Tag Archives: discrimination

Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

However as usual, we are focussing on the tiny gender related speck of a much larger issue. Whenever a person has more than one characteristic, they give others the impression that those characteristics tend to go together, externalising to everyone else with those characteristics. When we show male criminals on the news, it is an externality to all other men. When we show clowns with big red noses it is an externality to all other people with big red noses. When I go outside it gives all onlookers a minuscule increase in their expectation that a tallish person will tend to be brown haired, female, dressed foreignly and not in possession of a car.

Most characteristics don’t end up delineating much of an externality, because we mostly don’t bother keeping track of all the expectations we could have connected to tallish people. What makes something like this a stronger effect is the viewers deciding that tallishness is more or less of a worthwhile category to accrue stereotypes about. I expect gender is well and truly forever high on the list of characteristics popularly considered worth stereotyping about, but people who look at everything with the intent of finding and advertising any hint of gender differential implied by it can only make this worse.

Or better. As I pointed out before, while expecting groups to be the same causes externalities, they are smaller ones than if everyone expected everyone to have average human characteristics until they had perfect information about them. If people make more good inferences from other people’s characteristics, they end up sooner treating the sex objects as sex objects and the formidable intellectuals as formidable intellectuals and so forth. So accurately informing people about every way in which the experiences of men and women differ can help others stereotype more accurately. However there are so many other ways to improve accurate categorisation, why obsess over the gender tinged corner of the issue?

In sum, I agree that women who look like ‘sex objects’ increase the expectation by viewers of more women being ‘sex objects’. I think this is a rational and socially useful response on the part of viewers, relative to continuing to believe in a lower rate of sex objects amongst women. I also think it is virtually certain that in any given case the women in question should go on advertising themselves as sex objects, since they clearly produce a lot of benefit for themselves and viewers that way, and the externality is likely minuscule. There is just as much reason to think that any other person categorisable in any way should not do anything low status, since the sex object issue is a small part of a ubiquitous externality. Obsessing over the gender aspect of such externalities (and everything else) probably helps draw attention to gender as a useful categorisation, perhaps ultimately for the best. As is often the case though, if you care about the issue, only being able to see the gender related part of it is probably not useful.

What do you think? Is concern over some women being pictured as sex objects just an example of people looking at a ubiquitous issue and seeing nothing but the absurdly tiny way in which it might affect women more than men sometimes? Or is there some reason it stands apart from every other way that people with multiple characteristics help and harm those who are like them?

Update: Robin Hanson also just responded to Easterly, investigating in more detail the possible causal mechanisms people could be picturing for women in swimsuits causing harm. Easterly responded to him, saying that empirical facts are irrelevant to his claim.

Why can’t a man be more like a woman?

Women are often encouraged to move into male dominated activities, such as engineering. This is not because overall interest in engineering appears to be lacking, but because women’s interest seems to be less than men’s. This is arguably for cultural reasons, so it is argued that culture is inhibiting women from pursuing careers that they may be otherwise suited to and happy with.

If the symptom is that women do less engineering than men, why do we always encourage women to do more engineering, rather than encouraging men to do less? It seems we think men are presently endowed with the perfect level of engineering interest, and women should feel the same, but are impaired by culture.

This could make sense. For instance, perhaps all humans somehow naturally have the socially optimal level of engineering interest, but then insidious cultural influences eat away those interests in women. I think this is roughly how many people model the situation.

This model seems unlikely to be anywhere near the truth. Culture is packed with influences. These influences are not specific to inhibiting women’s impulses to do supposedly masculine things. They tell everyone what sort of people engineers are supposed to be, how much respect a person will get for technical abilities, how much respect they get for wealth, which interests will be taken to indicate the personal qualities they wish to express, which personal qualities are good to express, which cities are most attractive to live in, etc etc etc. Everyone’s level of inclination to be an engineer is significantly composed of cultural influences.

A cacophony of cultural influences may somehow culminate in a socially optimum level of interest in engineering of course. But it is hard to believe that some spectacular invisible mechanism orchestrates this perfect equilibrium for all cultural influences, except those that are gender specific. If there are fleets of rogue cultural influences sabotaging women’s inclinations, this must cast suspicion on the optimality of all other less infamous cultural influences.

Besides the incredible unlikelihood that all cultural influences except gender related ones culminate in a socially optimal level of interest in a given activity, it just doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on. Socially optimal cultural influences would mainly correct for externalities, for instance encouraging activities which help others beyond what the doer would be compensated. But this is not the criterion we use for dealing out respect. It may be part of it, or related to it, but for instance we generally do not respect mothers as much as CEOs, though many people would accept both that mothers have huge benefits often for little compensation and that CEOs are paid more than they are worth. We respect the CEO more probably because it is more impressive to be a CEO.

