Saturday, December 31, 2011

Performance Enhancing Surgery

In the sporting world - which I occasionally visit via a muted TV on at a bar - I'm told that steroid use is something of hot topic. Many people don't seem to take too kindly to athletes that use these performance enhancing drugs, as they are seen as being dangerous and giving athletes an unfair advantage. As I've written previously, when concerns for "fairness" start getting raised, you can bet there's more than just a hint of inconsistency lurking right around the corner.     

                                               It starts with banning steroids, then, before you know it, I won't be able to use my car in the Tour de France.

On the one hand, steroids certainly allow people to surpass the level of physical prowess they could achieve without them; I get that. How that makes them unfair isn't exactly obvious, though. Surely, other athletes are just as capable of using steroids, which would level the playing field. "But what about those athletes who don't want to use steroids?" I already hear you objecting. Well, what about those athletes who don't want to exercise? Exercise and exercise equipment also allows people to surpass the level of physical prowess they could achieve without them, but I don't see anyone lining up to ban gym use.

Maybe the gym and steroids differ in some important, unspecified way. Sure, people who work out more may have an advantage of those who eschew the gym, but those advantages are not due to the same underlying reason that come with steroid use. How about glasses or contacts? Now, to the best of my provincial knowledge of the sporting world, no one has proposed we ban athletes from correcting their vision. As contact lenses allow one to artificially improve their natural vision, that could be a huge leg up, especially for any sports that involve visual acuity (almost all of them). A similar tool that allowed an athlete to run a little faster, throw a little faster, or hit a little harder, to makeup for some pre-existing biological deficit in strength would probably be ruled out of consideration from the outset.
                                                                              "Just try and tackle me now, you juiced up clowns!"
I don't think this intuition is limited to sports; we may also see it in the animosity directed towards plastic surgery. Given that most people in the world haven't been born with my exceptional level of charm and attractiveness, it's understandable that many turn to plastic surgery. A few hundred examples of people's thoughts surrounding plastic surgery can be found here. If you're not bored enough to scroll through them, here's a quick rundown of the opinions you'll find: I would definitely get it; I would never get it; I would only get it if I was disfigured by some accident - doing it for mere vanity is wrong.

Given that the surgery generally makes people more attractive (Dayan, Clark, & Ho, 2004), the most interesting question is why wouldn't people want it, barring a fear of looking better? The opposition towards plastic surgery - and those who get it - probably has a lot to do with the sending and receiving of honest signals. In order for a signal to be honest, it needs to be correlated to some underlying biological trait. Artificially improving facial attractiveness by normalizing traits somewhat, or improving symmetry, may make the bearer more physically attractive, but those attractive traits would not be passed on to their future offspring. It's the biological equivalent of paying for a purchase using counterfeit bills.

                                                              "I couldn't afford plastic surgery, so these discount face tattoos will have to do"

Similar opposition can sometimes be seen even towards people who choose to wear makeup. Any attempts to artificially increase one's attractiveness have a habit of drawing its fair share of detractors. As for why there seems to be a difference between compensating for a natural disadvantage (in the case of contacts) in some cases, but not for surpassing natural limits (in the case of steroids or plastic surgery) in others, I can't definitively say. Improving vision is somehow more legitimate than improving one's appearance, strength, or speed (in ways that don't involve lifting weights and training, anyway).

Perhaps it has something to do with people viewing attractiveness, strength, and speed as traits capable of being improved through "natural" methods - there's no machine at the gym for improving your vision, no matter how many new years resolutions you've made to start seeing better. Of course, there's also no machine at the gym for improving for your facial symmetry, but facial symmetry plays a much greater role in determining your physical attractiveness relative to visual acuity, so surgery could be viewed as form of cheating, in the biological sense, to a far greater extent than contacts.      

References: Dayan, S., Clark, K., & Ho, A.A. (2004). Altering first impressions after plastic surgery. Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 28, 301-306. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Rushing To Get Your Results Out There? Try A Men's Magazine.

