Less [adjective] than Zeus

Social Psychology Is A Flamethrower

Mark Twain:

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

If this is true of all science, it is doubly true of social psychology.

At its best, social psychology is an unmatched window into human motivations, a “look under the hood” of the way people talk and act. The best research in social psychology is as well-supported as anything in physics or biology, and much more intuitively comprehensible. This is why it’s one of my favorite scientific fields.

But at its worst, social psychology is a flamethrower. People grab hold of it to try to fry their political opponents, then end up lighting their own hair on fire or burning down half a city. Because social psych is really hard to do right.

Social psychology experiments in the laboratory tend to throw up spectacular mind-boggling effects. Many of these fail to replicate and are later discredited. The ones that do replicate are not always generalizable – sometimes an even slightly different situation will remove the effect or create exactly the opposite effect. The effects that remain robust in the laboratory may be too short-lasting or too specific to have any importance in real life. And the ones that do matter in real life may respond unpredictably or even paradoxically to attempts to control them.

This is relevant because a lot of our political discourse revolves around ideas lifted from social psychology. Every time someone advocates banning violent videogames so that they don’t normalize violence, they’re using social psych. Anyone who says the media needs more positive role models of minority groups and fewer stereotypes, they’re taking terms out of the social psych lexicon. Whenever you complain that magazines objectify women, you’re implicitly buying into several social psych theories.

Most people are not consequentialists, but most people feel implicitly uncomfortable making moral arguments on non-consequentialist grounds. “Stop what you’re doing, it disgusts and offends me” is less noble than “stop what you’re doing, it will hurt people who can’t stand up for themselves”. This tempts people who are disgusted and offended by things to come up with just-so stories from social psychology for why the disgusting and offensive thing will also hurt people.

I tried writing a post arguing against several of these just-so stories, but it ended up being unbearably long and boring (if you’re ever stuck with insomnia, ask me to give you a trenchant analysis of every study that’s ever been written about stereotype threat). So I’m going to try something different. I’m going to write up some just-so stories using social psychology for the opposite side. I’m going to try to use well-established social psych results to prove that we should have more violence in the media, and be more tolerant of offending women and minorities.

I think some of the arguments below will be completely correct, others correct only in certain senses and situations, and still others intriguing but wrong. I think that modern pop social psychology probably contains the same three categories in about the same breakdown, so I don’t feel too bad about this.

Violence In The Media Prevents Violent Crime

Dahl and DellaVigna (2008), well aware of laboratory experiments that found violent media temporarily made subjects more violent, decided to investigate whether the opening weekends of blockbuster violent movies affected crime rates. Sure enough, they found they did…

…in the opposite of the expected direction. They found violent movies decreased crime 5% or more on their opening weekends, and that each violent movie that comes out probably prevents about 1000 assaults. Further, there’s no displacement effect – the missing crimes don’t pop back the following week, they simply never occur.

They hypothesize that every hour violent criminals are at the kind of movies that appeal to violent criminals is one hour more they’re not getting drunk or taking drugs or committing violent crimes. Although they don’t mention it directly, other analyses have suggested that the movies have a sort of cathartic effect, satisfying their urge for violence without them having to commit it themselves.

An investigation into violent video games found essentially the same pattern: violent video games decrease crime while nonviolent video games have no effect.

There are also studies that show that playing lots of violent video games is correlated with violent criminality, but a much more plausible explanation of the data is that a naturally violent personality makes people more likely to enjoy violence both in games and in real life.

Decreasing violence in the media might therefore be predicted to increase violent crime, both by putting more criminals out on the streets and by sabotaging their attempts to indulge their violent urges in an acceptable manner.

Media That Objectifies Women Prevents Rape

Just as violent movies prevent violent crime, pornography may prevent rape. It’s easy to prove that in the US every 10% increase in Internet access causes a 7.3% decline in rape, and it’s not due to any of the expected confounders. Another study points out a similar correlation in Japan. I find the particular correlation they mention very sketchy, but Japan does have a very low rate of reported sex crimes (a commenter brings up the possibility that Japanese culture merely discourages reporting). Other more rigorous studies on the Czech Republic show the same, and studies on child porn show pedophilia is less common where it’s more accessible. And these studies links to more interesting results, mentioning how sex criminals are less likely to consume pornography than the general population and start watching pornography at a later age.

