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Book Review: The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work


John Gottman is a legendary figure, and the legend is told best by John Gottman. He describes wading into the field of marital counseling as a young psychology postdoc, only to find it was a total mess:

When we began our research, the wide range of marital therapies based on conflict resolution shared a very high level of relapse. In fact, the best of this type of marital therapy, conducted by Neil Jacobson, had only a 35 to 50 percent success rate. In other words, his own studies showed that only 35 to 50 percent of couples saw a meaningful improvement in their marriages as a result of the therapy. A year later, less than half of that group — or just 18 to 25 percent of all couples who entered therapy — retained these benefits. A while ago, Consumer Reports surveyed a large sample of its members on their experience with all kinds of psychotherapists. Most therapists got very high customer-satisfaction marks—except for the marital ones, who received very poor ratings. Though this survey did not qualify as rigorous scientific research, it confirmed what most professionals in the field already knew: in the long run, marital therapy did not benefit the majority of couples.

Gottman decided the field needed statistical rigor, and that he – a former MIT math major – was exactly the guy to enforce it. He set up a model apartment in his University of Washington research center – affectionately called “the Love Lab”, and invited hundreds of couples to spend a few days there – observed, videotaped, and attached to electrodes collecting information on every detail of their physiology. While at the lab, the couples went through their ordinary lives. They experienced love, hatred, romantic dinners, screaming matches, and occasionally self-transformation. Then Gottman monitored them for years, seeing who made things work and who got divorced. Did you know that if a husband fails to acknowledge his wife’s feelings during an argument, there is an 81% chance it will damage the marriage? Or that 69% of marital conflicts are about long-term problems rather than specific situations? John Gottman knows all of this and much, much more.

Using his mountain of data (the legend continues) Gottman became a Divorce Prophet:

After years of research…I am now able to predict whether a couple will stay happily together or lose their way. I can make this prediction after listening to the couple interact in our Love Lab for as little as five minutes! My accuracy rate in these predictions averages 91 percent over three separate studies. In other words, in 91 percent of the cases where I have predicted that a couple’s marriage would eventually fail or succeed, time has proven me right. These predictions are not based on my intuition or preconceived notions of what marriage “should” be, but on the data I’ve accumulated over years of study.

…which is pretty interesting. But predicting destiny is only an intermediate step – as another legend once said, “the point is to change it”. So, science in hand, John Gottman resolved to fix marital counseling. And apparently succeeded:

We found that at the beginning of our workshops, 27 percent of couples were at very high risk for divorce. At our three-month followup that proportion was 6.7 percent and at nine months it was 0 percent. But even couples who were not at high risk for divorce were significantly helped by the workshops.

Twenty years later, the legend has spread to every corner of the world. He has received glowing praise from The New York Times, The Atlantic, BBC, CNN, Washington Post, The New York Times again, Harvard Business Review, Scientific American, Time, and The New York Times a third time. He has published over two hundred scientific papers, some of which have been cited thousands of times. He has been voted one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter-century. His Gottman Relationship Institute, founded together with his wife Julie Gottman, has become a marriage counseling empire, trained hundreds of therapists in the Gottman method, and operates a referral network that can find you Certified Gottman Level 3 Therapists from Australia to Uruguay. After a long life of helping save countless marriages, his one regret is that he is so great he can no longer find an adequate control group for his studies:

When we sat down to write the first edition of this book, we were excited to share the results of laboratory research into relationships but we knew we’d face some skepticism. Could scientific study of something as intangible, idiosyncratic, and personal as romantic love deliver useful advice to couples in the real world? Well, more than fifteen years and millions of readers later we are happy to report that The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work has done just that. Countless readers across the globe tell us that the book’s strategies have enhanced, shielded, or saved their relationship. We have received thank-yous from every imaginable type of couple, including newlyweds, traditional spouses, two-career partners, devoutly religious spouses, military couples, cohabitants, same-sex partners, not-yet-marrieds, divorced people looking toward the future, and counselors who work with all of the above.

It is a great source of satisfaction and pride that we have been able to help so many people. We’re also gratified that research continues to confirm what these readers consistently tell us: The Seven Principles can have a powerfully positive effect on your relationship. In fact, a randomized clinical study by John and his coresearchers (Julia Babcock, Kim Ryan, and Julie Gottman) found that married couples who simply read The Seven Principles and worked through the quizzes and exercises on their own (but received no additional professional aid) were significantly happier in their relationship, and these effects lasted when assessed a year later. Simply reading this book proved so successful that it actually bollixed the research: the original experiment had been designed to use these “book-only” couples as a control group to test marital therapy techniques!

Sounds like some book! And God knows we need good marriage therapy. The world needs it. And I need it in particular. I am a psychiatrist. I am trained to treat depression and schizophrenia and nice simple things like that. But somehow, I keep getting patients who need help with relationship problems. I am totally unprepared for this. In the past, my advice has been “go find someone trained by John Gottman, I hear he is some kind of living legend”. But at some point, I figured I should finally read his book, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide From The Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, so that I could have an informed opinion on this and maybe try helping people directly.

This is a review of that book. It starts with a summary of Gottman’s marital counseling techniques, continues to a discussion of the evidence for and against them, and ends with some random thoughts about marriage.


The secret to a happy marriage is that you should like your spouse.

Maybe this doesn’t sound especially secret, when put that way. But part of the Gottman legend is that the old school of marriage therapists kind of missed that part. They were really into solving conflicts and having good communication skills and things like that. But over his years of monitoring hundreds of couples in real-world situations, Gottman found that this was overrated. Plenty of couples had atrocious communication skills and got in conflicts all the time, but loved each other very much and had no real marital problems. Plenty of other couples had finely-polished communication skills and always used “I statements” and things like that, and still ended up divorced. Communication skills are good, and you should definitely try to have them, but you’re putting the cart before the horse unless you focus on liking your spouse.

I totally believe this. I remember my grandparents used to fight all the time. Any time my grandmother said something, my grandfather would disagree with her, and vice versa, and the ensuing argument would (to my young ears) sound absolutely vicious, and then they would laugh it off and forget about it and continue being wonderfully and obviously in love. So fine, focus on liking your spouse. But how do you make that happen?

Seven Principles excels in its selection of worksheets, activities, and games. There is a seven-week program of talking about one nice thing with your spouse every day, a “Building Your Love Maps” game, and a list of questions you and your spouse should answer together one by one. The underlying principle seems to be that to know somebody is to love them. If you get a really good mental model of where your spouse is in their life, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their daily toil, then it’s hard to not have at least some fondness for them. One activity is a quiz, with questions like:

1. I can name my partner’s best friends.
2. I can tell you what stresses my partner is currently facing.
3. I know the names of some of the people who have been irritating
my partner lately.
4. I can tell you some of my partner’s life dreams.
5. I am very familiar with my partner’s religious beliefs and ideas.
6. I can tell you about my partner’s basic philosophy of life.
7. I can list the relatives my partner likes the least.
8. I know my partner’s favorite music.
9. I can list my partner’s three favorite movies.

The more you know, the more likely your marriage is to make it.

Along with knowing the big things, you should also know what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. You should conspicuously make sure to know it. Apart from whatever other exercise you’re doing each day, Gottman recommends a ritual of checking in after work and exchanging stories about your days. This time is a Designated Support Zone, no criticism allowed. You take your spouse’s side whether you secretly disagree with them or not. If your spouse gets angry that a police officer gave them a ticket for driving 110 mph through a 25 mph school zone, you are obligated by the terms of your marriage contract to shake your head and say “I know, cops these days have no respect.”

