Conference Announcement – The Society for Evolutionary Analysis in Law

 Conference announcement, via Owen Jones:

penn_fulllogoThe Society for Evolutionary Analysis in Law (SEAL) ( ) is proud to announce our upcoming SEAL XIV Conference – April 5-6, 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. For more information click here.

SEAL is a scholarly association dedicated to fostering interdisciplinary exploration of issues at the intersection of law, biology, and evolutionary theory, improving the models of human behavior relevant to law, and promoting the integration of life science and social science perspectives on law-relevant topics through scholarship, teaching, and empirical research. Relevant disciplines include, among others, evolutionary and behavioral biology, cognitive science, neuroscience, complex adaptive systems, economics, evolutionary psychology, psychiatry, behavioral ecology, behavioral genetics, primatology, memetics, chaos theory, evolutionary anthropology, and gender relations. SEAL welcomes everyone — professors, students, practitioners, and all others — with serious interests in evolutionary processes and law. SEAL is comprised of over 400 members, from more than 30 countries.

SEAL welcomes all those with serious scholarly interest in evolutionary processes and law. Apply here


21. March 2013 by kurzbanepblog
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Man Reverses Position on Homicide Laws After Son Confesses to Murder

Tempe, AZ – Today, local resident Michael Wilson announced that he had reversed his position on homicide, saying that murderers “deserve the same opportunities in life as people who don’t kill people.”

Wilson’s announcement came days after the Arizona Star reported that his son, David Wilson, had admitted to the 2009 slaying of a tourist in a botched carjacking. The confession came after a lengthy investigation by police, who say that the case was finally broken when a friend of David Wilson’s was arrested on a drug charge, giving up information about the carjacking in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Friends of Michael Wilson expressed surprise, indicating that in the past, he had, as far as they could recall, been opposed to homicide. “We didn’t discuss it all that much,” said Vince Matthews, Wilson’s next door neighbor. “But when murder did come up, Mike always said he was against it. And, you know, we go to the same church, and I don’t remember him saying anything about the whole, thou-shalt-not-kill thing. In fact, I think that was his second favorite commandment.” In later remarks, Matthews alluded to keeping the Sabbath holy as having the edge as Wilson’s favorite commandment.

When asked about his reversal, Michael Wilson conceded that his son’s confession had been influential. “When your own son kills someone in a truly brutal manner for personal gain, well, that makes you see murderers from a different perspective. It makes you see these cold-blooded killers as real people, with hopes and dreams, fears and faults. Who are we to say that killing is “morally wrong” or “evil”? It’s just another way to be.”

Not everyone was convinced by his change of heart. “I think this probably does have something to do with self-interest,” said Mary Jones, who lives down the block from Wilson. “A lot of parents would rather not see their children in jail, or even put to death, since Arizona has the death penalty. I think that he might be letting his love for his son influence his judgments about what’s right and wrong.”

When pressed on his prior condemnation of murder, Michael Wilson alluded to Biblical justification. “I’m a deeply religious man, as everyone who knows me can attest. So when I found out that my son had killed those people, I went back to the Bible to see what it said about the subject. Yes, there are some passages that can be taken to be opposed to killing, but did you know that there’s just a shit-ton of people killing each other in the Old Testament? I mean, out of the first four people ever, one of them was a murderer,” Wilson said, referring to the story of Cain and Abel. “So, you know, it’s a grey area.”

David Wilson, while unavailable for comment, did tweet that he was “proud of his dad” for his changing his mind.

Frank Henderson, a psychologist at Arizona State University, said that he found Wilson’s change of heart puzzling. “Well, it’s a little strange for someone to use self-interest in making up their mind about moral issues. The latest research suggests – though there are some who disagree – that morality is all about things like “blinding” and “binding,” and actually suppressing self-interest in order to benefit the group. So cases like this, in which someone seems to be deploying their moral views for selfish, strategic purposes, well, that’s not well predicted by the theory.”

In what was possibly a related development, Wilson said he would be soon be announcing an updated position on the morality of adultery in light of “pesky, underhanded snooping” on the part of Mrs. Wilson.

ps: By the way, of course I’m not saying that being gay is akin to murdering someone. Just wanted to add that lest I be misunderstood.

18. March 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 2 comments

Guest Post: To moralize, or not to moralize?

Today’s guest post is by Michael Bang Petersen (pictured). I posted it, blushing a little, unedited. His biography appears at the end of the post. – Rob Kurzban.