Incidentally, the correction of cultural influences is another example of expressing pro-female sympathy by encouraging females to do manly things. It seems here we accept that many male jobs are higher status than many female jobs, so to give women more status we would like them to do more of these jobs. Notice that while more men operate garbage trucks, there is less encouragement for women to do that. But my main point here is that we are obsessed with equalising the few cultural influences which are related to gender, while ignoring the sea of other influences which may misdirect both genders equally.

If a gender gap only tells us that either men or women or both have the wrong level of interest in engineering, and we don’t know what the right level is, trying to move women’s interest to equal men’s seems about as likely to be an improvement as it is a deterioration, except to the extent people like equality for its own sake, or where the cultural influences have other effects, such as making women feel less capable or worthy. If we are really concerned about people finding places in the world which suit them and let them make a worthy contribution, we should probably focus on other influences too, rather than being mesmerised by the unfairness of a politically salient discrepancy in influence.

So when people motivate their concern about a gender gap with the thought that there might for instance be capable and potentially interested women out there, missing their calling to be engineers, I can’t feel this is a pressing problem. Without investigating the rest of the cultural influences involved, there might just as easily be capable and potentially interested men out there missing their calling to not be engineers. Or perhaps (as I suspect) both genders should be engineers more often than men are, or more rarely than women are.

Does anti-discrimination look like discrimination?

By my reckoning, affirmative action should often make organizations look more biased in the direction they seek to correct, rather than less.

Imagine two groups of people in roughly equal numbers, type A and type B. It is thought by many that B people are unfairly discriminated against in employment. The management of organisation X believe this, so they create a policy to ensure new employees include roughly equally many As and Bs.

The effects of this policy include:

  1. a large benefit to many Bs previously near the threshold for being employed
  2. a small cost to all type Bs working at X, who will to varying degrees be suspected more of not meriting their position.
  3. a large cost to many As previously near the threshold for being employed
  4. a small benefit to all As working at X, who will to varying degrees be suspected of more than meriting their position.

Look at the effects on type Bs. Those well clear of the threshold have a net cost, while those near enough to it have a net benefit. This should in decrease the motivation of those well above the threshold to work at X and increase the motivation of those of lower ability to try. This should decrease the average quality of type B employees at X, even before accounting for the new influx of lower quality candidates. At the same time the opposite should happen with type As.

Now suppose the only quota at X is in hiring. Promotions have no similar adjustment. On top of whatever discrimination exists against Bs, there should now be even fewer Bs promoted, because they are on average lower quality at X, due to the affirmative action in hiring. Relative to less concerned organisations, X should end up with a greater proportion of As at the top of the organization.

Is this what really happens? If not, why not?

On behalf of physical things

Most people inadvertently affect the reputations of groups they are seen as part of while they go about other activities. But some people also purposely exploit the fact that their behaviour and thoughts will be seen as evidence of those of a larger group, to give the false impression their views are widely supported. These people are basically stealing the good reputation of groups; they enjoy undeserved attention and leave the groups’ images polluted.

Such parasites often draw attention to what a very ordinary member of the targeted group they are, or just straight out claim to be speaking for that group. People who ‘have been a left voter for fifty years, but this year might just have to vote conservative’ are getting much of their force from implicitly claiming high representativeness of a large and respected group, and those who claim they write ‘what women really think‘ are more overt. From the perspective of women who think for instance, this is almost certain to be a damaging misrepresentation; any view other than your own is worse, and people who have good arguments are less likely to steal the authority of some unsuspecting demographic as support. It is also costly to listeners who are mislead, for instance about the extent to which women really think. Costs of prevention ignored then, less of this is better.

Purposeful exploitation of this sort should be easier than other externalities to groups’ reputations to punish and to want to punish; it’s easier to see, it’s directed at a specific group, and it’s more malevolent. However the public can’t punish or ignore all claims or implicit suggestions of representativeness, as there are also many useful and accurate ones. Often much of the interest in learning what specific strangers’ views are requires assuming that they are representative, and we keenly generalize this way. So mostly it is up to groups to identify and punish their own dishonest exploiters, usually via social pressure.

This means groups are easier to exploit if their members aren’t in a position to punish, because they don’t have the resources to deny respect that matters to the offenders. If you claim to be broadcasting what women think, most women don’t have the time or means to publicize the shamefulness of your malicious externalizing much. Even if they did they would not have much to gain from it personally, so there is a tragedy of the commons. And in big groups it is hard for a member or several to know whether another supposed group member is lying about the group’s average characteristics; they may just be a minority in the demographic themselves. Respectable groups are also good. Last, if most people have a lot of contact with the group in question, and the topic is a common one, it will be harder to misrepresent. So large, respectable, powerless or otherwise engaged groups who don’t commonly discuss the topic with the rest of society are best to make use of in this way.

