Behavioral Altruism is an Unhelpful Scientific Category

Altruism has been a major topic in evolutionary biology since Darwin himself, but altruism (the word) did not appear even once in Darwin’s published writings.[1] The omission of altruism from Darwin’s thoughts about altruism is hardly surprising: Altruism had appeared in print for the first time only eight years before The Origin of Species. The coiner was a Parisian philosopher named Auguste Comte.

Capitalizing on the popularity he had already secured for himself among liberal intellectuals in both France and England, Comte argued that Western civilization needed a complete intellectual renovation, starting from the ground up. Not one to shrink from big intellectual projects, Comte set out to do this re-vamping himself, resulting in four hefty volumes. Comte’s diagnosis: People cared too much for their own welfare and too little for the welfare of humanity. The West, Comte thought, needed a way of doing society that would evoke less égoisme, and inspire more altruisme.

Comte saw a need for two major changes. First, people would need to throw out the philosophical and religious dogma upon which society’s political institutions had been built. In their place, he proposed we seek out new principles, grounded in the new facts emerging from the new sciences of the human mind (such as the fast-moving scientific field of phrenology), human society (sociology), and animal behavior (biology).

Second, people would need to replace Christianity with a new religion in which humanity, rather than the God of the Abrahamic religions, was the object of devotion. In Comte’s new world, the 12-month Gregorian calendar would be replaced with a scientifically reformed calendar consisting of 13 months (each named after a great thinker from the past—for example, Moses, Paul the Apostle, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, and Descartes) of 28 days each (throw in a “Day of the Dead” at the end and you’ve got your 365-day year). Also, the Roman Catholic priesthood would be replaced with a scientifically enlightened, humanity-loving “clergy” with Comte himself—no joke—as the high priest.

Comte’s proposals for a top-down re-shaping of Western society didn’t get quite the reception he was hoping for (though they caught on better than you might think: If you’re ever in Paris or Rio, pay a visit to the Temples of Humanity that Comte’s followers founded around the turn of the 19th century). In England especially, the scientific intelligentsia’s response was frosty. On the advice of his friend Thomas Huxley, Darwin also steered clear of all things Comtean, including altruism.

Nevertheless, altruism was in the air, and its warm reception among British liberals at the end of the 19th century is how the word percolated into everyday language. It’s also why the word is still in heavy circulation today. The British philosopher Herbert Spencer, an intellectual rock star of his day, was a great admirer of Comte, and he played a major role in establishing a long-term home for altruism in the lexicons of biology, social science, and everyday discourse.[2] Spencer used the term altruism in three different senses—as an ethical ideal, as a description of certain kinds of behavior, and as a description for a certain kind of human motivation. (He wouldn’t have understood how to think about it as an evolutionary concept.)[3]

Here, I want to look at Spencer’s second use of the word altruism—as a description of a class of behaviors—because I think it is a deeply flawed scientific concept, despite its wide usage. At the outset, I should note that as a Darwinian concept—an evolutionary pathway by which natural selection can create complex functional design by building traits in individuals that cause them to take actions that increase the rate of replication of genes locked inside their genetic relatives’ gonads—altruism has none of the conceptual problems that behavioral altruism has.

With Spencer’s behavioral definition of altruism, he meant to refer to “all action which, in the normal course of things, benefits others instead of benefiting self.”[4] A variant of this definition is embraced today by many economists and other social scientists, who use the term behavioral altruism to classify all “costly acts that confer benefits on other individuals.”[5] Single-celled organisms are, in principle, as capable of Spencerian behavioral altruism as humans are. Social scientists who subscribe to the behavioral definition of altruism have applied it to a wide range of human behaviors. Have you ever jumped into a pool to save a child or onto a hand grenade to spare your comrades? Donated money to your alma mater or a charity? Given money, a ride, or directions to a stranger? Served in the military? Donated blood, bone marrow, or a kidney? Reduced, re-used, or recycled? Adopted a child? Held open a door for a stranger? Shown up for jury duty? Volunteered for a research experiment? Taken care of a sick friend? Let someone in front of you in the check-out line at the grocery store? Punished or scolded someone for breaking a norm or for being selfish? Taken found property to the lost and found? Tipped a server in a restaurant in a city you knew you’d never visit again? Pointed out when a clerk has undercharged you? Lent your fondue set or chain saw to a neighbor? Shooed people away from a suspicious package at the airport? If so, then you, according to the behavioral definition, are an altruist.[6]

Some economists seek to study behavioral altruism in the laboratory with experimental games in which researchers give participants a little money and then measure what they do with it. The Trust Game, which involves two players, is a great example. We can call the first actor an Investor because he or she is given a sum of money—say, $10—by the experimenter, some or all of which he or she can send to the other actor, whom we might call the trustee. The investor knows that every dollar he or she entrusts to the trustee gets multiplied by a fixed amount—say, 3—so if the investor transfers $1 to the trustee, the trustee now has $3 more in his or her account as a result of the investor’s $1 transfer. Likewise, the investor knows that the trustee will subsequently decide whether to transfer some money back. Under these circumstances, according to some experimental economists, if the Investor sends money to the Trustee, it is “altruistic” because it is a “costly act that confers an economic benefit upon another individual.”[7] But the lollapalooza of behavioral altruism doesn’t stop there: It’s also altruistic, per the behavioral definition that economists embrace, if the Trustee transfers money back to the Investor. Here, too, one person is paying a cost to provide a benefit to another person.