Michael Petersen

Michael Bang Petersen

Humans show a remarkable moral interest in behavior that does not have any direct bearing on their welfare. People express condemnation of thieves, liars and adulterers even though they don’t have any relationship whatsoever with the victims of the actions in question. One traditional perspective (see here) on this zoologically unprecedented phenomenon is that it is about advertizing yourself as one of the good guys. By condemning antisocial acts, you signal to those people you do in fact have a relationship with that you would never do any such thing and that they can therefore safely interact, coordinate, and cooperate with you. Morality, in this perspective, evolved to make us do good things and condemnation is the signal we use to tell others that we are to be counted among the do-gooders.

One problem with this explanation is, however, that it does not really explain morality at a sufficiently general level. While some moral rules are, of course, about behaving altruistically towards others, huge amounts of moral energy is spend condemning behavior that has a much less clear negative impact on the welfare of others. Why, for example, do some people so strongly condemn consensual sex between two males (or two females for that matter)? Similarly, why – in some Muslim countries – are women who do not wear veils so strongly condemned? Neither homosexuality nor letting your hair show seems to have much direct negative impact on other people. These two examples could perhaps give the impression that the condemnation of strange things is something confined to politically conservative segments. But nothing is farther from the truth. Youth culture across the world, for example, provides plenty of examples that strong condemnation can also be directed against those who do not party hard enough or are the teacher’s pet. At the more general level it seems that morality and moral condemnation is less about doing good as it is about constraining behavior – and all sorts of behavior can be moralized.

Recently, such observations has sparked renewed interest in studying the underlying dynamics of morality and, as readers of this blog will know, our own Rob Kurzban has been doing important work on trying to understand exactly what is going on with all this condemnation (see here and here). A part of the answer that is emerging is that moral condemnation is not so much about being a do-gooder as it is about something very different, namely the strategic promotion of self-interest. Expressions of moral condemnation are a way in which we seek to mold our social environments in a way that is conducive to the particular interests that we pursue. For example, for individuals who pursue a long-term mating strategy (i.e., who invest in one particular long-term mating partner instead of seeking multiple short-term partners), a social environment that invites promiscuity is problematic because it increases that risk that one’s long term partner suddenly ends up with another one. For these individuals, any and all signs of a relaxed sexual morality should be condemned and penalized. This perspective has, for example, given rise to the interesting finding that people who follow long-term mating strategies are much more prone to find the use of drugs morally problematic compared to people following short-term mating strategies. The underlying reason is of course that having casual sex is a not too infrequent result of drug intake.

In this perspective, then, people condemn what is against their self-interest. Because interests differ across individuals, some people will condemn some behavior, while other people will condemn other kinds of behavior. Overall, however, we are all condemners, and while our moral compasses point in different directions, the sum of condemnation for each individual could be seen as about the same.

But is this really the case? Let us try to take a look at two pieces from the book of morality par excellence: the Bible. It is the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament and it is the Sermon on the Mount from the New Testament. In a way, these two pieces constitute what comparative researchers call a “most similar systems” comparative design: Both pieces are religious, Christian, antique etc. At the same time, they vary massively in their levels of moral condemnation. The Ten Commandments are prime examples of how morality seeks to constrain behavior with its forceful list of “Thou shalt not…”. Condemnation is here at peak levels. In stark contrast, a key message of The Sermon on the Mount is an explicit warning against condemnation as prominently coined in the line “Judge not, that you be not judged”.

If Biblical anecdotes provide any guidance on the landscape of human moral psychology, this suggests that there are systematic individual differences in proneness to moralize: Some people are prone to condemn others strongly (the “Old Testamenters”), other people are not (the “New Testamenters”). If valid, how are we to understand such differences? It all comes down to a matter of trade-offs, I have suggested in a recent article published in Evolution & Human Behavior. There are benefits to being a moralizer in general and there are costs. The costs of condemnation and moralization have been touched upon in the above: If you want to pursue a promiscuous sexual strategy, it is costly to help forge collective condemnation of promiscuity. That much seems pretty obvious. What might be less obvious is that there are in fact also benefits associated with condemning certain strategies even though you are pursuing them yourself. These benefits come about in terms of protection. From the perspective of individual strategies, an exploitive individual would stand to gain from refraining to moralize exploitive acts because a lack of collective condemnation will ensure that he can more freely pursue exploitive strategies. Yet, while this would help promote the self’s exploitation of others, this also creates opportunities for others to exploit the self!

