Tag Archives: mating

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.

How does information affect hookups?

With social networking sites enabling the romantically inclined to find out more about a potential lover before the first superficial chat than they previously would have in the first month of dating, this is an important question for the future of romance.

Lets assume that in looking for partners, people care somewhat about rank and and somewhat about match. That is, they want someone ‘good enough’ for them who also has interests and personality that they like.

First look at the rank component alone. Assume for a moment that people are happy to date anyone they believe is equal to or better than them in desirability. Then if everyone has a unique rank and perfect information, there will never be any dating at all. The less information they have the more errors in comparing, so the more chance that A will think B is above her while B thinks A is above him. Even if people are willing to date people somewhat less desirable than they, the same holds – by making more errors you trade wanting more desirable people for wanting less desirable people, who are more likely to want you back , even if they are making their own errors. So to the extent that people care about rank, more information means fewer hookups.

How about match then? Here it matters exactly what people want in a match. If they mostly care about their beloved having certain characteristics,  more information will let everyone hear about more people who meet their requirements. On the other hand if we mainly want to avoid people with certain characteristics, more information will strike more people off the list. We might also care about an overall average desirability of characteristics – then more information is as likely to help or harm assuming the average person is averagely desirable. Or perhaps we want some minimal level of commonality, in which case more information is always a good thing – it wouldn’t matter if you find out she is a cannibalistic alcoholic prostitute, as long as eventually you discover those board games you both like. There are more possibilities.

You may argue that you will get all the information you want in the end, the question is only speed – the hookups prevented by everyone knowing more initially are those that would have failed later anyway. However flaws that dissuade you from approaching one person with a barge pole are often ‘endearing’ when you discover them too late, and once they are in place loving delusions can hide or remove attention from more flaws, so the rate of information discovery matters. To the extent we care about rank then, more information should mean fewer relationships. To the extent we care about match, it’s unclear without knowing more about what we want.

Paternity tests endanger the unborn

Should paternity testing be compulsory at birth? In discussions of this elsewhere I haven’t seen one set of interests come up: those of children who would not be born if their mothers were faithful. At the start of mandatory paternity testing there would be a round of marriages breaking up at the hospital, but soon unfaithful women would learn to be more careful, and there just wouldn’t be so many children. This is pretty bad for the children who aren’t. Is a life worth more than not being cuckolded? Consider, if you could sit up on a cloud and choose whether to be born or not, knowing that at some point in your life you would be cuckolded if you lived, would you? If so, it looks like you shouldn’t support mandatory paternity testing at the moment. This is of course an annoying side effect of an otherwise fine policy. If incentives for childbearing were suitably high it would not be important, but at the moment the marginal benefit of having a child appears reasonably high, so the population effects of other policies such as this probably overwhelm the benefits of their intentional features.

You may argue that the externalities from people being alive are so great that additional people are a bad thing – if they are a very bad thing then the population effect may still dominate, but mean that the policy is a good idea regardless of the effect on married couples. I haven’t seen a persuasive case for the externalities of a person strongly negative enough to make up for the greatness of being alive, but feel free to point me to any.

Why are obvious meanings veiled?

Why do people use veiled language even when both parties likely know the real message? For instance if a boy asks a girl up for coffee after a date, nobody is likely to miss the cliched connotation, so why not be direct?  The same question goes for many other threats, bribes, requests and propositions. Where meaning is reasonably ambiguous, plausible deniability seems a good explanation. However in many cases denial wouldn’t be that plausible and would make you look fairly silly anyway.

In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker offers six possible explanations for these cases, the last of which I found particularly interesting: People are not embarrassed nearly as much by everyone knowing their failings as long as they aren’t common knowledge (everyone knows that everyone knows etc). Pinker suggests veiled language can offer enough uncertainty that while the other party knows they are very likely being offered sex for instance (which is all you need them to know), they are still unsure of whether you know that they know this, and so on. Plausible deniability of common knowledge means if they decline you, you can carry on with yours pride intact more easily, because status is about what everyone thinks everyone thinks etc your status is, and that hasn’t changed.

This has some problems. Does any vagueness preclude mutual knowledge? We don’t act as though it does; there is always some uncertainty. Plus we take many private observations into account in judging others’ status, though you could argue that this is to judge how they are usually judged, so any aspect of a person you believe others haven’t mostly seen should not inform you on their status. Pinker suggests that a larger gap between the level of vagueness that precludes mutual knowledge and that which allows plausible deniability is helped by people attributing their comprehension of veiled suggestions to their own wonderful social intuition, which makes them less sure that the other knows what they understood.

But veiled comments often seem to allow no more uncertainty than explicit ones. For instance, ‘it would be great if you would do the washing up’ is about as obvious as ‘do the washing up’, but somehow more polite because you are informing not commanding, though the listener arguably has less choice because angrily proclaiming that they are not your slave is off the table. Perhaps such phrases are idioms now, and when they were alive it really was less obvious what commenting on the wonderfulness of clean dishes implied. It seems unlikely.

