to more “low-risk” topics like visual search tasks or personality measures, anyway).

That said, the IRBs are not necessarily composed of experts on the matter of ethics, nor do their concerns need empirical grounding to be raised; the mere possibility that harm might be caused can be considered grounds enough for not taking any chances and risking reputational or financial damage to the institution (or the participants, of course). That these concerns were raised frequently (but not supported) led Yeater et al (2012) to examine the matter empirically. The authors sought to subject their participants to a battery of questions and measures designated to be either (a) minimal risk, which were predominately cognitive tasks, or (b) above minimal risk, which were measures that asked about matters like sexual behavior and trauma. Before and after each set of measures, the participants would have their emotional states measured to see if any negative or positive changes resulted from taking part in the research.

The usual emotional response to lengthy surveys is always positive

The sample for this research involved approximately 500 undergraduates assigned to either the trauma-sex condition (n = 263) or the cognitive condition (n = 241). All of the participants first completed some demographic and affect measures designed to assess their positive and negative emotions. After that, those in the trauma-sex condition filled out surveys concerning their dating behavior, sexual histories, the rape myth acceptance scale, questions concerning their interest in short-term sex, sexual confidence, trauma and post-traumatic checklists, and childhood sexual and trauma histories. Additionally, females answered questions about their body, menstrual cycle, and sexual victimization histories; males completed similar surveys asking about their bodies, masturbation schedules, and whether they had sexually victimized women. Those in the cognitive condition filled out a similarly-long battery of tests measuring things like their verbal and abstract reasoning abilities.

Once these measures were completed, the emotional state of all the participants was again assessed along with other post-test reaction questions, including matters like whether they perceived any costs and benefits from engaging in the study, how mentally taxing their participation felt, and how their participation measured up to other life stressors in life like losing $20, getting a paper cut, a bad grade on a test, or waiting on line in the bank for 20 minutes.

The results from the study cut against the idea that undergraduate participants were particularly psychologically vulnerable to these sensitive topics. In both conditions, participants reported a decrease in negative affect over the course of the study. There was even an increase in positive affect, but only for the trauma-sex group. While those in the trauma-sex condition did report greater post-test negative emotions, the absolute value of those negative emotions were close to floor levels for both groups (both means were below a 2 on a scale of 1-7). That said, those in the trauma-sex condition also reported lower mental costs to taking part in the research and perceived greater benefits overall. Both groups reported equivalent positive emotions.

Some outliers were then considered. In terms of those reporting negative emotions, 2.1% of those in the cognitive condition (5 participants) and 3.4% of those in the trauma-sex condition (9 participants) reported negative emotions above the midpoint of the scale. However, the maximum value for those handful of participants were 4.15 and 5.52 (respectively) out of 7, falling well short of the ceiling. Looking specifically at women who had reported histories of victimization, there was no apparent difference between conditions with regard to affect on almost any of the post-test measures; the one exception was that women who had experienced a history of victimization reported the trauma-sex measures to be slightly more mentally taxing, but that could be a function of their having to spend additional time filling out the large number of extensive questionnaires rather than any kind of serious emotional harm. Even those who had been harmed in the past didn’t seem terribly bothered by answering some questions.

“While we have you here, would you like to answer a quick survey about your experience?”

The good news is that it would seem undergraduates are more resilient than they are often given credit for and not so easily triggered by topics like sex or abuse (which are frequently discussed on social platforms like Facebook and news sources). The sensitive topics didn’t seem to be all that sensitive; certainly not substantially more so than the standard types of minimal risk questions asked on other psychological measures. Even for those with histories of victimization. The question remains as to whether such a finding would be enough to convince those making the decisions about the risks inherent in this kind of research. I’d like to be optimistic on that front, but it would rely on the researchers being aware of the present paper (as you can’t rely on the IRB to follow the literature on that front, or indeed any front) and the IRB being open to hearing evidence to the contrary. As I have encountered reviewers who seem uninterested in hearing contrary evidence concerning deception, it’s a distinct possibility that the present research might not have the intended effect on mollifying IRB concerns. I certainly wouldn’t rule out it’s potential effectiveness, though, and this is definitely a good resource for researchers to have in their pocket if they encounter such issues.

References: Yeater, E., Miller, G., Rinehart, J., & Nason, E. (2012). Trauma and sex surveys meet minimal risk standards: Implications for institutional review boards. Psychological Science, 23, 780-787.

