Saturday, October 29, 2011

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

I recently finished the latest book by Robert Trivers (2011), The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, which is an odd title considering how little of the book is devoted to the logic of the intended topic. A better title would probably have been Things Robert Trivers Finds Interesting. After straining to stay awake through most of the 337 tedious pages of the book, I can't say I came away with any new insights or information on the subject of deception, though I did get the sense Trivers enjoys flirting with undergrads.

                                                              And who wouldn't? It's just one of the many, many benefits of getting tenure

 As Matt Ridley notes, Robert Kurzban (2010) also released a book not too long ago called Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite - which I can't recommend highly enough - that made a solid case for why "self" based research is problematic in the first place. The mind isn't a singular entity, but is rather a collection of different mental organs, each a functionally specific information processing mechanism. Any real mention of modularity is absent from Trivers' book, much less an active appreciation of it. I'd hesitate to say Trivers takes any idea further (as Matt does); if anything, Trivers stalls and rolls slightly backwards. Another impression I got from reading the book is that I can expect an angry phone call from Trivers if he ever reads this.

                                                         I'd like to discuss the merits of your recent review of my book in a calm, academic fashion

How might this false conception of a self effect thinking in other domains? One good example could be in the domain of morality. In this area, I get the sense the concept of the self has been tied heavily to moral culpability, where consciousness is king. Influences that are seen as originating outside the realm of conscious awareness are often used as attempts to exculpate various behaviors.

As an example, I'd offer up a paper by Sumithran et al (2011), examining how overweight people on diets often relapse and gain weight back after initial success at dropping some pounds. The authors measured various hormone levels in subject's bodies that are known to influence hunger and related behaviors, like energy expenditure and food intake, finding that dieting leads to changes in these circulating hormone levels. This could be the reason, they argue, that many dieters don't show long-term maintenance of weight loss. Fine. However, the authors lose me when they write this:
"...[A]n important finding of this study is that many of these alterations persist for 12 months after weight loss, even after the onset of weight regain, suggesting that the high rate of relapse among obese people who have lost weight has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits." (p. 1602, emphasis mine) 
Apparently, the authors find it interesting that they found a physiological basis for people not keeping the weight off, contrasting it with "voluntary" actions. My question would be, "What else would you even expect to find; a non-physiological basis?" After all, we are physical beings, so any changes in our thoughts or behaviors need to be the result of other physical changes. The implication seems to be that truly voluntary actions are supposed to be uninfluenced by physiology, while somehow having an influence on the behavior of the physical body.

                                                                             "It's not my choice, as I happen to have hormones"

This doesn't seem to be a terribly uncommon thought process; while sometimes people actively deny any influences of biology on behavior out of fear of justifying it, or claim (correctly) that biological doesn't justify behavior, those same people can very quickly accept behavior as being biologically based in the hopes of making it acceptable by saying "it's not a choice". That's some interesting hypocrisy there. Did I mention there's a very interesting - and a not so interesting - book that deals with that topic?

References: Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sumithran, P., Prendergast, L.A., Delbridge, E., Purcell, K., Shulks, A., Kriketos, A.K., & Proietto, J. (2011). Long-term persistence of hormonal adaptations to weight loss. The New England Journal of Medicine, 365, 1597-1604.

Trivers, R. (2011). The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. New York, NY: Basic Books.     

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why Are Plumbers So Sexist?

By now, most people have surely heard of the dreaded wage gap between men and women. If I am to believe what I have heard around the internet, women in the US earn about 77 cents for every dollar a man does, and - here's the key part - this is because we live in a deeply sexist society that needs to be changed.

                                                                                  Oh yeah? Well my glass ceiling is still higher

I could point out that the wage gap only reflects gross earnings, not things like hours worked, education, or profession, but those factors alone don't explain the whole discrepancy. As for what percentage of the remaining is gap is due to sexism specifically, well, I can't say. What we could say, with a reasonable degree of certainty is that there is a gap in gross earnings which can be divided up into explained and unexplained variance. What we cannot say is that the unexplained variance equals sexist discrimination.

Now before you decide to label me a sexist for daring to consider an alternative hypothesis, let's consider some other gaps as presented by Susan Pinker (2008): In 1973, only 5% of lawyers in the US were women; in 2003 that number was 27%. That's a pretty impressive gain, and we see a similar one for Aerospace engineers; up from 1% to 11% over the same time period. But what about plumbers? In 1973, women represented approximately 0% of the plumbers in the US; by 2003, women represented a mighty 1%. Why were women able to make such vast inroads in the fields of law and engineering, but somehow couldn't break through the extremely sexist barriers put up by the field of plumbing?

                                                                  "I unclogged that drain for you. Also, women shouldn't be allowed to vote"

Perhaps plumbers and plumbing culture are just vastly more sexist against women compared to lawyers. Then again, perhaps that huge gap between male and female plumbers reflects something else, such as women not being particularly interested in the idea of becoming a plumber. Pinker - not to be confused with her brother, Steven - makes the case for underlying differences in male and female psychology being an important factor in some of these gaps we see, from choice of employment to the pay gap. I feel it can probably help account for a hefty portion of that variance. It's important to remember that when you see sex differences, like in the pay gap, you haven't found direct evidence of sexism. For instance, in Michigan women now outnumber men in terms of earning all types of degrees, but this doesn't mean colleges there are sexist against men.

So let's forget about plumbing and focus on comedy. Someone happens to think there's no difference between men and women in that area. Why, hello again Amanda. (I didn't even notice who the author was until I was well into writing, it's just a lucky coincidence that she's consistently bad at science)

                                                               My posts have pictures with hilarious captions; your posts do not. Point: Men.

The idea of innate sex differences can be a touchy subject for some, and is no doubt responsible for part of the opposition towards evolutionary psychology (Geher, 2010). Marcotte thinks men and women are identical in the humor department, it would seem. Why does she think this? She reports that a study found 16 men and 16 women (I presume, from some college) were rated about equally when it came to how funny captions they came up with for a cartoon were. Despite this, 90% of people rated men as funnier than women, to which Amanda can only conclude "sexism did it".