So we have a classical situation of trade-offs. On the one hand, a person would like to pursue specific strategies and, hence, refrain from moralizing relevant behaviors. On the other hand, this person would not like to become the target of those very same strategies and, hence, would like to moralize those behaviors in others. An easy solution could be to sort of do both – that is, moralize the behavior in question (such as adultery) as a protective means but at the same pursue it yourself. However, as any casual observer of the press coverage of sex escapades of conservative politicians would notice, such hypocrisy – when detected – does not go unpunished. So, what to do? Here, the important thing to focus on is that the benefits of moralization relates to the protection of your interests. In other words, if alternative means of protection were available, the dilemma would be easily solved as there would be no need (at least, in this context) for letting moral condemnation interfere with the pursuit of self-interest.

In the article mentioned above, I focused on one specific alternative means of protection: having coalitional allies in the form of friends. One core function of friendships – as suggested by different researchers – is to increase the bargaining power of the self in disputes with others and, hence, protect the resources and interests of the self against encroachment. If the above line of reasoning is valid, this implies that people without protection in the form of friends should be more likely to moralize all sorts of behaviors that could be potentially harmful. Indeed, this was what analyses of a large cross-national survey, the European Values Study, showed. The more time people spend with friends, the less likely they were to moralize behavior across domains. Importantly, this effect of friendships was particularly large for particular segments: those segments where the trade-off between the promotion of one’s self-interest and the protection against others’ pursuit of their self-interest were most acute. In the domain of reproduction, for example, people following short-term mating strategy themselves kept condemning the promiscuity of others if they lacked social support. Similarly, in the domain of cooperation, people following a defection strategy themselves kept condemning defection in others if they lacked social support.

These analyses suggest that one important function of moralization and condemnation is to recruit the attention and help of third-parties in the service of trying to get protection from exploiters. So, in essence, if you lack other means of protection – whether in the form of physical size or a large number of coalitional allies – you can always try to avoid being exploited by crying out a “But it is wrong!” in the hope of mobilizing moral outrage. However, if you have these other protective means available, you might be better off by keeping moralization at a minimum and be free to pursue your own interests.

In this way, the game of moralization and condemnation is a complex social game and seems to contain all the ingredients of good drama: attempts to be a good person, attempts to promote your own interests and attempts to protect yourself against encroachment from others. With such a complex setup, it is safe to assume that the final word on the evolved functions of morality has not yet been said.


Petersen, M. B. (2013). Moralization as protection against exploitation: do individuals without allies moralize more? Evolution and Human Behavior, 34 (2): 78-85.

Guest Blogger Bio

Michael Bang Petersen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science & Government at Aarhus University in Denmark. He received his PhD from Aarhus University in 2007 and received training in evolutionary psychology at the Center of Evolutionary Psychology at UC Santa Barbara. His core field of study is how modern individuals use psychological mechanisms designed for ancestral small-scale social interaction to reason about modern mass politics. More information as well as a number of his publications is available here.

11. March 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 2 comments

Pathogens: Cause or Effect of Social Variation?

The latest issue of Evolution and Human Behavior has multiple articles on the “behavioral immune system.” The idea is that infections can be defended against not only by the body’s immune system – t-cells and that sort of thing – but also by behavioral strategies that reduce the risk of infection. This includes strategies such as staying away from things that are likely to be infested with parasites, such as dead bodies, sick people, or hospitals.

This idea has been proposed to account for group-level differences. So, the idea goes, in places where there are greater risks from infection, people are more likely to use behavioral strategies to protect themselves. One of the two papers, by Terrizzi et al., looks at the relationship between variables such as “disgust sensitivity” on the one hand and ethnocentrism on the other. In places with more pathogens, people might be more likely to experience disgust – the motivational system behind the behavioral immune system – and reduce their exposure to pathogens by reducing their exposure to members of other groups. Terrizzi et al report, across a number of published studies, a “moderate” relationship. (The effect sizes they report are in the r=.25 range, for the quantitatively curious.)

The second paper, by Hackman and Hruschka, revisits some analyses of data from states in the U.S. that showed relationships between levels of pathogens in the state and a number of social behaviors, including religious commitment and collectivism. These data were previously interpreted as consistent with the ideas behind the behavioral immune system. The gist is that in places with higher pathogen threats, outgroup members represent an increased degree of risk, enhancing people’s inclinations to associate with ingroup as opposed to outgroup members. (See also Peng et al., for a related article in the same issue.)