Gottman is slightly less strict in other situations, but he still thinks it’s very important that you take your spouse’s side in conflicts. He especially highlights a common dynamic where your parents are always trying to cause trouble between you and your spouse, and your marriage will be in danger until you commit to side with your spouse whenever this kind of thing comes up:

At the core of the tension is a turf battle between [the wife and the mother] for the husband’s love. The wife is watching to see whether her husband backs her or his mother. She is wondering, “Which family are you really in?” Often the mother is asking the same question. The man, for his part, just wishes the two women could get along better. He loves them both and does not want to have to choose. The whole idea is ridiculous to him. After all, he has loyalties to each, and he must honor and respect both. Unfortunately, this attitude often throws him into the role of peacemaker or mediator, which invariably makes the situation worse.

The only way out of this dilemma is for the husband to side with his wife against his mother. Although this may sound harsh, remember that one of the basic tasks of a marriage is to establish a sense of “we-ness” between husband and wife. So the husband must let his mother know that his wife does indeed come first. His house is his and his wife’s house, not his mother’s. He is a husband first, then a son. This is not a pleasant position to take. His mother’s feelings may be hurt. But eventually she will probably adjust to the reality that her son’s family unit, where he is the husband, takes precedence to him over all others. It is absolutely critical for the marriage that the husband be firm about this, even if he feels unfairly put upon and even if his mother cannot accept the new reality.

This is not to suggest that a man do anything that he feels demeans and dishonors his parents or goes against his basic values. He should not compromise who he is. But he has to stand with his wife and not in the middle

A final method of making yourself like your spouse: just explicitly and consciously focus on their good qualities. One of the worksheets lists a bunch of good qualities and asks you to pick some you appreciate in your spouse and explain why. Another asks you to reminisce about the old days, on the theory that presumably you liked your spouse back when you decided to marry them. This isn’t always true – Gottman finds that couples who are really far gone will export their present hostility back into the past and talk about how they always knew it was a bad idea. With typical statistical precision, he notes that “94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well. When happy memories are distorted, it’s a sign that the marriage needs help.” But it’s usually true enough to get both partners warming up to each other a little.

But okay. You’ve done all this stuff and you like your spouse at least a little. Now what?

Now you can start learning communication skills.

Gottman’s communication skills work focuses on what he calls “The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These may seem obvious, though Gottman takes some of them in non-obvious directions – “couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses (colds, flu, and so on) than other people”. Avoiding the four horsemen is vital, especially in the crucial “startup” phase of a conversation. How do you do it?

Some tips are very small in scale. Use I-Statements like “I have trouble dealing with how messy things are sometimes” instead of You-Statements like “You never clean up around here”. Be polite. Try to make “repair attempts” – conflict-ending attempts that can be anywhere from “Hey, you’re yelling at me” to “You are right and I am wrong and I am sorry” to “Oh my god, listen to us, let’s get a drink and never speak of this matter again”. Accept your spouse’s repair attempts when offered.

Others are more general. Don’t have a fight when you’re physiologically aroused. Don’t have a fight when you’re physiologically aroused. Monitor your physiological arousal, and if you start to notice the signs – fast heartbeat, tense muscles, shallow breathing – call a time-out, go somewhere else, and use meditation or deep breathing or whatever to calm down.

This is especially important for men. Gottman has strong opinions on gender. He uncritically accepts the feminist view that men feel entitled because of patriarchy and that if they feel angry or upset it’s probably just their entitlement flaring up again. He flirts with saying that men should generally yield to their wife in a conflict (presumably because, thanks to patriarchy, everything will always be biased in favor of the man and so the wife is usually right). In the end, he softens this to a statement that men should “accept influence from” their wives, but also heavily implying that a man who doesn’t give in to his wife must not be accepting her influence – for example, an exercise on page 118 asks men to describe how they would accept their wife’s influence in various situations, and includes an answer key where the right answer is always to say she is right and do what she wants. You might object to this, but sorry, it is Evidence Based According To Science. Gottman tells us that only 35% of husbands are emotionally intelligent, and that “when a man is not willing to share influence with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct”.

But Gottman’s most controversial views on gender involve physiology. He proposes an evo psych explanation for why men can’t handle talking about problems:

This is not because of some lack on the man’s part. The reason lies in our evolutionary heritage. Anthropological evidence suggests that we evolved from hominids whose lives were circumscribed by very rigid gender roles, since these were advantageous to survival in a harsh environment. The females specialized in nurturing children while the males specialized in cooperative hunting.

As any nursing mother can tell you, the amount of milk you produce is affected by how relaxed you feel, which is related to the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain. So natural selection would favor a female who could quickly soothe herself and calm down after feeling stressed. Her ability to remain composed could enhance her children’s chances of survival by optimizing the amount of nutrition they received. But in the male natural selection would reward the opposite response. For these early cooperative hunters, maintaining vigilance was a key survival skill. So males whose adrenaline kicked in quite readily and who did not calm down so easily were more likely to survive and procreate. To this day, the male cardiovascular system remains more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress […]

This gender difference in how physiologically reactive our bodies are also influences what men and women tend to think about when they experience marital stress. As part of some experiments, we ask couples to watch themselves arguing on tape and then tell us what they were thinking when our sensors detected they were flooded. Their answers suggest that men have a greater tendency to have negative thoughts that maintain their distress, while women are more likely to think soothing thoughts that help them calm down and be conciliatory. Men, generally, either think about how righteous and indignant they feel (“I’m going to get even,” “I don’t have to take this”), which tends to lead to contempt or belligerence. Or they think about themselves as an innocent victim of their wife’s wrath or complaint (“Why is she always blaming me?”), which leads to defensiveness.

Obviously these rules don’t hold for every male and every female. But after twenty-five years of research, I have noted that the majority of couples do follow these gender differences in physiological and psychological reactions to stress. Because of these dissimilarities, most marriages (including healthy, happy ones) follow a comparable pattern of conflict in which the wife, who is constitutionally better able to handle the stress, brings up sensitive issues. The husband, who is not as able to cope with it, will attempt to avoid getting into the subject. He may become defensive and stonewall. Or he may even become belligerent or contemptuous in an attempt to silence her.

The problem is, men are just too flighty and emotional! They need a rational, hard-headed woman to take care of them and keep them grounded!

Sorry. To be more serious, he thinks that because women are emotionally stable and men aren’t, women tend to bring up long-standing problems that need to be solved, and because men can’t handle this level of stress they panic or shut down or blow up or otherwise start a conflict in order to avoid having to deal with it. “More than 80 percent of the time it’s the wife who brings up sticky marital issues, while the husband tries to avoid discussing them.” The solution is for men to learn calming techniques so they don’t stop the conversation as quickly.

Okay, so now you like your spouse and you know how to communicate. Now you can prepare to actually solve some conflicts.

But not all of them. Gottman divides conflicts into two types: solvable and unsolvable. Solvable conflicts are simple, specific, and about the thing they seem to be about – for example, the husband is supposed to take the trash out after work, but work has gotten really stressful lately and he keeps forgetting, and now the trash is overflowing and the wife is annoyed. The solution here is to use normal problem-solving techniques. Put a sign in the bedroom saying “DID YOU REMEMBER TO TAKE THE TRASH OUT?” or something. Whatever.

