Chicks Dig Jerks, Right?

January 1, 2015

 

Milhouse putting on his bad boy-suit for Liza.

The Bad Boy Allure

There is a widespread notion that girls and women have a thing for bad boys. Sure, they say they like nice guys, who are attentive and caring, who play by the rules, and whom you can trust. But in reality, they prefer the arrogant, self-centered, manipulative guys – the bad boys or jerks.

We find this theme in literature, films and TV shows ranging from the dark attraction of cold-blooded serial killers, the seductive charm of vampires to more light stuff like the TV show The Simpsons, where the straight-A student Lisa falls for the unsophisticated bully Nelson.

This view is also held by the boys and men of the manosphere, an online community about gender issues from a male perspective, inspired by evolutionary psychology, pick-up artistry and personal experiences. Here too the consensus seems to be that chicks dig their jerks, only with the dark, optimistic belief that you can and should learn how to be a jerk, or in their biologically inspired jargon, an alpha male.

While this consensus is intriguing, it’s not necessarily compelling. For one, consensus varies over time. We used to believe in the existence of witches but now that belief might get you a psychiatric diagnosis. And it varies by population. According to PEW, most Buddhists and Hindus embrace the theory of evolution, but only a small minority of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do so. In short, consensus is no substitute for evidence. And neither is the cynicism of the manosphere, for that matter. So is there any evidence?

Attraction Research

As one might expect, there is plenty of research on what women look for in men, and vice versa. In a huge international and cross-cultural study (possibly the largest of its kind), psychologist David Buss and colleagues asked 10 000 participants what characteristics they desire in a potential marriage partner. Most of the top ten turned out to be personality traits, things like sociability, pleasing disposition, dependability, emotional stability, ambition, refinement/neatness, and intelligence (which not everyone views as a personality trait). All of these were considered more important than things like for instance financial prospects, social status or religious and political background.

But the desirable traits listed above do not paint a picture of a bad boy – or girl for that matter, as the difference between the sexes was very small. In Big Five terms it translates to extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and lack of neuroticism. The bad boy, however, is not well captured in the Big Five model, but matches the Dark Triad (DT) traits of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. As no test of this triad was included we can’t tell for sure, but correlations between DT and Big Five are positive for extraversion and emotional stability, but negative for agreeableness and conscientiousness. And there is nothing “dark” per se about an extraverted and emotionally stable person. So it’s clear that, these findings can’t support the chicks-dig-jerks theory as correlations fail to match DT, and with “dependability” and “pleasing disposition” as two conspicuous deal breakers.

Besides these desired traits, there is also research showing that people of both genders like those similar to themselves. All Big Five show moderate correlations between how much a person likes a trait in a partner and how much he or she has of that trait. This birds-of-a-feather effect goes beyond personality, as Buss explains,

For nearly every variable that has been examined— from single actions to ethnic and racial status—people seem to select mates who are similar to themselves. Even for physical characteristics such as height, weight, and, astonishingly, nose breadth and earlobe length, couples show positive correlations. Indeed, the only characteristic on which “opposites attract” that has been reliably documented is biological sex: Men tend to be attracted to women and women tend to be attracted to men.

But as both psychologists and members of the manosphere have pointed out, women may want jerks or bad boys for short-term relationships rather than for marriage. So let’s push onwards and explore that possibility as well…

Women’s Flings

In doing so, we immediately hit an obstacle. Because if it is generally true that chicks dig jerks, it would also mean that women in general enjoy short-term relationships. There is, however, a lot of research that says the opposite. Here is some taken mostly from Randy Larsen and David Buss’ book Personality Psychology – Domains of Knowledge About Human Nature (2010) and Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology -The New Science of the Mind (2007),

As far as sexual fantasies goes here is a N=1500 study from last year, showing 83 percent of men having the fantasy of sex with someone other than their partner, as compared to 56 percent for women.

From Wikipedia: The National Health and Social Life Survey found that 4% of married men, 16% of cohabiting men, and 37% of dating men engaged in acts of sexual infidelity compared to 1% of married women, 8% of cohabiting women, and 17% of women in dating relationships (Lalasz & Weigel, 2011) (If someone has a full-text of this article please let me know.)

69 percent of men had solicited a prostitute, less than one percent of the women had done so.

Men report wishing on average 18 sex partners over their lifetime, while women want on average 4.

Four men in a lifetime. That alone gives us a hint of just how uninterested most women must be in short-term relationships – and, as a consequence, the men who provide that type of experience.

Still, some psychologists appear very fond of this idea and are conducting research into the possibility of Dark Triad traits having evolved as a strategy for short-term sexual encounters. And if this is the case they should be attractive to women. So let’s hear them out as well…

Physical Attractiveness

One idea is that women can tell just by looking at Dark Triad men, by facial or other bodily characteristics, that they have some superior genetic qualities. In a study looking into this, psychologist April Bleske-Rechek and colleagues (2008) had 102 participants (51 couples) rate how attractive and sexy they think they are compared to other people. As expected, narcissism scores correlated with how hot participants thought they were. The main finding, though, was that a panel of 17 judges of both sexes, who showed strong consensus in all their ratings, found the narcissist to be no more or less attractive than other participants. This after being shown face pictures. So it’s possible that full body pics would have produced a different result, but the authors claim that facial attractiveness is a good predictor of general attractiveness. At any rate the study lent no support to the idea of facial symmetry, a compelling gaze or whatever, as a visual indication of some biological sexiness.

In another study, psychologists Nicholas Holztman and Michael Strube (2013) looked at the relationship between attractiveness and personality with a special focus on adorned versus unadorned attractiveness as well as effective adornment, which is how much your adornment will improve your attractiveness. Note that effective adornment is not merely a matter of skill as some people use adornment very skilfully for personal expression or according to what is appropriate for the occasion, rather than to make themselves attractive. While in the study mentioned above, Bleske-Rechek controlled for how much participants were smiling and for resource display, previous research has not specifically distinguished between the adorned and unadorned condition.

Holztman & Strube had 111 students full body pictures taken as they entered the lab in their normal clothes, makeup etc, that being the adorned condition, and then dressed in grey clothes with makeup, jewelry, men’s facial hair, and so on, all removed in the unadorned condition. They combined self- and peer ratings of personality, a good way to reduce measurement error, and used students of the opposite sex, not previously acquainted with the participants to rate their attractiveness. In line with Bleske-Rechek’s study, they found very small correlations between unadorned attractiveness and personality, the biggest being 0.23 for extraversion – known as a desired trait for long-term relationships. The other personality trait measures of Big Five, a Dark Triad composite measure as well as its individual scales were all below 0.1. One measure of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) reached 0.20, so extreme cases of narcissism were on level with regular extraversion.

Again, this is not much to build a chicks-dig-jerks case on, especially as the only link between attractiveness and Dark Triad was a clinical measure, and the size of the correlation was rather modest. But it would be interesting to compare the result with correlations with other clinical measures of things like schizotypy, Borderline Personality Disorder.

Peacocking and Persona

As for the adorned condition, bad boys did slightly better. The Dark Triad composite reached 0.20 and the highest correlation was for NPD at 0.26, with extraversion second at 0.25. (All other Big Five correlations were very low as in the unadorned condition.) Dark Triad was also associated with effective adornment, the ability to enhance attractiveness by adornment, which is no surprise as people with dark traits by definition put a lot of effort into portraying themselves favourably as a way to manipulate and exploit other people.

But again, the effect is not striking and it raises questions about whether women are superficial or easily tricked rather than crazy about Dark Triad people per se. An attractive veneer signals things like physical fitness and material wealth, characteristics that were considered attractive according to Buss’ cross-cultural study mentioned above. So that only means bad boys try to come across as conventionally attractive by displaying some attributes that they may or may not possess. Indeed, there would be little point of hiding their person behind a veneer if it was the person that was the attraction. And yet, many Dark Triad people go to great length to not only create a physical veneer, but also a psychological one, a persona or mask that sometimes contrasts sharply against their real personality. As an example, consider crime author Ann Rule’s description of psychopathic serial killer Ted Bundy, a man she had spent a long time with before discovering who he really was,

Ted’s treatment of me was the kind of old-world gallantry that he invariably showed toward any woman I ever saw him with, and I found it appealing. He always insisted on seeing me safely to my car when my shift at the Crisis Clinic was over in the wee hours of the morning. He stood by until I was safely inside my car, doors locked and engine started, waving to me as I headed for home twenty miles away. He often told me, “Be careful. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Compared to my old friends, the Seattle homicide detectives, who routinely saw me leave their offices after a night’s interviewing, at midnight in downtown Seattle with a laughing, “We’ll watch out the window and if anyone mugs you, we’ll call 911,” Ted was a like a knight in shining armor.

So why would a bad boy impersonate a nice guy to attract women when it’s the bad boy they want?

A Flirt with the Devil?

But still. That’s anecdotal, and other anecdotal information goes in the other direction. As popular manosphere blogger Heartiste so charmingly puts it,

I’ve never gotten more radical, more INSTANT, positive results when hitting on cute babes than when I deliberately amped up my asshole vibe. I mean, to the point of nearly insulting them. Eyes brightened and sparkled, legs uncrossed, fingertips danced all over my arms. And these were the upper class smart chicks with multiple degrees.

Can we rule out that women are attracted to the bad boys because they are bad? It could be the thrill of a dangerous man, or they may think of these guys as the alpha male winners they see themselves as.

There are studies on this too. One is by psychologists John Rautmann and Gerald Kolar (2013), and another one by Gregory Carter and colleagues (2014). Both eliminated the veneer of physical appearance, resource display etc by using vignettes, fictional descriptions based on the so-called Dirty Dozen measure, a short Dark Triad composite questionnaire. In order to see if the vignettes were perceived as Dark Triad and to control for other traits, both studies also had participants rank the vignette characters on the Big Five. Overall, these ratings were as expected, high on extraversion, lower on agreeableness, neuroticism and conscientiousness while more or less unrelated to openness. (There were some discrepancies however, more on that later.)

Rautmann & Kolar created vignette characters separately for each of the three DT traits which participants rated on various types of attractiveness – likeability, friendship material, general attractiveness, as a potential partner in long- and short-term sexual relationships. It turned out that these characters rated fairly low on most scales. All but two ratings were below the neutral/disinterested midpoint of 2 (going from 0 to 4) of the five point Likert scale. These were for narcissists and Machiavellians on short-term sexual relationship, scoring 2.42 and 2.05 respectively, the latter being negligibly over the neutral rating. Or as the authors sum it up – “Narcisssists are perceived as hot, Machiavellians and psychopaths not.”

This might look as a win for the chicks-dig-jerks theory, at least in the case of narcissists. But scoring 2.42 on a scale from 0 to 4 is not a striking result. The authors also concede that the vignettes don’t take into account that DT traits are intercorrelated. This means that real life narcissists will be somewhat psychopathic and Machiavellian as well, which should reduce their modest attractiveness ratings even further. Then there is the Big Five rating which showed that participants viewed narcissists as more normal and, as a consequence, less bad or dark, than psychopaths and Machiavellians. In terms of Big Five correlates it was the psychopaths who rated darkest, scoring lower on neuroticism and agreeableness, suggestive of a cold-blooded and hostile person. Interestingly, psychopaths also scored lowest on attractiveness – including the scale for short-term sexual interest. Again, not good news for this theory.

At Least Sexier Than Nervous Geeks?

Carter and colleagues, however, got a different result. They created a composite DT vignette character, rather than one for each part of the triad, and this character rated as relatively attractive. And unlike Rautmann & Kolar, Carter introduced a control character too so that we can see how attractive the DT vignette was compared to an average guy. Well, that would have been the obvious way to do it, but instead they went with a control character that simply lacked all DT traits. And as traits tend to be normally distributed, meaning most people are close to the average, the control in this study is just as rare and extreme person as the Dark Triad person. What kind of person?

Judging by the Big Five traits that participants rated the control with, this was an introverted, neurotic and conscientious person, or in more plain English, an unsociable, nervous, geeky guy. Not that I have any evidence that such a person would score as less attractive than most personalities, but I think we can agree that it’s reasonable to suspect that correlations between DT personality and attractiveness may have been inflated in this way. Even so, the correlation was not more than 0.37 as compared with -0.35 for neuroticism and 0.33 for extraversion. The authors also concede that the general attractiveness rating used means they know little of the sexual competitiveness of the DT personality, but they still try to imply that they do,

…we are not asserting that female respondents who rated the DT character as attractive would necessarily be willing to engage in sex with them. However, our findings do indicate that the DT personality is attractive to our participants. This in turn supports previous work that has suggested DT men are more sexually successful.

