Category Archives: psychology stuff

Politeness and status in short digital communications: my BSc dissertation

While looking through an old hard drive, I found something pretty cool: my BSc dissertation. It was on something which was relevant to my interests way back in 2007, and continues to be very relevant to my interests today: communication through the internet.

My main research question was are people being as polite as they think they are? What I found was interesting and kind of complicated: outside observers found it difficult to tell whether a message was intended for a recipient who was higher-status or on the same level of social power. In other words, the internet is a sort of social leveller. Or at least it is in terms of people sending messages, who don’t even think that they’re using the same mode of communication they would for a friend when addressing someone with more power.

Regular readers will know I’ve had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the liberatory potential of digital communications for quite some time, and that I rather like that we can communicate with everyone on a level. I suppose this is why I want to share this project with you, to show I’ve been thinking about power and communication since before I’d even heard of Twitter.

You can read the whole thing here [pdf].

I will say, it’s very of its time. This was written in a time before social networking went mainstream, in a time when people still sent faxes to each other. It was written in a time when the word “flaming” was used–a word I desperately want to bring back as it is qualitatively different from “trolling” and it really pisses me off that the media cannot grasp the distinction. And one more caveat–I was very different at the time it was written: I was one of those people who believed science held all the answers, that science was right and objective, and as such there’s a few pretty cringey bits in my writing style. I was reasonably good at science: I got a first in that degree.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d share it, as I feel like some of you might find it quite interesting. The world has changed since I wrote that dissertation and I’d love to know how much of it still applies in a world where we can now talk to anybody.


Time to pick a side

I see a lot of fence-sitting, and it pisses me the fuck off. I see so many so-called comrades refusing to challenge the multi-layered oppressions within our own communities.

Time and time again, I see feminists proudly declaring that they want to be neutral to various issues. In its latest manifestation, this has been a complete apathy towards a payday loans lawyer with a history of harassing women and actively siding with homophobic organisations in her quest to make the lives of marginalised young women hell. However, this attitude frequently comes up when women of colour report racism, when trans women report cissexism, when disabled women report disablism, and so forth.

I see it happen repeatedly within anti-fascist, anti-capitalist and anti-state networks. A deliberate neutrality towards sexism and racism among white men, too often escalating to the point where women reporting sexual violence from comrades are disbelieved. The other day, my friends and I tried to challenge it. So many comrades just stood by and did nothing.

This sort of shit happens everywhere. Intersecting liberation struggles are treated as nothing more than a petty spat, a minor intellectual difference. Instead of solidarity, there is only apathy. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told “I really agree with everything you do, you’re wrong about [really important issue], but I can ignore that.” How in the name of ever-loving fuck can you willfully look away from something so integrally connected?

This position of self-proclaimed neutrality is not some sort of moral high ground. It is actively harmful. Yes, you may not be actively perpetrating violence, but your inaction allows the perpetrators to keep on doing what they do. Think of the murder of Kitty Genovese. A young woman attacked and brutally murdered, while many heard her screams and did absolutely nothing. Kitty Genovese could have been saved, but the inaction of her neighbours left her to die in terrifying circumstances. The decades of subsequent research have revealed that people have a remarkable capacity for justifying their own inaction when someone is being harmed. I don’t doubt that the comments will swell with a sea of self-deception as people try to validate their own apathy, and do you know what? I’m not going to fucking approve any of it, because I’ve heard it all before.

If you don’t take a stand against oppression, you are helping it happen. You are helping the bigots and the rapists, the murderers and the fascists. You are helping the powerful exert their power and making them ever stronger.

It might make your life easier, but it also makes the task of the oppressor far, far easier. When solidarity is diffuse because so many just stand around doing nothing, it is easier to abuse and harass and murder. You are not neutral, no matter how much you like to think you are. You are helping all of this happen. You are not neutral, you are listening to the abuser’s account and deciding you like it better.