Unsolvable conflicts are temporary manifestations of deep psychological issues. The particular thing that sparked the fight this time is irrelevant, but both spouses will fight to the death because it represents something important. For example, the husband is late to dinner one night because he went out to the bar. The wife yells at him and says he doesn’t care about her. He yells back that she’s a control freak. Here the problem will not be solved by coming up with a compromise where he can go to the bar half of nights. The problem is that she secretly worries his drinking buddies have a closer connection to him than she ever will, that he doesn’t love her anymore, that he goes to the bar to escape her. He worries that he’s lost his freedom, that he’s become emasculated, that he’s become some boring old person who is never allowed to have fun. If the bar burnt down tomorrow, they would find some other excuse to fight over this dynamic.

There’s no hard line between solvable and unsolvable conflicts. One couple’s solvable problem might be another’s unsolvable one. Forgetting to take the trash out becomes an unsolvable problem if it represents how the husband is irresponsible or the wife is too controlling. Staying out too late at the bar is a solveable problem if it’s just that dinner is getting cold and neither of them has any problem with the husband eating leftovers. But usually couples can figure out whether their particular issue taps into deeper roots.

Gottman suggests dealing with unsolvable conflicts by making the underlying “dreams” explicit. He recommends both partners talk about what the dream driving their side of the conflict means to them. So for example, the husband who stays late at the bar might say “When I was young, my dad was so poor he had to work twelve hour days. Then he would come home, do some chores, go to sleep, and start all over again. I told myself that if I ever ended up like that, I might as well just die, because it seemed like such a crappy and joyless life. To me, getting to go have fun with people means that I’m successful enough that I don’t have to end up like my dad.” While one spouse (the “dreamer”) is describing this, the other spouse has to be completely supportive and try to understand them, without pointing out ways they’re wrong.

Once both partners feel like they’ve been heard and that they understand each other, they discuss the absolute minimum they would need in order to feel like their dreams were being respected, versus the beyond-minimum things that they’re willing to be flexible on. Then they both agree to a compromise that gives both of them their bare minimum and splits the difference on the flexible parts. What if the two bare minima are mutually exclusive? The book doesn’t say. Probably you got a defective dream, and you should go to the dream factory and ask if they take returns.

The last part of the book is maybe the least actionable, but also my favorite. It discusses couples as almost miniature cultures, with their own rituals, in-jokes, ideologies, and systems of meaning. Partly it’s about how to create these things, partly it’s about how to acknowledge these things, and partly it’s just John Gottman’s love letter to the concept of couplehood. It’s really heart-warming. Don’t make the same mistake I did and read it when you’re feeling lonely.


Okay, but can John Gottman really predict divorce with 91% success rate and do all the other things he says he can do? Haha, no. All of that stuff is totally false.

Richard Heyman published the definitive paper on this in 2001, The Hazards Of Predicting Divorce Without Crossvalidation (kudos to Laurie Abraham of Slate, the only one of the journalists covering Gottman to find and mention this, and my source for some of the following). Heyman notes that Gottman doesn’t predict divorce at all. He postdicts it. He gets 100 (or however many) couples, sees how many divorced, and then finds a set of factors that explain what happened.

Confused about the difference between prediction and postdiction? It’s a confusing concept, but let me give an example, loosely based on this Wikipedia article. The following rule accurately matches the results of every US presidential election since 1932: the incumbent party will win the election if and only if the Washington Redskins won their last home game before the election – unless the incumbent is black or the challenger attended a Central European boarding school, in which case it will lose.

In common language, we might say that this rule “predicts” the last 22 presidential elections, in the sense that knowing the rule and the Redskins’ record, we can generate the presidential winners. But really it doesn’t predict anything – there’s no reason to think any future presidential elections will follow the rule. It’s just somebody looking to see what things coincidentally matched information that we already have. This is properly called postdiction – finding rules that describe things we already know.

Postdictive ability often implies predictive ability. If I read over hospital records and find that only immunodeficient people caught a certain virus, I might conclude I’ve found a natural law – the virus only infects immunodeficient people – and predict that the pattern will continue in the future.

But this isn’t always true. Sometimes, especially when you’re using small datasets with lots of variables, you get predictive rules that work very well, not because they describe natural laws, but just by coincidence. It’s coincidence that the Redskins’ win-loss record matches presidential elections, and with n = 22 datapoints, you’re almost certain to get some coincidences like that.

Even an honest attempt to use plausible variables to postdict a large dataset will give you a prediction rule that’s a combination of real natural law and spurious coincidence. So you’re not allowed to claim a certain specific level of predictive ability until you’ve used your rule to predict out-of-training-data events. Gottman didn’t do this.

In his paper, Heyman creates a divorce prediction algorithm out of basic demographic data: husband and wife’s education level, employment status, etc. He is able to achieve 90% predictive success on the training data – nearly identical to Gottman’s 91% – without any of Gottman’s hard work. No making the couples spend days in a laboratory and counting up how many times they use I-statements. No monitoring their blood pressure as they gaze into each other’s eyes. Heyman never met any of his couples at all, let along analyzed their interaction patterns. And he did just as well as Gottman did at predicting divorce (technically he predicted low scores on a measure of marital stability; his dataset did not include divorce outcomes).

Then he applied his prediction rule to out-of-sample couples. Accuracy dropped to 70%. We have no reason not to think Gottman’s accuracy would drop at the same rate. But 70% is around the accuracy you get if you predict nobody will divorce. It’s little better than chance, and all of Gottman’s claims to be a master divorce predictor are totally baseless.

The first question on Gottman’s FAQ is whether he is doing this. He says he did this once, but that 6 of his 7 studies have been properly predictive. But Wikipedia notes that this claim uses “a non-standard definition of prediction in which all that is required is that predictive variables, but not their specific relationship to the outcome, were selected in advance”. Heyman and Abraham specifically criticize the 6 studies that Gottman calls genuinely predictive as being postdictive. I cannot find all the relevant studies, as many of them are in books, but contra the FAQ it looks as if he is still postdicting.

It’s hard for me to dismiss this as an honest mistake. Gottman constantly plays up his credentials as a mathematician and statistician, saying that:

In the beginning, Dr. John Gottman’s research was devoted to the discovery of reliable patterns in observational data. He wanted to see if there were indeed patterns of behavior, or sequences of interactions, that could discriminate happy from unhappy couples. It was not at all clear that these patterns existed. Dr. Gottman and his colleagues began developing the math for sequential analysis, which now is a well-developed methodology.

Anyone smart enough to invent new mathematical methodologies should also be smart enough to know you can’t validate your predictor on its training data, so he must know exactly what he’s doing. And it would be so easy to fix if he wanted to! All he needs to do is take one of his predictors, apply it to data that wasn’t its training data, and tell us how it does! How could this be an innocent mistake‽

And speaking of things that an MIT mathematician should know better than to do, what’s up with claims like “when a man is unwilling to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance his marriage will self-destruct”. Obviously you can replace 81% with any number you want by operationalizing “unwilling to share power with his partner” differently. This sentence as written is totally meaningless. It could potentially be part of a good study, where Gottman investigated different forms of power-sharing and how they affected marital stability – but only because the study would carefully explain its methods so that the end number meant something. Outside the context of that number, it communicates nothing. Yet Gottman put it in a book and expects us to be impressed by it. It feels like he’s just trying to dazzle us with mathematical precision, and hoping we don’t think about it long enough to realize that it doesn’t make sense.