The “previous work” being based on self-reports from men who by definition are boastful and self-enhancing. That’s somewhat like two drunks leaning on each other to stay upright. Then, in a paper only a month later, the Carter reconsiders the whole idea of DT as an evolved strategy for male short-term mating when he found that women with subclinical DT traits are about as common as men,

We propose that focus on DT as a male adaptation to short-term mating has been overstated and that men’s greater preference for casual sexual encounters is not explained by DT traits.

To conclude, all research I’ve found on this fails to support the hypothesis that women like bad boys, be it long-term or short-term. It echoes earlier research showing extraversion and emotional stability to be attractive traits but does nothing to establish an effect of the Dark Triad beyond those correlates.

The Sexiest Men Alive

Women only like him because they can sense that his a complete jerk?

Henry Cavill. Women only like him because they can sense that his a complete jerk.

Still, science is rarely perfect, especially not soft science. Sometimes constructs and study designs can fail to model what takes place in the real world. Perhaps we are better off looking to popular culture for answers? It’s not controversial to say that we live in sexualized celebrity culture. It’s not uncommon for pop culture media to rate celebrities on how attractive or sexy they are. I’ve looked at some of these lists of highly desired men to see if they can shed some light on this question. First off, here is Glamour Magazine (UK) reader’s vote on sexiest men 2013 (95K voters),

  1. Henry Cavill
  2. Robert Pattinson
  3. Liam Hemsworth
  4. Tom Hiddleston
  5. Benedict Cumberbatch
  6. Harry Styles
  7. Chris Hemsworth
  8. Idris Elba
  9. Jamie Campbell Bower
  10. Justin Bieber

As an, admittedly limited, bad boy indicator, I looked at the “controversy”, “personal life”, and “public image” sections on Wikipedia entries for these boys and men. I could not find dirt on anyone but Justin Bieber, but as his stardom preceded his controversial behavior that’s irrelevant. If anything his star appears to have waned as his bad boy image emerged.

Next, People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive 2013, not voted but with 46 million readers and ad revenues of around a billion dollars yearly, they probably know something about what celeb starved readers like,

  1. Adam Levine
  2. Idris Elba
  3. Luke Bryan
  4. Jimmy Fallon
  5. Bruno Mars
  6. Jonathan and Drew Scott (identical twins)
  7. Justin Timberlake
  8. Chris Pine
  9. Pharrell Williams
  10. Ronan Farrow

Same story here. Adam Levine has had some drug problems in his adolescence but is now sober and a successful musician and entrepreneur who is also committed to helping children with ADHD. Chris Pine has one DUI but it’s from this year so as with Bieber it precedes his celebrity status. There may of course still be some controversy to be found if you dig a little deeper, but digging deep is not what celebrity culture is about. If the popularity of these men depended on a bad boy image you wouldn’t have to look further than Wikipedia to find evidence of it.

They may seem dangerous but girls love them ; )

One Direction. They may seem dangerous but girls love them.

Then you have the boy bands – intentionally designed to appeal to girls and younger women. This genre should be overflowing with bad boys. But has there ever been a boy band of bad boys? Or even a non-cute boy band?

If girls and women really like their jerks so much, why then would they favor men who don’t have a hint of a mean streak, when voting in polls, buying music, watching movies or attending concerts? To convey a socially acceptable persona? We’re talking about teenage girls here. It seems infinitely more plausible to assume that they spend time and money on the men they do find attractive – and they’re not Dark Triad. They appear to share the DTs extraversion and emotional stability, but there is just nothing dark per se about them.

So again, we find no support for the theory. And yet people seem convinced of the bad boy allure. It would seem the real mystery then is not why chicks dig jerks, but why this belief is so popular despite of the overwhelming lack of empirical evidence, or evidence to the contrary.

Male Hypervigilance

I haven’t found any research on this particular issue, but I have found some stuff on related ideas that may explain this belief. First, Dark Triad men exist and pursuit short-term sexual relationships. To say, as Carter did in his retraction, “men’s greater preference for casual sexual encounters is not explained by DT traits” is going too far in the other direction. By all accounts these men are players, just not all that successful at what they do. But even so, they constitute a danger to other men, and men who disregard this danger may have been weeded out by natural selection. Because from an evolutionary perspective, the worst thing you can do, short of getting yourself killed, is to raise someone else’s children. Still, this doesn’t answer why men overestimate the bad boys’ attraction on women. Wouldn’t a realistic assessment lead to the highest fitness? Not necessarily. Evolutionary theorists have a concept called agent detection, according to the Wikipedia entry defined as,

“…the inclination for animals and humans to presume the purposeful intervention of a sentient or intelligent agent in situations that may or may not involve one.”

Assuming there is someone out there, an enemy, a tiger or some other danger will be a relatively little cost compared to the risk of assuming it was just the wind. Like a motion detector that will go off regardless of whether it’s a cat or a burglar on your lawn. Better safe than sorry, at least when the cost of being sorry is sufficiently high.

This agent detection mechanism should apply to any situation in which hypervigilance can pay off due to potentially high costs. And raising another man’s child will drastically reduce your fitness, so being overly suspicious may well pay off.

A related topic that lends some support to this theory is that of paternity fraud. According to an article in Discover Magazine by biologist and science writer Razib Khan, estimates of false paternity among the public is very high, ranging from 10 to 30 percent. He contrasts this with a survey of the research in this field which has paternity fraud at 2-3 percent among men with relatively strong paternity confidence (and even lower among Northwest Europeans and Jews). For men with lower confidence who have decided to take a test to settle the issue, which must be a pretty strong level of suspicion, a full 70 percent are still proven wrong.

As Khan argues, this may relate to agent detection, the logic of erring on the side of caution when a lot is at stake. It seems very likely that the chicks-dig-jerks idea is part of this hypervigilance since paternity uncertainty means worrying some smug bastard had his way with your woman, and unless she’s a complete whore it must be the man who made it happen, someone who is actively pursuing short-term sex, who sees himself as a womanizer and brags about it. Someone like a Dark Triad man. The hypervigilance will then be post-hoc rationalized as being due to the fact that chicks dig jerks.

Well, that’s my theory any way, and sad if true, since at least some of these men think of their delusion as an almost heroic form of realism. Unlike all the saps and phonies (the betas in manosphere parlance) who buy the sugar-coated, fluffy crap about human nature, they believe they alone see things the way they really are. Is there a way to snap out of that? I’m not so sure.


Men Who Hate Women

June 19, 2014
Is this something Western culture encourages?

Is this something Western culture encourages?

 

Elliot Rodger

The recent shooting spree in Isla Vista, has some feminists suggesting that the perpetrator, Elliot Rodger, was motivated by misogyny and that he is only the tip of the iceberg made up of everyday misogynists. Here are some reactions,

Amanda Hess/Slate: Rodger was not a domestic abuser. He was a mentally ill young man who had better access to firearms than he did sufficient mental health care. But his stated motivation behind targeting both male and female victims—“If I can’t have them, no one will”—echoes the attitudes of the perpetrators of domestic violence.

Jessica Valenti/The Guardian: After all, while it is unclear what role Rodger’s reportedly poor mental health played in the alleged crime, the role of misogyny is obvious.

Katie McDonough/Salon: …we must also examine our culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which devalues both women’s and men’s lives and worth, and inflicts real and daily harm.

Ryan Buxton/HuffPost quoting Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks :

“The problem for most women when they looked at that manifesto and they looked at these videos is not how strange he sounds, it’s how familiar he sounds, because we’ve all heard some measure of those sentiments in some form in our lives,” Franks said.

In varying degrees these voices all try to link Rodger’s action to misogyny and to view them as an expression of a misogynist culture. Some, like Salon’s Brittney Cooper saw the shooting as result of White male privilege but Salon’s Joan Walsh later downgraded this to a half-white privilege in a more nuanced article that discusses his mixed race and its potential implications. She even dares to finish her piece with,

To suggest that other races and other cultures don’t treat women as property is to miss how prevalent that attitude is. Sadly, misogyny and male entitlement come in every color and culture.

I don’t agree with much of what she is saying since she still claims that Rodger’s rampage was due to misogyny and male entitlement, but I appreciate the effort to go beyond the blame-Whitey reflex that progressives typically rely on.

The common denominator to all of these claims is that they are not backed up with any sort of evidence or even basic logic. A minimum of common sense suggests that if culture is a major factor behind this, then it would be happening everywhere all the time. So at most culture could be a factor for certain susceptible individuals. But people who do crazy stuff like this tend to have personality disorders – Rodger shows very clear signs of narcissism – and they are known to be extremely resistant to external influence. And as for Mary Anne Franks statement that he doesn’t sound strange in his videos have a look here and try to agree with her,

What is Misogyny?

It’s possible that misogyny is both common and the cause of a lot of violence directed at women. But there doesn’t seem to be much research indicating this. There doesn’t even seem to be any consensus of what misogyny is – a simple hatred, the idea that women are inferior to men, that they should have a certain role in society etc. These criteria obviously don’t mix well since insisting that for instance women should be subordinate to men isn’t necessarily hateful. It may be stupid, but stupidity is not hate. Amanda Hess offers a definition by fellow feminist Julia Serano, stating that misogyny is the belief that “femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and exist primarily for the benefit of, maleness and masculinity.” This doesn’t make sense either since you could easily hate women without believing that. In short, there is no meaningful and consistent definition of misogyny but this is not stopping anyone from having an opinion of that which they can’t define.

Intimate Partner Violence

But let’s disregard the issue of definition for a moment and assume that Rodger’s spree is the tip of the iceberg of misogyny. What would that iceberg of men committing the more mundane violence look like? There is some research on a particularly common form of violence towards women, intimate partner violence, that I’ve discussed before. It suggests that psychopaths and men with borderline personality disorder are very common in this category. But psychopaths are not by any definition misogynists since they will indiscriminately use and abuse just about anyone they come in contact with.

A stronger case could be made for borderline men (to be clear, a subset of these men), although at least anecdotally borderline women and gay men display a similar behavior towards their male partners. Borderliners sometimes end up with a bad attitude towards the category of people they are sexually and romantically interested in and for most of the men that category would be women.

The Regular (Spanish/Hispanic) Wife Beater

Still, if we stick to the iceberg metaphor, we should perhaps look at men without psychiatric diagnoses who have been convicted of domestic violence. In a recent study of this kind, psychologist Maria Vecina at the Complutense University of Madrid examined a sample of 295 such men using her colleague Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, in this measure only of the five Harm, Authority, Fairness, Ingroup and Purity excluding Liberty for some reason. She focused on the so-called sacralization of moral foundations, the degree in which some (or all) foundations are viewed as sacred or non-negotiable. The reason for this being that sacralization has the potential for conflict,

The need to defend what we hold sacred—whether peace or war, freedom or slavery, my interests or yours—can quickly become an attack on those who question these values.

Considering that this sample is of convicted men it looks surprisingly heterogeneous and normal, with 25 percent having higher education and 25 percent elementary education, 27 percent identifying as liberals, 23 percent as conservatives and 50 percent as moderates. Vecina chose only Spanish-speaking men, that is ethnic Spaniards and immigrants from Latin America. This doesn’t seem like a big limitation and overall her claim that this is an ecological rather than WEIRD sample seems justified. She also included three control samples. One of these was Spanish-speaking women convicted of domestic violence, a much smaller sample of only 13 women, the only ones who, like the men, were prescribed a court-mandated psychological treatment for domestic violence during that time period.

The other control groups consisted of 100 male psychologist who work with violence prevention and 160 female psychologists. The first sample is certainly bound to be highly WEIRD and the author justifies this with wanting something that would contrast with the original sample, not sure what the point would be. The female psychologist not specifically working with violence prevention is probably a less WEIRD sample; some 40 percent of them identified as conservatives in sharp contrast to other samples of Western psychologists that have been up to 95 percent liberal.