So let us dispose of any notion of neutrality. Let us open up our eyes and let in the full picture of the raging injustices. Let it disgust us, and develop our understanding of what is really happening, to actually look at the direction in which the power flows and everything connects together. Let us look at the consequences of our past apathy and strive end victimisation. Let us challenge oppression wherever it appears: within and outside our own communities. Let us nail our colours to the mast and rise up against these abusive structures.

It is a terrifying task, taking a stand, because the powerful just want to swat us down. They cannot do this if we stand together in solidarity with one another: there are too many of us. Let us ally our struggles and end this oppressive facade of neutrality.


How V53 might not be a liar (but is still a racist and a murderer)

No doubt some of you have been following the Mark Duggan inquest today. The officer who shot Duggan, V53, gave some rather baffling evidence. He swears blind that he saw a gun in Duggan’s hand, to the point that he could describe it, and yet the alleged gun which he saw in so much detail was also shrouded in a sock and somehow managed to teleport quite far away. Supernatural explanations notwithstanding, it looks rather a lot like our porcine witness is telling fibs. This seems like a particularly logical conclusion on a day where it has emerged that–shock horror!–cops are fucking liars.

Even assuming that it is impossible for guns to apparate by magic out of a sock and over a fence some distance away, however, it is possible that V53’s evidence is entirely honest. There is a psychological effect known as “weapon bias” which makes people see guns where there are none. Simply the effect of seeing a black face can make research participants imagine that they have seen a gun, especially when they are tasked with making a split-second decision. Interestingly, this effect seems to happen even when the participants are black. It is theorised that the underlying cause for this is racial stereotypes, which is exacerbated by making snap decisions.

Ultimately, then, it is entirely possible that V53 was telling the truth when he saw that magical gun. That doesn’t make him any less of a racist or a murderer, simply that the fact he is a racist has warped his memory. Likewise, it doesn’t make him any less culpable for the killing.

The knowledge that a bias exists which makes imaginary weapons appear in black hands means that we ought to treat such police claims with utmost scepticism, and question the notion that it is ever necessary to arm those who will make snap decisions based on racism with the capacity to end lives.


Poly Means Many: Consent, negotiation, and group dynamics

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

This month’s PMM topic is “negotiation”, which is so broad I’ll admit to having had trouble with where to start, what with having the material for approximately nineteen sextillion blogposts and a million bajillion conversations swimming round my head. And even though a lot of the PMM bloggers are taking this month off due to IRL things, I really don’t feel like I ought to subject you to every little thought rattling around my brainspace, because you will probably die of boredom before finishing, and my fingers will have worn down to little stubs from all the typing. So, I’m focusing on a small area, one which people have asked me about before, and of which I’ve had both positive and negative experiences.

There has been a hell of a lot of discussion and modelling of consent and negotiation within relationships–however fleeting–between two people, but we don’t talk so much about what happens when there are more than two present. Decades of social psychological research have shown us that weird shit tends to happen in groups of people, and the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

So how does negotiation of sex and relationships with several people together work? It’s easiest to look at potential pitfalls here to elucidate what makes things work.

In my experience, one of the biggest problems is that group dynamics can create an environment wherein it is very difficult to say no. When several people are up for sex, and your options are participate or go and wait in the kitchen until they’re finished, one often finds oneself taking the path of least resistance. This has actually happened to me once; I went and sat in the kitchen, that time, and smoked a lot of fags and felt like shit, but there have been other times when I have ended up involved in sex I didn’t want–and, indeed, I cannot say for certain that everyone was as up for a shag as I was, in certain situations before I figured out how to make shit work.

This sort of thing, the nagging concern that someone is just going along with stuff goes way beyond the bedroom.

So how do we solve this sort of problem? First and foremost is, of course, communication which goes beyond saying “I’m not OK”, and into actually checking in with people. This is all useless, though, without striving to make your relationships–of any sort–a safe space. It is not enough to say the words, it is necessary to foster a feeling of trust and security, an idea that it is OK to not be OK with something.