This is explicable not only by the substitution effect mentioned above, but by the general tendency of orgasm to relieve frustration. If, as has been hypothesized, rape is an expression of anger and powerlessness at the world in general or women in particular, orgasming to violent porn is going to both satisfy that aggressive impulsive and replace it with general post-coital relaxation.

Saying Tests Are Biased Against Minorities Makes Minorities Perform Worse On Tests

It is relatively clear that achievement gaps on standardized tests – black-white, male-female, and the others – are not due to bias in the tests themselves. Although some sociologists raise the specter of “tests that claim to be fair by asking both rich and poor people the same questions about golf and yachting”, in real life achievement gaps remain mostly consistent across verbal tests, pure mathematical tests, symbol manipulation tests, and extremely basic and un-bias-able tests like ability to remember numbers backwards.

This has not stopped the constant repetition that various specific tests – SAT, GRE, IQ – are biased against minorities.

We know exactly what happens when minorities are told tests are biased against them: they do worse on those tests. This is the essence of the idea of “stereotype threat” – for example, one can improve women’s performance on a math test simply by telling them that the test is not biased against women. So maybe we should stop doing exactly the thing that we just proved hurts women and minorities’ educational performance.

Fighting Stereotypes Makes People More Prejudiced

The largest-ever study on diversity training, following 830 large companies over 31 years, found:

A comprehensive review of 31 years of data from 830 mid-size to large U.S. workplaces found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms were followed by a 7.5 percent drop in the number of women in management. The number of black, female managers fell by 10 percent, and the number of black men in top positions fell by 12 percent. Similar effects were seen for Latinos and Asians.

Similarly, all studies on sensitivity training find that trainees express more awareness of sexual harassment than non-employees, but a study that went further and examined results found that trainees are “less likely to perceive coercive sexual harassment, less willing to report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim”.

This is not particularly unexpected: we know for example that nearly every study on DARE programs has found that they increase drug use, sometimes as much as 30%.

Why should this be? Three reasons come to mind. The first is a boomerang effect from the programs themselves. Diversity training, sensitivity training, and DARE are all things busy people are required to attend where they (essentially) are forced listen to people behave condescendingly to them. This makes them dislike the training, their instructors, and, by association, the opinions they are trying to get trained into them.

A second reason is more fundamental. The backfire effect is when people challenged with information that disproves a cherished political belief of theirs react by becoming even more certain of the belief. The link will fill you in on potential explanations.

And the third reason is what the Harvard Business Review Blog, in its discussion of the diversity training study above, described as “when people divide into categories to illustrate the idea of diversity, it reinforces the idea of the categories.”

I’ll admit I had a sheltered upbringing and may be atypical, but I would estimate about 90% of the racist stereotypes I have ever heard were part of efforts to fight racism. No one just comes up to you and says “Hey, you know black people? Pretty unintelligent, huh?” (at least not to me). But social justice people will repeat the stereotype about black people not being intelligent again, and again, and again, to anyone who is anywhere near them, in the guise of fighting it.

I can’t find the link for this, but negatively phrased information can sometimes reinforce the positive version of that information. For example, if you tell people “President Obama is not a Muslim”, then a year later, all someone will remember is “blah Obama blah blah blah Muslim”, and eventually “Ohmigod, President Obama is a Muslim!”, even if they didn’t believe that before they heard that fact “corrected”.

Imagine I told you “People from Comoros are not all homosexual! This is a damn lie, and anyone who says people from Comoros are homosexual is an insensitive jerk. Please join me in fighting the popular perception that everyone from Comoros is a flaming gay.

Go ahead, try to think of Comoros in any context other than an archipelago full of gay people now. I’ll wait. Take a whole lifetime, if you want. It won’t help. Ten years after this blog is deleted and this post is inaccessible except through archive.org, there will still be a couple dozen people who are convinced that everyone from Comoros is gay, because they “heard it somewhere”. At the very least, the idea of Comoros = homosexuality is now firmly implanted in your mind, and it will be impossible to meet a Comorosian without secretly evaluating her sexual orientation and then trying to stop yourself from doing it.

Now imagine instead of hearing this once, you heard it every day of your life.

Calling People Racist Makes Them More Racist

Foster & Misra (2013) is a jewel of a paper I stumbled across totally by chance.

They got a bunch of undergraduate students in romantic relationships and gave them a test that asked them some questions about infidelity – things like “is it unfaithful to fantasize about another girl/boy when you’re in a relationship?”. They pretended to grade the test, but in fact they ignored the test and gave fake feedback.

