Archive for March, 2013

One of my pet peeves is claims that imaging studies prove that we consciously make decisions after our brain has already made them.  For example, Jerry Coyne describes has a blog post titled “Yet another experiment showing that conscious ‘decisions’ are made unconsciously, and in advance.”  First, this isn’t another study showing this.  There haven’t been any studies that have shown this.  Second, there is no evidence that the things that are going on in advance in the brain before the decision are all unconscious.

He goes on to say:

In the last few years, neuroscience experiments have shown that some “conscious decisions” are actually made in the brain before the actor is conscious of them:  brain-scanning techniques can predict not only when a binary decision will be made, but what it will be (with accuracy between 55-70%)—several seconds before the actor reports being conscious of having made a decision.

We cannot (currently) tell from fMRI data when the brain has made a decision.  The particular study he focuses on is great for illustrating this point. From the abstract of the paper:

Here, we show that the outcome of a free decision to either add or subtract numbers can already be decoded from neural activity in medial prefrontal and parietal cortex 4 s before the participant reports they are consciously making their choice

“Decoded from neural activity”?  No. What’s really going on there is they know when someone claims to have made a decision (in this case, to either add or subtract numbers), and they use fMRI data that preceded it to try and predict the outcome.  They are able to do this, in some cases, with about 58% accuracy.

In other words, before a final decision is consciously made, there is stuff going on the brain that can (somewhat weakly) predict the outcome (e.g., like we are thinking about it and are leaning one way).  Given that the brain is what is used to make the decision, it would be rather shocking if brain activity was not at least a little prognostic.

These studies aren’t strikes against free will or evidence of determinism (or evidence for or against compatibilism). They show what regions of the brain seem to be involved in the decision making, which could be quite useful, but nothing like the claims are being about them.

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Imagine a society where rape is often glorified in television shows and movies, and people talk openly about how much they enjoyed the rape scenes.  Suppose also that some of the most popular religions in society view rape as a normal part of life, and even morally permissible.  In that society, rape is both a large part of the culture, and it’s a direct/open part of the culture.  It would probably be fair to describe it as rape culture.

When you think about whether something is ____ culture, it seems reasonable to think about both size and directness.   For example, it would be hard to argue that it is unfair to describe a society where violence was common and people openly talked about enjoying it, as ‘violence culture.’   Consider two other societies where it’s less clear whether the violence culture label is appropriate.  Imagine a society where there is indirect support of violence. There, the culture contributes to violence from less visible things (e.g., parenting styles that do not promote empathy). Alternatively, one could imagine a society where there is direct promotion of violence but on a small scale.  An example of this might be if there was some violence as entertainment, but, for the most part, it was not something that received much attention.  Would it be fair to characterize the latter two societies as ‘violence culture?’

I am confident that there are many ways in which american culture leads to a higher incidence of rape than we would see in a more rape-prevention-optimal culture.  I can think of candidate cultural contributors, including the following:   rape trivialization attitudes; overemphasis on the importance of beauty in girls/women; sex-negativity; glorification of alpha-males; alcohol over marijuana as high of choice (drug war)[1];  too many unsupervised people with under-myelinated brains (teens); too many unsupervised people with under-myelinated brains who further render useless their frontal lobes by consuming alcohol; not enough access to porn; too much access to porn[2]; glorification of violence; emphasis on competition; too much religion; not enough religion; the standard narrative of human sexuality; fewer economic opportunities for women; victim blaming; overrepresentation of men in law enforcement and the media; and lack of concern about prison rape. I’m sure I’m missing some obvious ones.

At the same time, the words rape culture have a shock element to them.  Almost everyone is against rape in the sense that they think it’s bad and wish it never happened.  I suspect a very small minority of people would enjoy seeing a rape scene in a movie, and even fewer of them would admit to it (because they would be judged harshly). So, we don’t have a culture that directly encourages rape.  We do, however, live in a society where 15-20% of women have been raped [3].  That number is so alarming/sad/horrific, that that alone might be sufficient reason to call this rape culture.

The Steubenville Ohio case cemented in many people’s mind that this is a rape culture.  Yet, I wonder how much of that perception came from misleading or inaccurate facebook memes.  If it’s so clear that this is rape culture, then why the need to mislead?

Even questioning whether rape culture is a fair term can get you accused of being pro-rape, anti-women, ‘part of the problem’, etc.  If you describe our culture as ‘rape culture,’ you immediately signal to everyone around you that you are strongly against rape.  This reminds me of something I read about pedophilia:

…people gain status by attacking pedophilia. And you gain the most status if you go the furthest attacking pedophilia, if you can separate yourself from the pack by attacking it more, if you can say “My opponents think this marginal case is okay, but I am so against pedophilia that I oppose even the marginal cases” so on even further into the margin. And it’s really hard to say “Okay, you’ve gone too far with the attacks on pedophilia”, because then the other person can just say “I notice my worthy opponent is trying to defend pedophilia” and you lose whatever debate you were having.

Most people are against rape, and there is a lot to gain but showing you are even more strongly against it than most people; there is little-to-nothing to be gained by questioning whether someone is taking their anti-rape arguments a little to far.

‘Rape culture’ efficacy?

All of the above are just some of my thoughts about these types of labels in general.  However, the important question is not whether rape culture is a fair or appropriate label, but whether it is an effective one.  The label ‘rape culture’ is kind of jarring.  I could imagine someone hearing if for the first time and thinking “Rape culture?  Everyone is against rape.  Why would they call it that?  Convicted rapists are some of the most hated people in society (right behind pedophiles and child murderers).”  And then the person might think deeper about the issue.  Perhaps they will think about the ways in which society does contribute to rape.  Perhaps they will start to notice things, like ‘boys will be boys,’ victim blaming, objectifying images of women, etc. Thus, the label, which has a shock element to it, might be very effective at raising awareness of these important issues.