First of all, let me say that I'm happy to see Amanda has apparently gotten over her concerns about small, homogenous samples that she expressed about the hand grip research, at least temporarily; I suppose Amanda figures since the results sound nice, the work must be good enough to generalize to "men and women" everywhere.

Despite not knowing much about the research in the field of humor myself, the second point I'd like to make is that there's probably a ceiling effect here; there's only a certain range of possible captions to pre-drawn, pre-selected pictures that make sense and are funny. The claim was this helps "level the playing field", much like only having 10 pound weights available can make differences between men and women in muscle mass seem irrelevant when recording how much they can lift (which would clearly mean men only lift more weight outside the lab because of sexism). Most people would agree there's a lot more to humor than captioning pictures, but Amanda Marcotte is not most people. 

                                                               Who's got two thumbs and thinks captioning pictures is hilarious? This guy.
Did sexism play any role? Well, it seemed to. It's reported that people tended to remember the funny captions as coming from men and unfunny ones coming from women, but since the current study appears to not be available to read, I can't comment much further about that. I'm going to go ahead an guess that the effect wasn't terribly large, let alone able to account for why 90% of people agreed that men were funnier, as there wasn't much said about it other than "it exists". Why it exists would be another question worth examining. Spoiler alert: Marcotte probably thinks it's due to baseless sexism.  

References: Geher, G. (2010). Evolution is not relevant to sex differences in humans because I want it that way! Evidence for the politicization of human evolutionary psychology. The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 2, 32-47

Pinker, S. (2008). The sexual paradox: Extreme men, gifted women, and the real gender gap. Ontario, Canada: Random House Press

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Some People Watch Too Much Law & Order

Having watched a good deal of  Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, I get the sense that some viewers take away the message that just about every case of rape involves a stranger violently raping a woman, though this accounts for only a minority of rapes in the real world (Palmer, 1988). This may reflect the fact that women are themselves more fearful of being raped by a stranger than an acquaintance, as well as take more precautionary behaviors to guard against the former (Hickman & Muehlenhard, 1997). It is something of a mantra in our culture that rape is not about sex, but about violence - which is wrong, for the record (Palmer, 1988) - that probably also has a heavy contribution to the depictions of rape on shows like SVU. What makes these shows annoying - in addition to that heavily biased depiction of what rape is like - is that they normally also include some smug psychologist that apparently never progressed much beyond an introduction to psychology course - not unlike the writers, I'm sure - that gets called in to help out.

                                           "Your killer was raping those women because of some deep-seated hatred towards his mother. Degree, please" 

One person who may (metaphorically or actually) have watched too much Law & Order is Amanda Marcotte. She's one of those "mad at evolutionary psychology without understanding what the hell she's talking about" kind of people, and it's my pleasure today to point out why she's wrong at some length.

Since Marcotte doesn't want to appear anti-science, she initially tries to co-opt the authority of two people only the "daringly stupid" would accuse of being anti-science: P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne. First, let me note that starting off with an explicit appeal to authority isn't the best course of action for any debate. That said, I certainly wouldn't accuse them of being anti-science, because that's a daringly stupid label. People are not opposed to science in general; in fact, most people seem to love the idea of science. What people don't seem like is when scientists reach an unpalatable conclusion.  

Beginning with the first point, Marcotte expresses skepticism about the results of a study that showed women generated a stronger grip strength in response to reading a rape scenario relative to a control story, but only when they were in the ovulatory phase of their cycle and not taking hormonal birth control (Petralia & Gallup, 2002): 
"Which is how I'm going to approach contesting this article by Jesse Bering at Slate about the supposed evidence that women evolved to fight back against rape ... if they're ovulating...Some of them failed to present the evidence that Bering suggests they have--the handgrip study was one where some researchers found no variation over a menstrual cycle."
Let's be clear: the hypothesis is not that women only evolved to fight back against rape if they're ovulating; the claim is that women may have been selected to be better able to fight back if they're ovulating, given the increased probability of conception and the resulting fitness costs. Fighting itself is generally not a costless act, and the conditions under which people are likely to fight should be expected to vary contingent on the potential costs and benefits. Women who do fight back are in fact more likely to stop a rape from being completed, but they also seem more likely to suffer physical injury (Ullman & Knight, 1993).

By "some researchers found no variation", it's not entirely clear what Marcotte is referring to (or rather, what Myers - whom she is parroting - is referring to), since she doesn't reference anything. I assume she's mentioning studies that found no variation across the menstrual cycle referenced by Petralia and Gallup that also didn't involve any rape scenario story - the very thing that was hypothesized to be causing the effect. Comparing a study completely lacking an experimental manipulation to one with an experimental manipulation as evidence compromising the effect of the manipulation seems like a strange thing to do, probably because it's a stupid thing to do.

                                        "Who's got time for actual replications? That sounds like work, and work isn't fun. This should be close enough"

Her next point is that one referenced in the very beginning: that rape is a violent crime, not a sexual one, even going so far as to say, "Rape, in this case, is just a certain kind of wife-beating.  It's best understood as throwing a punch with your penis." To quote Palmer quoting Hagen, "If violence is what the rapist is after, he's not very good at it." When it comes to the use of force in rape, the vast majority of times it's used instrumentally - not excessively - if physical force is even involved at all. In this view, violence is the means to the end (sex), not the other way around. An example might clear this up a bit:
"The act of prostitution includes both a person giving money to another person and a sexual act. Does this mean that a man who goes to a female prostitute is motivated by a desire to give money to a woman?" (Thornhill & Palmer, 2000, p. 132) 
                                                I heard it's not technically illegal if your motivation was to give her money and the sex was just instrumental

Marcotte's final point would appear to be a stubborn misunderstanding of the difference between proximate and ultimate causation, as evidenced here:
"There's also the weird side assumption that features prominently in many half-baked evolutionary theories, which is that sex is strictly about reproduction in a species that has homosexuality, contraception, and old people who get it on...that rapists get off not on the chance to plant their seed (some, after all, use condoms!)..."  
I'm pretty sure there's not a whole lot more to say about that, other than to point out it really does reinforce how little Marcotte knows about what she's attempting to criticize. At this point in the field's development, the only reason someone should make such a misguided mistake is near complete ignorance.

