#HandsUp (Don’t Press The Button)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lots And Lots Of Hand-Wringing

There’s a well-known quote that was said to be uttered when someone heard about Darwin’s theory of evolution for the first time: “Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it does not become widely known”. Darwinian theory was certainly not the first theory that got people worrying about the implications of it being true, nor will it be the last. Pascal’s wager, for instance, attempted to suggest that belief in a deity would be a fine one to adopt, as the implications for being wrong about the belief might involve spending an eternity in torment (depending on which version of said deity we’re talking about), but believing incorrectly that a god exists doesn’t carry nearly as many potential costs. More recent worries have suggested that if global warming is real and caused by human activity, then we might want to knock it off with all the fossil fuel burning before we do (anymore) serious damage to the planet; others worry about the implications of that belief being wrong, suggesting it might harm the economy to impose new regulations on business owners over nothing. While we could document a seemingly-endless list of examples of people worrying about the implication of this or that idea, today we actually get a rare chance to examine whether some of those worries about the implications of an idea are grounded in reality.

“I don’t believe in your academic work….because of the implication

Now, of course, the implications which flow from a belief if it were true in no way affect whether or not the belief happens to be true. Our Victorian woman fretting over what might happen if evolution is true in no way changed the truth value of the claim. Given that the truth value isn’t affected, and that we here in the academic portion of world might fancy ourselves as fighters over truth of a claim, the implications which flow from an idea can be shrugged off as matters that don’t concern us. Still, one might wonder what precisely our Victorian was wringing her hands about; what consequences the world might suffer if people began to belief evolution was true and behaved accordingly. If she’s anything like some of the more contemporary critics of evolutionary theory in general – and evolutionary psychology in particular – she might have been worried that if people believe that the theory is true, then people have no reason to avoid being amoral psychopaths, killing and raping their way through life. The argument, I think, is that people might begin to justify things like rape and murder as natural if [behavior is genetically determined in some sense/God didn't create people and care very deeply about what they do], and therefore justifiable. If one is interested in avoiding nasty the consequences of beliefs, well, all that rape and murder might be a good one to avoid.

On a philosophical level, I happen to think that such a concern is rather strange. This strangeness arises from the fact that if, say, rape and murder are natural (and therefore justifiable, according to the argument), condemnation of such acts is, well, also natural and therefore acceptable. I’m not sure that this line of argument really gets anyone anywhere. It’s the same kind of reasoning that crops up concerning the issue of free will and morality: in short, when confronted with the idea of determinism, people seem to feel that acts like murder don’t require a justification, but acts like morally condemning others for murder do, leaving us with the rather odd situation where people feel it wouldn’t be justifiable to condemn someone for killing another person, but the killing itself is fine. Why people attach so much importance to trying to justify their moral judgments like that is certainly an interesting topic, but I wanted to bring the focus away from philosophy and back to the implications of evolutionary theories.

Some people have made the argument that if people believe in an evolutionary theory, then they will subsequently fail to condemn something the arguer would like to condemn. Foregoing the matter of whether the evolutionary theory in question is true, we can consider whether the concern about its implications is warranted. This is precisely what Dar-Nimrod et al (2011) set out to do. The authors set out to examine whether exposing male participants to different explanations for a behavior – specifically, an evolutionary explanation and a social-constructivist one – led to any changes in their condemnation of sex crimes, relative to a control condition. If evolutionary theories are used, even non-consciously, to justify certain behaviors morally (what the authors call a “get-out-of-jail-free card”), we should expect that evolutionary explanations will lead people to be less punitive of the sexual crimes. In the first experiment, the authors examined men’s reactions to an instance of a man soliciting a prostitute for sex; in the second, they examined men’s reactions to an instance of rape.

“Participants were subsequently followed to see if they sought out prostitutes”

The first study only made use of 58 participants (two of which were dropped) across three conditions, which makes me a little wary owing to small sample size concerns. Nevertheless, the participants either read about a social-constructivist theory (stressing power structures between men and women in relationship to sexual behavior), an evolutionary theory (stressing parental investment and reproductive potential), or neither. They were subsequently asked to suggest how much bail a man (John) should have to pay for attempting to solicit a prostitute that was actually an undercover policewoman (anywhere from $50-1000). After controlling for how much bail the participants set for a shoplifter, the results showed a significant difference between the conditions: in the control condition, men set an average bail of $267 for John. In the evolutionary condition, the bail was set around $301, and was around $461 in the social-constructivist condition. This difference was significant between the social-constructivist position and the evolutionary condition, but not between the evolutionary and control conditions.

In the next study, the setup was largely similar. Sixty-seven participants read about an evolutionary argument concerning why rape might have been adaptive, a social-constructivist argument about how more porn in circulation was correlated with more rape, or a control condition about, I think, sexual relationships between older people. They were asked to assess the scientific significance of the evidence they read about, and then asked about the acceptability of the behavior of a man (“Thomas”) who persisted in asserting his sexual desires on a woman who willingly kissed him but explicitly objected to anything further (date rape). The results showed that men rated the scientific significance of each theory to be comparable (which, I should note, is funny, given that the relationship between porn and rape goes in the opposite direction). Additionally, those reading the social explanation thought men had more control over their sexual urges (M = 5.4), relative to the control condition (M = 4.6) or evolutionary condition (M = 4.2). Similarly, those in the social condition rated sexual aggression less positively in the social condition (M = 3.0) relative to the evolutionary (M = 3.8) and control (M = 3.6) conditions. Finally, the same pattern held for punitive judgments.

Summarizing the results, then, we get the following pattern: while exposure to a certain social theories enhanced people’s moral condemnation of particular criminal sex acts, relative to the control condition, the evolutionary theories didn’t have any effect in particular. They certainly didn’t seem to justify sexual assault, as some feared they might. Precisely why the social theories enhanced condemnation is a separate matter, with the authors postulating that it might have something to due with the language and variable-focus that they used and note that, with different phrasing, it might be possible to eliminate that difference. The important point as far I’m concerned, though, is that evolutionary explanations (at least these ones) didn’t seem to lead to any of the horrific consequences detractors of the field sometimes imagine they would. In other words, if the evolutionary theories are true, we need not pray they do not become widely known.

So we can all safely move onto the next moral panic

Given that many critics of evolutionary psychology have made reference to this get-out-of-jail-free concern, it seems plausible that their worries are based on some misunderstandings of, or misinformation, about the field (or, more generously, a concern that other people will generate such misunderstandings intuitively, even though the critic is in masterful command of the subject himself). That is to say, roughly, someone says “evolutionary” and the receiver hears “genetic”, “predetermined”, and/or fears that other people will. However, if that explanation is true, I would find it curious that it didn’t seem to show up in the results. More precisely, if people substitute “genetic” for “evolutionary”, we might have expected to see the evolutionary explanations reduce judgments of condemnation, rather than do nothing to them*. It is possible that the effect could be witnessed in other topics than sex, perhaps owing to people treating sex differences in behavior as intuitively genetic based, but I suppose only future research will shed light on the issue.

*(For some reason, genetic explanations seem to reduce the severity of moral judgments. I would be interested to see if participants reading about how moral condemnation is genetically determined subsequently condemn more or less than others)

References: Dar-Nimrod, I., Heine, S., Cheung, B., & Schaller, M. (2011). Do scientific theories affect men’s evaluations of sex crimes? Aggressive Behavior, 37, 440-449.

“There Are No Girls On The Internet”

“I’ve discovered through the internet you can do anything you want so long as no one sees your face; it’s like the wild west over here” -Carl

Today is another leisurely day for me, so I’ll be writing about something less research based and more in the realm of argumentative fun. Many people have recently become aware of the site 4chan, owing to the site being the platform for the recent massive leak of celebrity nude photos acquired from breaches of their accounts on iCloud servers. The leak has been dubbed “The Fappening”, which seamlessly combines the internet’s collective love of both masturbation and M. Night Shyamalan puns. In any case, as anyone remotely familiar with 4chan should know, the users, at least some and perhaps most of them, pride themselves on the fact that the site is widely considered to be a cesspool of the internet’s waste. This allows them a certain leisure in expressing views which are, shall we say, less than orthodox. There is a saying originating from the site that goes, “There are no girls on the internet”, though most of you have probably heard it by another name: “Tits or gtfo”. Examining this phrase in somewhat greater detail provides us with an interesting window in men and women’s psychology: both in terms of how we tend to perceive the world, and how others in the world tend to perceive and react to us in turn. Buckle up, because today should be fun.