 

Musings About Police Violence

I was going to write about something else today (the finding from a meta-analysis that artificial surveillance cues do not appear to appreciably increase generosity; the effects fail to reliably replicate), but I decided to switch topics up to something more topical: police violence. My goal today is not to provide answers to this on-going public debate – I certainly don’t know enough about the topic to consider myself an expert – but rather to try and add some clarity to certain features of the discussions surrounding the matter, and hopefully help people think about it in somewhat unusual ways. If you expect me to take a specific stance on the issue, be that one that agrees or disagrees with your own, I’m going to disappoint you. That alone may upset some people who take anything other than definite agreement as a sign of aggression against them, but there isn’t much to do about that. That said, the discussion about police violence itself is a large and complex one, the scope of which far exceeds the length constraints of my usual posts. Accordingly, I wanted to limit my thoughts on the matter to two main domains: important questions worth answering, and addressing the matter of why many people find the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag needlessly divisive.

Which I’m sure will receive a warm, measured response

First, let’s jump into the matter of important questions. One of the questions I’ve never seen explicitly raised in the context of these discussions – let alone answered – is the following: How many people should we expect to get killed by police each year? There is a gut response that many would no doubt have to that question: zero. Surely someone getting killed is a tragedy that we should seek to avoid at all times, regardless of the situation; at best, it’s a regrettable state of affairs that sometimes occurs because the alternative is worse. While zero might be the ideal world outcome, this question is asking more about the world that we find ourselves in now. Even if you don’t particularly like the expectation that police will kill people from time to time, we need to have some expectation of just how often it will happen to put the violence in context. These killings, of course, include a variety of scenarios: there are those in which the police justifiably kill someone (usually in defense of themselves or others), those cases where the police mistakenly kill someone (usually when an error of judgment occurs regarding the need for defense, such as when someone has a toy gun), and those cases where police maliciously kill someone (the killing is aggressive, rather than defensive, in nature). How are we to go about generating these expectations?

One popular method seems to be comparisons of police shootings cross-nationally. The picture that results from such analyses appears to suggest that US police shoot people much more frequently than police from other modern countries. For instance, The Guardian claims that Canadian police shoot and kill about 25 people a year, as compared with approximately 1,000 such shootings in the US in 2015. Assuming those numbers are correct, once we correct for population size (the US is about ten-times more populated than Canada), we can see that US police shoot and kill about four-times as many people. That sure seems like a lot, probably because it is a lot. We want to do more than note that there is a difference, however; we want to see whether that difference violates our expectations, and to do that, we need to be clear about why our expectations were generated. If, for example, police in the US face threatening situations more often than Canadian police, this is a relevant piece of information.

To begin engaging with that idea, we might consider how many police die each year in the line of duty, cross-nationally as well. In Canada, the number for 2015 looks to be three; adjusting for population size again, we would generate an expectation of 30 US police officer deaths if all else were equal. All else is apparently not equal, however, as the actual number for 2015 in the US is about 130. Not only are the US police killing four-times as often as their Canadian counterparts, then, but they’re also dying at approximately the same rate as well. That said, those numbers include factors other than homicides, and so that too should be taken into account when generating our expectations (in Canada, the number of police shot was 2 in 2015, compared to 40 in the US, which is still twice as high as one would expect from population size

. There are also other methods of killing police, such as the 50 US police killed by bombs or cars; 0 for Canada). Given the prevalence of firearm ownership in the US, it might not be too surprising that the rates of violence between police and citizens – as well as between citizens and other citizens – looks substantially different than in other countries. There are other facts which might adjust our expectations up or down. For instance, while the US has 10 times the population of Canada, the number of police per 100,000 people (376) is different than that of Canada (202). How we should adjust the numbers to make a comparison based on population differences, then, is a matter worth thinking about (should we expect ratio of police officers to citizens per se to increase the number of them that are shot, or is population the better metric?). Also worth mentioning is that the general homicide rate per 100,000 people is quite a bit higher in the US (3.9) than in Canada (1.4). While this list of considerations is very clearly not exhaustive, I hope it generates some thoughts regarding the importance of figuring out what our expectations are, as well as why. The numbers of shootings alone are going to be useless without good context. 

Factor 10: Perceived silliness of uniforms

The second question concerns bias within these shootings in the US. In addition to our expectations for the number of people being killed each year by police, we also want to generate some expectations for the demographics of those who are shot: what should we expect the demographics of those being killed by police to be? Before we can claim there is a bias in the shooting data, we need to both have a sense for what our expectation in that regard are, why they are such, and only then can we look at how those expectations are violated.

The obvious benchmark that many people would begin would be the demographics of the US as a whole. We might expect, for instance, that the victims of police violence in the US are 63% white, 12% black, about 50% male, and so on, mirroring the population of the country. Some data I’ve come across suggests that this is not the case, however, with approximately 50% of the victims being white and 26% being black. Now that we know the demographics don’t match up as we’d expect from population alone, we want to know why. One tempting answer that many people fall back on is that police are racially motivated: after all, if black people make up 12% of the population but represent 26% of police killings, this might mean police specifically target black suspects. Then again, males make up about 50% of the population but represent about 96% of police killings. While one could similarly posit that police have a wide-spread hatred of men and seek to harm them, that seems unlikely. A better explanation for more of the variation is that men are behaving differently than women: less compliant, more aggressive, or something along those lines. After all, the only reasons you’d expect police shootings to match population demographics perfectly would be either if police shot people at random (they don’t) or police shot people based on some nonrandom factors that did not differ between groups of people (which also seems unlikely).

