Saturday, July 10, 2021

From the Natural Selection of Bad Science to the Intelligent Design of Better Science

Practical Methodological Reform Needs Good Theory. Will M.  Gervais. Perspectives on Psychological Science, January 29, 2021.

Abstract: In the face of unreplicable results, statistical anomalies, and outright fraud, introspection and changes in the psychological sciences have taken root. Vibrant reform and metascience movements have emerged. These are exciting developments and may point toward practical improvements in the future. Yet there is nothing so practical as good theory. This article outlines aspects of reform and metascience in psychology that are ripe for an injection of theory, including a lot of excellent and overlooked theoretical work from different disciplines. I review established frameworks that model the process of scientific discovery, the types of scientific networks that we ought to aspire to, and the processes by which problematic norms and institutions might evolve, focusing especially on modeling from the philosophy of science and cultural evolution. We have unwittingly evolved a toxic scientific ecosystem; existing interdisciplinary theory may help us intelligently design a better one.

Keywords: metascience, methods reform, philosophy of science, cultural evolution, modeling, norms, diversity and inclusion, theory

We’re all making it up as we go along, to the best of our ability, hoping not to make a mess of everything. Under the circumstances, I think a little modesty in our scientific and statistical claims would be in order, no?

— Danielle Navarro (2019, p. 11)

Our current scientific ecosystem is unhealthy. Cheap, low-effort, unreliable science can spread at the expense of slower, more reliable work (Bakker et al., 2012Gervais et al., 2015Smaldino & McElreath, 2016). Fortunately, we have the opportunity to clean up the mess we’ve evolved.

We are an evolved species, genetically and culturally. But we also have the intelligence to guide the evolution of our cultures. An understanding of evolutionary forces can shed light on how societal ills are maintained, inside (Smaldino & McElreath, 2016) and outside (O’Connor, 2019b) of science. But knowledge is power! Once we understand the forces that created problems, solutions might be more possible. Guided cultural evolution can be practiced at various levels of social organization (Atkins et al., 2019Bicchieri, 2016Wilson, 2011) and is well worth attempting in science (O’Connor, 2019aSmaldino, 2019Stewart & Plotkin, 2020).

A vibrant methods reform and metascience community has sprung up in psychology. We seek to reshape the scientific ecology that we have (likely unwittingly) allowed to evolve, an ecosystem in which the factors driving individual success erode the collective enterprise of science. Our metascience and reform movement is characterized by lofty goals and a tireless passion for science. I argue that it can maximize its odds of success by drawing on all available theoretical tools, especially turning to tools that have originated and fermented in areas adjacent to psychology, including philosophy of science and cultural evolution.

Given the cultural evolutionary forces that drive the spread of substandard science (Smaldino & McElreath, 2016), it only makes sense to turn to core evolutionary principles to turn the tide and intentionally evolve or design a better scientific ecosystem. This endeavor, ultimately, is a project of guided cultural evolution (Atkins et al., 2019Bicchieri, 2016Wilson, 2011). So let us turn to the best available theories to sharpen our metascientific projects, tune our scientific aspirations, and change the norms and institutions we have inherited.

Theory gives us a clue how to proceed. Theory can spur the evolution of better science in domains in which technical, methodological, and statistical tweaks will likely prove insufficient (O’Connor & Weatherall, 2020Smaldino, 2019Stewart & Plotkin, 2020Szollosi et al., 2019van Rooij, 2019). Theory can help us choose and interpret replication projects (Field et al., 2019). It can help us hone our statistical intuitions about what replication rates are or ought to be. Theory can help us set goals for reform of the field to maximize the scientific desiderata we most value (Devezer et al., 2019). It can make our forensic assays of the field more efficient and meaningful (Field et al., 2019). Theory can even give us hints as to what cues we may (even inadvertently) be sending observers, perhaps undermining the types of communities most likely to actually solve the practical challenges science faces today (O’Connor, 2019aO’Connor & Weatherall, 2018Zollman, 2010).

We have passively evolved a toxic scientific ecosystem. Perhaps by embracing relevant theory, including work from outside psychology, we can intelligently design a healthier one for future generations of scientists.