I have something of an issue with the rush some researchers feel to publicize their findings before the research is available to be read. While I completely understand the desire for self-aggrandizement and to do science-via-headlines, it puts me in a bind. While I would enjoy picking apart a study in more depth, I'm unable to adequately assess the quality of work at the time when everyone feels the urge to basically copy and paste the snippet of the study into their column and talk about how the results offend or delight them.

Today I'm going to go out on a limb and attempt to critique a study I haven't read. My sole sources of information will be the abstract and the media coverage. It's been getting a lot of press from people who also haven't read it - and probably never will, even after it becomes available - so I think it's about time there's a critical evaluation of the issue which is: are men's magazines normalizing and legitimizing hostile sexism?

                                                    "50 new ways for men to help keep women down? You have my undivided attention, magazine"

So let's start off with what has been said about the study: a numbers of quotes from "lad's mags" (the English versions of Maxim, as far as I can tell) and convicted rapists were collected; forty men and women were not able to reliably group them into their respective categories. When the quotes were presented as coming from rapists, men tended to identify with them less, relative to when they were presented as coming from a men's magazine. The conclusion, apparently, is that these magazines are normalizing and legitimizing sexism. Just toss in some moralizing about protecting children and you have yourself a top-shelf popular psychology article.

The first big question the limited information does not address is: how and why were these specific quotes selected? (Examples of the quotes can be found here.) I'm going to go out on another limb that seems fairly stable and say the selection process was not random; a good deal of personal judgment probably went into selecting these quotes for one reason or another. If the selection process was not random, it casts into doubt whether these quotes are representative of the views of the magazine/rapists on the whole regarding women and sex.

                                                                                       Their research staff, hard at work.

Perhaps it doesn't matter as to the views on the whole; simply that the magazines contained any passages that might have been confused for something a rapist might say is enough to make the point for some people. There is another issue looming, however: though no information is given, the quotes look to be edited to some degree; potentially, a very large one. Ellipses are present in 12 of the 16 quotes, with an average of one-and-a-half per quote. At the very least, even if the editing wasn't used selectively, none of the quotes are in context.

Now, I have no idea how much editing took place, nor what contexts they were originally in, (perhaps all contexts were horrific) but that's kind of the point. There's no way to assess the methods used in selecting their sample of magazine and rapists quotes and presenting them until the actual paper comes out - assuming the paper explains why these particular quotes were selected and how they were edited, of course -  at which point it will be old news that no one will care about anymore.

How about the results? That men were quicker to identify with quotes they thought weren't those of rapists doesn't tell us a whole lot more than men seem to have some crazy aversion towards wanting to identify with rapists. I honestly can't imagine why that might be the case.

                                                Go ahead and tell her you sometimes agree with things rapists say. There's no way that could go badly. 

Assuming that the results of the quote-labeling part of this study are taken at face-value, what would they tell us? If they merely serve to demonstrate that people aren't good at attributing some quotes about sex to rapists or non-rapists, fine; perhaps rapists don't use language that immediately distinguishes them from non-rapists, or people just aren't that good at telling the two apart. The content of a quote does not change contingent on the speaker, much like the essence of a person doesn't live on through objects they touched. That sweater you bought at that Nazi's garage sale is not a Nazi-sweater, just a boring old sweater-sweater.

It seems that the authors want to go beyond that conclusion towards one that says something about the effects these magazines may have on 'normalizing' or 'legitimizing' a behavior, or language, or sexism, or something. I feel about as inclined to discuss that idea as the authors felt to attempt and demonstrate it, which is to say not at all from what I've seen so far.