The control group was told that they had some of the highest faithfulness scores of anyone in the experiment, they must be really faithful, good job. The experimental group was told they had some of the lowest faithfulness scores of anyone in the experiment and that the test had pegged them as having an unfaithful personality type. Once again, all this feedback was fake and both groups got around the same average score.

Then they measured what they called “trivialization” in both groups – that is, they asked them questions about how important faithfulness was to them. Consistent with their theory, the people who were told they were faithful said faithfulness was extremely important, but the people who were told they were unfaithful “trivialized” the behavior – who cares about fidelity anyway, infidelity is maybe a minor mistake but it doesn’t really hurt anyone, people should really stop whining about infidelity all the time. To give you a feeling for the size of this effect, on a scale of one to seven, the faithful group rated the importance of being faithful at 5.4/7, and the unfaithful group rate the importance of being faithful at 2.9/7. In other words, by accusing them of being unfaithful, the experimenters had successfully gotten the participants to “trivialize” faithfulness.

The researchers theorized that this was the process called “cognitive dissonance”. Most people like themselves and want to continue to like themselves. If they are told that they, or their group, has a particular flaw, then instead of ceasing to like themselves it may be easier to just decide that flaw is not a big deal and they can have it while continuing to be the awesome people they secretly know they are.

Now not only do the experimental subjects here stop caring about being faithful, but everyone pushing a pro-fidelity line is a threat to their new identity. And the subjects weren’t even really unfaithful to begin with!

Modern political discourse tends to do a lot of things like say “All white people are racist” or all men are naturally prone to violence and potential rapists. Or it may take little things normal people do and tell them they are racist or creepy or rape-y or something because of it.

What this does is drive people into identifying with these negative labels. And instead of making them want to change their behavior to stop identifying with these labels, it may just make them think “Well, if I do it, then I guess it can’t be so bad.”

Talking About Rape Culture Causes Rape

There is a strong debate still going on about whether the death penalty decreases crime. But this hides a more settled question, which is whether punishment decreases crime at all. The relatively accepted answer is yes, it does.

Criminologists have tried to separate out the important of punishment into two aspects: severity and certainty. They have consistently found that the certainty of the punishment is more important than the severity – the most important factor in whether someone commits a crime is the likelihood she will be punished.

No criminal can see into the future to discover whether or not they will be punished; the only way certainty of punishment can influence crime is through public perception of certainty of punishment. That suggests that if you discover that an abominable crime has (contrary to popular perception) a very low chance of punishment, it would be an excellent time to practice the virtue of silence.

Or consider the claim that rape jokes cause rape. As I understand it, the claim goes that someone tells a rape joke, then everyone else laughs, no one protests or anything, and then potential rapists in the audience conclude that they are in a culture that considers rape acceptable.

You know what else could potentially cause people to think our culture considers rape acceptable? Writing and publicizing countless books and articles arguing elegantly and vehemently for the point that our culture considers rape acceptable. Seriously. If I were a demon from Hell, charged by my infernal masters with increasing rape as much as possible, I literally could not think of a better strategy than talking about rape culture all the time.

Getting angry at the rape jokes while enthusiastically taking part in the demonic campaign thing seems like (to mix metaphors) missing the mountain for the molehill.


In this post, I’ve give six social psychological just-so stories: media violence prevents crime, objectification of women prevents rape, accusations of test bias hurts minorities, fighting stereotypes makes people more prejudiced, calling people racist makes them more racist, and talking about rape culture increases rape.

These can be easily compared to six much more common social psychological just-so stories: media violence causes crime, objectification of women causes rape, accusations of minorities doing worse on tests for intrinsic reasons like their culture hurt minorities, fighting stereotypes makes people less prejudiced, calling people racist shames them out of their racism, and making rape jokes increases rape.

I don’t consider any of my six completely proven, just intriguing and intuitively plausible. And of course, there’s an element of concern-trolling in all of them.

But I don’t consider any of the second six completely proven either; again, they are merely intriguing and intuitively plausible. And they have their own element of being suspiciously congruent to the political beliefs of the people who push them, as if they’re trying to come up with consequentialist justifications for ideas they hold for other reasons.

Some will point to various studies conducted on one or another of them, but with very few exceptions all those studies have been poorly replicated investigations into the very-short-term (less than ten minutes) effect of laboratory interventions on proxy variables. These can be diametrically opposite their real social effects – for example, the laboratory experiments that experimental exposure to violence causes people to play contrived games in a more aggressive manner couldn’t catch that in the real world, violent movies decrease crime. And poorly replicated short-term laboratory interventions on proxy variables can prove nearly anything – see for example the recent controversy around whether the word “Florida” makes people walk more slowly.