Always take proper precautions when venturing into the internet

So let’s start with a quick breakdown of the phrase, “There are no girls on the internet”. One 4chan user helpfully provides the meaning of the phrase here, and the heart of the idea is as follows: in offline life, people tend to respond to women in certain, positive ways simply because they are women, rather than because of anything else particularly noteworthy about them. By contrast, the user implies that life on the internet is more of a meritocracy where gender should play no particular role in how people respond to you. Accordingly, when women try to draw attention to their gender online, they are trying to cheat the system and receive a certain type of preferential treatment on that basis alone; the implication is that people online don’t, or shouldn’t, take kindly to that kind of behavior. This idea of, “there are no girls on the internet” was then morphed into the phrase “tits or gtfo”, with the latter phrase suggesting that if women want to call attention to their gender, they should just post a naked picture of themselves as an admission that there is nothing else interesting about them and they can’t stand on their own personality and intellect without relying on their gender to support them.

Now this sentiment might strike some people as profoundly misogynistic, perhaps owing to the manner in which it is expressed. At it’s core, though, it seems to be a rather egalitarian idea: gender shouldn’t matter when it comes to how people interact with each other and preferential treatment on that basis should be done away with. The reason I’m discussing this sentiment is to contrast it with another perspective I’ve come across recently; one that suggests women aren’t welcome on the internet. This perspective holds that women online – and offline, for that matter – are subject to disproportionate amounts of harassment simply because they are women, rather than owing to any kind of behavior they enact or things they say. These two perspectives seem to be at substantial odds with one another with respect to one critical detail: do people like women for being women, or do people hate women for being women?

Obviously, the question is too simplistic and paints the issues with far too broad of a brush to be a meaningful one, but let’s try to answer it anyway; just for fun. To answer such a question one needs to begin with some kind of standard as for what counts as appropriate or inappropriate treatment. Let’s return to the Fappening as an example. Some posts on Jezebel.com find it appalling that certain sites won’t take down the nude pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, citing concerns for the privacy and sensitivity of the women in question as the justification for their being removed. Other posts suggest that it is good that charitable donations motivated by the Fappening are being refused, because the money isn’t coming from the right places. Now that we know Jezebel’s stance on the matter of respecting people’s privacy, we can turn to their sister site, Gawker.com (both sites are owned by Gawker Media). Gawker seemed more than happy to take a stand against respecting people’s privacy by previously posting links to the Hulk Hogan sex tape, suggesting that “we love to watch famous people have sex” and are not terribly troubled by the fact that Hogan was secretly filmed and did not want this video to be released; they were so unimpressed by Hogan’s complaints, in fact, that they tried to refuse to comply with his request to have it removed.

Sure, the situations are a bit different: Jennifer had her privacy breached by people breaking into her online account, whereas Hogan was covertly and unknowingly filmed. While I can’t say for certain whether the writers at Jezebel would be totally happy with someone filming himself having sex with Jennifer without her knowledge and releasing the tape despite her protests, my inclination is to think they would condemn such actions. Also, to the best of my knowledge, no one has claimed that whoever released the Hulk Hogan tape “loathes men” and “wants to punish men just for existing”, though some have suggested this as being the motivation for the Fappening pictures being stolen, just substituting “women” for “men”.

“The only conceivable reason to want to see her naked is because you hate women…”

Though not conclusive by any means, these two cases suggest that it’s plausible that the same behavior directed at, or enacted by, men and women will not always be met with a uniform response. Maddox, over at The Best Page In The Universe, recently put out a new article and video outlining other instances of this kind of double stand with respect to comic book characters; a topic which I have touched on before myself with respect to both superheroes and Rolling Stone covers. In the video, Maddox shows, quite clearly, that Spiderman and Spiderwoman have been depicted in almost identical poses on the cover of comics, but the female version was apparently perceived to be overly sexualized and an embarrassment by some, despite the male version apparently never being noticed. There’s also the research I’ve covered before suggesting that women appear to get reduced sentences for similar crimes, relative to men, if you’re looking for something less anecdotal.

Now none of this is intended to generate some kind of competition over whether men or women, as groups, have it worse. Rather, the point of this analysis is to suggest that men and women, on the whole, tend to have it differently. There are relatively-unique adaptive problems that each sex has tended to face over our evolutionary history, and, as such, we should expect some differences in the psychological modules possessed by men and women. This can cause something of a problem when it comes to discourse regarding whether, say, women are facing a disproportionate amount of harassment online, because what counts as harassment in the first place might be perceived differently; we are all swimming in seas of subjective perceptions that our minds create, rather than bringing them in from the outside world in some kind of objective fashion. What is “threatening” to one person might be innocuous to another, depending on the precise nature of the stimulus and of the mind perceiving it.

For instance, Amanda Hess references an uncited study that found “accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.” Why are “sexually explicit” and “threatening” messages grouped together in that sentence? Well, if the results of Clark and Hatfield’s classic 1989 study are any indication, it’s likely because women might perceive a good deal of unsolicited sexual attention as unpleasant or harassment. However, men might receive that same sexual attention as pleasant and welcome. It is also likely that women will receive a lot more unsolicited sexual attention from men than men will from women, owing the minimum requisite biological costs to reproduction. Grouping “threatening” or “harassment” in the same category as “propositioning” strikes me as precisely the type of thing that can lead to disagreement over how much harassment is going on online. (I think this study is what Amanda is referring to, in which case “feeling horny?” counts as a threatening or sexually explicit message; it’s certainly one of those things, anyway…)

This is a somewhat long-winded way of suggesting that men and women might, and likely do, tend to both perceive the world differently and expect to be treated in particular fashions. If people expect some standard of treatment they are not receiving, they might come to perceive the treatment they get as being overly hostile, unwelcoming, or unfair even if they receive the same treatment as everyone else. This point works just as well for people reacting to the treatment of others: if I expect you to get a certain level of treatment and you don’t, I might try to come to your aid and condemn others for how they behaved on your behalf. That’s not to say that people are, in fact, getting equal treatment in all cases regardless of gender (they often don’t); just to point out that our perceptions of it might differ even if they were.

I’m not saying that such treatment isn’t hostile either; plenty of treatment people receive online is downright threatening, from death threats, to abuse fantasies, to plain old public shaming and ridicule. I’ve received a series of what one might consider abusive messages from strangers online after winning a game we were playing, and that was only after 30 seconds to five minutes of interacting without even talking in a recreational activity; an experience not unique to me by any means. One could imagine that the frequency and intensity of this abuse increases substantially as one becomes more publicly known or begins voicing controversial opinions widely (like calling an entire subculture bigoted or not supporting dedicated servers for your FPS).

“Thanks for your thoughtful message, XxXx420NoScopeFgtxXxX”

In fact, one very reasonable suggestion is that the vitriol present in some of the harassment people receive online is designed specifically to get a rise out of the person receiving it; it’s the M.O. of the internet troll. When it comes to women receiving harassment, for instance, we might expect that women receive particular types of abuse because women tend to be most bothered by it, but they do not receive abuse because they are women. The goal of those sending the abuse is not to make some kind of social or political statement about an issue or express contempt for an entire gender; it’s just to get under someone’s skin.  However, when a different group is being targeted for harassment, the content of the harassment should be expected to shift accordingly.

A good example of this would be 4chan’s trolling of the MMA fighter War Machine (which, I am told, is now his legal name): when users on 4chan found out that War Machine’s father had died after his son’s unsuccessful CPR attempt, they began to tell War Machine he had killed his father (on the anniversary of the death, I would add). This harassment didn’t take that form because people hate those who perform CPR, fathers, MMA fighters, or men more generally; it only took that form because it was what people thought would get the best rise out of him. Judging from the subsequent self-inflicted injuries War Machine documented publicly, the attempt was pretty successful.