Sacralization

As Vecina hypothesized, the convicted men sacralized moral foundations much more than others. This may seem obvious given the nature of the other samples but they did this even comparing with the subset of conservative women – and both conservatives and women are known to sacralize more than others. Here are some key results,

  • There was no significant differences between the violent men group and the violent women group in any of the sacredness subscales.
  • There were significant differences in all of the sacredness subscales between both of the violent groups of men and women and both of the non-violent groups of men and liberal women.
  • There were significant differences in the Fairness and Authority sacredness subscales between both of the violent groups and the conservative (non-violent) women with the violent groups sacralizing more.

Politicizing

Vecina also found that political conservatism predicted risk of violence, although keeping in mind that most nonviolent participants were academic women, and men working with violence prevention, that’s not saying much. Just looking at the original sample of convicted men, we can see an even distribution of conservatives and liberals (in fact, slightly more liberals even), which suggest that this is not a big factor. And yet the author tries to fit the convicted men into a profile from previous research showing conservatives sacralizing Authority, Ingroup and Purity more than liberals. The problem is that the men sacralized all foundations more than control groups. So Vecina suggest that for Harm this might be a matter of responding in a socially desirable way – “gee, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.” While this is possible, I would argue that for a Latin sample, where honor culture is strong, reporting a sacralization of Authority might also be socially desirable given that in such a culture you’re supposed to assert yourself, often with violence. In fact, a measure of pro-violence belief used by the author was how much participants agreed with the statement, “sometimes one has to resort to violence if one does not want people to think one is dumb.” That item could easily fit into a measure of honor culture.

The Romantic Misogynist

Again, since there was an equal amount of liberals and conservatives among the convicted men it doesn’t seem to be a matter of political orientation, but of sacralization as such. This is also in line with the findings of BPD being linked to intimate partner violence since both BPD and sacralization are about emotional intensity and unrealistic idealization. Or in plainer English: romanticism, which in personality psychology sorts under neuroticism, the only major trait that is consistently more common among women than men. This suggests that the bulk of the iceberg of violence, and possibly also misogyny, comes from men who are somewhat like women.

That’s where the evidence leads us: not to a culture of toxic male entitlement, but the frustrated reactions of a small group of men who are emotionally unstable, who have an idealized and unrealistic view of the world in general and whose personalities are if anything more similar to that of women than men. At least some of these men may well be genuine misogynists if simply defined as hating women – although I’m sure they love their feminist enablers.

This is not to say that women can’t be part of the problem. The question of what might characterize the women who become victims of male violence is interesting and no doubt a sensitive topic that I might pursue in a later post…


The Most Feminine Country in the World

May 8, 2014
The Swedish Model

The Swedish Model

Mars, Venus, and All That

Continuing on the theme of culture and personality, I’ve noticed that social psychologist Geert Hofstede has found Sweden to be the most feminine country in the world according to his theory of cultural dimensions. Apart from masculinity/femininity, these dimensions – that he also views as personality traits, at least judging by his website – also include individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance (strength of social hierarchy), long-term orientation, and indulgence/self-restraint. But in this post I’m going to focus on the gender dimension in this post. Is Sweden the most feminine country in the world?

As a Swede myself, I think this might be true, but it all depends on your definition of course. Here is how Hofstede defines it on his website,

The masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

As all definitions, this one can be criticized. Women have part of achievement too – in a world of global capitalism you may argue that being modest and caring for the weak are big achievements. And men don’t necessarily look for material rewards, as can be seen in the case of for instance psychologist Hans Eysenck, composer Arvo Pärt or architect Antoni Gaudi. But overall, there is probably something to the general idea that men are competitors and doers and that women are caring and cooperative.

One way to validate this dimension would be with measures of gender equality, since we should expect feminine cultures to have more gender equality. Here is Hofstede’s measure compares to the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI),

Untitled

 

As you can see, there are clear similarities between these indices. The Nordic countries and the Netherlands (which is culturally similar to those countries) make up 5-6 spots of the top ten on all three.  Outside this zone the measures start varying with some European, Anglosphere and Latin American countries. So the Nordic region plus the Netherlands is where femininity is the strongest. I’ll refer to this as the Feminine region from now on.

The Difference between WEIRD and Feminine

This may come as a bit of a surprise since femininity and the related concept of gender equality appear to be an integral part of the Enlightenment legacy that is mostly found throughout Northwest Europe and the Anglosphere, sometimes given the acronym WEIRD (as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), a region characterized by its civic-mindedness, human rights and lack of corruption. And while the Feminine region is within the WEIRD region it’s only one half of it with the Anglosphere with countries like America, Australia, and Great Britain making up the other half, which is no where near as feminine.

So it seems not all children of Enlightenment are created equal. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone explain or even mention this divide (although someone has probably mentioned it). If, as I suggested in my previous post, culture is ultimately the collective manifestation of our individual personalities, this would have to be a mainly genetic divide, perhaps created by different selective pressures within Northwest Europe. One possible explanation would be that farming in the Nordic countries, with its much harsher climate and long winters, would make flexibility in gender roles a fitness trait. The combination of scarcity of resources and the high energy costs of a cold climate means that margins are small even under normal circumstances. If your wife is too ill to milk the cows and your children won’t survive without the milk, then you have to be flexible and sometimes do women’s work.

Health Care

So, is femininity a good thing, besides for milking cows? Are these countries really more caring and cooperative? A society level measure of caring might be quality of health care. This can be highly subjective since health is made up of many subfactors not always easy to quantify into numbers. And poor health can be largely self-inflicted by people we don’t necessarily think of as weak. To get around these problems I went with child mortality. If we compare the Feminine region with the Anglosphere we also have the benefit of comparing otherwise very similar countries. Acording to a recent report published in the Lancet with estimates of  mortality rates for children under five years of age (deaths per 1000 live births for the year 2013), we have the following,

mortality

 

Compared to the Feminine region, the Anglosphere has a mortality rate that is 70 percent higher, and there is no overlap between these groups of countries. It may seem like a small difference compared to sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s striking to have such a difference between rich Northwest European countries (or their descendants).

Udate: Jayman wondered about whether race may be a factor for American mortality. According to CDC, first year mortality per 1000 births for White Americans is 5.11 so it’s roughly on the same level as the rest of the Anglosphere, especially given that the figures above are for the first 5 years. (Black 1-year infant mortality is at 11.42.)

Consensus versus Majoritarian Democracy

The other main aspect of femininity, cooperation, is something that is found in the political systems of these countries. The Feminine region is characterized by consensus democracy, especially in the sense that these countries have proportional electoral system, lots of political parties that form coalitions and with the ambition of getting broad support for decisions, not just within coalitions but with opposition and other interest groups and institutions. It’s the friendly, inclusive, and cooperative way of governing.

In contrast, the Anglosphere is characterized by the majoritarian model (see the link above) in which countries have fewer parties, form less coalitions with often just a single party in government at a time. The government also focuses more on their own agenda with less concern for and compromise with other parties, interest groups etc. It’s the competitive and take-charge way of governing.

Unlike with child mortality, it’s not obvious which of these models is the better; it depends on the situation and what you look to accomplish. Polls on how content people are with democracy and government do not show either of these models to be more popular than the other. But this offers more support to the idea that the WEIRD countries, while being very similar in other ways, differ in ways that can be described as masculine and feminine.

The Feminine Madness

Overall, femininity seems like a fairly good thing, seeing as how the most feminine countries in the world are wealthy, healthy and democratic.But what happens at the extreme ends of the spectrum? Just as for individual personalities you get crazy and maladaptive behavior. This can be seen in Sweden, where feminism has become so dominant that any critique is viewed as backward-minded bigotry by definition. The lack critique creates a sort of unsupervised playground for all sorts of crazy. According to a recent poll, 2.3 percent of the voters favoured the feminist party Feminist Initiative in the upcoming election to the European Parliament. Here is what one of their leaders said in 2002,

“The discrimination and the violations appears in different shapes depending on where we find ourselves. But it’s the same norm, the same structure, the same pattern, that is repeated both in the Taliban’s Afghanistan and here in Sweden.”

The Angel of Reason

Tanja Bergkvist – The Angel of Reason

But it’s in the academic community that feminism is the most influential and the consensus/conformity is the strongest. A rare example of someone rebelling against the insanity is Tanja Bergkvist, mathematician at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In her blog she reports on gender politics that the mainstream media normally don’t care to mention for political reasons. It’s unfortunately only in Swedish but if you’re interested you might try and crunch it through a translator. Otherwise, here are a few goodies from her blog that will show that words like “madness” and “insanity” are in fact appropriate,

  • In 2007, the University of Lund (one of the most prestigious) decided to introduce so-called gender certification for every single course. Meaning a course in for instance theoretical physics should include information about the implications and relevance regarding gender issues on things like quantum theory. One criteria for certification was whether the department in question was actively seeking an equal distribution of male and female teachers. However, the department of gender issues at the university turned out to have 89 percent female teachers!
  • The government guidelines on gender education in pre-school include reading only modern stories to children and avoiding the classics or at least changing the gender of the characters. Cinderella would be a pretty gay dude – but all the better I guess.
  • In 2008, the gender committee of the Science Council, a government agency created to promote scientific research, begins a three year project on the gender aspects of the musical instrument of the trumpet. Here is a quote presenting the project and the important questions it will raise, “What timbre in the wide spectrum of the trumpet becomes the norm and what timbre is perceived as deviant and labeled female and male respectively?”
  • Also in 2008, the company Swedish Nuclear Waste Disposal that manages all the waste from Sweden’s nuclear power plants, hired two gender experts to include a text in the company’s yearbook entitled, “Gender constructions, perceptions on gender and the experience of risk – a reflection on the meaning of gender in regard to attitudes to long-term management of nuclear waste.”
  • In 2009, a gender expert holds a lecture at a seminar at the University of Uppsala (like Lund a top university) and notes that a man in the audience appears inattentive. She later finds out from a third person that he commented on the way she was dressed. So she files a complaint of sexual harassment. The university informs the man that they have started an investigation about his conduct. So he calls the woman to explain the reason why he had commented on her clothes. The woman forwards this information to the university as evidence of further harassment. The man is then questioned and admits to looking in his papers at times during the lecture and apologizes for commenting her clothes, but is nonetheless officially reprimanded by the university president.

This is just 5 out of 213 posts on Bergkvist’s blog and I have in no way cherry picked them; I just took a few of the earliest that were easy to understand for non-Swedes. You might think I’m making this up (or that she is) but see for yourselves, there are links to sources on all this madness. When this happens on the individual level it’s called a personality disorder, but what do you call it on the societal level?

And at the other side of the spectrum of Hofstede’s cultural dimension, Japan scores as the most masculine country in the world. A whole different brand of crazy…

 L1010853


Honor, Dignity, and Face: Culture as Personality Writ Large

April 19, 2014
Honor and dignity divide American society to this day. Here illustrated in the Western classic "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

Honor and dignity divide American society to this day. Here illustrated in the Western classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

 

I recently read an interesting yet largely ignored study from 2011 by psychologists Angela Leung and Dov Cohen. It’s about honor culture, dignity culture, and face culture. These cultures all deal with the concept of self-worth and how to preserve it when interacting with other people. It seems most countries or regions, possibly all, have one of these cultures, or sometimes a mix of them. In a broad categorization, we find honor culture in most parts of the world while dignity culture (often called guilt culture) is confined to Northwest Europe and the Anglosphere, and face culture to East Asia. Let’s kick things off with a brief introduction of the cultures in question,

Honor Culture

This culture is based on the idea that a person’s worth is based on his reputation. Reputation, in turn, is based on positive and negative reciprocity. This means that in order to be considered honourable you need to repay favors, but also revenge insults, even very small ones. If you fail in these obligations, especially in revenging insults, other people will shame you by laughing or expressing disgust, and your reputation/honor will be ruined. The motivating emotion that makes people do what they are supposed to do is shame. For that reason it’s sometimes called shame culture. People from honor cultures come off as friendly and generous, but with a dark side; they can quickly turn angry and violent if they feel slighted. This culture is masculine and can be found in male subcultures such as the military, student fraternities, in prisons, and among school boys.

Honor culture is the norm in societies where the state is weak and can’t enforce the rule of law properly. You can’t call the police so instead you deter bad people from attacking you by showing that the slightest disrespect will come at a cost. If you combine this with always repaying a favour people know that you are open for cooperation but you won’t be taken advantage of. In short, that you’re a person of honor. This culture is also closely linked to power and influence. The higher up in the hierarchy, the more honor.