But the most important statistical question is – does Gottman marriage counseling work? Gottman cites a bunch of different studies proving that it does, but he conducted or oversaw all of them. I randomly chose Shapiro and Gottman (2005) for further analysis. It is typical of this genre: it takes couples who have just had a baby (a particularly perilous time in a marriage), gives half of them a Gottman workshop, and the other half get nothing (no placebo or alternate method here!). The study evaluates husbands and wives separately (was this a preregistered decision?) on several established marital tests and subscales of marital tests (was the choice to keep some tests whole and take subscales of others preregistered?) and finds a significant quadratic effect of their program on marital quality.

I had to look up what a quadratic effect is. It means that the effect approximates a parabola. That is, things start by getting worse, then get better again, in a parabolic pattern. If I’m understanding the study correctly, then if you just do normal linear tests (did the couples’ marriage get better or worse, overall?) there was no significant effect. Gottman writes that:

Our best guess as to why the quadratic pattern occurs is the following. With intervention, things get worse at first because the immediate effects of the interventions are to increase the amount of conflict that the couple experiences. Our interventions encourage couples to honestly face and discuss their conflicts, particularly potential or actual inequities in housework and childcare, conflicts that they would naturally avoid and which they do avoid in the control group. This early increase in the amount of conflict in our intervention group probably causes temporary discomfort, which is reflected in lowered marital quality and increased postpartum depression. However, because the couples in the intervention group learn the communicative skills to cope with these issues, the conflicts get dealt with to some degree, and thereafter marital quality and postpartum depression both improve, whereas in the control group, because these conflicts have not been dealt with, things get worse over time.

This is fine, but the abstract just sums it up as “results showed that, in general, the preventive intervention using a psycho-communicative-educational format was effective”. No! If you didn’t preregister that you expected a quadratic effect, you are lost in the Garden of Forking Paths and you should give up and start over. Also, I feel like probably Gottman advertises to his clients that their marital happiness will improve. But even if we accept his argument here, the only thing he can say with confidence is that their marital happiness will increasingly approximate a parabola over time, which is not really what I think most people go to therapists looking for.

I might be misinterpreting this, and maybe I’m being overly harsh. But I am predisposed to be overly harsh because the whole “predicting divorce” thing makes me think Gottman is out to get me, and so I am less forgiving of unusual polynomials than I might be otherwise. Also, if you’re running the study of your own method, you ought to be on extra good behavior, and this does not really seem all that extra.

What happens when people who aren’t Gottman evaluate the Gottman method? A large government-funded multicenter study testing a Gottman curriculum as well as several others found no effect of any on marital outcomes; control couples actually stayed together slightly more than ones who got marriage counseling. The Gottman curriculum seemed to do worst of the three curricula studied, although there were no statistical tests performed to prove it. I have no explanation for this. Maybe the parabola is just really big, and the divorce is the low point of the parabola, and later on they’ll end up super-double-married. But I am not optimistic.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Gottman here. Rigorous psychology studies are murderous. Things that we know basically have to work, like Alcoholics Anonymous and SSRIs and psychotherapy in general, end up showing no or minimal effects. Heck, zoom out a little bit and we have twin studies showing that parenting itself, in full generality, has no or minimal effect. I find all of this very suspicious, and it would not surprise me if there’s something really wrong here that makes studies biased towards false negatives. All of this stuff about learning to respect and appreciate your spouse and negotiate conflicts in a calm loving way seems like the sort of thing that should work, and for all we know it might work in some population or situation other than the ones being studied.

But for the guy whose whole legend centers around how he’s evidence-based, it’s not a good look.


I really wanted Gottman Marital Counseling to work.

I wear a psychiatrist hat and a therapist hat. I love the psychiatrist hat. It is blue and pointy and has little glowing stars and moons on it. When I wear it, then with sufficient knowledge and understanding I can give people substances that release obsessions, calm fears, and brighten sorrows. Sometimes I can help people solve their unbearable hopeless problems, and it’s the best feeling in the world.

I hate wearing the therapist hat. I put it on as rarely as possible. I don’t advertise myself as a therapist, and if people ask me to therapy them, I try to refer them to someone else. But if someone wants to talk about their problems in a session, you can’t just say no. And so they tell me about being trapped in an abusive relationship, or haunted by guilt, or trapped in a dead end job with no prospects for improvement. And then they expect me to be able to say something that makes it all better. I know that the textbook response is something about how therapy does not solve problems per se, but by sharing them with someone else it makes them more bearable and adds perspective. Unfortunately, my patients didn’t read that textbook, and they put hope in me, and as often as not I betray it.

I think every therapist feels this way. I once talked to an important professor of therapy, who admitted to me something like “even at my stage, I feel like in the end we only have five or so techniques”, and I got really excited and blurted out “wait, what are the other two?!”

Desperation breeds gullibility. Patients with terminal diseases, however smart they used to be, turn to homeopaths and charlatans rather than face the dismal truth. Therapists are desperate – being confronted with some of the most sympathetic people in the world, day in and day out, having the burden of helping them placed on your shoulders, and knowing that your armamentarium isn’t up to the task will do that to you. And so they become marks. Gullible, gullible marks. Realistically it’s going to be really hard for me to stop recommending Gottman marital counseling to people, because they need something so much. And this is something. And it sounds so good. And I can’t just let their marriage keep falling apart. And surely there’s still a chance it might work, right?

(don’t worry, eventually I’m going to look into some of those forms of counseling that outperformed it in that study)

Bad marriages are so, so bad. They’re so bad it’s shocking. The first time I saw one, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to figure out some of the root issues, so I asked my patient something about his wife, and he immediately launched into a tirade about all the things his wife had done recently, and why she was in the wrong and he was in the right. I tried to redirect him, and briefly succeeded, but after a second or two the new line of conversation shifted to how unfair his wife was and how she was in the wrong about everything. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him and say “for the love of God, just put this aside and move to the meta-level and let’s talk about some of the places we can go from here!” but he was just incapable of this mental action. I wish I could say this was an isolated case. It isn’t.

My ex-girlfriend Ozy writes a relationship advice column. Probably taking relationship advice from an ex-girlfriend is some kind of classic mistake, but I read it anyway. They describe five kinds of relationship problems – stupid problems, basic incompatibilities, problems that are actually a different kind of problem, terrible people, and horrifying soul-sucking messes. For some reason, this taxonomy has stuck with me when all the supposedly evidence-based taxonomies I hear the social workers talk about have failed. And the horrifying soul-sucking mess category sticks with me most of all:

A problem of one of the previous three types was badly managed, perhaps for years. Now, every time you have a minor argument, you bring in everything wrong that happened for your entire relationship. You don’t feel like you can trust your partner. All the quirks you used to find charming drive you up the wall. You hate even your partner’s most innocuous actions. You avoid every topic that leads to a fight, and rapidly find that you can’t discuss anything except Marvel movies and the weather. You’re defensive whenever your partner says anything that sounds like even a minor criticism. You’re sarcastic and you call them names. Somehow, when you remember good things about the past– the time you saw Hamilton together or your birthday present or being the best man at their wedding– all you can remember is the long lines at intermission, the poor wrapping job, and their incredibly rude drunk aunt. If asked to name a good trait of theirs, you draw a blank, but you can go on for hours about their flaws.

I guess it might be in theory possible to fix a horrifying soul-sucking mess with a lot of hard work, but to be honest every time I’ve seen a person in one of those relationships they were a lot better and happier and stronger as people as soon as they ended it.

A lot of my patients are horrifying soul-sucking messes. I wish there was something I could do about it, but instead I just sit and listen as they spend forty-five minutes describing every way their spouse has wronged them.

I’m terrified of this. How did it happen? At some point these people must have loved each other. How does any human relationship get this bad? Could it happen to me? Could I marry a great person who I love a lot, and then five years later sign up for therapy just so I can start talking about all my grievances without letting the therapist get a word in edgewise?

