Friday, May 25, 2012

Today's Evo-Psycho Story: Not All Men Are Pr**ks

This is written up on Slate:
In an article soon to be published in Evolution and Human Behavior, University of Texas–Austin graduate student Cari Goetz and her colleagues explored what they called the sexual exploitability hypothesis. The hypothesis is based on the differences between male and female reproductive strategies as humans evolved. For ancestral women, casual intercourse with an emotionally unattached man who had no clear intention of sticking around to raise any resulting offspring constituted a massive genetic gamble. By contrast, for a man with somewhere around 85 million sperm cells churned out every day—per testicle—the frivolous expenditure of gametes was far less detrimental to his genetic interests. Goetz and her team began with the assumption that—because our brains evolved long before prophylactics entered the picture—female cognition is still sensitive to the pregnancy-related consequences of uncommitted sex and women remain more reluctant than men to engage in it. They set out to test the idea that any indication that a woman’s guard is lowered—that she’s “sexually exploitable”—is a turn-on for your average man. “[T]he assessment of a woman’s immediate vulnerability,” surmise the authors, “may be central to the activation of psychological mechanisms related to sexual exploitation.”

Get it?  Men's ideal reproductive strategy is to toss their seed around with abandon.  Women's is the reverse, so to speak, and therefore men will try to coerce women into having no-strings-attached sex whereas women will try to avoid being so coerced.  This, my friends, is the second kind of evolutionary psychology in action, the kind I call EP, the kind where the fact that we have no knowledge of the reproductive strategies of our ancient ancestors can be ignored and replaced with theorizing of the above sort.

That fertilization is not exactly the same thing as passing one's genes on to the next generation (and the one after that), that pregnancy in that prehistoric era must have been a very dangerous state, that bringing up a child to the point where he or she, in turn, was fertile was even harder!  But all that is ignored in the story which states that men's reproductive strategy is to mate with as many women as possible.  Perhaps that wasn't the strategy which worked best?  Perhaps it was?  We don't actually know.

Never mind.  The Slate popularization assumes that we all accept that basic premise, and then continues:
This is an inflammatory hypothesis, of course, and the language employed in the field doesn’t help matters. It’s worth noting that in the evolutionary psychology sense, the word exploitable simply means that a woman is willing or can be more easily pressured into having sex—which takes her own desires, rather disturbingly, out of the equation. Even if she’s the aggressor, a prostitute, or a certifiable nymphomaniac, having casual sex with her would still constitute “exploiting” her (or at least her body), according to this model.
So how did this team put their sexual “exploitability” hypothesis to the test? Goetz and her colleagues planned to call a bunch of undergraduate males into the lab and ask them to rate a set of women in terms of attractiveness based on their photographs. But first they needed to pick the appropriate images. To figure out which sorts of women might be deemed most receptive to a sexual advance or most vulnerable to male pressure or coercion, they asked a large group of students (103 men and 91 women) to nominate some “specific actions, cues, body postures, attitudes, and personality characteristics” that might indicate receptivity or vulnerability. These could be psychological in nature (e.g., signs of low self-esteem, low intelligence, or recklessness), or they might be more contextual (e.g., fatigue, intoxication, separation from family and friends). A third category includes signs that the woman is physically weak, and thus more easily overpowered by a male (e.g., she’s slow-footed or small in stature). According to the authors, rape constitutes one extreme end of the “exploitation” spectrum—cheesy pickup lines the other.
By asking students for the relevant cues, the experimenters reasoned, they’d keep their own ideas about what makes a woman “exploitable” from coloring their study. When all was said and done, the regular folks in the lab had come up with a list of 88 signs that—in their expert undergraduate opinions—a woman might be an especially good target for a man who wanted to score. Here’s a sampling of what they came up with: “lip lick/bite,” “over-shoulder look,” “sleepy,” “intoxicated,” “tight clothing,” "fat," "short," "unintelligent,” “punk,” “attention-seeking,” and “touching breast.”

May I remind you that all this is supposed to have a foundation in a reproductive advantage for men?  If we take the basic evo-psycho hypothesis seriously, then one might predict that men would choose especially capable women for those one-night stands.

After all, the JustSo story seems to assume that the women will bring up any children they have, even if the men walk out on them.  Otherwise the behavior would not have any particular reproductive advantage.  Given how hard being a single-mother must have been in that imaginary African past, the more capable a woman was the more likely she was to pass the man's genes on after that quick one-night stand.

But lo and behold!  The exact reverse seems to be the criterion which is used to pick those one-night stands.  Adjectives such as "weak" and "unintelligent" and "sleepy" are used to describe a good target for the prehistoric pickup artist.

And of course none of these judgements have much to do with prehistory.  They do have something to do with a subset of American undergraduates and the culture which has produced them.  That's about all that can be said here.

Now let's dive into all that rape-related shit.  To repeat, the study looked for indicators of vulnerability:

These could be psychological in nature (e.g., signs of low self-esteem, low intelligence, or recklessness), or they might be more contextual (e.g., fatigue, intoxication, separation from family and friends). A third category includes signs that the woman is physically weak, and thus more easily overpowered by a male (e.g., she’s slow-footed or small in stature). According to the authors, rape constitutes one extreme end of the “exploitation” spectrum—cheesy pickup lines the other.