The only way this criticism could get any worse would be if Marcotte was foolish enough to imply evolutionary psychologists invoke genetic determinism and are attempting to give rapists a pass morally:
 "...Bering's article downplays the severity of rape. It suggests that there's not much to be done about rape and that men are just programmed to do it... "
                                                                                                    Nailed it!

One would think, given her initial concerns about not wanting to come off as anti-science, Marcotte would have included more actual science in her post, but there really isn't any to be found. There's skepticism, ignorance, assertions, and moral outrage, but very little science. Perhaps it's worth quoting Palmer and Thornhill (2003), quoting Coyne on the matter, since Coyne is an authority to Marcotte:
"It is true that in recent decades, the discussion of rape has been dominated by such notions [as rape is not about sex, but about violence and power], though one must remember that they originated not as scientific propositions, but as political slogans deemed necessary to reverse popular misconceptions about rape"
Would you look at that; Coyne seems to think Marcotte is wrong about the "not sex" thing too.

References: Hickman, S.E. & Muehlenhard, C.L. (1997). College women's fears and precautionary behaviors relating to acquaintance rape and stranger rape. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 527-547

Palmer, C.T. (1988). Twelve reasons why rape is not sexually motivated: A skeptical examination. The Journal of Sex Research, 25, 512-530

Palmer, C.T. & Thornhill, R. (2003) Straw men and fairy tales: Evaluating reactions to A Natural History of Rape. The Journal of Sex Research, 40, 249-255

Petralia, S.M. & Gallup Jr., G.G. (2002). Effects of a sexual assault scenario on handgrip strength across the menstrual cycle. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23, 3-10

Thornhill, R. & Palmer, C.T. (2000). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ullman, S.E. & Knight, R.A. (1993). The efficacy of women's resistance strategies in rape situations. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17, 23-38.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Scientific Visit to Palmdale

During my years as an undergraduate I made a couple of bad choices, one of which was deciding to minor in economics. None of the classes were particularly engaging - which might be the understatement of the century - and the assumptions made by economists were blatantly ill-suited for dealing with people, most notably the assumptions of perfect information and people being rational - whatever rational was supposed to mean. For a field that claims to dabble in human behavior and psychology, you'd think their assumptions about what people are like would be a touch more accurate, but since that would make the math messy, the idea was seemingly scrapped.

So imagine my surprise when I heard some economists had started to figure out that human psychology exists and should probably be taken seriously. Dan Ariely's books were a breath of fresh air, reinforcing in me the notion that I had wasted my time in all those economics classes when I could have been doing something more worth my while, like taking classes biology. Or masturbating.

                                                            "Those classes weren't interesting, so I had to take matters into my own hands"

Speaking of which, would you lie to a woman about whether you loved her in order to increase the chance that she'd have sex with you? If you're a man, chances are your answer to that question depends on whether or not you're currently masturbating (if you are, this blog must either be especially interesting or especially boring. Feel free to let me know which). In fact, your answers to a whole slew of sex related questions will probably depend on whether or not you're giving yourself the ol' down-low. Ariely and Loewenstein (2006) decided to examine how answers to these questions change by paying undergraduate males to answer a few questions while doing what they were going to be doing anyway.

                                                  Turns out the only thing more dismal than economics are the dating prospects of male math majors

The main purpose of the research was to examine the gap between answers to questions made in an unaroused state versus an aroused one across three categories: (1) how appealing sexual objects or activities were viewed, (2) willingness to engage in morally questionable behavior to have sex, and (3) willingness to engage in unsafe sex when aroused. What do the answers of those 35 male undergrads tell us? They tell us two things: the first is that - unsurprisingly - the answers change when people are horny, relative to when they are not; the second thing is that these answers tend to change substantially. 

For the first category of how appealing certain sexual activities and objects are, of the 20 questions asked about, only three failed to become significantly more appealing: sex with a man, sex with the lights on, and spanking a sexual partner (though spanking was rated fairly highly to begin with). In fact, the only question to not see any increase was the one about having sex with the lights on. The five questions that saw the greater overall point increase (out of a total of 100) between the unaroused and aroused states where, in order: Would you find it exciting to have anal sex? (+31), Is just kissing frustrating? (+28), Would it be fun to tie up your sexual partner? (+28), Can you imagine having sex with a 50-year old woman? (+27), and Would you have a threesome with another man? (+25). Other questions included sex with a 12-year old girl (relatively 100% more appealing), sex with a 60-year old woman (about 230% more appealing), and getting sexually excited by an animal (about 170% more appealing, though still quite unappealing overall. It was second from the bottom, right above having sex with another man). 

So what about questions of morally questionable behavior? There are only five, so I'll rank order these in terms of percentage increase from unaroused to aroused: taking a date to a fancy restaurant to make her more likely to have sex (27% more likely); encouraging a date to drink (37% more likely); telling a woman you loved her to make her more likely to have sex (70% more likely); keep trying to have sex after a date says "no" (125% more likely); slipping a woman a drug (420% more likely). Interestingly, that order holds if you rank the behaviors in terms of their overall rated probability in the first place; the more coercive actions are less probable, but see the largest percentage increase.

                                 "Well, the fancy dinner and drinks aren't working. Is it time to start thinking about outright lying, or just skip right to the drugs?"

Finally, turning to matters of protection, the four questions regarding condoms all fall in the predicted direction: as men get aroused, they rate condoms as interfering with pleasure and spontaneity more, and say they'll be less likely to use them with new partners or if they think the woman might change her mind when they went to get one.    

Of course there are limitations here: these were only a few undergrads jerking it while answering questions. Surely, the first limitation is that the questions were probably a real buzz-kill. A second possible issue is that it's not entirely clear how these stated preferences would actually translate to behavior in the more social world where men aren't walking around with erections (most of the time, anyway), behaviors can carry real consequences, and reality differs from fantasy. That said, I'd wager we have every reason to think sexual arousal certainly has an effect on decision making, especially about condom use (since at this point many men probably already have erections in hand) and that one could even expect these effects to increase, depending on the perceived probability of having sex and the attractiveness of the other person.

