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December 03, 2013

Confirmation Bias in the News

One topic that never fails to fascinate the Blog Princess is the human tendency to promote information that confirms what we already believe (and dismiss information that undercuts our position). This headline provides a great example of confirmation bias in its most common form:

Yes, men DO have selective hearing, says new study

What the study actually says is that both men and women have selective hearing, but that wouldn't support the narrative so the headline focuses on half of the study's findings and ignores the other half. But then you totally knew that, didn't you? :p

There's a reason headlines are so often written this way - we pay more attention to simple, dramatic summaries than we do to the more ambiguous and complex stories they introduce. Moreover, biased summaries shape our perception of the information that follows in ways that are useful and enjoyable. They make the world seem simpler, more orderly, and more predictable than it actually is. But sometimes the bias occurs on the interpretation side, where studies or facts with several possible explanations are attributed to a simpler or even single cause. Glenn Reynolds provides a great example of this type of bias here:

IT’S ALMOST LIKE BIOLOGY MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Men’s Top 3 Sexual Regrets Are Extremely Different from Women’s.

The linked article describes a study of sexual regret in which men's regrets focused on not being adventurous enough (hey! aren't men supposed to be naturally more adventurous???) and women's on having been too adventurous (hey! aren't women supposed to... oh, never mind). The study suggests several possible interpretations, but if you believe that biology (and not culture or incentives) is primarily responsible for observed differences in male and female behavior, the study could be viewed as evidence supporting the nature side of the nature vs. nurture debate.

The problem is that it could just as easily be viewed as supporting the opposite view - that culture and experience play a large role in shaping sexual choices and sexual regrets. Even "nature vs. nurture" is an oversimplification, because it leaves out a third possible explanation: incentives.

The study where male college students were far more likely to accept an offer of casual sex with a complete stranger than female college students is often cited as proof that men and women innately differ in their desire for sex. The problem is that it doesn't actually establish that at all. The study tells us only the "what" - not the "why".

We've already pointed out several times that the risks of accepting such an offer are far lower for men than they are for women. Part of that could be chalked up to biology: men are bigger (and more aggressive) than women, so women rightly fear violent rape or injury more than men do. Pregnancy is another consequence where biology can fairly be said to factor into the decision. But many who take the "nature" side of the nature/nurture debate argue that women - simply by virtue of biology - don't want or like sex as much as men.

And this may actually be true: it's one explanation among many possible ones: higher risk, lower reward, cultural conditioning, the asymmetrical stigma attached to casual sex... Biology. Or perhaps simply that, for a whole host of reasons, casual sex just isn't as much fun for women?

Natasha Gadinsky, 23, says she doesn’t have any regrets from her years in college. But the time she hooked up with a guy at Brown University does come close.

After his own orgasm that night, she said, he showed no interest in her satisfaction. The next time they got together, it happened again. He “didn’t even care,” said Ms. Gadinsky, a health care case manager in New York City. “I don’t think he tried at all.” He fell asleep immediately, leaving her staring at the ceiling. “I was really frustrated,” she said.

Like generations before them, many young women like Ms. Gadinsky are finding that casual sex does not bring the physical pleasure that men more often experience. New research suggests why: Women are less likely to have orgasms during uncommitted sexual encounters than in serious relationships.

Is this biology? Partly - one consequence of female physiology is that most women don't climax from intercourse alone. But imagine for a moment a culture where it was considered shameful for men to leave a woman unsatisfied. Wouldn't this tend to shift the "reward" part of the risk/benefit balancing test in a way that made casual sex more attractive to women?

Now imagine technology that makes it easier to mitigate some or all the unpleasant biological consequences of casual sex. Conservatives complain about one of these technological advances all the time: the Pill. Supposedly, it turns women into sluts. Here, Science proves inconvenient for the biology is destiny crowd. Still, if biology alone were driving women's sexual choices, one would expect the Pill alone to have little effect on what many conservatives argue is a woman's natural, biological makeup: one of low desire and avoidance of sex.

Now let's consider cultural forces, including another thing conservatives complain about all the time: feminists urging young women to act more like men - to actively seek out the kind of casual sex that is beautiful and natural when men engage in it, but perverse and harmful to society when women engage in it. Again, if women have naturally low desire, why should the urgings of feminists be such a big problem?

