Doesn’t Bullying Make You Crazy?

“I just do it for the old fashioned love of killing”

Having had many pet cats, I understand what effective predators they can be. The number of dead mice and birds they have returned over the years is certainly substantial, and the number they didn’t bring back is probably much higher. If you happen to be a mouse living in an area with lots of cats, your life is probably pretty stressful. You’re going to be facing a substantial adaptive challenge when it comes to avoiding detection by these predators and escaping them if you fail at that. As such, you might expect mice developed a number of anti-predator strategies (especially since cats aren’t the only thing they’re trying to not get killed by): they might freeze when they detect a cat to avoid being spotted; they might develop a more chronic state of psychological anxiety, as being prepared to fight or run at a moment’s notice is important when your life is often on the line. They might also develop auditory or visual hallucinations that provide them with an incorrect view of the world because…well, I actually can’t think of a good reason for that last one. Hallucinations don’t serve as an adaptive response that helps the mice avoid detection, flee, or otherwise protect themselves against those who would seek to harm them. If anything, hallucinations seem to have the opposite effect, directing resources away from doing something useful as the mice would be responding to non-existent threats.

But when we’re talking about humans and not mice, some people seem to have a different sense for the issue: specifically, that we ought to expect something of a social predation – bullying – to cause people to develop psychosis. At least that was the hypothesis behind some recent research published by Dantchev, Zammit, and Wolke (2017). This study examined a longitudinal data set of parents and children (N = 3596) at two primary times during their life: at 12 years old, children were given a survey asking about sibling bullying, defined as, “…saying nasty and hurtful things, or completely ignores [them] from their group of friends, hits, kicks, pushes or shoves [them] around, tells lies or makes up false rumors about [them].” They were asked how often they experienced bullying by a sibling and how many times a week they bullied a sibling in the past 6 months (ranging from “Never”, “Once or Twice”, “Two or Three times a month”, “About once a week,” or, “Several times a week”). Then, at the age of about 18, these same children were assessed for psychosis-like symptoms, including whether they experienced visual/auditory hallucinations, delusions (like being spied on), or felt they had experienced thought interference by others.  

With these two measures in hand (whether children were bullies/bullied/both, and whether they suffered some forms of psychosis), the authors sought to determine whether the sibling bullying at time 1 predicted the psychosis at time 2, controlling for a few other measures I won’t get into here. The following results fell out of the analysis: children bullied by their siblings and who bullied their siblings tended to have lower IQ scores, more conduct disorders early on, and experienced more peer bullying as well. The mothers of these children were also more likely to experience depression during pregnancy and domestic violence was more likely to have been present in the households. Bullying, it would seem, was influenced by the quality of the children and their households (a point we’ll return to later).

“This is for making mom depressed prenatally”

In terms of the psychosis measures, 55 of the children in the sample met the criteria for having a disorder (1.5%). Of those children who bullied their siblings, 11 met this criteria (3%), as did 6 of those who were purely bullied (2.5%), and 11 of those were both bully and bullied (3%). Children who were regularly bullied (about once a week or more), then, were about twice as likely to report psychosis than those who were bullied less often. In brief, both being bullied by and bullying other siblings seemed to make hallucinations more common. Dantchev, Zammit, and Wolke (2017) took this as evidence suggesting a causal relationship between the two: more bullying causes more psychosis.

There’s a lot to say about this finding, the first thing being this: the vast majority of regularly-bullied children didn’t develop psychosis; almost none of them did, in fact. This tells us quite clearly that the psychosis per se is by no means a usual response to bullying. This is an important point because, as I mentioned initially, some psychological strategies might evolve to help individuals deal with outside threats. Anxiety works because it readies attentional and bodily resources to deal with those challenges effectively. It seems plausible such a response could work well in humans facing aggression from their peers or family. We might thus expect some kinds of anxiety disorders to be more common among those bullied regularly; depression too, since that could well serve to signal that one is in need of social support to others and help recruit it. So long as one can draw a reasonable, adaptive line between psychological discomfort and doing something useful, we might predict a connection between bullying and mental health issues.