“That’ll show ‘em…”

However, just like the immediate point of many trolling comments is to upset others, rather than to make some honest statement, the reactions people have to online harassment should be expected to be every bit as strategic as the trolls themselves, even if not consciously so. Just like the Gawker sites don’t appear to be consistently concerned with privacy (“Yes” with respect to Jennifer, “No” with respect to Hogan), and just like people don’t perceive Spiderman and Spiderwoman to be equally sexualized despite near identical poses on their covers, so too might outrage over online harassment not be evenly spread between targets, even if the harassment itself is quite similar. So, whether the internet is a place of general equality with respect to gender or hostility towards women depends, in no small part, on what kind of treatment people are expecting each gender to receive.

That said I wouldn’t want to accuse any person or group of over-reacting to the harassment they receive just for being them; I’m sure that harassment is particularly unique, and evidence of a widespread bias against you and your friends.

Punch-Ups In Bars

For those of you unfamiliar with the literature in economics, there is a type of experimental paradigm called the dictator game. In this game, there are two players, one of which is given a sum of money and told they can do whatever they want with it. They could keep it all for themselves, or they could divide it however they want between themselves and the other player. In general, you often find that many dictators – the ones in charge of dividing the money – give at least some of the wealth to the other player, with many people sharing it evenly. Some people have taken that finding to suggest there is something intrinsically altruistic about human behavior towards others, even strangers. There are, however, some concerns regarding what those results actually tell us. For instance, when you take the game out of the lab and into a more naturalistic setting, dictators don’t really tend to give other people any money at all, suggesting that most, or perhaps all, of the giving we see in these experiments is being driven by the demand characteristics of the experiment, rather than altruism per se. This should ring true to anyone who has even had a wallet full of money and not given some of it away to a stranger for no reason. Real life, it would seem, is quite unlike dictator games in many respects.

Dictators are not historically known for their benevolence.

Relatedly, around two years ago, Rob Kurzban wondered to what extent the role of ostensibly altruistic punishment had been overstated by laboratory experiments. Altruistic punishment refers to cases in which someone – the punisher – will incur costs themselves (typically by paying a sum of money in these experiments) to inflict costs on others (typically by deducting a sum of money from another person). What inspired this wondering was a video entitled “bike thief“, where a man tries to steal his own bike, using a crowbar, hacksaw, and power tool to cut the locks securing the bike to various objects. Though many people pass by the man as he tries to “steal” his bike, almost no one intervenes to try and determine what’s going on. This video appears to show the same pattern of results as a previous one also dealing with bike theft: in that video, third parties are somewhat more likely to intervene when a white man tries to steal the bike than in the first video one, but, in general, they don’t tend to involve themselves much, if at all (they are more likely to intervene if the ostensible thief is black or a woman. In the former case, people are more likely to confront him or call the police; in the latter case, some people intervened to help the woman, not to condemn her).

I have long found these videos fascinating, in that I feel they raise a lot of questions worthy of further consideration. The first of these is how do people decide when to become involved in the affairs of others? The act itself (sawing through a bike lock) is inherently ambiguous: is the person trying to steal the bike, or is the bike theirs but they have lost the key? Further, even if the person is stealing the bike, there are certain potential risks to confronting them about it that might be better avoided. The second question is, given someone has decided to become involved, what do they do? Do they help or hinder the thief? Indeed, when the “thief” suggests that they lost the key, the third parties passing by seem willing to help, even when the thief is black; similarly, even when the woman all but says she is stealing the bike, people (typically men) continue to help her out. When third parties opt instead to punish someone, do they do so themselves, or do they try to enlist others to do the punishing (like police and additional third parties)? These two questions get at the matter of how prevalent/important is third-party punishment outside of the lab, and under what circumstance might that importance be modified?

Though there is a lack of control one faces from moving outside of the lab into naturalistic field studies, the value of these studies for understanding punishment should be hard to overstate. As we saw initially with the dictator games, it is possible that all the altruistic behavior we observe in the lab is due to experimental demand characteristics; the same might be true of third-party moral condemnation. Admittedly, naturalistic observations of third-party involvement in conflicts is rare, likely owing to how difficult it is to get good observations of immoral acts that people might prefer you didn’t see (i.e. real bike thieves likely go through some pains to not be seen so others might be unlikely to become involved, unlike the actors in the videos). One particularly useful context for gathering these observations, then, is one in which the immoral act is unlikely to be planned and people’s inhibitions are reduced: in this case, when people are drinking at bars. As almost anyone who has been out to a bar can tell you, when people are drinking tempers can flare, people overstep boundaries, and conflicts break out. When that happens, there often tends to be a number of uninvolved third parties who might intervene, making it a fairly ideal context for studying the matter.

“No one else wears this shirt on my watch. No one”

A 2013 paper by Parks et al examined around 800 such incidents of what was deemed to be verbal or physical aggression to determine what kinds of conflicts arose, what types people tends to get involved in them, and how they became involved. As an initial note – and this will become relevant shortly – aggression was defined in a particular way that I find to be troublesome: specifically, there was physical aggression (like hitting or pushing), verbal aggression (like insults), and unwanted or persistent sexual overtures. The problem here is that though failed or crude attempts at flirting might be unwanted, they are by no means aggressive in the same sense that hitting someone is, so aggression might have been defined too broadly here. That said, the “aggressive” acts were coded for severity and intent, third-party intervention was coded as present or absent and, when present, whether it was an aggressive or non-aggressive intervention, and all interactions were coded for the sex of the parties and their level of intoxication.

The first question is obviously how often did third parties become involved in an aggressive encounter? The answer is around a third of the time on average, so third-party involvement in disputes is by no means an infrequent occurrence. Around 80% of the third parties that intervened were also male. Further, when third parties did become involved, they were about twice as likely to become involved in an non-aggressive fashion, relative to an aggressive one (so they were more often trying to diffuse the situation, rather than escalating it). Perhaps unsurprising in the fact that most disputes tended to be initiated by people who appeared to be relatively more intoxicated, and the aggressive third parties tended to be drunker than the non-aggressive ones. So, as is well known, being drunk tended to lead to people being more aggressive, whether it came to initiating conflicts or joining them. Third parties also tended to become more likely to get involved in disputes as the severity of the disputes rose: minor insults might not lead to much involvement on the parts of others, while throwing a punch or pulling out a knife will. This also meant that mutually-aggressive encounters – ones that are likely to escalate – tended to draw more third-party involvement that one-sided aggression.

Of note is that the degree of third party involvement did fluctuate markedly: the disputes that drew the most third-party involvement were the male-on-male mutually-aggressive encounters. In those cases, third parties got involved around 70% of the time; more than double the average involvement level. By contrast, male-on-female aggression drew the least amount of third-party intervention; only around 17% of the time. This is, at first, a very surprising finding, given that women tend to receive lighter sentences for similar crimes, and violence against women appears to be less condoned than violence against men. So why would women garner less support when men are aggressing against them? Well, likely because unwanted sexual attention falls under the umbrella term of aggression in this study. Because “aggressive” does not equate to “violent” in the paper, all of the mixed-sex instances of “aggression” need to be interpreted quite cautiously. The authors note as much, wondering if male-on-female aggression generated less third-party involvement because it was perceived as being less severe. I think that speculation is on the right track, but I would take it further: most of the mixed-sex “aggression” might have not been aggressive at all. By contrast, when it was female-female mutual aggression (less likely to be sexual in nature, likely involving a fight or the threat of one), third parties intervened around 60% of the time. In other words, people were perfectly happy to intervene on behalf of either sex, so long as the situation was deemed to be dangerous.

“It’s only one bottle; let’s not be too hasty to get involved yet…”

Another important caveat to this research is that the relationship of the third parties that became involved to the initial aggressors was not known. That is, there was no differentiation between a friend or a stranger coming to someone’s aid when aggression broke out. If I had to venture a guess – and this is probably a safe one – I would assume that most of the third parties likely had some kind of a relationship to the people in the initial dispute. I would also guess that non-violent involvement (diffusing the situation) would be more common when the third parties had some relationship to both of the people involved in the initial dispute, relative to when it was their friend against a stranger. I happen to feel that the relationship between the parties who become involved in these disputes has some rather large implications for understanding morality more generally but, since that data isn’t available, I won’t speculate too much more about it here. What I will say is that the focus on how strangers behave towards one another in the lab – as is standard for most research on moral condemnation – is likely missing a large part of how morality works, just like how experimental demand characteristics seemed to make people look more altruistic than they are in naturalistic settings. Getting friends together for research poses all sorts of logistically issues, but it is a valuable source of information to start considering.