Notice that motives don’t matter for behavioral altruism. (To social psychologists like Daniel Batson, altruism is a motivation to raise the welfare of another individual, pure and simple. Surprising as it might seem, this is also, in fact a conceptually viable scientific category. But that’s another blog post.) All that matters for a behavior to be altruistic is that it entails costs to actors and benefits to recipients. Clearly, donating a kidney or donating blood are costly to the donor and beneficial to the recipients, but even when you hold a door open for a stranger, you pay a cost (a few seconds of your time and a calorie or so worth of physical effort) to deliver a benefit to someone else. By this definition, even an insurance company’s agreement to cover the MRI for your (possibly) torn ACL qualifies: After all, the company pays a cost (measured in the thousands of dollars) to provide you with a benefit (magnetic confirmation either that you need surgery or that your injury will probably get better after a little physical therapy).

But a category that lumps together recycling, holding doors for strangers, donating kidneys, serving in the military, and handing money over to someone in hopes of securing a return on one’s investment—simply because they all involve costly acts that confer benefits on others—is a dubious scientific category. Good scientific categories, unlike “folk categories,” are natural kinds—as Plato said, they “carve nature at its joints.” Rather than simply sharing one or more properties that are interesting to a group of humans (for example, social scientists who are interested in a category called “behavioral altruism”), they should share common natural essences, common causes, or common functions. Every individual molecule with the chemical formula H2O is a member of a natural kind—water—because they all share the same basic causes (elements with specific atomic numbers that interact through specific kinds of bonds). These deep properties are the causes of all molecules of H2O that have ever existed and that ever will exist. Natural kinds are not just depots for things that have some sort of gee-whiz similarity.[8]

If behavioral altruism is a natural kind, then knowing that a particular instance of behavior is “behaviorally altruistic” should enable me to draw some conclusions about its deep properties, causes, functions, or effects. But it doesn’t. All I know is that I’ve done something that meets the definition of behavioral altruism. Even though I have, on occasion, shown up for jury duty, held doors open for strangers, received flu shots, loaned stuff to my neighbors, and even played the trust game, simply knowing that they are all instances of “behavioral altruism” does not enable me to make any non-trivial inferences about the causes of my behavior. By the purely behavioral definition of altruism, I could show up for jury duty to avoid being held in contempt of court, I could give away some old furniture because I want to make some space in my garage, and I could hold the door for someone because I’m interested in getting her autograph. The surface features that make these three behaviors “behaviorally altruistic” are, well, superficial. Knowing that they’re behaviorally altruistic gives me no new raw materials for scientific inference.

So if behavioral altruism isn’t a natural kind, then what kind of kind is it? Philosophers might call it a folk category, like “things that are white,” or “things that fit in a bread box,” or “anthrosonic things,” which comprise all of the sounds people can make with their bodies—for example, hand-claps, knuckle- and other joint-cracking, the lub-dub of the heart’s valves, the pitter-patter of little feet, sneezes, nose-whistles, coughs, stomach growls, teeth-grinding, and beat-boxing. Anthrosonics gets points for style, but not for substance: My knowing that teeth-grinding is anthrosonic does not enable me to make any new inferences about the causes of teeth-grinding because anthrosonic phenomena do not share any deep causes or functions.

Things that are white, things that can fit in a bread box, anthrosonics, things that come out of our bodies, things we walk toward, et cetera–and, of course, behavioral altruism–might deserve entries in David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace’s entertaining Book of Lists[9], but not in Galileo’s Book of Nature. They’re grab-bags.

~

[1] Dixon (2013).
[2] Spencer (1870- 1872, 1873, 1879).
[3] Dixon (2005, 2008, 2013).
[4] Spencer (1879), p. 201.
[5] Fehr and Fischbacher (2003), p. 785.
[6] See, for instance, Silk and Boyd (2010), Fehr and Fischbacher (2003); Gintis, Bowles, Boyd, & Fehr (2003).
[7] Fehr and Fischbacher (2003), p. 785.
[8] Slater and Borghini (2011).
[9] Wallechinsky, Wallace, and Wallace (2005).