How the effects of sexual arousal might tend to differ between men and women is certainly a question worth thinking about. I highly doubt we'd observe anything like the same pattern of answers for the questions asked about in the current survey (perhaps excluding the questions about condoms, though I can't say at the moment). It's an open-ended question as to whether the same methodology could even be effectively used, and I'd guess that it probably couldn't be - or at least wouldn't be nearly as effective.    

References: Ariely, D. & Loewenstien G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 87-98

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Are We The 99 Percent?

Amidst the protests of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, the refrain of "we are the 99 percent" seems to be thrown around like "devil horns" at any metal concert; it's frequent, and it's annoying. Without getting too much into personal politics, I will say I don't appreciate a small group of people who presume to speak for much larger group of people, especially when the view points of that larger group are quite diverse
                                                                                    A notoriously diverse group of people

Which is why it particularly irks me whenever I read any variant of the following thought: 
According to Evolutionary Psychology... 

When I was last grading papers for an undergraduate evolutionary psychology course, I can't tell you how many times I saw that phrase in papers. Despite my frequent red-pen correctives, it was an error that persisted until the end of semester. Unfortunately, it's not an isolated thought; if you type "Evolutionary psychology is" into google, you'll notice one of the most frequent search results ends that phrase with "bullshit". Go ahead and read over each article on the first page of results and their comments sections and count how many times that error is made. You'll notice the error rate is somewhere between almost all the time to actually all the time. 

                                                           You'll also notice that almost every page refers to this man. Behold, the face of evil.

The very basic mistake that's being made whenever the phrase is uttered is that evolutionary psychology is not a theory, and as such it makes no specific predictions. Rather, evolutionary psychology is a research framework that uses evolutionary theory to help both derive predictions and understand results concerning human psychology and behavior. If you were hoping for something a bit more sinister about oppression and hatred of people who aren't white males, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. One of the downsides of this very basic mistake is that it leads some people to say - in a no doubt cocky tone - things like, "Is evolutionary psychology total utter and dangerous bullshit?" or, "Evolutionary Psychology is a load of fucking shit" all without actually discussing the underpinnings of the field (which is really a shame, as I'm sure these thoughtful and eloquent people would have a lot to add). As I mentioned last time, people don't seem to have a problem with the use of adaptationist logic so long as it comes to the conclusion they'd prefer to hear.

                                                                                   Just imagine how well this one went over

Much like Satoshi Kanazawa, the book pictured above generated a fierce amount of controversy for all the standard, muddle-headed reasons. Among other statements about why the book proved that evolutionary psychology is a bunch of misogynistic bullshit, one of the claims of the critics went something along the lines of "Thornhill and Palmer said rape was an adaptation". What almost all the critics forgot to mention (or didn't know) is that Palmer - one of the two authors - argued that rape was a byproduct. (Putting aside for minute the fact that the book was ended on the note that the case for adaptation or byproduct was left open...)

So Palmer's views got (basically) ignored and he got lumped in with Thornhill through some misguided guilt-by-association. Similarly, almost every site that turned up on the "evolutionary psychology is bullshit" search - on top of blatantly misunderstanding the issue - attempts to make Kanazawa (and sometimes Thornhill) the face of what evolutionary psychology "says". He is most definitely not the 99%, and evolutionary psychology as a framework is not the problem.

It can be hard to take critics seriously when they can't demonstrate they know what it is they're criticizing.      

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Case of the Female Orgasm - Bias in the Critiquing of Science

The last post dealt with the moralistic outrage that some people feel towards a trait being labeled an adaptation or a byproduct, but I only skimmed the surface of the issue. Since it's such an important point, I felt it would only be proper to expand it a bit further.

Because I crave pain and disappointment, I actually read every last comment on both articles. A reoccurring theme seen throughout the comments sections is that many people seem to feel female orgasm is obviously and adaptation and anyone who comes to the opposite conclusion is probably a sexist being mislead by a male-centered society that's out to demean women. It's at this point they'll generally state female orgasm clearly has the function of [making women have more sex, drawing sperm into the reproductive tract, making women lay down to retain more sperm, reinforcing the pair bond, even - are you ready for this one - feeling good. That's right, it evolved for reasons that have nothing to do with reproduction], and why haven't people figured that out? It's all because those silly evolutionary psychologists are blinded by current cultural trends and institutions, whereas their critics presumably feel they are not similarly influenced.

                                                                     "Orgasms feel good, therefore they evolved to feel good. Duh."

In case you're curious, those possible functions have already all been explored. The only one that seems like it might - and I do stress might - have some traction is the sperm transport hypothesis, though it rests on some questionable data.

These are some pretty strong intuitions people seem to have about whether female orgasm is adaptive based upon very little evidence, if evidence is involved at all. Ironically, people who are so fond of saying, "evolutionary psychologists spin just-so stories" appear completely willing to accept even a possible scenario as clearly true (say, female orgasm encouraged women to have more sex) if it matches their view of how the world should be; female orgasm should be socially important, therefore female orgasm is evolutionarily important (an adaptation).

                                                           "If this didn't have anything to do with reproduction, I'd probably have to stop doing it" 

What I feel we do have at this point is the knowledge that people are not overtly hostile to an adaptationist research paradigm in all cases, but will tend to be when it doesn't come to the right conclusions. For instance, it'd otherwise be odd that people calling the byproduct hypothesis "evolutionary psychology bullshit" are perfectly happy to advance their own evolutionary accounts for female orgasm. You see, where evolutionary psychologists are naive, their critics are informed and knowledgable, having cast off their cultural trappings and viewed the underlying essence of human nature. I'd point out that evolutionary psychologists also proposed many of those other possible functions in the first place, but that would just totally ruin the buzz the critics have going.

Perhaps this whole debate makes more sense were we to view it as people attempting to persuade each other about something, rather than attempting to discover some historical truth. In this case, it could be that female sexual satisfaction is important; in others it could be that rape is bad, that jealousy should be minimized, or that depression has some cognitive benefits, so depressed people should feel better about their depression, thus cheering up and losing that benefit (read respectively as: rape is not an adaptation, humans haven't evolved for pair-bonding, and depression is adaptive).