Dating is widely thought of as a test phase for romantic relationships, during which new romantic partners carefully evaluate each other for long-term fit; but we are not that choosy

We’re Not That Choosy: Emerging Evidence of a Progression Bias in Romantic Relationships. Samantha Joel, Geoff MacDonald. Personality and Social Psychology Review, July 10, 2021.

Abstract: Dating is widely thought of as a test phase for romantic relationships, during which new romantic partners carefully evaluate each other for long-term fit. However, this cultural narrative assumes that people are well equipped to reject poorly suited partners. In this article, we argue that humans are biased toward pro-relationship decisions—decisions that favor the initiation, advancement, and maintenance of romantic relationships. We first review evidence for a progression bias in the context of relationship initiation, investment, and breakup decisions. We next consider possible theoretical underpinnings—both evolutionary and cultural—that may explain why getting into a relationship is often easier than getting out of one, and why being in a less desirable relationship is often preferred over being in no relationship at all. We discuss potential boundary conditions that the phenomenon may have, as well as its implications for existing theoretical models of mate selection and relationship development.

Consider the very specific chain of events that must occur for a marriage to form in contemporary Western cultures. First, one of the partners must choose to pursue the other partner romantically. Any fears of being rejected that this person may have—as potent as rejection concerns are (e.g., G. MacDonald & Leary, 2005)—must be overcome. If one person does not initially experience much physical attraction, passion, or sexual satisfaction with their partner, they must choose to overlook that concern, perhaps with the belief that such feelings will develop over time (Maxwell et al., 2017). If either partner encounters red flags or “dealbreakers” regarding their partner (e.g., Jonason et al., 2015), those too must be overlooked in favor of the partner’s positive qualities. Over time, both partners must mutually and continuously choose to invest in that particular relationship. A long and specific series of decisions is typically made, such as introducing the partner to friends and family, spending the night together, agreeing to become exclusive, planning future activities together, and eventually moving in together and/or getting engaged (Eastwick et al., 2018). Finally, in the face of every relationship setback—every relationship-straining event that life may throw at the couple (e.g., Neff & Broady, 2011)—both partners must choose to persevere rather than break up.

At every fork in the road—in the context of every relationship turning point—both partners must consistently make pro-relationship decisions. If each of these decisions was made at random—if every time a person faced a difficult decision about a romantic relationship, they resolved their dilemma on the basis of a coin toss—few relationships would ever begin, and the chances of any relationship making it through the first year would be incredibly small. And yet, approximately 80% of Americans above the age of 25 have been married at some point (Wang & Parker, 2014), and 48% of Americans above 25 are currently married (P. Taylor, 2010). What are the mechanisms that lead people to make such a specific series of life decisions, so commonly?

We propose that so many romantic relationships are able to form and endure because humans have a bias toward pro-relationship decisions—decisions that serve to initiate, advance, and maintain romantic relationships—and against decisions that result in rejecting partners or forgoing romantic opportunities. In this article, we will use the term progression bias to refer to this general tendency to make decisions that move romantic relationships toward commitment (e.g., pursuing potential partners, agreeing to dates, and investing time and resources into the relationship) rather than dissolution (e.g., rejecting or breaking up with suitors). This phenomenon is likely underpinned by a broad collection of biological, social, cognitive, and affective mechanisms. Feelings of infatuation motivate people to spend time with prospective partners (e.g., Aron & Aron, 1991Eastwick & Finkel, 2008Hazan & Diamond, 2000), and reward pathways activate in response to new partners (e.g., Acevedo & Aron, 2014Aron et al., 2005Bartels & Zeki, 20002004Burkett & Young, 2012). In Western contexts, people experience social pressure to enter romantic relationships (Day et al., 2011DePaulo & Morris, 2005). Fears of long-term singlehood are common (Spielmann, MacDonald et al., 2013), and unpartnered people are subjected to stigma (e.g., Conley & Collins, 2002Greitemeyer, 2009Hertel et al., 2007Morris et al., 2007). Even when a romantic partner or potential partner is undesired, rejecting them is difficult to do. Would-be rejectors often experience guilt (Baumeister et al., 1993Bohns & DeVincent, 2019Perilloux & Buss, 2008) and concerns about hurting the suitor’s feelings (Joel et al., 2014). In many non-Western contexts, it is common for people’s self-selection into long-term relationships to be relatively limited, instead committing themselves to the partners chosen with strong influence from their parents or other family members (Apostolou, 2007Buunk et al., 2010Walker et al., 2011Zaidi & Shuraydi, 2002).

