Making Your Business My Business

“The government has no right to do what it’s doing, unless it’s doing what I want it to do” – Pretty much everyone everywhere.

As most people know by now, North Carolina recently voted on and approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that legally barred gay marriage. Many supporters of extending marriage rights to the homosexual community understandably found this news upsetting, which led the predictable flood of opinions about how it’s none of the government’s business who wants to marry who. I found the whole matter to be interesting on two major fronts: first, why would people support/oppose gay marriage in general, and, secondly, why on earth would people try to justify their stance using a line of reasoning that is (almost definitely) inconsistent with other views they hold?

Especially when they aren’t even running for political office.

Let’s deal with these issues in reverse order. First, let’s tackle the matter of inconsistency. We all (or at least almost all) want sexual behavior legislated, and feel the government has the right to do that, despite many recent protests to the contrary. As this helpful map shows, there are, apparently, more states that allow for first cousin marriage than gay marriage (assuming the information there is accurate). That map has been posted several times, presumably in support of gay marriage. Unfortunately, the underlying message of that map would seem to be that, since some people find first cousin marriage gross, it should be shocking that it’s more legal that homosexuality. What I don’t think that map was suggesting is that it’s not right that first cousin marriage isn’t more legal, as the government has no right legislating sexuality. As Haidt’s research on moral dumbfounding shows, many people are convinced that incest is wrong even when they can’t find a compelling reason why, and many people likewise feel it should be made illegal.

On top of incest, there’s also the matter of age. Most people will agree that children below a certain age should not be having sex, and, typically, that agreement is followed with some justification about how children aren’t mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions. What’s odd about that justification is that people don’t go on to then say that people should be allowed to have sex at any age, just so long as they can demonstrate that they understand the consequences of their actions through some test. Conversely, they also don’t say that people above the age of consent should be forbade from having sex until they can pass such a test. There are two points to make about this: the first is that no such maturity test exists in the first place, so when people make the judgments about maturity they’re just assuming that some people aren’t mature enough to make those kinds of decisions; in other words, children shouldn’t be allowed to consent to sex because they don’t think children should be allowed to consent to sex. The second point is, more importantly, even if such a test existed, suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to have sex without passing it would still be legislating sexuality. It would still be the government saying who can and can’t have sex and under what circumstances.

Those are just two cases, and there are many more. Turns out people are pretty keen on legislating the sexual behavior of others after all. (We could have an argument about those not being cases of sexuality per se, but rather about harm, but it turns out people are pretty inconsistent about defining and legislating harm as well) The point here, to clarify, is not that legalizing gay marriage would start us on a slippery slope to legalizing other, currently unacceptable, forms of sexuality; the point is that people try to justify their stances on matters of sexuality with inconsistently applied principles. Not only are these justifications inconsistent, but they may also have little or nothing to do with the actual reasons you or I end up coming to whatever conclusions we do, despite what people may say. As it turns out, our powers of introspection aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Letting some light in might just help you introspect better; it is dark in there…

Nisbett and Wilson (1977) reviewed a number of examples concerning the doubtful validity of introspective accounts. One of these finding concerned a display of four identical nylon stockings. Subjects were asked about which of the four pairs was the best quality, and, after they had delivered their judgment, why they had picked the pair the did. The results showed that people, for whatever reason, tended to overwhelmingly prefer the garment on the right side of the display (they preferred it four-times as much, relative to the garment on the left side). When queried about their selection, unsurprisingly, zero of the 52 subjects made mention of the stocking’s position in the lineup. When subjects were asked directly about whether the position of the pair of stockings had any effect on their judgment, again, almost all the subjects denied that it did.