Viewing these debates as attempts at persuasion might help explain why the criticisms that come from the upper levels of academia do not seem substantially different than the ones that come from your everyday internet commenter; the foundation of these debates might not be academic in the first place. It may also help to explain why people who even just suggest certain hypotheses are painted as villains and the same tired straw men are pulled out again and again.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pop Psychology: You Mad, Bro?

Moralistic outrage, while infuriating and occasionally dangerous, is often fertile grounds for comedy; not that pre-packaged, bland artificial comedy full of preservatives either, but the organic, flavorful comedy that's grown right in your own backyard and picked minutes before enjoying. It wasn't too long ago that a banner reading, "You Mad, Bro?" was displayed at a football game in order to taunt one of the teams. (Story here). It wasn't long before some people who didn't understand the connotations of the phrase took it upon themselves to get quite mad, falling right into the lap of the internet troll community.

                                                                          Could I interest you in a fresh glass of Schadenfreude? 

Let's now turn to an example of silly moralistic outrage as it applies to two things I hold dear: evolutionary theory and female orgasms.

Why do women have orgasms?

 I wrote my thesis about a female orgasm, so I happen to know a thing or two about them (I know a thing or two now, anyway; my initial title of Female Orgasm and Other Myths of the Hysterical Woman required a little touching up). There is an on-going debate as to whether or not female orgasm is an adaptation or a byproduct. That debate also happens to involve a fair share of vitriol, with words like "chauvinistic" being thrown around a lot. As you can see from the article and several of the comments, there appears to be a sizable group of people who equate "adaptation" with things like social importance and justification, and "byproduct" with unimportance. (My personal favorite is this one: "I think this whole article is BS! The writer only continues to denigrate women! Why would a woman be able to orgasm if there was no reason to?")    

                                                                                            "Stop Denigrating Yourself"

Why does Lloyd (and Dan Savage) seem to suggest that the knowledge that female orgasm isn't an adaptation might comfort women who experience frustration at an inability to do during sex - or at all - and have wider social implications (despite claiming she doesn't think people should be deriving social norms from biology - but look, it's natural that... so we should...)? Perhaps she hopes to make the point that society puts too much pressure on women to orgasm during sex, even though many of them probably won't - at least not without some manual help - and that pressure makes people feel bad.

As I mentioned previously, no arguments for or against legal rights for homosexuals should turn on the genetic nature of the trait. I don't think the gay community or their supporters would be comforted at the lack of rights afforded to homosexuals on the grounds that homosexuality isn't an adaptation, or entirely "in the genes", and they'd be less distressed if they stopped caring about having them. Similarly, in terms of the social or personal importance of female orgasm, nothing should turn on whether it's an adaptation or a byproduct.

Strangely, it seems that it does for many people. It might be the case that "adaptation" and "byproduct" have just become placeholders for "genes" and "environment" - that classic false dichotomy - or something similar. For those people, calling a trait an "adaptation" is akin to saying it's genetically determined and inflexible to environmental influences. This could be a byproduct of the same essentialist state of mind that tells us if we plant an apple seed in a field with pear seeds, it will still grow into an apple tree, not a pear one, or if we paint a lion so it looks like a leopard, it's still a lion.

That probably also means people are more inclined to think of behaviors they want to encourage - or avoid blame for - as adaptations, and behaviors they want to discourage - or blame others for - as byproducts above and beyond what evidence suggests. As people are generally blind to their own biases, and tend to disagree on matters of morality, the debate about adaptations and byproducts, genes and environment, will continue to thrive and be filled with colorful rhetoric, leaving us to ask "You mad, bro?"

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pop Psychology: Descartes' Balls

As I mentioned in the last post, I think a good deal of opposition, to evolutionary theory in general and evolutionary theory when directed towards psychology specifically, is due to a certain fear of moral exculpation, with other concerns about evidence or method being post-hoc rationalizations for that unease. For some, the human mind is somehow different, escaping either the need for an evolutionary analysis or the ability to be explained by one. There are those, like Rene Descartes, who think that the human mind - or at least parts of it - is not even a physical thing to begin with, but rather some immaterial essence.

                                                           With a haircut like that, it's probably a good idea to downplay physical features.

Today, I'll talk about this man's balls.

If Rene was anything like the average man alive today, his balls probably weighed between 40 to 50 grams, accounting for about 0.08% of his total - and very material - body's mass (Smith, 1984; Dixson, 2009). For the percentage of you who aren't either still giggling at the thought of balls (which accounts for roughly 100% of the men reading this) or questioning my sexuality, you might be curious why normal people would care about the size of balls in the first place.

To sate that curiosity of balls, there are many more balls to consider, but let's just stick to two groups: the balls of some of our close evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzee and and gorilla. 
                                     Warning: one of these pictures contains a graphic depiction of huge balls... wait, where are "warnings" supposed to go?

The chimp's balls weigh in at an impressive 120-150 grams, whereas the gorilla's come in at a combine 30ish. While the chimp may out-ball the gorilla by 4 or 5 times, that difference is actual an underestimate, as the gorillas are far larger in overall body size. When we adjust for the differences in body size, the gorilla's balls account for a mere 0.031% of their body weight, whereas the chimp's balls account for about 0.3% of their body weight. Pound for pound, chimps have about 10 times as much in their sack as gorillas. 

                                                      Sure, the TruckNutz may look big, but once you take the mass of the vehicle into account....
 So where does all this talk of balls leave us? It helps to know one last fact: the size of the testes, relative to the body, correlates to patterns of mating - not to their ability to kickass, as many men seem to think. When the sperm from more than one male are in contest to fertilize the same egg(s), we, in the creative names department, call it sperm competition. The gorillas, with their tiny ball-to-body size, face almost no sperm competition; they typically mate in a polygynous fashion, where one dominant male has uncontested sexual access to a harem of females. Chimps, on the other hand, live in multi-male/multi-female groups and, while the females are certainly not without preference, they mate in a far more promiscuous fashion.