 References: Parks, M., Osgood, D., Felson, R., Wells, S., & Graham, K., (2013). Third party involvement in barroom conflicts. Aggressive Behavior, 39, 257-268.

Might Doesn’t Make Right, But It Helps

There’s no denying the importance and ubiquitousness of violence and aggression. Despite the suggestion of the owner of the swamp castle in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, people continue to “bicker and argue about who killed who“. Given that anger is often a key motivator of aggression, developing a satisfying account of anger can go a long way towards understanding and predicting when people will be likely to aggress against others. While there has been a great deal of focus placed on reducing violence, there tends to somewhat less mind paid to understanding the functions and uses of anger. The American Psychology Association, for instance, notes that anger can be a good thing because, “it can give you a way to express negative feelings…or motivate you to find solutions to problems”. They also warn that anger can “get out of hand”. While such suggestions sound plausible (minus the idea that “expressing” an emotion is good, in and of itself), they tend to lack the ability to deliver suitably textured predictions about the correlates or shape of anger, much less qualify what counts as “getting out of hand”.

Seems like he had that situation completely under control to me.

Of course, that’s not to suggest that is anger is always going to be useful in precisely the same measure as it gets delivered; just that we ought to be interested in attempting to understand the emotion before trying to diagnose the problems with it (in much the same fashion, one might wish to understand the function of, say, a fever, before figuring out whether we should try to reduce them). Towards that end, I would like to turn to a paper by Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides (2009) who posit an altogether more specific and biologically-plausible function for anger: the regulation and modification of welfare-tradeoff ratios (WTRs). These ratios essentially represent how much of your own welfare you’re willing to give up to improve the welfare of another. To use a simple economics example, imagine choosing between two options: $6 for yourself and $1 for someone else, or $5 for yourself and $5 for someone else. One’s WTR towards that someone else could be approximated, at least in some sense, by their choice in that and other dilemmas. This propensity to suffer losses to benefit others varies considerably across individuals.

This basic concept can be readily expanded to the wider social world: everything we do tends to have an effect on others and ourselves, and we would be better off, on the whole, if other people were relatively more willing to take our welfare into account when they acted. Sometimes that works out favorably for both parties, as is often the case in kin relationships (shared genetic interests tend to increase the willingness to trade off your own welfare for another’s); other times, it won’t work out so nicely. Since everyone would be better off if they could increase their WTRs with others and not everyone can possibly achieve that goal at once, WTRs tend to be aligned in non-optimal ways from at least someone’s perspective, if not most people’s. So let’s say someone isn’t taking my welfare into account in a way I deem acceptable when they act; what’s a guy to do? One available option is to attempt and “renegotiate” their WTR towards me through the threat of inflicting costs or withdrawing benefits; the  kinds of behaviors that anger helps motivate. Anger, then, might serve the function of attempting to regulate other people’s WTRs towards you (or your allies, and you by extension) by signalling the intention to inflict costs after behavior indicative of an unacceptably-low WTR.

This function immediately suggests some design features we ought to expect to find in the cognitive systems regulating anger, because not everyone is equally capable of inflicting costs on others. Accordingly, someone in a better position to inflict costs on others ought to be more readily roused to anger. One obvious indicator of that capacity to inflict costs would be one’s physical formidability: physically stronger males should be more capable of inflicting costs on others, and thus more willing to do so in order to modify the WTRs held by said others. This prediction was born out well in the data Sell et al (2009) collected: across various measures of men’s strength, the correlation between physical formidability and proneness to anger, history of fighting, sense of entitlement, and the perceived usefulness of violence were all high, ranging from approximately r = 0.3 to 0.5; for women, the same correlations were around 0.05 to 0.1. It was only physical formidability in men that proved to be a good predictor of aggression and anger, which makes a good deal of sense in light of the fact that women tend to be substantially less physically formidable in general.

A relationship that holds even when measured in Hulks.

Women are not without power, though, even if typically falling behind men in physical strength. Perhaps owing to their ability to recruit the physical strength of others, or leverage some other social capital, attractive women might also be especially prone to anger. This set of predictions was also confirmed: women who perceived themselves to be attractive – like strong men – were more prone to anger, felt greater entitlement, were more successful in conflicts, and found violence to be more useful after controlling for physical strength. Attractiveness, however, did not predict history of fighting in women, as was expected. While attractive men also tended to feel a greater sense of entitlement and reported more success in conflicts, the variables relating to fighting ability did not reliably correlate with attractiveness once the effect of physical formidability was partial outed. In other words, in relation to anger, what physical strength was for men, attractiveness was for women.

It should also be noted that neither attractiveness or physical strength correlated well with how long people tended to ruminate when angry. It wasn’t simply the case that strong men/attractive women were angrier for longer periods of time. We ought to expect anger to be roused strategically and contextually in order to solve specific problems; not just generally, as that is liable to cause more problems than it solves. These results also cut against some popular misconceptions, like people being angry to compensate for a lack of physical strength or attractiveness, as the people who lacked those qualities tended to be less prone to anger. These data would also cut against the suggestions from the APA that I initially mentioned: unless there’s some compelling reason to predict that physically strong males/attractive females are particularly likely to be prone to anger in order to “express their emotions” or “solve problems” more generally, we can see that those ostensible functions for anger are clearly lacking in some regards. They fail to deliver good predictions or satisfyingly account for the existing data.

These findings do raise some questions bearing deeper examination. The first of these concerns the often ambiguous nature of casual arrows: do men become more prone to anger and aggression as they become physically stronger, or might there be some developmental window at which point aggressive tendencies tend to become relatively canalized (i.e. does current physical strength matter, or does one’s strength at, say, age 16 matter more)? What role does social influence – in the form of larger groups of allies – bring? Are well-liked, but physically-weak men less or more likely to become angry easily? Does it matter whether one’s friends are physically imposing? How about if the target of one’s anger is more formidable than the one experiencing the anger? Admittedly, these are tricky questions to answer, owing largely to potential logistical issues in conducting the research in an ecologically-valid context, but they’re certainly worth considering.

“Experimental Recruitment: Please bring a dozen close friends”

Returning to the initial point about when anger gets “out of control”, we can see the question becomes a significantly more nuanced one. For starters, “out of control” will clearly depend on who you ask: while the angry individual might feel that they are not being treated appropriately by others in their social world, the targets of that anger might insist that the angry individual is being unreasonable in their requests for some particular treatment. Further, “out of control” for one individual does not necessarily equal the same amount of aggression for any other, at least in terms of the adaptive value of the behavior. One might also consider, at least at times, a lack of aggression and anger to be unsuitable behavior, such as when meek children are told to stand up to their bullies. The key point here is that we ought to expect all these considerations to vary strategically, rather than as a function of someone needing to “express their emotions” by “venting” them. If Sell et al (2009) are correct, anger can likely be reduced by altering these WTRs in non-aggressive fashions. Once the expected WTR for one party has been reached, the anger systems ought to be deactivated. Whether such methods are likely to be practically feasible is another matter entirely.

References: Sell, A., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15073-78.

He’s Climbing In Your Windows; He’s Snatching Your People Up

One topic that has been addressed by evolutionary psychologists that managed to draw a good deal of ire was rape. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, the criticisms that the theorizing about it brought were largely undeserved, reflecting, perhaps, a human tendency to mistake explanation with exculpation. Needless to say, at this point, sexual assault will be the topic for examination today, so if it’s the kind of thing that bothers you to read about, I suggest clicking away. Now that the warning has been made, if you’re still reading we can move forward. There has been some debate among evolutionary-minded researchers as to whether or not there are any rape-specific cognitive adaptations in humans, or whether rape represents a byproduct of other mating mechanisms. The debate remains unresolved for lack of unambiguous predictions or data. As the available data could be interpreted as consistent with both sides of the debate, the question remains a slippery and contentious one.

So do be careful if you decide to try and pick it up.

