Saturday, December 21, 2013

Guns and cheerleaders: how science gets manipulated for political agendas

Apparently, science tells us, men become incapable of rational thought and prone to aggression and violence whenever a firearm or a woman is in their immediate vicinity.

Or does science actually tell us anything of the sort?

This week Salon published a post on the inherent dangers of US citizens engaging in legal "open carry" of firearms.  This is all based, we are told, on solid science that concludes that people carrying weapons will be more likely to react impulsively and violently to situations they encounter: 

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that when people are holding a gun, they’re less capable of evaluating a threatthan they would be if they didn’t have a weapon in their own hands. Jessica Witt, a psychologist at Colorado State University, asked volunteers to hold either a plastic gun or a neutral object (such as a ball) as they reacted to pictures flashed on a screen. The photos depicted people holding various objects — sometimes a gun, sometimes a shoe, a soda can or a cellphone. While holding a gun, volunteers were more likely to misidentify the object in the photo as a gun. (Likewise, if you’re holding a shoe, you’re more likely to think the guy in the photo is holding a shoe — but that mistake isn’t likely to end in tragedy.)
“You can imagine the kind of actions people are going to take if they misperceive an object as being a gun,” Witt says. “That’s going to be a terrible consequence — obviously for the victims of those actions, but also terrible for the people who make the mistakes. We think we can trust our eyes, that our eyes tell us the truth. But if your eyes lie to you and then you make a regrettable action based on that, that’s a terrible thing to happen.”
Even when you’re not holding a gun, you can be psychologically affected by seeing one.
Since 1967, researchers have been observing the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon in which the mere presence of a weapon can stimulate aggressive behavior. Of course, a person doesn’t respond to a gun the way a cartoon bull reacts to the matador’s cape; we aren’t spontaneously enraged every time we notice a firearm. But empirical research has repeatedly shown that when people are already aggravated, seeing a gun will motivate them to behave more aggressively.
Ergo, citizens who advocate and participate in open carry are more prone to aggressive violence simply due to the fact that they are carrying a firearm.

Sound persuasive?  Think again.
 This week also, the Wall Street Journal published a piece on "The Cheerleader Effect," in which it is argued that science supports the idea that men are inherently "hard-wired" to act more aggressively around women--particularly attractive and/or scantily clad women, and there are amazing parallels to the earlier Salon write-up about guns:
When women are present or when men are prompted to think about women, they act differently, research shows. Well, duh. But in unexpected ways. A 2008 study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology showed that in the mere presence of women as witnesses, men become more likely to jaywalk and to wait until the last second to dash on to a bus. This reflects, no doubt, the well-known belief among men that jaywalking means you're a Roman gladiator of irrepressible virility. As I said, pathetic.
Over the past several years, the pattern has been found repeatedly in studies of male behavior published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the British Journal of Psychology and elsewhere. In some cases, a woman is present; in others, men look at pictures of a woman's face or her legs; in still others, men list what they find to be sexually arousing (versus things that make them happy). In a 2011 paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, this last technique is called, with a straight face, "inducing mating goals."
Sex-related cues like these have been found to make men more prone to take risks while playing blackjack, to discount the future when making economic decisions and to spend on conspicuous luxury items (but not on mundane expenses). Typically, the effects are strongest in single men. By contrast, these studies uniformly report that cues about males have no such effects on women.
You got this, right?  Not only does holding or carrying a firearm (or, one presumes, other weapon) turn men into potential raving, deadly aggressors, so does just the act of observing women.

Wow, as the author of the WSJ article says, we men must be pretty pathetic.
 But then Slate takes on the science behind the Cheerleader effect, and--in effect--shreds it:
The problem (besides the one Katy Waldman points out, which is how women are treated more like variables than humans in these kinds of studies) is that while it is true that a female presence does change male behavior, none of the mentioned studies actually prove that women cause men to show off.
"Sex-related cues like these have been found to make men more prone to take risks while playing blackjack, to discount the future when making economic decisions and to spend on conspicuous luxury items (but not on mundane expenses)," writes Sapolsky. Evolutionary psychologists immediately leap to an elaborate argument regarding status-seeking men and gold-digging women, but there may be a more mundane explanation, which is that people who are distracted have lower inhibitions generally.
After all, another study found that you don't need to make people think about sex in order to get them to make more impulsive choices. Psychologists at Stanford found that all you need to do is make people think of a number. In a study where two groups of students were asked to memorize two digit and seven digit numbers, researchers found the latter group had lowered inhibitions and were more likely to choose junk food over healthy food when offered a snack. No "mating strategies" or status-seeking involved. 
Sapolsky notes that both aggressive behaviors and willingness to give to charity increase in men in the presence of women. No doubt the data is accurate, but again, it doesn't follow that it's necessarily hard-wired, or that it's necessarily about showing off. Turns out that inducing lowered inhibitions in sex-free studies has the same effect on people. Harvard researchers found that when playing a game where participants had to decide whether to keep their money or share it, the less time they had to make their decision, the more likely they were to give the money away. (Could the presence of a clock in football be more to blame for aggressive, risky play on the field than the cheerleaders?)
Lowered inhibitions can also explain some of the more aggressive opinions men have in the presence of women, such as willingness to go to war, another behavior Sapolsky chalks up to ladies in the room. Research found that by reducingwhat is called a "cognitive load"—how much your brain can process at once—by giving people alcohol, you get the same effect. People's opinions became more simplistic and reactionary. A man who is thinking about a woman instead of giving his full brain over to a question about diplomacy vs. war is likely to reach for the pat simplicity of war. That's not necessarily because of the woman. An adorable cat might have the same effect. (Unfortunately, the researchers only compared men and women's reactions to the opposite sex, and didn't think to run the tests with adorable cats or other distractions.)
Interestingly enough, I can't find anybody performing the same type of meta-analysis on the Salon piece, even though having examined several of the studies so referenced they are replete with exactly the same times of assumptions and logical fallacies.  Why would that be?

I suspect that this occurs because the Salon piece on open carry seems to fit very closely with a comprehensive political agenda of not just "common sense" gun control, but also a real desire to portray firearms as corrosive and dangerous to our society just by the fact of their very existence.  There is a general and understandable tendency not to want to criticize "evidence" that supports what you already believe or want to believe.

On the other hand, the WSJ article had some potentially disturbing implications not just for feminism, but also for an open democratic society.  The internal logic of the piece comes reasonably close to laying the foundation for, say, a rape defense of capacity diminished by a good looking pair of bare legs.  This has to be countered, and the rhetoric of the Slate article provides a clue that I am correct about the motivation of the author:
women are treated more like variables than humans in these kinds of studies
There is, undoubtedly, some relevant information in such studies, either of guns or cheerleaders, but that usefulness is effectively eliminated when actual experimental and clinical studies are taken far beyond their design limits and employed as factoids in support of a political agenda.

How can you tell that a politician is distorting science in the service of a political agenda?

There is a simple test:  check to see if his or her lips are moving.

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