Conversely, if we admit that cultural pressures affect the willingness to engage in casual sex, doesn't that imply that the sexual double standard (men who engage in casual sex are alpha studs, women who do the same thing are sluts and whores) could partially explain mens' responses to surveys like the one Reynolds cites? Do we really believe that knowing that society admires men who are sexually adventurous has no effect on their survey responses?

And how do we explain this sort of thing?

At the same time, researchers say that young women are becoming equal partners in the hookup culture, often just as willing as young men to venture into sexual relationships without emotional ties.

If women are "naturally" hard wired to want sex less than men, why (despite the asymmetrically distributed risks and lower reward) are they clearly doing what their hard wiring should be preventing them from doing?

I'm happy to accept that biology has something to do with all of this, but clearly biology isn't the trump card here. It's not even clear that biology works in the way so many people think it does. For instance, there's that whole inconvenient oxytocin thingy:

What is clear, however, is that oxytocin can create unconscious biases in favor of a partner, possibly providing part of the biological mechanism behind monogamy. A prior study by the same researchers, in fact, found that men in monogamous relationships who were given oxytocin actually kept a greater physical distance from an attractive research associate, compared with single men.

Young suggests that oxytocin may actually have a dual effect — by not only making partners more attractive but also actively deterring interest in other potential mates. He notes that in the monogamous prairie voles he studies, males that have a pair bond can actually be hostile to other females. “They develop a very strong preference for the partner and slight aggression towards those who are not their partners,” he says.

Any yet somehow, monogamy isn't natural for men?

When you add in cultural forces, incentives, and technology, none of this stuff is simple or crystal clear. Especially when - instead of asking impersonal, one size fits all survey questions of young men, we were to ask them - in depth - about how they make decisions and react to real life situations?

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Sexting--each successive technology can introduce a new set of practical and emotional challenges for boys as well as girls. And while boys are often cast as thoughtless slobs in this arena--tossing off offensive sexts to girls as a clumsy way of flirting or passing around girls' pics that were supposed to be private--their thoughts and perceptions on the topic are more acute and subtle than one might think.

First off, if you think boys don't obsess over this stuff the way girls do, well, you'd be wrong.

"You can tell what she wants pretty much by how she texts," Dre tells me. "The dry 'Hey' is O.K. But then there's some that have the 'Heyyy' with the extra y's and the winky face [emoticon], and that means this conversation could possibly go somewhere. They're probably the hooking-up type."

Ian, who came out as gay during his sophomore year in high school, also says emoticons play a key role in sussing out a crush's potential feelings. "When I see a smiley face, it's the opening of the doorway to emotions," he says. "That first emoticon is significant. When it comes, it means something."

Brian Tian-Street, 19, whom I met at the magnet school he attended in Maryland, told me over e-mail about how he and a friend tag-teamed communication with a girl the friend had met at a dance. "He kind of wanted to continue it and thought it was easiest to bring it up via text," said Brian, who is now a sophomore at Yale. "What followed was me helping him phrase text messages letter by letter ... We discussed whether to use '...' in certain places, what to capitalize and what to not, emoticons and their placement ... Every detail was discussed, such as the time between responses. Wait at least a few minutes between responses, so as not to appear clingy or desperate." A character from Girls could hardly do a better job of picking apart linguistic minutiae.

Of course, all this technology has its explicit side--which is typically where boys get into trouble, though it's not always boys acting as the aggressors. One mother told me the story of her son's being sent explicit pictures from a girl at school, in various stages of nudity. The images came with the message "You are special, and no one else gets to see this," the mother said. "My son eventually discovered that it had been sent to all her 'special' ones, numbering about a handful."

For boys, getting sexy images from a girl, solicited or not, raises their social status. "It's a big ego boost," says Ethan Anderson, a 17-year-old from Boulder, Colo. Girls send pictures for lots of reasons: to get attention, in response to requests from a boy or to compete with other girls. But the boys don't always know what to think. "I've gotten probably like four unwanted pictures ... just desperate girls who are looking for a good time with everyone," says Winston Robinson, an 18-year-old who is starting his first year at Drexel University this fall. "It's awkward, especially if you didn't ask for it. When it happens, I delete it, so the parents don't try to screw you over if they find it."