One such factor that we might use to adjust our expectations would be crime rates in general; perhaps violent crime in particular, as that class likely generates a greater need for officers to defend themselves. In that respect, men tend to commit much more crime than women, which likely begins to explain why men are also shot by police more often. Along those lines, there are also rather stark differences between racial groups when it comes to involvement in criminal activity: while 12% of the US population is black, approximately 40% of the prison population is, suggesting differences in patterns of offending. While some might claim that prison percentage too is due to racial discrimination against blacks, the arrest records tend to agree with victim reports, suggesting a real differential involvement in criminal activity.

That said, criminal activity per se shouldn’t get one shot by police. When generating our expectations, we also might want to consider factors such as whether people resist arrest or otherwise threaten the officers in some way. In testing theories of racial biases, we would want to consider whether officers of different races are more or less likely to shoot citizens of various demographics (that is to ask whether, say, black officers are any more or less likely to shoot black civilians than white officers are. I could have sworn I’ve seen data on that before but cannot appear to locate it at this time. What I did find, however, was a case-matched study of NYPD officers, reporting that black officers were about three times as likely to discharge their weapon as white officers at the scene, spanning 106 shooting and about 300 officers; Ridgeway, 2016). Again, while this is not a comprehensive list of things to think about, factors like these should help us generate our expectations about what the demographics of police shooting victims should look like, and it is only from there that we can begin to make claims about racial biases in the data.

It’s hard to be surprised at the outcomes sometimes

Regardless of where you settled on your answer to the above expectations, I suspect that many people would nonetheless want to reduce those numbers, if possible. Fewer people getting killed by police is a good thing most of the time. So how do we want to go about seeing that outcome achieved? Some have harnessed the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) hashtag and suggest that police (and other) violence should be addressed via a focus on, and reductions in, explicit, and presumably implicit, racism (I think; finding an outline of the goals of the movement proves a bit difficult).

One common response to this hashtag has been the notion that BLM is needlessly divisive, suggesting instead that “All Lives Matter” (ALM) be used as a more appropriate description. In turn, the reply to ALM by BLM is that the lack of focus on black people is an attempt to turn a blind eye to problems viewed a disproportionately affecting black populations. The ALM idea was recently criticized by the writer Maddox, who compared the ALM expression to a person who, went confronted with the idea of “supporting the troops,” suggests that we should support all people (the latter being a notion that receives quite a bit of support, in fact). This line of argument is not unique to Maddox, of course, and I wanted to address that thought briefly to show why I don’t think it works particularly well here.

First, I would agree that “support the troops” slogan is met with a much lower degree of resistance than “black lives matter,” at least as far as I’ve seen. So why this differential response? As I see it, the reason this comparison breaks down involves the zero-sum nature of each issue: if you spend $5 to buy a “support the troops” ribbon magnet to attach to your car, that money is usually intended to be designated towards military-related causes. Now, importantly, money that is spent relieving the problems in the military domain cannot be spent elsewhere. That $5 cannot be given to both military causes and also given to cancer research and also given to teachers and also used to repave roads, and so on. There need to be trade-offs in whom you support in that case. However, if you want to address the problem of police violence against civilians, it seems that tactics which effectively reduce violence against black populations should also be able to reduce violence against non-black populations, such as use-of-force training or body cameras.

The problems, essentially, have a very high degree of overlap and, in terms of the raw numbers, many more non-black people are killed by police than black ones. If we can alleviate both at the same time with the same methods, focusing on one group seems needless. It is only those killings of civilians that effect black populations (24% of the shootings) and are also driven predominately or wholly by racism (an unknown percent of that 24%) that could be effectively addressed by a myopic focus on the race of the person being killed per se. I suspect that many people have independently figured that out – consciously or otherwise – and so dislike the specific attention drawn to race. While a focus on race might be useful for virtue signaling, I don’t think it will be very productive in actually reducing police violence.

“Look at how high my horse is!”

To summarize, to meaningfully talk about police violence, we need to articulate our expectations about how much of it we should see, as well as its shape. It makes no sense to talk about how violence is biased against one group or another until those benchmarks have been established (this logic applies to all discussions of bias in data, regardless of topic). None of this is intended to be me telling you how much or what kind of violence to expect; I’m by no means in possession of the necessary expertise. Regardless, if one wants to reduce police violence, inclusive solutions are likely going to be superior to exclusive ones, as a large degree of overlap in causes likely exists between cases, and solving the problems of one group will help solve the problems of another. There is merit to addressing specific problems as well – as that overlap is certainly less than 100% – but in doing so, it is important to not lose sight of the commonalities and distance those who might otherwise be your allies. 

References: Ridgeway, G. (2016). Officer risk factors associated with police shootings: a matched case-control study. Statistics & Public Policy, 3, 1-6.

Chivalry Isn’t Dead, But Men Are

In the somewhat-recent past, there was a vote in the Senate held on the matter of whether women in the US should be required to sign up for the selective service – the military draft – when they turn 18. Already accepted, of course, was the idea that men should be required to sign up; what appears to be a relatively less controversial idea. This represents yet another erosion of male privilege in modern society; in this case, the privilege of being expected to fight and die in armed combat, should the need arise. Now whether any conscription is likely to happen in the foreseeable future (hopefully not) is a somewhat different matter than whether women would be among the first drafted if that happened (probably not), but the question remains as to how to explain this state of affairs. The issue, it seems, is not simply one of whether men or women are better able to shoulder the physical demands of combat, however; it extends beyond military service into intuitions about real and hypothetical harm befalling men and women in everyday life. When it comes to harm, people seem to generally care less about it happening to men.

Meh

One anecdotal example of these intuitions I’ve encountered during my own writing is when an editor at Psychology Today removed an image in one my posts of a woman undergoing bodyguard training in China by having a bottle smashed over her head (which can be seen here; it’s by no means graphic). There was a concern expressed that the image was in some way inappropriate, despite my posting of other pictures of men being assaulted or otherwise harmed. As a research-minded individual, however, I want to go beyond simple anecdotes from my own life that confirm my intuitions into the empirical world where other people publish results that confirm my intuitions. While I’ve already written about this issue a number of times, it never hurts to pile on a little more.  Recently, I came upon a paper by FeldmanHall et al (2016) that examined these intuitions about harm directed towards men and women across a number of studies that can help me do just that.

The first of the studies in the paper was a straightforward task: fifty participants were recruited from Mturk to respond to a classic morality problem called the footbridge dilemma. Here, the life of five people can be saved from a train by pushing one person in front of it. When these participants were asked whether they would push a man or woman to their death (assuming, I think, that they were going to push one of them), 88% of participants opted for killing the man. Their second study expanded a bit on that finding using the same dilemma, but asking instead how willing they would be (on a 1-10 scale) to push either a man, woman, or a person of unspecified gender without other options existing. The findings here with regard to gender were a bit less dramatic and clear-cut: participants were slightly more likely to indicate that they would push a man (M = 3.3) than a woman (M = 3.0), though female participants were nominally less likely to push a woman (roughly M = 2.3) than men were (roughly M = 3.8), perhaps counter to what might be predicted. That said, the sample size for this second study was fairly small (only about 25 per group), so that difference might not be worth making much over until more data is collected.

When faced with a direct and unavoidable trade-off between the welfare of men and women, then, the results overwhelmingly showed that the women were being favored; however, when it came to cases where men or women could be harmed alone, there didn’t seem to be a marked difference between the two. That said, that moral dilemma alone can only take us so far in understanding people’s interests about the welfare of others in no small part because of their life-and-death nature potentially introducing ceiling effects (man or woman, very few people are willing to throw someone else in front of a train). In other instances where the degree of harm is lowered – such as, say, male vs female genital cutting – differences might begin to emerge. Thankfully, FeldmanHall et al (2016) included an additional experiment that brought these intuitions out of the hypothetical and into reality while lowering the degree of harm. You can’t kill people to conduct psychological research, after all.

Yet…

In the next experiment, 57 participants were recruited and given £20. At the end of the experiment, any money they had would be multiplied by ten, meaning participants could leave with a total of £200 (which is awfully generous as far as these things go). As with most psychology research, however, there was a catch: the participants would be taking part in 20 trials where £1 was at stake. A target individual – either a man or a woman – would be receiving a painful electric shock, and the participants could give up some of that £1 to reduce its intensity, with the full £1 removing the shock entirely. To make the task a little less abstract, the participants were also forced to view videos of the target receiving the shocks (which, I think, were prerecorded videos of real shocks – rather than shocks in real time – but I’m not sure from my reading of the paper if that’s a completely accurate description).

In this study, another large difference emerged: as expected, participants interacting with female targets ended up keeping less money by the end (M = £8.76) than those interacting with male targets (M = £12.54; d = .82). In other words, the main finding of interest was that participants were willing to give up substantially more money to prevent women from receiving painful shocks than they were to help men. Interestingly, this was the case in spite of the facts that (a) the male target in the videos was rated more positively overall than the female target, and (b) in a follow-up study where participants provided emotional reactions to thinking about being a participant in the former study, the amount of reported aversion to letting the target suffer shocks was similar regardless of the target’s gender. As the authors conclude:

While it is equally emotionally aversive to hurt any individual—regardless of their gender—that society perceives harming women as more morally unacceptable, suggests that gender bias and harm considerations play a large role in shaping moral action.

So, even though people find harming others – or letting them suffer harm for a personal gain – to generally be an uncomfortable experience regardless of their gender, they are more willing to help/avoid harming women than they are men, sometimes by a rather substantial margin.

Now onto the fun part: explaining these findings. It doesn’t go nearly far enough as an explanation to note that “society condones harming men more than women,” as that just restates the finding; likewise, we only get so far by mentioning that people perceive men to have a higher pain tolerance than women (because they do), as that only pushes the question back a step to the matter of why men tolerate more pain than women. As for my thoughts, first, I think these findings highlight the importance of a modular understanding of psychological systems: our altruistic and moral systems are made up of a number of component pieces, each with a distinct function, and the piece that is calculating how much harm is generated is, it would seem, not the same piece deciding whether or not to do something about it. The obvious reason for this distinction is that alleviating harm to others isn’t always adaptive to the same extent: it does me more adaptive good to help kin relative to non-kin, friends relative to strangers, and allies relative to enemies, all else being equal. 

“Just stay out of it; he’s bigger than you”

Second, it might well be the case that helping men, on average, tends to pay off less than helping women. Part of the reason for that state of affairs is that female reproductive potential cannot be replaced quite as easily as male potential; male reproductive success is constrained by the number of available women much more than female potential is by male availability (as Chris Rock put it, “any money spent on dick is a bad investment“). As such, men might become particularly inclined to invest in alleviating women’s pain as a form of mating effort. The story clearly doesn’t end there, however, or else we would predict men being uniquely likely to benefit women, rather than both sexes doing similarly. This raises two additional possibilities to me: one of these is that, if men value women highly as a form of mating effort, that increased social value could also make women more valuable to other women in turn. To place that in a Game of Thrones example, if a powerful house values their own children highly, non-relatives may come to value those same children highly as well in the hopes of ingratiating themselves to – or avoiding the wrath of – the child’s family.

The other idea that comes to mind is that men are less willing to reciprocate aid that alleviated their pain because to do so would be an admission of a degree of weakness; a signal that they honestly needed the help (and might in the future as well), which could lower their relative status. If men are less willing to reciprocate aid, that would make men worse investments for both sexes, all else being equal; better to help out the person who would experience more gratitude for your assistance and repay you in turn. While these explanations might or might not adequately explain these preferential altruistic behaviors directed towards women, I feel they’re worthwhile starting points.

References: FeldmanHall, O., Dalgleish, T., Evans, D., Navrady, L., Tedeschi, E., & Mobbs, D. (2016). Moral chivalry: Gender and harm sensitive predict costly altruism. Social Psychological & Personality Science, DOI: 10.1177/1948550616647448

Benefits To Bullying

When it comes to assessing hypotheses of evolutionary function, there is a troublesome pair of intuitions which frequently trip many people up. The first of these is commonly called the naturalistic fallacy, though it also goes by the name of an appeal to nature: the idea that because something is natural, it ought to be good. As a typical argument using this line might go, because having sex is natural, we ought to – morally and socially – approve of it. The corresponding intuition to this is known as the moralistic fallacy: if something is wrong, then it’s not natural (or, alternatively, if something is good, it is natural). An argument using this type of reasoning might (and has, more or less) gone, because rape is morally wrong, it cannot be a natural behavior. In both cases, ‘natural’ is a bit of a wiggle word but, in general, it seems to refer to whether or not a species possesses some biological tendency to engage in the behavior in question. Put another way, ‘natural’ refers to whether a species possesses an adaptation(s) that functions so as to bring about a particular outcome. Extending these examples a little further, we might come up with the arguments that, because humans possess cognitive mechanisms which motivate sexual behavior, sex must be a moral good; however, because rape is a moral wrong, the human must not contain any adaptations that were selected for because they promoted such behavior.

An argument with which many people appear to disagree, apparently

This type of thinking is, of course, fallacious, as per the namesakes of the two fallacies. It’s quite easy to think of many moral wrong which might increase one’s reproductive fitness (and thus select for adaptations that produce them), just as it is easy to think of morally-virtuous behaviors that could lower one’s fitness: infanticide is certainly among the things people would consider morally wrong, and yet there is often an adaptive logic to be found in the behavior; conversely, while the ideal of universal altruism is praised by many as morally virtuous, altruistic behavior is often limited to contexts in which it will later be reciprocated or channeled towards close kin. As such, it’s probably for the best to avoid tethering one’s system of moral approval to natural-ness, or vice versa; you end up in some weird places philosophically if you do. Now this type of thinking is not limited to any particular group of people: scientists and laypeople alike can make use of these naturalistic and moralistic intuitions (intentionally or not), leading to cases where hypotheses of function are violently rejected for even considering that certain condemned behaviors might be the result of an adaptation for generating them, or other cases where weak adaptive arguments are made in the service of making other behaviors with which the arguer approves seem more natural and, accordingly, more morally acceptable.

With that in mind, we can turn to the matter of bullying: aggression enacted by more powerful individuals against weaker ones, typically peaking in frequency during adolescence. Bullying is a candidate behavior that might fall prey to the former fallacies because, well, it tends to generate many consequences people find unpleasant: having their lunch money taken, being hit, being verbally mocked, having slanderous rumors about them being spread, or other such nastiness. As bullying generates such proximately negative consequences for its victims, I suspect that many people would balk at the prospect that bullying might reflect a class of natural, adaptive behaviors, resulting in the bully gaining greater access to resources and reputation; in other words, doing evolutionarily useful things. Now that’s not to say that if you were to start bullying people you would suddenly find your lot in life improving, largely because bullying others tends to carry consequences; many people will not sit idly by and suffer the costs of your bullying; they will defend themselves. In order for bullying to be effective, then, the bully needs to possess certain traits that minimize, withstand, or remove the consequences of this retaliation, such as a greater physical formidability than their victim, a stronger social circle willing to protect them, or other means of backing up their aggression.

Accordingly, only those in certain conditions and possessing particular traits are capable of effectively bullying others (inflicting costs without suffering them in turn). Provided that is the case, those who engaged in bullying behaviors more often might be expected to achieve correspondingly greater reproductive success, as the same traits that make bullying an effective strategy also make the bully an attractive mating prospect. It’s probably worse to select a mate unable to defend themselves from aggression, relative to one able and willing to do so; not only would your mate (and perhaps you) be exploited more regularly, but such traits may well be passed onto your children in turn, leaving them open for exploitation as well. Conversely, the bully able to exploit others can likely can access to more plentiful resources, protect you from exploitation, and pass such useful traits along to their children. That bullying might have an adaptive basis was the hypothesis examined in a recent paper by Volk et al (2015). As noted in their introduction, previous data on the subject is consistent with the possibility that bullies are actually in relatively better condition than their victims, with bullies displaying comparable or better mental and physical health, as well as improved social and leadership skills, setting the stage for the prospect of greater mating success (as all of those traits are valuable in the mating arena). Findings like those run counter to some others suggestions floating around the wider culture that people bully others precisely because they lack social skills, intelligence, or are unhappy with themselves. While I understand that no one is particularly keen to paint a flattering picture of people they don’t like and their motives for engaging in behavior they seek to condemn, it’s important to not lose sight of reality while you try reduce the behavior and condemn its perpetrators.

“Sure, he does hit me regularly, but he’s a really great guy otherwise”

Volk et al (2015) examined the mating success of bullies by correlating people’s self-reports of their bullying behavior with their reports of dating and sexual behavior across two samples: 334 younger adolescents (11-18 years old) and 143 college freshman, all drawn from Canada. Both groups answered questions concerning how often they engaged in, and were a victim of, bullying behaviors, whether they have had sex and, if they had, how many partners they’ve had, whether they have dated and, if so, how many people they’ve dated, as well as how likable and attractive they found themselves to be. Self-reports are obviously not the ideal measures of such things, but at times they can be the best available option.

Focusing on the bullying results, Volk et al (2015) reported a positive relationship between bullying and engaging in dating and sexual relationships in both samples: controlling for age, sex, reported victimization, attractiveness, and likability, bullying not only emerged a positive predictor as to whether the adolescent had dated or had sex at all (about 1.3 to 2 times more likely), but also correlated with the number of sexual and, sometimes, dating partners; those who bullied people more frequently tended to have a greater number of sexual partners, though this effect was modest (bs ranging from 0.2 to 0.26). By contrast, being a victim of bullying did not consistently or appreciably effect the number of sexual partners one had (while victimization was positively correlated with participant’s number of dating partners, it was not correlated with their number of sexual partners. This might reflecting the possibility that those who seek to date frequently might be viewed as competitors by other same-sex individuals and bullied in order to prevent such behavior from taking place, though that much is only speculation).

While this data is by no means conclusive, it does present the possibility that bullying is not indicative of someone who is poor shape physically, mentally, or socially; quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, that is probably why bullying often appears to be so one-sided: those being victimized are not doing more to fight back because they are aware of how well that would turn out for them. Understanding this relationship between bullying and sexual success might prove rather important for anyone looking to reduce the prevalence of bullying. After all, if bullying is providing access to desirable social resources – including sexual partners – it will be hard to shift the cost/benefit analysis away from bullying being the more attractive option barring some introduction of more attractive alternatives for achieving that goal. If, for instance, bullying serves a cue that potential mates might use for assessing underlying characteristics that make the bully more attractive to others, finding new, less harmful ways of signaling those traits (and getting bullies to use those instead) could represent a viable anti-bully technique.

But, until then, this kid is going to get so laid

As these relationships are merely correlational, however, there are other ways of interpreting them. It could be possible, for example, that the relationship between bullying and sexual success is accounted for by those who bully being more coercive towards their sexual partners as well as their victims, achieving a greater number of sexual partners, but not in the healthiest fashion. This interpretation would be somewhat complicated by the lack of a sex differences between men and women in the current data, however, as it seems unlikely that women who bully are also more likely to coerce their male partners into sex they don’t really want. The only sex difference reported involved the relationship between bullying and dating, with the older sample of women who bullied people more often having a greater number of dating relationships (r = 0.5), relative to men (r = 0.13), as well as a difference in the younger sample with respect to desire for dating relationships (female r = 0.28, male r = 0.03). It is possible, then, that men and women might bully others, at least at times, to obtain different goals, which ought to be expected when the interests of each sex diverge. Understanding those adaptive goals should prove key for effectively reducing bullying; at least I feel that understanding would be more profitable than positing that bullies are mean because they wish to make others as miserable as they are, crave attention, or other such implausible evolutionary functions.

References: Volk, A., Dane, A., Marini, Z., & Vaillancourt, T., (2015). Adolescent bullying, dating, and mating: Testing an evolutionary hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, DOI: 10.1177/1474704915613909

#HandsUp (Don’t Press The Button)

In general, people tend to think of themselves as not possessing biases or, at the very least, less susceptible to them than the average person. Roughly paraphrasing from Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban’s latest book, when it comes to debates, people from both sides tend to agree with the premise that one side of the debate is full of reasonable, dispassionate, objective folk and the other side is full of biased, evil, ignorant ones; the only problem is that people seem to disagree as to which side is which. To quote directly from Mercier & Sperber (2011): “[people in debates] are not trying to form an opinion: They already have one. Their goal is argumentative rather than epistemic, and it ends up being pursued at the expense of epistemic soundness” (p.67). This is a long-winded way of saying that people – you and I included – are biased, and we typically end up seeking to support views we already hold. Now, recently, owing to the events that took place in Ferguson, a case has been made that police officers (as well as people in general) are biased against the black population when it comes to criminal justice. This claim is by no means novel; NWA, for instance, voiced in 1988 in their hit song “Fuck tha police”.

 They also have songs about killing people, so there’s that too…

Is the justice system and its representatives, at least in here in the US, biased against the black population? I suspect that most of you reading this already have an answer to that question which, to you, likely sounds pretty obvious. Many people have answered that question in the affirmative, as evidenced by such trending twitter hashtags as #BlackLivesMatter and #CrimingWhileWhite (the former implying that people devalue black lives and the latter implying that people get away with crimes because they’re white, but they wouldn’t if they were black). Though I can’t speak to the existence or extent of such biases – as well as the contexts in which they occur – I did come across some interesting research recently that deals with a related, but narrower question. This research attempts to answer a question that many people feel they already have the answer to: are police officers (or people) quicker to deploy deadly force against black targets, relative to white targets? I suspect many of you anticipate – correctly – that I’m about to tell you that some new research shows people aren’t biased against the black population in that respect. I further suspect that upon hearing that, one of your immediate thoughts will be to figure out why the conclusion must be incorrect.

The first of these papers (James, Vila, & Daratha, 2013) begins by noting that some previous research on the topic (though by no means all) has concluded that a racial bias against blacks exists when it comes to the deployment of deadly force. How did they come to this conclusion? Experimentally, it would seem they used a research method similar to the Implicit Association Task (or IAT): they have participants come into a lab, sit in front of a computer, and ask them to press a “shoot” button when they see armed targets pop up on screen and a “don’t shoot” button when the target isn’t armed. James, Vila, & Daratha (2013) argue that such a task is, well, fairly artificial and, as I have discussed before, artificial tasks can lead to artificial results. Part of that artificiality is that there is no difference between the two responses in such an experiment: both responses just involve pushing one button or another. By contrast, actually shooting someone involves unholstering a weapon and pulling a trigger, while not shooting at least does not involve that last step.So shooting is an action; not shooting is an inaction; pressing buttons, however, are both actions, and simple ones. Further, sitting at a computer and seeing static images pop up on the screen is just a bit less interactive than most police encounters that lead to the use of deadly force. So, whether these results concern people’s biases against blacks translate to anywhere outside the lab is an open question.

Accordingly, what the authors of the current paper did involved what must have been quite the luxurious lab set up. The researchers collected data from around 60 civilians and 40 police and military subjects. During each trial, the subjects were standing in an enclosed shooting range with a large screen that would display a simulations where they might or might not have to shoot. Each subject was provided with a modified Glock pistol (that shot lasers instead of bullets), holsters, and instructions on how to use them. The subjects each went through in between 10-30 simulations that recreated instances where officers had been assaulted or killed; simulations which included naturalistic filming with paid actors (as opposed to the typical static images). The subjects were supposed to shoot the armed targets in the simulation and avoid shooting unarmed ones. As usual, the race of the targets was varied to be white, black, or hispanic, as well as whether or not the targets were armed.

Across three studies, a clear pattern emerged: the participants were actually slower to shoot the armed black targets by in between 0.7 – 1.35 seconds, on average; no difference was found between the white and hispanic targets. This result held for both the civilians and the police. The pattern of mistakes people made was even more interesting: when they shot unarmed targets, they tended to shoot the unarmed black targets less than the unarmed white or hispanic targets; often substantially less. Similarly, subjects were also more likely to fail to shot an armed black target. To the extent that people were making errors or slowing down, they were doing so in favor of black targets, contrary to what many people shouting things right now would predict.

“That result is threatening my worldview; shoot it!”

As these studies appear to use a more realistic context when it comes to shooting – relative to sitting at a computer and pressing buttons – it casts some doubt as whether the previous findings that were uncovered when subjects were sitting at computer screens are able to be generalized to the wider world. Casting further doubt on the validity of the computer-derived results, a second paper by James, Klinger, & Vila (2014) examined the relationship between these subconscious race-base biases and the actual decision to shoot. They did so by reanalyzing some of the data (n = 48) from the previous experiment when participants had been hooked up to EEGs at the time. The EEG equipment was measuring what the authors call “alpha suppression”. According to their explanation (I’m not a neuroscience expert, so I’m only reporting what they do), the alpha waves being measured by the EEG tend to occur when individuals are relaxed, and reductions of alpha waves are associated with the presence of arousing external stimuli; in this case, the perception of threat. The short version of this study, then, seems to be that reductions in alpha waves equate, in some way, to more perception of threat.

The more difficult shooting scenarios resulted in greater alpha suppression than the simpler ones, consistent with a relation to threat level but, regardless of the scenario difficulty, the race effect remained consistent. The EEG results found that, when faced with a black target, subjects evidenced greater alpha suppression relative to when they confronting a white or hispanic target; this result obtained regardless of whether the target ended up being armed or not. To the extent that these alpha waves are measuring threat response on a physiological level, people found the black targets more threatening, but this did not translate into an increased likelihood to shoot them; in fact, it seemed to do the opposite. The authors suggest that this might have something to do with the perception of possible social and legal consequences for harming a member of a historically oppressed racial group.

In other words, people might not be shooting because they’re afraid that people will claim that the shooting was racially motivated (indeed, if the results had turned out the opposite way, I suspect many people would be making that precise claim, so they wouldn’t be wrong). The authors provide some reason to think the social concerns of shooting might be driving the hesitation, one of which involves this passage from an interview of a police chief in 1992:

“Bouza…. added that in most urban centers in the United States, when a police chief is called “at three in the morning and told, ‘Chief, one of our cops just shot a kid,’ the chief’s first questions are: ‘What color is the cop? What color is the kid?’” “And,” the reporter asked, “if the answer is, ‘The cop is white, the kid is black’?” “He gets dressed,”

“I’m not letting a white on white killing ruin this nap”

Just for some perspective, the subjects in this second study had responded to about 830 scenarios in total. Of those, there were 240 that did not require the use of force. Of those 240, participants accidentally shot a total of 47 times; 46 of those 47 unarmed targets were white (even though around a third of the targets were black). If there was some itchy trigger finger concerning black threats, it wasn’t seen in this study. Another article I came across (but have not fact checked so, you know, caveat there) suggests something similar: that biases against blacks in the criminal justice system don’t appear to exist.

Now the findings I have presented here may, for some reason, be faulty. Perhaps better experiments in the future will provide more concrete evidence concerning racial biases, or lack thereof. However, if you first reaction to these findings is to assume that something is wrong with them because you know that police target black suspects disproportionately, then I would urge you to consider that, well, maybe some biases are driving your reaction. That’s not to say that others aren’t biased, mind you, or that you’re necessarily wrong, just that you might be more biased than you like to imagine.

References: James, L., Vila, B. & Daratha, K. (2013) Influence of suspect race and ethnicity on decisions to shoot in high fidelity deadly force judgment and decision-making simulations. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 9, 189–212.

 James, L., Klinger, D., & Vila, B. (2014). Racial and ethnic bias in decisions to shoot seen through a stronger lens: Experimental results from high-fidelity laboratory simulations. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 10, 323-340.