REFERENCES

Dixon, T. (2005). The invention of altruism: August Comte’s Positive Polity and respectable unbelief in Victorian Britain. In D. M. Knight & M. D. Eddy (Eds.), Science and beliefs: From natural philosophy to natural science, 1700-1900 (pp. 195-211). Hampshire, England: Ashgate.

Dixon, T. (2008). The invention of altruism: Making moral meanings in Victorian Britain. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dixon, T. (2013). Altruism: Morals from history. In M. A. Nowak & S. Coakley (Eds.), Evolution, games, and God: The principle of cooperation (pp. 60-81). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2003). The nature of human altruism. Nature, 425, 785-791.

Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R., & Fehr, E. (2003). Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 153-172.

Silk, J. B., & Boyd, R. (2010). From grooming to giving blood: The origins of human altruism. In P. M. Kappeler & J. B. Silk (Eds.), Mind the gap: Tracing the origins of human universals (pp. 223-244). Berlin: Springer Verlag.

Slater, M. H., & Borghini, A. (2011). Introduction: Lessons from the scientific butchery. In J. K. Campbell, M. O’Rourke, & M. H. Slater (Eds.), Carving nature at its joints: Natural kinds in metaphysics and science (pp. 1-31). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Spencer, H. (1870- 1872). Principles of psychology. London: Williams and Norgate.

Spencer, H. (1873). The study of sociology. London: H. S. King.

Spencer, H. (1879). The data of ethics. London: Williams and Norgate.

Wallechinsky, D., & Wallace, A. (2005). The book of lists: The original compendium of curious information. Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate Books.

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Evolution’s Gravity: A Paean to Natural Selection

Physicists speak of four fundamental forces that govern the interactions among the bits of matter that make up our universe. The strongest of these four forces, aptly known as the Strong Force, is so powerful that it can keep an atom’s positively charged protons from ripping the atom’s nucleus apart as their mutually repellent positive charges push them in opposite directions. The second fundamental force, electromagnetism, is 137 times weaker than the strong force, but its ability to cause bits of matter with opposing electrical charges to attract each other, and to cause bits of matter with like charges to avoid each other, is what gives unique three-dimensional structure to atoms, molecules, and even the proteins that form the building blocks of our body’s cells. At only one-millionth the strength of the strong force, the third fundamental force—the so-called weak force—changes quarks from one bizarre “flavor” to another and gives rise to nuclear fusion reactions.

The weak force deserves a better name: It’s actually the fourth force—gravity—that’s the weakling of the bunch. At only 6/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 the strength of the strong force, the influence of gravity on the interactions of protons, quarks, and other subatomic particles amounts to, well, about as close to zero as you can get. When I use the refrigerator magnet that holds up my kid’s school photo to lift the ring of keys on the kitchen table, the magnet easily overcomes the gravitational pull of the entire planet. At Subatomic Beach, gravity is the scrawny guy who’s always getting sand kicked in his face.

But the only reason gravity looks like such a weakling in comparison to the other fundamental forces is because we haven’t yet zoomed out to the scales of mass and distance that reveal gravity’s actual power to guide the interactions among bits of matter. For the change of perspective that can reveal gravity’s real power, we have to use a telescope, not a particle accelerator. When we’re studying the interactions of very small things that are separated by small distances, gravity is the only fundamental force that doesn’t matter. But when we’re studying the interactions of large things that are separated by great distances, it’s the only one that does.

Every time the mass of an object increases one-hundredfold, the influence of gravity upon its particles increases tenfold. Because very massive objects like planets and stars have no net electrical charge (the charges of all of their constituent bits more or less cancel each other), it’s the weakling gravity—acting across huge distances, always attracting, never repelling—that causes their interactions. And when an object gets really massive—roughly the size of 100 Jupiters—the gravitational forces acting on the atoms that make up that jumbo object can hold the object’s particles in a spherical shape even when weak force interactions among those particles have turned the center of the object into a nuclear fusion reactor. Gravity is the Charles Atlas of the cosmos. Gravity is a star-maker.

Researchers-Simulate-Astrophysical-Jets-in-the-Lab

Natural selection, one of the fundamental processes of evolution, has something in common with gravity: A public relations problem. At one level of analysis, natural selection, like gravity, looks like a chump. When you’re looking up close at the tiny bits of stuff that go into making humans—the sequences of DNA that constitute the human genome—and how they came to be arranged in the manner that they are, natural selection doesn’t seem to have done very much. Other evolutionary processes, such as mutation, migration, and drift, seem to have exerted far more powerful influences on our genomes. For that matter, distinctly non-evolutionary events—one-off famines, freezes, floods, and fires—can exert a far more powerful influence on the fate of a species at any given point in time than natural selection can.