Wouldn't it be funny if all the cultural restrictions that have traditionally discouraged women from seeking out casual sex turned out to be grounded in something more complicated than a simplistic "men like sex, women don't" view of 'biology'?

... why do we work so hard to cultivate empathy and submissiveness in women and girls? Could it possibly be because these strong checks on female human nature are just as necessary as are strong checks on male human nature? Is it possible that the reason Islam spends so much time wringing its hands about female sexuality is that it actually exists (and can cause problems)? Or that the reason Western society stigmatizes female promiscuity and worships mansluts is the kind of wretched excess we saw on VMA a few weeks ago? Successful cultures find constructive ways for men and women to express what biology, hormones, and our sex drives impel us to. But we keep confusing culturally approved channels with raw instincts. They're related (they're designed to be), but not identical.

And wouldn't it be amazing if, one day, Science revealed that men are far more decent, loving, kind, sensitive, trustworthy than we give them credit for being? This wouldn't, by the way, make them women. It would just make them far more complicated - and interesting - than we like to think they are.

Naaaaah. There's got to be a simpler explanation. We're guessing it involves cave men.

Posted by Cassandra at December 3, 2013 05:56 AM

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Science revealed that men are far more decent, loving, kind, sensitive, trustworthy than we give them credit for being?

A study that would receive the headline "Sensitive Men. Threat or Menace to Mom's place in the family?" :-)

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at December 3, 2013 10:38 AM

Bingo. Couldn't agree more. The whole "Movember is sexist" idiocy almost defies belief.

Sadly, we'd see the same kind of idiocy from the right side of the aisle: "Do women really *want* sensitive men? And how does being a nice guy affect my chances of getting laid?" :p

Wherever we go, there we are.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 3, 2013 10:40 AM

Or how to fake just enough sensitivity for just long enough to get laid.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at December 3, 2013 11:10 AM

There seems to be some confusion about what the "nature" side of the claim holds. If it holds that biology is pure destiny, i.e. there is no free will, I agree that it's nonsense. That kind of a claim is empirical, and easy to disprove.

Another kind of claim, though, is not empirical but what is called normative: it is about what ought to be. The claim here would be that culture ought to align with nature. We shouldn't teach promiscuity, that is, not because we can't produce it but because we shouldn't produce it -- and the reason we shouldn't produce it is that, for beings with our nature, it leads to predictably painful results.

Viewed in that light, I tend to find claims of that sort persuasive. However, our culture views them as a sort of informal fallacy, being apparently unable to distinguish between "we should act to perfect our nature, which requires taking account of the natural facts about ourselves" and "we should allow anything natural to run its course, even if it is a plague."

Posted by: Grim at December 3, 2013 11:53 AM

"But imagine for a moment a culture where it was considered shameful for men to leave a woman unsatisfied"

In both the Jewish mishnas and John Paul II's Theology of the Body husbands have a duty to satisfy their wives. In Jewish commentaries they go so far as to elevate it in importance over attendance at temple or synagogue. It is, per Grim's observation, a culture aligning itself with nature; the antithesis of it would be Islam; the inexpressible vacuity of it would be the hook-up culture such as in Natasha's case– steeped in expectations but entirely obtuse in matters of who cares.

We are in the midst of the greatest experiment in the history of hominids. Odds are confirmation bias wins. Natasha will be finally satisfied – pharmaceutical soma.

Posted by: Differently Superior at December 3, 2013 03:08 PM

There seems to be some confusion about what the "nature" side of the claim holds.

That's because different people make different arguments wrt to the nature of "nature". Some argue that the biological differences between men and women affect our behavior. That's both a modest and an entirely reasonable argument, and one I happen to agree with.

Others argue that whatever pronouncements they wish to make about "nature" are "hard wired" into each sex. That's (IMNSHO) a deeply immodest and rather silly argument that misrepresents personal opinion as fact. I think there's considerable confusion as to what biology even "is" (and to what extent it shapes us).

If it holds that biology is pure destiny, i.e. there is no free will, I agree that it's nonsense.

So do I, but (contra your next statement), I can't actually prove that. It's essentially an opinion, even if I maintain it's grounded in experience.

