Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1
Posted by gregdowney on June 29, 2008
In our continuing exploration of facile examples of ‘evolutionary’ explanations for human behavior (usually described instead as ‘human nature’), I have another couple of exhibits: Do Jerks Get Laid More?, a great attack on recent research by Jill Filopovic at Feministe (h/t: Alternet); and Science Daily‘s story, Women Have Not Adapted To Casual Sex, Research Shows (which I’ll discuss in the next posts). Daniel already discussed some of the recent research on homosexuality in The Gay Brain: On Love and Science, but this piece, the first of two, is dedicated to recent ‘evolutionary’ work on male-female relations, especially arguments about what is ‘natural’ in sexuality including that all-important question, ‘What do women want?’
Some of the problems that beset these articles are pretty general objections a person could have to evolutionary psychology, so I feel like I want to go over them a little bit (but I’ll try to keep it short).
Why women like bad boys: ev psych explains
Jill Filopovic discusses a story, Do Jerks Get Laid More? Good news for psycho-narcissists, by Jessica Wakeman, which is commentary on a story in New Scientist, Bad guys really do get the most girls (a similar piece also appeared on ABC News). In other words, this story has been ricocheting around the Internets for a while, getting reposted and commented upon all over the place (such as here, here, here and, my favourite, here, where democracy confirms ev psych stereotypes). With all sorts of people having things to say, some share a bit too much about their own personal lives and some involve cueing up familiar cliches (‘nice guys finish last,’ for example, is a favourite).
Two researchers seem to be responsible for this upsurge in discussion of ‘bad boy’ magnetism; one is Peter Jonason at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, who set up their project to explain why the ‘dark triad’ of personality traits ‘persists in human nature’ (from New Scientist): ‘the self-obsession of narcissism; the impulsive, thrill-seeking and callous behaviour of psychopaths; and the deceitful and exploitative nature of Machiavellianism.’ Because these traits, Johason aledges, are maladaptive ‘at their extreme,’ they must be good for something, or else evolution would have kindly wiped them clean from ‘human nature.’ After all, we know that Mother Evolution makes all things perfectly adapted and that everything we do–especially SEX–must be a result of a deep ‘nature.’ Fortunately, we have a research team to explain what how these anti-social traits are really an evolutionary advantage.
Jonason’s team surveyed 200 college students (I’m assuming male), comparing personality traits and correlating them with the number of sex partners each subject reported having, their attitudes toward relationships, and whether they were seeking brief affairs.
The study found that those who scored higher on the dark triad personality traits tended to have more partners and more desire for short-term relationships, Jonason reported at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting in Kyoto, Japan, earlier this month…. James Bond epitomises this set of traits, Jonason says. “He’s clearly disagreeable, very extroverted and likes trying new things – killing people, new women.” Just as Bond seduces woman after woman, people with dark triad traits may be more successful with a quantity-style or shotgun approach to reproduction, even if they don’t stick around for parenting. “The strategy seems to have worked. We still have these traits,” Jonason says.
Aside from the confusion provided by using James Bone, a fictional character (note to Mr. Jonason: Bond gets the girl because it’s in the script), I don’t even know where to start on this paragraph. First, I have to suspend judgment on Mr. Jonason as we know about problems with science writing at Neuroanthropology, but if he’s touting James Bond as a way to understand human evolution, he’s got to share a bit of the blame.
Lo and behold — evolution explains why James Bond gets chicks! And it’s because he’s narcissistic, aggressive, and mean, not because he’s brave, charming, funny, rich, well-dressed and handsome (again, let’s recall that this is fiction). And men who are seeking short-term relationships, who are aggressive, who don’t want long-term relationships, and are self-absorbed are cycling through lots of women because women like them that way (not because they can’t and don’t want to maintain a relationship).
(And why doesn’t anyone point out that men find ‘bad girls’ alluring when we talk about this stuff? I bet if you did a study of ‘bad girls,’ you’d find that they had more sexual partners, too — but would this make the news?)
In addition, the resurgent discussion of those alluring ‘bad boys’ also references ‘another study of 35,000 people across 57 countries found a similar correlation “between the dark triad and reproductive success in men.”‘ This research, less well-discussed in New Scientist was reported by Prof. David Schmitt of Bradley University at the Kyoto meeting. Schmitt is also the founder of the International Sexuality Description Project. Schmitt’s bibliography is extensive and reflects his long-term interest in the subject, so I’m hesitant to critique what are, at best, second-hand accounts of his presentation in Kyoto (Jonason, in contrast, provides plenty of material to work on at his website). I suspect that if I read a lot more of his work, I’d probably still be having some issues with it.
