Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Central bank papers report larger effects of QE on output and inflation; central bankers are also more likely to report significant effects of QE on output and to use more positive language in the abstract

Fifty Shades of QE: Conflicts of Interest in Economic Research. Brian Fabo, Martina Jančoková, Elisabeth Kempf, Ľuboš Pástor. NBER Working Paper No. 27849, September 2020.

Abstract: Central banks sometimes evaluate their own policies. To assess the inherent conflict of interest, we compare the research findings of central bank researchers and academic economists regarding the macroeconomic effects of quantitative easing (QE). We find that central bank papers report larger effects of QE on output and inflation. Central bankers are also more likely to report significant effects of QE on output and to use more positive language in the abstract. Central bankers who report larger QE effects on output experience more favorable career outcomes. A survey of central banks reveals substantial involvement of bank management in research production.

People are often reluctant to talk to strangers, despite the fact that they are happier when they do so, because of overblown fears of not enjoying the conversation, not liking one’s partner, or lacking conversational skills

Why do people avoid talking to strangers? A mini meta-analysis of predicted fears and actual experiences talking to a stranger. Gillian M. Sandstrom & Erica J. Boothby. Sep 29 2020.

ABSTRACT: People are often reluctant to talk to strangers, despite the fact that they are happier when they do so. We investigate this apparent paradox, meta-analyzing pre-conversation predictions and post-conversation experiences across seven studies (N = 2304). We examine: fears of not enjoying the conversation, not liking one’s partner, and lacking conversational skills; fears of the partner not enjoying the conversation, not liking oneself, and lacking conversational skills. We examine the relative strength of these fears, and show that the fears are related to talking behavior. We report evidence that people’s fears are overblown. Finally, we report two interventions designed to reduce fears: conversation tips, and the experience of a pleasant conversation. Ultimately, this research shows that conversations go better than expected.

KEYWORDS: Social interaction, conversation, intervention, meta-analysis

Why People Forgive Their Intimate Partners’ Infidelity: Having children, followed by own infidelity, reduced likelihood of future infidelity and dependency on partner

Why People Forgive Their Intimate Partners’ Infidelity: a Taxonomy of Reasons. Menelaos Apostolou & Andriana Demosthenous. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, Sep 29 2020.


Objectives: Infidelity is a widespread phenomenon, with perpetrators being frequently caught by their partners. Yet, not all instances of revealed infidelity lead to the termination of the relationship, and the current research aimed to study the reasons which lead individuals to forgive their partners.

Methods: Study 1 employed a combination of qualitative research methods in a sample of Greek-speaking participants (N = 164) in order to identify the reasons that motivate people to forgive their partners’ infidelity. Studies 2 and 3 employed quantitative research methods in two independent Greek-speaking samples (N = 1,243) in order to classify these reasons in broader factors.

Results: We identified 32 reasons, which are likely to motivate people to forgive their partners’ infidelity. By using principal components analysis, we classified these reasons in four broader factors. The most important one was having children, followed by own infidelity, reduced likelihood of future infidelity and dependency on partner. In the presence of assurances that they will be unlikely to cheat again in the future, women and older participants were more likely than men and younger participants to forgive their partners. Furthermore, participants who scored high in agreeableness were more likely than those who scored low to forgive their partners’ infidelity.

Conclusions: There are at least four main reasons why people forgive their partners’ infidelity, which are predicted by the former’s sex, age and personality.

Check also Reactions to and Forgiveness of Infidelity: Exploring Severity, Length of Relationship, Sex, and Previous Experience Effects. Menelaos Apostolou, Anna Aristidou, Christina Eraclide. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, November 26 2019.

We are all chimeric beings

We are all chimeric beings. Inspired by Rolf Degen, Remaining cells from a previous fetus can lead to spooky actions in the mother's body

From the book he referenced to, David Linden's Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality > Fetomaternal cell trafficking: a story that begins with prenatal diagnosis and may end with stem cell therapy. Diana W. Bianchi. Journal of Pediatric Surgery (2007) 42, 12 – 18.

Conclusive evidence that cells from a terminated fetus can persist in the mother and differentiate into cells in the mature organ came from the following study by Johnson et al [31], published in the journal Hepatology in 2002. In this study we received liver biopsy material from a woman with hepatitis C. She was a control subject for a study in which we were analyzing the association between fetal cell microchimerism and primary biliary cirrhosis. This woman had a history of having had one son, who was then 18 years old. Using X and Y chromosome–specific probes, we demonstrated that part of her liver contained entirely female (XX) cells, yet another part of her liver contained thousands of cells that were male (XY). We were able to obtain enough cells to isolate DNA and perform PCR amplification of short tandem repeat (STR) sequences. The DNA in the male part of the liver and the female part of the liver appeared related to each other, in that they each shared an allele at each locus tested. However, the STRs in the woman’s son’s DNA did not match the STRs in the male DNA in the liver. We were disappointed to conclude that the male cells in her liver could not originate from her son. However, after requesting and receiving a more detailed reproductive history, we realized that this woman had had 4 additional pregnancies, including 2 elective terminations and 2 miscarriages. We were subsequently able to obtain genomic DNA from 2 of the fathers of her noncompleted pregnancies. One of the fathers appeared to be a biological match for the male cells in the liver. We hypothesized, but can never prove, that these fetal cells originated from an elective termination of pregnancy that had been fathered by the man whose DNA we tested. Thus, in one woman, cells from a fetus that was terminated 17 to 19 years earlier remained for a long time in her body. We hypothesize that these fetal cells survived, migrated to her liver, which was a clinically diseased organ, and repopulated a significant portion of her liver. Interestingly, she did well clinically despite not taking her medications and not complying with medical care [31].

Algorithms consistently learn to charge supracompetitive prices, without communicating with one another; the high prices are sustained by collusive strategies with a finite phase of punishment followed by a gradual return to cooperation

Artificial Intelligence, Algorithmic Pricing, and Collusion. Emilio Calvano, Giacomo Calzolari, Vincenzo Denicolò, and Sergio Pastorello. American Economic Review. Oct 2020, Vol. 110, No. 10: Pages 3267-3297.

Abstract: Increasingly, algorithms are supplanting human decision-makers in pricing goods and services. To analyze the possible consequences, we study experimentally the behavior of algorithms powered by Artificial Intelligence (Q-learning) in a workhorse oligopoly model of repeated price competition. We find that the algorithms consistently learn to charge supracompetitive prices, without communicating with one another. The high prices are sustained by collusive strategies with a finite phase of punishment followed by a gradual return to cooperation. This finding is robust to asymmetries in cost or demand, changes in the number of players, and various forms of uncertainty.

JEL D21, D43, D83, L12, L13

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Declining trends in the formation of romantic relationships, alcohol consumption, and earnings, and increasing computer gaming explain a substantial portion of the decline in young adult sexual activity

Explaining the Decline in Young Adult Sexual Activity in the United States. Lei Lei  Scott J. South. Journal of Marriage and Family, September 28 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:


Objective: The main goal of this study is to identify the causes of the decline in sexual activity among young adults in the United States.