I haven’t seen this kind of activity punished much, it doesn’t seem to be thought of as especially shameful. But given that, it seems rarer than I would guess. For instance, if you wanted to push a radical political agenda, why join the disrespected minor party who pushes that agenda rather than a moderate party, which allows you to suggest to your audience that even the larger and more reputable moderate party is coming around to the idea?

Statistical discrimination is externality deliniation

Discrimination based on real group average characteristics is a kind of externality within groups. Observers choose which groups to notice, then the behaviour of those in the groups alters the overall reputation of the group. We mostly blame those who choose the groups for this, not those who externalize within them. But if  we somehow stopped thinking in terms of any groups other than the whole population, the externality would still exist, you just wouldn’t notice it because it would be amongst all humans equally. If someone cheated you, you you would expect all people to cheat you a little more, whereas now you may notice the cheater’s other characteristics and put most of the increased expectation on similar people, such as Lebanese people or men.

Does this perspective change where to lay blame for the harm caused by such discrimination? A bit, if the point of blame is to change behaviour. Changing the behaviour of the category makers is still useful, though we probably try to change them in the wrong direction sometimes. But another option is to deal with the externalities in the usual fashion: subsidise positive externalities and tax negative ones. This is done via social pressure within some groups. Families often use such a system, thus the derision given for ‘bringing shame to the family’, along with the rewards of giving parents something to accidentally mention to their friends. Similar is seen in schools and teams sometimes I think, and in the occasional accusation ‘you give x a bad name!’, though that is often made by someone outside the group. I haven’t heard of it done much in many other groups or via money rather than social pressure. Are there more such examples?

One reason it is hard to enforce accountability for such externalities is that boundaries of groups are often quite unclear, and people near the edge feel unfairly treated if they fall on the more costly side. The less clear is the group boundary the more people are near the edge. Plus people toward the edge might only be seen as in the group a quarter of the time or something, so they aren’t externalizing or being externalized to so much. Families are a relatively clearly bounded group, so it is easier for them to punish and reward effects on family reputation. Gender is a relatively clear boundary too (far from completely clear, but more so than ‘tall people’), so I would expect this to work better there. Could women coordinate to improve the reputation of women in general by disrespecting the ones who complain too much for instance? Should they?

Of  course in a few areas making one group look better just makes another group look worse, so if all the externalities were internalized things would look just as they are. I don’t think this is usually the case, or the entire case.

Discrimination: less is more

‘Discrimination’ can mean all sorts of things. One of the main ones, and what it will mean in this post, is differential treatment of people from different groups, due to real or imagined differences in average group features.  Discrimination is a problem because the many people who don’t have the supposed average features of a group they are part of are misconstrued as having them, and offered inappropriate treatment and opportunities as a result. For instance a capable and trustworthy middle aged man may miss out on a babysitting job for which he is truly the best candidate because the parents take his demographic information as reason not to trust him with their children.

This means that ‘discrimination’ is really a misnomer; this problem is due to lack of discrimination. In particular lack of discrimination between members of the groups. For instance if everyone could instantly discriminate between women with different levels of engineering ability, generalizations would be useless, assuming engineering ability is really the issue of interest to the discriminators. Generalizations aren’t even offensive when enough discrimination is possible. Telling a 6’5” Asian man that he’s probably short since he’s Asian is an ineffective and confusing insult.  Even if observers can’t discriminate perfectly, more ability to discriminate means less misrepresentation. For instance a test score doesn’t perfectly determine people’s abilities at engineering, but it is much more accurate than judging by their gender. This is assuming the generalizations have some degree of accuracy, if they are arbitrary it doesn’t make much difference whether you use false generalizations of larger groups or smaller ones.

The usual solution suggested for ‘discrimination’  is for everyone to forget about groups and act only on any specific evidence they have about individuals. Implicitly this advice is to expect everyone to have the average characteristics of the whole population except where individual evidence is available. Notice that generalizing over a larger group like this should increase the misrepresentation of people, and thus their inappropriate treatment.  Recall that that was the original problem with discrimination.

If the parents mentioned earlier were undiscriminating they would be much more trusting of middle aged men, but they would also be less trusting of other demographics such as teenage girls. All evidence they had ever got of any group or type of person being untrustworthy would be interpreted only as weaker evidence that people are untrustworthy. This would reduce the expected trustworthiness of their best candidate, so more often they would not find it worth going out in the first place. Now the man still misses out on the position, but so does the competing teenage girl plus the parents don’t get to go out. Broadening group generalizations to the extreme makes ‘discrimination’ worse, which makes sense when we consider that discriminating between people as much as possible (judging them on their own traits) is the best way to avoid ‘discrimination’.

