Tag Archives: Behavior

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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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?

Human Oxytocin Research Gets a Drubbing

There’s a new paper out by Gareth Leng and Mike Ludwig1 that bears the coy title “Intranasal Oxytocin: Myths and Delusions” (get the full text here before it disappears behind a pay wall) that you need to know about if you’re interested in research on the links between oxytocin and human behavior (as I am; see my previous blog entries here, here, and here). Allow me to summarize some highlights, peppered with some of my own (I hope not intemperate) inferences. Caution: There be numbers below, and some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic. If you want to avoid all that, just go to the final paragraph where I quote directly from Gareth and Mike’s summary.

brain-OTFig 1. It’s complicated.

  1. In the brain, it’s the hypothalamus that makes OT, but it’s the pituitary that stores and distributes it to the periphery. I think those two facts are pretty commonly known, but here’s a fact I didn’t know: At any given point in time, the human pituitary gland contains about 14 International Units (IU) of OT (which is about 28 micrograms). So when you read that a researcher has administered 18 or 24IU of oxytocin intranasally as part of a behavioral experiment, bear in mind that they have dumped more than an entire pituitary gland’s worth of OT into the body.
  2. To me, that seems like a lot of extra OT to be floating around out there without us knowing completely what its unintended effects might be. Most scientists who conduct behavioral work on OT with humans think and of course hope that this big payload of OT is benign, and to be clear, I know of no evidence that it is not benign. Even so, research on the use of OT for labor augmentation has found that labor can be stimulated with as little as 3.2 IU of intranasal OT during childbirth by virtue of its effects on the uterus. This is saying a lot about OT’s potential to influence the body’s peripheral tissues because that OT has to overcome the very high levels of oxytocinase (the enzyme that breaks up OT) that circulate during pregnancy. It of course bears repeating that behavioral scientists typically use 24 IU to study behavior, and 24 > 3.2.2
  3. Three decades ago, researchers found that rats that received injections of radiolabeled OT showed some uptake of the OT into regions of the brain that did not have much of a blood brain barrier, but in regions of the brain that did have a decent blood brain barrier, the concentrations were 30 times lower. Furthermore, there was no OT penetration deeper into the brain. Other researchers who have injected rats with subcutaneous doses of OT have managed to increase the rats’ plasma concentrations of OT to 500 times their baseline levels, but they found only threefold increases in the CSF levels. On the basis of these results and others, Leng and Ludwig speculate that as little as 0.002% of the peripherally administered OT is finding its way into the central nervous system, and it has not been proven that any of it is capable of reaching deep brain areas.
  4. The fact that very low levels of OT appear to make it into the central nervous system isn’t a problem in and of itself—if that OT reaches behaviorally interesting brain targets in concentrations that are high enough to produce behavioral effects. However, OT receptors in the brain are generally exposed to much higher levels of OT than are receptors in the periphery (where baseline levels generally range from 0 to 10 pg/ml). As a result, OT receptors in the brain need to be exposed to comparatively high amounts of OT to produce behavioral effects—sometimes as much as 5 to 100 nanograms.
  5. Can an intranasal dose of 24 IU deliver 5 – 100 nanograms of OT to behaviorally relevant brain areas? We can do a little arithmetic to arrive at a guess. The 24 IU that researchers use in intranasal administration studies on humans is equivalent to 48 micrograms, or 48,000 nanograms. Let’s assume (given Point 3 above) that only .002 percent of those 48,000 nanograms is going to get into the brain. If that assumption is OK, then we might expect that brain areas with lots of OT receptors could—as an upper limit—end up with no more than 48,000 nanograms * .00002 = .96 (~1) nanogram of OT. But if 5 – 100 nanograms is what’s needed to produce a behavioral effect, then it seems sensible to conclude that even a 24 IU bolus of OT (which, we must remember, is more than a pituitary gland’s worth of OT) administered peripherally is likely too little to produce enough brain activity to produce a behavioral change—assuming that it’s even able to get into deep brain regions.

Leng and Ludwig aren’t completely closed to the idea that intranasal oxytocin affects behavior via its effects on behaviorally relevant parts of the brain that use oxytocin, but they maintain a cautious stance. I can find no better way to summarize their position clearly than by quoting from their abstract:

The wish to believe in the effectiveness of intranasal oxytocin appears to be widespread, and needs to be guarded against with scepticism and rigor.