However, when you zoom out and look at evolution from a high-altitude vantage point, natural selection is the only evolutionary force that matters at all. This is because natural selection is the only evolutionary force that can produce design.  Natural selection, like gravity, acts uniformly and consistently, through deep time, to sift genes according to one hard-and-fast criterion: It increases the prevalence of genes that are good at increasing their own rates of propagation and it reduces the prevalence of genes that are less good at increasing their rates of propagation.

As Richard Dawkins has described so brilliantly in so many different ways, genes take actions in the world that alter their rates of replication by cloaking themselves in really cool features and gadgets—mitochondria, ribosomes, specialized cells, arms, legs, eyes, ears, neurons, brains, beliefs, desires. Those features that increase the genes’ replication rates get conserved and elaborated upon. Those that reduce the genes’ rates of replication are shuffled off. As the result of aeons and aeons of a gene-sifting process that operates according to a single criterion—does this gene create phenotypic effects that speed up its propagation in the population, or does it slow its propagation?—organisms accumulate design.

None of the other evolutionary forces can produce this kind of complex functional design. The result of all of natural selection’s criterion-based gene-sifting is that organisms end up looking like geniuses for thriving in the environments to which they are adapted. Bacteria, birds, bees, bats, bears, boas–and even Bill and Betty–every one is a genius.

Natural selection, like gravity, is a star-maker.

Lexical Cognitions: Misbegotten altruism, sniping ethnographers, and who actually wrote the Bible? Book recommendations for 24 July 2018

A MILLION new books.

Nearly 2 million new scientific papers.

Every single year.

For as far as the eye can see into the future.

And yet, how many times have you sat down to lunch or into your coach-class seat with absolutely nothing good to read? If your answer, like ours, is “far too often,” then we hope you will enjoy our new occasional blog series, “Lexical Cognitions.” Expect regular coverage of social science, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology, but I doubt we’ll be able to resist throwing in the occasional novel or bit of long-form non-fiction. Our Lexical Cognitions are not ageist: If it’s got words on it, then it’s fair game for Lexical Cognitions, even if it’s old.

Although I’m sure we’ll pan a book or an article from time to time, I’d expect mostly plugs. I doubt we’ll want to spend a lot of time writing about books or articles that we think you shouldn’t waste your time on.

We’ve got three books for you this week.

1.

The first is Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? Joseph Billingsley, who is a fifth-year student in our PhD program, calls it “a superb and eminently readable synthesis of scholarly investigation into the origins of Western culture’s most influential book.” Here’s how Joseph described the book to me:

Friedman takes what could be a dull academic treatise and turns it into the intellectual equivalent of a compelling detective story, drawing readers deeper and deeper into the mystery of the Bible’s authorship. Deft in its presentation of close textual analysis, historical context, and above all the logic that ties the pieces of the puzzle together, Friedman’s book brings to life the very human authors of what Christian readers call the Old Testament—their hopes, their fears, their goals, and their tragic history. The insights that have been produced by centuries of Biblical scholarship—so lucidly laid out by Elliott—consistently amaze, and profoundly deepen one’s understanding of how the Western conception of God has emerged. Frankly, it’s too bad that the findings summarized in this book are not common knowledge, but are instead largely limited to scholars and academics.

2.

This week, I have been reading Suzanne Franks’s Reporting disasters: Famine, aid, politics and the media. Franks, who is now a professor of journalism at the City University of London, worked for many years at the BBC, including during the 1980s when the BBC’s news division brought British (and, eventually, global) attention to the Ethiopian famine of 1983-1985.

As Franks tells it, the BBC’s coverage so oversimplified the causes for the famine (which had at least as much to do with civil war as with drought and climate changes) that many viewers came to believe that solving the Ethiopian dilemma was a mere matter of shipping food, medicine, and supplies to a suffering Ethiopian people. The BBC broadcasts, as it happens, are what inspired pop musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to put together the British charity supergroup Band Aid, which recorded their hit “Feed the World” in a single day at the end of November 1984. Feed the World sold 2 million copies (I know mine’s around here somewhere), raising more than $20 million for famine relief.

Months later, Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie put together a charity supergroup on our side of the pond called USA for Africa. Their (objectively much better by any sensible standard) charity single “We Are the World” featured so many musical stars from the American musical galaxy (including Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Perry, Huey Lewis, and Al Jarreau) that it almost makes one’s ears ring to imagine them all in a studio at the same time.