Some other explanations from Pinker (I omit one because I didn’t understand it enough to paraphrase at the time and don’t remember it now):

The token bow: indirection tells the listener that the speaker has made an effort to spare her feelings or status. e.g. requests made in forms other than imperative statements are designed to show you don’t presume you may command the person. I’m not sure how this would explain the coffee offer above. Perhaps in the existing relationship asking for sex would be disrespectful, so the suggestion to continue the gradual shift into one anothers’ pants is couched as something respectful in the current relationship?

Don’t talk at all, show me: most veiled suggestions are a request to alter the terms of the relationship, and in most cases people don’t speak directly about the terms of relationships. This is just part of that puzzle. This explanation doesn’t explain threats or bribes well I think. By the time you are talking idly about accidents that might happen, awkwardness about discussing a relationship outright is the least of anyone’s worries. Also we aren’t squeamish about discussing business arrangements, which is what a bribe is.

The virtual audience: even if nobody is watching, the situation can be more easily transmitted verbally if the proposition is explicitly verbal. If the intent is conveyed by a mixture of subtler signals, such as tone, gestures and the rest of the interaction, it will be harder to persuade others later that that the meaning really was what you say it was, even if in context it was obvious. This doesn’t seem plausible for many cases. If I tell you that someone discreetly proffered a fifty dollar note and wondered aloud how soon their request might be dealt with, you – and any jury – should interpret that just fine.

Preserving the spell: some part of the other person enjoys and maintains the pleasant illusion of whatever kind of relationship is overtly demonstrated by the words used. Pinker gives the example of a wealthy donor to a university, who is essentially buying naming rights and prestige, but everyone enjoys it more if you have fancy dinners together and pretend that the university is hoping for their ‘leadership’. This doesn’t explain why some transactions are made with a pretense and some aren’t. If I buy an apartment building we don’t all sit down at a fancy dinner together and pretend that I am a great hero offering leadership to the tenants. Perhaps the difference is that if a donation is a purchase, part of the purchased package is a reputation for virtue. However outsiders aimed at mostly don’t see what the transaction looks like. For other cases this also doesn’t seem to explain. While one may want to preserve the feeling that one is not being threatened, why should the threatening one care? And seducing someone relies on the hope of ending air of platonic aquaintence.

Another explanation occurs to me, but I haven’t thought much about whether it’s applicable anywhere. Perhaps once veiled language is used for plausible deniability in many cases, there become other cases where the appearance of trying to have plausible deniability is useful even if you don’t actually want it. In those cases you might use veiled language to imply you are trying, but be less subtle so as not to succeed. For instance once most men use veiled come ons, for you to suggest anything explicitly to a girl would show you have no fear of rejection. She mightn’t like being thought either so predictable or of such low value, so it is better to show respect by protecting yourself from rejection.

None of these explanations seem adequate, but I don’t have a good enough list of examples to consider the question well.

Treat conspicuous consumption like hard nipples?

Robin asked, in relation to correlations between sexual prompts and apparently innocent behaviors:

So what would happen if we all became conscious of the above behaviors being strong clues that men are in fact actively trying for promiscuous short term sex?  Would such behaviors reduce, would long term relations become less exclusive, or what?  Maybe we just couldn’t admit that these are strong clues?

It isn’t usually activeness that people mind most in others’ wrongdoings, but conscious intention. These usually coincide, but when they don’t we are much more forgiving of  unintentional actions, however active. So if it became known that an interest in cars or charity was a symptom of sexual desire I think it would be seen as similar to those other ‘actions’ that show sexual desire; a bad message to your spouse about your feelings, but far from a conscious attempt to be unfaithful.

While it’s not a crime to have physical signs of arousal about the wrong person, I assume it’s considered more condemnable to purposely show them off to said person. I think the same would go for the changes in interests above; if everyone knew that those behaviours were considered signs of sexual intent, realising you had them and purposely allowing potential lovers to see them would be seen as active unfaithfulness, so you would be expected to curb or hide them. Most people would want to hide them anyway, because showing them would no longer send the desired signal. Other activities are presumably popular for those interested in sex exactly because conspicuously wanting sex doesn’t get sex so well. If certain interests became a known signal for wanting sex they would be no more appealing than wearing a sign that says ‘I want sex’. This would be a shame for all those who are interested in charity and consumerism  less contingently.

Unpromising promise?

Marriage usually involves sharing and exchanging a huge bunch of things. Love, sex, childcare, money, cooperation in finding a mutually agreeable place for the knives to live, etc. For all of these but one, you can verify whether I’m upholding my side of the deal. And for all but one, I can meaningfully promise to keep my side of the deal more than a day into the future. Yet the odd one out, love, is the one that we find most suited to making eternal promises about. Are these things related?