I will, however, say this: I'm sure that if you gave me the same sources used for this study - the men's magazines and the book of rapist interviews - and allowed me to pick out my own set of quotes, I could find very different results where people can easily distinguish between quotes from rapists and men's magazines. That would then conclusively demonstrate these magazines are not normalizing or legitimizing sexism, right?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hardcore Porn-etry

Sex and sexuality are hot button topics. Not surprisingly, they are topics that also draw a lot of powerful sentiments out of people that have something of a long-distance relationship with reality. Opinions for the opposition can range from "porn is degrading for daring to depict women enjoying sex, causal or otherwise, and is a tool of men for oppressing women" to "The idea of porn isn't inherently offensive, but [porn needs to do more to depict love and caring/it's harmful for children, who need to be protected from its grasp/has some unfavorable side-effects that need to be dealt with/is too commonly used, and I'm running out of clean socks]".

                                     "Oh yeah; that's it. You like cuddling, you whore. You love your satisfying and loving relationship, don't you, you dirty girl?"

Rather than continue on with my normal style of critique, I've decided to give it another go in limerick form. I will return to this issue in time, once a certain article comes out from behind a journal's six-month embargo wall.

Porn, it would seem,
has a reputation unclean.
It seems innocuous at first,
but soon gets much worse,
making our sexuality mean.

"Those who watch porn",
the activists shout with scorn,
"will soon turn to rape
because of that tape,
and women will be left to mourn"

"While it might hurt your wrists,"
the research insists,
"There's no connection
between a porn-based erection,
and sex in which someone resists".

Still feeling the alarm
because porn just must do harm,
"Then the effects are more subtle,"
is the proffered rebuttal
"and leaves men with no sexual charm.

All those men will think,
when they catch some girl's wink,
that she likes it rough,
and she'll do all that nasty stuff,
without so much as a blink"

The research is taken aback
by this newly formed attack.
It seems a lot like the last,
as if formulated too fast
and delivered by a similar quack

"It sounds like you're reaching,
in the service of preaching.
Before you celebrate,
you'd be well-served to demonstrate
that it's actually the porn doing the teaching

It seems reasonable,
or, at the very least, conceivable,
that porn's not to blame
and is far more tame
than you feel is believable.

If people can tell the difference between
reality and the porn on a screen,
they are capable of inquiring
about what their partner is desiring,
instead of relying on a fantasy sex scene"

Perhaps there's some underlying reason
for this open porn-hunting season:
If decided by a cognitive system,
that "porn harms" is the dictum
Other ideas may as well be treason.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Is Working Together Cooperation?

"[P]rogress is often hindered by poor communication between scientists, with different people using the same term to mean different things, or different terms to mean the same thing...In the extreme, this can lead to debates or disputes when in fact there is no disagreement, or the illusion of agreement when there is disagreement" - West et al. (2007)
I assume most of you are little confused by the question, "Is working together cooperation?" Working together is indeed the very first definition of cooperation, so it would seem the answer should be a transparent "yes". However, according to a paper by West et al. (2007), there's some confusion that needs to be cleared up here. So buckle up for a little safari into the untamed jungles of academic semantic disagreements. 

                                                                        An apt metaphor for what clearing up confusion looks like.

West et al. (2007) seek to define cooperation as such:
Cooperation: a behavior which provides a benefit to another individual (recipient), and which is selected for because of its beneficial effect on the recipient. [emphasis, mine]
In this definition, benefits are defined in terms of ultimate fitness (reproductive) benefits. There is a certain usefulness to this definition, I admit. It can help differentiate between behaviors that are selected to deliver benefits from behaviors that deliver benefits as a byproduct. The example West et al. use is an elephant producing dung. The dung an elephant produces can be useful to other organisms, such as a dung beetle, but the function of dung production in the elephant is not to provide a benefit the beetle; it just happens to do so as a byproduct. On the other hand, if a plant produces nectar to attract pollinators, this is cooperation, as the nectar benefits the pollinators in the form of a meal, and the function of the nectar is to do so, in order to assist in reproduction by attracting pollinators.

However, this definition has some major drawbacks. First, it defines cooperative behavior in terms of actual function, not in terms of proper function. An example will make this distinction a touch clearer: let's say two teams are competing for a prize in a winner-take-all game. All the members of each team work together in an attempt to achieve the prize, but only one team gets it. By the definition West et al. use, only the winning team's behavior can be labeled "cooperation". Since the losers failed to deliver any benefit, their behavior would not be cooperation, even if their behavior was, more or less, identical. While most people would call teamwork cooperation - as the intended goal of the teamwork was to achieve a mutual goal - the West et al. definition leaves no room for this consideration.