The pinnacle of the 1984-1985 musical year of miracles for Africa, however, was the one-day trans-Atlantic music festival/orgy of rock-and-roll emotional excess/pledge drive called Live Aid, which took place simultaneously in London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium. Among other notable moments in the history of pop music, Live Aid is remembered today for bequeathing to us what is very plausibly the worst set Led Zeppelin ever performed (three-quarters of Led Zeppelin, anyway, with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums). Nonetheless, it has been estimated that 40% of the world’s televisions were tuned in to Live Aid at some point on July 13, 1985, and it broke all previous fundraising efforts to raise money for African poverty relief. Indeed, between 1984 and 1985, Band Aid, USA for Africa, and Live Aid raised over $200 million for African famine relief and development.

Despite this heartwarming global outpouring of concern for the world’s poorest and neediest, however, real questions linger even to this day about whether this massive fundraising effort created more problems than it solved by prolonging Ethiopia’s civil war. Franks’s book is a very important exercise in Monday-morning quarterbacking about disaster journalism, and about activism in the absence of an expert’s grasp of critical facts.

3.

The third review for this week comes from William McAuliffe, another fifth-year student in our program. Will just finished The Mountain People, Colin Turnbull’s ethnography of a small-scale society in Uganda called the Ik. The book sent Will off in some directions that should fascinate anyone interested in anthropology, behavioral ecology, or social behavior more generally. Here’s Will:

While acknowledging that he was observing a group going through a dire famine, Turnbull nevertheless described the Ik in vitriolic terms–they were sadistic, unwilling to care for suffering family members, and uninterested in intimate social interactions. He recommended that the government should forcibly disband the Ik in the hopes of saving the individuals while killing the culture. Although the book enjoyed popularity among laypeople, it immediately drew harsh criticism from the anthropological community. Turnbull’s work was critiqued mostly on ethical grounds but also out of a suspicion that he had been biased against the Ik from the start. This suspicion was ostensibly confirmed in 1985, when a linguist named Bernd Heine reported that he could not corroborate most of Turnbull’s observations. Heine pointed out that Turnbull had a poor command of the Ik language, and had even mistakenly used many non-Ik as key informants. These shortcomings caused him to misunderstand many basic aspects of Ik life, including their religious beliefs, knowledge of flora, and customs for ratifying and dissolving marriages. Heine went so far as to suggest that Turnbull had projected his own malevolent sentiments onto his research subjects. In a 2013 documentary called Ikland, a small group of filmmakers visited the Ik and found them to be amicable. (Interestingly, the documentary also vilifies the Turkana, a neighboring pastoralist group that Turnbull got along with quite well.)  Echoing Heine, the filmmakers concluded that Turnbull must have provoked any antisocial behavior he observed.

However, neither the film nor Heine presented evidence that the cruel behavior that Turnbull had observed in the 1960s was actually a fabrication. An unexplored alternative possibility was simply that the society had changed for the better. In a recent issue of Ethnos, Rane Willerslev and Lotte Meinert (2016) began to set the record straight by reading passages from The Mountain People to the Ik and asking them whether they rang true. In a partial vindication of the book’s contents, many Ik informants agreed that extreme callousness did indeed arise among their ranks during famines. When there was literally not enough food to go around, they argued, everyone had to look out for number one. But when times improved, people forgave each other and cooperative relations resumed. Willerslev and Meinert pointed out that the correlation between famine and antisocial behavior is not unique to the Ik, and is in fact common in small-scale societies where food is eaten right away rather than stored (either because it is not easily kept fresh or because competing groups might try to steal it). In such societies, people tend not to develop alliances that impose obligations to share food in a reciprocal manner. Rather, people simply demand to have some of each other’s leftovers, and acquiescence is not registered as a favor. Unfortunately, when famine strikes there are no leftovers, nor allies to call on for help.

I appreciated this discussion of general trends among small-scale societies in part because it represents a departure from the overly personal tone that characterizes most reactions to The Mountain People. Many of Turnbull’s critics seemed eager to vindicate the Ik as a dignified people. To do so, they seemed to feel as though they needed to discredit Turnbull’s observations entirely. But understanding the Ik from a nomothetic rather than an idiographic point of view obviates the temptation to label them as either good or bad. Rather, their suffering merely points up the horrors of poverty, and the inability of a demand-based sharing system to facilitate survival during the worst of times.

Happy reading!

Think Globally, Forgive Instrumentally

Why do some societies place a higher priority on forgiveness than others do? It is tempting to imagine that the differences come down to differences in religious values, but the group of nations that place the highest priority on forgiveness in their hierarchies of values includes Egypt, Ukraine, Vietnam, the United States, Australia, Japan, and Sweden—hardly a religiously homogeneous club. The same goes for the societies that place forgiveness relatively low in their value hierarchies: Canada, Turkey, China, Poland, Chile, India, and Israel are about as religiously varied as you could get.

So if it’s not religion that really matters, then what does?