Dignity Culture (AKA Guilt Culture)

The dignity culture is characterized by the conviction that all individuals have an inner, inalienable worth. The ideal person of dignity is one who stands by his principles and doesn’t listen to gossip. This attitude will of course not protect your life or property so it requires a state that enforces the rule of law. The person of dignity is less prone to corruption since he follows his internal standards and is less swayed by what other people say. And unless he is at odds with society he will abide the law even when he knows he could get away with breaking it. Because knowing he did something bad will trouble him even if no one else knows about it. The motivating emotion in dignity culture is that of a guilty conscience. This is why it’s also known as guilt culture.

Dignity culture has some obvious advantages. It allows people to be more free and individualistic and it prevents corruption. But it has a weakness in that a person prone to guilt can easily be exploited by someone who isn’t. Like honor culture, dignity culture features positive reciprocity, since most people feel that returning a favour is the good thing to do, but not necessarily an absolute must. It’s often done more like an understanding between two individuals. But there is definitely less negative reciprocity since this culture relies on the rule of law and if you agree to that you’d be breaking your own code if you took the law in your own hands. However, if your principles are in conflict with the law you can break it and maintain a sense of self-worth. In this case you become a prisoner of conscience. This fact also illustrates that dignity is unrelated to power. You can be in prison and have dignity and you can be the president and lack dignity if your principles have been compromised. While honor culture is conservative in nature, the dignity culture is found in liberal democracies. It’s the culture of Enlightenment but its roots are most likely older than that (for more on this see anthropologist Peter Frost’s posts on the subject).

Face Culture

This type of culture is predominant in East Asia and can be a bit elusive to an outsider, myself included. Face is similar to honor in that it’s largely determined by your reputation which depends on the judgments of other people. Shame is the motivating emotion so like honor culture it’s sometimes called a shame culture. But while honor culture enables a power struggle, face culture is intended as a way of cooperating within existing hierarchies. If you deprive someone of his honor then shame on him, but if you make someone lose his face – then shame on you. Face is a way of keeping the peace by helping each other to maintain a sense of self-worth. As such I think you can call it a feminine culture. It’s less competitive than honor and dignity cultures and more concerned with group cohesion. And while honor is determined heavily by your place in the hierarchy, face is also about how well you perform at your station. So it’s similar to dignity culture in that you can maintain a high sense of self-worth even if your role in society is minor. As you might expect reciprocity works like in dignity culture: returning favors is a virtue but getting personal revenge is not ok.

The Culture X Person X Situation Approach (CuPS)

In their study, Leung & Cohen wanted to go beyond a mere look at these cultures, but take into account how they will interact with personal characteristics of the individual as well as with specific situation – the CuPS approach. The point with the CuPS approach is that all three variables influence human behavior so they should all be taken into account instead of treating one as the signal and the others as noise as is often the case. A personality psychologist would for instance view the person as the signal, a social psychologist the situation and an anthropologist might view the culture as the signal. And whatever falls outside their field of expertise would then be the noise. So what does this CuPS approach look like in the study?

Since America is a diverse nation, the authors could rely on American participants to represent all three cultures. The honor group consisted of Southerners and Hispanics, the dignity group of Northern Anglos, and the face group of Asian Americans. While Southerners and Hispanics may seem to differ in many ways they acted very similar in terms of honor and could be combined into one group. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that male and female participants of all cultures were similar enough to be combined into single groups.

The personal characteristic in this study was that of whether a person embraces or rejects a particular culture or not, regardless of whether they are of that culture or not. For honor culture this was measured by having participants view film clips of honor violence and evaluate them (this under the pretence that the study was about violence in the media). Note that this violence was not the extreme honor violence common in the Middle East that the term usually refers to. Instead the clips showed more general situations where insults were revenged in a violent manner. For dignity culture they used a questionnaire regarding the individual’s inalienable worth versus socially conferred worth, the central element of dignity culture, and for face culture they used another questionnaire called the Loss of Face Scale which had been modified to contrast to the other cultures.

The situations Leung & Cohen looked at were one where participants had the chance to reciprocate, more specifically return a favour, and another in which they were given the opportunity to cheat. And this is how it all came together,

Experiment 1: Returning Favors in Different Cultures

As I’ve mentioned earlier, participants were told that the study was about violence in the media. Then every participant was offered candy by an experimenter posing as a participant, thus introducing the favour. This experimenter, or in some cases another undercover experimenter who didn’t offer any candy, then conspicuously dropped a disk marked either “Term paper” or “Softball schedule 2002 – can erase” at the feet of the participant. When the experiment was supposedly over, the experimenter with the disk would ask the participant for directions to another room in the building, claiming to have an appointment there. If the participant didn’t know where the room was another undercover experiment would answer, thus informing the participant of where the person was headed. The experimenter with the disk would then leave the disk in plain view of the participant and head off. This gives us several scenarios: participants could return the disk that was either important or not to a person who had either done them a favour (offered candy) or not. To measure the eagerness to return the favour (or simply help out) they put a sign on the door to the room in question saying the meeting had been move to another location, and other similar complications to get a scale of eagerness to reciprocate.

Embracers and Rejecters

The findings are a mix of expected and perhaps less expected behaviors. The first interaction looked at how endorsement of honor violence related to returning favors in the honor group and the non-honor groups. As you might expect they found that for the honor group, endorsement of honor violence significantly predicted the eagerness to return a favour, but not the eagerness to help out when no one had offered them candy. This is simply saying that people who live in and endorse a fundamental characteristic of honor culture will be more likely to behave according to that culture in other ways too.

But what about the rejecters, the people in honor groups that didn’t endorse honor violence and the people in the non-honor groups that did endorse it? These people were significantly less eager to return favors. So they weren’t renegades who embraced another culture than the one they lived in – since all three cultures hold returning favors as a virtue. Leung & Cohen’s explanation for this result is that people from non-honor groups who endorse honor violence are selfish and immature, something that is in line with the fact that they were less willing to reciprocate. While this sounds plausible it doesn’t explain the contrarians in the honor group. And it makes conforming sound like the only sane option. As if Ayaan Hirsi Ali would have been better off conforming to the local Somali honor culture and not disgrace her relatives with her childish defiance. My guess is that there are many reason people will reject their culture and selfish childishness is just one of them.

The Airy Fairyness of Dignity Culture

Next they looked at the willingness to return a favor in dignity versus non-dignity groups as a function of how much participants agreed with the idea that an individual’s worth is inalienable or if it’s derived from the judgments of other people. In line with previous findings, a belief that all individuals have an inalienable worth predicted a higher willingness to return favors in the dignity group. So yet again, those who reject their culture are not adopting another culture but appear to act selfishly or rationally depending on how you interpret the result. More surprising is that this belief had no effect on willingness to return favors for the non-dignity groups. So for these groups there is no selfish or immature contrarianism linked to holding this belief even though it contradicts their group culture. It’s as if it didn’t matter either way. How can this be? The author’s offer no explanation but my suspicion is that non-dignity groups view dignity ideals either as a bit airy-fairy, or use them as pleasant fantasies without reflecting too much on how they conflict with their own culture. A man of honor, especially in a Western country, may well hold the belief that every human has an inalienable worth until one of them sleeps with his wife and brags about it. Then he finds out that the police may bring justice but it won’t restore his honor.

Experiment 2: Honesty and Trustworthiness in Different Cultures

In this experiment film clips of honor violence were shown to half of the participants (again under the pretence that the study was about violence in the media) to prime or make them aware of this culture. This should, according to the authors, make people from the honor group (who also embrace their culture) more honest and trustworthy since it makes their cultural ideals more salient. This is a rather ballsy assumption since it also implies that honor people living in dignity cultures will act less trustworthy than back home – not exactly a strong endorsement of diversity.

They also hypothesized that rejecters in the honor group would cheat more when reminded of the ideals of their culture (as shown in the film clips). The other half of the participants who didn’t view the film clips were simply thought of as honor people living in a dignity culture, since the experiment is conducted among students at the University of Illinois. For the dignity and face cultures they added another manipulation by offering half of these a piece of gum before the experiment began. Leung & Cohen hypothesized that this would make those embracing their own culture less prone to cheating. This makes less sense to me since at least for dignity culture, the whole point is that you act according to your principles and conscience which shouldn’t be affected by gifts.

Then followed the main part of the experiment, which was a simple word memory test with the possibility to cheat by “accidentally” leaving papers with the words in question in plain view of the participants. A measure of cheating was constructed by a statistical analysis of how many words a person retrieved from the exposed papers.

Results

In line with previous results, people in the honor group who endorsed honor violence cheated less than those who didn’t endorse it – but only if they had been primed. (Those who weren’t primed got to watch the clips and evaluate them after the word test.) Those who weren’t primed had the reverse result: those who did not endorse honor violence were more honest than those who did; in fact, these non-primed honor-contrarians were the most honest participants in the entire study, which is a bit peculiar. This is the reaction of honor people living in dignity culture who the authors at least indirectly assumed would be less honest. I’m personally sceptical of diversity and half of this group is made up of White southerners. But it may hint that some non-White honor groups can adjust to a dignity culture. It’s certainly in line with the fact that the overrepresentation of Hispanics in American prisons is very modest (some 20 percent of prisoners and 16 percent of the population as opposed to 40 and 13 percent for Blacks). As for the non-honor groups, those endorsing violence cheated the most, which again is in line with earlier findings of how rejecters fail to reciprocate. The priming had no effect on these groups, most likely because honor violence is not part of the moral context provided by their culture.

Next, they looked at how dignity and non-dignity groups compared on cheating depending on whether they believed in every person’s inalienable worth and whether they’ve been offered gum before the word test or not. In the dignity group, those who endorsed inalienable worth and were offered a gum cheated less than those who didn’t. Again, I find this odd because the gum shouldn’t make a difference to a principled person of dignity. It may be that dignity culture is more idealized and that it has less impact in actual behavior than the other cultures. The non-dignity groups didn’t cheat more or less depending on whether they endorsed inalienable worth or not – and they were also unaffected by the offer of the gum, something I would have expected to find among those in the honor group who embrace their culture.

Finally, they looked at how face and non-face groups compare on cheating depending on whether they embrace face culture (as measured by the modified Loss of Face Scale) and whether they’ve been offered a piece of gum or not. In the face group, those who embraced their culture and were offered a gum cheated very little, almost on the level of the honor-contrarians I mentioned earlier. At the same time those who didn’t embrace their culture and were offered a gum cheated the most of all categories. Not sure how to interpret that. For non-face groups there was a slight difference between those who embraced face culture and those who didn’t in that again those who embraced their own culture (here by rejecting face culture) were more honest.

Culture as Personality Writ Large

So what can we make of all of this? For Leung & Cohen the answer to this question seems to be that culture and personality are separate entities, that personality will predict one behavior in one culture and another in the next. Here is their summary (the call the cultures “cultural syndromes”,

It is important to understand individual variation in a cultural context. Culture is important because it helps define psychological situations and create menaingful clusters of behavior according to a particular cultural logic. Individual differences are important because individuals vary in the extent to which they internaliz or endorse (or reject) a cultural syndrome.

While this sounds plausible it still doesn’t prevent culture from being personality writ large in the sense that traits common among a group of people will lead to a consensus on how to behave. That if for instance cautiousness is a common trait among East Asians, they would seek to avoid conflicts by always being polite and show respect, and when a conflict is a fact they would easily agree to resolve conflicts by appealing to figures or institutions of authority or the law rather than retaliating themselves with the risks that involves. And that would explain face culture. This makes perfect sense regardless of the existence of some rejectors.

Similarly, if the trait of clannishness or tribalism, the tendency to be loyal to your own group, is more common and cautiousness is less common, then the highest authority will always be your own family or tribe. So the state will be weak and unable to resolve conflicts while people will not hesitate to settle their conflicts head on. Also when the state is weak it will be hard to cooperate using contracts so it will make sense to be generous in returning favors as a way to build trust among friends. And that would be honor culture.

And if clannishness/tribalism is a rare trait and a sense of being principled and individually responsibe is common? Then it would make sense to rely on those principles to resolve conflicts because most people agree on what these principles are and a consensus culture of dignity could arise from that. Cautiousness would then become a neutral trait irrelevant to these cultures. Swedes and Norwegians are for instance much more cautious than Danes but all of Scandinavia is clearly dignity culture.