Background:The frequency with which young adults have sexual intercourse has declined over recent decades, but the sources of this trend are not well understood. Trends in economic insecurity, relationship formation, parental coresidence, use of electronic media, psychological distress, and alcohol consumption have all been suggested as possible causes.

Method: Logistic regression models of recent sexual activity were estimated using longitudinal data from the Transition to Adulthood Supplement of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics for respondents ages 18 to 23 (n = 3,213) spanning 2007 to 2017. Mediation analysis was performed to identify the explanatory factors that account for the decline in sexual activity. Fixed‐effect logistic regression models were estimated for a subset of respondents (n = 655) to help identify causal effects.

Results: Of the possible explanations considered, the decline in the formation of romantic relationships and decreasing alcohol consumption are the most important, but declining earnings and increasing use of computer games also play important roles. Overall, the measured explanations explain three‐quarters of the decline in young adult sexual activity. Within individuals, forming a romantic relationship, going to college, and alcohol consumption likely have causal effects on the probability of engaging in sexual intercourse.

Conclusion: Trends in the formation of romantic relationships, alcohol consumption, computer gaming, and earnings explain a substantial portion of the decline in young adult sexual activity.

Differences among students in beliefs in free will and dualism may lead some students to endorse a greater number of common psychological misconceptions

Psychological Misconceptions and Their Relation to Students’ Lay Beliefs of Mind. Mark Sibicky, Christopher L. Klein, Emily Embrescia. Teaching of Psychology, September 28, 2020.

Abstract: Psychological misconceptions are common among students taking psychology courses. In this study, we show an association between student endorsement of misconceptions and two prevalent and well-researched lay beliefs about the human mind, specifically the belief in free will and dualism. This study also revisits and builds upon past research investigating the relationship between believing in psychological misconceptions and other student beliefs such as opinions about psychology as science and beliefs in extrasensory perception, and student characteristics such as critical thinking ability, number of psychology courses taken, and grade point average. The findings are discussed in the context that differences among students in beliefs in free will and dualism may lead some students to endorse a greater number of common psychological misconceptions. We discuss the implications of these findings for instruction and for research on techniques to correct student misconceptions.

Keywords: psychological misconceptions, lay beliefs of mind, free will, dualism

Physical Harm Reduction in Domestic Violence: Does Marijuana Make Assaults Safer?

Physical Harm Reduction in Domestic Violence: Does Marijuana Make Assaults Safer? Jacob Kaplan, Li Sian Goh. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, September 25, 2020.

Abstract: Studies on the effect of marijuana on domestic violence often suffer from endogeneity issues. To examine the effect of marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana legalization on serious domestic assaults, we conducted a difference-in-differences analysis on a panel dataset on NIBRS-reported assaults in 24 states over the 12 years between 2005 and 2016. Assaults disaggregated according to situation and extent of injury were employed as dependent variables. We found that while the total number of assaults did not change, decriminalization reduced domestic assaults involving serious injuries by 18%. From a harm reduction perspective, these results suggest that while the extensive margin of violence did not change, the intensive margin measured by the seriousness of assaults were substantially affected by decriminalization. This result may be partially explained by reductions in offender alcohol intoxication and weapon-involved assault.

Keywords: marijuana, domestic violence, harm reduction

Understanding heterosexual women’s erotic flexibility: Sexual orientation may be maintained by differences in attentional processing that cannot be voluntarily altered

Understanding heterosexual women’s erotic flexibility: the role of attention in sexual evaluations and neural responses to sexual stimuli. Janna A Dickenson, Lisa Diamond, Jace B King, Kay Jenson, Jeffrey S Anderson. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 15, Issue 4, April 2020, Pages 447–465,

Abstract: Many women experience desires, arousal and behavior that run counter to their sexual orientation (orientation inconsistent, ‘OI’). Are such OI sexual experiences cognitively and neurobiologically distinct from those that are consistent with one’s sexual orientation (orientation consistent, ‘OC’)? To address this question, we employed a mindful attention intervention—aimed at reducing judgment and enhancing somatosensory attention—to examine the underlying attentional and neurobiological processes of OC and OI sexual stimuli among predominantly heterosexual women. Women exhibited greater neural activity in response to OC, compared to OI, sexual stimuli in regions associated with implicit visual processing, volitional appraisal and attention. In contrast, women exhibited greater neural activity to OI, relative to OC, sexual stimuli in regions associated with complex visual processing and attentional shifting. Mindfully attending to OC sexual stimuli reduced distraction, amplified women’s evaluations of OC stimuli as sexually arousing and deactivated the superior cerebellum. In contrast, mindfully attending to OI sexual stimuli amplified distraction, decreased women’s evaluations of OI stimuli as sexually arousing and augmented parietal and temporo-occipital activity. Results of the current study constrain hypotheses of female erotic flexibility, suggesting that sexual orientation may be maintained by differences in attentional processing that cannot be voluntarily altered.

Keywords: sexual arousal, sexual orientation, fMRI, women, mindfulness, attention


We found that OC, relative to OI, sexual stimuli elicited greater activity in brain regions involved in automatic visual processing, executive attention and appraisal whereas OI, relative to OC, sexual stimuli elicited greater activity in brain regions involved in complex visual processing and shifting attention. In contrast to our hypothesis that mindful attention would enhance the sexual processing of OI stimuli, results suggest that mindful attention augments women’s natural-occurring responses—increasing sexual evaluations of OC sexual stimuli but decreasing sexual evaluation of OI sexual stimuli.

Consistent with prior neuroimaging research on men’s processing of sexual stimuli (see Table 1), women’s neural responses to sexual, relative to neutral, stimuli activated regions associated with autonomic processing (midbrain, periaqueductal gray, posterior insula), attention (frontoparietal network, thalamus, anterior cingulate cortex, middle prefrontal cortex and lateral prefrontal cortex), appraisal (OFC, hippocampus), somatosensory awareness (anterior insula), motor imagery (cerebellum, premotor cortex) and deactivated areas involved in inhibition and devaluation (lateral temporal cortex, amygdala). These findings provide neurobiological support for the information processing model of the sexual response (e.g. see also Janssen et al., 2000Chivers, 2017) and corroborate existing neurobiological models of sexual arousal (see Stoléru et al., 2012).

Differences across women’s OC and OI sexual processing

Importantly, women showed greater neural activity in the primary and secondary visual cortices and the thalamus. Primary and secondary visual areas are the first areas to receive visual input and the thalamus serves as a relay station to transmit relevant motor and sensory information to the cortex necessary for conscious awareness. These areas have been implicated in preconscious attention, precipitate male erectile responses, and are related to perceptions of arousal (see Table 1). Together, these findings suggest that women process OC stimuli on a more implicit level, marked by basic visual processing and implicit attention.

According to the IPM, preconscious visual attention serves to draw one’s attention to the sexual properties of the stimuli and trigger autonomic arousal and implicit appraisal. Although women showed greater neural activity associated with autonomic arousal in response to sexual, compared to neutral stimuli, these regions responded similarly to OC and OI sexual stimuli. On a neural level, women hold similar representations of autonomic or visceral responses across OC and OI sexual stimuli. This pattern of results indicates that women’s sexual orientation is more likely constrained by early implicit attention than by autonomic arousal or visceral sensations.

Predominantly heterosexual women showed greater processing in the explicit pathway. Women evaluated OC stimuli as more sexual and less distracting and women’s self-report mirrored the pattern of neural activity. When women viewed OC sexual stimuli, their brain showed greater activity in regions associated with volitional attention (e.g. dorsolateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) and explicit appraisal (orbitofrontal areas, which evaluates and encodes reward value of punishers and integrates reward with emotional arousal), but not somatosensory awareness. Situating these findings in the context of the IPM suggests that women explicitly appraise OC stimuli as more sexual and more rewarding and better sustain volitional attention to OC, compared to OI, sexual stimuli, but are not any less aware of their sexual sensations toward OI sexual stimuli than they are for OC sexual stimuli. Hence, women may be just as aware of their somatosensory response to OI stimuli as they are to OC stimuli, suggesting that women’s erotic flexibility is not related to differences in or a lack of somatosensory awareness. Rather, differences between OC and OI sexual stimuli appear to be driven by attentional processing.

Additionally, OC stimuli elicited heightened activity in regions associated with sexual imagery and, unexpectedly, speech production and language processing. One possibility is that OC stimuli elicited self-referential mentalizing in the default mode network and Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas represent associated ‘self-talk’ (Raichle et al., 2001). Alternatively, the angular gyrus, premotor cortex, Broca’s area, somatosensory cortex and inferior temporal areas comprise the extended mirror neuron system (Caspers et al., 2010). The greater self-relevance of OC stimuli may facilitate the linkage between women’s observations of male masturbation and their own experience in response to this behavior. Future research should investigate how mentalizing, sexual imagery and self-referential processes contribute to OC sexual responses.

OI sexuality is not related to inhibition or judgment

In contrast to the hypothesis that women would be more likely to judge and negatively evaluate OI sexual stimuli, neural responses to OI, relative to OC, sexual stimuli showed no neural differences associated with judgment or negative evaluation. Rather, women responded to OI sexual stimuli with greater activity in higher order visual association areas, such as the fusiform gyri, involved in body and face perception, modulation of volitional attention and responses to genitalia and attractive faces, regardless of sexual orientation (see Table 1). As well, women showed greater activity in the superior parietal lobe (which acts in orienting attention, responding to distractors, and rearranging information to modify perspectives; Van Assche et al., 2014) and the posterior angular gyrus (involved in decoding symbolism and serves as a linking hub to transform visual input into associations; Caspers et al., 2012). Whereas predominantly heterosexual women visually process OC stimuli implicitly and automatically, OI visual processing is more elaborative, emphasizing face and bodily perception and modulating shifts in attention, meaning and perspective. Hence, OI stimuli might require more active symbolic interpretation that prompts predominantly heterosexual women to shift their perspective. This attentional and perspective shifting corroborates the very nature of OI stimuli—an inconsistency with women’s orientation.

The relative impact of mindful attention

Mindfully attending to OC stimuli enhanced women’s evaluations of OC stimuli as more sexually arousing and suppressed neural activity. Specifically, deactivation in superior cerebellum/lingual gyrus (involved in the visual processing of faces and complex visual processing) suggests that mindful attention operates by suppressing complex visual or facial processing. This is consistent with prior research demonstrating that mindfulness may operate by acting as an enhanced recovery phase that suppresses, rather than activates, neurobiological activity associated with general arousal (Dickenson et al., 2019).

Mindfully attending to OI sexual stimuli reduced women’s evaluations of OI stimuli as sexually arousing, but heightened activation in regions associated with complex visual processing and attention. The angular gyrus and superior parietal lobule work together to detect novel stimuli, distractions and to shift attention (Corbetta et al., 2008). These results extend findings concerning the role of distraction in inhibiting sexual responses (e.g. De Jong, 2009). Specifically, neural responses to OI stimuli are marked by attentional shifting, which is further enhanced by mindful attention, and ultimately weakens subjective sexual attention and evaluation. Importantly, these results indicate that the direction of one’s subjective sexual processing cannot be changed by volitionally altering attention or appraisal. Hence, the underlying mechanism that guides sexual orientation and deviations in sexual responses is distinct from explicit attentional and appraisal processes.

Within the specific direction of one’s sexual processing, mindful attention can impact the magnitude of evaluating sexual stimuli as arousing. That is, mindful attention facilitates sexual evaluations of genders that women typically find arousing (OC) and impedes sexual evaluations of genders that women find less arousing (OI). Women felt less distracted when viewing OI in a sexual, relative to a neutral, context and mindful attention improved women’s attentional focus toward OI neutral stimuli. However, mindful attention exacerbated women’s distraction toward OI sexual stimuli. This pattern of results suggests that women were not feeling distracted by OI stimuli until they were asked to attend their bodies in a sexual context. Such pattern of findings also suggests that women were similarly subjectively responsive to the sexual content in the absence of mindful attention to their bodily sensations. Perhaps results were due to the specific attentional processes altered, such that greater explicit monitoring (e.g. monitoring non-judgment and bodily sensations) may have overridden women’s implicit enjoyment of OI sexual stimuli. An important avenue for future research is to investigate the pathways by which specific forms of attention may impede or enhance compassion and sexual pleasure.

Specifically, mindful attention can shift attention either by heightening a detached, observational stance, attending to a stimulus as a third-party observer, or by heighten one’s ability to fully immerse oneself within an activity. Previous research has found that immersive attention increases subjective arousal, whereas more observational forms of attention reduce women’s subjective arousal (Both et al., 2011). Women are more likely to employ immersive attention to OC stimuli and employ detached, observation to OI stimuli (Bossio et al., 2013). Moreover, immersive participation has been associated with a lack of frontal lobe activation (Dietrich, 2003). Hence, mindful attention may have reduced effortful attention, through suppressing complex visual processing in OC stimuli. In contrast, mindful attention may increase detached observation to OI stimuli, which should then increase effortful attentional shifts, thereby decreasing arousal. Although we did not measure immersive or observatory attention, results suggest that sexual processing may be enhanced or attenuated based on the specific form of attention mindfulness augments. Investigating the pathways by which specific forms of attention account for the ways in which mindful attending to OC and OI stimuli impact sexual responses could explain the diversity of effects across mindfulness-based therapies for sexual desire and arousal concerns (Brotto et al., 2012). Our findings suggest that sexual orientation, rather than erotic flexibility, guides women’s sexual processing and attempting to change attentional processing only magnifies the effect of sexual orientation on women’s sexual processing.

Limitations and future directions

Inferring function from brain activation cannot serve as a proof of function. Nonetheless, identifying relevant brain regions helps to narrow the range of processes potentially involved. Additionally, our single-item measure of sexual response was limited to evaluating the stimulus as sexually arousing and does not reflect a specific aspect of sexual response. These limitations are also strengths, in that we were able to test our specific hypotheses because we engaged in careful inference of brain function and because our measure of sexual evaluation was not limited to a specific aspect of sexual response.

Although prior research indicates that one training session is sufficient to induce emotional regulation benefits (Arch and Craske, 2006), we know little about how many instances of mindful attention training are required to elicit changes in the processing of sexual stimuli. Although we were unable to determine how effectively participants were able to toggle between mindful attention and control tasks within the short epochs or assess for demand characteristics related to OC and OI stimuli, women’s self-reported level of distraction did, in fact, decrease as a result of the mindful attention task for OC and OI neutral stimuli. Future research should explore how these factors influence the degree to which participants are able to direct their attention to present-moment sensations to OC and OI desires, attractions, and arousal with compassion and non-judgment.

The current sample included predominantly heterosexual cisgender women who were willing to undergo brain scans while watching erotic films. Moreover, the sample mirrored the racial demographics of the state in which this study was conducted (mostly white). Among these women, we found that attempting to change attentional processing only magnified the effect of sexual orientation on women’s sexual processing. A critical direction for future research is to investigate subjective and neurobiological differences between OC and OI desires among women of various orientations, genders (including transgender and gender non-binary individuals) and ethnicities/races. A particularly intriguing direction is to examine differences between the same and other gender(s) desires of bisexual women (who rarely report that their desires for all genders are absolutely equivalent in frequency and intensity) and pansexual women (who report attraction toward a person, rather than a specific sex/gender).

Rolf Degen summarizing... Having children does increase happiness, unless it is associated with financial difficulties

Children, unhappiness and family finances. David G. Blanchflower & Andrew E. Clark. Journal of Population Economics (2020). September 29 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: The common finding of a zero or negative correlation between the presence of children and parental well-being continues to generate research interest. We consider international data, including well over one million observations on Europeans from 11 years of Eurobarometer surveys. We first replicate this negative finding, both in the overall data and then for most different marital statuses. Children are expensive: controlling for financial difficulties turns our estimated child coefficients positive. We argue that difficulties paying the bills explain the pattern of existing results by parental education and income and by country income and social support. Last, we underline that not all children are the same, with stepchildren commonly having a more negative correlation with well-being than children from the current relationship.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Do people who claim to be dispositionally open-minded, in fact, demonstrate such open-mindedness when they are actually presented with political opinions that run counter to their own? Seems they don't.

 On Staying Open While Seeing Red: Predicting Open-Mindedness and Affect in Politics. Emily J. Hanson. Ph D Thesis, Psychological and Brain Sciences. Washington University in St. Louis, 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: This dissertation examines whether people who claim to be dispositionally open-minded, do in fact, demonstrate such open-mindedness when they are actually presented with political opinions that run counter to their own. In Study 1, participants rated their partisan identity and dispositional open-mindedness prior to reacting to a series of fictional Facebook posts that varied in both their political ideology and political extremity. The results of this study demonstrated that the most consistent predictor of “open” reactions (operationalized in terms of both cognitive judgements and affective reactions) to each type of Facebook post was whether it was congruent with the participants’ partisan identity. Importantly, this effect was never moderated by dispositional open-mindedness. Thus, the degree to which a participant was high (vs. low) in open-mindedness did not significantly attenuate partisan bias or act to increase the likelihood of “open” reactions to outgroup political views. Study 2 utilized a similar design, except in this case participants were asked to predict how open they thought they would be to the same set of political issues used in Study 1. The results of Study 2 demonstrated that participants predicted they would be most open to attitudinally consistent political views. As in Study 1, these predictions were not moderated by dispositional open-mindedness. This means that participants who rated themselves as highly open-minded were not any more likely to predict they would be open to outgroup political opinions than those participants who scored themselves low in openmindedness. This research both builds upon and significantly extends prior work in both the psychological and political science literatures. The implications of these results and future directions are discussed.

In 1979 marriage was associated with lower earnings among women; by 2018 it was associated with higher earnings, suggesting greater positive selection of women with high earnings potential into marriage

The Declining Earnings Gap Between Young Women and Men in the United States, 1979-2018. John Iceland, Ilana Redstone. Social Science Research, September 28 2020, 102479,

Abstract: We examine the dynamics of the gender earnings gap over the 1979 to 2018 period among full-time workers aged 25-29, focusing on the role of marital status and the presence of children. Using data from multiple years of the Current Population Survey, we find that the earnings gap declined among all groups of men and women, and by 2018 there was earnings parity among the those who were not married and without children. The share of people in this group also grew over the period, and comprised a majority of both men and women by 2018. We also find that while marriage was associated with lower earnings among women in 1979, by 2018 it was associated with higher earnings, suggesting greater positive selection of women with high earnings potential into marriage. The positive association between marriage and earnings among men remained stable. While we found a persistent earnings penalty for having children among women over the period, we found an emerging dampening effect of having children over time among men, which suggests that greater participation in childcare among men has led to lower earnings than in the past (i.e., a causal connection) and/or an emerging selection effect of young men more interested in childrearing over time, perhaps reflecting a cultural shift.

Key words: Gender InequalityEarningsMarriageChildren

Can nations be ranked on the quality of their elites? Elites are dominant coalitions possessing the strongest coordination capacity over a country’s key resources, creating value or extracting it

Casas, Tomas and Cozzi, Guido, Elite Quality Report 2020: 32 Country Scores and Global Rank (August 18, 2020). SSRN:

Abstract: Can nations be ranked on the quality of their elites? Elites are dominant coalitions possessing the strongest coordination capacity over a country’s key resources. They run the highest impact business models, which can be value creating or value extracting. We aim to produce a political economy index and present the first ever comparative measurement of Elite Quality (EQ), that is, a country’s elites’ propensity – on aggregate – to create value, rather than to rent seek with extractive business models. Using data on 72 Indicators, the Elite Quality Index (EQx) ranks 32 countries. Based on its multi-layered index architecture, we quantify a country’s overall EQ, as well as offer an in-depth analysis of specific dimensions of EQ, such as the role of power (Power Sub-Index I) and current value creation activities (Value Sub-Index II) in the political and economic realm. On a more granular level, the Index consists of 12 Pillars, including Creative Destruction, State Capture and Capital Rent. We reveal substantial differences in the overall state of Elite Quality around the world and hence divergent mid- and long-term economic growth and human development prospects. In-depth analysis of regional dynamics (North East Asia), specific EQ dimensions as well as various country portraits (incl. the United States, China, German, Japan, Russia, Portugal and others) by experts and academics illustrate the varied use of the EQx as a new analytical tool to explain the political economy of countries. This global Index and country ranking is an innovative heuristic and approach that might help interpret – and possibly transform – the state of the world and its future.

Keywords: index, elite quality, institutions, value creation, rent seeking, crony capitalism, political economy, global ranking, international business

JEL Classification: D72, F50, P16, P48

Our unique capability: Once one appreciates that one’s thoughts about the future are just representations, one is in a position to evaluate them, to discount them, or to try to compensate for their shortcomings

From 2019... The future-directed functions of the imagination: From prediction to metaforesight. Adam Bulley, Jonathan Redshaw, Thomas Suddendorf. In book: The Cambridge Handbook of the Imagination, Apr 2019.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: One of the fundamental roles of human imagination is to enable the representation of possible future events. Here, we survey some of the most critical abilities that this foresight supports: anticipating future emotions, setting and pursuing goals, preparing for threats, deliberately acquiring skills and knowledge, and intentionally shaping the future environment. Furthermore, we outline how metacognition bolsters human capacities even further by enabling people to reflect on and compensate for the natural limits of their foresight. For example, humans make contingency plans because they appreciate that their initial predictions may turn out to be wrong. We suggest that the processes involved in monitoring, controlling, and ultimately augmenting future-oriented imagination represent an important and understudied parallel of "metamemory" that should be called "metaforesight".

2. Compensating for anticipated limits: introducing “metaforesight”

Humans, perhaps uniquely, are capable of meta-representational insight into

the relationship between their imagination and reality. In other words, people can

evaluate how imagined scenarios link in with the external world, and thus assess

whether what is imagined is likely to actually occur in the future, and whether it is

biased, pessimistic, or hopeful and so forth. In the broad sense, meta-representation

involves representing the relation between (i) a representation and (ii) what that

representation is about (Pylyshyn, 1978). The development of such a capacity in

childhood is widely considered as critical to the emergence of an understanding of

other people’s minds (e.g., Perner, 1991). In the domain of foresight, this form of

metacognition has long been given a central role (Suddendorf, 1999). Once one

appreciates that one’s thoughts about the future are just representations, one is in a

position to evaluate them, to modify them, to discount them, to discuss them, and to

try to compensate for their shortcomings (Redshaw, 2014; Redshaw & Bulley, 2018).

Indeed, this capacity may be crucial to children acquiring a mature sense of future

time itself – as a series of possible chains of events of which only one will actually

happen (see Hoerl & McCormack, 2018).

Involuntary Mental Time Travel into the Episodic Future, Episodic Past, and Episodic Counterfactual Past in Everyday Life

Branch, Jared. 2020. “Involuntary Mental Time Travel into the Episodic Future, Episodic Past, and Episodic Counterfactual Past in Everyday Life.” PsyArXiv. January 27. doi:10.31234/

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: To date, studies exploring episodic counterfactual thoughts have employed laboratory studies to discern the subjective qualities of voluntary mental time travel (Branch & Anderson, 2018; De Brigard & Giovanello, 2012; Özbek, Bohn, & Berntsen, 2017). Here, we offer the first diary study of episodic counterfactual thinking, and therefore we report the subjective qualities of involuntary mental time travel into the counterfactual past. We find that such thoughts do occur, although to a much lesser extent than mental time travel into the future or past (i.e. episodic future thinking or episodic memory). The major purpose that episodic counterfactual thinking serves is mood regulation: to daydream and to feel better. We observed that the majority of episodic counterfactual thoughts are experienced in the recent past and decrease as a function of time. We also report on the phenomenological aspects of episodic counterfactual thoughts as they relate to future thinking and memories.

Compared to others of same age & gender, they believed they were unlikely to experience a range of controllable (eg accidentally infect/ be infected) & uncontrollable (eg need hospitalization/ intensive care treatment) COVID‐19‐related risks in the short term

Comparative optimism about infection and recovery from COVID‐19; Implications for adherence with lockdown advice. Koula Asimakopoulou  et al. Health Expectations, September 27 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:


Background: Comparative optimism, the belief that negative events are more likely to happen to others rather than to oneself, is well established in health risk research. It is unknown, however, whether comparative optimism also permeates people’s health expectations and potentially behaviour during the COVID‐19 pandemic.

Objectives: Data were collected through an international survey (N = 6485) exploring people’s thoughts and psychosocial behaviours relating to COVID‐19. This paper reports UK data on comparative optimism. In particular, we examine the belief that negative events surrounding risk and recovery from COVID‐19 are perceived as more likely to happen to others rather than to oneself.

Methods: Using online snowball sampling through social media, anonymous UK survey data were collected from N = 645 adults during weeks 5‐8 of the UK COVID‐19 lockdown. The sample was normally distributed in terms of age and reflected the UK ethnic and disability profile.

Findings: Respondents demonstrated comparative optimism where they believed that as compared to others of the same age and gender, they were unlikely to experience a range of controllable (eg accidentally infect/ be infected) and uncontrollable (eg need hospitalization/ intensive care treatment if infected) COVID‐19‐related risks in the short term (P < .001). They were comparatively pessimistic (ie thinking they were more at risk than others for developing COVID‐19‐related infection or symptoms) when thinking about the next year.

Discussion: This is the first ever study to report compelling comparative biases in UK adults’ thinking about COVID‐19 We discuss ways in which such thinking may influence adherence with lockdown regimes as these are being relaxed in the UK.


On the basis of these data, we suggest that UK adults who meet the demographic characteristics of our sample display comparative optimism concerning many aspects of COVID‐19. Where participants showed comparative optimism its pattern was consistent with earlier findings showing that comparative optimism is stronger for controllable than for uncontrollable events.67 Our participants overwhelmingly believed that as compared to people of their age and gender, they were somewhat or extremely unlikely to have accidentally infected people with COVID‐19 in the past and to infect others or get infected themselves in the next month. They were also comparatively optimistic, but to a lesser extent, about their likelihood of getting hospitalized due to COVID‐19, finding themselves in an ICU, being ventilated, and making a full recovery.

In contrast, participants showed comparative pessimism about COVID‐19 infections in the more distant future. As compared to the average person of their age and gender they felt likely to get infected by COVID‐19 in the next year and to develop COVID‐19‐related symptoms. This pattern is inconsistent with earlier findings showing greater comparative optimism for events that are further in the future than for nearer events.2122 However, such a finding supports earlier research that shows that people who have experienced some ill health tend to unduly exaggerate their future risk of experiencing further ill health.23 One important difference between COVID‐19 and other risks is that controlling the pandemic was very much placed in the hands of individuals restricting their lives in the UK—as seen in the slogan urging people to ‘Stay at home’. It is reasonable that participants would reason that in the long term, staying at home would be less possible, plausible or practical.11 Feeling that compliance with social distancing rules cannot be maintained indefinitely may thus explain these perceptions, in line with research showing that high prevalence negative events may engender comparative pessimism.24

We have thus established the presence of comparative optimism in relation to both controllable and uncontrollable aspects of COVID‐19. We have also found comparative pessimism concerning future infection and symptom development. Both comparative optimism and comparative pessimism may have important consequences for people’s psychological well‐being and their likelihood of engaging in risk behaviours or responding to further lockdown measures.

If people believe COVID‐19 ‘will not happen to me any time now’ or that they are unlikely to have infected others in the past or to do so in future, they may be more relaxed about lockdown advice. In an effort to make people look beyond their own risk (which for some age and gender groups may be lower than for other groups), most governments, including the UK government, have focused their communication about social distancing rules on how much these protect against infecting others. Unfortunately, having infected others and infecting others in the future are precisely the aspects of COVID‐19 on which we found the strongest comparative optimism—people think it is unlikely these will happen to them.

Equally, for people reporting comparative optimism for present and past COVID‐19 infection, these beliefs could fuel resistance to give up on lockdown—because to do so will place them amongst the very same ‘average others’ who—like them—have been unsuccessful in controlling the pandemic. Given that we have now established comparative optimism in relation to COVID‐19, future work should systematically explore how this thinking may influence behavioural outcomes such as returning to school, work and normal life.

There are limitations of this study which, although do not detract from the generalizability of the findings, should be noted. Firstly, the sample was predominantly White. Although this pattern is typical of wider online survey taking behaviour,20 it may well not represent the views of other ethnic groups. Our sample was also predominantly female, although that may be less of a limitation; our findings showed no gender differences in two subscales, entirely in line with previously reported work.3 The sole difference we observed involved men showing less comparative pessimism and thus being relatively more optimistic than women concerning their long term risk. If anything, then, our study may have underestimated comparative optimism by sampling fewer men. A further limitation of our study is that our participants have self‐selected to participate and that we have no means of estimating the participation rate. This is a methodological issue in all surveys conducted on‐line that use a sampling approach similar to ours. We are therefore confident that our results are no less robust and valid than other appropriately powered surveys in the field; the pattern of comparative optimism and pessimism that we have found is very much in line with patterns reported in previous work in the field of comparative optimism, and which used a range of recruitment strategies, response rates and methods of inquiry.23

On the basis of the above, we conclude that UK adults may be comparatively optimistic about the chances of coming to harm due to COVID‐19 at the moment or having caused harm themselves previously. Future research is needed on the implications of comparatively optimistic thinking for future compliance with government guidelines on managing COVID‐19.

Participants believed they would be less likely to find a compatible partner through online dating than either through friends or in everyday activities; age & shyness were negatively associated with optimism of finding a partner

Beliefs About Finding a Compatible Partner in Three Settings. Susan Sprecher. Interpersona, Vol. 13 No. 2 (2019), Jan 6 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: Single adults often exert considerable energy searching for a compatible partner. Until recently, people met partners primarily through everyday activities (work, school) and through friends. These ways of meeting partners are still common, although Internet dating sites have also become a main way for couples to meet. The current study was conducted to examine people’s attitudes about finding a compatible partner in three different settings: online dating, the social network (e.g., friends of friends), and everyday activities. A sample of 702 single (unpartnered) adults (ages 18 to 40) completed a survey that included items that measured their attitudes about finding a compatible partner in the three different ways. Participants believed they would be less likely to find a compatible partner through online dating than either through friends or in everyday activities. Age and shyness were negatively associated with optimism of finding a partner, particularly in the traditional settings of everyday activities and through one’s social network.

Almost total lack of empirical analyses of the psychological characteristics or behavioral implications of doll ownership; existing arguments appear to represent the philosophical positions of those scholars expressing them

Harper, Craig A., and Rebecca Lievesley. 2020. “Sex Doll Ownership: An Agenda for Research.” PsyArXiv. May 19. doi:10.31234/

Rolf Degen's take:


Purpose of review: The topic of sex doll ownership is becoming an increasingly discussed issue from both a social and legal perspective. This review aims to examine the veracity of the existing psychological, sexological, and legal literature in relation to doll ownership.

Recent findings: Strong views exist across the spectrum of potential socio-legal positions on sex doll ownership. However, there is an almost total lack of empirical analyses of the psychological characteristics or behavioral implications of doll ownership. As such, existing arguments appear to represent the philosophical positions of those scholars expressing them, rather than being rooted in any objective evidence base.

Summary: Despite an absence of empirical data on the characteristics and subsequent effects of doll ownership, discussions about the ethical and legal status of doll ownership continue. This highlights a real and urgent need for a coherent research agenda to be advanced in this area of work.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Personality Evaluated: What Do People Like and Dislike About Themselves and Their Friends?

Sun, Jessie, Rebecca Neufeld, Paige Snelgrove, and Simine Vazire. 2020. “Personality Evaluated: What Do People Like and Dislike About Themselves and Their Friends?.” PsyArXiv. September 26. doi:10.31234/

Abstract: What do people think are their best and worst personality traits? Do their friends agree? Across three samples, 463 college students (“targets”) and their friends freely described two traits they liked and two traits they disliked the most about the target. Coders categorized these open-ended trait descriptions into high or low poles of broad trait domains and judged whether targets and friends reported the same specific best and worst traits. Best traits reflected only the socially desirable poles of the major trait domains (especially high agreeableness and extraversion), whereas worst traits reflected both poles (e.g., high extraversion: “loud”; high agreeableness: “people-pleaser”), and especially low emotional stability (particularly from the targets’ perspective). Overall, targets and friends mentioned similar kinds of best and worst traits, and agreed to a moderate extent on what the targets’ best and worst traits were. These results highlight the mixed blessings of various personality traits.

Impact of superstitious beliefs on the timing of marriage and childbirth: Evidence from Denmark

Impact of superstitious beliefs on the timing of marriage and childbirth: Evidence from Denmark. Evgeny A. Antipov, Elena B. Pokryshevskaya. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 15, No. 5, September 2020, pp. 756–782.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: We study the influence of numerological superstitions on family-related choices made by people in Denmark. Using daily data on marriages and births in Denmark in 2007-2019 we test hypotheses associated with positive perception of numbers 7 and 9 and a negative perception of number 13, as well as the impact of February, 29, April 1, St. Valentine’s Day and Halloween. There is significant negative effect of the 13th on the popularity of both wedding and birth dates. However, some other effects associated with special dates and the cultural representations of unofficial holidays have a stronger effect. In addition, after controlling for many factors, February 29 and April 1 turn out to be desirable for weddings, but not for childbirth, implying the context dependence of cultural stereotypes. Evidence of birth scheduling for non-medical reasons is especially worrisome because of the associated adverse health outcomes associated with elective caesarian sections and inductions.

Keywords: superstitions, jinx number, lucky number, numerology, childbirth, marriage

Replication of Azar et al. (2013): 70% of customers in Czech restaurants returned excessive change to waiters; the higher the excessive change was, the more honest the customers were

A field experiment on dishonesty: A registered replication of Azar et al. (2013). Jakub Procházka, Yulia Fedoseev, PetrHoudek. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, September 2020, 101617.


• 70% of customers in Czech restaurants returned excessive change to waiters.

• The higher the excessive change was, the more honest the customers were.

• We successfully replicated the effect from Israeli restaurant.

Abstract: This study is a registered replication of a field experiment on dishonesty by Azar et al. (2013). Their main finding was that most customers of an Israeli restaurant did not return excessive change; however, customers who received a higher amount of excessive change returned it more often than people who received a lower amount. Our study, which was conducted on a sample of customers of restaurants in the Czech Republic (N=219), replicated the results of the original study. The high excessive change condition increased the chance of returning the excess change by 21.7 percentage points (17.4 percentage points in the original study). The findings show that the psychological costs of dishonesty can outweigh its financial benefits. We similarly found that repeat customers and women were more likely to return the excessive change than one-time customers and men. The majority (70%) of customers in our sample returned the excessive change. We discuss the importance of field studies and replications of them in the further development of research into dishonest behavior.

Keywords: Dishonestyfield experimentpre-registered replicationcustomer behaviour

Even for the most committed brain trainers, we found no relationship with any cognitive performance measure, regardless of participant age, which brain training program they used, or whether they expected brain training to work

Stojanoski, B., Wild, C. J., Battista, M. E., Nichols, E. S., & Owen, A. M. (2020). Brain training habits are not associated with generalized benefits to cognition: An online study of over 1000 “brain trainers”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Sep 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: The foundational tenet of brain training is that general cognitive functioning can be enhanced by completing computerized games, a notion that is both intuitive and appealing. Moreover, there is strong incentive to improve our cognitive abilities, so much so that it has driven a billion-dollar industry. However, whether brain training can really produce these desired outcomes continues to be debated. This is, in part, because the literature is replete with studies that use ill-defined criteria for establishing transferable improvements to cognition, often using single training and outcome measures with small samples. To overcome these limitations, we conducted a large-scale online study to examine whether practices and beliefs about brain training are associated with better cognition. We recruited a diverse sample of over 1000 participants, who had been using an assortment of brain training programs for up to 5 years. Cognition was assessed using multiple tests that measure attention, reasoning, working memory and planning. We found no association between any measure of cognitive functioning and whether participants were currently “brain training” or not, even for the most committed brain trainers. Duration of brain training also showed no relationship with any cognitive performance measure. This result was the same regardless of participant age, which brain training program they used, or whether they expected brain training to work. Our results pose a significant challenge for “brain training” programs that purport to improve general cognitive functioning among the general population. 

Rolf Degen summarizing... With increasing age, individual differences in personality traits are more and more determined by idiosyncratic life experiences, compared to genes and family upbringing

Kandler, C., Bratko, D., Butković, A., Hlupić, T. V., Tybur, J. M., Wesseldijk, L. W., de Vries, R. E., Jern, P., & Lewis, G. J. (2020). How genetic and environmental variance in personality traits shift across the life span: Evidence from a cross-national twin study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sep 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: Decades of research have shown that about half of individual differences in personality traits is heritable. Recent studies have reported that heritability is not fixed, but instead decreases across the life span. However, findings are inconsistent and it is yet unclear whether these trends are because of a waning importance of heritable tendencies, attributable to cumulative experiential influences with age, or because of nonlinear patterns suggesting Gene × Environment interplay. We combined four twin samples (N = 7,026) from Croatia, Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, and we examined age trends in genetic and environmental variance in the six HEXACO personality traits: Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness. The cross-national sample ranges in age from 14 to 90 years, allowing analyses of linear and nonlinear age differences in genetic and environmental components of trait variance, after controlling for gender and national differences. The amount of genetic variance in Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Openness followed a reversed U-shaped pattern across age, showed a declining trend for Honesty-Humility and Conscientiousness, and was stable for Emotionality. For most traits, findings provided evidence for an increasing relative importance of life experiences contributing to personality differences across the life span. The findings are discussed against the background of Gene × Environment transactions and interactions.

Anthropocentric biases in teleological thinking: How nature seems designed for humans

Preston, J. L., & Shin, F. (2020). Anthropocentric biases in teleological thinking: How nature seems designed for humans. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Sep 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: People frequently see design in nature that reflects intuitive teleological thinking—that is, the order in nature that supports life suggests it was designed for that purpose. This research proposes that inferences are stronger when nature supports human life specifically. Five studies (N = 1,788) examine evidence for an anthro-teleological bias. People agreed more with design statements framed to aid humans (e.g., “Trees produce oxygen so that humans can breathe”) than the same statements framed to aid other targets (e.g., “Trees produce oxygen so that leopards can breathe”). The bias was greatest when advantages for humans were well-known and salient (e.g., the ozone layer) and decreased when advantages for other targets were made explicit. The bias was not eliminated by highlighting the benefits for other species, however, and emerged spontaneously for novel phenomena (“Jupiter’s gravity protects Earth from asteroids”). We conclude that anthropocentric biases enhance existing teleological biases to see stronger design in phenomena where it enables human survival.

The absence of pessimism was more strongly related to positive health outcomes than was the presence of optimism

Scheier, M. F., Swanson, J. D., Barlow, M. A., Greenhouse, J. B., Wrosch, C., & Tindle, H. A. (2020). Optimism versus pessimism as predictors of physical health: A comprehensive reanalysis of dispositional optimism research. American Psychologist, Sep 2020.

Abstract: Prior research has related dispositional optimism to physical health. Traditionally, dispositional optimism is treated as a bipolar construct, anchored at one end by optimism and the other by pessimism. Optimism and pessimism, however, may not be diametrically opposed, but rather may reflect 2 independent, but related dimensions. This article reports a reanalysis of data from previously published studies on dispositional optimism. The reanalysis was designed to evaluate whether the presence of optimism or the absence of pessimism predicted positive physical health more strongly. Relevant literatures were screened for studies relating dispositional optimism to physical health. Authors of relevant studies were asked to join a consortium, the purpose of which was to reanalyze previously published data sets separating optimism and pessimism into distinguishable components. Ultimately, data were received from 61 separate samples (N = 221,133). Meta-analytic analysis of data in which optimism and pessimism were combined into an overall index (the typical procedure) revealed a significant positive association with an aggregated measure of physical health outcomes (r = .026, p < .001), as did meta-analytic analyses with the absence of pessimism (r = .029, p < .001) and the presence of optimism (r = .011, p < .018) separately. The effect size for pessimism was significantly larger than the effect size for optimism (Z = −2.403, p < .02). Thus, the absence of pessimism was more strongly related to positive health outcomes than was the presence of optimism. Implications of the findings for future research and clinical interventions are discussed.