While I will not re-catalog every example that Nisbett and Wilson (1977) present, the unmistakable conclusion arose that people have, essentially, little to no actual conscious insight into the cognitive processes underlying their thoughts and behavior. They often were unable to report that an experimental manipulation had any effect (when it did), or reported that irrelevant manipulations actually had (or would have had) some effect. In some cases, they were unable to even report that there was any effect at all, when there had in fact been one. As the authors put it:

… [O]thers have argued persuasively that “we can know more than we can tell,” by which it is meant that people can perform skilled activities without being able to describe what they are doing and can make fine discriminations without being able to articulate their basis. The research described above suggest that that converse is also true – that we sometimes tell more than we can know. More formally, people sometimes makes assertions about mental events to which they may have no access and these assertions may bear little resemblance to the actual events.

This – coupled with the inconsistent use of principled justifications – casts serious doubts on the explicit reasons people often give for either supporting or opposing gay marriage. For instance, many people might support gay marriage because they think it would make gay people happier, on the whole. For the sake of argument, suppose that you discovered gay marriage actually made gay people unhappier, on the whole: would you then be in favor of keeping it illegal? Presumably, you would not be (if you were in favor of legalization to begin with, that is). While making people happy might seem like a plausible and justifiable reason for supporting something, it does not mean that it was the – or a – cause of your judgment.

Marriage: a known source of lasting happiness

If the typical justifications that people give for supporting or opposing gay marriage are not likely to reflect the actual cognitive process that led to their decisions, what cognitive mechanisms might actually be underlying them? Perhaps the most obvious class of mechanisms are those that involve an individual’s mating strategy. Weeden et al. (2008) note that the decision to pursue a more short or long-term mating strategy is a complicated matter, full of tradeoffs concerning local environmental, individual, and cultural factors. They put forth what they call the Reproductive Religiosity Model, which posits that a current function of religious participation is to help ensure the success of a certain type of mating strategy: a more monogamous, long-term, high-fertility mating style. Men pursuing this strategy tend to forgo extra-pair matings in exchange for an increase in paternity certainty, whereas women similarly tend to forgo extra-pair matings for better genes in exchange for increased levels of paternal investment.

As Chris Rock famously quipped, “A man is only as faithful as his options”, though the sentiment would apply equally well to women. It does the long-term mating strategy no good to have plenty of freely sexually available conspecifics hanging around. Thus, according to this model, participation in religious groups helps to curb the risks involved in this type of mating style. This is why certain religious communities might want to decrease the opportunities for promiscuity and increase the social costs for engaging in it.  In order to decrease sexual availability, then, you might find religious groups doing things like opposing and seeking to punish people for engaging in: divorce, birth control use, abortion, promiscuity, and, relevant to the current topic, sexual openness or novelty (like pornography, sexual experimentation, or homosexuality). In support of this model, Weeden et al (2008) found that, controlling for non-reproductive variables, sexual variables were not only predictive of religious attendance, but also that, controlling for sexual variables, the non-reproductive variables were no longer predictive of religious attendance.

While the evidence is not definitively causal in nature, and there is likely more to this connection than a unidirectional arrow, it seems highly likely that cognitive mechanisms responsible for determining one’s currently preferred mating strategy also play a role in determining one’s attitudes towards the acceptability of other’s behaviors. It is also highly likely that the reasons people tend to give for their attitudes will be inconsistent, given that they don’t often reflect the actual functioning of their mind. We all have an interest in making other people’s business our business, since other people’s behaviors tend to eventually have an effect on us – whether that effect is relatively distant or close in the causal chain, or whether it is relatively direct or indirect. We just tend to not consciously understand why.

References: Nisbett, R., & Wilson, T. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84 (3), 231-259 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.84.3.231

Weeden, J., Cohen, A., & Kenrick, D. (2008). Religious attendance as reproductive support Evolution and Human Behavior, 29 (5), 327-334 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.03.004