Hackman and Hruschka offer a different interpretation, drawing on life history theory, reversing the direction of causality. Suppose that some places are riskier than others, and people facultatively adjust their behavior by adopting a faster life history strategy. (The intuition here is the nastier, more brutish and shorter life is, the better a bet it is to reproduce early and often because there is less likely to be sufficient time to reproduce later.) People pursuing faster life history strategies tend to have sex when they are younger, invest less in offspring and, importantly, become less involved in religious groups, which, some have argued, are vehicles (in the U.S.) for pursuing high-investment monomgamous reproductive strategies. A side effect of a fast life history strategy is that, because of sexual practices, sexually transmitted diseases will spread more widely. Higher pathogens, then, are the result, rather than the cause, of between-group social differences:

In light of this observation, life history theory posits a different causal link between the variables examined by F&T. Specifically, one kind of infectious disease (i.e., sexually transmitted disease) is an outcome of a fast life history strategy which should also be associated with greater likelihood of homicide and child maltreatment, less investment in religion, and an earlier sexual debut, which increases the likelihood of teenage pregnancy and of grandparents living with grandchildren (the major component of F&T measure of strength of family ties). This is in contrast to predictions from PST that infectious disease drives these different behavioral outcomes

Hackman and Hruschka point to a number of ways to distinguish between the two possibilities. For instance, the  life history view predicts a special role for pathogens associated with sexually transmitted diseases; the behavioral immune system view does not. They report a number of analyses – I won’t work through them here, but I do recommend the paper to those interested in this topic – with an emphasis at looking at the relationship between pathogens and the behavioral immune system behaviors such as religious adherence, controlling for their measures of life history variables. In their words:

These analyses show that when removing the confounding effects of life history variables (i.e. fast life history proxied by early childbirth and extrinsic risk proxied by race) we find little effect of STD rates (or any measure of pathogen risk) on a suite of variables considered in prior analyses, including homicide, child fatalities, strength of family ties, and religious adherence.

I suspect proponents of the behavioral immune system will object to various elements of the analysis – anyone? – but I do like the exploration of the idea that pathogens are the effect rather than the cause in these relationships.

There was also something of a puzzle in their analysis that caught my attention. They found a positive relationship between early childbirth (an index of fast life history) and religious involvement. My prediction would have been the reverse, having been persuaded by argument I referred to above, that religious groups – in the U.S. at least – are means used by those pursuing slow life history strategies.

In any case, it seems to me that the literature on the behavioral immune system has gained a certain amount of momentum recently, and these two articles appearing in the same issue of the journal are, I think, a harbinger of a substantial amount of debate still to come.


Hackman, J., & Hruschka, D. (2013). Fast life histories, not pathogens, account for state-level variation in homicide, child maltreatment, and family ties in the US. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Terrizzi Jr, J. A., Shook, N. J., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). The behavioral immune system and social conservatism: a meta-analysis. Evolution and Human Behavior.

06. March 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 10 comments

Human Behavior and Evolution Society Annual Conference

Announcing the annual HBES Conference, via Deb Lieberman:

The 25th annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society will be held in Miami, FL July 17-20 2013. This year’s keynote address will be given by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, with an introduction by Steven Pinker. We have a fantastic line-up of plenary speakers ( The deadline to submit talk, symposia, and poster abstracts is March 15. Instructions for abstract submission and registration can be found on the conference website ( We look forward to seeing you on South Beach.

04. March 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 3 comments


Love is on my mind because on Tuesday my lecture in class was about the evolved function of emotions, and I focused on a few in particular, including love.

To motivate the discussion, I began by trying to persuade my students that, many-splendored thing it might be, love presents something a puzzle. Consider some apparently epically poor decisions from literature. Paris might be forgiven for falling for Helen, but was his next best option so much worse that it was worth starting a war? Could Lancelot and Guinevere not put their love aside, set against their loyalties to Arthur, King and husband? And when Romeo and Juliet believed the other to be dead, was suicide preferable to searching for another, though doubtless less compelling, mate?

While the fitness consequences of such decisions seem to speak for themselves, those who have fallen in love might be inclined toward not just answering each of these with a yes, but shouting its obvious truth with ebullient, confident enthusiasm. Who among us with the least poetry in our souls has not felt the unanswerably sublime pull of another, whose virtues so ensorcel that we feel as though we might fight, kill and, yes, die that we might be together?

And so, an evolutionary puzzle. If emotions function to guide us toward adaptive behavior, not the least of which entails making good tradeoffs in decision-making, what is this thing called love, and why does it torment us so? No one seems immune, as even the rich and powerful seem ready to make sacrifices at the altar of love, as cases from Edward VIII to John Edwards illustrate. We all dance to love’s tune and obey the pull of her strings.

In class I focus on Robert Frank’s answer to this question, presented in Passions Within Reason. Briefly, Frank views love as a commitment device. Partners in budding romances want to know that their beau will not leave them. Love, Frank argues, causes people to feel irrational affection for another, in turn motivating behavior that signals these feelings and, so, commitment. If Romeo can persuade Juliet that he will not leave her even when a mate with better properties comes along, then Romeo is better off doing just that to the extent that Juliet is swayed by evidence of his steadfastness.