1If you don’t know who Gareth Leng and Mike Ludwig are, by the way, and are wondering whether their judgment is backed up by real expertise, by all means have a look at their bona fides.

2A little bet-hedging: I think I read somewhere that there is upregulated gene expression for oxytocin receptors late in pregnancy, so this could explain the uterus’s heightened sensitivity to OT toward the end of pregnancy. Thus, it could be that the uterus becomes so sensitive to OT not because 3.2 IU is “a lot of OT” in any absolute sense, but because the uterus is going out of its way to “sense” it. Either way, 3.2 IU is clearly a detectible amount to any tissue that really “wants”* to detect it.


*If you’re having a hard time with my use of agentic language to refer to the uterus, give this a scan.

 

A P-Curve Exercise That Might Restore Some of Your Faith in Psychology

I teach my university’s Graduate Social Psychology course, and I start off the semester (as I assume many other professors who teach this course do) by talking about research methods in social psychology. Over the past several years, as the problems with reproducibility in science have become more and more central to the discussions going on in the field, my introductory lectures have gradually become more dismal. I’ve come to think that it’s important to teach students that most research findings are likely false, that there is very likely a high degree of publication bias in many areas of research, and that some of our most cherished ideas about how the mind works might be completely wrong.

In general, I think it’s hard to teach students what we have learned about the low reproducibility of many of the findings in social science without leaving them with a feeling of anomie, so this year, I decided to teach them how to do p-curve analyses so that they would at least have a tool that would help them to make up their own minds about particular areas of research. But I didn’t just teach them from the podium: I sent them away to form small groups of two to four students who would work together to conceptualize and conduct p-curve analysis projects of their own.

I had them follow the simple rules that are specified in the p-curve user’s guide, which can be obtained here, and I provided a few additional ideas that I thought would be helpful in a one-page rubric. I encouraged them to make sure they were sampling from the available population of studies in a representative way. Many of the groups cut down their workload by consulting recent meta-analyses to select the studies to include. Others used Google Scholar or Medline. They were all instructed to follow the p-curve manual chapter-and-verse, and to write a little paper in which they summarized their findings. The students told me that they were able to produce their p-curve analyses (and the short papers that I asked them to write up) in 15-20 person-hours or less. I cannot recommend this exercise highly enough. The students seemed to find it very empowering.

This past week, all ten groups of students presented the results of their analyses, and their findings were surprisingly (actually, puzzlingly) rosy: All ten of the analyses revealed that the literatures under consideration possessed evidentiary value. Ten out of ten. None of them showed evidence for intense p-hacking. On the basis of their conclusions (coupled with the conclusions that previous meta-analysts had made about the size of the effects in question), it does seem to me that there really is license to believe a few things about human behavior:

(1) Time-outs really do reduce undesirable behavior in children (parents with young kids take notice);

(2) Expressed Emotion (EE) during interactions between people with schizophrenia and their family members really does predict whether the patient will relapse in in the successive 9-12 months (based on a p-curve analysis of a sample of the papers reviewed here);

(3) The amount of psychological distress that people with cancer experience is correlated with the amounts of psychological distress that their caregivers manifest (based on a p-curve analysis of a sample of the papers reviewed here);

and

(4) Men really do report more distress when they imagine their partners’ committing sexual infidelity than women do (based on a p-curve analysis of a sample of the papers reviewed here; caveats remain about what this finding actually means, of course…)

I have to say that this was a very cheering exercise for my students as well as for me. But frankly, I wasn’t expecting all ten of the p-curve analyses to provide such rosy results, and I’m quite sure the students weren’t either. Ten non-p-hacked literatures out of ten? What are we supposed to make of that? Here are some ideas that my students and I came up with:

(1) Some of the literatures my students reviewed involved correlations between measured variables (for example, emotional states or personality traits) rather than experiments in which an independent variable was manipulated. They were, in a word, personality studies rather than “social psychology experiments.” The major personality journals (Journal of Personality, Journal of Research in Personality, and the “personality” section of JPSP) tend to publish studies with conspicuously higher statistical power than do the major journals that publish social psychology-type experiments (e.g., Psychological Science, JESP and the two “experimental” sections of JPSP), and one implication of this fact, as Chris Fraley and Simine Vazire just pointed out is that the former set of experiment-friendly journals are more likely, ceteris paribus, to have higher false positive rates than is the latter set of personality-type journals.