So what about humans? We're certainly less ballsier than chimps - by about 400% - but definitely ballsier than gorillas - by about 300%, which tells us our species has probably faced some degree of sperm competition over our evolutionary history, milder than chimps but more intense than gorillas. Knowing these facts help guide us towards some potential conclusions about the human mind, bringing us nicely back to Descartes.

Rather than viewing the body and mind as two distinct pieces, the body can help inform us as to the psychology of the species; our bodies (and minds) are kind of like time capsules of evolutionary pressures. Without females historically mating with more than one male within her fertile window, or without males forcing copulation, there would be no potential for sperm competition. Of course, without females desiring to mate with more than one male and/or males desiring to mate irrespective of the female's wishes, no selection pressure would exist either.

Which reminds me how one of my professors - at the graduate level, no less - was trying to account for sex differences in behavior by simply appealing to body size differences between men and women, rather than differing psychologies. What he appeared to forget is that those body size differences require an explanation in the first place, and that explanation will ultimately returns to differences in psychology. Having the tools available without the will or knowledge to use them isn't much better than not having the tool at all, and vice versa.         

(For those interested folk who like looking at naked organs, I'm told this is a comparison between a chimp's balls and brains:

Resources: Dixson, A.F. (2009). Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems. New York, NY: Oxford University Press 
Smith, R.L. (1984) Sperm Competition and the Evolution of Animal Mating Systems, New York, NY: Academic Press.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pop Psychology: We're All Evolutionary Psychologists

"A scientific theory tends to go through four stages before it's accepted: (1) it's wrong; (2) it could be right, but it's dangerous; (3) it's right, but trivial; (4) that's what I've said all along" - Paraphrased from some source I forgot. 

If you happen to think evolution is true, you also happen to be an evolutionary psychologist (implicitly, in that you should conclude our brains are the product of the same evolutionary process that all life is). Every statement about the function (or lack of function) of our - or any other species' - psychology is a statement about selection pressures and adaptations, however implicit. Some of these theories are not very good - the blank slate comes to mind -  or very explicit, but they all deal with the same underlying questions: what were the selective pressures on a species? How did said species evolve to deal with these pressures?   

                                                           According to some, at some point in this process the entire process stopped mattering

Which is why it's strange that the term "Evolutionary Psychology" gets thrown around as a type of insult in some groups. For me, it works the other way around; those who actively don't consider themselves evolutionary-minded researchers are the ones that have the cooties, sit around eating paste, and are to be shunned at playtime. Evolution is true, and its usefulness as a theoretical framework for conducting and understanding research about the human mind and body is well evidenced, so why should anyone actively avoid using it? The reasons for the opposition to evolutionary psychology are numerous on paper, but we can learn about their underlying causes simply by the critics - misguided as they are - speaking for themselves.

                                                                    Yes, these are supposed to be actual criticisms; no, I'm not joking

The colored dots in the bottom-left of each box represent a general category I see the criticism falling into: Red indicates "Just-So Story" criticisms; Green indicates charges of genetic determinism; Blue indicates attempts to distance the authority of "science" from EP; Black indicates a charge that EP will justify morally distasteful actions, also known as the naturalistic fallacy. While these four categories don't wholly encompass the areas criticisms fall into, I think they're an alright - if rough and perhaps arbitrary - start. (Edit: There is an additional category criticisms generally fall under: Conflating proximate and ultimate explanations, nicely summed up by quotes like this one. “Wanting to prevent sexual assault is evolution, instead of, like, wanting not to be assaulted.”)

There was a certain amount of guess-work (or interpretation, if you want to put a positive spin on it) that went into my classifications: some of those criticisms are just stupid in a relatively straightforward way, while others are stupid in several ways, or stupid in ways that aren't quite clear and I had to infer the intentions of the person writing them. By no means should these be taken as set-in-stone (unless it happens to agree or disagree strongly with your existing thoughts, in which case it probably will be).

The first thing I'd like to call attention to is that evolutionary psychologists - or those who defend the field - are portrayed as male (center square and bottom-right corner, the latter of which sends a pretty clear message). One could be left wondering why, considering that the majority of people working in the field are politically left-leaning women (about 65%, which is not significantly different from the 70% of women in other fields of psychology; Tybur, Miller, & Gangestad, 2007). Perhaps men are more vocal in their defenses of the field or are just better known. Perhaps it has something to do with the social views and goals of the person doing the critiquing. I can't say for sure. 

The second thing to consider is breakdown by criticism: 11/25 squares deal with “Just-So” storytelling, 6/25 squares deal with genetic determinism, 4/25 squares deal with a lack of scientific rigor, and a whooping 13/25 squares deal with matters of moral justification or sexism, though I consider that 13/25 to be a conservative estimate; I can think of at least 4 more squares it might apply to.

What could these rough figures - and I do stress rough - potentially tell us about the opposition towards EP? The anecdata point towards the following picture of what the stereotype of an evolutionary psychologist is: men who are trying to justify their nasty and dominating behavior by claiming their genes determine their actions, always have, and always will, so there's no point to try and change the "natural" order of things.   
The people behind this BINGO board are winning at the pop anti-evolutionary psychology game:

I don't think it's a coincidence that the critics of adaptationist thinking often appear more aggressive towards the methods involved when applied to humans - as opposed to non-humans - nor is it just a string of chance happenings that the majority of the criticisms appear to mention perceived negative traits (violence comes to mind, though it could be any idea the author finds distasteful) rather than perceived positive or neutral ones.

Finally, I'm struck by the resemblance of the opposition towards evolutionary psychology specifically to the opposition towards evolution more generally: "evolutionary theory says there's no such thing as morality and everything is permitted"; "you can't test what happened in the past, so it's not science". There are many people who think evolution is true, but back off once they hit the human mind, much like Alfred Russel Wallace did.  

Sounding familiar at all?