                                                              I'll let you know which team was actually cooperating once the game is over.

West et al. (2007) also seem to have a problem with the term "reciprocal altruism", which is basically summed up by the phrase, "you scratch my back (now) and I'll scratch yours (at some point in the future)".  The authors have a problem with the term reciprocal altruism because this mutual delivery of benefits is not altruistic, which they define as such:
Altruism: a behavior which is costly to the actor and beneficial to the recipient; in this case and below, costs and benefits are defined on the basis of the lifetime direct fitness consequences of a behavior.
Since reciprocal altruism is eventually beneficial to the individual paying the initial cost, West et al. (2007) feel it should be classed as "reciprocal cooperation". Except there's an issue here: Let's consider another case: organism X pays a cost (c) to deliver a benefit (b) to another organism, Y, at some time (T1). At some later time (T2), organism Y pays a cost (c) to deliver a benefit (b) back to organism X. So long as (c) < (b), they feel we should call the interaction between X and Y cooperation, not reciprocal altruism. 

Here's the problem: the future is always uncertain. Let's say there's a parallel case to the one above, except at some point after (T1) and before (T2), organism X dies. Now, organism X would be defined as acting altruistically (paid a cost to deliver a benefit), and organism Y would be defined as acting selfishly (took a benefit without repaying). What this example tells us is that a behavior can be classed as being altruistic, mutually beneficial, cooperative, or selfish, depending on a temporal factor. In terms of "clearing up confusion" about how to properly use a term or classify a behavior, the definitions provided by West et al. (2007) are not terribly helpful. They note as much, when they write, "we end with the caveat that: (viii) classifying behaviors will not always be the easiest or most useful thing to do" (p.416), which, to me, seems to defeat the entire purpose of this paper.

                               "We've successfully cleared up the commuting issue, though using our roads might not be the easiest or most useful thing to do..."

One final point of contention is that West et al. (2007) feel "...behaviors should be classified according to their impact on total lifetime reproductive success" (emphasis, mine). I understand what they hope to achieve with that, but they make no case whatsoever for why we should stop considering the ultimate effects of a behavior at the end of an organism's individual lifetime. If an individual behaves in a way that ensures he leaves behind ten additional offspring by the time he dies, but, after he is dead, the fallout from those behaviors further ensures that none of those offspring reproduce, how is that behavior to be labeled?

It seems to me there are many different ways to think about an organism's behavior, and no one perspective needs to be monolithic across all disciplines. While such a unified approach no doubt has its uses, it's not always going to clear up confusion.  

References: West, S.A., Griffin, A.S., & Gardner, A. (2007). Social semantics: Altruism, cooperation, mutualism, strong reciprocity and group selection. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20, 415-432

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Discount Engagement Rings

One day, a man is out shopping for an engagement ring in preparation to pop the question to his girlfriend. After a browse through a local jewelry store, he finds what he thinks is the perfect ring: It costs $3000, and even though he's a man of modest means, he figures he can just afford it. As he prepares to make his purchase, another customer walks up to him and informs the man that the jewelry store down the block is having a going out a business sale and selling an identical ring for only $300.

What's the boyfriend to do? Clearly, the ring on a 90% discount is the better deal, but something about buying a discount engagement ring just might not sit right with some people. While I don't have any data on the matter, I could imagine that if the girlfriend in question found out that her (previously) stunning engagement ring was bought at a step discount, she probably wouldn't be pleased with her boyfriend's financial responsibility, and that young bachelor who moved in down the hall might seem just a little more tall, dark, and handsome.   

                            One of these rings will lead to a lifelong marriage and the other to not having a girlfriend; neither one leads to sex with that woman. 