A paper by Felson & Cundiff (2012) suggests to have found some data they say support the byproduct view for rape. While I find myself currently favoring the byproduct explanation, I also find their interpretation of the evidence they bring to bear on the matter underwhelming. I actually find their interpretation of several matters off, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s consider the research itself. The authors sought to examine existing data on robberies committed by lone males 12 years or older where a lone female was present at the time. From the robbery data, the authors were further interested in examining the subset of them that also involved a report of sexually assault. Towards this end, Felson & Cundiff (2012) reported data from approximately 45,000 robberies spanning from 2000-2007. Of those robberies, roughly 2% of them also involved a sexual assault, yielding about 900 cases for examination. As an initial note, the 2% figure would seem to suggest, to me, anyway, that in most instances of robbery/sexual assault, the assaults tended to not be preplanned; they look more opportunistic.

From this sample, the authors first examined what effect the female victim’s age had on the likelihood of a sexual assault being reported during the robbery. As it turns out, the age of the woman was a major determinant: women at the highest risk of being assaulted were in the 15-29 age range (with the peak being within the 20-24 year old age range), where the average risk of a sexual assault was around 2.5%. Before this age range, the risk of assault is substantially lower, around 1.3%. After 29 years, the rate begins to decline, dropping markedly after 40, down to around an average of 0.5%. In terms of opportunistic sexual assaults, then, male robbers appear to target women in their fertile years at disproportionate frequencies, presumably partially or largely on the basis of victim’s physical attractiveness. This finding appears consistent with previous work that had found the average age of a female who was the victim of a robbery alone was 35, while the average age of a robbery/assault victim was 27.9; about 7 years of difference. Any theories of rape that assume the act is motivated by power and not by sex would seem to have a very difficult time accounting for this pattern in the data.

Next, the authors turned their attention towards characteristics of the male robbers that predict whether or not an assault was reported. The results showed that the likelihood of a sexual assault increased as the males reached sexual maturity and steadily increased further until about their mid-thirties, after which they began to decline. Further, regardless of their age, the robbers didn’t show much in the way of variance in terms of the age of women they tended to target. That is to say whether the man was in his late teens or his late forties, they all seemed to preferentially target younger women nearer to their peak fecundity. The one exception to this pattern were the males aged 12-17, who seemed to even more disproportionately prefer women in their teens and early twenties. Felson & Cundiff (2012) note that this pattern of preferences is not typically observed in consensual relationships, where men and women tend to pair up around similar ages. This suggests that older men’s patterns of engaging in relationships with older women likely represents the relative aversion of younger women to the older males; not a genuine preference on the part of men for older women per se.

Though it’s difficult to imagine why older men aren’t preferred…

That’s not to say that older men may not have a preference for pursing relatively older women, just that such a preference wouldn’t be driven by the woman’s age. Such a preference might well be driven by other factors, however, such as the relative willingness of a woman to enter into a relationship with the man in question. There’s not much point for a man in pursuing women they’re unlikely to ever attain success with, even if those women are highly attractive; better to spend that time and energy in domains more liable to payoff. Louis C.K. sums the issue up neatly in one of his stand-up routines: “to me, you’re not a woman until you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet…[if you're a younger girl] I don’t want to fuck you…[alright] I do want to fuck you, but you won’t fuck me, so fuck you”. When such tradeoffs can be circumvented – as is the case in sexual assault – a person’s underlying preferences for certain characteristics can be more readily assessed.

This brings us to my complaints with the paper. As I mentioned initially, there’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not men have cognitive mechanisms designed for rape specifically, or whether rape is generated as a byproduct of mechanisms designed for other purposes. Felson & Cundiff (2012) suggest that their data support the byproduct interpretation. Why? Because they found that women in the 15-29 age range who were sexually assaulted were less likely to be raped than older women. This pattern of data is supposed to support the byproduct hypothesis because, I think, the authors are positing some specific motivation for sex acts that could result in conception, rather than some more general interest in sexual behavior. It’s hard to say, since the authors fail to lay out the theory behind their hypothesis with precision. This strikes me as somewhat of a strange argument, though, as it would essentially posit that sexual acts that are unlikely to result in conception (such as oral or anal sex) are motivated by a different set of cognitive mechanisms that an interest in vaginal sex. While that might potentially be the case, I’ve never seen a case made for it, and there isn’t a strong one to be found in the paper.

The other complaint I have is that the authors use a phrase that’s a particular pet peeve of mine: “..our results are consistent with the predictions from evolutionary psychology”. This phrase always troubles me because evolutionary psychology, as field, does not make a set of uniform predictions about sexual behavior. Their results may well be consistent with some sub-theories derived by psychologists using an evolutionary framework – such as sexual strategies theory – but they are not derived from evolutionary psychology more broadly. To say that a result is consistent or inconsistent with evolutionary psychology is to imply that such a finding supports or fails to support the foundational assumptions of the field; assumptions which have to do with the nature of information processing mechanisms. While this might seem like a minor semantic point at first, I feel it’s actually a rather deep issue. It’s a frequent mistake that many of evolutionary psychology’s critics make when attempting to write off the entire field on the basis of a single idea they don’t like. To the extent that such inaccurate generalizations serve to hinder people’s engagement with the field, there’s a problem to be addressed.

And if you’re not willing to engage with me, I’d like the ring back.

As evolutionary psychology more broadly doesn’t deliver specific predictions about rape, neither the hypothesis that rape is an adaptation or a byproduct should rightly be considered the official evolutionary psychology perspective on the topic; this would be the case regardless of whether the evidence strongly supported one side or the other, I might add. While the the current research doesn’t speak to either of these possibilities distinctly, it does manage to speak against the idea that rape isn’t about sex, adding to the already substantial evidence that such a view is profoundly mistaken. Of course, the not-sex explanation was always more of a political slogan than a scientific one, so the lack of empirical support for it might not prove terribly troubling for its supporters.

References: Felson, R., & Cundiff, P. (2012). Age and sexual assault during robberies Evolution and Human Behavior, 33 (1), 10-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.04.002

Reactions To Reactions About Steubenville

Around the middle of last month, CNN came under some social-media fire. The source of this fire came from the perception among some people that CNN had covered the Steubenville rape case inappropriately.  More precisely, the outrage focused on the notion that CNN had not demonized the two convicted male teens enough; if anything, many people seemed to feel that CNN had humanized the pair. Here’s one of the major quotes that people took issue with:

 ”It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”

The issue, it would seem, is that many people felt that it ought not have been hard emotionally for the reporter to witness the event; if anything, she should have been angry that the teens were not sentenced more harshly. Other debates raged on in the comments sections of various articles about whether being placed on the list of registered sex offenders for the rest of their life was too harsh of a punishment for the two teens on the one hand, with those advocating the castration or death of the teens on the other extreme. I think these reactions, along with the case itself, happen to highlight some of the adaptive problems that bystanders face surrounding the moral judgments they make.

And now, since there are two degrees of separation between the tragic event and my use of it, it’s acceptable.

The first of these problems highlighted by the story is that third-party condemners (those who are not directly involved) need to pick a side in a moral dispute, and being on the wrong side of that dispute can be costly. Accordingly, third party condemners face the problem of figuring out how to coordinate their condemnation with other third parties (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013). The problem runs deeper than choosing a side, though. As people’s reactions to the CNN story show us, even being on the “right” side of the dispute can be costly, provided one isn’t on the “right” side in the “right” way. Just to be clear, the first “right” in the previous sentence refers to being on the side with more social support; the second “right” refers to the agreement within a given side as to what the appropriate response of its members ought to be. The CNN coverage described the crime as “very serious” and the teen who was raped as “the victim”, suggesting that the reporters were certainly not of the opinion that rape is good or the boys were the real victims. The outrage was that the reporters for CNN did not appear to be appropriately outraged at the boys or offended enough on the part of the victim. CNN’s crime was not treating the teens as viciously as others would have liked.

It would seem that not condemning a behavior thoroughly enough can be interpreted by some as actually condoning that same behavior. Indeed, it was likely when the reporter for CNN said that it was emotionally difficult for her to witness the scene that she sparked the subsequent outcry against the network. This leaves us with a somewhat standard question: why should this be the case? Imagine for a moment that we’re not talking about rape anymore, but about theft. You and I both agree that stealing is wrong and deserves to be punished. However, while you think that stealing a car deserves a sentence of five years in jail and a permanent brand that says “car thief”, I think that stealing a car deserves a sentence of a year in prison and no brand. It would seem silly to conclude that, from these differences in opinion on the extent of deserved punishment, that only one of us is actually against stealing while the other is a morally condemnable “stealing-apologist”. Yet this is precisely what we see happening. Why?