References: Tybur, J.M., Miller, G.F., &  Gangestad, S.W. (2007). Testing the Controversy: An Empirical Examination of Adaptationist's Attitude Towards Politics and Science. Human Nature, 18, 313-328

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pop Psychology: Smoke Detectors with Benefits

I hate my smoke detector. Right now it's laying disassembled on the table in my living room because it apparently thought my chicken was a fire hazard. That I'm talking about my smoke detector as having thoughts in the first place is rather odd, but it's just a metaphor that we all understand, right? It's not like people ever direct aggression, real or imagined, against tools that aren't working as you'd prefer.

                                                                   A man who may or may not understand the proper use of metaphor

 From computers, to cars, to imagined supernatural beings, people see agency where none exists - if not directly "see" it, then act as if they do. They will curse them, direct physical aggression towards them, and they will plead with them. Even though most people will tell you they understand begging their car to not run out of gas won't actually affect how far the car will eventually travel, one can imagine - has perhaps even experienced - the satisfaction some people get from breaking an old, less-than-functional piece of equipment because it was out to make their life miserable (the fax machine from Office Space comes to mind).

Part of what we see going on here is like my smoke detector problem (also known as Error Management Theory). The intended purpose of a smoke detector is to warn someone about an actual fire by using a typical cue that a fire would give off - the smoke. Needless to say, this also makes the smoke detector have the annoying habit of going off when something is cooking/burning - or in my case, having the stove on (my smoke detector is particularly annoying). One way to avoid this irritation would be to make smoke detectors less sensitive so they wouldn't go off during cooking dinner and all-night bong parties. However, doing so runs the risk of not making it sensitive enough to go off when there's a real fire, or not going off until it's too late. This doesn't mean that the best course of action is to turn up the sensitivity all the way, otherwise it would go off constantly, making the false alarms far too annoying; the key is finding that happy medium.

In the case of inanimate objects being labeled as enemies, part of the issue could be an agency-detection module in our brain getting triggered by an inappropriate stimulus because of the way it's calibrated: to be more sensitive to potentially important cues in order to avoid missing them. It's better to just be startled by what you thought was movement than to miss real movement that could mean real harm. In other cases, modules for aggression or negotiation could be triggered by the frustration of one of our goals, like being unable to fax a letter or view pornography quickly enough. While those behaviors might be useful ways of dealing with social creatures, they also get inappropriately recruited for some non-social ones. 

Something similar can be seen happening between men and women's perception of sexual interest. In the case of a smoke detector, both sexes are open to the same cost and benefits of false alarms and real fires; in the world of mating, this isn't always the case. It would be costlier for men - in terms of reproduction - to miss signals of potentially sexually interested women than the reverse. According to Buss (2003), this would explain why men are far more likely to infer sexual interest in women who are smiling at them or touching them (or talking to them, hanging out with them, sending them nude pictures, being alive, etc).  In case there are any women out there who haven't figured this out yet, almost all of your guy friends are waiting for you to come around and see things their way, they're just a bit more patient than the drunk guy at the bar.

                                                    "I couldn't help but notice I touched your ass while you were dancing. Do you have a phone number?" 

Perceptions of attractiveness are another area where the sexes would appear to differ. According to Okcupid - which is a reputable source of scientific data when I find it convenient - women tend to differ in their appraisals of male attractiveness, rating the vast majority of men as being below average in attractiveness ( This statistical impossibility could be reflective of the fact that a "wrong" mating choice on the part of a woman is reproductively costlier on average than the wrong choice on the part of men.

Or maybe it's all because of this nasty "culture" going around. Yeah, let's go with that....

References: Buss, D.M. (2003). The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating (Revised Edition). New York, NY: Basic Books.   

Monday, October 3, 2011

Pop Psychology: Blame and Intent Edition

The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, "We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits and it will also harm the environment." The chairman of the board answered, "I don't care at all about harming the environment, I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let's start the new program." They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.
How much blame do you think the chairman deserves for what he did (from 0-6)? 
Did the chairman intentionally harm the environment?

Those were questions posed to the people who read the story quoted above (Knobe, 2003). If you're like most people, you're probably basking in some sweet moral outrage right about now at the thought of the hypothetical chairman's action; the kind people of fantasy-land will have to drink from polluted rivers, leading to the death of imaginary fish populations, harming the livelihood of the poor fishermen who were going to kill them anyway, and they all have the chairman to thank for it. To make the example a little more real, think about how certain economies recently took a big hit due to shady business practices, leading to some people occupying Wall Street getting a face full of pepper spray. 82% of participants said the chairman acted intentionally, and deserved to be blamed at about a 5 on average.

So now that we've established that the chairman definitely should be blamed for what he did since he was acting intentionally, do me a favor: go back to the original quote and read it again, replacing "harm" with "help", then answer those first two questions, just replacing "blame" with "praise" and "harm with "help" again.

If you're anything like me, you're probably really handsome. If you're anything like the participants in the study, your answers to the questions probably did a 180; of course the chairmen doesn't deserve praise for what he did and he certainly didn't act intentionally. In fact, 77% of participants now believe the chairman did not act intentionally and deserves to be praised at about 1.5.

Remember how I said people are bad at logically justifying their decisions and evaluating evidence objectively? 

Let's consider these results in light of the moral wiggle room research I presented last post. When the dictator can choose between a similar interest $6/$5 option or a $5/$1 option, they probably won't be judged positively, no matter which they choose; if they pick the first option, well that was in their interest anyway so the judgment should be neutral, and if they pick the second, they're just a spiteful dic...tator.  When someone has to choose between the conflicting payoffs, either $6/$1 or a $5/$5 split, they probably have a chance for some social advancement in the latter choice -it's only moral if you give something up to help someone else - but plenty of room for moral condemnation with the former.

What would people's judgments be of dictators who had the $6/$? or a $5/$? payoff and chose to not know? My guess is that it would fall somewhere between the neutral and negative side, closer to the neutral side. Even though their reputation may suffer somewhat due to their willful ignorance, people seem to take definite harm into account more than potential harm (drunk drivers suffer lower penalties than drunk drivers who hit something/someone by accident, essentially meaning it's more "against the law" to be reckless and unlucky than just reckless. Judging actions morally by their outcomes is another topic, no less interesting).    