The six stories above suggest some pretty radical and unpalatable action approaching social engineering. For example, the idea that research into test bias should be suppressed, even if it is scientifically rigorous, just because hearing about it might hurt women – seems pretty unfair (same with the idea that no one should be allowed to talk about rape culture) And it seems unreasonable to ask people to constantly watch their language around white people to avoid anything that sounds like accusing them of racism because that could have unpredictable negative effects on them down the line.

But the six traditional stories also suggest pretty radical and unpalatable action approaching social engineering. For example, the idea that research into gender differences should be suppressed, even if it is scientifically rigorous, because hearing about it might hurt women. Also unpopular is the idea of constantly having to watch your language around minorities to avoid anything that sounds like you’re saying something racist because that could have unpredictable negative effects down the line.

And my point is that I don’t see good enough evidence that the effects involved are real to justify either of them.

Using speculative extrapolations from social psychology to promote social engineering is dangerous and proves too much. Of course, one should still be nice, and a big part of niceness is judicious exercise of the virtue of silence . But trying to institute and enforce said virtue on a social level requires subtlety that I have not yet seen anyone involved show the slightest sign of possessing.

Post Scriptum

Think quick! What is your brain’s number one thought upon hearing “Comoros”?

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74 Responses to Social Psychology Is A Flamethrower

  1. Mary says:

    “What is your brain’s number one thought upon hearing “Comoros”?”

    A seagull.

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  2. JRM says:

    Enjoyed this post; thanks SA.

    Link to a link to the WaPo story on negatively-phrased reinforcement: http://www.volokh.com/posts/1190078746.shtml

    There’s an ongoing issue with social psychology studies with fraud and bad methodology, of which Uri Simonsohn has written a lot of papers:


    And Simonsohn says that the just-so story involving gays in Comoros and beers I owe Orin Kerr may not be that good:


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  3. Tristan says:

    Flaming gay seagulls.

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  4. St. Rev says:

    Crows. I think my brain was reaching for cormorants and missed.

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  5. Vanzetti says:

    >>>Think quick! What is your brain’s number one thought upon hearing “Comoros”?

    My brains first thought was to misread as question as: “What is your brain’s first number upon hearing “Comoros”?”. After careful deliberation I concluded that the number would be 10, 100 or perhaps 1000, based on the similarity of O’s in the world Comoros to 0′s. :-)

    But my actual first thought upon rereading the question was the word “Moroni”, because I used Anki to learn all the capitals of the world, and now that’s what stuck in my head.

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  6. Kylind says:

    I’m far too easily convinced of these types of stories. Sometimes I just believe the one I’ve read more recently. Tose poor gay people from Comoros. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
    Maybe I should avoid reading these types of posts in the future. :P

    No, but seriously, pretty great post.

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  7. nemryn says:

    Something along the lines of “Doh ho ho, very ‘clever’, Scott *rolleyes*”

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  8. ag says:

    “Stop what you’re doing, it disgusts and offends me”, while selfish, sounds pretty consequentialist to me. Isn’t someone who loves only themselves a consequentialist still?

    And I hope the victims subjects of the hilariously unethical-looking study on faithfulness were eventually told the true story.
    Also, the bottom top-level reply box is defective because it doesn’t show a preview.

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  9. Kerry says:

    It seems to me there’s some space for figuring out how and where to talk about these things. For example, about test-taking bias, all the studies I’m aware of looked at women or minorities being told about the bias (or lack of one) directly before taking the test. I think this sort of “OK, before you pick up your pencils, just to let you know that women typically do more poorly in maths tests – and, go!” study is different than social scientists having professional discussions about whether national and international standard tests like SATs and IBs may be biased.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Stereotype threat requires both short-term activation and a long-term belief. For example, if you tell women “This test measures inherent math ability” before a math test (short-term activation), and those women believe women are worse at inherent math ability (long-term belief) then they may do worse on the math test.

      Certainly accusations of biased tests can provide the short-term activation, but I think they can also provide the long-term belief, eg someone says something is a test of inherent math ability, and women think “I heard that all tests of math ability are biased against women”.

      But I agree that a lot of these social psych experiments only measure very short term effects.

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      • houseboatonstyx says:

        One problem: any statement that makes a person angry, may make them score worse by distracting them. Even if the statement were not related to math ability.