That kind of a claim is empirical, and easy to disprove.

I can't agree, because if there's no free will and biology completely controls us, we may be under its influence (and that may distort our observations and thinking).

Another kind of claim, though, is not empirical but what is called normative: it is about what ought to be. The claim here would be that culture ought to align with nature.

Not sure I agree here. Children have to be taught to be civilized. So do adults. Civilized behavior doesn't come "naturally" to any of us, so I don't agree that culture should align with "nature" at all.

We shouldn't teach promiscuity, that is, not because we can't produce it but because we shouldn't produce it -- and the reason we shouldn't produce it is that, for beings with our nature, it leads to predictably painful results.

According to some - actually many - conservatives, that would mean promiscuity is only "wrong" for women, but not for men. I know (or think) that you don't hold this view, but I see it expressed all the time. That's the problem with self-serving definitions of "nature": we're hardly impartial judges of what "nature" is because we have skin in the game :p

Posted by: Cassandra at December 3, 2013 03:44 PM

Culture is about balancing individual welfare with group welfare, I think. Good culture does that well.

Dysfunctional culture results in those two, sometimes conflicting goals being out of balance.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 3, 2013 03:46 PM

That kind of a claim is empirical, and easy to disprove.

I can't agree, because if there's no free will and biology completely controls us, we may be under its influence (and that may distort our observations and thinking).

"May be?" :)

For it to be a problematic claim, you'd either have to hold that the reason that Islamic cultures and American culture produce different outcomes is that there is some biological difference between the members of those cultures; or, alternatively, that the biology is acted upon by the culture somehow. The former is at least easy to dispense with empirically, indeed in several ways. The latter dispenses with determinism, because biology doesn't determine outcomes: you could introduce new outcomes by changing the culture in which the biology expresses itself.

That introduces a field for will, if a will can be found. In the case of human beings, I've not noticed will to be lacking.

Not sure I agree here. Children have to be taught to be civilized. So do adults. Civilized behavior doesn't come "naturally" to any of us, so I don't agree that culture should align with "nature" at all.

That's not true, is it? One of the things Aristotle observes, correctly, is that human beings naturally form communities. Right at the beginning of the Politics he talks about how human beings naturally form themselves into families, and families into societies more complex than just families, so that "Man is a political animal."

That much is natural. Perfecting nature is an art, and that part has to be taught. But there is a kind of unity of art and nature for Aristotle, I think correctly to a point: art and nature work the same way, though from different causes. If you want to grow a plant in agriculture, you can't dispense with the plant's natural needs. But you can learn to perfect them, so that the plant can be grown better and more productively (sometimes in surprising ways, such as discovering that you can grow soil-based plants without soil, provided that you arrange for the transmission of the same necessary nutrients the soil would have borne).

This is 'from nature,' not against it. If the plant's nature did not accord with these practices, it would die. If instead it is flourishing, it is because you are learning how to perfect the environment that allows a thing of the plant's nature to flourish.

Posted by: Grim at December 3, 2013 04:33 PM

Yes it is within human nature to form social units (wolves and many other animals so this). But no, the form of those social units is not at all hard wired into us - if it were, we wouldn't have cultures that are so different from each other in the basic precepts they're grounded in.

I was going to mention the perfected nature thing, but didn't want to get into it b/c I can't discuss it from a philosophic point of view. I've been down that road w/ my daughter in law, and certain phrases have very specific meanings in her field that I just can't fully understand, not having studied them :)

Posted by: Cassandra at December 3, 2013 05:17 PM

That's true! I often find myself saying things in this venue that would have to be rephrased entirely if I were talking to a professional philosopher.

But you've sometimes made a point here I agree with entirely: it is necessary for the person making the point to try to convey it in ordinary language, which anyone can approach. To do otherwise is to raise an unfair bar to entry in the discussion, and to claim an authority to which you might not -- if your argument were intelligible -- prove to be entitled. :)

Posted by: Grim at December 3, 2013 05:25 PM

Hi Cass,
Interesting post. I'll quibble with the assertion that the 'nature' side of the argument automatically suggests that men are automatically predisposed to be promiscuous.

I'll disagree slightly with the premise that nature automatically makes men more likely to be promiscuous. The biology argument is that a man can/will have more children w/ more partners (I assume female; male homosexuality is obviously not biologically advantageous) / more often and that constitutes an inherent advantage.