Unlike my ex, I don’t write a relationship advice blog. I write a blog about other things. One of them is politics. And whenever I hear people talk about relationships, I hear weird echoes of political problems. People who hate their spouse have an outgroup of one. A unified polity has devolved into partisanship. Social trust has been broken; a defect-defect equilibrium is in place. Gottman thinks of couples as a two-person culture, and some of those cultures are decadent and fractious.

Theodore Adorno’s right-wing authoritarianism scale asked a lot of questions about marriage and child-rearing; his thesis was that people who want top-down government will control their families the same way. Certainly there are authoritarian marriages. But it also seems like there are marriages that are nationalist in a more positive sense – one where the couple has built itself a strong mutual culture and identity, subsumed both individuals into it, and come out stronger on the other side. There are liberal marriages, where both spouses do their own thing, occasionally come together for mutually beneficial exchange of affection, and then go back to doing their own thing. There are even social justice marriages, where both partners are obsessed with how they are being oppressed by the other, interpret all discussion of compromise as hostile attempts to excuse the oppression, and have no strategy beyond proclaiming their victimization louder and louder in the hopes that their grievances are recognized.

…I’m making fun of that last one, but maybe they have a good point. Gottman’s marital counseling – and every other kind of marital counseling I’ve read – is basically mistake theoretic. It assumes that two decent people who both want to live with each other are unable to because they don’t have communication skills or problem-solving skills or some other skill that lets them fulfill their mutual aims. That model seems to accurately describe most of my patients. But Ozy’s taxonomy is more thorough, including a category for terrible people:

One or both of you just sucks. This category includes abuse, but it certainly isn’t limited to it. This is the category from which advice columnists get all their pageviews: we love viewing a train wreck. Your partner has had a suicidal crisis every night at 3am for the last month, and you’re up all night comforting them, and they refuse to find anyone else to talk to or ride out their suicidal crisis on their own. Your partner cheats on you constantly. Your baby is eighteen months old and your partner has never changed a single diaper. Your partner has demanded that you keep your relationship secret from everyone. You asked your partner to clean up dog poo from the floor, and it is three days later, and the dog poo is still there. If you have found yourself in a committed relationship with a terrible person, you should DUMP THEM.

In marriage, as in other forms of politics, sometimes exit > voice. Which is probably not something marriage counselors want to think about very much.

I’m a liberal, and my advice usually follows liberal principles. Have meetings involving all stakeholders, agree on general rules based on deep principles, and then follow the rules even when it’s hard, since that ensures a minimum of conflict on specific issues. I tell patients to have a consistent weekly meeting with their spouse, maybe a Saturday date night. During the meeting, each of them has to say one nice thing about the other, and then one problem that they want to work on. The other person thanks them for the nice thing and then they brainstorm a solution to the problem. If they both agree to the solution, they have to stick with it at least until the next relationship meeting. A lot of my patients have said this really helps them, have continued the meetings long after the immediate crisis passes, and probably expect the technique was invented by some clever person like John Gottman. I will never tell them that actually I picked it up from a different ex-girlfriend, not even the one who writes relationship advice columns.

In conclusion, I have no idea what makes marriages work, and I am not convinced John Gottman does either. Sometimes marriages are horrible in ways I never could have imagined, and other times they are amazing and I am infinitely jealous of them. Also, the very existence of a next generation of the human race is dependent on people having them and making them work for nonzero periods of time, which is a pretty terrifying prospect. Honestly I’m surprised we’ve lasted this long.

Book Review: Just Giving


Traditional book reviews tend to focus on a single book, such as Just Giving by Rob Reich. We ought, however, to be reviewing a broader question: what is the role of books in a liberal democratic society? And what role should they play?

Books were first invented during the early Bronze Age. Plato states people fiercely opposed the first books; in his dialogue Phaedrus, he recalls the Egyptian priests’ objection to early writing:

[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Contrast the Egyptian scribes’ reception with the ceaseless praise given to the authors of our age. Rather than asking about the purposes of writing and the power of authors, we tend instead to celebrate writers, large and small, for their brilliance. But in our age, these are questions we should pose with greater urgency. Scholarly literature like Just Giving is an unaccountable, nontransparent, and perpetual exercise of power. It deserves more criticism than it has received.

There’s a conventional story to tell about book-writing and its relation to liberty. The story is this. Book-writing is thought to be tightly connected to liberty. This is so for two reasons. First, writing or reading a book is voluntary. Second, the exercise of liberty involves freedom of speech. This story is an attractive one, and it contains some truth. But it ignores that book-writing is inherently embedded in state institutions, like intellectual property laws. It should not be understood in the simplistic manner of an activity that takes place within a framework of nonintervention by the state, or as nothing more than private individual decisions to express thoughts. Instead, it must be understood as embedded in political institutions, laws, and public policy. Books may not be an invention of the state, but they are an artifact of it.

Most importantly, book-writing is heavily subsidized by the government. Authors receive a “pass-through” tax deduction of up to 20%. In addition, they can deduct most of the expenses they incur in writing a book, from freelance editing to literary agents to promotional events. In extending these tax incentives, federal and state treasuries forego tax revenue. Or to put it differently, tax incentives for writing books constitute a a kind of spending program. In fact, the fiscal effects of a direct spending program and a tax expenditure are exactly the same. In Suzanne Mettler’s apt phrase, federal policy driven by tax expenditures rather than direct spending constitutes the “submerged state”, obscured from public view and accountability, but with powerful distributional consequences. These tax breaks amount to massive federal and state subsidies for the creation and dissemination of written texts. They are supplemented by millions spent on libraries, literacy programs, and in some cases direct subsidies to book publishers.

A respect for the liberty of individuals to promote their views is one thing; subsidizing its exercise is another. The state does not merely permit and set guidelines within which writing takes place – offering the state’s imprimatur to every book and pamphlet and magazine and journal article – but is in a fiscally meaningful way actively participating in what authors do. If the state is actively funding, through a tax expenditure, some bad book, it makes the state partially complicit in the harm that the book causes. It is no exaggeration to say that as book-writing is currently structured, when authors do harm, so does the state. It is incorrect to say that mediocre books merely waste the time of the author and reader. Rather, writing a mediocre book squanders assets that are partially the public’s.

With this description of the relationship between book-writing and liberty in place, let us now consider whether the ideal of equality is playing any role in the institutional design of the policies. The median annual wage of authors is $62,000, twice the average US income of $31,000. Authors are most likely to be college-educated, upper class, and be the sorts of people who can take months off of their jobs to write a book. Scholarly books are often written by professors, a member of a tiny and unelected intellectual elite. This makes their immense ability to exercise power by writing a book and getting it published deeply troubling. Or consider a famous author like Jeffrey Sachs, whose successful books permit him to stride upon the world stage as if he were a head of state.

Perhaps books could play important roles in democratic societies, despite being an exercise of power and expression of plutocratic voice, if they were subject to different legal arrangements. But it is no coincidence that the wealthy dominate book-writing. The tax code is set up to unfairly privilege books by the well-off over the poor in two ways. First, the pass-through deduction and freelance editor deduction are available only to those individuals who itemize their deductions – people who opt not to take the so-called standard deduction on their income tax. This effectively penalizes, or fails to reward and provide an incentive for, all people who do not itemize their deductions, a group that constitutes roughly 70% of taxpayers. Thus the low-income renter who does not itemize her deductions but pays $500 to get their book edited receives no tax concession, while the high-income house owner who pays the same $500 fee can claim a deduction. Second, the tax subsidy given to those who do receive the deduction possesses what is known as an “upside-down effect”. The deduction functions as an increasingly greater subsidy with every higher step in the income tax bracket. Both of these features of the tax code are arbitrary and unfairly benefit the well-off. The choice of the the pass-through and business expenses tax deductions as the preferred tax policy for book-writing introduces a potent plutocratic bias.