(2) Some of the literatures my students reviewed were not particularly “sexy” or “faddish”–at least not to my eye (Biologists refer to the large animals that get the general public excited about conservation and ecology as the “charismatic megafauna.” Perhaps we could begin talking about “charismatic” research topics rather than “sexy” or “faddish” ones? It might be perceived as slightly less derogatory…). Perhaps studies on less charismatic topics generate less temptation among researchers to capitalize on undisclosed researcher degrees of freedom? Just idle speculation…

(3) The students went into the exercise without any a priori prejudice against the research areas they chose. They wanted to know whether the literatures the focused on were p-hacked because they cared about the research topics and wanted to base their own research upon what had come before–not because they had read something seemingly fishy on a given topic that gave them impetus to do a full p-curve analysis. I wonder if this subjective component to the exercise of conducting a p-curve analysis is going to end up being really significant as this technique becomes more popular.

If you teach a graduate course in psychology and you’re into research methods, I cannot recommend this exercise highly enough. My students loved it, they found it extremely empowering, and it was the perfect positive ending to the course. If you have used a similar exercise in any of your courses, I’d love to hear about what your students found.

By the way, Sunday will be the 1-year anniversary of the Social Science Evolving Blog. I have appreciated your interest.  And if I don’t get anything up here before the end of 2014, happy holidays.

The Myth of Moral Outrage

This year, I am a senior scholar with the Chicago-based Center for Humans and Nature. If you are unfamiliar with this Center (as I was until recently), here’s how they describe their mission:

The Center for Humans and Nature partners with some of the brightest minds to explore humans and nature relationships. We bring together philosophers, biologists, ecologists, lawyers, artists, political scientists, anthropologists, poets and economists, among others, to think creatively about how people can make better decisions — in relationship with each other and the rest of nature.

In the year to come, I will be doing some writing for the Center, starting with a piece I that has just appeared on their web site. In The Myth of Moral Outrage, I attack the winsome idea that humans’ moral progress over the past few centuries has ridden on the back of a natural human inclination to react with a special kind of anger–moral outrage–in response to moral violations against unrelated third parties:

It is commonly believed that moral progress is a surfer that rides on waves of a peculiar emotion: moral outrage. Moral outrage is thought to be a special type of anger, one that ignites when people recognize that a person or institution has violated a moral principle (for example, do not hurt others, do not fail to help people in need, do not lie) and must be prevented from continuing to do so . . . Borrowing anchorman Howard Beale’s tag line from the film Network, you can think of the notion that moral outrage is an engine for moral progress as the “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” theory of moral progress.

I think the “Mad as Hell” theory of moral action is probably quite flawed, despite the popularity that it has garnered among may social scientists who believe that humans possess “prosocial preferences” and a built-in (genetically group-selected? culturally group selected?) appetite for punishing norm-violators. I go on to describe the typical experimental result that has given so many people the impression that we humans do indeed possess prosocial preferences that motivate us to spend our own resources for the purpose of punishing norm violators who have harmed people whom we don’t know or otherwise care about. Specialists will recognize that the empirical evidence that I am taking to task comes from that workhorse of experimental economics, the third-party punishment game:

…[R]esearch subjects are given some “experimental dollars” (which have real cash value). Next, they are informed that they are about to observe the results of a “game” to be played by two other strangers—call them Stranger 1 and Stranger 2. For this game, Stranger 1 has also been given some money and has the opportunity to share none, some, or all of it with Stranger 2 (who doesn’t have any money of her own). In advance of learning about the outcome of the game, subjects are given the opportunity to commit some of their experimental dollars toward the punishment of Stranger 1, should she fail to share her windfall with Stranger 2.

Most people who are put in this strange laboratory situation agree in advance to commit some of their experimental dollars to the purpose of punishing Stranger 1’s stingy behavior. And it is on the basis of this finding that many social scientists believe that humans have a capacity for moral outrage: We’re willing to pay good money to “buy” punishment for scoundrels.

In the rest of the piece, I go on to point out the rather serious inferential limitations of the third-party punishment game as it is typically carried out in experimental economists’ labs. I also point to some contradictory (and, in my opinion, better) experimental evidence, both from my lab and from other researchers’ labs, that gainsay the widely accepted belief in the reality of moral outrage. I end the piece with a proposal for explaining what the appearance of moral outrage might be for (in a strategic sense), even if moral outrage is actually not a unique emotion (that is, a “natural kind” of the type that we assume anger, happiness, grief, etc. to be) at all.

