Monday, May 08, 2006

To make this decision I need to see at least a D-cup.

by Drek

When I talk to my undergraduates about science, I often emphasize the role of collaboration. Science, I tell them, is a mode of understanding that is based on combining perspectives in order to get at the whole story. Granted, that combining often takes the form of heated arguments, but we're still collaborating with each other.

Despite my assurances to my students, however, I know that this isn't entirely true. It is frequently the case that scientists in different disciplines jealously guard their turf against interlopers from other fields. This has created conflict between disciplines that should be engaged in tight and productive dialogues. Readers of my blog will not be surprised by this as I have commented before on rivalries between my discipline of Sociology and others such as Economics and Physics. This rivalry is a shame however because, while disciplinary boundaries are necessary in order to make the problem of science tractable, the world doesn't come with convenient dividing lines. The difference between Economics and Sociology, therefore, is not so much inherent to the world as it is imposed by human minds that like to order and label and categorize. I like to think that researchers protect their turf for the same reasons that humans throughout history have protected what is theirs- because we're just a little greedy. That's nothing to be ashamed of, but we should at least be honest about it.

So, with this is mind, I can imagine why some folks in the Economics and Sociology communities might both be less than thrilled to discover that biologists are apparently moving onto our collective turf. I refer, of course, to a study recently published in Nature. Sadly, the study is behind a fee wall but Tara Smith of Aetiology provides a nice summary. In short, it reveals that testosterone interacts with images of females to alter negotiating behavior.

Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium asked men to play an ultimatum game, in which they split a certain amount of money between them. High-testosterone men drove the hardest bargain -- unless they had previously viewed pictures of bikini-clad models, in which case they were more likely to accept a poorer deal.

In the game, one player, the proposer, was given 10 euros and had to offer a cut to the other, the responder, who had already secretly declared the minimum he would accept. If the offer is less than this minimum, both players get nothing.

"Since a few coins is better than no coins at all, men thus become more economically rational after exposure to lingerie or sexy women," he says.

Adds another source:

Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium, found that though men with high-testosterone levels drive the hardest bargains, all their skills are flushed down the toilet if they get an eyeful of babes in bikinis, in which case they are not only more prone to accept a poorer deal than then men with low-testosterone, but that something as simple as even handling a bra is enough to sap their resolve.


The testosterone can be measured by comparing the lengths of the index and ring fingers - a relatively long ring finger is a sign of a high-testosterone man.

At first glance we might all react to this by saying, "Oh no! Economics, Sociology, the works! It's all a sham! It all reduces to biology!" Meanwhile the biologists are, doubtless, sympathizing with our plight. Then, however, we hopefully get a grip.

This finding is interesting, certainly, but I think it highlights the need for Sociology and Economics, rather than their mutual obsolescence. Consider, for example, that handling a bra is sufficient to sap the resolve of our high testosterone males. Allow me to add (since I saw the article before it went behind the fee wall) that handling a woman's shirt was insufficient to generate the effect, and that viewing elderly women had no effect. What does this tell us?

Well, it tells us that socialization remains highly relevant. How do humans learn what is attractive and what is not? Contrary to popular belief, it isn't inborn or coded in our genes. Instead, it is learned like many other behaviors. Here in the United States the current standard of beauty might be something like this but not too long ago an attractive woman was a bit heavier and, indeed, a few centuries ago the standard was still more different. All of these body types have been defined as attractive but a woman attractive in one time would probably not be regarded as such in another. Did the biology change so much in that period? Doubtful. What changed was the social environment. Standards of beauty also vary considerably between cultures. In Chad in the fifties, this was considered attractive. Likewise, highly elongated necks, deliberately inflicted scars, and even mutilated feet and genitals are, or have been, regarded as attractive. Hell, even the bras our males handled haven't exactly been around forever and likely wouldn't have any impact at all in a culture where breasts are not eroticized. In a culture where women traditionally appear in public topless I doubt that this effect would exist.

What we can take from all this is simple: males with a lot of testosterone might be vulnerable to depictions of attractive women, but what constitutes "attractive" is the domain of the social, not the biological. If anything, I find this discovery to be quite exciting in that it shows how deeply intertwined the social and biological worlds really are- humans are not somehow beyond biology and, likewise, biology does not somehow account for all of society. Both approaches are necessary to understand the world.