Proponents of books might suggest that they nevertheless serve a compelling public interest in the form of spreading knowledge. But when we move away from individual works and consider the total distribution of literature, we find a pattern of writing that is hard to reconcile with expectations of educational outcomes. For anyone who believes that books imply something about knowledge or truth or education, the sunny picture of American book publishing here becomes decidedly cloudy.

Figure 1 demonstrates that the most popular type of book in the US is “mystery, thriller, or true crime”. Second and third place are held by history and biographies, which may perhaps be edifying to some people. But after that we get romance, cookbooks, science fiction, and fantasy. Literary classics and books on important current affairs are far down the list, only a fraction of total books read. What can we conclude from these data? The lesson is obvious: if we believe the purpose of reading and writing to be predominantly educational, an important mechanism to provide for our enlightenment and edification, the actually existing distribution of reading in the United States does not meet the test. Not by a long shot.

Finally, we must address the question of intergenerational justice. Books are designed to enshrine author intent and express their opinions in perpetuity. Thus does the dead hand of the author potentially extend from beyond the grave to strangle future generations. John Stuart Mill famously wrote that “There is no fact in history which posterity will find it more difficult to understand, than the idea of perpetuity, and that any of the contrivances of man, should have been coupled together in any sane mind.” Yet authors deliberately “write for the ages”, producing works that can be studied for hundreds or even thousands of years.

We might ask whether books would be a welcome institutional arrangement if we were designing a democratic society from scratch. The catalogue of the oddities of the book suggests a strong case against. Books appear at odds with democracy, for they represent, by definition and by law, the expression of plutocratic voices directed to public education. But why, in a democracy, should the size of one’s wallet give one a greater say in public policy? Why should this plutocratic voice be subsidized by the public? And why should democracy allow this voice to extend across generations in the form of intellectual property laws? It would seem that books are a misplaced plutocratic and powerful element in a democratic society. And we can trace, in the evolution of books, the emergence of a particular kind of high-profile author such as Dan Brown, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling, whose activity supplants the state, subverts public education processes, and in so doing diminishes democracy.

I find many points of agreement, especially when considering the actual content of books today. Yet despite all this, I think a role for books can be defended. First, books can help overcome problems in the marketplace of ideas by diminishing government orthodoxy and decentralizing the production of knowledge. Second, because of their size and longevity, books can operate on a different and longer timeline than government propaganda broadcasts, taking risks in the expression of ideas we should not routinely expect to see in press releases by government agencies.

This argument is not intended to justify the full range of legal permissions currently afforded to books, but it provides hints as to what a just literary world might look like. I worry, for instance, about the massive boom in short books. Books with fewer than 150 pages primarily serve the author’s vanity. What loss to public benefit would there be with a minimum page length to publish a book, say 250 or 300 pages? I think very little, and quite possibly there would be some gain, for people with less exciting ideas who could not reach the page threshold might be convinced to help other people with their books rather than writing their own. But even if books of all lengths do partly decentralize the definition and provision of knowledge, the resulting pluralism of literary voices will have a plutocratic, not fully democratic, cast. The experimental or heterodox opinions in books will represent the preferences of the wealthy, not of the wider citizenry. Indeed, there is empirical evidence to suggest that at least in the United States, the very wealthy have significantly more politically conservative preferences than average citizens. Thus, the activity of books, even when it decentralizes the production of knowledge, retains a plutocratic character. Does this mean that we should eliminate books? I do not think so. Perhaps a plutocratic tempering of government orthodoxy is better than no tempering at all. I conclude that the decentralization argument provides a plausibly but not definitive case for books as a democracy-supporting institutional design in our society.

In conclusion, how can we make books more compatible with a democratic society? I propose that instead of giving authors tax deductions, they might receive a certain percent of their expenses paid back to them by the government, capped at $100, and that books with fewer than 150 pages should be banned. Are books democratically required? I am not prepared to answer this question affirmatively, for a democratic government has multiple mechanisms to cultivate pluralism and foster discovery. But I have shown that books are certainly democratically permissible.


Yeah, okay, that was weird.

But I put the blame squarely on the hands of Rob Reich, author of Just Giving. The structure, arguments, and most of the individual sentences are his, not mine. I just changed the word “charity” to “books”, and replaced all the charity-related examples with book-related examples. A few parts were edited slightly to make them flow together better, and a few sentences are entirely my own, summarizing parts of the argument that wouldn’t fit into a short blog post.

I wrote this weird edited pastiche/summary because I couldn’t figure out how else to express my frustration at Just Giving. The book does not conclude that philanthropy is bad. In the end, it comes out saying that philanthropy is potentially okay and can serve a useful purpose, although the tax incentives around it are weird and should be structured better. But along the way it manages to darkly hint that philanthropy is bad about two hundred times on every page. Nothing in the book is wrong. But a lot of the right things in it are fully general counterarguments that demand charity display a level of rigor that nothing else has. And the author’s interviews and summaries mostly keep the dark hinting while watering down the “actually it is okay” part so much it becomes almost invisible. The resulting style could be used to condemn not just charity but any productive human activity, including the writing of Just Giving itself.

For example: charity is not just an activity that takes place in a void. It takes place in a human society. So far, so good – nothing takes place in a void, except maybe space travel. But the book manages to darkly hint that because this is true, any regulation on it is justified. It never says this. In the end it doesn’t even want to regulate charity. But if you started feeling creeped out by sentences above like “books should not be understood in the simplistic manner of an activity that takes place within a framework of nonintervention by the state, or as nothing more than private individual decisions to express thoughts” or “writing a mediocre book squanders assets that are partially the public’s” – if you started thinking “Wait, is he pushing totalitarianism?” – well, both of those are pretty direct quotes from Just Giving, and the originals gave me the same level of unease about charity.

Or: it’s true that there’s a sense in which if the state gives someone a tax deduction for something, it is subsidizing their activity. And it’s true that authors can deduct some of their book-writing expenses from their tax bill. But it seems troubling to go from there to calling book-writing “part of the submerged state, obscured from public view and accountability”, or to say that now “the state is partially complicit in the harm caused by bad books”. Yet both of these are real Just Giving sentences too. I find myself much less attached to the tax deduction for authors’ business expenses (which may or may not be useful, no strong opinions) than to the project of preventing people from saying things like “Making sure books are good is kind of the responsibility of the state, isn’t it?”

Or: it’s true that authors just write whatever they want. You could describe this as making them “unaccountable and nontransparent”, and “at odds with democracy”. But at some point you might think things like “Wait a second, isn’t democracy perfectly compatible with private individuals doing their own thing? Are you sure you’re not thinking of totalitarianism?” Normally I would add something like “…and these considerations become immediately apparently when we’re talking about writing books, which makes this a classic case of proving too much“, except that to me they also become immediately apparent when we’re talking about philanthropy, so there must just be some fundamental disconnect going on here.