Critics have worried about Frank’s answer. As a commitment device, love relies on signaling, and it’s not always clear that the sorts of signals love broadcasts are honest, in the technical, not lay, sense of the term. Protestations of ardor, perhaps especially in verse, are all to the good, but nothing in poetry’s dulcet voice prevents abandonment in life’s shadowy future. When Romeo avers that his heart never lov’d till this night, why should Juliet be swayed? Flowery verse, even set to iambic pentameter, succumbs to the economist’s charge of cheapness. Is it not as easy to leave a relationship that began with literary flights on Cupid’s wings as one that did not?

For Frank, the answer is that one simply can’t, as a psychological matter, show these symptoms of love unless one is genuinely in love, making the symptoms a reliable cue to the affliction. Though I confess to being somewhat skeptical of such arguments in principle, I sympathize deeply with the intuition. Scenes in the film Shakespeare in Love, in which the Bard pens purple prose – inspir’d by fair Viola – ring true to the viewer, as if only the muse of true passion could evoke such sentiments. If love’s lines come only of love, then do the words born of love’s muse not have some power to predict?

Poetry is not, of course, the only one of love’s products. In class I also discuss Dorothy Tennov’s notion of “limerence,” the intense feelings experienced when one finds oneself irretrievably and irrevocably in love. Tennov usefully catalogs some peculiarities of limerence, not the least of which is that people experiencing it seem, more or less, incapable of attending to anything else. As Tennov renders it, the object of one’s love dominates one’s thoughts, intruding into, and interfering with, all other aspects of life, resembling a kind of addiction, as the lover craves the loved. Further, people experiencing limerence spend an inordinate amount of time dissecting their would-be lover’s words and deeds for signs that their feelings are, or are not, reciprocated. Tennov also suggests that limerence causes a certain amount of failure to engage with reality, seeing hope for the possibility of a relationship where a more dispassionate appraisal would suggest there is little, or none.

All these symptoms might persuade a potential mate of the depths of one’s feelings, but, if all of this is right, then being in love imposes some serious costs. The obsessions of love seems to radically tilt tradeoffs toward the pursuit of the target of one’s affection and away from nearly everything else. Certainly an argument can be made about the importance of pursuing a mate, but the symptoms of limerence, and the sorts of (fictional, true) examples above make it look as though love pushes us, at least on occasion, too far.

Further, some might argue that Frank’s argument suffers to the extent that it’s right. That is, suppose love does, in fact, cause someone to stay with their current mate even when a better option comes along. If love has this effect on decision making, then the benefits of signaling commitment would have to be relatively large to offset these potential costs.  Still, to the extent feelings of love genuinely foreclose alternative options in the service of signaling commitment, a potentially treacherous tradeoff is being made. The details, of course, ought to matter. How likely is a better alternative to come along? If one does, how much better is the alternative likely to be? Love’s loyalty makes the most sense in a world in which the next best option is only marginally better than the status quo. Does love look so peculiar to us in part because of the modern world’s greater vocabulary of possible lovers? In ancestral environments, if the variance were lower, then commitment might have constituted a potentially less costly tradeoff.

To end by returning to arguably the most famous love story of all time, what are we to make of the impact of the detritus of love denied, when happily ever after eludes us? That is, if love is a commitment device, when love passes out of reach, why does it persist and torment – causing both Romeo and Juliet to endure the greatest of all fitness costs –  rather than gracefully simply fading away? The agony of unrequited love, so paralyzingly horrible, seems absurdly counterproductive, in addition to, from the point of view of the unsuccessful suitor, transcendentally painful. As an adaptive matter, it would seem that the right response to doomed courtship is resuming the search; the worst response is lover’s leap, the course favored by so many. Even those who have resisted paying the ultimate price when their favored mate proves out of reach, the aftermath of rejection seems to pose enormous costs in the form of withdrawal from life’s other pursuits. The dejection of the spurned appears as painful as it is unproductive. If there is a crueler burden with which we have been saddled by evolution than the agony of a broken heart, it is hard to imagine what it might be.

21. February 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 18 comments

MSc in Evolutionary Psychology at Brunel

From time to time, I post announcements about various professional happenings in the field… here’s one, via Nick Pound. 