That said, I think this work is less positive for Economics. I mean no offense to my friends in Economics, but let's consider an argument advanced about this work- that viewing women in bikinis makes high testosterone men, "more rational." This almost requires that I ask a question: do we really think that macho men become more rational when they are exposed to scantily clad women? For the men in the audience, try it yourself: does viewing these women make you feel more rational and able to make decisions? Of course it doesn't. I'm betting that when you click on the above links, your train of thought derails for a moment. I'm even betting that Tom will back me up on this one, given that he's previously warned us about the dangers of bras. Hell, we could just ask my Sainted Girlfriend about this and she could tell you that my brain becomes substantially less capable the less she's wearing. I imagine most women could tell a similar tale. So, what we have here is a case where a stimulus that makes men more likely to behave in line with the predictions of Economic theory (i.e. makes them "rational") does so in a manner most of us would agree doesn't look anything like rationality. Now, some in the audience might argue that this is silly, and that it doesn't matter how we obtain the result so long as people behave rationally. Therefore, the next time the Fed meets we should make sure the board has been properly prepared. Still, I think that we may be making a small mistake if we start preceding corporate business meetings with a wet t-shirt contest.

What is my point in all this? Well, partly just to litter Tom's blog with as many links to barely-dressed women as possible. What can I say? I have no class.

More importantly, though, this is a general argument for cooperation between the sciences. We're all working on a lot of the same problems, we just don't always realize it. So, the next time someone wanders onto your turf, maybe make sure they don't have anything to add before you run them off. And while you're at it, maybe try to feel a little less threatened.

Odds are, we all have something to learn from each other anyway.

Okay, seriously, I know there are any number of responses to my cheap shots at Economics above. I know that the term "rational" has specific meanings in Economics that don't match the common usage of the term. I seriously know that I was smacking around a straw man. Having said that, let me ask you this: given the comedic opportunity, could you have resisted the urge?

Well, there you go.
FYI, Bram Van den Bergh's homepage has some related full-text material.

What first caught my eye (not having followed many of the links so far) was the characterization of rationality. That driving "too hard" a bargain in an ultimatum game can cause you to lose isn't automatically evidence of irrationality. They'd need to have separately characterized the subjects' risk aversion, or shown that the terms they were inclined to propose implied an unreasonable degree of risk-loving. Van den Bergh and Dewitte are apparently both psychologists by training, though they're affiliated with Leuven's econ and applied econ dept., so I'm not sure to what extent they'd have had this in mind.

In part, this may have inspired me to form some half-formed thoughts about experimental economics that I've had kicking around for a while. Thanks, Drek! (Really!!)
Tom: That driving "too hard" a bargain in an ultimatum game can cause you to lose isn't automatically evidence of irrationality.

Ken: BATNA, anyone?
Stupid English language: I should have said "that trying to drive a hard bargain in an ultimatum game can cause you to lose..."

"Too hard" implies irrationality. What isn't clear from the popular accounts is whether Van den Bergh and Dewitte established that the manly men were bargaining too hard in Demonic Male mode.


Did you see the Douglas Hartmann article in the ASR today?

hey, wait a minute. Maybe you ARE Douglas Hartmann.

Relatively more on the current topic (via Bitch), comes this piece, which screams for a joint Drek/Kim post.
What a great post! Now the Cheap Tart phenomenon is out in the open ... yikes & I had used it in business all these yrs. Shhhhhh!

AND that scar thing, wow. I just have had lotsa mole remove done....SCARS, more ammunition in the workplace (one scar is near my lips ... double ammo, right?)

Must go back & read UR post again, PRONTO!!!
Will surf around UR bloggy more.

The Tart
; )
Tom: Happy to help. I didn't expect this post to spur any work, but I'm happy to take credit anyway. Just be sure and include a centerfold in your eventual article, and we'll call it even.

Tina: Of course I haven't read the ASR piece yet. It's not like I wrote it or anything. Of course I didn't. And this comment isn't an attempt at disinformation.

Or is it?

Seriously. I've forgotten.

Ken: Hmmmm... interesting article. I'm up for a joint-post if Kim is. Otherwise... well, we'll see who blogs about it first.

Tart: Happy to... help?
Drek/Ken: Curiously, one of my first ever forays into the blogging world was about (If having one's offline comments incorporated anonymously into another person's blog post counts as a foray into the blogging world. It would be more accurate to call it the slightest of toe-dips.)

Tina: I'm a bit skeptical of the "Hartmann" findings after reading the abstract. Perhaps I'll be inspired to read the article in its entirety and post my thoughts... but perhaps not.

But why, incidentally, do you refer to it as a "Hartmann" article? Why not an "Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann" article, or, if brevity is the goal, an "Edgell" article? On the surface, the topic seems more up Penny's alley than Doug's. Inquiring minds...

My error is just a result of the limited info on my ASR-RSS feed, which often drops authors. Should have checked the abstract more closely.

And maybe you're onto something. Maybe Drek is really Penny Edgell? And wouldn't that be a kick? I always figured him for a boy sociologist...
Not having had the experience of the old Pub's ASA get-togethers, I know less about Drek than some. But I'd be very surprised if Drek sang soprano in an Episcopal church choir.

Kim, meanwhile, gets an award for anticipating the creation of I should note that Kim's RMP quality rating is very high, even though she's only middlingly easy.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?