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        • Scott Alexander says:

          I’m confused what you’re arguing. If you’re arguing that stereotype threat only works through a generic anger-provoking effect, there are lots of non-anger – provoking ways to induce it. Like just tell people “This is a test of inherent mathematical ability” (which is not especially offensive) and in some studies that’ll be enough to make women do worse than if you’d said “This is a test for how well you learned the material” or something.

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        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Like just tell people “This is a test of inherent mathematical ability” (which is not especially offensive) [....]

          Well, to some women, the phrase ‘inherent mathematical ability’ may trigger memories of controversial, and disturbing, contexts.

          But even if a distracting comment is not obviously offensive, or not related to math at all, or not even obviously related to Group F vs Group M — still it may be more distracting to Group F.

          Also, sterotype threat may not be the only factor in disparate results, even when those results do vary by gender.

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        • Deiseach says:

          Any test that started with “This measures inherent mathematical ability” would have me throwing down my biro and going “Oh, well, this is a wash” from the start, because I have no inherent mathematical ability.

          Now, whether me also being female would skew the results, I have no idea, but I don’t think I’m bad at maths because I’m a woman, I think it’s just because I’m bad at maths. I also have no spatial awareness and dreadful balance; going up three steps of a ladder gives me vertigo so I pawn off all those kind of household tasks on my brothers. Does this reinforce stereotypes about women?

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  10. Erik says:

    Post scriptum: “Isn’t that a bird? No, wait, that’s cormorant.”

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  11. Douglas Knight says:

    This is relevant because a lot of our political discourse revolves around ideas lifted from social psychology.

    You gave a lot of examples, but do you know the history of any of them? Did any of them appear first in social psychology? The important question of social psychology: is experiment capable of affecting political discourse?

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I give two examples, violent video games and objectification.

      It’s hard for me to find good histories of these things, but I think they rely on social psych concepts. For example, I think the video game violence controversy requires a society that has thoroughly absorbed Bandura’s theory of social learning to make sense.

      Objectification seems to come from the gender studies community but has since gotten adopted and popularized by social psych, and there are a bunch of experiments on it.

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      • Douglas Knight says:

        For video game violence, I have no idea why you bring up social learning theory. In video games, the player is directly rewarded for violence. Wouldn’t social learning theory be more relevant to a passive medium? Haven’t people always been concerned about fiction as role models? How does modern discussion of violent video games compare to discussion of the Hays code?

        Are you claiming that objectification was not popularized by gender studies, but didn’t enter political discourse until it had gone through social psych? That seems very hard to believe. But the main point was not whether there had been experiments, but whether the experiments had any effect on gender studies or popular use. Or for that matter, whether the experiments had any effect on use in social psychology.

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      • Kaj Sotala says:

        For example, I think the video game violence controversy requires a society that has thoroughly absorbed Bandura’s theory of social learning to make sense.

        I’m skeptical about that. Consider that The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1774, and then subsequently banned in several countries for creating a wave of suicides. People imitating the behavior of other people (especially ones that they admire) – starting from children imitating their parents and older siblings – seems like such a basic and fundamental part of human nature that it’s hard to imagine the idea of it only getting widespread in the 1900s.

        I’ve at least frequently heard it claimed that scares of “X creates bad behaviors in impressionable youth” have been a frequent pattern throughout history, with X variously standing for books, rock music, role-playing games, and video games.

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  12. fubs says:

    “I cannot deny their data that Japan, a country universally known for the kinkiness and omnipresence of their pornography, has anomalously low sex crime rates”

    I can.

    Japan has anomalously low reported sex crime rates, but talk to a Japanese woman. Ask her about rape. “It’s not rape if you know the person,” is a view I’ve heard from more than one of them.

    It’s astonishing to hear someone actually say this kind of thing, but there it is. Japan is rife with sexual assault. Overflowing with it. It just goes unacknowledged.

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    • Berry says:

      Could you quote some sources and studies or link to some articles supporting your assertions?

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    • Joe from London says:

      Sounds like a definitional thing? Do Japanese women actually say “it’s okay if a guy you know forces you to have sex with him”, or do they say “it’s not rape”? Those two propositions are different. Japanese people’s (alleged) differentiation of stranger rape and date rape does not imply that either is legal in Japan.