Okay, so why do I have problems with this research? Ooooo, let me count the problems:
1) Methodological problems with survey research on number of sexual partners: Jill at Feministe and some of her comments focus on this — ask guys with mild narcissist, manipulative, and aggressive tendencies around the age of 20 how many women they’ve slept with and can you assume that they’re telling you the truth? In addition, as Jill also points out, the survey asks the number of partners these men had, not the number of times they were having sex, unlike some of the reports on the research (which imply being ‘bad’ leads to more sex).
2) Correlation, causation and using men’s reports to judge women’s preferences: We find out that narcissist, manipulative, aggressive young men report more sexual partners than normal guys; should we assume that the reason is that women like these qualities? (By the way, why didn’t we ask the women about this?) We could assume that being narcissist, manipulative, and aggressive makes you more motivated to seek more partners, or that it makes you more likely to pressure people into sex, or that you’re more likely to cheat and have multiple partners at once, or even that it makes women more likely to toss you out quickly once they’ve slept with you a couple of times (thus boosting your number of partners, but not by your own choice). But these explanations wouldn’t fit into our James Bond theory of male hotness. And all these ‘reproductive strategies’ might be much less successful than having fewer partners, but we don’t know because we’re theorizing about ‘reproductive success’ (which presumably involves BABIES from data on dating and sex among young people, at least in Jonason’s research).
3) Assumption that subjects’ behaviour demonstrates universal human trait: Jill Filopovic also points out the problem of extrapolating from university students to ‘human nature'; I would agree with this wholeheartedly. But the problem runs deeper than this. We would be extrapolating from the behaviour of college students, in 2008, at an American University, likely without full-time jobs, probably in an environment with birth control, maybe in dorms, and in a setting with tons of alcohol. One could argue, for example, that the risk environment in 2008 is substantially different from that likely experienced by foraging ancestors. For contrast, a whole host of health problems that now are among our most serious–obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure–would have been extremely rare in an evolutionary environment; anyone who looked at our current disease profile and said it was a result of ‘human nature’ would obviously be mocked. One could argue that we have an even harder time talking about how sexuality might be different.
4) Assumption that contemporary attitudes are not affecting partners’ choices: Since the researchers didn’t focus much on female preference, it’s hard to say (Jonason’s research report is apparently under review), but contemporary attitudes about what ‘bad boys’ are good for might be affecting sexual behaviour. For example, I doubt very much that the same male behaviour would have produced the same numbers given a substantially different social, cultural, and sexual climate (think 1950s, or Taliban Afghanistan, or another radically different situation, and ask yourself if the numbers would be the same). Are ‘bad boys’ always attractive? Given a different situation, the ‘dark triad’ may be more of a turn off than it now is (but again, we don’t even know this because the researcher’s weren’t really measuring attractiveness, only reported number of sexual partners; maybe all the nice guys get locked into long-term relationships with lots of sex and thus are taken ‘out of the pool’ so that their number of partners drops).
5) Assumption that sexual behaviour is analogous to mating behaviour or successful reproduction: This kind of follows on from the previous point. That is, with current reproductive control technologies, the gap between mating and having sex has likely grown. I suspect that some women might be having sex with men now that they might avoid if they had no way to diminish the likelihood of reproducing in the process.