Hmm.  We are getting back to rape as an evolutionary adaptation here.  But the actual indicators appear to be a hotch-potch of unrelated things, ranging from behavior which appears to be sexually inviting (touching breast or tight clothing or over-shoulder look) to behavior which reflects vulnerability (intoxicated or short).   And, of course, "unintelligent."

The follow-up study to the initial one found that "not all men are pricks" in the words of the popularizer:
In a follow-up study (that ended up being published first), the authors tried to add some nuance to their sexual exploitability hypothesis. Graduate student David Lewis led a project to narrow in on the specific type of man who would be most alert to the sort of "exploitability" cues outlined above. Not every man, it seems, is equally proficient at homing in on these weak spots in women. So he and his colleagues asked 72 straight men to evaluate the same photos as before, and in the same way. But this time, the researchers also measured some key personality traits in the male raters, as well as the extent to which they desired and pursued uncommitted sex. The students were asked, for instance: “With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse without having interest in a long-term committed relationship with that person,” and, “How often do you experience sexual arousal when you are in contact with someone you are not in a committed romantic relationship with?”
The main finding to emerge from this follow-up study was that the more promiscuity-minded men who happened also to have deficiencies in personal empathy and warmth were the ones most vigilant and responsive to female “exploitability” cues. Men without this critical calculus—say, a disagreeable man who prefers monogamy, or a caring one who likes to play the field—are more likely to have these cues fly right past their heads and miss the opportunity to capitalize on an “easy lay.” So rather than the sexual exploitability hypothesis summing up the male brain as one big ball of undifferentiated stereotype, the caveat here is that there are multiple subtypes of reproductive strategies in men. Not all men are pricks, in other words.

Do you know what I'd like to know?   How would those "more promiscuity-minded men who happened to also to have deficiencies in personal empathy and warmth" score in a study about, say, theft?  I'm not at all sure that what that study found has much to do with sexual selection per se.  It may have more to do with certain personality types and how they interact with the world in general than about the reproductive inheritance assigned to these men (which appears to be the use of coercion and perhaps violence).

Does any of this prove anything about natural selection?  The popularizer seems to think so because he suggests that Mother Nature is a misogynist:

It’s easy to see the sexual exploitability hypothesis as misogynistic, but I don’t believe the authors are advancing a chauvinistic ideology. Take those kinds of complaints up with natural selection, not the theorists untangling its sometimes-wicked ways.

Who knows what ideology EP practitioners have?  Ahem.    Still, I'd argue that this particular popularization is almost as misandrist as it is misogynist.  But most importantly, these two studies have not proven the sexual exploitability hypothesis as a result of natural selection.  Nothing of the sort!

One must not make those giant theoretical leaps without the intervening steps, you know.  We have no evidence about the way sexual selection functioned in some prehistoric era, the studies appear not to control for the effects of culture and the study of young American undergraduates looking at pictures on computers cannot be regarded as some kind of proof of genetic memes having to do with how human men choose one-night stand partners.

Still, EP practitioners often assume that those giant theoretical leaps have already been made.  Hence the suggestion that one should take the complaints to natural selection.  That's probably my strongest problem with the EP folk:  They tend to treat their theories like religion.

That's particularly notable in something like this popularization where the studies popularized address something (exploitative behavior) which is clearly not the main reproductive strategy of human males if it even is one at all.   That one appears to be pair-bonding and the creation of larger family groups.

But discussing the most obvious candidates for natural selection isn't anywhere near as much fun as discussing rape or being a pickup artist as reproductive strategies approved by Mother Nature.
And what about that question the popularizer asks, as a challenge?  This one:

I think it’s fair to say that the findings are consistent with the authors’ sexual exploitability hypothesis—and evolved sex differences in reproductive strategies more generally. But here we run into one of the consistent criticisms of evolutionary psychology, which is that there can be a “just-so story” to explain every data set. Perhaps the effects reported by Goetz and her team can be interpreted just as well from a non-evolutionary perspective. (If you think so, I’d be curious to hear your ideas in the comments section below.) However you interpret them, results like these can feel self-evident, given that “obviously” men would find drunk and air-headed women easy to screw. But we also must be on the lookout for our own retrospective biases: After all, I’m not so sure most people would have predicted that men would also find such women more attractive. All else being equal, would you really have thought that the average man would subjectively perceive such women to be physically more alluring than their sober, bright-minded peers?

Answering that question really requires getting the studies and then wading through them.  Because the list of indicators of exploitability is all over the place.  It's pretty easy to see why a woman touching her bare breasts would be regarded as sexually attractive or at least inviting sexual approaches.  It's also possible that sexually aroused women have that sleepy look.  Or, rather, that what is called a "sleepy" look in the studies might be interpreted as the look a woman might have when approaching an orgasm.  Likewise, the way one looks when drunk on wine might not look that different from the way one looks when drunk on desire.

To give a more precise response I'd have to read the studies, alas.  And then I'd be even angrier than I am already.