      Consider the difference between “murder” and “pre-meditated murder”. If another country saw them as the same (“they’re both murder. What’s wrong with your legal distinction that you differentiate them? How can you treat it as not-murder if it was done without planning?”) it wouldn’t imply that we treat murder insufficiently harshly.

      Also, I’d be interested in some studies/links to support your point.

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      • fubs says:

        Who said anything about legality?

        Rape is illegal in Japan.

        Rape goes underreported in Japan.

        Japanese culture pressures women not to report rape and provides rationalizations to women who do not report rape.

        One such rationalization is the notion that when someone you know rapes you, it isn’t really rape and should not be reported as such.

        I don’t know what is so confusing about this. Maybe you can try to think of it in terms of ‘legitimate rape’–remember that?

        And, no, I am not going to google ‘rape japan unreported’ for you. If you are interested in studies, you do the search.

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        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Meta point.

          Fubs: Rape goes underreported in Japan.
          Japanese culture pressures women not to report rape and provides rationalizations to women who do not report rape. [....]
          And, no, I am not going to google ‘rape japan unreported’ for you. If you are interested in studies, you do the search.

          In traditional debate, the person who makes an assertion is responsible for finding and citing evidence to support it.

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        • Andrew says:

          Meta Meta point.

          I just thought of a possible explanation for the fact that internet debates have this tendency to go around and around, with each side insisting that the other side has the burden of proof and therefore must provide the sources. It has nothing to do with wanting to avoid the 10 seconds work that they claim it would take to find the sources, but rather, it has to do with the status of the claim.

          A claim that has to be supported by evidence is a weaker claim than one that’s simply self-evidently obvious. Thus, acting as though one’s claim is obvious and doesn’t require sourcing could actually improve how it’s perceived, as compared against providing a source.

          I’ve reminded of the scene in MoR where Harry tells Hermione that she simply has to act as though her detractors have no right to question her. It’s essentially the same thing, applied to people vs applied to ideas.

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        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Andrew: A claim that has to be supported by evidence is a weaker claim than one that’s simply self-evidently obvious.

          Yes, claiming that rape is probably underreported everywhere, and that there is probably pressure everywhere against reporting it, would pass without citation.

          But a statement specifying Japan and implying that Japan is either average or exceptional in this respect, could be supported by evidence, and imo ought to be.

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        • fubs says:

          We’re not having a debate, traditional or otherwise.

          I said what I said because my personal experience suggests that any claims about low levels of rape in Japan should be viewed with extreme skepticism.

          My expectation is that anyone interested in the subject would already be suspicious of the claim that violent pornography reduces rape, especially given the tenor of this post, and would then pursue the matter on his or her own time.

          (Though even a short foray into Japanese rape culture is not a trip I would advise one to take lightly)

          Your expectation is that saying ‘study or it didn’t happen’ will draw me into a debate over the actual level of rape in Japan.

          I believe my expectation is more reasonable than yours.

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        • michael vassar says:

          Does anyone know if there have been cultures where a claim that is supported by evidence is seen as stronger than one which is treated as if it doesn’t have to be?

          Actually, my best guess is that what’s going on is closer to beliefs that aren’t supported by evidence being seen as affiliation flags, and claims supported by evidence are seen as submission to something (to evidence, specifically) thus as marks of low status.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks. I’ve added this to the main post, along with another study I found on porn/sex crime while trying to confirm/disconfirm this.

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  13. Deiseach says:

    “Think quick! What is your brain’s number one thought upon hearing “Comoros”?”

    Truthful answer: Where the hell is Comoros? Never heard of the place.

    “Fighting Stereotypes Makes People More Prejudiced”

    ‘Ancedote is not data’ and all that, but I would broadly agree; from my time working as clerical staff in an Irish secondary school (small town, ages 12-18, non-selective, multidenominational – which meant in effect Catholic since that was the background of the vast majority of the kids, or ‘lapsed Catholic’ if you prefer – and co-educational), we got in a publicity pack for anti-bullying against LGBT students, which included ‘please put this poster up on the noticeboards in the halls’.

    Reaction: ‘oh crap, no’. Because the poster listed all the kinds of slurs and insults that might be used, and we knew that – given a mob of 12-14 year old boys, whatever about the girls – if they had never heard these words before, by the end of the week, they’d be throwing them at one another during break times.

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  14. Army1987 says:

    The best research in social psychology is as well-supported as anything in physics

    I don’t think social psychology predicts any experimental data to eight significant digits. (SCNR.)