But what about the poor, misunderstood dictators? I'd also guess that the dictators would rate their behavior quite differently than the crowds of people with colorful signs and rhyming chants about who or what has "got to go". Those in the similar interest group would probably say they behaved morally positively and did so intentionally - and who are we to question their motives? - as would those in the conflicting group who chose the $5/$5 split. The ones who chose the $6/$1 would probably rate their behavior as neutral, justifying it by saying it was an economic decision, not a moral one. Those in the ignorant condition would probably rate their behavior somewhere between morally positive and neutral, after all, they didn't intentionally hurt anyone, nor do they know they even hurt anyone at all, so, you know, they're probably upstanding people.

References: Knobe, J. (2003). Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language. Analysis, 63, 190-193

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pop Psychology: Red Herrings and Moral Wiggle Room Edition

"Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil, or cruel? Not to me"

I don't know whether it was actually J.K. Rowling who wrote/said that, but as a shallow, vain, and boring person who also happens to be in great shape, this quote really speaks to me; no doubt it also speaks to the deeper, selfless, and interesting portion of the population who read the quote surrounded by stacks of old pizza boxes and empty cartons of Ben and Jerry's, but I get the sense it speaks to us in different ways (I also get the sense my keyboard is substantially less sticky).

Whoever is being quoted would appear to be implying something like the following: "Someone might be unhealthy/unattractive, but they could be X instead, which is worse. Therefore, being fat is OK".  The logical shortcomings of that implication are so vast that the author has either never taken a philosophy class or has a PhD in the subject. I'd doubt Rowling's(?) commitment to that line of thought in any case, simply by pointing out the actors in the Harry Potter films are less than fat - far less so than the population at large - meaning plenty of good actors probably got passed over because they were fat. More importantly, the entire quote is a red herring; a statement intended to distract attention away from the matter at hand.

Consider an alternative, but similar statement: Is a little thievery the worst thing someone can do? Is it worse than murder, rape, or physical assault? Not to me. The problem should become apparent here very quickly; whether or not Y is worse than X should have no bearing on the status of X. Whatever X is, it needs to be able to stand on its own feet. There is one case where there is an exception, and that's concerning a certain parking ticket issued to me. Parking police, go fight some real crime. There are bigger concerns out there than whether I probably accidentally parked in a handicapped spot for a few hours. I already had to get my car out of impound; isn't that enough for you people? It's not like I was drunk driving. Or fat.    

So  what does this quote tell us about how human psychology functions? One potential lesson we could take from it is that people are bad at justifying things coherently (see my last post, and probably future ones). Of greater interest, however, is the fact that people are interested in justifying their behavior as intensely as they are.

I remember seeing a commercial for yogurt on TV not so long ago that made fun of this bit of peculiar psychology. A woman is seen standing in front of a fridge, eying some cake. She thinks to herself that she could eat some celery and the cake, and somehow the celery would cancel the cake out. Women; am-i-right fellas? She wants to eat that cake and is trying to justify doing so to herself. There are two things to say about that: first, it's great evidence for modularity of the mind, as if anymore was needed. Second, what good could those justifications possibly be? (They certainly don't work out all the time:

To start at answering that question, let's examine some research by Larson and Capra (2009) on the subject of what's called "Moral Wiggle Room". The research involved a dictator game; it's a classic economic research design in which one player is designated the "dictator" and another player is designated to lie there and take it.... I mean, the "receiver". The dictator is given a sum of money, say $10, and the ability to decide how the money is to be divided. Whatever the dictator decides is what goes, so if the dictator wants to keep $9 and give $1 to the receiver, so be it. Not only is it a neat way to examine certain aspects of our psychology, but it's also an effective way of disappointing people in the name of science. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.

Research on Moral Wiggle Room goes (basically) as follows: In one group, the dictators need to decide between a higher payoff for themselves and a lower payoff for someone else, or a lower payoff for themselves that gives the receiver more money (A $6/$1 option or a $5/$5 option), or between payoffs that benefit both parties ($6/$5 option or a $5/$1 option). Another group of dictator's payments look like the following: $6/$? or $5/$? While these dictators don't know up front what the receiver will get, they can find out for free. With the click of a button, they can reveal the payoffs; it costs nothing in terms of time or money to find out. So what do people do?

In the first group, where payments are known, about 75% of dictators choose the fair option, so maybe life in the Soviet Union really wasn't that bad. What happens when dictators are given the choice to not know how their actions will affect others? Slightly more than half of them choose to remain ignorant and not reveal the payoffs; of that 50%, who didn't reveal, 100% took the higher offer. (The ones who revealed weren't exactly saints either, since over half took the higher payment at the expense of the receiver)

Why might people not want to know how their actions effect others, even when it costs nothing to know? For starters, being strategically ignorant can only help them in terms of payoff: best case scenario, they find out the option that's better for them is better for someone else as well  and they take it anyway; worst case, they now have access to information that opens possibilities for creating expectations of certain treatment in which their wallets are now a slightly lighter (in theory anyway. While these games are played anonymously, we're all still sitting here judging their actions to ourselves, demonstrating the point). However, by remaining ignorant, they can also honestly claim they didn't know they were making someone worse off. This could allow them to benefit indirectly (they may be able to better persuade others that they're morally upstanding citizens or avoid punishment for their actions more effectively, should they come to light, without needing to lie about it) in addition to the direct benefits (they made more money).

Of course, these games are played at low-stakes, information is free, easy to obtain, and unambiguous, while decisions are made anonymously. One could think of how the results could change when any of those factors do. While things can get messy quickly, there are clearly cases in which the reasons for not knowing are better than knowing for some. My guess is that those reasons center around persuasion through justification, specifically being able to convince people that what you did was OK because you didn't know how other people would feel. While that argument happens to be a red herring in the case of the research reviewed here - they could have found out if they wanted - we should not forget that red herrings are used as often as they are because they have a habit of working. And by working, I mean they can help make people forget you're full of shit because they're looking somewhere else.

References: Larson, T. & Capra, C. M. (2009). Exploiting moral wiggle room: illusory preference for fairness? A comment. Judgment and Decision Making, 4, 467-474.