Romantic idealism: true love conquers almost all

More romantic people tend to be vocally in favor of more romantic fidelity in my experience. If you think about it though, faith in romance is not a very romantic ideal. True love should overcome all things! The highest mountains, the furthest distances, social classes, families, inconveniences, ugliness, but NOT previous love apparently. There shouldn’t be any competition there. The love that got there first is automatically the better one, winning the support and protection of the sentimental against all other love on offer. Other impediments are allowed to test love, sweetened with ‘yes, you must move a thousand miles apart, but if it’s really true love, he’ll wait for you’. You can’t say, ‘yes, he has another girlfriend, but if you really are better for him he’ll come back – may the truest love win!’.

Perhaps more commitment in general allows better and more romance? There are costs as well as benefits to being tied to anything though. Just as it’s not clear that more commitment in society to stay with your current job would be pro-productivity, it’s hard to see that more commitment to stay with your current partner would be especially pro-romance. Of course this is all silly – being romantic and vocally supporting faithfulness are about signaling that you will stick around, not about having consistent values or any real preference about the rest of the world. Is there some other explanation?

 

Subconscious stalking?

Just seeing another person look at something can tend to make you like it a bit more than if you see them looking in another direction:

In this study, we found that objects that are looked at by other people are liked more than objects that do not receive the attention of other people (Experiment 1). This suggests that observing averted gaze can have an impact on the affective appraisals of objects in the environment. This liking effect was absent when an arrow was used to cue attention (Experiment 2). This underlines the importance of other people’s interactions with objects for generating our own impressions of such stimuli in the world.

The authors suggest this is because people really do tend to look at things more if they like them, and that another person likes something is information about its value. This makes sense, and even more if we assume that the ancestral environment contained fewer eye catching people paid to prominently give items their attention.

Is observing the eye movement of others an earlier version of facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Is observing the eye movement of others a precursor to facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Another possibility though is that people want to have coinciding tastes to those around them often, so we are not so much interested in clues to the item’s inherent value, but directly in the other person’s values. In that case if we evolved nicely we would react more to some people looking than to others.

Sure enough, this study found that such an effect seems to hold for attractive people, but not unattractive:

In a conditioning paradigm, novel objects were associated with either attractive or unattractive female faces, either displaying direct or averted gaze. An affective priming task showed more positive automatic evaluations of objects that were paired with attractive faces with direct gaze than attractive faces with averted gaze and unattractive faces, irrespective of gaze direction. Participants’ self-reported desire for the objects matched the affective priming data.

Added: These days we can discover (and adapt to) many people’s likes and dislikes prior to meeting them extensively, as long as they post them all over Facebook or the like. If the tendency to coordinate our values based on minor cues was good enough to evolve, does the possibility of doing so much more effectively via online stalking give a selective advantage to those who use it?

Do fetching models stave off shallowness?

Many complain that prevalent advertising portraying an inaccurate proportion of humanity as inhumanly attractive causes people to think attractiveness is more important than it should be. This is unlikely.

Prevalent advertising portraying an inaccurate proportion of humanity as too attractive is blamed for misinforming people on the value of attractiveness.

Unattractive females, both self rated and judged externally, find features of male physical attractiveness, such as facial masculinity and voice, less appealing than attractive females do.

This study suggests such behavior is to avoid wasting effort on guys who won’t be interested. That hypothesis beats the others because women’s preferences adapt fast to circumstances. In the study women saw pictures of other women who were more or less attractive. As their own perceived attractiveness went down or up accordingly, their preferences for male facial masculinity did too.

Do physically unattractive people actually believe one another to be hot? This study suggests not:

When less attractive people accept less attractive
dates, do they persuade themselves that the people they
choose to date are more physically attractive than others
perceive them to be? Our analysis of data from the popular
Web site HOTorNOT.com suggests that this is not the
case: Less attractive people do not delude themselves into
thinking that their dates are more physically attractive
than others perceive them to be.

When less attractive people accept less attractive dates, do they persuade themselves that the people they choose to date are more physically attractive than others perceive them to be? Our analysis of data from the popular Web site HOTorNOT.com suggests that this is not the case…

Instead, same study suggests that less attractive people claim to put greater weight on other characteristics than attractiveness in mate choice:

..participants’ own attractiveness was significantly correlated with their standardized weights for physical attractiveness (r 5 .60, prep 5 .98), but negatively correlated with their standardized weights for sense of humor (r 5 .44, prep 5 .91). Overall, these results suggest that more attractive people and less attractive people consider different criteria in date selection: Less attractive people tend to place less weight on physical attractiveness and greater weight on non-attractiveness-related attributes such as sense of humor.

Together these pieces of research suggests that encouraging everyone to feel less attractive should decrease the adoration people (at least claim to) direct at the best looking of us and bring about more appreciation of traits which we consider more virtuous to care about. One method for achieving this, similar to the one shown effective in an above study, would be to surround everyone with pictures of super-attractive models. The advertising industry is making steady progress on this front, yet is blamed for encouraging society to care about looks. Would we be even more shallow without this stream of superior gorgeousness?