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think that’s what “well-supported” means. I can’t predict the color of the sky to even one significant digit on the color wheel, but I think the assertion that the sky is blue is well-supported.

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      • Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

        If you are using that kind of “well-supported”, the one which means “we repeatedly performed a number of experiments and observations, and we are very certain that if we repeat the same experiments one more time the results will be the same as before”, then you can replace “social psychology” with “alchemy” or “astrology” and the sentence Army1987 quoted won’t be any less true for that.

        Karl Popper reminisced that the thing which got him thinking about what’s science and what isn’t, which eventually led him to formulating the currently accepted criterion, was precisely the question which kind of knowledge is solid enough to justify society-affecting actions. Which makes this distinction central to the topic of your blog post, even though the sham science of his days was Marxism not social psychology.

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        • Douglas Knight says:

          Which reminiscence do you mean? In this one, he says he was motivated not just by Marx, but by Freud and Adler, who certainly counts as social psychology.

          (I haven’t read that reminiscence carefully, but I don’t see anything in it about the role of theory in politics. The Open Society suggests that he cares about it, but that’s separate from original motivation.)

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        • Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

          I think I read it in “The Myth of the Framework”, somewhere near the beginning.

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  15. gwern says:

    > A second reason is more fundamental. The backfire effect is when people challenged with information that disproves a cherished political belief of theirs react by becoming even more certain of the information. It’s pretty well studied and the link will fill you in on potential explanations.

    No, it’s not well-studied. There’s like one experiment, ever, on it.

    Also, as far as porn goes, you missed a great one: “more child porn means less child sexual abuse” http://web.archive.org/web/20120213190725/http://webs.wofford.edu/pechwj/Pornography%20and%20Sex%20Crimes%20in%20the%20Czech%20Republic.pdf

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      You’re right. There are several dozen papers that investigate “backfire effects”, but they all mean something slightly different and without investigating them further I can’t be sure they’re the same phenomenon as Nyhan & Reifler. Edited out.

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  16. Laurent says:

    > What is your brain’s number one thought upon hearing “Comoros”?

    Bob Denard. (That’s because I skipped to the end of the essay before reading the rest (and I’m French)).

    Love that Twain quote.

    Shouldn’t one consider confounders before making too much of the Dahl and DellaVigna study?

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I was impressed with Dahl and DellVigna’s attempts to control for confounders, although of course this is always dicey business. I also get less worried about confounders in a quasi-experimental design with large sample size because confounders should be even-ed out rather than correlated with one or the other condition.

      Do you have a particular worry about confounders that the study didn’t address?

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  17. houseboatonstyx says:


    The backfire effect is when people challenged with information that disproves a cherished political belief of theirs react by becoming even more certain of the INFORMATION.

    I’ve seen such an idea before. Shouldn’t ‘of the information’ be, ‘of the belief’?

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  18. Joe from London says:

    I’m slightly ashamed that my first thought was “faggot”. I don’t think I’ve ever held homophobic opinions – earlier this year I signed a lease to move into a two-bed apartment with a friend and his boyfriend. (I know that sounds like “I have black friends”, but it really doesn’t sound to me like the actions of a homophobe and it’s about the only measurable item I can think of. Wait, when I was in college I started a gay rights movement that had >10,000 Facebook members.)

    I’m wondering now whether reading an article about prejudice makes my brain more likely to cache slurs so that when I want to retrieve a word for ‘homosexual’, ‘faggot’ pops out, and whether an N-bomb might have come out if you’d tried to get me to link ‘Comoros’ with African-Americans.

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  19. Nolan says:

    “I can’t find the link for this, but negatively phrased information can sometimes reinforce the positive version of that information.”

    There is one paper I know of off the top of my head that supports this. I know there’s something more specific to your claim though. . .

    How Warning About False Claims Become Recommendations

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  20. Charlie says:

    “I literally could not think of a better strategy than talking about rape culture all the time.”

    Betcha could.

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  21. Mark G. says:

    Interesting. Good, thought-provoking post.

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  22. Randy M says:

    “Then they measured what they called “trivialization” in both groups – that is, they asked them questions about how important faithfulness was to them. Consistent with their theory, the people who were told they were faithful said faithfulness was extremely important, but the people who were told they were unfaithful “trivialized” the behavior”

    As a possible explanation, perhaps they were only trivializing the label? Maybe if they were quizzed on how likely the were to do specific acts before and after, they would be the same but now that they are told that their views, which represented fidelity to them before, are actually showing propensity for unfaithfulness, perhaps they are thinking to themselves “Oh, that’s not what fidelity means? Maybe that’s not important to me, but it is still important to me that I not break my word or cheat on my spouse, etc.”