This is not to say that culture doesn’t affect human behavior, merely that it most likely is personality writ large in that the traits of the culture correspond to the average levels in the respective populations. There is always going to be plenty of individual variation so that the consensus culture will clash with the personality of the individual so we need both variables (as well as that of the specific situation) to explain human behavior.

This is in fact what the study itself suggests. There isn’t much social control in America and yet even today young students from the South hold on to their honor culture. How can that be if the ideal of this culture isn’t something they have within themselves? Something that affects behavior while being highly heritable and stable over the lifespan? And why are there so many Asian Americans holding on to face culture even though they live in America which has the most dominant culture in the world? How can Korean comedian Bobby Lee make a career with the simple shtick of acting as non-face as possible? And has any country or region ever changed from one of these cultures to another without the help of large-scale migration? Not that I know of. And yet culture which is less obviously linked to personality traits changes wildly. Fashion, literary genres, and the type of food we eat can change from one year to the next. Meanwhile dignity, honor, and face stay the same through the centuries. What other factor than human nature, innate tendencies – that which we call personality – prevents these cultures from changing?

It’s like hbd chick* insists, that “different peoples are different.” And the way they are different is in the same way as individuals differ from each other: by displaying different personality traits. The more common traits will inevitably become influential in deciding how we behave socially, and the different patterns of behaviors that emerge in different populations, due to these influential traits, may be called cultures. But they are really just personality writ large.

 

 


Personality Regions: The Friendly Midwest, the Left Coast and the Wicked (Possibly Irish) Witch of the Northeast

March 18, 2014

I find the geographic distribution of personality traits to be a very interesting topic. It can give us insights on so many things, like human evolution, culture, politics etc. As I blogged about before here, psychologist Peter Rentfrow has noted that America is split in two halves that score high and low in neuroticism. And German psychologist Martin Obschonka has identified a personality profile that is more common in the region called the Mountain States or Interior West that correlates with entrepreneurial activity. Last year, Rentfrow  dug deeper into this with an interesting study which didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, so here is a little something to correct that mistake. The study combines large samples of Big Five test data (a total sample size of almost 1.6 million) and use so-called cluster analysis to identify psychological regions within America. To get a bird’s eye view of his findings, let’s start by showing some maps of the regions in question,

cluster 1

The “friendly and conventional” (FC) region in the middle and southern part of the country is characterized as being more extraverted, agreeable and conscientious, a little more emotionally stable (low neuroticism), but also much less open to experience than the national average.

cluster 2

The “relaxed and creative” (RC) region in the western part of the country is characterized above all by being very open to experience and emotionally stable, but also introverted and slightly less agreeable than the average.

cluster 3

And finally, the third region, “temperamental and uninhibited” (TU), located in the northeastern part of the country, from Maine down to West Virginia, is characterized as very emotionally unstable and low in conscientiousness while being moderately introverted and open to experience. I wonder if that’s how they describe themselves on dating sites : )

I think most people can recognize that these differences exist to some degree. I’ve never been to America myself, but a friend of mine was there on a business trip and he noted how friendly and pleasant the Midwesterners were. But when he mentioned that he was heading to California they shook their heads and one of them said, “you won’t like it, it’s all Mickey Mouse.” But how much of this can be validated by society level measures?

The PESH – Political, Economic, Social and Health – Correlates

Rentfrow & Co used a variety of so-called PESH variables, and some general demographic variables. They then calculated correlations between them and state prototypicality, that is to say the measure of how well a state fits the personality profile of its region. And here is what they came up with,

PESH Friendly & Conventional Relaxed & Creative Temperamental & Uninhibited
Women -0.22 -0.16 0.39*
Non-Whites -0.26t 0.52* -0.10
Median Age -0.18 -0.17 0.44*
Votes Republican 0.50* -0.35* -0.42*
Mainline Protestant 0.43* -0.49* -0.24*
Wealth -0.42* 0.35* 0.28*
Human Capital -0.50* 0.47* 0.26t
Innovation -0.42* 0.45* 0.22
Social Capital 0.34* -0.37* -0.14
Social Tolerance -0.38* 0.54* 0.08
Violent Crime -0.17 0.24t 0.01
Residential Mobility 0.12 0.27t -0.38*
Well-being -0.23* 0.47* -0.06
Health Behavior -0.46* 0.56* 0.15

The correlations marked with a * are at the 5 percent level and those marked “t” is at ten percent. As you can see the PESH variables in many ways show what we would expect from the personality profile of the regions. As the maps suggest, these regions are also fairly concentric – the geographical center is also the most prototypical part of the region and then states become gradually less so the further out from the center they are located. And given that the PESH correlations are based on prototypicality we would expect these variables to follow the same pattern. But we would expect wrong…

Things Fall Apart; the Center Cannot Hold

For instance, the FC region has the strongest positive correlation to political conservatism. This region has a core consisting of six states: Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin. Rentfrow measured political conservatism as the tendency to vote Republican, by using a combination of percentages of votes for George W Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. Now, I’m no statistician but if this measure correlates 0.50* to how typical a state is of the FC region I would think the most typical states would be the most Republican and then gradually less so in a concentric fashion. But looking at the results (in the link above) for 2008 we find that Obama actually won three core states – Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. And the rest of the core states were not nearly as big victories for McCain as they were in the more remote and less typical states in the South.

It’s also worth mentioning that voting results are most likely affected by the personal style and charisma of the candidates as well as specific issues that may be important in one election and region but not the other. Gallup measure of political conservatism (and liberalism) more directly by simply asking people. In the core states 36.2-42.9 percent identify as politically conservative, which is slightly above the national average of 36.9. And again the southern states that fit the profile less well score much higher, with an interval of 41.8-47.9 percent. So again, we find the same reversed pattern where the PESH variable is the strongest in the states that are less typical of the region.

Same thing with religiousness, which was measured with mainline Protestant affiliation, a rather narrow measure the source of which I haven’t been able to retrieve. But since Gallup also tracks Protestant affiliation it should make a fairly good substitute. Again, it turns out we have a weak center and a strong periphery: the six core states have an average of 55.5 percent Protestants while the southern states average at 75.2 percent. No overlap between the core and peripheral states.

Further, the economic wealth measure is a composite which I can’t reconstruct because they don’t explain how it’s defined, but it’s based on things like GRP, median household income per capita, poverty rates etc.  With a correlation between this wealth measure and state prototypicality of -0.42* the implication is that the FC region is poor. I didn’t find median household per capita but I looked at the similar measure per capita income for the same year (2007).  While the six core states were slightly below the national average we again find that the southern states are way lower, again with no overlap between the richest southern state and the poorest core state. Or we can look at poverty rates, here from 2008 which is around the same time Rentfrows data are from,

Poverty by State

As you can see, it’s the same thing again: the core states have fairly little poverty but the less typical southern states have plenty. Yet again, there is no overlap.

A Flyover Bias?

Whether intentional or not, I find this highly misleading. I’m not sure what makes Rentfrow do this but I have a suspicion it may be a liberal bias against the “flyover states.” This bias can be seen when comedian/pundit Bill Maher recently interviewed actor Bruce Dern and dismissed Nebraska as old and poor. As I’ve shown in a previous post, Nebraska is not at all poor – unlike California which has the highest poverty rate in the country – and its median age, according to US Census 2010, is 36.2 years, one year higher than that of California but still below the national average. Since some 95 percent of personality and social psychologists are liberal and plenty admit to a rather hostile bias against conservatives, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

The Real FC Region: The Friendly Midwest

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we restrict this region to only the most typical states, the core, then we have something that looks homogeneous and concentric in terms of both personality, geography and society level correlates. They are east Midwesterners, they are indeed friendly and conventional, but in contrast to what the study suggested, they don’t stand out in any conspicuous way. They are moderately conservative and religious, they earn slightly less money than the average but they also have slightly less poverty and crime. And that’s pretty much what you’d expect from friendly and conventional people.

The RC Region: Creative and Relaxed, But Also Violent and Poor

It’s also easy to spot a similar but positive bias for the RC region. For instance, the correlation with violent crime is only slightly elevated at 0.24 at the ten percent level. But if we look at murder rates, we again see how peripheral and less typical states, like Idaho and Utah with really low murder rates, help keeping the region looking relatively peaceful. But of the most typical core states, California, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, only Oregon is below average.

The correlation to wealth at 0.35* looks good and in line with what you might associate with a modern and open-minded region. As I mentioned above, the measure of wealth is complex and not explained in the article so again I looked at per capita income for 2007 (the year his index is based on) from the US Census. The core states are in the range 33K-41.6K dollars with an average of 37.5K, slightly below the national average of 38.6K, (although slightly above the FC core of 36K). The peripheral states have smaller incomes. I’ve already shown the poverty map above and that doesn’t help either. Somehow Rentfrow manages to make this region look wealthy but it seems to be an artifact of his calculations and perhaps wishful thinking.

The Real RC Region: The Left Coast

Again, this is not to say that the Relaxed & Creative region doesn’t exist, but like the FC region, it would become more homogeneous and meaningful if limited to a smaller area, in this case the coastal states. This is not just a matter of bias, but also how these calculations are made. I’m no statistician but Utah, although in the periphery is clearly marked on the map above as part of this region even though it is slightly above average in extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness while slightly lower in openness. It seems to fit this region by virtue of low neuroticism alone. And half the country is low in neuroticism. Have a look for yourselves at the eight main states of this region, traits listed in the order extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness,

Oregon          30.9, 59.1, 45.8, 39.5, 58.8

Washington   30.6, 55.8, 45.0, 36.9, 56.6

California       51.4, 49.0, 43.2, 39.1, 65.0

Arizona          50.6, 46.6, 58.4, 38.1, 54.7

Nevada          46.4, 31.8, 55.8, 44.0, 61.3

New Mexico    32.4, 45.4, 58.5, 51.6, 62.0

Idaho             40.7, 52.9, 44.5, 44.2, 44.7

Utah               55.8, 69.4, 54.5, 30.4, 47.7

As you can see, Oregon and Washington are virtually identical, while California fits fairly well, even though the state is now just above average in extraversion, possibly due to migration. This would make a region of low to average extraversion, average to high agreeableness, low conscientiousness, low neuroticism and high openness. There may of course exist other personality regions with interesting correlates too, but right now I’m going with what Rentfrow generated. If we map the modified FC and RC regions along with the original TU region on a map of social and economic conservatism and liberalism created by statistician Andrew Gelman we see how these states stick together pretty good,

Gelman

The Wicked Witch of the Northeast

When I saw how well this region fits into Gelman’s map I had a suspicion that Rentfrow got it right. But let’s check some correlates anyway. The biggest correlations are those of higher  median age and a larger female population. This is fairly easy to check since this region is practically identical to what the US Census Bureau defines as the Northeast Region. The personality version of the region has a core area consisting of Pennsylvania and Delaware in the south and every state further north up to Maine. Peripheral and less typical states are Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and the more remotely located state of Texas. According to the Census 2010, their Northeast Region has the highest median age (39.2 years) and the lowest sex ratio (94.5 men per 100 women). The average of the core states is 95.0 and for the peripheral states it is 96.1, so that looks nice and concentric. In case you wonder about the populous states of New York and Texas, I haven’t weighted anything but their averages are 93.8 and 98.4 so that would confirm the pattern even more. As for median age, it’s a similar picture with a core average of exactly 40 years while and a peripheral average of 37.9 years.

Finally, the last big correlate, political view, again I use Gallup’s record on how many identify as politically conservative rather than the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 for the reasons I stated above. In the core states there is an average of 31.3 percent who think of themselves as politically conservative, well below the national average of 36.8, and equally important, below the average of 38.0 for the peripheral states.

Still, these correlates are pretty neutral. Violent crime is less flattering so maybe the zero correlation to this personality region is kept low by some tricky calculations as in the RC region? A quick look at the murder stats show that the core states have 3.9 murders per 100K people as compared to the periphery which has 4.7, identical to the national average. That’s the reverse of what we’d expect but it’s only one metric that varies over time so all in all, this region looks like it makes some sense. And there is no suspicion of bias.