Evolution & Behaviour Group (

Department of Psychology, Brunel University, London, UK (

Evolutionary Psychology MSc - Brunel UniversityThis programme provides an exciting opportunity for advanced study in Evolutionary Psychology, i.e. psychological science informed by explicit consideration of the fact that the human mind, like the human body, is a product of evolutionary processes. This course is particularly suited to students in the life sciences or social sciences who are interested in finding out how principles from evolutionary biology can provide a framework for the scientific study of human psychology and behaviour. It is taught in association with the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology (CCEP) and the Centre for Cognition and Neuroimaging (CCNI).

More information about the programme



14. February 2013 by kurzbanepblog
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Utility Monsters

Hi! My name is Sam. Rob’s on yet another break – something about (could this be right?) “leveling up his archery perks” – so I’m substituting in for him. Anyway, I’m a Utility Monster, and today I’d like to talk to you about My Good Works, and also sex.

Those of you who have read Robert Nozick’s book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia probably remember me, but for those of you who don’t, I’m something of a thought experiment. As Nozick put it

Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose . . . the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility. (p. 41)

So, let me just put it this way. Suppose we all agree that we should set up the rules of the game – public policy and so on – in such a way that we try to maximize aggregate happiness. Now suppose that I get ten units of happiness whenever you lose one unit. Further, suppose I don’t experience any diminishing marginal returns, and I get even more jollies – 100 units of utility – when you lose your second unit of happiness. If all this were true, then there would be more happiness, as a whole, if we set up the world for you to lose happiness. If I’m allowed – or even compelled – to reduce your happiness by two units, aggregate happiness has just gone up by 98 units. (#HappinessWin!)

Now, Nozick talked about me as part of his critique of utilitarianism, but I want to talk about a slightly different way in which I try to satisfy my particular and perverse utility function. In particular, you know what makes me happy? Nothing juices my lemons more than preventing mutual consensual transactions in which both (all) parties are made better off. I hate utility gains as much as I love utility losses. Why do you think they call me a Monster?

To take one example, how about those canonical butchers and bakers in Adam Smith’s discussion of exchange. The baker gives up a loaf of bread, preferring the money he charges customers to the bread – he has enough already! – and the customer would rather have the bread than the money. I need not tell you what agony this causes monsters like me to see these transactions take place. Gains in trade! The horror!

As you can see, the modern world is a tough place for me. Mutually beneficial arrangements are everywhere, often protected by the instruments of State. What is a Utility Monster to do? Woe is me. I am woe.

Thankfully, I still have one arrow in my quiver. Let me explain by way of example, drawing on current events in Rob’s municipality, the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Marketing Motto: The City that Loves You Back!) (Unofficial Marketing Motto: The City that Loves You Back MotherF*cker!). The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported a story about a billboard off of Interstate 95 advertising a web site called “” (Bree Olson certified!). ArrangementFinders is a service for people who are seeking “Mutually Beneficial Arrangements” (MBAs). Mutually beneficial! Can you imagine?!

Well,  not just any MBAs. The web site caters to men who are interested in exchanging some fraction of their wealth for sexual access to women, who are reciprocally likewise interested in such a transaction.

Last week, a number of people protested the firm that sold the advertising space, which space, according to the Inquirer piece, seems to have been successfully employed; the ad was credited with “a 600 percent increase in members from the area.”

The grounds on which the protestors protested are pretty clear from the text in the ad, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” with the “not” crossed out as I’ve rendered it here.  The basis for objecting to this particular mutually beneficial arrangement is – same as it ever was! – the last, best tool of Utility Monsters: morality.

Indeed, there might be two moral entry points into destroying utility here. The first comes from the ad text, which seems to be encouraging people to break the rule against having sex outside of marriage. This is actually somewhat peculiar, given that the web site itself doesn’t seem to be catering to rich, married men, but simply rich men. The tagline, “Intimacy with a twi$t,” is consistent with this interpretation. This tagline points to a second moral rule, the one forbidding the exchange of sex for money. (Unless, as Rob discussed in his last post, the sex is being recorded for subsequent sale, in which case it’s just fine.)

So, we Utility Monsters have a keen ally in moral psychology. When people go around trying to limit other people’s gains in trade, usually, though not always, the stick used to beat people into welfare-destroying-submission is morality.

Moral cognition just might be a Utility Monster’s best friend.

And with that, I’ll be signing off. – Sam


Rob here. Despite Sam’s claim, I did not, in fact, relegate this entry to him because I was leveling up my Archery perks. First of all, one should be skeptical of claims of Utility Monsters as a general rule, and, second of all, I have been focusing on Enchantment Magic anyway. In any case, the reason I acceded to this guest post might not be obvious, so I’ll make it explicit. This post fits in with some ideas I’ve been working on with some collaborators, specifically engaging the view that morality evolved in the service of producing group-beneficial outcomes. From this post, it appears that morality is often implicated in Utility Monster activity, decreasing aggregate welfare, rather than increasing it. This circumstance seems to present such models with something of a quandary. That is, if, as the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology would have it (Krebs, p. 750), “morality boils down to individuals meeting their needs and advancing their interests in cooperative ways,” why is morality such a useful tool for Utility Monsters like Sam?