    For another example, ask me how hard I try to make it to appointments. Maybe I’ll say I always try to be within 5 minutes. Tell me that this makes me highly punctual–oh, I guess this concept of punctuality is important to me then! Tell me it makes me score very low on punctuality–Well, then if punctuality means so much more than that, I must not value it much.

    But ask me what I will try to do in the future, it is still try to arrive within 5 minutes of when I say.

    But, that’s just a possibility, and I could certainly see our minds being susceptible to this kind of manipulation, so it would be useful to study changes in behavior after such a survey/feedback.

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  23. Rixie says:

    >Think quick! What is your brain’s number one thought upon hearing “Comoros”?

    Cosmos, and then how lovely that m sounds in the word Comoros, and then, oh, right, I’m supposed to be thinking about homosexuality.

    Thank you, though, for making so many very interesting points!

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  24. Damien says:

    “Comoros” -> “Islands”

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  25. Anonymous says:

    I couldn’t help but think of this post as I read Justice Thomas’s concurrence in Fisher v UT this morning.

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    • Berry says:

      Really? What part? The part where he compares Affirmative Action to segregation?

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      • Anonymous says:

        He presented both rationales as being The Accepted School of Social Psychology at the time it was discussed… even though they’re clearly opposing viewpoints (which is the point I’m sure you’re trying to make… but with more snarl). This post, sure enough, takes opposing viewpoints… and tries to make reasonable-sounding socpsych arguments for them.

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  26. sam rosen says:

    Possible hypothesis: Once a company completes a diversity training seminar, it now has a really good signal that it totally isn’t racist, so they are more free to do things that might be perceived as racist.

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    • Matt says:

      That’s a good point.

      Another hypothesis: diversity training is demanded by minority employees after mistreatment or is a reaction to threats to sue or boycott the company. Therefore, the companies engaging in this kind of compensatory measures where the most racist/sexist/X-ist to begin with.

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  27. Nomophilos says:

    For the general good:

    The population of the Comoros Islands is descended from a mix of Arabs and Black Africans (with a few European and Austronasian mixed in). It used to be a trading hub, then was colonized by European assholes, and then got independence and had a record-breaking amount of coups in the meantime, so it’s a bit like your stereotypical banana republic but with Arabic culture, and on the east coast of Africa.

    The economy kinda sucks, it’s mostly agriculture and exporting spices and the like, and there doesn’t seem to be much tourism. Homosexuality is illegal there.

    So, if you want a stereotype, black farmers and fishermen speaking arabic, and the occasional army goon with sunglasses, a beret and an AK 47.

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  29. What is your brain’s number one thought upon hearing “Comoros”?

    That’s the name of that island, no archipalego, that I wasn’t going to remember (despite that Scott said I would). Oh, and it was gay, or at least Scott said we’d think that.

    I didn’t know that Comoros was a real place until I looked it up after that followup question. It sounded like a place in a video game or fantasy world.

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  30. ms anthropy says:

    Given the amount of rape culture conversation on the Internet, it seems to me that you can support an argument either that Internet access reduces rape or that an increase in the amount of conversation about rape culture increases rape, but not both.

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  31. Robin Hanson says:

    I’m afraid many readers will use this post as an excuse to dismiss all social psychology research in favor of their preconceptions. So what we could really use are some clues to how to identify soc psych research that is especially robust.

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  35. AJD says:

    “Also unpopular is the idea of constantly having to watch your language around minorities to avoid anything that sounds like you’re saying something racist because that could have unpredictable negative effects down the line.”

    …Is this the usual rationale? It seems to me the usual rationale for this argument is that saying something racist around minorities causes immediate and predictable negative effects, namely, causing the targets of racism to feel insulted, belittled, and disrespected, unwelcomely emphasizing the majority’s culture’s long, sordid history of abuse toward their group, which still has effects today—i.e., creating an atmosphere in which the target person is being unjustifiedly made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Being unfriendly toward someone with no good reason is a negative effect, even if it’s not as negative as denying them service in your restaurant or the right to vote or whatever. Hurting people’s feelings is still hurting them.

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  36. Valhar2000 says:

    The first time I saw the word, “Comoros” looked like a misspelling of “Comodo”, which always reminds me of Comodo dragons.

    Even after reading this article, it still does.

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