Pictured above is a $3000 diamond ring and a $300 cubic zirconia ring; try and tell the difference just by looking (good luck). The reason that a cubic zirconia ring, as opposed to traditional diamond one, would probably not sit well with many women is not because of any noticeable aesthetic quality of the ring itself.  There are, apparently, a number of ways to test and see whether you have a diamond or not, but that these tests exist (and can often be inconclusive to many) demonstrates that untrained people without special tools or knowledge have a hard time telling the two apart (which the comments confirm; many suggest the best way to tell them apart is always to ask an expert). In the specific case I gave initially, the two rings would, in fact, be identical in design and material, so the only difference would be the cost.

In the case of engagement rings, however, cost is the point. The high cost of an engagement ring functions as an honest signal; not honest in sense that they ensure fidelity or a lasting relationship, but honest in the sense that the signal is hard to fake. A poorer man could not afford a more expensive ring and his rent and his drinking problem. Dave Chapelle summed up this principle nicely when he said, "If a man could fuck a woman in a cardboard box, he wouldn't buy a house".

                                                      Not only does he still get laid all the damn time, he didn't have to give up drinking either.

This is precisely the reason people care about whether there's a diamond or a cubic zirconia in jewelry; while both are sparkly, only one represents an honest signal, where the other is a fake signal that does not reliably distinguish between the ability to invest and inability to do so; one can signal a willingness to invest, whereas the other does not signal as well.

Examples of signaling abound in the biological world, and for good reason: when the sex that does the most investing in offspring - typically the female - is seeking out a mate, they need to assess the quality of the many potential mates. Since the investing one will be stuck with the consequences, good or bad, for a long time, it's in their best interests to be more selective to get the best package of genes and/or investment. Males displaying costly ornaments - like peacocks - or behaviors - like bowerbirds - are able to demonstrate they can afford to shoulder the hard to fake costs involved in growing/maintaining them and still survive and flourish; they have been "tested" and they passed, guaranteeing their fitness to the choosy opposite sex (Zahavi, 1975).

We've all dealt with the inconvenience of pants that are too long at some point: you occasionally step on them, they shred as you walk along the street, they get dirty as they drag, water soaks up the back of them and feels awful on your legs, and that's only for pants that a slightly too long. Imagine having a pair of jeans that happen to be a few feet too long, that you make yourself, you can never take off, and all your prospective partners will judge you by their quality. Also, lions are trying to eat you.   

                                                                            Seriously, this thing is practically begging to be killed.

Only those who are able to find the required materials, invest the time and skill in building, cleaning, and maintaining the pants would be able to keep them in viewable shape. Further, those pants would be serious inconvenience when it comes to doing just about anything, so only those who were particularly able would be able to maintain garments like them and still function. Lazy, unskilled, careless, and/or clumsy people would reflect those unfavorable qualities in the state of their pants. One could take off the pants to avoid all the wasteful insanity, but in doing so they'd be all but committing themselves to a lifetime of celibacy, as those still wearing the pants would attract the partners.   

If you're a good observer - and I know you are - you'll probably have noticed that costly signaling can take many forms: from engagement rings, to bodily ornaments, to behavior. Costly signaling is relatively context independent: the important factor is merely that the behavior is hard to fake and expensive, in terms of time, money, energy, foregone opportunities, risk, etc. It can be used for a variety of goals, such as courting mates, impressing potential allies, or intimidating rivals. We all engage in it, to varying degrees, in different ways, for several purposes, likely without realizing most of it (Miller, 2009). It's something fun to think about next time you slip into an expensive designer shirt or rail against the evils of branded products.

References: Miller, G. Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. New York, NY: Viking

Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection - a selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53, 205-214 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Is Description Explanation?