11. February 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 12 comments

Perverse Consequences

I’m not sure why, but I sort of love perverse consequences. The example I like to use is the story that they tell to tourists taking a tour of The Rocks part of Sydney, Australia. Around 1900, Sydney was fighting the plague, and it was known that the disease was spread by rodents. So, in an effort to reduce the number of rodents – and thus the spread of the plague – a bounty was offered for the lifeless bodies of the responsible critters. Providing financial incentives is a good, if not perfect, way for governments to alter people’s behavior, but in this case, the policy fueled people’s imaginations for ways to produce as many rodent carcasses as they could. It wasn’t long before people started breeding rats.

There are any number of such stories. For instance, back in 1999, Santa Monica enacted a law designed to redress what was seen as an unfair practice, banks charging non-customers to use their ATMs. I’ve never really understood why this practice was seen as unfair, but it was, and the municipality solved this problem by passing a law prohibiting banks from imposing this charge. As soon as the law went into effect, banks simply stopped letting non-customers use their machines. So, banks lost some revenue and Santa Monicans had to drive an extra few blocks to withdraw cash.

My home state of Pennsylvania has a lot of rules about who may and may not sell alcohol, many of which can be traced back to the American puritanical desire to ensure that other people don’t have too much fun. Once consequence of these rules is that organizations that want to have alcohol at their events, for instance, can find it hard to arrange a system of alcohol sales that conforms to state laws, so instead they simply host an open bar – allowed because no money is changing hands –  which in turn incentivizes people to drink more than they would if they had to pay for drinks. The consequences of open bars include people getting more drunk than they otherwise would and my nephew William.

Of  more global significance, China’s one child policy, which somehow leads to approximately one and a half children per woman, has important demographic effects. A number of people have pointed out that the policy has led to an imbalanced sex ratio, with many more males than females, and some have worried about what all these extra men might mean in the medium term. Recently the Economist pointed out two additional effects: first, a demographic shift of fewer working age people participating in the Chinese economy as the one-child-policy-generation works through their working years and, second, a demand for male-child-snatching in China, as families without male offspring find ways to circumvent the government policy.

Returning to southern California and the lighter side, the citizens of Los Angeles recently passed “Measure B,” which requires that performers in pornographic films wear condoms, an idea not driven by the puritanical desire to ensure other people don’t have too much fun, but rather as a means to reduce the spread of sexually-transmitted infections, a testimony to how deeply the people of California care about the health and welfare of its performing artists in the pornography industry. Readers may be excused for taking a moment to dap any tears welling up in their eyes before continuing. (Also note that some pornographic film makers have filed a suit in county court, claiming that the law violates first amendment freedom of speech.)

Aren’t the performers concerned enough about their own health and welfare to wear condoms without prodding from the state? They probably are, but their decisions are tipped by the fact that consumers of pornography like their performances condom-free, preferring an unencumbered look at the male performer’s penis. Because consumers of pornography don’t like to consume condom-cluttered porn, performers have a dilemma: wear a condom, which reduces the risk of infection but brings less money, or perform without, effectively earning a premium for the increased risk.

Well, they used to face that dilemma. Now they face a different dilemma because unsheathed-penis performances are greyed out. News stories coming out of SoCal indicate pretty clearly what, predictably, is going to happen: Larry Flynt and other porn producers are going to pack up and take their naked penises elsewhere. There are, to be sure, some advantages they’ll be sacrificing by leaving the Los Angeles area – the presence of the non-port entertainment industry ensures a good supply of makeup artists, lighting techs, and writers to pen the scintillating dialog consumers expect from their porn – “Hi pizza delivery guy, I can’t pay for the pizza, but maybe my roommate Candy and I can work something out with you…” – but such advantages are mobile, and ultimately appropriate talent can be found or will move elsewhere.

All of which raises the interesting question. While it’s not hard to understand why men enjoy watching reproductively valuable women perform various sexual acts, why do men prefer an unobstructed view of other men’s penises?