The social psychologists Katje Hanke and Christin-Melanie Vauclair found a clever way to examine this question. They took advantage of existing published research that used the Rokeach Values Survey, which was first published in 1967. The Rokeach Values Survey asks respondents to rank-order two lists of values according to their personal importance. One of the lists comprises 18 so-called “instrumental values,” which Rokeach defined as “preferable modes of behavior.” The instrumental values are means to other ends–they’re people’s individual approaches to obtaining what Rokeach called the “terminal values” (this list, too, is a grab bag that includes “Wisdom,” “Salvation,” “National Security,” and everything in between). The Instrumental Values, then, are the means you use to fulfill the aspirations that matter most to you in life.

Hanke and Vauclair gathered up as many articles as they could find that used the Rokeach Values Survey between 1967 and 2006. With those articles in hand, they were able to estimate the value priorities of people in 30 different countries. Here’s a list of Rokeach’s 18 instrumental values and the mean rankings they received across all 30 nations. As you can see, on average “Forgiving” comes in right in the middle at #8:

Table 1

That average ranking is misleading, however, because as Table 2 shows, the 30 societies differed quite a lot in the priority they placed on forgiveness.

Table 2

These cross-national trends are interesting enough, but the real value of this cross-cultural study comes from the researchers’ effort to examine the qualities of those societies themselves that determine the priority forgiveness receives. Hanke and Vauclair examined three measures in particular. The first was an index of human development that summarized information about mean life expectancy, national income per capita, and average level of educational attainment. The second was a measure of subjective well-being. The third was a measure of democratization.

The researchers found that societies that placed a relatively high value on forgiveness tended to have higher levels of subjective well-being and higher scores on the human development index. They were no more or less likely to be democracies. Moreover, when all three predictor variables were used simultaneously to predict the 30 nations’ prioritization of forgiveness, only the human development index emerged as a unique predictor of the importance ascribed to forgiveness. The societies in which people live long, fulfilling lives, it seems, are the ones in which people pursue forgiveness as a way of obtaining what matters most in life to them.

I find this conclusion to be particularly charming because it fits nicely with a body of theorizing called Life History Theory, which suggests that human beings adjust their approaches to life on the basis of whether they expect their lives to be long (vs. short), stable (vs. unpredictable), and mild (vs. harsh). When life is predictable and pleasant, people invest in the maintenance of thick, interconnected webs of social interaction that may not lead to personal payoffs for months, years, or even generations. In such an environment, it pays to forgive because forgiveness has the capacity to restore relationships that may pay out benefits over very long time horizons. When life is shorter, harsher, and less predictable, the theory goes, people have shorter fuses and defend their interests with threats of retaliatory violence. Such an interpretation also fits to some extent with some laboratory findings we have obtained about the role that early family environments might play in predisposing people to use revenge to defend their interests.

The study is not without its limitations. For some societies, for example, Hanke and Vauclair were able to find only a smattering of data upon which to make generalizations about an entire nation’s value profile over the course of 4 decades. Such estimates may contain much more noise than signal. Also, the authors they limited their search for possible society-level correlates of forgiveness to a rather limited number of possibilities. Still, it’s an admirable start. Given the tremendous attention that life history theory has been enjoying in recent years, and especially in light of the unceasing calls for social science to become a more self-consciously cross-cultural discipline, expect more work like this over the next decade.

Hanke, K., & Vauclair, C. M. (2016). Investigating the human value “forgiveness” across 30 countries: a cross-cultural meta-analytical approach. Cross-Cultural Research50(3), 215-230.

 

When is a Measure of Oxytocin No Such Thing?

Medical Technology class room shots. 4/27/05 By University of Delaware [CC BY 3.0] . http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. Laboratory demonstration photos are just the best.

A few days ago, I promised I would demonstrate how you can use Denny Borsboom and colleagues’ concept of validity to evaluate whether a scientific device is a valid tool for scientific measurement. To review, Borsboom and colleagues argued that we can claim that a scientific device D provides valid measurement of an invisible substance, force, or trait (which I will represent as T) when two conditions are obtained:

(1) T must exist;

(2) T must cause physical changes to D that can be read off as measurements of T.

Once you accept this definition of validity, evaluating whether a scientific device is actually a scientific measure becomes simple (not necessarily easy, but simple)—even fun: You need to concern yourself with trying to find answers to exactly two questions: First, does this thing that researchers call T even exist? In other words, is T what philosophers of science would call a “natural kind?” Second, if T does exist, are we justified in believing that the natural kind we have named T causes physical changes to the Device that can then be read off as measurements of T?