A potential answer comes in more than one part. The first part of this answer is to note that, in cases of moral condemnation, the activity of certain parts of the brain associated with empathy seem to be inhibited. A neuroscience paper by Singer et al (2006) examined the responses of 16 men and 16 women in an fMRI to viewing confederates receiving painful shocks. Before the viewing took place, however, the confederates had either behaved fairly or unfairly towards the subject in a trust game. The results of the analysis found that men, but not women, showed a reduction in activation of presumably empathy-related regions of the brain when viewing the confederates receiving the painful shocks; in the case of the fair player receiving the shocks, subject’s brains showed more signs of empathy-related activation. Similarly, men, but not women, showed increases in brain regions associated with reward when the unfair player received the shocks. Post fMRI measures confirmed that men were more interested in seeking revenge against unfair players

Sure; the research could have been done without the expensive fMRI, but then we wouldn’t get pictures.

There are a few shortcomings of the Singer et al (2006) study to bear in mind as it relates to the current questions: the sample size wasn’t terribly impressive, but sample sizes in neuroscience studies seldom seem to be. The second piece to bear in mind is that these brain scans do not necessarily add much (or any) value beyond what the far cheaper survey did. At best, the brain scans were icing on the explanatory cake. Further, this study only examined cases of direct revenge, or second-party involvement; not the reactions of bystanders to the fair or unfair behavior. Nevertheless, the results hint at something interesting: the amount of empathy that people (at least men) feel towards the suffering of a perpetrator (i.e. how much they care about the consequences of the punishment to the perpetrator) might be indicative of how morally wrong they view the behavior as being, at least to some extent. One requires certain assumptions to make that leap, but it doesn’t seem too unreasonable.

The picture is not nearly that simple, however. It is at this point that the discoordination problem that DeScioli & Kurzban (2013) raised again rears its head. It is unlikely to be adaptive for condemners to completely – or partially – inhibit their empathic responses towards the perpetrator in all moral cases. While the inhibition might be adaptive in terms of avoiding the condemnation of other condemners (i.e. not being labeled a rape apologist and subsequently socially shunned), it also carries costs, chief among which is that the perpetrator often has social supporters as well. If a condemner has completely inhibited such empathic systems, they’re likely to seek greater punishments of the perpetrators which, by extension, are also punishments leveled against the perpetrator’s social allies. To put the matter more plainly, if my friend goes to jail, I’m out a friend and worse off for it. This can lead to retaliation on the part of the perpetrator’s allies: case in point, it was not long after the verdict was handed down that the rape victim received two threats from other girls who seemed to be socially aligned with one or more of the perpetrators.

This puts third parties in an unpleasant situation: no matter who they side with, they’re likely to face some condemnation, either for condemning one party too much or not condemning that party enough. Similarly, if the third party happens to be socially connected with either the perpetrator or the victim, any harms that befall that party are, by proxy, harms that befall the third parties themselves. Thus, inhibiting an empathy reaction towards a perpetrator might entail the related need to inhibit empathy towards the perpetrator’s social allies, at least to some degree. Such a need could potentially expand the costs associated with the conflicts surrounding moral condemnation and punishment, as the number of people to be punished has grown beyond the initial disputants. The fact that the coordination problem is actually a series of many different problems makes the matter of third-party coordination all the trickier to solve. In fact, it would seem that in many cases, perhaps even most cases, it is not at all clear that people actually do manage to consistently solve the coordination problem.

The whole mess makes dueling seem like a more reasonable alternative.

The previous analysis puts the matter as to why ostensible third parties become involved in moral disputes into a new light. Getting involved in these disputes is clearly a potentially costly endeavor, so why would an uninvolved party bother getting involved in the first place? What are the benefits to joining in the disputes of others that offset these very real costs? Part of that answer would seem to be that these third parties, as previously mentioned, are indirectly personally affected by their outcomes: my friend being condemned or harmed is bad for me to the extent that the condemnation or harm prevents them from delivering me benefits they previous did or potentially might.  Further still, if a friend of a friend has been affected in some way it is still potentially detrimental to me. The extent of that detriment would, of course, decrease as social distance between the parties increased; my best friend’s friend is more valuable to me than my acquaintance’s friend. A final possibility is that my not siding with one side could be taken as implicit support for the opposing side, making me the target of moral condemnation by assoication. The result of that perception of implicit support being that it can be similarly costly to me to not become involved. In other words, saying that one doesn’t care at all about the perpetrators or the victim in the Steubenville case is unlikely to earn you many friends, but it will likely still earn you plenty of condemnation.

References: DeScioli P, & Kurzban R (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological bulletin, 139 (2), 477-96 PMID: 22747563

Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Stephan, K., Dolan, R., & Frith, C. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others Nature, 439 (7075), 466-469 DOI: 10.1038/nature04271

(Not So) Simple Jury Persuasion: Beauty And Guilt

It should come as no shock to anyone, really, that people have all sorts of interesting cognitive biases. Finding and describing these biases would seem to make up a healthy portion of the research in psychology, and one can really make a name for themselves if the cognitive bias they find happens to be particularly cute. Despite this well-accepted description of the goings-on in the human mind (it’s frequently biased), most research in the field of psychology tends to overlook, explicitly or implicitly, those ever-important “why” questions concerning said biases; the paper by Herrera et al (2012) that I’ll be writing about today (and the Jury Room covered recently) is no exception, but we’ll deal with that in a minute. Before I get to this paper, I would like to talk briefly about why we should expect cognitive biases in the most general terms.

Hypothesis 1: Haters gonna hate?

When it comes to the way our mind perceives and processes information, one might consider two possible goals for those perceptions: (1) being accurate – i.e. perceiving the world in an “objective” or “correct” way – or (2) doing (evolutionarily) useful things. A point worth bearing in mind is that the latter goal is the only possible route by which any cognitive adaptation could evolve; a cognitive mechanism that did not eventually result in a reproductive advantage would, unsurprisingly, not be likely to spread throughout the population. That’s most certainly not to say that accuracy doesn’t matter; it does, without question. However, accuracy is only important insomuch as it leads to doing useful things. Accuracy for accuracy’s sake is not even a potential selection pressure that could shape our psychology. While, generally speaking, having accurate perceptions can often lead towards adaptive ends, when those two goals are in conflict, we should expect doing useful things to win every time, and, when that happens, we should see a cognitive bias as the result.

A quick example can drive this point home: your very good friend finds himself in conflict with a complete stranger. You have arrived late to the scene, so you only have your friend’s word and the word of the stranger as to what’s going on. If you were an objectively accurate type, you might take the time to listen to both of their stories carefully, do your best to figure out how credible each party is, find out who was harmed and how much, and find the “real” victim in the altercation. Then, you might decide whether or not to get involved on the basis of that information. Now that may sound all well and good, but if you opt for this route you also run the risk of jeopardizing your friendship to help out a stranger, and losing the benefits of that friendship is a cost. Suffering that cost is, all things considered, evolutionarily, would be a “bad” thing, even if uninvolved parties might consider it to be it the morally correct action (skirting for the moment the possibility of costs that other parties might impose, though avoiding those could easily be fit in the “doing useful things” sides of the equation). This suggests that, all else being equal, there should be some bias that pushes people towards siding with their friends, as siding against them is a costlier alternative.

So where all this leads us is to the conclusion that when you see someone proposing that a cognitive bias exists, they are, implicitly or explicitly, suggesting that there is a conflict between accuracy and some cost of that accuracy, be that conflict over behaving in a way that generates an adaptive outcome, trade-offs between cognitive costs of computation and accuracy, or anything else. With that out of the way, we can now consider the paper by Herrera et al (2012) that purports to find a strange cognitive bias when it comes to the interaction of (a) perceptions of credibility, responsibility, and control of a situation when it comes to domestic violence against women, (b) their physical attractiveness, and (c) their prototypicality as a victim. According to their results, attractiveness might not always be a good thing.