I don’t want to steal too much thunder from the Center‘s own coverage of the piece, so I invite you to read the entire piece over on their site. Feel free to post a comment over there, or back over here, and I’ll be responding in both places over the next few days.

As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing some additional writing for the center in the coming six months or so, and I’ll be speaking at a Center event in New York City in a couple of months, which I will announce soon.

The Trouble with Oxytocin, Part III: The Noose Tightens for The Oxytocin–>Trust Hypothesis

https://i0.wp.com/media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/2b/1f/9b/2b1f9b4e930d47f31b1f7f3aecd0b0cf.jpgMight be time to see about having that Oxytocin tattoo removed…

When I started blogging six months ago, I kicked off Social Science Evolving with a guided tour of the evidence for the hypothesis that oxytocin increases trusting behavior in the trust game (a laboratory workhorse of experimental economics). The first study on this topic, authored by Michael Kosfeld and his colleagues, created a big splash, but most of the studies in its wake failed to replicate the original finding. I summarized all of the replications in a box score format (I know, I know: Crude. So sue me.) like so:

Box Score_Dec2013By my rough-and-ready calculations, at the end of 2013 there were about 1.25 studies’ worth of successful replications of the original Kosfeld results, but about 3.75 studies’ worth of failed replications (see the original post for details). Even six months ago, the empirical support for the hypothesis that oxytocin increases trust in the trust game was not looking so healthy.

I promised that I’d update my box score as I became aware of new data on the topic, and a brand new study has just surfaced. Shuxia Yao and colleagues had 104 healthy young men and women play the trust game with four anonymous trustees. One of those four trustees (the “fair” trustee) returned enough of the subject’s investment to cause the subject and the trustee to end up with equal amounts of money; the other three trustees (designated as the “unfair players”) declined to return any money to the subject at all.

Next, subjects were randomly assigned to receive either the standard dose of intranasal oxytocin, or a placebo. Forty-five minutes later, participants were told that they would receive an instant message from the four players to whom they had entrusted money during the earlier round of the trust game. The “fair” player from the earlier round, and one of the “unfair” players, sent no message at all. The second unfair player sent a cheap-talk sort of apology, and the third unfair player offered to make a compensatory monetary transfer to the subject that would make their payoffs equal.

Finally, study participants took part in a “surprise” round of the trust game with the same four strangers. The researchers’ key question was whether the subjects who had received oxytocin would behave in a more trusting fashion toward the four players from Round 1 than the participants who received a placebo instead.

They didn’t.

In fact, the only hint that oxytocin did anything at all to participants’ trust behaviors was a faint statistical signal that oxytocin caused female participants (but not male participants) to treat the players from Round 1 in a less trusting way. If anything, oxytocin reduced women’s trust. I should note, however, that this females-only effect for oxytocin was obtained using a statistically questionable procedure: The researchers did not find a statistical signal of an interaction between oxytocin and subjects’ sex, and without such a signal, their separation of the men’s and the women’s data for further analyses really wasn’t licensed. But regardless, the Yao data fail to support the idea that oxytocin increases trusting behavior in the trust game.

It’s time to update the box score:

Box_Score_Jun2014

In the wake of the original Kosfeld findings, 1.25 studies worth of results have accumulated to suggest that oxytocin does increase trust in the trust game, but 4.75 studies worth of results have accumulated to suggest that it doesn’t.

It seems to me that the noose is getting tight for the hypothesis that intransasal oxytocin increases trusting behavior in the trust game. But let’s stay open-minded a while longer. As ever, if you know of some data out there that I should be including in my box score, please send me the details. I’ll continue updating from time to time.

Of Crackers and Quackers: Human-Duck Social Interaction is Regulated by Indirect Reciprocity (A Satire)

1280px-221_Mallard_DuckWatching the ducks on a neighborhood pond can be an entertaining and rewarding pastime. I myself, along with my nine-year-old co-investigator, have taken daily opportunities to feed some ducks on a nearby pond over the past several months. In doing so, we not only had fun but also managed to conduct some urban science that led us to a new scientific discovery: Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos L.) engage in indirect reciprocity with humans. Scientists have known for decades, of course, that indirect reciprocity was critical to the evolution of human social interaction in large-scale societies, but we believe we are the first to identify indirect reciprocity at work in human-duck social interaction.