Our race has existed long enough for our long childhoods to have affected evolutionary development; it is apparent that children with two parents have a huge developmental advantage over those w/o active fathers. It's also obvious that a man that does not know which child is his cannot directly aid that child's successful development.

A man who does not choose to stay w/ the mother(s) of his child(ren) denies his progeny that advantage, and therefore his genetic heritage is less likely to succeed over time.

I'll that said, life experience and casual observation confirms that men do have a higher sex drive and more aggressive sexually. This appears to me to be a natural development; in most societies over the long sweep of history it is incumbent upon men to 'push' the mating process along.
. . . and it is my opinion that societies in which marriages are arranged (yeah, India & Arab) w/o the consent of the bride are less successful long term. Human males compete for mates, as do most highly developed animals; the details for us are simply a little different.

Very Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at December 3, 2013 09:46 PM

I wonder often whether men have a higher sex drive, or just a *different* sex drive, and by that I mean different in both nature and expression? How do you compare apples and oranges?

I often hesitate to post comments like this, but hopefully I'm at a time in my life when they're less fraught. I can vividly remember having sexual thoughts, even as a young girl. And no, I was never abused or molested in any way. So I'm continually baffled when I hear men talk about "how women are". I think you all may be judging the content of the book by what you see on the cover.

There may be an old maxim or two about that... :p

Men are encouraged to talk about, focus upon, and even brag about their sex drives. For men, having a high sex drive is viewed as proof of health, manliness, and strength. For women, the same thing is viewed as a defect in character bordering on pathology.

Why is that?

The usual answer is that we discourage women from expressing (or even admitting to) their desires b/c of the risk of pregnancy/illegitimate children (which begs the question of why we need to discourage a drive that is supposedly so weak in women, or reward/encourage one that is supposedly already strong in men?), but male promiscuity results in EXACTLY the same problems. So this argument just doesn't pass the common sense test.

Men can't know what it's like to be female any more than I know what it's like to be a man, and judging inward thoughts or desires by outward behavior isn't terribly valid. I have very hostile thoughts toward people when I'm driving every day, but I don't cut them off or fly into road rage. IMO, women are less likely than men to ACT upon their sexual thoughts or desires (and when we do act on them, we're likely to do so indirectly) but our outward behavior really says nothing about our drives - only about how (or whether) those drives are expressed.

Men are - generally - more impulsive and action oriented than women. They tend to take more risks, sometimes to the point of foolishness or recklessness. Risk taking is neither good nor bad in itself, but judging inner drive by outward expression is likely to provide a very biased view when comparing a group of people who are more direct/impulsive with a group who are more controlled and deliberate.

It's funny - I used to tell my boys when they were young that most people never see beyond whatever face we choose to present to the world. The older I get, the more true I think that is. The surface veneer isn't always a good reflection of what lies beneath.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 4, 2013 06:32 AM

I'm going to offer one more thought. I've often heard men say that they don't talk about or think about certain things because they don't see the point. Usually this happens in an area where society puts a lot of pressure on men to behave in certain ways (suppress certain emotions, for instance). There's no point in dwelling on something if there's no outlet for it or you'll be judged harshly for talking about it (or even admitting it exists).

So you just bottle it up inside and try not to think about it much.

Men are like that with certain emotions (but not others). Women are like that with sex. I think things are like that for a reason - society can't afford for men to be as openly emotional as women, or for women to be as openly sexual as men are.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 4, 2013 06:44 AM

I would like to hear you say more about this last point, Cass, because it's phrased in a way I don't understand. What sorts of things do men tell you they don't think about? (Aside from the sorts of things spd would playfully append, of course.)

Posted by: Grim at December 4, 2013 12:38 PM

♫Feewings, nothing more than feewings♫

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at December 4, 2013 05:46 PM


Posted by: Manlier Than Thou at December 4, 2013 06:06 PM

The only feelings I'm interested in involve my hands and the LG.

Posted by: Oink Cadre :©) at December 5, 2013 02:17 PM

Hey, I think about my feelings: for example, just now I feel thirsty.

Posted by: Grim at December 5, 2013 06:23 PM