[Social Psychology] has been self-handicapped with a relentless insistence on theoretical shallowness: on endless demonstrations that People are Really Bad at X, which are then "explained" by an ever-lengthening list of Biases, Fallacies, Illusions, Neglects, Blindnesses, and Fundamental Errors, each of which restates the finding that people are really bad at X. Wilson, for example, defines "self-affirmation theory" as "the idea that when we feel a threat to our self-esteem that's difficult to deal with, sometimes the best thing we can do is to affirm ourselves in some completely different domain." Most scientists would not call this a "theory." It's a redescription of a phenomenon, which needs a theory to explain it. - Steven Pinker
If you've sat through (almost) any psychology course at any point, you can probably understand Pinker's point quite well (the full discussion can be found here). The theoretical shallowness that Steven references was the very dissatisfaction that drew me towards evolutionary theory so strongly. My first exposure to evolutionary psychology as an undergraduate immediately had me asking the sorely missing "why?" questions so often that I could have probably been mistaken for an annoying child (as if being an undergraduate didn't already do enough on that front).

                                     In keeping with the annoying child theme I also started beating up other young children, because I love consistency.

That same theoretical shallowness has returned to me lately in the form of what are known as "norms". As Fehr and Fischerbacher (2004) note, " is impossible to understand human societies without an adequate understanding of social norms", and "It is, therefore, not surprising that social scientists...invoke no other concept more frequently...". Did you read that? It's impossible to understand human behavior without norms, so don't even try. Of course, in the same paragraph they also note, "...we still know very little about how they are formed, the forces determining their content, how and why they change, their cognitive and emotional underpinnings, how they relate to values, how they shape our perceptions of justice and it's violations, and how they are shaped by and shape our neuropsychological architecture". So, just to recap, it's apparently vital to understand norms in order to understand human behavior, and, despite social scientists knowing pretty much nothing about them, they're referenced everywhere. Using my amazing powers of deduction, I only conclude that most social scientists think it's vital they maintain a commitment to not understanding human behavior.

By adding the concept of "norms", Fehr and Fischerbacher (2004) didn't actually add anything to what they were trying to explain (which was why some uninvolved bystanders will sometimes pay a generally small amount to punish a perceived misdeed that didn't directly affect them, if you were curious), but instead seemed to grant an illusion of explanatory depth (Rozenblits & Keil, 2002). It would seem neuroscience is capable of generating that same illusion.

                                               This thing cost more money than most people see in a lifetime; it damn sure better have some answers.

Can simply adding irrelevant neuroscience information to an otherwise bad explanation suddenly make it sound good? Apparently, that answer is a resounding "yes", at least for most people who aren't neuroscience graduate students or above. Weisburg et al (2008) gave adults, students in a neuroscience class, and experts in the neuroscience field a brief description of a psychological phenomena, and then offered either a 'good' or a 'bad' explanation of the phenomena in question. In keeping with the theme of this post, the 'bad' explanations were simply circular, redescriptions of the phenomena (or, as many social psychologists would call it, a theory). Additionally, those good and bad explanations also came either without any neuroscience, or with a brief and irrelevant neuroscience tidbit tacked on that described where some activity occurs in a brain scan.

Across all groups, unsurprisingly, good explanations were rated as being more satisfying than bad explanations. However, the adults and the students rated bad explanations with the irrelevant neuroscience information as actually being on the satisfying side of things, and among the students, good explanations with neuroscience sounded better as well. Only those in the expert group did not find the irrelevant neuroscience information more satisfying; if anything, they found it less so - making good explanations less satisfying, as compared to the same explanation without the neuroscience - as they understood that the neuroscience was superfluous and used awkwardly.

This cognitive illusion is quite fascinating: descriptions appear to be capable of playing the role of explanations in some cases, despite them being woefully ill-suited for the task. This could mean that descriptions may also be capable of playing the role of justifications, by way of explanations, just try not to convince yourself that I've explained why they function this way.

References: Fehr, E. & Fischerbacher, U. (2004). Third-party punishment and social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25, 63-87.

Rozenblit, L. & Keil, F. (2002). The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. Cognitive Science, 26, 521-562

Weisberg, D.S., Keil, F.C., Goodstein, J. Rawson, E., & Gray, J.R. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 470-477