Without this ability to make yourself a safe space, negotiation is never going to work particularly well in any situation. It makes it hard to be honest, and it makes it hard to express non-consent. It stings to hear that no, and sometimes it does feel easier to send someone down to the kitchen, but it is absolutely vital that we make this happen.

From here, it is possible to build an inventory of how the dynamics work, an identification of what makes everyone involved happy, and what doesn’t.

The interesting thing here is that while I was focusing on group dynamics, I realised how much all of this applies when there are just two people present, too. So, I suppose, let’s all buck the hell up and make sure we’re safe.


Hetero cunnilingus: apparently it’s to stop you cheating

I read a paper. It left me in convulsions of laughter. It is, of course, an evolutionary psychology one.

The paper “Is Cunnilingus-Assisted Orgasm a Male Sperm-Retention Strategy?” sets out to answer the all-important question which has apparently been bugging the evolutionary psychology community since it evolved the gene to apply a just-so explanation to every aspect of human behaviour: why do heterosexual couples engage in something fun?

They ponder that it must be a strategy for either keeping sperm in there to make sure it all swims the right way, or maybe it’s to stop women cheating. I was surprised to note no mention of the bonobo, a closely related ape which tends to use oral sex as a greeting and fuck everything that moves, presumably because the authors had already ruled out the alternative hypothesis of “oral sex is fun.”

Anyway, following a very short questionnaire where they asked some dudes how hot their girlfriends were, and how hot other men found their girlfriends, whether their girlfriend came, and when they spaffed in relation to going down, the authors concluded that cunnilingus definitely didn’t evolve to keep the jizz in the right place. Therefore, they decided, it must be to stop cheating.

I promise I am not exaggerating this paper. This is a literal, actual paper which was literally, actually published in a literal, actual peer-reviewed journal. And if any of it is correct, I’m damn glad I’m not heterosexual, because their sex lives sound joyless. 


Do women not want to be friends with sluts? A review of a study.

Is there a word for studies which confirm existing prejudices so are trumpeted everywhere as there now being scientific backing for such prejudices? If not, there should be.

The latest that has come to my attention is a study which is being reported as showing that women don’t want to be friends with women who have had a lot of sexual partners, while men don’t mind as much if their male friends are getting a lot of sex. Entitled “Birds of a Feather? Not When it Comes to Sexual Permissiveness“, the study claims to provide some support for a sexual double standard and suggests these findings might have an evolutionary basis. Male and female participants were provided with a profile of a fictional person, and asked questions pertaining to friendship with them. The only difference between the profiles was how many sexual partners the fictional person had had: two, or twenty.

As with most of these prejudice-confirming studies, though, there are a few problems with how the authors reached their conclusions. As with so many studies of this ilk, there is a huge issue with sampling, and the generalisability of this study. Participants were US college students, the overwhelming majority of whom were economically privileged–only 11% rated themselves as working class or lower middle class. But most importantly of all, gay and bisexual participants were excluded from the study to ensure that none of the results reflected any sort of sexual attraction (because, apparently, queer folk are unable to just be friends with heterosexuals). The findings, therefore, can only ever be generalised to heterosexuals and be applied to heterosexual culture. This is something which has not been reported in any media discussions of the study, probably due to a combination of the fact that journalists tend to regurgitate press releases rather than read studies, and a hefty dose of good old-fashioned heterosexism.

There is also a major problem with the stats used in this study. When conducting statistical tests, we use a probability that the finding was down to chance. The conventionally-accepted figure for a statistically significant finding is that there is only a 5% possibility that this finding is due to chance, and it’s important to report the values of this probability as a p-value, where we convert the percentage into a decimal. For example, p=.04 is statistically significant, meaning the result is unlikely to be due to chance. Meanwhile, p=.09 is not significant as it’s more likely that the findings were just chance. In this study, several findings were reported as being “marginally significant”. The threshold for this was p<.08. “Marginal significance” is a phrase which pisses me the fuck off, as it means it actually isn’t significant by any conventions which are used, it’s just kind of close and the authors wanted something else to talk about.