Among both men & women, a large proportion saw themselves as more masculine or feminine than men & women on average, respectively, suggesting that accentuating one’s gender conformity has a psychological function

Theo G. M. Sandfort, Henny M. W. Bos, Tsung-Chieh (Jane) Fu, Debby Herbenick & Brian Dodge (2020) Gender Expression and Its Correlates in a Nationally Representative Sample of the U.S. Adult Population: Findings from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, The Journal of Sex Research, Sep 24 2020, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2020.1818178

ABSTRACT: We explored the associations of gender expression with childhood gender expression, sexual identity, and demographic characteristics in a representative sample of the U.S. population aged 18 to 65 years (N = 1277), using data from the 2015 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. As expected, gay men were less gender conforming than heterosexual men. However, among women, persons with a bisexual identity were less gender conforming compared to heterosexual and lesbian persons. In multivariate analyses, childhood gender expression trumped the role of sexual identity. In terms of demographic characteristics, gender conformity seemed to be more present among persons with positions with less social status in terms of age, race/ethnicity, education, income, and relationship status. Finally, we found among both men and women, that a large proportion saw themselves as more masculine or feminine than men and women on average, respectively, suggesting that accentuating one’s gender conformity has a psychological function.

Evolution targets peripheral, not central, aspects of cognition; specialization for language processing has focussed on perceptuomotor aspects of speech rather than on an innate universal grammar

Sinking In: The Peripheral Baldwinisation of Human Cognition. Cecilia Heyes, Nick Chater, Dominic Michael Dwyer. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, September 24 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:


.  Evolution targets peripheral, not central, aspects of cognition.

.  Many peripheral mechanisms have evolved via the Baldwin effect.

.  ‘Garcia effects’ on taste-aversion learning have not withstood the test of time.

.  Fear learning is ‘prepared’ by attentional rather than by learning mechanisms.

.  Specialization for language processing has focussed on perceptuomotor aspects of speech rather than on innate principles of universal grammar.

.  There is no innate module for imitation but enhanced social motivation consequently leads to greater attention to the behaviour of other agents.

Abstract: The Baldwin effect is a hypothetical process in which a learned response to environmental change evolves a genetic basis. Modelling has shown that the Baldwin effect offers a plausible and elegant explanation for the emergence of complex behavioural traits, but there is little direct empirical evidence for its occurrence. We highlight experimental evidence of the Baldwin effect and argue that it acts preferentially on peripheral rather than on central cognitive processes. Careful scrutiny of research on taste-aversion and fear learning, language, and imitation indicates that their efficiency depends on adaptively specialised input and output processes: analogues of scanner and printer interfaces that feed information to core inference processes and structure their behavioural expression.

Keywords: adaptive specialisationBaldwin effectfear learningimitationlanguagetaste-aversion learning

Concluding Remarks

The Baldwin effect has seemed promising for a very long time. For more than a century it has been poised to revolutionise our understanding of the evolution of complex behavioural traits, but convincing empirical demonstrations have been elusive. We have argued that there is now compelling evidence of the Baldwinisation of cognition from Drosophila, and that research in cognitive science indicates that peripheral rather than central cognitive mechanisms have been the primary targets of selection.

Why might selection operate primarily at the cognitive periphery? A parallel with the evolution of other biological mechanisms is suggestive: internal physiological processes and anatomical structures are remarkably well-conserved. The organisation of the digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems is similar across vertebrate species, and they are so deeply interconnected that modifications beyond changes of size and shape may be difficult without causing substantial collateral damage. Moreover, even such modest changes to central systems will impact on a wide variety of functions and may therefore not be under strong selection from any one function. By contrast, interfaces with the external environment (jaws, teeth, digestive enzymes, bone and muscle structure) can be adapted to local circumstances (e.g., food sources) without interfering with central systems. The central machinery of cognition is less well understood, but may be equally interlocking, with widespread functional ramification, and a consequent resistance to evolutionary change.

Alternatively, it is possible that central cognitive processes are fully evolvable, but, at least in the human case, tend to be adaptively specialised by cultural rather than by genetic selection [101]. In domains such as language, imitation, mathematics, and ethics, changes to central mechanisms can be acquired through cultural learning. Cognitive skills that are taught, and those that are learned from others through more informal social interaction, do not need to sink in. Baldwinisation would bring little if any fitness advantage for skills that are reliably inherited via a non-genetic route [17], and specialised central mechanisms may be more teachable than specialised peripheral mechanisms. Plausibly, it is easier to learn grammatical constructions than vocal control through conversation, and, in the case of imitation, easier to learn sensorimotor mappings than intrinsic motivation through non-vocal social interaction.

These possibilities warrant further investigation, but the main purpose of this article is to draw attention to empirical work and to encourage testing for Baldwin effects in cognitive science (see Outstanding Questions). Many nonspecialists assume that research on taste aversion, fear learning, language, and imitation has produced solid evidence of genetically specialised learning mechanisms. This view is outdated. Careful empirical work, starting in the 1970s, has shown that efficiency in these domains depends on genetically specialised input and output processes, and that these cognitive equivalents of scanners and printers are likely to be Baldwin effects.

Outstanding Questions

How widespread is the Baldwin effect? For example, has it shaped face processing, episodic memory, social exchange reasoning, normative thinking, mathematical cognition, and mentalising?

Baldwinisation is plausible for human fear learning, imitation, and language because there is evidence that traits which now have a genetic basis were learned earlier in the organism’s phylogenetic history. Is this a general principle? How confidently can we infer Baldwinisation, rather than aplastic evolution, from evidence that a trait was learned earlier in phylogenetic history?

Are there cases where the Baldwin effect has operated on central cognitive processes?

What sinks in when Drosophila are artificially selected for aversion learning? Would studies of experimental evolution using two cue modalities and two types of outcome confirm the evidence from rats that peripheral processes are Baldwinised?

Research using behavioural and physiological measures suggests that young infants are especially attentive to, rather than fearful of, snakes. Can this evidence of peripheral Baldwinisation be confirmed using neurological measures of attention? Are infants better able to associate snakes with positive than with negative outcomes?

Has the motivation to align our thought and behaviour with others, for example in joint action and communication, been Baldwinised?

Many theorists argue that language was originally gestural rather than vocal. If so, are there traces of Baldwinisation of gestural communication, over and above manual dexterity required, for example, in tool use?

Can we find evidence that sequence processing and motivation have been Baldwinised specifically for imitation? For example, are there types of action, or stages in the learning process, where different computations encode action and non-action sequences for imitation and recognition? Is it easier to train infants to copy body movements (‘overimitation’) than to copy object movements?

Does cultural evolution promote, or suppress, natural selection?