All in All, a Brave Effort

While I’ve been whining a lot about the liberal bias in this study, I still think this is a bold step in the right direction. After all, all behavioral traits are highly heritable so research about these regions and their behavioral correlates can only be described as human biodiversity research. And we don’t see too much of that, unless it’s unintentional. It would have been nice if Rentfrow had shown how racial/ethnic groups differ since most of the samples had that information. Such differences could explain, at least to some degree, why we have these regions. When you see the high levels of neuroticism in the Northeast, it’s hard not to think of the Irish who are plenty in that region. It would also have been great if they had measured dark traits too – I mean, this is America we are talking about : )

But I’ll get back to the issue on how these regions came to be in a later post. Right now I just wanted to introduce them – and of course to show what they really look like : )


Altruism and the Dark Side of Agreeableness

February 28, 2014
Trying a bit too hard to be nice.

That smile looks like hard work.

After reading skeptics thoughts on the moral quality of the Big Five trait agreeableness, I began thinking and digging and here is what I’ve found.

The construct of the trait certainly suggests that it’s more than “day-to-day niceness”, as can be seen by its facets,

Trust, Straightforwardness, Altruism, Compliance, Modesty, Tender-mindedness

Looks like a pretty nice guy, right? But this opens the door for social desirability skewing the score. To illustrate this, here are some test items from IPIP,

Believe in human goodness

Cheat to get ahead (reversed score)

Make people feel welcome

Love to help others

Feel sympathy for those who are worse off than my self

It’s pretty obvious that this is the sort of feel-good things people say about themselves. Still, we know that agreeableness correlates negatively to the Dark Triad so doesn’t that give it some validity? Possibly, although these correlations are fairly modest, around -0.4 as compared with the honesty-humility trait of the HEXACO model which is around -0.6.  But more importantly, an average person will probably score higher on agreeableness than a “dark” person and this will yield a negative correlation. But that doesn’t mean that whoever scores high on agreeableness will be a more modest, altruistic or empathic person than the average.

Heroes

One way of getting around these problems is to look at altruistic behavior directly. One study by psychologist Lawrence Walker and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, examined people awarded for being exceptionally brave or caring. Although they didn’t find many mean associations with personality and altruism they identified three distinct clusters that did. They named these clusters communal, deliberate and ordinary. The communal is what we’d call a Florence Nightingale type who they found was in fact characterized by a high degree of agreeableness, but also of higher conscientiousness and emotional stability (low neuroticism). The second type is a little more ambiguous, scoring high on extraversion and openness. This might be a fire fighter type but it could also be a WEIRD person; Walker exemplifies this cluster with a guy who seems very principled, suggesting the latter. Or it could be a combination: a WEIRD thrill seeker like an environmentalist who will chain himself to a nuclear power plant or something like that. The third cluster is named fairly appropriately since these people score very similar to the control group, but there was a difference in that they scored lower on openness. It’s hard to know what to make of that. Since openness correlates to IQ it could be people with lower intelligence who want to help but fail to understand or contemplate the costs involved.

To summarize, these heroes do not provide convincing support of the association between altruism and agreeableness, although a subset of them score high on this trait.

The Dictator Game

Another perspective on this issue can be found in a highly interesting study by economists Avner Ben-Ner and Amit Kramer at the University of Minnesota. They’ve used the so-called Dictator Game to examine altruism towards different categories of people as well as its association with personality. In this game one person is given money and then gets to decide how much of it he wants to share with another person. Not much of a game in the conventional sense of the word, but it creates a situation in which it’s reasonable to give something but with no real hint about how much. So the amount chosen would be a measure of altruism.

As an interesting twist, Ben-Ner & Kramer had participants (students) give to four categories: kin, collaborator, neutral person and competitor. This way they can distinguish between kin altruism and other forms, like if someone is thought of as collaborator you may give more in the anticipation that this game will lead to the possibility that the other person will reciprocate – known as reciprocal altruism. Playing against a competitor you’d might not give anything at all.

They found that on the average, people who scored high on extraversion and neuroticism while scoring low on agreeableness and conscientiousness were the most altruistic to all target groups. Openness was unrelated to altruism in this study. They also found that the relationships between altruism and the Big Five personality traits were curvilinear rather than linear, and there were differences depending on who you gave money to as well as shown below,

Altruism 2

We have something like two U curves for extraversion and conscientiousness and two inversed U curves for agreeableness and neuroticism. But none of the curves are completely symmetrical so we get max and minimum levels of altruism distributed a little differently with each trait. Extraversion shows a minimum level of altruism at around one standard deviation (SD) below the mean and max at two SDs above it and so on. We can also see that these relationships are very similar for all categories of receivers.

But these categories differ in the absolute level of altruism. Participants showed a clear tendency to favour kin (the blue line) over all others, largely independent of personality. This, as Ben-Ner & Kramer pointed out, is what we would expect given that we are products of evolution and kin altruism provides inclusive fitness. But more surprisingly, participants were almost as generous towards competitors as to neutral persons. The researchers speculate on various causes for this, the most likely in my view being that some subjects are “inequality averse or fairness prone”, or as some might put it, WEIRD and pathologically altruistic.

Behind the Veneer

But the perhaps most interesting finding is the dynamics of altruism and agreeableness. Not only is this trait – with altruism as one of its facets – inversely linked to altruism; we also find that the relationship is almost linear with very low altruism at very high levels of agreeableness. This again points to the social desirability of this trait that I mentioned earlier. It also points to a possible link to dark traits; people like narcissists and psychopaths like to convey a highly likable but unrealistic persona. Criminologists and police officers know this – lying excessively about who you are is a warning sign that the person may be a psychopath or something similar.

Another interesting finding is that although kin is favoured there is also a tendency to be relatively altruistic to collaborators, something that makes sense in view of that they would be good candidates for reciprocal altruism. But for higher than average scores of agreeableness, we can see a unique gap opening up between kin and collaborator altruism. This suggests the possibility that behind the agreeable veneer lurks not only selfishness and a potential Dark Triad personality, but also some form of clannishness. Not the in-your-face violent Middle East clannishness, but a smart and sophisticated (this sample was university students) variety; people who act nice and say the right things but who will do nothing for you in the end because you’re not family. People like the Kennedys.

It will be interesting to see if this study is replicated because altruism and clannishness are such important aspects of human behavior and there is still very little research on how they relate to personality.

And beware of really nice people. If they seem too good to be true, they usually are.


Sadism: A New Addition to the Dark Triad?

February 10, 2014

Nelson

Recently, I was informed by Jayman (who needs a new computer btw, if you have money burning a hole in your pocket…) that new research is being done on the trait of sadism. I’ve finally gotten around to reading the full article (abstract here and a review from sott.net here), and I have to say it looks very interesting. As usual, the new development is taking place outside the box known as the Big Five model. Anyway, here is a little something on that article and the subject of sadism in general,

History

Most people think of sadism as something sexual and of the sadist as a disturbed person, likely to be a sex offender. This idea was spawned by German psychiatrist von Krafft-Ebing who wrote about it in his influential book Psychopathia Sexualis. As the title implies, Krafft-Ebing viewed sadism as sexual in nature and as the complement to masochism. This ying-yang idea was then adopted by the no less influential psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and was spread to a wider public through books and films. And so sadism became kinky and weird. The sexual sadist in the form of the serial killer has become an iconic figure in pop culture. There have been an endless amount of books and films made about this modern villain. Even here in quiet Sweden, the sexually sadistic serial killer is “celebrated” in movies and mystery novels, despite the fact that there is not a single account of such an individual here. I think this says something about how the sexual aspect of sadism became so blown out of proportion – it was simply a titillating idea and people fell for it.

Reality and Reality

This is not to say that sadomasochism doesn’t exist. Most sexual relationships probably have an element of S&M. According to Wikipedia, one German survey showed 69 percent of female respondents engaged in fantasies of that kind. So it’s fairly normal. But, more importantly, sadistic behavior is not confined to a sexual context but can be found in lots of everyday situations. Take reality TV for instance. Numerous of these shows end with an ostracization ritual in which one contestant is singled out and dismissed. Or the talent shows in which crappy performances aren’t weeded out before the show begins but highlighted for amusement. It doesn’t get any clearer than this,

And it’s equally clear that there is no sexual arousal involved here (if it was for you, please consult your doctor). These shows are extraordinarily popular and give an indication of just how common mundane, nonsexual sadism really is. And yet we know very little about this type of sadism. Which brings me to the research,

The First Study: Killing Bugs

The two studies in question were conducted by psychologists Erin Buckels and Delroy Paulhus from the University of British Columbia, and Daniel Jones from the University of Texas at El Paso. In the first study they had the participants (students) take questionnaires measuring sadism along with a measure of the Dark Triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism, machiavellism) and the Disgust Sensitivity Scale developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Then participants were allowed to choose to perform one of four tasks: you could choose to clean toilets, do some unspecified chore with your hands submerged in ice-water or you could kill bugs or assist in killing bugs without actually doing the killing. And finally, they inquired how the participants felt after the experiment was over.

As expected they found that people who measured high on sadism also chose to kill bugs to a greater extent. They also found that sadism was not just a combination of Dark Triad traits but something that uniquely predict the participant’s choices when the Dark Triad was controlled for. Also, the dark traits did not predict choice when sadism was controlled for. Sadism only correlated slightly to moderately with these traits and it was unrelated to disgust sensitivity. While this is a small study of only 71 participants, it indicates that this nonsexual sadism is a unique trait and that we for this reason the Dark Triad should be called a tetrad instead.

The Second Study: Hurting Innocent People

As before participants were administered a self-report measure of sadism along with a Dark Triad test, but unlike the previous study Bruckels and colleagues now included a Big Five and an empathy measure. Participants then got to play a game in which you simply press a button first to win over your opponent who is supposedly located in a different room but in reality doesn’t exist. If you win you may blast your opponent with white noise. The game is rigged so that everybody loses the first round and the alleged opponent never blasts any noise (thus making him innocent). They also added a variant in which participants could only blast their opponent if they completed a simple but boring task. The intensity and duration (chosen by the participants) of the blast was combined to a measure of aggression.

Again, sadism predicted the expected behavior, this time that of blasting your non-aggressive opponent, when the Dark Triad was controlled for. But unlike in the previous study, psychopathy emerged as an independent predictor whereas narcissism and machiavellism did not. When they added the condition that you had to perform a boring task to blast your opponent only sadism remained as a unique predictor. They summarize these findings as,

 Together, these results suggest that sadists possess an intrinsic appetitive motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others—a motivation that is absent in other dark personalities. Inflicting suffering on the weak is so rewarding for sadists that they will aggress even at a personal cost.

Some other correlation were pretty much what you’d expect: sadism was moderately correlated to dark traits, -0.56 to empathic concern, -0.46 to agreeableness and, perhaps surprising to some, -0.28 to conscientiousness.

Conclusion and Reflections

Although both these studies are small, they strongly suggest that there is a new kid on the block, a relative of the other dark traits but at the same time clearly independent of them. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has read about or come into contact with psychopaths, since they display this trait so clearly. However, a psychopath in the clinical sense is someone who is at the extreme end of this trait. That person would have to be compared to an equally extreme sadist. Then there is the fact that a psychopath often engages in violence. His sadism then becomes more salient than someone who is obsessed with crime literature or torture porn which even people close to him or her may know little of.

Another interesting finding is in regard to politics. Disgust sensitivity is a trait linked to conservatism as well as a negative attitude towards people of other races and homosexuals. It’s very easy to make the leap from that to the assumption that conservatives are sadists, as many liberals believe. But this research found disgust and sadism to be completely unrelated. And conscientiousness, a trait also linked to conservatism, showed a modestly negative correlation to sadism. Sure, it’s early days yet but so far so bad for that theory. My personal guess is that sadists, like most people who score high on the dark traits, are disinterested in politics. They all lack empathy and politics is caring about people, in different ways depending on your viewpoint.

Next question would be why there is such a thing as sadism. As with personality in general, I think we need to view it from an evolutionary perspective to answer that; look for how it may be adaptive, what problems it solves. Just off the top of my head, I’m guessing this has something to do with social hierarchy. Sadism is about putting people down, and that’s sometimes necessary to maintain the hierarchy. As much as you may dislike Nigel Cowell in the clip above, he’s not only put that poor contestant down, but he also putting him in his place. The reason that guy thinks he is a great singer is because no one has had the heart to tell him the truth. So maybe the gene variants for sadism persist because a few sadists in a group provide realistic and meritocratic hierarchy without losing much cohesion. You have a Nigel who tells him that he sucks and then the rest can pat him on the shoulder and say, “hey, maybe you’re good at something else.”