Alternatively, perhaps people will find the rape culture description as too extreme, and want to take a stand against it.  In that case, you’ve just given them motivated cognition in the wrong direction.


[1] “In 47% of rapes, both the victim and the perpetrator had been drinking.”  I can’t help but wonder to what degree ‘drinking culture’ is a major factor in ‘rape culture,’ and to what degree that is caused by our stupid marijuana laws (i’m pretty sure someone high from pot is less likely to be aggressive than someone who has been drinking, but I’m not sure about this)

[2] I have heard arguments on both sides (that access to porn leads to more objectification of women and leads to more rape; that access to porn gives people a sexual outlet and makes them less likely to rape;  I think the data are more supportive of the latter theory, but I am not an expert)

[3] Data on rape are not particularly reliable for a variety of reasons, but those are the numbers I found on wikipedia, and they seem pretty consistent with what I’ve seen from other sources.

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In general, how happy to interact with customers employees pretend to be depends strongly on how much they are getting paid.  If we’re lucky, someone working at the cash register at a fastfood place or a pharmacy chain might manage to not seem annoyed at having to deal with us.  Waitstaff at a low to mid-end restaurant will likely be fairly friendly, in hopes of receiving a decent tip.  At a high-end restaurant or clothing store, the staff will treat you like you are someone who is very important.  And, if you pay enough money, employees might even pretend to be sexually attracted to you.  Even though we all are aware that we are essentially paying people to act happy or treat us like we are important, it apparently still makes us feel good.

That seems to be the economic-behavioral relationship in this culture.  Most people accept that that’s how things are, and don’t seem to comment on it. However, I have witnessed the following on several occasions.  Someone who has a lot of money shops at a store (or restaurant) that is known for having very low prices (and not paying their employees much money).  This high status individual complains about how the employees aren’t very friendly or attentive.  For some reason, they are expecting high-end faux friendliness at low-end prices.

One explanation is that this is just standard classist behavior.  However, a wealthy person really wouldn’t gain much by trashing (e.g.) walmart employees — we all already know that the wealthy person makes a lot more money than the employees.  Usually agressive class signaling is reserved for people who are barely below you in SES (the signaling is an attempt at increasing the perceived distance).  I have an alternative explanation.  Perhaps self-important people believe that lower social class folks should be happy to interact with them, even if they aren’t being paid (i.e., that they are so important that it should be a privilege for anyone to interact with them).

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I will argue that sexual preferences, desires, and fetishes are shaped by culture, experience, and yes, biology (especially prenatal hormone exposure, I’d guess).  Someone who is homophobic might warn  “the presence of same-sex couples on TV will lead to an increase in the number of people who find people of the same sex attractive.”  To which someone who embraces the LGBT community might respond “you’re born gay or straight (or bi).  Hollywood can’t turn people gay.”   I must say, I think the homophobic person’s argument is probably closer to the truth (even though I don’t share their concern).

Consider some of the extremes we have seen in various cultures.

In the wonderfully titled chapter “Why Women Once Hated Sex,” Roy Baumeister (h/t) argues that during the Victorian period, not only did women not often engage in sex, but they seemed to have a very low sex drive.  This appears to be in contrast to most of human history, where women’s sex drive was regarded as stronger than men’s (see also evidence of sperm competition etc).  Baumeister points out that Victorian women:

protested against the double standard of sexual morality, but not in the modern sense.  By abolishing the double standard, they did not mean to given women the sexual outlets and opportunities that men had, but rather to bring me to the level of sexual restraint and virtue of women.  They wanted equality, but an equality based on chastity.

He explains Victorian passionlessness was a way of obtaining meaning in their lives:

After centuries of oppression, contempt and exploitation…that made women seem almost useless and superfluous, women found a source of meaning in life that offered them respect, influence, efficacy and goals…Given the cultural environment, moral superiority was incompatible with lusty sexualty, and so it was necessary to renounce much of their sexual appetites.

Here we have an example of culture essentially leading to a loss of sexual desire.  We are not talking simply about culture taking away sexual desires for someone of the same sex, but for culture to take away sexual desires for anyone.

Culture can also affect what we find sexually appealing. Ozy Franz gives the following example:

To me– just like to any other modern American– footbinding is less attractive and more incredibly squicky body horror. But men wrote poems about the beauty of lotus feet; for a thousand years families crippled their daughters so they would be beautiful. I mean. That is serious commitment there. Your options here are “sexually is culturally influenced in an enormous way,” “for some reason Chinese people evolved to find footbinding beautiful and no one else did and they’ve mysteriously stopped in the past hundred years,” or “Chinese people spent a thousand years breaking their daughters’ feet for no reason.”

So, culture can shape people’s sexual desires in many ways.

If Hollywood does start producing many sex-positive, same-sex positive, polyamory-positive TV shows and movies,   I find it hard to believe that young people who grow up in that culture will not have, on average, more sexual attraction for people of the same sex than they would have if they had grown up with the hollywood of the 1970s.  If you think same sex relationships (or premarital sex) are bad (for whatever reason), then you should be concerned about pro-gay or sex-positive messages coming from Hollywood.  I see no reason (other than strategic, perhaps) for the sex-positive folks to deny the role of culture, and to insist that sexual preference is innate (or binary (especially binary)).

So, we are not born with fixed sexual preferences, but we are born into a culture and do vary in terms of how culture shapes our passions.  The cultural immune system (cultural conservatives) often do correctly identify the channels that are letting in foreign elements.  There are often valid reasons to suppress an immune system, and I think the case here is quite strong (without resorting to innateness arguments).  I think the libertarian argument is stronger, and is more likely to appeal to conservatives than is an argument based on overstating the role of genetics.

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