It may be that something else about discrimination bothers you, for instance if you are most concerned with the equality status of competing social groups, then population level generalizations are the way to go. But if you want to stop discrimination because it causes people to be treated as less than they are, then work on making it easier to discriminate between people further, rather than harder to discriminate between them at all. Help people signal their traits cheaply and efficiently distinguish between others. In the absence of perfect discrimination between individuals, the other end of the spectrum is not the next best thing, it’s the extreme of misrepresentation.

Why is gender equality so rude?

I don’t see much anti-female sexism in my immediate surrounds; I notice more that is anti-male. But one place I have been continually put off by anti-female sexism is in attempts to promote gender equality. It seems especially prominent in efforts to seduce me to traditionally non-feminine academic areas. If my ratio of care about interesting subjects vs. social situations were different I might have been put off by the seeming prospect of being treated like a defective sacrifice to political correctness.

Some examples from the advertising and equity policies of various academic places I’ve been:

‘Women can make valuable contributions to …’ implies that this is an issue of serious contention. If most people thought women were of zero value in some fields, this would be a positive statement about women, but they don’t. Worse, the author can’t make a stronger statement than that it is possible for women to create more than zero value.

Appeals to consider myself capable of e.g. engineering despite being female make the same error but this time suggesting that the viewer herself is likely in doubt. Such a statement can only be useful to women so ignorant of their own characteristics that they need to rely on their gender as deciding evidence in what career to devote their lives to, so it suggests the female audience are clueless. The smartest women have likely noticed that they are smart, and will not be encouraged by the prospect of joining a field where others expect them to be intellectually insecure special people to be reassured and included for human rights purposes.

Statements such as women are valuable because they can provide a different perspective on computer science, imply that women can’t understand a computer the usual way, but might help figure out how to make it more personable or something. If this is true, why not just say ‘women are not that valuable in computer science’?

Policies of employing a certain number of female staff to provide role models or leadership for female students imply that females would rather aspire to femalehood than to superior ability (presumably the decision criteria forgone).

Recommendations that courses like mathematics should be more focussed on women say that while existing mathematics is about completely gender neutral abstract concepts, not men, it is unsuitable for women. Presumably either women are not up to abstract concepts, or women can’t be motivated to think about something other than women. Despite whichever inadequacy, they should be encouraged to do mathematics anyway by being taught to work out the mean angle of their cleavage or something.

Why do so many attempts at equality seem so counterproductive?  The above seem to fall into two processes: first, assuming that society believes women might be useless, advertising this, and arguing against it so badly as to confirm it, and second, trying to suck up to women by making things more female related at the cost of features capable women would care for. Perhaps those more concerned about anti-female sexism make these errors more because they have an unusually strong impression of society being anti-female and their own obsession with femininity makes it easy to overestimate that of most women.

Might law save us from uncaring AI?

Robin has claimed a few times that law is humans’ best bet for protecting ourselves from super-intelligent robots. This seemed unlikely to me, and he didn’t offer much explanation. I figured laws would protect us while AI was about as intellectually weak as us, but not if when it was far more powerful. I’ve changed my mind somewhat though, so let me explain.

When is it efficient to kill humans?

At first glance, it looks like creatures with the power to take humans’ property would do so if the value of the property minus the cost of stealing it was greater than the value of anything the human might produce with it. When AI is so cheap and efficient that the human will be replaced immediately, and the replacement will use resources enough better to make up for the costs of stealing and replacement, the human is better dead. This might be soon after humans are overtaken. However such reasoning is really imagining one powerful AI’s dealings with one person, then assuming that generalizes to many of each. Does it?

What does law do?

In a group of agents where none is more powerful than the rest combined, and there is no law, basically the strongest coalition of agents gets to do what they want, including stealing others’ property. There is an ongoing cost of conflict, so overall the group would do better if they could avoid this situation, but those with power at a given time benefits from stealing, so it goes on. Law  basically lets everyone escape the dynamic of groups dominating one another (or some of it) by everyone in a very large group pre-committing to take the side of whoever is being dominated in smaller conflicts. Now wherever the strong try to dominate the weak, the super-strong awaits to crush the strong. Continue reading

How does raising awareness stop prejudice?

Imagine you are in the habit of treating people who have lesser social status as if they are below you. One day you hear an advertisement talking about a group of people you know nothing about. It’s main thrust is that these people are as good as everyone else, or perhaps even special in some ways which the advertisement informs you are good, and that therefore you should respect them.

ANTaR informs us that Aboriginals do not get enough respect

ANTaR informs us that Aboriginals do not get enough respect

What do you infer?

  1. These people are totally normal except for being special in various exciting ways, and you should respect them.
  2. These people are so poorly respected by others that somebody feels the need to buy advertising to rectify the situation.

What about the next day when you hear that other employers are going to court for failing to employ these people enough?

I can’t think of any better way to stop people wanting to associate with someone than by suggesting to them that nobody else wants to. Low social status seems like the last thing you can solve by raising awareness.