The Nurture Enigma – How Does the Environment Influence Human Nature?

January 21, 2014
Ms Smarty-Pants.

Ms Smarty-Pants

Historical Background

As some of you are well aware, a predominant idea among intellectuals has been that human nature is shaped by the environment, commonly known as the Tabula Rasa or in English, the Blank Slate. This has been the cornerstone of the Enlightenment, the political and philosophical movement of that grew out of late 1600s England and spread throughout the world (although mainly to countries of Northwest European origin). It was an idea that justified social reforms that greatly improved life for most people who were affected by them.

The Tabula reigned pretty much until 1975 when biologist E. O. Wilson wrote Sociobiology, a book that attempted to use evolution to explain not only animal but also human social behavior. Although this book shook things up in Academia it didn’t make that much impact elsewhere. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the reaction against the Blank Slate began to get serious. At this point in time people in the field of behavioural genetics conducted studies on the heritability of things like personality and intelligence that were so extensive and of such quality that they simply couldn’t be ignored. And they showed substantial heritabilities of not just some traits but all of them, something that still holds today. There were some die hard blank slatists, like biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who persisted but most of the resistance to the idea of an inheritable human nature had waned by the mid 1990s (at least that’s my impression).

So the general idea of all nurture and no nature was losing the battle but the vast majority of people were still unaware of this and continued their lives as if nothing had changed – carefully rearing their children during their “formative years” according to “expert” advice, and feeling great when they turned out good, and feeling guilty when they didn’t.  Then in 1998, a text book writer named Judith Rich Harris wrote a book called The Nurture Assumption, summarizing and popularizing the findings of behavioural geneticists, focusing especially on the implications for child development. This was followed in 2002 by psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate, a broad exposé of the whole nature-nurture issue that in its informative and entertaining style became popular in wider circles. People still talk of the formative years even today (I just got a comment from one of them), but by now the tide has irreversibly shifted.

The Post-Slate Situation

So, what does the “new” research from the 1980s, that is now finally beginning to reach public awareness, tell us about human nature? The most obvious part is that nature is a major factor. This is typically summed up in textbooks in the 50/50 rule, claiming that genes and environment can explain about half of the variance each of things like intelligence, personality, psychopathology etc. Which is easy to remember – but also incorrect. This is due to the fact that there is something called measurement error. Most studies are done in a way that doesn’t distinguish this error from the environmental factor. So it’s 50 percent nature and 50 percent environment plus measurement error. Studies that have managed to minimize measurement error typically yield heritabilities for personality traits and similar characteristics around 70 percent. You also have the fact that some of the traits linked to the most important life outcomes, like intelligence and impulsiveness, have even higher heritabilities, around 0.75-0.80.

Equally important – and especially problematic for the adherents of Enlightenment –  is the distinction between shared environment and non-shared environment. It’s the shared environment – family, school, neighbourhood etc – that would lend itself to social reforms. But the research has consistently shown that this factor is very small, often close to zero. As behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin says,

‘Nurture’ in the nature–nurture debate was implicitly taken to mean shared environment because from Freud onwards, theories of socialization had assumed that children’s environments are doled out on a family-by-family basis.

So while there is still a fair amount of environmental influence, it’s not coming from parents, schools, teachers etc. Some people will never accept this; they are too stuck in their political views, they like to blame their parents for how they turned out or take credit for the success of their children. But rational and intellectually honest people will be forced to accept it.

Judith Rich Harris and the Enigma of Non-Shared Environment

But this still leaves us with a substantial environmental influence of the non-shared variety, the unique experiences of the individual, that undeniably affects our personality and intelligence. So what experiences are we talking about?

Oddly enough, 30 years after behavioural geneticists uncovered the importance of non-shared environment, we still don’t know anything about the nature of this influence. This great mystery that goes right to the heart of human nature seems to be uninteresting to both psychologists and the media. Possibly because of the political implications but it might be that they simply lack ideas or intellectual curiosity. After all, personality psychologists – 95 percent of whom identify as liberal – do not praise the Big Five model for all the theories it has generated but for all the consensus it has achieved. Yay…

But one woman, the above mentioned Judith Rich Harris, is actively searching for answers. In a chapter in the anthology The Evolution of Personality and Individual Differences by psychologists David Buss and Patricia Hawley, she reviews the evidence, the old theories and proposes a new one that could explain the nature of the non-shared environmental influence.

Gene-Environment Interactions

This is not to say that she is the first to have attempted this. Some have claimed that parents, school and all that may still be important because of gene-environment interactions: the fact that the same environmental factor will affect two persons differently because of their different DNA. This would mean that the environment believed to be shared is really unique and non-shared and possibly very important.

While gene-environment interactions do occur, Harris argues that it’s highly unlikely for these interactions to cancel each other out. Would an overbearing teacher make one child anxious but the other calm and confident? Even if some children would become angry by such a teacher this would not be the opposite of anxious but rather two expressions of neuroticism. Apart from being implausible, Harris also points to the fact that interactions seem to be rare and most of the documented cases involve sensitivities in which people have the same reactions in varying degrees, not opposite reactions that would cancel each other out.

Even more damning to this theory is the research on identical twins. If things like family was in fact unique and non-shared due to gene-environment interaction for siblings it could not be that for the twins since they have identical DNAs so no interactions are possible. This would mean that parents, school etc would have a profound effect on all people with the exception of identical twins for whom it would mean little or nothing, which would make them fundamentally different from the rest of us. At the same time identical twins have the same size of shared and non-shared environment influence as everyone else. So even though it would be made up of completely different experiences it would still by some happy accident add up to exactly the same size. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Family Interactions

Another couple of theories that both try to save the idea of family as an important influence on human nature, are those of differential parental treatment and birth order effects. While it has been found that parents do treat their children differentially, Harris mentions research on this that showed no effect of this on the children. Instead it suggested that parents do this as a response to the children’s varying behavior. Which sounds very plausible: you would not expect a parent to lose his or her temper as often with a quiet and conscientious child as with an impulsive and emotionally unstable one.

Research has also failed to provide support for any effects from sibling interactions, a very popular theory. Sibling rivalry is something most people can recall from their childhood. It may seem only natural that all that bickering would have some impact. But to date, there is no evidence of that. Identical twins again provide further evidence to the contrary, since they have been found to compete less with each other (as they should according to the laws of evolution). This would mean that the sibling interaction effect would be smaller on them and we again end up with the idea that identical twins have a different shared environment than the rest of us but that it serendipitously adds up to the exact same size.

The Three Systems Theory

Instead of these half-hearted attempts at rescuing any possible remains of the Blank Slate, Harris proposes a different theory based on evolutionary psychology and especially on the observation that traits or mechanisms tend to evolve to solve specific problems and that they for this reason often are largely independent of each other.  So, what problems and what mechanisms?

Well, we know that personality is more malleable in childhood than in adulthood. This is most likely because the brain’s plasticity gradually decreases over the life span. So the environment should exert most of its influence during childhood. This means that we should look for basic adaptive problems that children face. Harris identifies three such problems: how to form personal relationships, how to fit in among your peers, and how to compete among your peers. To solve these problems she hypothesizes that the brain has evolved three mechanisms or systems which she calls the Relationship System (RS), the Socialization System (SS), and the Status System (STS).

The RS is basically an ever-growing database of information on people along with judgments of them based on that data. Since these judgments are used to relate to people they tend to be emotional – who we love, hate, fear, pity and so on. Another characteristic is that the data collected is consciously retrievable. The RS is the base of gossip; we talk about people we have stored information on and compare notes. Although in the modern world this is often done about celebrities that aren’t socially relevant to us.

The SS also collects data but on social categories – male, female, adult, child, rich, poor etc. This is essential information if you want to fit in because you need to know where to fit in – which social categories apply to you. Unlike the RS that looks at personal experiences of specific individuals, the SS generalizes about groups, stereotypes you might say. It’s the basis of our ingroup/outgroup distinctions, according to Harris. But when did we learn about these categories? At no particular time, it just builds up gradually. So unlike the information in the RS, there is no consciously retrievable memory of it.

Finally, we have the STS which collects information about where we stand in comparison to other people in our social category – because that’s where the competition takes place. The reason for keeping track of all the possible status hierarchies – being funny, smart, tough etc – is that it enables the child to find an optimal competitive strategy. So this system looks for things like respect, appreciation and recognition.

So which of these systems is the most likely mechanism by which non-shared environment can influence personality? Although Harris doesn’t say much about why the RS couldn’t do this, we already know that some central relationships in a child’s life are those with family members – which is shared environment and thus of little importance. Still, close friends seems like a possible candidate here… She points out that the least likely mechanism would be the SS, since this is a process by which the social environment (peers) reduce variance in personality as it makes children conform to the people in their social categories. But the STS looks very promising. When a child looks for an optimal strategy for competition, it isn’t looking to conform but to stand out. And if one niche is taken it will have to look for other venues. Like if you’re a big boy who is moderately funny in a peer group of plenty of really big guys but no one who can tell a joke, you may go against your genetic disposition and become the comedian rather than to assert yourself physically.

Evidence

Now that sounds like a plausible theory, but is there any evidence?

Harris agrees that her theory needs to be tested but she does have some evidence too. She mentions the fact that men who were tall as boys grow up to be more assertive and confident as adults. That height in adolescence predicts salary better than height in adulthood. Although she admits that the same thing that makes a person grow fast (androgens) may also be causing their assertiveness. To get around this Harris suggests that we look at relative age within peer groups. One important peer group is that of classmates in school, in which children can differ in age up to a year. This makes for differences in size and maturity that are unrelated to hormones or other biological factors. This relative age effect can be seen in sports where the older boys in groups of selection are picked up by better teams. This may seem stupid if all you do is select players who happen to be older than their peers. But what if being bigger also give them confidence that in turn make them better players?

A study by Dr Chris J Gee at the University of Toronto, published in the International Journal of Coaching Science gives some support for this idea. Gee has followed promising young hockey players over 15 years in order to see if personality can predict success in the sport. According to the study a composite measure of the typical traits thought to be linked to success – self-confidence, need for achievement, competitiveness etc – did in fact predict success. And in regard to the relative age effect common in drafting, Gee writes,

Interestingly, when height and weight (both commonly cited anthropometric indices used when scouting amateur hockey players) were entered into each of the previously mentioned regression models, they failed to significantly increase the amount of variance accounted for.

This strongly suggests that coaches pick the boys who are oldest in their age group, not because they are bigger or have more androgens or something like that, but because they have certain personality traits associated with athletic success. How did they get those traits if all that distinguishes them from other boys is that they happened to be born earlier? It seems to me that Harris’ theory fit these data very well: these boys became confident and assertive through their social environment of peers who couldn’t push them around. This put them on the track to athletic careers, while others who might have been of average size for their age but the youngest in their age group turned to comedy or some other way of becoming popular and getting status.

I think Harris may be on to something.


Why a Good Story Must Be Archetypal and Why Modern Storytellers Must Lie About It

December 9, 2013
Der Supermensch.

Der Supermensch.

A Fascist Called Superman

At the highly liberal Salon.com, contributor Richard Cooper is criticizing the superhero trend in movies. The superhero, Cooper says, is “essentially a fascist concept.” Superheroes are the worshipped strong leaders who by their innate superiority rule over the weak-willed masses and fight their enemies with force and often cruelty. At the same time Cooper acknowledges that he enjoys this genre,

…why can’t I stop watching these movies? Because my imagination is shaped by superheroes: fights and chases are iconic, mythic triggers for me.

He ends the article with a wish that someday there will be a more liberal superhero who uses his intelligence rather than force and who reforms society rather than conserves the established order. Like Recycle Woman or Organic Food Girl?

Archetypes – The Elements of Stories

Don’t get me wrong; I recycle and I eat a fair amount of organic food too, even kale. That’s my choice. But when it comes to storytelling, we don’t have as much choices as we might think. Stories in all known cultures and in all historical records, sometimes going back thousands of years, display certain common elements. Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung was among the first to discover this and he called these universal elements archetypes. In his book Man and His Symbols, he describes the archetype of the hero like this,

The universal hero myth, for example, always refers to a powerful man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of dragons, serpents, monsters, demons, and so on, and who liberates his people from destruction and death.

and,

These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them the more one sees that structurally they are very similar. They have, that is to say, a universal pattern, even though they were developed by groups or individuals without any direct cultural contact with each other—by, for instance, tribes of Africans or North American Indians, or the Greeks, or the Incas of Peru.