Then we run into another problem. When multiple tests are run, the possibility of a false positive increases. At a significance threshold of p=.05, if a researcher were to run 100 statistical tests, five would come up as significant just by chance. So it’s important, when you’re doing a lot of statistical tests, to adjust for this. The authors of this paper didn’t. The good news is, there’s enough data there for me to undertake a quick and dirty* adjustment called a Bonferroni Correction. As I said above, the generally-accepted significance threshold if p<.05. A Bonferroni Correction takes this significance threshold and divides it by the number tests run. Charitably discounting the 64 descriptive stats tests run, I count 160 tests undertaken (though I may have missed a few). p<.05 divided by 160 gives us the significance threshold of p<.0003, and from the data tables, it looks like there isn’t much that’s significant by this measure. Some findings are reported as p=<.001, although we cannot conclude from the information available whether they manage to reach the revised threshold.

For those of you whose eyes glazed over during that dry statistical excursion, take the findings of this study with a hefty pinch of salt.

If you did read the stats paragraph, you’ll notice I’m feeling charitable today, so now it’s time to talk about something I found really interesting in this paper, and I’m a little sad the authors didn’t examine more. Along with filling in questionnaires which largely formed the basis of the analysis, participants were also invited to write down things they liked and disliked about the fictional person. Almost everyone, men and women, had something negative to say about sexuality, even when it was the fictional person who had only had two sexual partners. These negative things included negative statements about extramarital sex and stigmatising phrases like “whore-like tendencies”.

Conclusions

We cannot draw the conclusions the authors and overexcited journalists have drawn–that women don’t want to be friends with slutty women. What we can see, though, is that among heterosexual US college students, there is still a pretty dodgy attitude towards sexuality, with people holding views which are generally quite negative even when a fictional person has had relatively few sexual partners. This is something we need to work on as a society: sex is a thing a lot of people do, and it’s much nicer to do it without judgment from peers. We need to support others in having safe sex rather than think unpleasant things about them, accepting people. We’ve all internalised a lot of shit, living as we do in a society with a decidedly wack view of sexuality. And that needs to change.

__

*Why do I find Bonferroni Corrections quick and dirty? Because I’m a Monte Carlo Simulation gal. Far more fun, you just get to leave a computer running while you go out for lunch and it feels like you’re working. Also, it’s more robust, or something, but mostly it’s the fact you get to pop out for lunch.


Has it been scientifically proven racists and homophobes are stupid? Er, no.

A study from last year suggests something that most of us decent hummus-munchers will laugh at our hands behind: racists and homophobes are stupid, and the stupidity of their being racist and homophobic is mediated by them also being right-wing.

The paper, Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact (Hodson & Busseri, 2012; paywalled, alas) suggests it has found a predictive between low general intelligence in childhood and greater levels of prejudice later life. The link was not direct, though. It was mediated by right-wing ideology. For homophobia, the link was also mediated by a low level of contact with gay people. The sample was large, with data from almost 16,000 people, and a longitudinal design was used, which is more robust than simply testing for a correlation. Sounds compelling?

Well no. In fact, it’s one of those studies that makes me want to set things on fire, it is so poorly conducted.

Participant problems

Let’s return for a moment to our participants. It is very important to note that the researchers did not directly collect any of the data they studied, and therefore are relying on existing datasets. This gives them little control over the measures used, and limited information about the participants which could prove to be pertinent.