Here’s how we made this discovery.

On random days, we take a soda cracker along with us to feed to a single lucky duck. On the other days, we take our walks without a cracker. What my young co-investigator and I have noticed is that on cracker days, after we’ve fed the cracker to the first duck that approaches us (the “focal duck,” which we also call “the recipient”), other ducks (which we call “entertainment ducks,” or “indirect reciprocators”) appear to take notice of our generosity toward the recipient. Almost immediately, the indirect reciprocators start to perform all sorts of entertaining behaviors: They swim toward us eagerly, they waddle up to us enthusiastically, they stare at us with their dead, obsidian eyes, they quack imploringly. It’s all very amusing and my co-investigator and I have a great time. Take note of the fact that we always bring only a single cracker with us on cracker days. As a result, the indirect reciprocators have absolutely nothing to gain from the entertainment they provide. In fact, they actually incur costs (in the form of energy expended and lost foraging time) when they do so. Thus, their indirect reciprocity behavior is altruistic.

Our experience with the indirect reciprocators is very different on non-cracker days. If a focal duck comes up to us on a non-cracker day, there’s just no cracker to be had, no matter how charming or insistent the request. Dejected, the focal duck typically waddles or paddles away within a few seconds. Now, what do you suppose the entertainment ducks do after we refuse to feed the focal duck? That’s right. They withhold their entertainment behaviors. This pattern, of course, is exactly as one would expect if the entertainment ducks were regulating their entertainment behaviors according to the logic of indirect reciprocity.

Theorists typically assume that the computational demands for indirect reciprocity to evolve are quite extensive. For instance, indirect reciprocators need to possess computational machinery that enables them to acquire information about the actions of donors—either through direct sensory experience of donor-recipient interactions, or (more rarely) language-based gossip, or (even more rarely) social information stored in an external medium, such written records or the reputational information that’s often available in online markets. Indirect reciprocators also need be able to tag donors’ actions toward recipients as either “beneficial” or “non-beneficial,” store that social information in memory, and then feed that information to motivational systems that can produce the indirect reciprocity behaviors that will serve as rewards to donors. However, the indirect reciprocity we’ve identified in our mallards suggests that those computational requirements may be fulfilled in vertebrates more commonly than theorists originally thought.

Neither of us could figure out for sure whether the focal ducks were transmitting information about our generosity/non-generosity to the indirect reciprocators through verbal (or non-verbal) communication, but we think it is unlikely. Instead, we suspect that the indirect reciprocators were directly observing our behavior and then using that sensory information to regulate their indirect reciprocity behavior.

In support of this interpretation, we note that on several cracker days, it was not only other ducks that engaged us as indirect reciprocators, but individuals from two different species of turtles (which we believe to be Rachemys scripta and Apalone ferox) as well. The turtles’ indirect reciprocity behaviors, of course, were different from those of the ducks, due to differences in life history and evolutionary constraints: The turtles didn’t reward our generosity through waddle-based or quack-based rewarding, but rather, by (a) rooting around in the mud where the focal duck had received the cracker earlier, and (b) trying to grab the focal duck by the leg and drag it to a gruesome, watery death. The fact that turtles engaged in their own forms of indirect reciprocity suggests that they, at least, were obtaining information about our generosity via direct sensory experience, rather than through duck-turtle communication or written or electronic records: It is widely accepted, after all, that turtles don’t understand Mallardese or use eBay.

The involvement of turtles as indirect reciprocators also suggests that indirect reciprocity might be even more prevalent–and more complex–than even we originally suspected. Not only does indirect reciprocity evolve to regulate interactions within species (viz., Homo sapiens), and between species (viz., between Homo sapiens and Anas platyrhynchos L., as we have documented here), but also among species (Homo sapiens as donors, Anas platyrhynchos L. as recipients, and Rachemys scripta and Apalone ferox as indirect reciprocators).

Finally, we should point out that although our results are consistent with the indirect reciprocity interpretation that we have proffered here, other interpretations are possible as well. We look forward to new work that can arbitrate between these two accounts (and perhaps others). We also see excellent opportunities for simulation studies that can shed light on the evolution of indirect reciprocity involving interactions between two or even three different species, which my co-Investigator thinks she might pursue after she has mastered long division.

h/t Eric P.