6 comments on “Making Your Business My Business

  1. The whole point of reproducing, besides the general ‘I love you and want to start a family with you, ‘ is to produce another child into this world with better genes. Now, many people believe incest to be heinous and abnormal. I’m not going to bring that into light because that can also be said about homosexuals. The other reason people oppose incest is that when breeding within the family, the child resulting from the sexual encounter has a higher probability of retaining the “bad genes” as opposed to reproducing with a non-familial member.
    As far as the age of consent for sexual intercourse, the average person does not understand the repercussions that result from sexual intercourse. There are many teenage girls that find themselves pregnant. If you cannot take care of yourself, how can you take care of a baby? In my opinion, that is why people say you are too young to have sex. Also, what about STD’s? You can’t expect an adolescent to know the types of STD’s he or she can contract and how severe those STD’s can be when most adults don’t know what they are.
    Same-sex marriage can be compared to slavery and the holocaust in as far as saying that just like African Americans and Jews, homosexuals have the same basic rights. (Please understand that I am not any way diminishing the suffering that both groups went through. I could never imagine the pain that they suffered). Being born African American and Jewish does not make you any less of a person. The same goes with homosexuals. People have the right to choose who to marry. With concerns that homosexual couples will decrease reproduction/population, there are many couples who go to sperm donors or adopt.

    • Jesse Marczyk on said:

      The ultimate function of incest avoidance is, indeed, avoiding inbreeding depression. That’s an excellent reason why one might not want to sire a children from incest themselves, but not much of one for why one would want to make it illegal for others to engage in incestual intercourse, especially if the risk of conception is minimized (which is easily achieved through the use of contraceptives, among other options).

      As for the age of consent, yours is argument against anyone – regardless of age – being allowed to engage in intercourse until they can demonstrate that they’re capable in whatever standard is deemed, well, standard. It’s not an argument for a specific age of consent.

      Concerning the rights argument, homosexuals do have the same marriage rights as anyone else; those rights just don’t include an additional one – the right to marry someone of the same gender. People have the right to choose who to marry, within currently defined limits.

      For what it’s worth, I’m completely in favor of expanding marriage rights to include homosexual marriage, which is really what’s being asked for in this case.

      • It’s sad that homosexuals don’t have the right to marry. In this situation, I believe that politicians base their views on same sex marriage from the Bible. I also believe that in a way, politicians are dehumanizing homosexuals by banning same sex marriage.

  2. Interesting post, and I agree with most of your comments (I thought the rationale behind illicit under-age sex was a bit sketchy, but I won’t get into that now).

    It’s intriguing (and confusing) to try to distinguish between unacknowledged, unconscious drives that push us in the direction of certain moral attitudes (e.g. mating strategies), and our irrational attempts to justify them after we’ve already reached an opinion.

    I’m not sure, however, if you give any credence to the influence of memes in exerting some control over our moral outlook in tandem with our unconscious biological predispositions. For example, one of the most common fallacies brought out against same-sex marriage is the naturalistic fallacy (which is wrong both in that naturalness does not equate with goodness, and homosexuality is not unnatural). Would you ever entertain the idea that rationalisations such as those can be powerful psychological factors that override any underlying biological imperatives (regardless of whether or not they are in agreement), or would you say that, no matter what, all such ideas must come down to a more fundamental community-based attempt to promote long-term monogamy?

    I’m unsure myself, though my personal inclination would be that the further we are distanced from the origins of scripture, the less our reactions are to do with biological predisposition, are more to do with how our view of the world is distorted by religious falsehoods.

    • Jesse Marczyk on said:

      I don’t find the concept of memes particularly useful. I wrote about that issue previously here:

      That said, I would imagine the rationalizations do have effects on other people; if they didn’t, it would be curious as to why we would bother using them at all.

      • Thanks for the link, it was another good read. I agree that it’s certainly ludicrous to suggest that things like war are just pernicious memes as though there is no innate biological component – of course there is. My only misgiving (and this isn’t an accusation against your writing), is that some people abandon complete meme-based arguments in favour of complete evolutionary ones, and I think that can land us in just as silly places.

        With the religious examples cited at the end of this post, for example, I think it’s important to draw an explicit distinction between people behaving in an irrational manner directly because of certain unconscious reproductive tactics, and instead behaving in an irrational manner because of *ideas* they’ve been influenced by which are powerful in the first place because they take advantage of certain innate predispositions to reproductive tactics. I suppose it’s analogous to the post you wrote recently on counter-intuitive altruism.

        Does that make sense to you?