Monday, August 3, 2020

In India, Don’t Hate the Matchmaker: A Netflix hit about arranged marriages reflects Indian society a lot more than critics want to admit

In India, Don’t Hate the Matchmaker: A Netflix hit about arranged marriages reflects Indian society a lot more than critics want to admit. Shruti Rajagopalan. Bloomberg, August 2, 2020.

Even as the Netflix show “Indian Matchmaking” has grown into a global hit, it’s incensed many Indians. The issue isn’t that most couples don’t go for goat yoga on their first date. Critics accuse the show of stereotyping and commodifying women, lacking diversity and promoting a backwards vision of marriage where astrologers and meddling parents are more influential than the preferences of brides and grooms.

They complain that the series, which follows matchmaker Sima Taparia as she jets between Mumbai and the U.S. to arrange marriages, perpetuates an outdated, offensive and regressive marriage market. In fact, the real problem may be their discomfort with the way marriage works in India, with social stability prized over individual happiness.

It’s true that India’s 1.35 billion citizens occupy different centuries simultaneously. A small fraction still practices child marriage, with some communities holding betrothal ceremonies as soon as a girl is born. At the other end of the spectrum, there is growing acceptance of queer relationships, divorce and even avoiding marriage altogether.

But most Indian marriages are still arranged. That’s because, for the most part, the purpose of marriage in Indian society is not love but family, children and social stability expressed by confining marriage within caste boundaries. According to the 2011-12 India Human Development Survey, only about 5% of Indians marry outside their caste. The share has remained remarkably stable over the decades since independence, even though India’s economy and society have progressed in many other ways.  1

Studies show that the education levels of the prospective bride or groom don’t make marriages across castes more likely. Even college-educated, urban, middle-class Indians show a strong preference to marry within caste.

This isn’t only a matter for Hindus either. Muslims in South Asia marry within their biradari or jaat — a stand-in for Hindu caste. Indian Christians differentiate between those who converted and those who came to India centuries ago; they marry based on whatever one’s caste was before conversion.

The reason Guyanese-born Nadia faces a limited set of options in the show is not because of her South American birth, but because Indians who were shipped as indentured laborers to the New World were mostly lower castes, or so perceived. American-born Indians are almost always upper caste and are highly valued in the Indian marriage market, despite or maybe because of, their “foreign” status.

The fact that “Indian Matchmaking” packages women as slim, tall, fair, presentable, likable, flexible and so on is, once again, a consequence of using marriage to preserve caste lines. When the purpose of marriage is to find love, companionship and compatibility, then the focus is on the characteristics of the individual. The marriage market is akin to a matching market, similar to Tinder or Uber.

But, in a world where marriage exists to maintain caste lines, the nature of the marriage market more closely resembles a commodity market, where goods are graded into batches. Within every batch, the commodity is substitutable — as in wheat or coffee exchanges.

This is why reading matrimonial ads or listening to Sima going over biodatas — a kind of matrimonial resume — is triggering for many Indian women. Once caste, family, economic strata, looks, height, etc., are graded, all women within a particular grade are considered substitutes for one another, primarily to continue the family line.


1  To understand the consequences for the few who dare go against their caste or family’s choice, a more representative film on Netflix is Nagraj Manjule’s “Sairat.”

The social weaver bird create nests than can weigh 1 ton & house 200 birds in individual chambers; their cooperative behaviors include chick rearing & defense against snakes & falcons

Not even scientists can tell these birds apart. But now, computers can. Erik Stokstad. Science Magazine, Jul 28 2020.
Project: Cooperation and population dynamics in the Sociable Weaver. Cape Town University, 2019. 
The aptly named Sociable Weaver Philetairus socius is a highly social species that is endemic to the Kalahari region of southern African. As the common name suggests, these weavers work together to accomplish diverse tasks, from building their highly distinctive thatched nests to help raising the chicks and defending the nest and colony mates from predators. Their fascinating social structure and different types of cooperative behaviour make them an ideal study model to investigate the benefits and costs of sociality and the evolutionary mechanisms that allow cooperation to evolve and be maintained. 
Cooperation represents an evolutionary puzzle because natural selection is thought to favour selfish individuals over co-operators. However, theory and studies in humans suggest that co-operators are preferred as social and sexual partners. Partner choice may therefore provide a powerful explanation for the evolution and stability of cooperation, alongside kin selection and self-serving benefits, but we lack an understanding of its importance in natural systems

These results suggest that rather than being simply covert partisans, nonpartisans process the world in a way different, different brain areas, from their partisan counterparts

Neural nonpartisans. Darren Schreiber, Greg Fronzo, Alan Simmons, Chris Dawes, Taru Flagan & Martin Paulus. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Aug 3 2020. Download citation

ABSTRACT: While affective conflict between partisans is driving much of modern politics, it is also driving increasing numbers to eschew partisan labels. A dominant theory is that these self-proclaimed independents are merely covert partisans. In the largest functional brain imaging study of neuropolitics to date, we find differences between partisans and nonpartisans in the right medial temporal pole, orbitofrontal/medial prefrontal cortex, and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, three regions often engaged during social cognition. These results suggest that rather than being simply covert partisans, nonpartisans process the world in a way different from their partisan counterparts.

The Correlation-Causation Taboo: Making explicit causal inference taboo does not stop people from doing it; they just do it in a less transparent, regulated, sophisticated & informed way

The Correlation-Causation Taboo. Neuroskeptic. Discover Magazine, July 31, 2020.

Should psychologists be more comfortable discussing causality?

"Correlation does not imply causation" is a basic motto of science. Every scientist knows that observing a correlation between two things doesn't necessarily mean that one of them causes the other.

But according to a provocative new paper, many researchers in psychology are drawing the wrong lessons from this motto. The paper is called The Taboo Against Explicit Causal Inference in Nonexperimental Psychology and it comes from Michael P. Grosz et al. The article makes a lot of points, but to me the main insight of the piece was this: Many studies in psychology are implicitly about causality, without openly saying as much.

Consider, for example, this highly cited 2011 study which showed that children with better self-control have better health and social outcomes years later as adults.

This 2011 paper never claimed to have shown causality. It was, after all, an observational, correlational design, and correlation is not causation. But Grosz et al. say that the study only makes sense in the context of an implicit belief that self-control does (or probably does) causally influence outcomes.

The title of the 2011 paper suggests that it was a study about predicting the outcomes. Prediction can be an important goal, but Grosz et al. point out that if the study had really been about prediction, it would make sense to consider a whole range of possible predictors. A purely predictive study wouldn't focus on a single factor. The paper also probably wouldn't be so highly cited, if readers really thought it said nothing about causality.

Grosz et al. analyze three other influential "observational" psychology papers and in all cases, they find evidence of unstated causal claims and assumptions, swept under a correlational rug.

As they put it, "Similar to when sex or drugs are made taboo, making explicit causal inference taboo does not stop people from doing it; they just do it in a less transparent, regulated, sophisticated and informed way."

The authors go on to argue that there's actually nothing wrong with talking about causality in the context of observational research — but the causal assumptions and claims need to be made explicit, so that they can be critically evaluated.

To be clear, the authors are not saying that correlation implies causation. They argue that it is sometimes possible to draw inferences about causation from correlational evidence, if we have enough evidence to rule out non-causal alternative explanations. This kind of inference is "very difficult. However, this is not a good reason to render explicit causal inference taboo."