The progression bias runs counter to two common claims within established theoretical models within relationship science. First, it qualifies the field’s current emphasis on the inhibiting role of rejection in relationship decisions (e.g., Bredow et al., 2008Murray et al., 2006Shanteau & Nagy, 1979). Existing theoretical models of relationship initiation and development (in Western contexts) suggest that people make pro-relationship decisions only when the risk of rejection is perceived to be low. We propose that, in fact, other motivational factors (e.g., the rewards of intimacy and caregiving, fears of missed romantic opportunities, social pressure) are sufficiently strong to motivate pro-relationship decisions even in the face of nontrivial rejection risks. The progression bias also contradicts the notion that commitment is a necessary precondition for pro-relationship biases (e.g., Fletcher et al., 1999Rusbult & Van Lange, 20032008). Existing models of pro-relationship biases and positive romantic illusions stipulate that these biases primarily come online once commitment is high, after the relationship has become established. We propose that, in fact, these biases are present as soon as any romantic interest has developed, such that they play an important role in propelling fledging dating partners toward established partnerships.

Below, we review emerging evidence for a progression bias across three major relationship turning points: initial mate choice, relationship investment, and stay/leave decisions. We will then discuss potential theoretical underpinnings of the phenomenon, including both evolutionary and social advantages, as well as implications for existing theoretical models of mate selection and romantic relationship development. Importantly, most of the evidence we review is subject to the same generalizability constraints as the discipline of psychology more broadly (e.g., WEIRD sampling; Henrich et al., 2010). We will discuss potential boundary conditions of the progression bias, including groups for whom the phenomenon may be stronger or weaker. Finally, we will conclude with suggested future directions, particularly highlighting the need for diverse recruitment as well as prospective methods that track real relationship experiences over time.

Willingness to try new foods impacts perceptions of sexual unrestrictedness and desirability

You are what you (are willing to) eat: Willingness to try new foods impacts perceptions of sexual unrestrictedness and desirability. Hannah K. Bradshaw et al. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 182, November 2021, 111082.


• Willingness to try new food provides cues of sexual desirability and mating strategy.

• Targets open to new food are rated as more desirable and more sexually unrestricted.

• Findings are specific to openness to new food, not general openness to new things.

• Targets open to new food are rated as less sexually disgusted.

• Inferences of targets' sexual disgust predict evaluations of their mating strategy.

Abstract: Here, we examine the impact of one's willingness to try new foods on others' perceptions of sexual unrestrictedness and desirability as a sexual and romantic partner. Guided by insights from past research, we hypothesized that targets who are willing to try new foods would be perceived as being more desirable sexual and romantic partners (Study 1) and as being less sexually restricted (Studies 2–4) than targets who are unwilling to try new foods. Results supported this hypothesis and further indicated that this pattern is specific to willingness to try new foods, not general willingness to try new things (Study 3). Additionally, results revealed that the relationship between willingness to try new food and inferences of sexual unrestrictedness is driven by perceptions of target's relatively lower levels of sexual disgust sensitivity and not by the belief that the target is in better health or has superior immune function (Study 4). Together, these results suggest that people's willingness to try new foods may impact how they are perceived by prospective dates and mates.

Keywords: Food neophobiaSociosexual orientationConsumption stereotypes

In everyday life, people mostly empathize with very close others, and they empathize with positive emotions 3 times as frequently as with negative emotions

The Experience of Empathy in Everyday Life. Gregory John Depow, Zoë Francis, Michael Inzlicht. Psychological Science, July 9, 2021.

Abstract: We used experience sampling to examine perceptions of empathy in the everyday lives of a group of 246 U.S. adults who were quota sampled to represent the population on key demographics. Participants reported an average of about nine opportunities to empathize per day; these experiences were positively associated with prosocial behavior, a relationship not found with trait measures. Although much of the literature focuses on the distress of strangers, in everyday life, people mostly empathize with very close others, and they empathize with positive emotions 3 times as frequently as with negative emotions. Although trait empathy was negatively associated only with well-being, empathy in daily life was generally associated with increased well-being. Theoretically distinct components of empathy—emotion sharing, perspective taking, and compassion—typically co-occur in everyday empathy experiences. Finally, empathy in everyday life was higher for women and the religious but not significantly lower for conservatives and the wealthy.