The problem may be especially pronounced in Schmitt’s statements. He is reported as saying: ‘It is
universal across cultures for high dark triad scorers to be more active in short-term mating. They are more likely to try and poach other people’s partners for a brief affair.’ In the interpretation we’re given in the articles, the almost tautological statement, ‘men who are aggressive, impulsive, callous, and extroverted are more likely to try to have affairs’ (as opposed to the passive, careful, sensitive, and introverted lotharios prowling the streets), turns into ‘they have more reproductive success.’ We don’t know if they have ‘success’ in evolutionary terms because we don’t KNOW if they reproduce. This problem points to two more:
6) Assumptions about reproductive goals already imply ‘strategy': ‘Evolutionary psychology’ sex researchers suggest that the ‘dark’ traits are good for pursuing the men’s agenda, which happens to be short-term relationships. So, let me get this straight: your survey asks men if they are pursuing short-term relationships, they say, ‘yes,’ and then you realized that they had a lot of short-term relationships (in comparison to the guys who wanted long-term relationships), so you’ve proven that the ‘strategy’ is evolutionarily successful because they had short-term relationships? I’m not sure where to even crack into that circle of reasoning. All this is finding is a correlation between character traits and the actions that we would see as indicative of these character traits. We haven’t demonstrated that it’s evolutionarily successful strategy, nor even that the ‘trait’ exists. In fact, the rarity of the ‘dark triad’ actually points to the possibility that it is not a ‘successful’ strategy, my next issue…
7) Logical problem arguing that a trait is superior but that it’s not universal: This is a simple statistical problem that tends to crop up with evolutionary psychology. If a strategy for reproducing is supposedly superior to others, and if behavior is inherited as a trait, than one has to explain why everyone doesn’t display the same trait after enough generations. If narcissism, callousness, and a Machiavellian character are such a good strategy for reproduction, then why don’t all men use the same strategy?
Some evolutionary psychologists will bring up the concept of ‘frequency dependence’ (see Wikipedia), the idea that a mix of genetic traits will predominate because one of them is only adaptive given a limited frequency (such as the danger of ‘Machiavellian’ traits if everyone were to become Machiavellian); Linda Mealey made this argument about sociopathy in a 1995 Behavioral and Brain Sciences article. But then we run into the problem of achieving the equilibrium. If the ‘bad boys’ are successfully knocking up all the girlfriends of the ‘good boys,’ then it’s going to be kind of hard to keep any sort of stable equilibrium.
8 ) Assumption that behaviour is subject to selection: This is a bigger problem than it sounds like because it requires that behaviour be inheritable, the result of inherent organic properties (usually attributed to genes, seldom with genetic evidence, and yet potentially with other conduits of transmission). Even the story that ABC News opens their article with undermines this idea: the ‘bad boy,’ Ricky, admits that he’s ‘more or less mastered the art’ of being bad, reinforced by his desire for ‘sexual conquest.’ If we follow the ABC News story logic, we have a hard time arguing that Ricky’s behavior is a ‘trait’ fixed in his genes; instead it starts to look like a learned social pattern of behaviour.
If the ‘dark triad’ can’t be transmitted or is not inherent, you still have the issue about women liking ‘bad boys,’ but now you have a whole different dynamic to explain. To me, that question looks a hell of a lot more like a sociological one than an evolutionary one.
In place of conclusion
As Daniel pointed out in his piece on homosexuality recently, so much of the research on human sexuality decontextualizes sexual behaviour from relationships, from love, from the way that life changes us. By taking 20- to 22-year-old men and asking them how many partners they’ve had, and using this to measure ‘reproductive success,’ it’s substituted a culturally charged vision of ‘sexual success’ (call it, scoring with the ladies) for actual reproductive success.
Let me give you a hypothetical example of what I mean. Let’s assume that every time a man and woman have intercourse, there’s a 10% chance the woman gets pregnant (it’s actually about 20-25% during a cycle given normal fertility, which also varies). If Bad Boy sleeps with five women one time, he has a lower chance of successfully reproducing than if Good Boy sleeps with the same woman six times (and presumably, if Good Boy is spacing them out, he stands an even better chance of getting her at the right time of her cycle of ovulation). The Jonason method would assume, however, that Bad Boy is much more reproductively ‘successful,’ when in fact he’s just ‘getting it’ with more women.
Like many discussions of evolutionary psychology, however, I feel like I’m getting genetic arguments without genetic evidence (and not much discussion of behavioural genetics) and evolutionary arguments without much evolutionary evidence (or sophisticated evolutionary theory). To even begin to argue that there was an inheritable ‘dark triad’ that was good for reproducing, at the very least, we’d have to demonstrate that the ‘dark triad’ was inherited, using such things as twin studies or adoption studies (oh, god, I can’t believe I recommended either). In the Human Genome Project Information website’s page on ‘behavioural genetics,’ none of the ‘dark triad’ show up as the subject of extensive genetic studies. If we’re going to argue about female preference, I think we would need to test women, and not just the dumb ‘show them a picture and ask if the guy’s attractive’ kind of study — we’d have to actually study mating behaviour, who people are really sleeping with.
But I’ll come back to that in Part 2 of my discussion of sexuality from evolutionary psychology…