And it’s not just the hero; there is a whole bunch of archetypal characters and motifs that can be found all over the world as well as in extinct cultures, such as the Wise Old Woman, the Trickster, the Flood, to mention a few. Jung concluded – quite correctly I believe – that the reason why these characters and motifs are so similar across different cultures must be that they are a part of innate human nature.

Two Kinds of Human Nature – Traditional and Modern

So it seems like archetypes are something like hardwired predispositions, and that a good story is one which will resonate with this wiring. But this begs the question: why is Cooper and people like him dreaming about stories that aren’t archetypal and don’t resonate within us? Well, obviously his political views contrast with the archetype of the hero. Even though he appreciates the “mythic triggers” of the archetype he is still dreaming of something else. The question then becomes why does anyone have political views that, at least in part, go against their nature?

One explanation could be that he and his ilk represent a different kind of human nature. Personality psychology has shown that there are plenty of individual and group differences. One such difference, perhaps the most important, is the variation on a dimension of traditional versus modern. This dimension has been explored by among others social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in the context of his Moral Foundations Theory, although he usually talks of conservatives and liberals instead. According to Haidt, we base our moral judgments on six moral foundations – Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation, but we vary in how much we rely on the different foundations. He found that traditional people – non-Westerners, conservatives, children, uneducated and lower class people – rely on all these foundations fairly evenly, while modern people – Westerners, liberals, adults, educated and upper class people – are much more limited to mainly Care/harm and to a lesser degree Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression.

What Haidt says about these foundations is essentially what Jung said about his archetypes – that they are not a matter of choice but a part of human nature, an innate way of thinking, although Haidt clearly states that the moral foundations are a product of evolution.

Another version of the traditional/modern dimension is presented by blogger hbd* chick, who distinguishes between clannish and modern peoples, a difference that she theorizes is based on inbreeding. The clannish peoples are those who have been inbreeding for a long time and live in extended families where everyone is closely related. This means that they can pass their genes to the next generation through close relatives to an extent that others for obvious reasons can’t. So an inbred clan of highly interrelated people will display a huge amount of group loyalty, not just for the closest relatives but for the entire clan – and that in a nutshell is what clannishness is. And since they do everything together that naturally leads to a conservative and traditional lifestyle with little or no individualism that could threaten the group coherence.

At the other end of this dimension we have those peoples who have outbred for a long period of time and for this reason become less interested in family and instead more individualistic, but also more inclusive and civic-minded since the view more people as ingroup members. These modern peoples are most notably those of Northwestern Europe and their descendants.

Both moral foundations theory and the theory of clannishness suggest that the modern person is partly detached or elevated from his innate tendencies. The moderns in Haidt’s theory have to some extent abandoned the three moral foundations that most of us view as the most traditional, old-fashioned or even primitive – Loyalty, linked to the tribal or outright clannish behavior, Authority, linked to the idea of innate superiority, and Sanctity, the foundation linked to religious belief. In a similar way, we find that the peoples who have outbred for a long time have weeded out the genes responsible for familial altruism and evolved into (relatively) free thinkers. These peoples started the Enlightenment and to this day democracy and human rights are strongest in their nations.

The Modern Storyteller

Now, given that a modern person is partly freed of moral foundations and clannishness, it would make sense to argue that such a person is also partly freed from his archetypal predispositions too. Because archetypes are so intertwined with these concepts it would be impossible to disentangle them from each other. The archetype of the hero alone incorporates many of the traits and concepts that the traditional/modern dimension is based on. He clearly represents Authority, but also Loyalty/Clannishness as the person who unifies the group, and Sanctity as he is often a half-god.

This means that if the modern person is relatively free from conventional morality and clannish/tribal tendencies, he is also less prone to archetypal thinking, which should make him a pretty poor storyteller.  And yet the film industry is full of modern people. How can that be given that film is the prevailing art form for storytelling? Short answer is that they are bound by the laws of the free market which forces them to make archetypal movies. But there was a brief period of time when modern people were dominant in Western culture – the 1960s and 1970s – and they could do pretty much as they pleased. They made arty, existential, surrealistic and generally experimental films. Given the amount of modern films created during this period the film studios no doubt thought it was the next big thing. But like any stories that lacks that archetypal magic, they appealed to the critics – a group that is clearly modern – but they were never a big hit with the broader audience. This is well illustrated in the IMDBs rating of the top 250 movies, as you can see from this chart,

IMDB2

The overall trend is towards increasingly better movies. This inflation is most likely because anyone can vote and most people have short memory and live in the moment – a lot of those who vote have probably never seen a movie from the 1930s or 1940s. But even so, we can see how the films of those modern decades rate lower than the surrounding decades. The same effect can be found in the critic-based ratings of Rotten Tomatoes top 100.

Rotten Tomatoes

Critics have better memory so there is no inflation here, and as I said before, they are also more modern than the regular audience – and yet they too show a similar dislike for the movies of the 1960s and 1970s.

Modern Frailty and Charades  – Spoiler Warning for The Kids Are All Right (2010)

So the modern people of the film industry were left with no choice but to go back to making archetypal movies. And somehow they manage that pretty well. This may seem illogical but it illustrates another important aspect of the traditional/modern dimension – while traditional people are stable (rigid or stuck in their ways you could say), modern people are imbalanced. This is because being traditional is relatively easy – you rely on your traditions and the social support of your group. Being modern means you have to make your own decisions with no traditions to guide you and with little or no advice from like-minded people. In reality, this often fails and the modern person is constantly falling and when he does he falls back into some form of traditionalism. One example of this is the rich feminist who insists on gender equality but marries one of the very few men who is richer than her. Another is the multiculturalist with a recurring daydream of having a Black friend, but who pays good money to live in a White neighbourhood. They are usually in denial about these regressions into traditional living and will perform rituals and charades to convince themselves that they are true to themselves.

These charades naturally find their ways into the movies too since they enable film makers to make good movies while maintaining a positive self-image. A great example of this is the movie The Kids Are All Right (2010), written and directed by archliberal Lisa Cholodenko. The movie begins with a modern family of two lesbian mothers who have one biological child each, both from the same sperm donor. And so the film unravels without any reference to their biological father because the modern view is that blood is not thicker than water? No, the kids look up their father and the whole movie is about the dynamics and conflicts between him and the family. And then, right at the end of the movie it is as if the director suddenly remembers that she is a modern person, and makes a scene in which Nic, one of the lesbian mothers, argues with the biological father, Paul, and tells him that the children are not his and that if he wants a family he should get his own. And as soon as Paul is out of the picture Cholodenko hastily wraps things up since the archetypal energy is gone. Audience captivated, self-image preserved, mission accomplished. The critics, who share the director’s predicament, were even more enthusiastic than the regular audience. It was a complete success – except for those last minutes after Paul has left and that energy is gone but a scene or two are needed for a proper ending.  Everyone knows the movie is over and yet it’s just awkwardly hanging around. Or put differently: being modern.

No wonder these guys need therapy. Or superman,


A Little Speculation About Disgust Sensitivity and Attitudes Towards Homosexuals and People of Other Races

November 18, 2013

slob

What Is Disgust?

Disgust is an emotion and a corresponding aversive reaction that serves to protect us from disease and contamination. A clear indication of this is that we are the most disgusted by things and situations that may lead to contamination – infected wounds, feces, blood, rotten food (or rotten anything), people with bad hygiene, mice, fleas or other animals know to spread disease.

Since disgust has such an obvious function and is found in every known culture, as well as being expressed in exactly the same way in around the world, we have every reason to believe that it is an evolutionary trait. And as psychologist Jonathan Haidt and many before him have pointed out, disgust has likely evolved from a simple reaction to pathogens into a foundation for moral judgments – the filthy person isn’t just somebody who needs a shower. This wider range of disgust is shown in the additional dimensions of sexual and moral disgust in which the reaction isn’t primarily a protection against contamination but against other dangers having to do with survival and reproduction.

Correlates to Personality

In other words, disgust seems to be a wide personality trait, and like any other such trait it shows a great deal of individual variation. Research has found disgust to be linked to Neuroticism with a correlation around 0.45, which makes sense since it is an emotional reaction. Other than that it shows pretty modest correlations of around 0.3 to HEXACO Honesty-Humility. So there is a case for viewing disgust sensitivity as a fundamental personality factor along with Haidt’s other moral foundations. Which I suspect would be a great substitute for the Big Five, but that’s another story.

Correlates to Social Attitudes.

Psychologists theorize that disgust should be directed at strangers more than familiar people. This would be due to the fact that humans have lived in small groups that were likely to share diseases, pathogens and immunities. But members of outgroups could easily introduce completely new pathogens that the group had no protection against. If this is true, then people who score high on disgust sensitivity should also have a more negative attitude towards various outgroups. Research has shown this to be true: people who are easily disgusted have more negative attitudes towards for instance foreigners, disabled people and homosexuals. Disgust sensitivity has also been linked to various measures of political and religious conservatism. One study by psychologist John Terrizzi and colleagues at the Virginia Commonwealth University showed correlations in the range of 0.33-0.49 whereas measures of conservatism unrelated to the idea of contamination, like minimum wage and health care, showed negligible correlations.  At the same time, inducing disgust has also been shown to increase ingroup favouritism and outgroup hostility which suggests that a lot more than those who are easily disgusted can become hostile towards outgroups under circumstances that promote disgust, such as an epidemic. Studies have also found a seemingly curious effect in that liberals have less prejudice against foreigners and homosexuals when being primed with disgust before their judgments. But as X points out, this is most likely because they view these categories of people as part of their ingroup. So they essentially show the same pattern as conservatives. How they react to their own outgroups has yet to be examined.

The Effect of the Climate

If we take the example of a negative attitude towards homosexuals, hobby-psychiatrically referred to as homophobia, the most common theories on the origin of this attitude are about being gay and repressing it with anger or being scared of others thinking you’re gay and demonstratively objecting to it in order to divert suspicions. It’s very easy to see how these theories are problematic. If being gay would explain even half of the cases of homophobia it would mean that roughly half of the population in many countries in the Arab world must be gay. It would also mean that the number of gay people in for instance Eastern Europe must have increased dramatically for the change in attitude seen there in recent years to make sense. If it was about fear then why are there substantial minorities of homophobes in the most liberal countries like Canada or Holland, where no one gives a damn if you’re gay or not?

Clearly the case for disgust sensitivity appears much stronger. This could also provide an explanation for why some countries are more homophobic than others. If we look at maps of the prevalence of infectious diseases it seems clear that the most cases are found in Africa, the northern half of South America, the southern part of Central America, South- and South East Asia. In these countries there is a high population density that enables disease to spread more easily. It’s also warm, so vector organism can multiply more and aren’t forced to hibernate during winter. Here is a WHO map of combined infectious diseases,

Infectious diseases

Compare this to the PEW map of negative attitudes towards homosexuals,

PEW homosexuality

Or, for that matter, the World Value Survey map of racism,

racism

Sure, it’s no doubt more than one cause behind these attitudes. One likely candidate is clannishness/tribalism which is common in the Muslim world. This trait might explain some anomalies like the conspicuous French racism and the relative lack of homophobia in South America, although the difference between the northern and southern half of South America is striking nonetheless. Russia and Eastern Europe is also an anomaly but this can probably be explained at least in part by the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the communist era citizens were provided with free health care but after this system collapsed life expectancy rates have decreased sharply and infectious diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and even malaria have become more common. All in all, it seems pretty likely that some peoples who have originated in a warm climate would be more prone to outgroup hostility, or that the prevalence of infectious diseases could trigger such hostility.

So, Homophobia and Racism Is Ok Then?

Not exactly. Approving of behavior on the grounds that it’s human nature is absurd. Murder and rape is human nature too; it has been present in every known culture. Our attitude towards other people is always going to be at least partly about choice. If we want to fight these negative attitudes then knowledge is preferred to homespun theories. And knowledge, although still shaky, suggests that fighting racism and homophobia may be more about treating infectious diseases and stopping global warming then lecturing school children or having pride parades.

Of course, not all diseases are disgusting,


%d bloggers like this: