Monthly Archives: September 2010

Homo Hypocritus Mates

From the latest Journal of Personality & Social Psychology:

In Study 1, the scent of women near peak levels of fertility heightened the men’s implicit accessibility to sexual concepts. Study 2 demonstrated that, among men who reported being particularly sensitive to odors, scent cues of fertility triggered heightened perceptions of women’s sexual arousal. Study 3 revealed that in a face-to-face interaction, cues of fertility increased men’s tendency to make risky decisions and to behaviorally mimic a female partner. …

Whereas women may have been selected to suppress cues of ovulation in order to sustain men’s commitment, men have been selected to identify fertility cues in order to enhance a short-term mating endeavor’s probability of reproductive success. … It is unlikely that all indicators of fertility could be suppressed, because some detectable shifts in hormones are needed to facilitate ovulation. Consequently, men must rely on fairly subtle cues (e.g., changes in scent and skin tone) associated with those hormonal shifts to help them respond adaptively to women’s changing levels of fertility.

A book review in the latest Quarterly Review of Biology:

The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. [2008] … Thornhill and Gangestad argue that [human] women possess two distinct evolved sexualities. One is the “extended sexuality” that women engage in when conception is impossible; the other they call “estrous” sexuality. The former functions to elicit “material benefits” from males, the latter to acquire “good genes” for offspring, and in keeping with these distinct functions, candidate male partners are evaluated on distinct criteria in the two contexts. In making the case for these views, the authors provide an impressively up-to-date, thorough, and evenhanded review.

I’ve argued that central to human nature are deep, subtle, and powerful abilities to give the impression we are doing one thing, while actually doing another.  A key example of this is our unique female ability to appear to be always fertile, in order to overtly attract “dads,” while actually covertly attracting “cads” in rare fertile times, when norm violations matter most.  (Cads offer sperm, while dads offer other supports.) Some, but not all, men can see through this illusion, to better coordinate norm violations.  The difficulty of this task helps women screen out unwanted cads, and male and female unconsciousness about all this helps hide norm violations.

Some of these capacities seem far older than farming, showing just how ancient are our hypocritical tendencies.

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The East Is Far

[Researchers] tested the bias of 72 Dutch participants towards either global or local processing. … Life-long atheists showed the strongest bias for the big picture, followed by the Liberal Calvinists, and then the Conservative Calvinists and the former Conservative Calvinists turned atheist. The latter two groups performed similarly suggesting that more than seven years without religious practice wasn’t enough to remove the effects of the religion on a person’s attentional mindset. …

They … speculated that religions that place more emphasis on communal solidarity and an external locus of control (with destiny seen as being in God’s hands) could have the opposite effect. To test this, they recruited Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics in Israel and Italy, respectively, and compared their big picture/small details bias with secular citizens from the same countries. Consistent with their predictions, this time the researchers found it was the religious folk who showed a bias for the big picture when compared with the performance of their secular compatriots. As in the first study, these differences were observed even though the participants had been matched for educational background, IQ and age. (more; HT Tyler)

This is part of a larger trend toward more far-thinking in the East. From the paper itself:

People growing up in Asian cultures exhibit a more holistic perceptual style (i.e., are more responsive to the global than to local features of visual objects or scenes) than people growing up in the North-American culture. Westerners seem to focus on salient objects while East Asians attend more to the relationships between objects and background elements or context. This fits with the observation that East Asians allocate their attention more broadly than Americans do and provides converging evidence for the claim … that social interdependence is associated with a more holistic processing style. (more)

It seems religion is generally useful to help instill local norms – far thinking in the East, and near thinking in the West.

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Evasive Erudition

Alex lent me the book Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. Botton exudes erudition, overflowing with fancy words and prestigious literary examples. But he also illustrates a common problem with such erudition: Botton hardly has any analysis.

This at least makes Botton easy to summarize. First, he says it can be very stressful to worry about status. Second, he says the situation is worse today because before folks weren’t so overtly compared to people close to them, while today most folks work in large heavily-ranked organizations. When anyone can grow up to be President, the fact that you didn’t can make you feel worse.

Third and finally, Bottom takes great comfort from the fact we have several competing status hierarchies, some of which “question” others. Instead of trying to be rich, you can instead try to be a great artist, comedian, saint, or bohemian:

Standing witness to hidden lives, novels may act as conceptual counterweights to dominant hierarchical realities. They can reveal that the maid now busying herself with lunch is a creatures of rare sensitivity and moral greatness, while the baron who laughs raucously and owns a silver mind has a heart both withered and acrid. …

A mature solution to status anxiety may be said to begin with the recognition that status is available from, and awarded by, a variety of different audiences – industrialists, bohemians, families, philosophers – and that our choice among them may be free and willed. However unpleasant anxiety over status must be, it is difficult to image a good life entirely free of them, for the fear of failing and disgracing oneself in the eyes of others is an inevitable consequences of harboring ambitions. … Status anxiety may be defined as problematic only insofar as it is inspired by values that we uphold because we are terrified and preternaturally obedient, … because we have grown too imaginably timid to conceive of alternatives.

Philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia … institute new kinds of hierarchies based on sets of values unrecognized by, and critical of, those of the majority. … They have helped to lend legitimacy to those who, in every generation, may be unable to unwilling to comply dutifully with the dominant notions of high status.

But what exactly is the advantage of being in the top 4% for one of five key rankings, instead of the top 20% for a single common ranking.  Botton doesn’t even consider this question.  Tyler suggests we prefer to fool ourselves by overemphasizing the importance of the rankings where we excel. But why is this better than just fooling yourself about your common ranking, or how much ranking matters?

I suspect what is really going on here is that Botton was anxious when he rated only moderately well on the “majority” ranking, but was then relieved to see he ranked fantastically high on certain “non-majority” rankings. “Whew,” said Botton, “This makes my implicit overall ranking much better.”  Alas such comfort isn’t available to most folk.

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Academics Like Nations?

Why are some nations rich and others poor? Decades ago many thought a big part of the answer was “formal institutions.” Folks understood in rough outline many ways in which institutions could go wrong, which suggested many ways to evaluate institution qualiy. And rich nation institutions do tend to get higher marks in such evaluations. The hope was that if poor nations were fitted with formal institutions like those from rich nations, poor nations would also get rich. But academic consensus has moved well away from that view today, as so many attempts to transfer formal institutions from rich to poor nations have failed miserably. Now most see “culture” as a big part of the answer, and culture is not so easily copied, or even measured.

Why are some communities of intellectuals productive at accumulating insight and accuracy, while others instead become dead, distracted, and dysfunctional? We understand in rough outline many ways that intellectual communities can go wrong, and these suggest many ways to evaluate community health. Furthermore, especially productive intellectual communities of the past do seem to get higher marks in such evaluations. This has led many to proclaim certifiers of intellectual accuracy, such as peer review or randomized experiments, which can give observers confidence in a community’s intellectual authority. To decide which conflicting communities to believe in a confusing controversy, one merely need check for official certifying marks.

Unfortunately, just as with nations, quality markers based on broad features of formal institutions are pretty weakly correlated with actual intellectual productivity and insight.  Whether an intellectual community works well depends much more on complex details of its culture, details that are hard for outsiders to discern.  Choosing who to believe based on weak indicators such as the use of peer review would be like guessing which nations are rich using the text of their constitutions. If there were nothing better, of course, its what you’d have to do. But in intellectual controversies you’d do far better to rely on estimates from prediction market, if such were available; they’d do much better at eliciting honest insider assessments about the health of their communities.  Relying on prediction market estimtes would be much more like moving to a nation that is actually rich, instead of one with a rich-sounding constitution.

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How Nations Vary

A few weeks ago I asked some basic questions about great divide stories, and last week I asked what are the key divides in politics.  Now let me review key data relevant to these questions: the main political factors dividing nations.  The most recent edition (out of four) of the World Value Survey asked 92,000 people in 62 nations 250 key value questions. The results:

Two dimensions explain more than 70 percent of the cross-national variance. … The Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not. … Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values, and reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook.

The second major dimension of … brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values. The unprecedented wealth … means that an increasing share of the population has grown up taking survival for granted. Thus, priorities have shifted from an overwhelming emphasis on economic and physical security toward an increasing emphasis on subjective well-being, self-expression and quality of life.

But wealth is better correlated with a simple sum of these two factors. Last November I complained:

We need not accept their labels. … Factor analysis strongly suggests the most informative subspaces to consider, but says less about the best axes to consider. … It seems pretty clear that differing wealth is a key factor driving values differences. Given that one factor is the lower left to upper right wealth factor, the other factor is an upper left to lower right factor, stretching from [East] Russia to the [West] USA. But what is the essence of that factor? … [Perhaps] an “inward” vs. “outward” focus … when the priority is making families and personal relations work well … [vs.] when the priority is larger community health and threats. … [Western] cultures where invasion was less an issue tended to evolve family oriented values, while … [Eastern others] focused more on larger community solidarity.

Judge for yourself.   I encourage readers to ponder the following patterns, to see what sense they can make of them. Here are official WVS diagrams, showing key values, then nations, in their two-factor space, but relabeled with RICH, POOR, WEST, EAST poles: Continue reading "How Nations Vary" »

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A Med Datum

From a reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

My work at an ophthalmologist’s office in an assistant capacity has provided anecdotal illustrations of many of the points Robin has made about medicine. One particular instance of the notion that medicine is more about showing you care than health follows:

Our practice has clear instructions about sterility. We are to use alcohol swabs to clean all pieces of equipment in the practice that come into contact with the patient’s person. Practically, this means forehead and chin rests on equipment used to test eye pressure, peripheral vision, etc. are scrubbed for every patient. Notably, we are told to perform this cleaning while the patient is being quizzed on his medical history, rather than in-between patients. It seems clear here that we want the patients to know we are being sterile, even if it takes time away from the actual exam.

Yet for all this production about sterility, after performing said tests, we do something that puts patients at significant risk for disease exposure. We apply dilation eye drops to patients—drops coming from bottles that have already been used on perhaps 50 patients prior! The probability that an eyelash or more has touched the tip of these eye drop bottles over the course of the multiple days they are used until empty is very high. Moreover, unlike the chin or forehead, the eye is a mucus membrane and is thus a more likely target for infection. This is particularly true considering the fact that our practice routinely sees patients for the express purpose of diagnosing and treating their eye infections!

Yes, we have clear instructions not to touch the patient’s eyes or eyelashes while applying said drops. But mistakes are definitely made. Many patients are not particularly compliant about keeping their eyes open while drops are being applied. The technicians that administer the drops are often sparingly trained (I myself have learned exclusively on the job) and have minimal oversight/feedback. Yet our doctors require that patients be dilated before they see them. Mistakes occur.

Meanwhile a foolproof fix exists: use individual droppers to administer the eye drops. My hypothesis as to why this has not taken place is that the practice feels little pressure from patients to make this change—perhaps the outward shows of sterility are assurance enough.

To reiterate, we seem to be biased toward making outwardly visible demonstrations of our ability to keep a sterile environment (scrubbing chin and head rests) but fail to do simple things that are less visible that would significantly cut into the potential for disease transmission. The result is, frankly, in the course of an eye health examination, our practice probably aids in the transmission of eye diseases. This is anecdotal evidence, but then again, data is just a collection of anecdotes.

Do you see how medicine could do more harm than good, even if almost all the time docs and their assistants feel in their hearts a sincere desire to help?  Only once in a rare while would someone raise an embarrassing question like the above, making folks momentarily doubt their effectiveness.

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God Near or No Mind Hair

(I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the following argument isn’t original, but I haven’t seen it elsewhere yet.)

If our descendants do not destroy themselves, then over the next trillion years they may become knowledgeable and powerful enough to create new baby universes that expand to look much like the universe we can see. Such a universe might then evolve its own intelligence, which would grow powerful enough to repeat the process. A self-reproducing universe would have a chance p of evolving intelligence, which would then birth an expected number N of similar baby universes, such that p*N >1.

Our descendants might even become powerful enough to imprint themselves upon such a baby universe. An imprinted universe would somewhere contain mind(s) with important specific similarities, such as memories, personality, or values, to the minds of its creators.

One of the following two remarkable conclusions seems likely:

  1. No Mind Hair – Even if our descendants command billions of galaxies and study physics for trillions of years, they still cannot create self-reproducing baby universes, and reliably imprint their minds on them. Such a task is beyond the abilities even of such gods. They are trapped; their baby universes just cannot have “mind hair.”
  2. Gods Nearby – Somewhere out there in our universe is probably hiding the imprinted minds of our universe’s creators. If we search long and far enough and understand physics well enough, we may well find them.