In a few sections, I “cheated” by using Just Giving‘s sentences or paragraphs about charitable foundations, rather than philanthropy in general. Reich is not necessarily worried about every charitable donation making “the dead hand of the donor potentially [extend] from beyond the grave to strangle future generations” (yes, this is a real quotation from the book), only about donations from foundations doing that. Still, might this be a little dramatic? Reich treats it as self-evident that permanent foundations are bizarre, maybe literally the most bizarre thing, quoting John Stuart Mill’s opinion that charitable foundations are “among the grossest and most conspicuous abuses of the time” and that the necessity of banning foundations that outlast their founder’s lifetime is “so obvious that he can scarcely conceive how any earnest inquirer could think otherwise”. Unfortunately for Mill, this is not at all obvious to me, and I was left baffled on this point which the book kind of assumed to be a natural human instinct. Why should my ability to control my donations be limited by something as random as my lifespan? If Bill Gates happens to get hit by a truck tomorrow, does this coincidence have some sort of important moral bearing on how the Gates Foundation’s money should be spent? If we decree it does, this leads to odd conclusions, like that the most important effective altruist cause in the world is encasing Bill Gates in an impenetrable steel shell so that nothing can possibly harm him – do we endorse this use of resources? If we oppose foundations, is Bill Gates still allowed to leave all his money to the single person in the world most aligned with his values, and then hope really hard that this person doesn’t betray him? Isn’t part of the point of law to abstract out things like “people might betray you” and replace them with comfortable ironclad contracts?

(a confession: my point about books being a perpetual exercise of the author’s power in the same way foundations are a perpetual exercise of the founder’s power is unfair, and addressed by Reich in the book. He states that most permanent things wield power only as long as the living choose to humor them – eg a dead author only matters if living people choose to read them and take their advice to heart – but foundations do not need the support of the living as long as the contracts that create them remain enforced).

There is much to like about Just Giving. Its breakdown of where charitable dollars actually go (mostly to religious institutions if you’re poor, mostly to colleges and museums if you’re rich) contains data I’ve been looking for a long time, and rightly points out that we should do better. Its discussion of the way tax deductions interact with wealth is interesting, although not obviously more applicable to charity than to book-writing or anything else. Its conclusion – that charity and philanthropic foundations have an important role in diversifying the range of represented interests and experimenting with new social policy – seems dead right, and matches my own thoughts on the subject (and see also this article by Kelsey Piper). I really can’t disagree with this book too much on the object level.

And yet if my review sounds scathing, I hope this is a sort of justice. Rob Reich has limited disagreements with charity on the object level, but still manages to write what sounds like a scathing review of it. I think this is bad.

In conclusion, Just Giving is a government-subsidized exercise of plutocratic power and plutocratic voice repugnant to the very idea of a democratic society of equals. I hope this gets corrected in any future editions.

[EDIT: Professor Reich responds in the comments. Please be polite if you try to discuss this with him. Also, please stop mistaking him for former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, they are two different people.]

Open Thread 148

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Is anyone here an oncologist or orthopaedic surgeon who feels competent to answer some hard questions about pareosteal osteosarcoma, for a smart good person who will not misinterpret you or treat you as official medical advice? If so, please get in touch with me at scott[at]slatestarcodex[dot]com so I can connect you with a friend of mine who needs some help. They already have a doctor and are on track to get good care, they just want to get clarification on some of the evidence base around which treatments are best.

2. Tina White is looking for people to critique, collaborate with, or just get in touch with her about her idea for a privacy-aware app to track the spread of infectious diseases like the coronavirus. She’s especially interested in anyone who knows about the history of how plagues and quarantines have interacted with traditional privacy rights. See her EA forum post or Facebook post and request for collaborators for more information.

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Links 2/20

[Epistemic status: I haven’t independently verified each link. On average, commenters will end up spotting evidence that around two or three of the links in each links post are wrong or misleading. I correct these as I see them, but can’t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]

Lebanon’s Hope For Peace Monument is a bunch of tanks in a tall building. It’s pretty striking.

You know those crazy stories of people who are born without brains, or with only tiny shreds of brains, who somehow manage to be just as smart as anyone else? Gwern is on the case and he thinks it’s fake.

This week in “you cannot control for confounders and you will make yourself very confused if you try” – is receiving a single suspension in school really so stigmatizing that it causes you to be significantly more likely to go to prison as an adult?

Moore’s Law vs. actual transistor count over time: the video. If (as they say) Moore’s Law is really slowing down, it sure doesn’t show up in these data. is a site recording long-term (several year) public bets about the future between different people. Lots of famous people like Steven Pinker and Eric Schmidt have entries, though it seems to accept bets by regular people too. Betting against Warren Buffett looks like just as bad an idea as you would think.

Well, Boris Johnson Talking About Pink-Eyed Terminators at the UN Sure Was Weird, says this article written by someone who apparently hasn’t been following Dominic Cummings very closely.

California recently passed a law saying that all corporate boards need to be gender-balanced. A recent study finds that affected firms underperformed expectations as investors reacted negatively to them having to hire female board members less qualified than the male candidates they replaced. The paper says that “a back of the envelope calculation provides a total loss in value in excess of $60 billion”, which would mean this single bill wiped out an amount of value equal to the total GDP of North Dakota, or to the yearly price tag of Bernie Sanders’ free-college-for-all plan. Can this possibly be true? Norway passed a similar law a few decades earlier, and early studies found similarly dismal results, although a more recent study is challenging their methods. I don’t know enough econometrics to resolve their dispute, but I am updating in favor of good corporate governance being potentially a really big deal.

Mark Twain’s last universally accepted work was his autobiography, concluded just before his death in 1910. But in 1917, two spiritualist mediums claimed that Twain’s ghost had dictated them a novel via Ouija Board. The book, called Jap Herron, got generally poor reviews: the New York Times wrote that “if this is the best that ‘Mark Twain’ can do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.” It is more famous for the ensuing legal case. The Twain estate sued the publishers and trapped them in a double-bind: if the book was a fraud, they needed to cease publication; if real, they needed to pay royalties to Twain’s heirs!

“Death rates increasing among rural whites” has turned into “death rates increasing among all ethnic groups in all environments”.

I previously linked an article showing that (contra the usual narrative) most successful entrepreneurs were middle-aged or older. For a counterpoint, here’s an article demonstrating that (in accordance with the narrative) most very successful tech entrepreneurs are pretty young.

Best of new LW: Wei Dai – What determines the balance between intelligence signaling and virtue signaling? This is a much more interesting question than just accusing people of signaling things.

Did you know: cooking hamburgers any way other than well-done is illegal in Canada, and Canadians seek out a tiny US enclave where they can find the forbidden medium-rare burger. Related to my post Self-Serving Bias.

This month in sociology: politics as a balance between cultural capital vs. economic capital. Be sure to check out the very interesting linked graph.

The most powerful fire engine in the world looks like something out of Star Wars. It is limited to putting out oil well fires, because if it was used in urban areas “it would probably cause more damage to the building than a fire would”.

I’d previously heard bad things about Narendra Modi, but assumed it was the usual panic about any right-wing foreign leader. This article changed my mind. I now think that he didn’t just fail at preventing deadly anti-Muslim riots in his home state but actively helped organize them, that he organizes the intimidation and sometimes murder of journalists who investigate him and judges who rule against him, and that he’s created a climate of intimidation that makes Indians afraid to share negative information about him. And his chosen counter-narrative – that at least he makes the trains run on time – is probably false – the superb economic growth statistics that have marked his administration seem to have been faked. I think in general “this guy has a reign of terror and people are afraid to speak out against him, but at least all the official numbers show things are going well” should sound suspicious. Overall Modi and Erdogan scare me the most of any world leaders, because they show a path by which a democracy can slowly become dictatorial without a clear line where everyone unites and stops it.