Though, let’s face it, attractiveness is, on the whole, typically a good thing.

In their study, Herrera et al (2012) recruited a sample of 169 police offers (153 of which were men) from various regions of Spain. They were divided into four groups, each of which read a different vignette about a hypothetical woman who had filed a self-defense plea for killing her husband by stabbing him in the back several times, citing a history of domestic abuse a fear that he would have killed her during an argument. The woman in these stories – Maria – was either described as attractive or unattractive (no pictures were actually included) along the following lines: thick versus thin lips, smooth features versus stern and jarring ones, straight blonde hair versus dark bundled hair, and slender versus non-slender appearance. In terms of whether Maria was a prototypical battered woman, she was either described as having 2 children, no job with an income, hiding her face during the trial, being poorly dressed, and timid in answering questions, or as having no children, a well-paying job, being well dressed, and resolute in her interactions.

Working under the assumption that these manipulations are valid (I feel they would have done better to have used actual pictures of women rather than brief written descriptions, but they didn’t), the authors found an interesting interaction: when Maria was attractive and prototypical, she was rated as being more credible than when she was unattractive and prototypical (4.18 vs 3.30 out of 7). The opposite pattern held for when Maria was not prototypical; here, attractive Maria was rated as being less credible than her unattractive counterpart (3.72 vs 3.85). So, whether attractiveness was a good or a bad thing for Maria’s credibility depended on how well she otherwise met some criteria for your typical victim of domestic abuse. On the other hand, more responsibility was attributed to Maria for the purported abuse when she was attractive overall (5.42 for attractive, 5.99 for unattractive).

Herrera et al (2012) attempt to explain the attractiveness portion of their results by suggesting that attractiveness might not fit in with the prototypical picture of a female version of domestic abuse, which results in less lenient judgments of their behavior. It seems to me this explanation could have been tested with the data they collected, but they either failed to do so or did and did not find significant results. More to the point, this explanation is admittedly strange, given that attractive women were also rated as more credible when they were otherwise prototypical, and the author’s proximate explanation should, it seems, predict precisely the opposite pattern in that regard. Perhaps they might have had ended up with a more convincing explanation for their results had their research been guided with some theory as to why we should see these biases with regard to attractiveness, (i.e. what the conflict in perception should be being driven by) but it was not.

I mean, it seems like a handicap to me, but maybe you’ll find something worthwhile…

There was one final comment in the paper I would like to briefly consider with regard to what the authors consider two fundamental due process requirements in cases of women’s domestic abuse: (1) the presumption of innocence on the part of the woman making the claim of abuse and (2) the woman’s right to a fair hearing without the risk of revictimization; revictimization, in this case, referring to instances where the woman’s claims are doubted and her motives are called into question. What is interesting about that claim is that it would seem to set up an apparently unnoticed or unmentioned double-standard: it would seem to imply that women making claims of abuse are supposed to be, by default, believed; this would seem to do violence to the right that the potential perpetrator is supposed to have with regard to their presumption of innocence. Given that part of the focus of this research is on the matter of credibility, this unmentioned double-standard seems out of place. This apparent oversight might have to do with the fact that this research was only examining moral claims made by a hypothetical woman, rather than another claim also made by a man, but it’s hard to say for sure.

References: Herrera, A., Valor-Segura, I., & Expósito, F (2012). Is Miss Sympathy a Credible Defendant Alleging Intimate Partner Violence in a Trial for Murder? The European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, 4, 179-196

Assumed Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Motley Crue is a band that’s famous for a lot of reasons, their music least of all. Given their reputation, it was a little strange to see them doing what celebrities do best: selling out by endorsing Kia. At least I assume they were selling out. When I first saw the commercial, I doubted that Motley Crue just happened to really love Kia cars and had offered to appear in one of their commercials, letting it feature one of their many songs about overdosing. No; instead, my immediate reaction to the commercial was that Motley Crue probably didn’t care one way or another when it came to Kia, but since the company likely ponied up a boat-load of cash, Motley Crue agreed to, essentially, make a fake and implicit recommendation on the car company’s behalf. (Like Wayne’s World, but without the irony)

What’s curious about that reaction is that I have no way of knowing whether or not it’s correct; I’ve never talked to any of the band members personally, and I have no idea what the terms of that commercial were. Despite this, I feel, quite strongly, that my instincts on the matter were accurate. More curious still, seeing the commercial actually lowered my opinion of the band. I’m going to say a little more about what I think this reaction reflects later, but first I’d like to review a study with some very interesting results (and the usual set of theoretical shortcomings).

I’m not being paid to say it’s interesting, but I’ll scratch that last bit if the price is right.

The paper, by Inbar et al (2012), examined the question of whether intentionality and causality are necessary components when it comes to attributions of blameworthiness. As it turns out, people appear quite willing to (partially) blame others for outcomes that they had no control over – in this case, natural disasters – so long as said others might only have desired it to happen.

In the first of four experiments, the subjects in one condition read about how a man at a large financial firm was investing in “catastrophe bonds”, which would be worth a good deal of money if an earthquake struck a third world country within a two year period. Alternatively, they read about man investing in the same product, except this time the investment would pay out if an earthquake didn’t hit the country. In both cases, the investment ends up paying off. When subjects were asked about how morally wrong such actions are, and how morally blameworthy the investor was, the investor was rated as being more morally wrong and blameworthy in the condition where he benefited from harm, controlling for how much the subjects liked him personally.

The second experiment expanded on this idea. This time, the researchers varied the outcome of the investment: now, the investments didn’t always work out in the investor’s favor. Some of the people who were betting on the bad outcome actually didn’t profit because the good outcome obtained, and vice versa. The question being asked here was whether or not these judgments of moral wrongness and blameworthiness were contingent on profiting from a bad outcome or just being in the position to potentially benefit. As it turns out, actually benefiting wasn’t required: the results showed that the investor simply desiring the harmful outcome (that one didn’t cause, directly or indirectly) was enough to trigger these moral judgments. This pattern of results neatly mirrors judgments of harm – where attempted but failed harm is rated as being just about as bad as the completed and intended variety.

The third experiment sought to examine whether the benefits being contingent on harm – and harm specifically – mattered. In this case, an investor takes out that same catastrophe bond, but there are other investments in place, such that the firm will make the same amount of money whether or not there’s a natural disaster. In other words, now the investor has no specific reason to desire the natural disaster. In this case, subjects now felt the investor wasn’t morally in the wrong or blameworthy. So long as the investor wasn’t seen as wanting the negative outcome specifically, subjects didn’t seem to care about his doing the same thing. It just wasn’t wrong anymore.

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news…no, wait; that bad news is for you. I’m still rich.”

The final experiment in this study looked at whether or not selling that catastrophe bonds off would be morally exculpatory. As it turned out, it was: while the people who bought the bonds in the first place were not judged as nice people, subsequently selling the bonds the next day to pay off an unexpected offense reduced their blameworthiness. It was only when someone was currently in a position to benefit from harm that they were seen as more morally blameworthy.

So how might we put this pattern of results into a functional context?. Inbar et al (2012) note that moral judgments typically involve making a judgment about an actor’s character (or personality, if you prefer). While they don’t spell it out, what I think they’re referring to is the fact that people have to overcome an adaptive hurdle when engaging socially with others: they need to figure out which people in their social world to invest their scarce resources in. In order to successfully deal with this issue, one needs to make some (at least semi-accurate) predictions concerning the likely future behavior of others. If one sends the message that their interests are not your interests – such as by their profiting if you lose – there’s probably a good chance that they aren’t going to benefit you in the long term, at least relative to someone who sends the opposite signal.

However, one other aspect that Inbar et al (2012) don’t deal with brings us back to my feelings about Motley Crue. When deciding whether or not to blame someone, the decision needs to be made, typically, in the absence of absolute certainty regarding guilt. In my case, I made a judgment based on zero information, other than my background assumptions about the likely motives of celebrities and advertisers: I judged the band’s message as disingenuous, suggesting they would happily alter their allegiances if the price was right; they were fair-weather friends, who aren’t the best investments. In another case, let’s say that a dead body turns up, and they’ve clearly been murdered. The only witness to this murder was the killer, and whoever it is doesn’t feel like admitting it. When it comes time for the friends of the deceased to start making accusations, who’s going to seem like a better candidate: a stranger, or the burly fellow the dead person was fighting with recently? Those who desired to harm others tended to, historically, have the ability to translate those desires into actions, and, as such, make good candidates for blame.