In this post, I’ll use this approach to think through the validity of a biological assay technique that is often used in hopes of measuring oxytocin in human body fluids such as blood plasma, serum, or saliva. I’ve written a bit on this blog about research in humans on the social causes and effects of oxytocin (for example, here, here, and here). My colleagues and I see signs that a lot of the enthusiasm for this research is being driven by wishful thinking about whether the devices that are being called oxytocin assays are actually valid measures. To gain purchase on this particular validity problem, Borsboom and colleagues’ concept of validity tells you everything you should want to know: First, you will want to know whether there is a natural kind in the world that corresponds to the concept that we have decided to call oxytocin. Second, you will want to know whether that natural kind that we are calling oxytocin is responsible for physical changes in the Device. That’s all you need to care about.

The consequence of accepting this simple but strict definition is liberating. Among other things, you can brush aside validity arguments that rest on claims that individual differences in measured levels of oxytocin are correlated (for instance) with self-ratings of social support, or scores on a measure of empathic accuracy, or how many Facebook friends people have. Sure, all of those correlations might fit with somebody’s theory of oxytocin, but validity arguments that rest on correlational claims like that are so 20th-century.

All you need to concern yourself with is (a) whether oxytocin exists; and (b) whether oxytocin is causally responsible for the scores that your device produces. You can quickly satisfy yourself that (a) is true: Sir Henry Dale extracted oxytocin from the human pituitary gland in 1909. The biochemist Vincent de Vigneaud identified its molecular structure in 1953. So, all that’s left to confirm is (b).

And how do we confirm (b)? Through experimental research, not correlational research. Quite simply, the question we want an answer to is this: Does the nine-amino-acid substance that we have come to call oxytocin exert causal effects on the physical states of a particular device that we can read off as measurements of that substance? If so, when you add known quantities of oxytocin to a container (or to an animal) that has zero oxytocin in it, the device should then undergo physical changes in proportion to the amount of oxytocin that you added. From those changes, it should be possible to work backwards and solve for the amount of oxytocin that was added in the first place. If you can’t do that (and, as a few of us have been arguing, with some of the most popular approaches to assaying oxytocin, you can’t), then you should doubt the validity of that particular assay. Indeed, it might be more accurate to view such a device as a very expensive random number generator.

The oxytocin assays I am referring to here fail Borsboom’s validity test because they fail on criterion (b): Changes in physical states of those assays cannot be read off veridically as changes in oxytocin. Other measures can fail the Borsboom test for a more interesting reason: The trait that they supposedly measure doesn’t exist in the first place.

I’ll look at that scenario in my next post.

Borsboom, D., Mellenbergh, G. J., & van Heerden, J. (2004). The concept of validity. Psychological Review, 111, 1061-1071.

Postscript: Denny Borsboom tells me that the reason that their paper is not visible to Google Scholar is that the citations for that paper are getting merged with another one of their papers. What a drag.

TWO years ago, I idly surfed my way to a harmless-seeming article from 2004 by Denny Borsboom, Gideon Mellenbergh, and Jaap van Heerden entitled The Concept of Validity. More than a decade had passed since its publication, and I had never heard of it. Egocentrically, this seemed like reason enough to surf right past it. Then I skimmed the abstract. Intrigued, I proceeded to read the first few paragraphs. By that point, I was hooked: I scrapped my plans for the next couple of hours so I could give this article my complete attention. This was a paper I needed to read immediately.

I’ve thought about The Concept of Validity every day for the past two years. I have mentioned or discussed or recommended The Concept of Validity hundreds of times. My zeal for The Concept of Validity is the zeal of an ex-smoker. The concept of validity in The Concept of Validity has led to a complete reformatting of my understanding of validity, and of measurement in general—and not just in the psychological sciences, but in the rest of the sciences, too. And those effects have oozed out to influence just about everything else I believe about science. The Concept of Validity is the most important paper you’ve probably never heard of.*

The concept of validity in The Concept of Validity is so simple that it’s a bit embarrassing even to write it down, but its simplicity is what makes it so diabolical, and so very different from what most in the social sciences of have believed validity to be for the past 60 years.

According to Borsboom and colleagues, a scientific device (let’s label it D) validly measures a trait or substance (which we will label T), if and only if two conditions are fulfilled:

(1) T must exist;

(2) T must cause the measurements on D.

That’s it. That is the concept of validity in The Concept of Validity.

This is a Device. There are invisible forces in the world that cause changes in the physical state of this Device. Those physical changes can be read off as representations of the states of those invisible forces. Thus, this Device is a valid measurement of those invisible forces.

What is most conspicuous about the concept of validity in The Concept of Validity is what it lacks. There is no talk of score meanings and interpretations (à la Cronbach and Meehl). There is no talk of integrative judgments involving considerations of the social or ethical consequences of how scores are put to use (à la Messick). There’s no talk of multitrait-multimethod matrixes (à la Campbell and Fiske), nomological nets (Cronbach and Meehl again), or any of the other theoretical provisos, addenda, riders, or doo-dads with which psychologists have been burdening their concepts of validity since the 1950s. Instead, all we need—and all we must have—for valid measurement is the fulfillment of two conditions: (1) a real force or trait or substance (2) whose presence exerts a causal influence on the physical state of a device. Once those conditions are fulfilled, a scientist can read off the physical changes to the device as measurements of T. And voila: We’ve got valid measurement.