But what are we to make of that correlation between being bullied and the development of hallucinations? Psychosis would not seem to help an individual respond in a useful way to the challenges they are facing, as evidenced by nearly all of the bullied children not developing this response. If such a response were useful, we should generally expect much more of it. That point alone seems to put the metaphorical nail in the coffin of two of the three explanations the authors put forth for their finding: that social defeat and negative perceptions of one’s self and the world are causal factors in developing psychosis. These explanations are – on their face – as silly as they are incomplete. There is no plausible adaptive line the authors attempt to draw from thinking negatively about one’s self or the world to the development of hallucinations, much less how those hallucinations are supposed to help. I would also add that these explanations are discussed only briefly at the end of paper, suggesting to me not enough time or thought went into trying to understand the reasons these predictions were made before the research was undertaken. That’s a shame, as a better sense for why one would expect to see a result would affect the way research is designed for the better. 

“Well, we’re done…so what’s it supposed to be?”

Let’s think in more detail about why we’re seeing what we’re seeing regarding bullying and psychosis. There are a number of explanations one might float, but the most plausible to me goes something like this: these mental health issues are not being caused by the bullying but are, in a sense, actually eliciting the bullying. In other words, causation runs in the opposite direction the authors think it does.

To fully understand this explanation, let’s begin with the basics: kin are usually expected to be predisposed to behave altruistically towards each other because they share genes in common. This means investment in your relatives is less costly than it would be otherwise, as helping them succeed is, in a very real sense, helping yourself succeed. This is how you get adaptations like breastfeeding and brotherly love. However, that cost/benefit ratio does not always lean in the direction of helping. If you have a relative that is particularly unlikely to be successful in the reproductive realm, investment in them can be a poor choice despite their relatedness to you. Even though they share genes with you, you share more genes with yourself (all of them, in fact), so helping yourself do a little better can sometimes be the optimal reproductive strategy over helping them do much better (since they aren’t likely to do anything even with your help). In that regard, relatives suffering from mental health issues are likely worse investments than those not suffering from them, all else being equal. The probability of investment paying off is simply lower.

Now that might end up predicting that people should ignore their siblings suffering from such issues; to get to bullying we need something else, and in this case we certainly have it: competition for the same pool of limited resources, namely parental investment. Brothers and sisters compete for the same resources from their parents – time, protection, provisioning, and so on – and resources invested in one child are not capable of being invested in another much of the time. Since parents don’t have unlimited amounts of these resources, you get competition between siblings for them. This sometimes results in aggressive and vicious competition. As we already saw in the study results, children of lower quality (lower IQ scores and more conduct disorders) coming from homes with fewer resources (likely indexed by more maternal depression and domestic violence) tend to bully and be bullied more. Competition for resources is more acute here and your brother or sister can be your largest source of it.

They’re much happier now that the third one is out of the way

To put this into an extreme example of non-human sibling “bullying”, there are some birds that lay two or three eggs in the same nest a few days apart. What usually happens in these scenarios is that when the older sibling hatches in advance of the younger it gains a size advantage, allowing it to peck the younger one to death or roll it out of the nest to starve in order to monopolize the parental investment for itself. (For those curious why the mother doesn’t just lay a single egg, that likely has something to do with having a backup offspring in case something goes wrong with the first one). As resources become more scarce and sibling quality goes down, competition to monopolize more of those resources should increase as well. That should hold for birds as well as humans.

A similar logic extends into the wider social world outside of the family: those suffering from psychosis (or any other disorders, really) are less valuable social assets to others than those not suffering from them, all else being equal. As such, sufferers receive less social support in the form of friendships or other relationships. Without such social support, this also makes one an easier target for social predators looking to exploit the easiest targets available. What this translates into is children who are less able to defend themselves being bullied by others more often. In the context of the present study, it was also documented that peer bullying tends to increase with psychosis, which would be entirely unsurprising; just not because bullying is causing children to become psychotic.

This brings us to the final causal hypothesis: sometimes bullying is so severe that it actually causes brain damage that causes later psychosis. This would involve what I imagine would either be a noticeable degree of physical head trauma or similarly noticeable changes brought on by a body’s response to stress that causes brain damage over time. Neither hypothesis strikes me as particularly likely in terms of explaining much of what we’re seeing here, given the scope of sibling bullying is probably not often large enough to pose that much of a physical threat to the brain. I suspect the lion’s share of the connection between bullying and psychosis is simply that psychotic individuals are more likely to be bullied, rather than because bullying is doing the causing. 