They are mostly, shall we say, of a certain generation: one dataset of participants had their intelligence measured at the age of 10 or 11 in 1958, while the others had their intelligence measured at the age of 10 or 11 in 1970. In these groups, racism and right-wing beliefs were measured when the participants were in their early thirties, meaning that all of this was measured, at best, more than two decades ago. That long ago, Britain was a very different place, and I’m glad things don’t look so much that way any more, with white people fucking everywhere being all white supremacist. There was no information provided about the ethnicity of the participants, but given the time, it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of them were white.

Meanwhile, the sample for measuring homophobia was also pretty lacking, consisting of less than 300 US university students, who are hardly known for being representative of the general population. Unlike the participants included in the racism study, this project was, as far as I can discern, not longitudinal, but a cross-section, making it much harder to draw conclusions about anything being predictive.

Mangled measurements

Oh dear, where to begin? Every single measure used here is a whole can of worms, difficult to measure at the best of times.

In general, measuring intelligence is a fucking nightmare. Nothing is particularly satisfactory, and everything is likely to lead to raised eyebrows and sighs. This is, at least in part because it’s difficult to even agree on what intelligence is, let alone how best to measure it. It is also pertinent to note here that the vast majority of the participants had their intelligence measured decades ago, and that these measures may not necessarily be favoured any more, following a very long period of refinement and academic critique. Also, there’s loads more that, frankly, I’m already too tired of discussing the clusterfuck that is measuring intelligence to discuss, but please do pop into the comments with your thoughts on the matter because there’s lots  to talk about.

And do you know what is just as contentious as measuring intelligence? Measuring prejudice. It was noted quite a while ago that directly asking people about unpopular beliefs (and, of course, overt prejudice is hardly fashionable) will tend to lead to denial due to social desirability–people say what they think others want to hear. This is further complicated by the fact that over the years, what prejudice actually looks like has changed considerably. It is no longer “blacks need not apply” and “there goes the neighbourhood”, but, rather, dog whistles and unconscious biases and benevolent sexism and so forth. Obviously, this was not measured since most of the measuring was done so long ago. Instead, to measure racism participants were asked to indicate agreement or disagreement with statements such as “I wouldn’t mind working with people from other races”. Measures of homophobia were similarly direct.

Ultimately, if we pretend that the measure of intelligence was all right, the best we can conclude from this research is that low intelligence is indirectly associated with actually admitting to the fact you’re a fucking racist.

“Oh my god, they used Baron & Kenny” “You bastards”

Surely, at least the statistics are fairly robust?

Nope. Oh gods, no they aren’t.

Regular followers of this blog may have noticed I have certain nemeses, from certain feminists who reject intersectional analyses because it’s too hard, to Brendan O’Neill. Here’s another of my nemeses: the Baron and Kenny method for mediation analyses.

It is perhaps the most popular method for testing mediation, and it is popular because it is simple enough to do with a fairly basic statistical package without having to delve into writing syntax or running stats for hours. Basically, you need to run a few tests. You need to see if there is a significant correlation between the independent variable (in this case, intelligence) and the mediator (in this case right-wing beliefs). Then you check if there is a significant correlation between the mediator and the dependent variable (racism or homophobia in these studies). Finally, for a mediation to exist, there needs to be no significant relationship between the independent and dependent variables when controlling for the other two tests.

This diagram from Hodson & Busseri might make it easier to visualise:

Apologies for the lack of description. I am really slow at being able to interpret graphical representations of things. Does anyone want to volunteer to describe this image?

 

Anyway, there’s a lot of problems with this overly simplistic approach which the very-interested can read all about here. In short, multiple mediators can cancel each other out and basing things on significance might be a very trivial change indeed.

tl;dr: Take everything you see using Baron & Kenny with a vat of salt.

Conclusions

It might be nice to believe that our enemies are stupid, but when you think about it, actually that’s rather sad. It reduces the possibility for education if it prejudice is largely driven by a relatively fixed factor. It stops us from trying to understand where prejudice comes from and why people are prejudiced. It is really rather bleak.

The good news is, that study is largely a nonsense, so let’s get back on with smashing prejudice.


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