Boorsboom and colleagues’ position is such a departure from 20th century notions of validity precisely because they are committed to scientific realism—a stance to which many mid-20th-century philosophers of science were quite allergic. But most philosophers of science have gotten over their aversion to scientific realism now. In general, they’re mostly comfortable with the idea that there could be hidden realities that are responsible for observable experience. Realism seemed like a lot to swallow in 1950. It doesn’t in 2017.

As soon as you commit to scientific realism, there is a kind of data you will prize more highly than any other for assessing validity, and that’s causal evidence. What a realist wants more than anything else on earth or in the heavens is evidence that the hypothesized invisible reality (the trait, or substance, or whatever) is causally responsible for the measurements the device produces. Every other productive branch of science is already working from this definition of validity. Why aren’t the social sciences?

For some of the research areas I’ve messed around with over the past few years, the implications of embracing the concept of validity in The Concept of Validity are profound, and potentially nettlesome: If we follow Borsboom and colleagues’ advice, we can discover that some scientific devices do indeed provide valid measurement, precisely because the trait or substance T they supposedly measure actually seems to exist (fulfilling Condition #1) and because there is good evidence that T is causally responsible for physical features of the device that can be read off as measurements of T (fulfilling Condition #2). In other areas, the validity of certain devices as measures looks less certain because even though we can be reasonably confident that the trait or substance T exists, we cannot be sure that changes in T are responsible for the physical changes in the device. In still other areas, it’s not clear that T exists at all, in which case there’s no way that the device can be a measure of T.

I will look at some of these scenarios more closely in an upcoming post.

Borsboom, D., Mellenbergh, G. J., & van Heerden, J. (2004). The concept of validity. Psychological Review, 111, 1061-1071.

*Weirdly, The Concept of Validity does not come up in Google Scholar. I’ve seen this before, actually. Why does this happen?

35 Reasons to Join Our Lab, Updated, with New Reasons (Thanks, Lab!)

  1. Our lab has 17 18 Papers in Nature (four 3 others in press).
  2. Our lab is currently funded by two NIH grants, an angel investor, and three crappy little NSF grants.
  3. Our lab partners with the private sector.
  4. Our lab has alumni organizations in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, and London, and Paris (Sorry, Paris!).
  5. Our lab had 11 post-docs last year. 14 of them got tenure-track jobs.
  6. Our lab does strategic planning retreats.
  7. Our lab has a growler refilling station.
  8. All the students in our lab do New York Times op-eds as first-year projects.
  9. Our lab maintains a database of job offers we’ve turned down.
    Our lab is seeking an angel investor.
  10. Our lab can tell you every professor of every good cognitive science program from 1956 to 1978.
  11. Our lab already tested that.
  12. Our lab was there in 1994 at the first Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson.
  13. Our lab has a Michelin star.
  14. Did you ever slow down and really think about how such a thing could ever evolve? Our lab did. We actually checked it out empirically. It can’t.
  15. Our lab installed whiteboards on the outside of the building.
  16. Two years ago, our lab director got one MacArthur genius grant for his research and another to fix the nonprofit sector.
  17. Our lab was featured on Anthony Bordain: No Reservations.
  18. Our lab is a member of the National Academy.
  19. Our lab director has an amazing TED talk titled “Can attractive CVs change the world?”
  20. Our lab has its own Battle of the Bands.
  21. Tom Wolfe is writing a hit piece about our lab.
  22. Our lab has a condiments station.
  23. When our lab goes to scientific conferences, somebody stays behind as a designated survivor.
  24. I have a Science Review paper coming out on our lab’s Nature papers (embargoed)
  25. Our lab has a Tesla recharging station.
  26. This second-year dude in our lab used data from Google Scholar and Spotify to prove we’re in the same cultural clade as Charles Darwin, Marvin Minsky, and Bowie.
  27. Our lab director has no qualms about dialing it in.
  28. What did you think of Ethan Hawke’s performance in the biopic about our lab?
  29. Our lab knows a shoe can be both stylish and comfortable.
  30. Our lab has gone back to Blackberrys, fax machines, and AOL. They are more real.
  31. September through May, our lab hosts a “Second Saturdays” arts and culture event.
  32. As soon as our lab gets back from winter break, we’re going to disrupt six different research areas.
  33. This American Life’s is doing their next live event from our lab’s journal club.
  34. Our lab is a hub for Spirit Airlines.
  35. Our lab didn’t even bother to test that: It’s axiomatic.

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