Here’s why. If our descendants can make self-reproducing universes, then there’s a non-zero chance they will do so, and if so there’d be an infinity of such universes. But out of an infinity of expected universes we are quite unlikely to be in the first, making it quite likely that our universe had creators. If such creators could imprint their minds on our universe they probably would have done it. So, either imprinted versions of our creators are probably out there somewhere in our universe, or no feasible power can reliably mind-imprint a self-reproducing baby universe.  Such imprinting could at best succeed rarely. QED. Either conclusion is remarkable.

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Bike Helmet Doubts

As a regular bike rider and helmet-wearer, I was surprised to hear serious substantial doubts about their usefulness (hat tip Brandon Reinhart). I’m pretty sure I’d want a helmet as a soldier or motorcylclist, but that doesn’t mean any helmet helps against any injury. The bike helmet wikipedia page is dominated by helmet skeptics, and there are several well-argued skeptic pages out there, such as this page full of studies.  Consider, for example, the effects of a 1992 helmet law in Western Australia:

WAbikediebikegraphCyclist head injuries didn’t obviously fall a lot, and non-head injuries rose a lot.  There are lots of conflicting studies (e.g,. pro and con), but the best skeptics seem at least as competent as the best pro-helmet researchers.  Selected quotes from wikipedia: Continue reading "Bike Helmet Doubts" »

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Salacious Sunday

With that title, you’ve been warned. All courtesy Sudhir Venkatesh.

First, much sex is about status:

I’ve been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per “session”) in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men … pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don’t ultimately involve sex. … “Men like it when you listen. … and to tell them how great they are.” (more)

Ghetto clergy charge for everything, accept sex as payment:

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Venkatesh’s [ghetto] account is the role of neighborhood ministers. Clergy resolve disputes, but they don’t do it for free. Numerous ministers accept “contributions” from gangs and drug dealers for their services. They take other forms of payment, as well; Bird, the prostitute, has serviced “most of the preachers in this community.” Other ministers have been known to hide guns, drugs, and stolen property for a fee. Nannies rely on preachers for referrals to families but must pay a 10 percent commission. The residents are unshocked by all of this. (more)

Street walkers do it less than honeymooners; more details of their lives:

[Chicago] street prostitution yields an average wage of $27 per hour. … This generates less than $20,000 annually for a women working year round in prostitution. … The wage of a prostitute is four times greater than the non-prostitution earnings these women report (approximately $7 per hour). … A prostitute would expect an annual average of a dozen incidents of violence and 300 instances of unprotected sex. … Prostitutes are officially arrested only once per 450 tricks, with johns arrested even less frequently. Punishment conditional on arrest is limited – roughly 1 in 10 prostitute arrests leads to a prison sentence, with a mean sentence length of 1.2 years. …

For prostitutes who do not work with pimps (and thus are working the streets), roughly three percent of all their tricks are freebies given to police. … On average the prostitutes work roughly thirteen hours per week, performing roughly 10 sex acts total. Average revenues generated per week are about $340. … Prostitutes also steal an average of $20 per week from customers. … The women report being a victim of violence on the job (either by a client or a pimp) about once per month of working. … Women who work with pimps are much less likely to be injured by customers. … Pimps, however, hurt their prostitutes enough to roughly equalize the number of injuries. … Total weekly earnings from these outside [non-prostitution] jobs … total … $110 per woman. (more)

I failed to find average weekly sex rates for high end prostitutes – anyone do better?

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Overconfidence Signals

We test three different theories about observed relative overconfidence. The first theory notes that simple statistical comparisons … are compatible with a Bayesian model. … Data on 1,016 individuals’ relative ability judgments about two cognitive tests rejects the Bayesian model. The second theory … We test an important specific prediction of [self-image concern] models: individuals with a higher belief will be less likely to search for further information about their skill, because this information might make this belief worse. Our data also reject this prediction. The third theory is that overconfidence is induced by the desire to send positive signals to others about one’s own skill. … Personality traits strongly affect relative ability judgments in a pattern that is consistent with this. … Overconfidence in statements is most likely to be induced by social concerns than by either of the other two factors. (more; HT Tyler)

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