References: Dantchev, S., Zammit S., & Wolke, D. (2017). Sibling bullying in middle childhood and psychotic disorder at 18 years: a prospective cohort study. Psychological Medicine,

Online Games, Harassment, and Sexism

Gamers are no strangers to the anger that can accompany competition. As a timely for-instance, before I sat down to start writing this post I was playing my usual online game to relax after work. As I began playing my first game of the afternoon, I saw a message pop up from someone who had sent me a friend request a few days back after I had won a match (you need to accept these friend requests before messages can be sent). Despite the lag in between the time that request was sent and when I accepted it, the message I was greeted with called me a cunt and informed me that I have no life before the person removed themselves from my friend list to avoid any kind of response. However accurately they may have described me, that is the most typical reason friend requests get sent in that game: to insult. Many people – myself included – usually don’t accept them from strangers for that reason and, if you do, it is advisable to wait a few days for the sender to cool off a bit and hopefully forget they added you. Even then, that’s no guarantee of a friendly response.

Now my game happens to be more of a single-player experience. In team-based player vs player games, communication between strangers can be vital for winning, meaning there is usually less of a buffer between players and the nasty comments of their teammates. This might not draw much social attention, but these players being insulted are sometimes women, bringing us nicely to some research on sexism.

Gone are the simpler days of yelling at your friends in person

A 2015 paper by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff examined how players in the online, first-person shooter game Halo 3 responded to the presence of a male and female voice in the team voice chat, specifically in terms of both positive and negative comments directed at them. What drew me to this paper is two-fold: first, I’m a gamer myself but, more importantly, the authors also constructed their hypotheses based on evolutionary theory, which is unusual for papers on sexism. The heart of the paper revolves around the following idea: common theories of sexist behavior towards women suggest that men behave aggressively towards them to try and remove them from male-dominated arenas. Women get nasty comments because men want them gone from male spaces. The researchers in this case took a different perspective, predicting instead that male performance within the game would be a key variable in understanding the responses players have.

As men heavily rely on their social status for access to mating opportunities, the authors predicted they should be expected to respond more aggressively to newcomers into a status hierarchy that displace them. Put into practice, this means that a low-performing male should be threatened by the entry of a higher-performing woman into their game as it pushes them down the status hierarchy, resulting in aggression directed at the newcomers. By contrast, males that perform better should be less concerned by women in the game, as it does not undercut their status. Instead of being aggressive, then, higher-performing men might give female players more positive comments in the interests of attracting them as possible mates. Putting that together, we end up with the predictions that women should receive more negative comments than men from men who are performing worse, while women should receive more positive comments from men who are performing better.

To test this idea, the researchers played the game with 7 other random players (two teams of 4 players) while playing either male or female voice lines at various intervals during the game (all of which were pretty neutral-to-positive in terms of content, such as, “I like this map” played at the beginning of a game). The recordings of what the other players (who did not know they were being monitored in this way, making their behavior more natural) said were then transcribed and coded for whether they were saying something positive, negative, or neutral directed at the experimenter playing the game. The coders also checked to see whether the comments contained hostile sexist language to look for something specifically anti-woman, rather than just negativity or anger in general.

Nothing like some wholesome, gender-blind rage

Across 163 games, any other players spoke at all in 102 of them. In those 102 games, 189 players spoke in total, 100% of whom were male. This suggests that Halo 3, unsurprisingly, is a game that women aren’t playing as much as men. Only those players who said something and were on the experimenter’s team (147 of them) were maintained for analysis. About 57% of those comments were in the female-voiced condition, while 44% where in the male condition. In general, then, the presence of a female voice led to more comments from other male players.

In terms of positive comments, the predicted difference appeared: the higher the skill level of the player talking at the experimenter, the more positive comments they made when a woman’s voice was heard; the worse the player, the fewer positive comments they made. This interaction was almost significant when considering the relative difference, rather than the absolute skill rating (i.e. Did the player talking do worse or better than the experimenter). By contrast, the number of positive comments directed at the male-voiced player was unrelated to the skill of the speaker.

Turning to the negative comments, it was found that they were negatively correlated with player skill in general: the higher the skill of the player, the fewer negative comments they made (and the lower the skill, the more negative they got. As the old saying goes, “Mad because bad”). The interaction with gender was less clear, however. In general, the teammates of the female-voiced experimenter made more negative comments than in the male condition. When considering the impact of how many deaths a speaking player had, the players were more negative towards the woman when dying less, but they were also more negative towards the man when dying extremely often (which sees to run counter to the initial predictions). The players were also more negative towards a women when they weren’t getting very many kills (with negativity towards the woman declining as their personal kills increased), but that relationship was not observed when they had heard a male voice (which is in line with the initial predictions).

Finally, only a few players (13%) made sexist statements, so the results couldn’t be analyzed particularly well. Statistically, these comments were unrelated to any performance metrics. Not much more to say about that beyond small sample size.  

Team red is much more supportive of women in gaming

Overall, the response that speaking players had to the gender of their teammate depended, to some extent, on their personal performance. Those men who were doing better at the game were more positive towards the women, while those who were doing worse were more negative towards them, generally speaking.

While there are a number of details and statements within the paper I could nitpick, I suspect that Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) are on the right track with their thinking. I would add some additional points, though. The first of these is rather core to their hypothesis: if men are threatened by status losses brought on by their relative poor performance, it seems that these threats should occur regardless of the sex of the person they’re playing with: whether a man performs poorly relative to a woman or another man, he will still be losing relative status. So why is there less negativity directed at men (sometimes), relative to women? The authors mention one possibility that I wish they had expanded upon more, which is that men might be responding not to the women per se as much as the pitch of the speaker’s voice. As the authors write, voice pitch tends to correlate with dominance, such that deeper voices tend to correlate with increased dominance.

What I wish they had added more explicitly is that aggression should not be deployed indiscriminately. Being aggressive towards people who are liable to beat you in a physical contest isn’t a brilliant strategy. Since men tend to be stronger than women, behaving aggressively towards other men – especially those outperforming you – should be expected to have carried different sets of immediate consequences, historically-speaking (though there aren’t many costs in modern online environments, which is why people behave more aggressively there than in person). It might not be that the men are any less upset about losing when other men are on their team, but that they might not be equally aggressive (in all cases) to them due to potential physical retribution (again, historically).

There are other points I would consider beyond that. The first of these is the nature of insults in general. If you remember the interaction I had with an angry opponent initially, you should remember that the goal of their message was to insult me. They were trying to make me feel bad or in some way drag me down. If you want to make someone feel bad, you would do well to focus on their flaws and things about them which make you look better by comparison. In that respect, insulting someone by calling attention to something you share in common, like your gender, is a very weak insult. On those grounds we might expect more gendered insults against women, given that men are by far the majority in these games. Now because lots of hostile sexist insults weren’t observed in the present work, the point might not be terribly applicable here. It does, however, bring me to my next point: you don’t insult people by bringing attention to things that reflect positively on them.

“Ha! That loser can only afford cars much more expensive than I can!”

As women do not play games like Halo nearly as much as men, that corresponds to lower skill in those games on a population level. Not because women are inherently worse at the game but simply because they don’t practice them as much (and people who play those games more tend to become better at them). If you look at the top competitive performance in competitive online games, you’ll notice the rosters are largely, if not exclusively, male (not unlike all the people who spoke in the current paper). Regardless of the causes of that sex difference in performance, the difference exists all the same.

If you knew nothing else about a person beyond their gender, you would predict that a man would perform better at Halo than a woman (at least if you wanted your predictions to be accurate). As such, if you’ve just under-performed at this game and are feeling pretty angry about it, some players might be looking to direct blame at their teammates who clearly caused the issue (as it would never be their the speaker’s skill in the game, of course. At least not if you’re talking about the people yelling at strangers).

If you wanted to find out who was to blame, you might consult the match scores: factors like kills and deaths. But those aren’t perfect representations of player skill (that nebulous variable which is hard to get at) and they aren’t the only thing you might consult. After all, scores in a singular game are not necessarily indicative of what would happen over a larger number of games. Because of that, the players on these teams still have limited information about the relative skill of their teammates. Given this lack of information, some people may fall back on generally-accurate stereotypes in trying to find a plausible scapegoat for their loss, assigning relatively more blame for the loss to the people who might be expected to be more responsible for it. The result? More blame assigned to women, at least initially, given the population-level knowledge.

“I wouldn’t blame you if I knew you better, so how about we get to know each other over coffee?”

That’s where the final point I would add also comes in. If women perform worse on a population level than men, the low-performing men suffer something of a double status hit when they are outperformed by a woman: not only is there another player who is doing better than them, but one might expect this player to be doing worse, knowing only their gender. As such, being outperformed by such a player makes it more difficult to blame external causes for the outcome. In a sentence, being beaten by someone who isn’t expected to perform well is a more honest signal of poor skill. The result, then, is more anger: either in an attempt to persuade others that they’re better than they actually performed or in an attempt to get the people out of there who are making them look even worse. This would fit within the author’s initial hypothesis as well, and would probably have been worth mentioning.

References: Kasumovic, M. & Kuznekoff, J. (2015). Insights into sexism: Male status and performance moderates female-directed hostile and amicable behavior. PLoS ONE 10(7). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131613

Why Do We Roast The Ones We Love?

One very interesting behavior that humans tend to engage in is murder. While we’re far from the only species that does this (as there are some very real advantages to killing members of your species – even kin – at times), it does tend to garner quite a bit of attention, and understandably so. One very interesting piece of information about this interesting behavior concerns motives; why people kill. If you were to hazard a guess as to some of the most common motives for murder, what would you suggest? Infidelity is a good one, as is murder resulting from other deliberate crimes, like when a robbery is resisted or witnesses are killed to reduce the probability of detection. Another major factor that many might not guess is minor slights or disagreements, such as one person stepping on another person’s foot by accident, followed by an insult (“watch where you’re going, asshole!”), which is responded to with an additional insult, and things kind of get out of hand until someone is dead (Daly & Wilson, 1988). Understanding why seemingly minor slights get blown so far out of proportion is a worthwhile matter in its own right. The short-version of the answer as to why it happens is that one’s social status (especially if you’re a male) can be determined, in large part, by whether other people know they can push you around. If I know you will tolerate negative behavior without fighting back, I might be encouraged to take advantage of you in more extreme ways more often. If others see you tolerating insults, they too may exploit you, knowing you won’t fight back. On the other hand, if I know you will respond to even slight threats with violence, I have a good reason to avoid inflicting costs on you. The more dangerous you are, the more people will avoid harming you.

“Anyone else have something to say about my shirt?! Didn’t think so…”

This is an important foundation for understanding why another facet of human behavior is strange (and, accordingly, interesting): friends frequently insult each other in a manner intended to be cordial. This behavior is exemplified well by the popular Comedy Central Roasts, where a number of comedians will get together to  publicly make fun of each other and their guest of honor. If memory serves, the (unofficial?) motto of these events is, “We only roast the ones we love,” which is intended to capture the idea that these insults are not intended to burn bridges or truly cause harm. They are insults born of affection, playful in nature. This is an important distinction because, as the murder statistics help demonstrate, strangers often do not tolerate these kinds of insults. If I were to go up to someone I didn’t know well (or knew well as an enemy) and started insulting their drug habits, dead loved ones, or even something as simple as their choice of dress, I could reasonably expect anything from hurt feelings to a murder. This raises an interesting series of mysteries surrounding the matter of why the stranger might want to kill me but my friends will laugh, as well as when my friends might be inclined to kill me as well.

Insults can be spoken in two primary manners: seriously and in jest. In the former case, harm is intended, while in the latter it often isn’t. As many people can attest to, however, the line between serious and jesting insults is not always as clear as we’d like. Despite our best intentions, ill-phrased or poorly-timed jokes can do harm in much the same way that a serious insult can. This suggests that the nature of the insults is similar between the two contexts. As the function of a serious insult between strangers would seem to be to threaten or lower the insulted target’s status, this is likely the same function of an insult made in jest between friends, though the degree of intended threat is lower in those contexts. The closest analogy that comes to mind is the difference between a serious fight and a friendly tussle, where the combatants either are, or are not, trying to inflict serious harm on each other. Just like play fighting, however, things sometimes go too far and people do get hurt. I think joking insults between friends go much the same way.

This raises another worthwhile question: as friends usually have a vested interest in defending each other from outside threats and being helpful, why would they then risk threatening the well-being of their allies through such insults? It would be strange if they were all risk and reward, so it would be up to us to explain what that reward is. There are a few explanations that come to mind, all of which focus on one crucial facet of friendships: they are dynamic. While friendships can be – and often are – stable over time, who you are friends with in general as well as the degree of that friendship changes over time. Given that friendships are important social resources that do shift, it’s important that people have reliable ways of assessing the strength of these relationships. If you are not assessing these relationships now and again, you might come to believe that your social ties are stronger than they actually are, which can be a problem when you find yourself in need of social support and realize that you don’t have it. Better to assess what kind of support you have before you actually need it so you can tailor your behavior more appropriately.

“You guys got my back, right?….Guys?….”

Insults between friends can help serve this relationship-monitoring function. As insults – even the joking kind – carry the potential to inflict costs on their target, the willingness of an individual to tolerate the insult – to endure those costs – can serve as a credible signal for friendship quality. After all, if I’m willing to endure the costs of being insulted by you without responding aggressively in turn, this likely means I value your friendship more than I dislike the costs being inflicted. Indeed, if these insults did not carry costs, they would not be reliable indications of friendship strength. Anyone could tolerate behavior that didn’t inflict costs to maintain a friendship, but not everyone will tolerate behaviors that do. This yields another prediction: the degree of friendship strength can also be assessed by the degree of insults willing to be tolerated. In other words, the more it takes to “go too far” when it comes to insults, the closer and stronger the friendship between two individuals. Conversely, if you were to make a joke about your friend that they become incredibly incensed over, this might result in your reevaluating the strength of that bond: if you thought the bond was stronger than it was, you might either take steps to remedy the cost you just inflicted and make the friendship stronger (if you value the person highly) or perhaps spend less time investing in the relationship, even to the point of walking away from it entirely (if you do not).

Another possible related function of these insults could be to ensure that your friends don’t start to think too highly of themselves. As mentioned previously, friendships are dynamic things based, in part, on what each party can offer to the other. If one friend begins to see major changes to their life in a positive direction, the other friend may no longer be able to offer the same value they did previously. To put that in a simple example, if two friends have long been poor, but one suddenly gets a new, high-paying job, the new status that job affords will allow that person to make friends he likely could not before. Because the job makes them more valuable to others, others will now be more inclined to be their friend. If the lower-status friend wishes to retain their friendship with the newly-employed one, they might use these insults to potentially undermine the confidence of their friend in a subtle way. It’s an indirect way of trying to ensure the high-status friend doesn’t begin to think he’s too good for his old friends.

Such a strategy could be risky, though. If the lower-status party can no longer offer the same value to the higher-status one, relative to their new options, that might also not be the time to test the willingness of the higher-status one to tolerate insults. At the same time, times of change are also precisely when the value of reassessing relationship strength can be at its highest. There’s less of a risk of a person abandoning a friendship when nothing has changed, relative to when it has. In either case, the assessment and management of social relationships is likely the key for understanding the tolerance of insults from friends and intolerance of them from strangers.

“Enjoy your new job, sellout. You used to be cool”

This analysis can speak to another interesting facet of insults as well: they’re directed towards the speaker at times, referred to self-deprecating humor when done in jest (and just self-deprecation when not). It might seem strange that people would insult themselves, as it would act to directly threaten their own status. That people do so with some regularity suggests there might be some underlying logic to these self-directed insults as well. One possibility is that these insults do what was just discussed: signal that one doesn’t hold themselves in high esteem and, accordingly, signal that one isn’t “too good” to be your friend. This seems like a profitable place from which to understand self-depreciating jokes. When such insults directed towards the self are not made in jest, they likely carry additional implications as well, such as that expectations should be set lower (e.g., “I’m really not able to do that”) or that one is in need of additional investment, relative to the joking kind. 

References: Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Aldine De Gruyter: NY.

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:

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.