Keywords: emotions, interpersonal relationships, motivation, personality, sex differences, social cognition, theory of mind, well-being, open data, open materials, preregistered

The majority of research on empathy has focused on negative emotions—typically of strangers and typically in laboratory settings. However, in everyday life, empathy was more often reported in response to positive emotions, not negative emotions, and participants empathized to a greater extent as emotions became more positive. Although these results may be influenced by reporting biases, they are consistent with the relative frequency of emotions experienced in daily life; positive emotions, such as excitement and enthusiasm, are experienced approximately 3 times more frequently than negative emotions, such as disgust, anger, and fear (Zelenski & Larsen, 2000).

Empathy was most often reported in response to close others. This effect may be due to mere availability because many people likely have more social interactions within existing relationships than with strangers. However, empathy also may be biased in favor of close others (Cikara et al., 2011). Supporting this possibility, our results showed that individuals empathized to a greater extent as closeness increased.

These findings have implications for our understanding of empathy as a motivated phenomenon (Zaki, 2014). The emerging work on lack of motivation to empathize might be related, in some part, to most lab studies of empathy involving the negative emotions of strangers. Whereas some work suggests that people might avoid both positive and negative empathy (Cameron et al., 2019), empathy for strangers might be especially unmotivating (Ferguson et al., 2020). In future lab studies on motivation to empathize, researchers should consider including a range of expressed emotions and including empathy targets who are close to the participant, not just strangers.

In prior work, researchers have suggested that dissociable components of empathy interact in real-life interactions (Morelli et al., 2014Zaki & Ochsner, 2012). The current study shows that emotion sharing, compassion, and perspective taking are reported together almost all of the time and are rarely reported in isolation. Although these components of empathy can be theoretically differentiated, our data suggest that they are typically experienced together by most people in most daily situations.

Finally, we examined various established demographic findings about empathy to see which findings hold across people’s experiences in daily life. Some established effects were replicated—for example, both women and religious participants tended to report experiencing empathy more often than men and the nonreligious. However, other relationships did not replicate in the context of daily life; we found a weak relationship between compassion and income and little to no relationship between empathy and political orientation—although the true effects of income and politics on empathy may be smaller than we were able to detect given our statistical power.


Ground truth

Experience sampling allows us to get closer to the temporal, emotional, and social context of empathy, but it is still self-report data. The number of empathy opportunities and true ratios of positive and negative opportunities may vary from those reported—indeed, participants appeared selective in which observed emotions were perceived as empathy opportunities, consistent with motivational accounts of empathy (Cameron et al., 2019de Vignemont & Singer, 2006Zaki, 2014). However, truly objective measures of empathy opportunities would be difficult to obtain, given that empathy cues in the environment may not be attended to. Furthermore, feeling empathy may be best captured via self-report, given that it is an internal and subjective phenomenon.


Our sample was quota matched to census data on six key demographics, making our results more representative than is typical. Because the sample is not random, representativeness cannot be assumed on other demographics. For example, to join the study, participants were required to have a smartphone. However, 81% of U.S. adults had a smartphone as of 2019 (Pew Research Center, 2021), and the results from our lowest income participants mirrored those from the entire sample. The generalizability of our findings to other populations, especially non–Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) populations, remains to be demonstrated.

Training and fatigue

Potentially, repeatedly responding to surveys on empathy might have trained participants to notice empathy opportunities. However, there was only one significant difference on trait empathy questionnaires at baseline compared with the final experience-sampling survey (all ps > .05), and empathy itself did not become more prevalent over the course of the week. Empathy opportunities were reported slightly less frequently as the week progressed, suggesting that individuals may have become decreasingly inclined to report empathy. However, because we nested results within survey day, this shift should minimally affect our results.

Definitions and demand

We chose to supply a definition of empathy to our participants to reduce noise from varying lay theories of empathy (Hall et al., 2021). By defining empathy as a process involving three related but distinct experiences, however, we may have introduced demand, resulting in participants inflating reports of the co-occurrence of all three processes or otherwise influencing participants’ reports (although similar results were reported for participants’ own empathy and empathy received). Future work should replicate these findings with different definitions of empathy.