“I really just don’t see how he could have been responsible for the recent claw attacks”

Now in the current study there was no way the actor in question could have been the cause of the natural disaster, but our psychology is, most likely, not built for dealing with abstract cases like that. While subjects may report that, no, that man was not directly responsible, some modules that are looking for possible candidates to blame are still hard at work behind the scenes, checking for those malicious desires; considering who would benefit from the act, and so on (“It just so happened that I gained substantially from your loss, which I was hoping for,” doesn’t make the most convincing tale). In much the same way, pornography can still arouse people, even though the porn offers no reliable increase in fitness and “the person” “knows” that. What I feel this study is examining, albeit not explicitly, are the input conditions for certain modules that deal in the uncertain and fuzzy domain of morality.

(As an aside, I can’t help but wonder whether the people in the stories – investment firms and third world countries – helped the researchers find the results they were looking for. It seems likely that some modules dealing with determining plausible perpetrators might tap into some variable like relative power or status in their calcuations, but that’s a post for another day.)

References: Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., & Cushman, F. (2012). Benefiting From Misfortune: When Harmless Actions Are Judged to Be Morally Blameworthy Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38 (1), 52-62 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211430232

Intentional Or Not, Incest Is Still Gross (And Wrong)

For a moment, let’s try to imagine a world that isn’t our own. In this world, the intentions behind an act are completely disregarded when it comes to judging that act morally; the only thing that matters is the outcome. In this world, a man who trips and falls down the stairs, accidentally hitting another man on the way down, is just as wrong as the man who walks up to another and angrily punches him right in the face. In another case, a sniper tries to assassinate the president of the country, but since he misses by an inch no one seems to care.

Such a world would be a strange place to us, yet our sense of disgust seems to resemble the psychology of that world to some degree. While intent doesn’t stop mattering altogether when it comes to disgust, it would seem to matter in a different way than is typically envisioned when it comes to the domain of physical harm.

Sure, it may look disgusting – morally or otherwise – but who doesn’t love Red Velvet?

A recent paper by Young & Saxe (2011) set out to examine the role that intentions placed in the contexts of a more physical harm – poisoning – relative to their role in contexts that elicited disgust – the ever popular case of sibling incest. Subjects read stories in which incest was committed or a friend served another friend peanuts despite knowing about their friend’s peanut allergy; for these stories there was a bad intent and a bad outcome. When both acts were committed intentionally, harm tended to be rated as slightly more morally wrong than incest (6.68 vs 6.03, out of 7). However, the story changed when both acts were committed by accident – when there was still a bad outcome, but only neutral intentions. While the harm condition was now rated as not very wrong, the incest condition was still rated as fairly wrong (2.05 vs 4.24, out of 7).

Another study basically replicated the results of the first, but with one addition: there was now an attempt condition in which an actor intends to commit an act (either harm someone or commit incest), but fails to do so. While the intentional condition (bad intent and bad outcome) was rated as the worst for both incest and harm, and the accidental condition (neutral intent and bad outcome) saw incest rated as worse than harm, the attempt condition showed a different pattern of results: while attempted harm was rated to be just as bad as intentional harm (6.0 and 6.5, respectively), attempted incest was rated more leniently than intentional incest (4.2 and 6.4). In other words, moral judgments of incest were more outcome dependent, relative to moral judgments of harm.

One final study on the topic looked at two different kinds of failed attempts concerning incest and harm: the ‘true belief but failed act’ and the ‘false belief but completed act’. The former involved (in the case of incest) two siblings correctly believe they’re siblings and attempt to engage in intercourse but are interrupted before they complete the act. The latter involved two people who incorrectly believe they’re siblings and actually engage in intercourse. The harm contexts were again outcome independent: whether the harm was completed or not didn’t matter. However, the incest contexts told a different story: the ‘true belief but failed act’ condition  was rated as being more immoral than the ‘false belief but completed act’ condition (5.65 vs 4.2). This means subjects were likely rating the act relative to how close it approximated actual incest, and the subjects apparently felt an unconsummated attempt at real incest looked more like incest than a consummated act where the two were just mistaken about their being siblings.

And I think we can all relate to that kind of disappointment…

A further two studies in the paper sought to examine two potential ways to account for this effect. In one case, subjects rated the two stories with respect to how emotionally upsetting they were, how much control over the situation and knowledge of the situation the actors had, and the extent to which the agents were acting intentionally. In no case were there any significant differences, whether concerning disgust or harm, or whether the act was intentional or accidental. The subjects seemed to be assessing the two stories in the same fashion. The second study sought to examine whether subjects were using moral judgments to express the disgust they felt about the story, rather than actually judging the act to be immoral. However, while subjects rated intentional incest as worse than accidental incest, they rated both to be equally as disgusting. Accordingly, it seems unlikely that people were simply using the morality scale as a proxy for their disgust.

It is my great displeasure to have to make this criticism of a paper again, but here goes: while the results are interesting,Young & Saxe (2012) really could have used some theory in this paper. Here’s their stated rationale for the current research:

Our hypothesis was initially motivated by an observation: in at least some cultures, people who commit purity violations accidentally or unknowingly are nevertheless considered impure and immoral.

Observing something is all well and good, but to research it, one should – in my opinion – have a better reason for doing so than just a hunch you’ll see an effect. The closest the authors come to a reasonable explanation of their findings – rather than just a restatement of them – is found in the discussion section, and it takes the form of a single sentence, again feeling like an afterthought, rather than a guiding principle:

…[R]ules against incest and taboo foods may have developed as a means for individuals to protect themselves, for their own good, from possible contamination.

Unfortunately, none of their research really speaks to that possibility. I’d like to quickly expand on that hypothesis, and then talk about a possible study that could have been done to examine it.

Finding an act disgusting is a legitimate reason to not engage it yourself. While that would explain why someone might not want to have sex with their parents or siblings, it would not explain why one would judge others as morally wrong for doing so. For instance, I might not feel inclined to eat insects, but I wouldn’t want someone else punished because they enjoyed doing so. However, within the realm of disgust, the threat of contamination looms large, and pathogens aren’t terribly picky about who they infect. If someone else does something that leads to their becoming infected, they are now a potential infection risk to anyone they interact with (depending on how the pathogen spreads). Accordingly, it’s often not enough to simply avoid engaging in a behavior yourself; one needs to avoid interacting with other infected agents as well. One way to successfully deter people from interacting with you just happens to be aggressive behavior. This might, to some extent, explain the link between disgust and moral judgments. It would also help explain the result that disgust judgments are outcome dependent: even if you didn’t intend to become infected with a pathogen, once you are infected you pose the same risk as someone who was infected more intentionally. So how might we go about testing such an idea?

One quick trip to the bookstore later…

While you can’t exactly assign people to a ‘commit incest’ condition, you could have confederates that do other potentially disgusting things, either intentionally or accidentally, or attempt to do them, but fail (in both cases of the false or true beliefs). Once the confederate does something ostensibly disgusting, you assign them a partner in one of two conditions: interacting at a distance, or interacting in close proximity. After all, if avoiding contamination is the goal, physical distance should have a similar effect, regardless of how it’s achieved. From there, you could compare the willingness of subjects to cooperate or punish the confederate, and check the effect of proximity on behavior. Presumably, if this account is correct, you’d expect people to behave less cooperatively and more selfishly when the confederate had successfully done something disgusting, but this effect would be somewhat moderated by physical distance: the closer the target of disgust is, the more aggressive we’d expect subjects to be.

One final point: the typical reaction to incest – that it’s morally wrong – is likely a byproduct of the disgust system, in this account. Incestuous acts are, to the best of my knowledge, no more likely to spread disease than non-incestuous intercourse. That people tend to find them personally rather disgusting might result in their being hooked onto the moral modules by proxy. So long as morally condemning those who engaged in acts like incest didn’t carry any reliable fitness costs, such a connection would not have been selected against.

References: Young, L., & Saxe, R. (2011). When ignorance is no excuse: Different roles for intent across moral domains Cognition, 120 (2), 202-214 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.04.005