04. February 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 11 comments

Evolutionary Psychology & Embodied Cognition

A recent paper published in the journal that hosts this blog, Evolutionary Psychology, explores an idea drawn from a set of ideas that travel under the label “embodied cognition.” Storey and Workman report some research in which subjects played a Prisoner’s Dilemma game while holding something hot (chemical hand-warmers) or cold (freezer packs). They predict and report that holding something warmer rather than colder leads to more cooperation because there is, in their words, “a link between real world temperature sensation and feelings of psychological warmth.”

The “link” is built on two ideas, and I apologize to the authors if I’m not rendering either or both properly. From what I can tell, the idea is that close relationships during development are literally “warm” because of the close physical contact involved with hugs and such. This history of feeling warm during such encounters causes a psychological association between literal warmth and close relationships. The second source of the “link” is neurophysiological, and the authors draw on findings that suggest that trusting someone leads to activation in the same brain area as one implicated in processing temperature.

The most important thing that strikes me about this application of the notion of “embodied cognition” from the standpoint of an evolutionary/functional analysis is that the proposal here is that, whatever the cause for the “link,” the effect of the link is to cause people to make mistakes. In the context of relationships – or decisions to cooperate or defect in an interaction – there are a number of cues that might reasonably be useful to attend to when making a decision. Is this a person I’ve known and will continue to interact with? What is the magnitude of the possible loss if I cooperate? Is there evidence that this person is disposed to like (dislike) me? These should, as normative and adaptive matters, be taken into account when making decisions about social interaction. If there is a long shadow of the future, for instance, then the expected value from subsequent interactions is greater.

In the reported work, subjects play ten rounds of a Prisoner’s Dilemma game, two blocks of five rounds holding either the hot or cold object, with the blocks counterbalanced. If I have understood the analysis correctly, the authors report that the payoff people earn is higher when the subjects in a PD pair are holding the hot object compared to the cold object. (My interest here is in the theory, not the stats, but it seems to me that the correct analysis is the frequency of Cooperate choices (a binary variable) by individuals rather than the payoff data to pairs, but it’s possible I misunderstood the analysis.)

In any case, to return to the theory, the temperature of what one is holding is a non sequitur. And I mean that in the literal, logical sense. The temperature of the room or the temperature of one’s hands is not any sort data on which such decision-making ought to be based, like choosing a mate because of their sign of the zodiac, or some other arbitrary, irrelevant property. Therefore, to the extent that temperature influences decisions, these decisions are being affected by irrelevant information, and are in error just to the extent that these effects are felt.

The ideas that motivate research of this type in the embodied cognition literature, then, rely on what strike me as a peculiar sort of byproduct. In the present case, the fact that two properties co-occur leading one to use the presence of one property when making decisions about the latter. There seems no obvious reason that noticing such co-occurrences ought to have such an effect. Further, the association seems to be particularly imperfect. People also get warm when they’re angry, possibly explaining why we have expressions such as hot under the collar. In Steven Brust’s novel, Five Hundred Years After, one character is explaining why he took care to be armed, saying:“Your Venerance, my master the Baroness gave me to understand the affair might become tolerably warm,” again illustrating how one might, from such constructions, have derived the reverse prediction.

More generally, it strikes me as just an odd sort of byproduct. Would it really have been that hard to engineer the trust system in such a way that it simply ignores the extraneous and irrelevant information about the temperature of one’s hands? Now, before the accusations of a commitment to “optimality” fly – lookin’ at you, Gary Marcus – of course there are any number of reasons that the mind might not be optimally designed. True enough. But as side effects go, this one seems particularly odd or, to put it another way, particularly easy to engineer out.

Further, it seems to me that there are just many facts about the world that don’t fit the notion. If being a little warmer makes you more trusting, should we find that our friends in the hot Philippines by and large are more trusting than our colder friends in Norway? It seems we should. But they’re not. By a far cry (see Fig. 1).

I might note that an additional source of motivation for the Storey and Workman paper is that it builds on prior results in this area, especially that of John Bargh and colleagues. I haven’t been following this work closely, but my sense is that there are at least some worries that the initial findings can be replicated. Again, I’m not an expert in this area, but it was a bit surprising to me that some concerns that have arisen in this area were not discussed by the authors.

The larger point is that most of the work of this type in embodied cognition, it seems to me, posits that the mind has the peculiar property of using a ton of irrelevant information in making decisions. Not only that, but there are any number of bits of irrelevant information the mind might use in making decisions. I myself have never really understood how one chooses which bits of irrelevant information are good candidates. Now, again, don’t get me wrong, I suspect that there are any number of cases in which the mind does indeed use irrelevant information – perhaps findings under the umbrella of the halo effect might be good exemplars. But information such as “heat” seems to me like an odd candidate for having an effect on social decision making.

28. January 2013 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 8 comments

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