Fred Newman invented a form of Marxist psychotherapy combining Vygotsky and Wittgenstein, leveraged it into a cult, and ended up taking over the New York branch of Ross Perot’s Independence Party. “According to Newman, who was not a psychologist, this ‘therapy’ helped people to ‘overthrow’ what he labeled the ‘bourgeois ego.'” Also might have been sort of responsible for pushing Bloomberg over the edge to become Mayor of New York. Also, his second-in-command was a black communist who endorsed Pat Buchanan for President.

This month in sentimental cartography: r/PoliticalCompassMemes has a map of left-libertarianism and map of right-libertarianism.

Clinical Psychiatry News: new study finds a combination of dextromethorphan and bupropion causes “a strikingly rapid and clinically meaningful reduction in depressive symptoms”.

Germany guarantees unemployed citizens around $330 per month indefinitely. The policy looks a little like basic income. I like basic income, but the way this got done was kind of sad. German law says that citizens can get unemployment benefits indefinitely, but only as long as they are trying hard to get a job. A man on benefits wanted to turn down jobs that were offered to him if they weren’t in his preferred field, and sued the state saying he should be allowed to do that. The Supreme Court agreed and said it was unconstitutional for Germany to require that people on unemployment be looking for jobs. I guess I always hoped UBI would come from a widespread utopian desire to free people from the drudgery of work, and not from judicial activism without broad-based support, but I guess I’ll see where this goes.

Mark Ledwich published a recent study showing that YouTube’s algorithm is not radicalizing people (though many commenters noted that it’s been improved since 2017, and maybe it was radicalizing people then). Now he’s published a very strong polemic arguing the same, and lambasting what he considers the echo chamber that ever made people believe otherwise. I find this a really interesting ethics-of-scientific-communication case, because although it’s a great article, he seems to be so intensely passionate about this issue that I have trouble believing he is the best person to conduct studies about it. But surely it’s wrong to say scientists should never write passionate polemics arguing for what they believe – I wouldn’t want to keep climatologists out of the debate around global warming, for example. I’m not really sure what to think about this.

I’ve been following the debate about whether the media is undercovering Bernie Sanders for a while. Town Hall Index, a really interesting “statistical news dashboard”, has a lot of neat stuff. But one of them is a tracker of how many media mentions each candidate is getting; at least if we believe them, Bernie is covered the correct amount compared to his polls (and before his polls went up, he was actually significantly over-covered).

My Semester With The Snowflakes – a 52 year old retired Navy SEAL gets accepted to an undergraduate humanities program at Yale. What happens next will surprise you! (it’s that everything goes well and there is mutual respect on all sides)

Dril vs. GPT-2 dril bot: the dril Turing Test.

Best of new LW: Nostalgebraist – Human Psycholinguists: A Critical Appraisal. Discussion of Gary Marcus’ views on language and AI and how they’ve evolved over the years.

The Center For Applied Rationality’s Participant Handbook of rationality training techniques is now freely available for the first time.

Aragon is a court system on the blockchain. I know, I know, everything on the blockchain is a scam. But this actually has a certain elegance to it – it works as a Keynesian beauty contest. “Jurors are not asked to rule impartially on disputes but instead are asked to rule the way they expect other jurors to rule. I think the idea is that the correct verdict (or what a reasonable person would interpret as the correct verdict, which in a well-functioning legal system should be the same) forms a Schelling point that everyone is supposed to converge upon. I assume somebody has thought about all the ways this could possibly go wrong and is trying to prevent them? In any case, it’s interesting purely as a statement of legal philosophy and mechanism design.

Speaking of things we definitely didn’t ask for blockchain versions of, this dating site promises to use blockchain to “revolutionize sexual consent”. Not only is the consent part even worse than it sounds, but they may have chosen literally the worst possible name for a dating site, so bad that I have no idea how it could even happen.

More confirmation that we are definitely making progress in the war on cancer.

Give GPT-2 a list of all the popular conspiracy theories, then ask it to invent new conspiracy theories. What could go wrong?

Bui et al (2011) in Psychiatry Research: Is Anakin Skywalker suffering from borderline personality disorder?

A few years ago there was a story about UC Berkeley having to stop offering free publicly available course lecture videos after deaf people sued them for not including closed captioning. Now the situation has become critical: deaf man sues PornHub for offering videos without closed captioning. Who even wants to know what people are saying in pornography anyway‽

YouGov poll – would you rather be happily married with an average income, or single but a billionaire? 23% chose the billionaire, 60% the happy marriage. If we take these results seriously, how does that change what we focus on in terms of policy and society?

When I was young, my dentist told me to read The China Study to learn about healthy eating. I never got around to it, which turns out to be a good thing. Red Pen Reviews (Stephan Guyenet’s scientific nutrition site) demolishes it. Enlightening both on diet and as a great example of how to identify and pick apart bad science.

In 1866, Congress asked the Mint to print currency notes honoring William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame). But the text of the legislation just said it should feature “Clark”. Treasury official Spencer Clark spotted the opportunity of a lifetime and began printing currency with his own picture on it. Read the article for other highlights of Clark’s career, which include accusations that he turned the Treasury into a “house for orgies and bacchanals”.

From the “drama in communities that you personally are not in” department: The Problem With Witches Manifesting Rain

I’ve been reading about the ROS Theory Of Obesity recently (site is kind of poorly arranged, you will have to piece together the right order to read it yourself). It’s semi-amateur scientific speculation and you shouldn’t take it too seriously, but I’m curious what any nutrition experts here think.

If you don’t like Google search results’ new look, you can download a script to revert it back.

Jason Collins: Ergodicity Economics: A Primer. More interesting than it sounds, though I realize that doesn’t say much.

How accurately have all climate models since 1970 predicted the evolution of climate since that time? (answer: pretty accurately)

NPR: Let’s Stop Talking About The 30 Million Word Gap. Remember the research showing that poor people (or black people) hear fewer words from their parents as children, and that’s why they fall behind in school? It failed replication. This is also an interesting study in narrative construction. When everyone believed in the word gap, it was framed as an argument for progressive ideas – “maybe you think poor/black people’s problems are their own fault, but actually the odds were stacked against them because of a childhood word gap, so we should be more willing to admit blame for poverty and fund social services” (example). Now that the word gap’s been proven false, its falsehood is an argument supporting progressive ideas- “maybe you think we don’t need to examine structural inequality because the only problem is a word gap, but that’s been debunked and is just racist victim-blaming, so we should be more willing to admit blame for poverty and fund social services.” (example). The science did a 180, but the political implications stayed exactly the same. And this beats the alternative – without this sleight-of-hand, the scientific consensus wouldn’t have been allowed to switch sides anywhere that ordinary people might hear about it.

High-context but good: In this house, we believe: this place is not a place of honor…”

The White House is apparently considering ordering that all taxpayer-funded research must be open-access (ie not paywalled). If you’re a scientist or science-adjacent, there’s a petition you can sign here.

If you’ve liked Eliezer Yudkowsky’s past fiction, you might enjoy his short stories about superhero The Masculine Mongoose and his “secret identity” (1, 2, 3).

As of earlier this month, China’s coronavirus case numbers followed such a neat quadratic curve that they seem kind of like low-effort fakes. Not sure if this also applies to the current numbers.

Related: prediction aggregation site Metaculus is launching the Li Wenliang Prize for whoever does the best job predicting the course of the coronavirus epidemic in their amateur forecasting tournament.

According to Rowling-approved Harry Potter canon, Hermione was Minister of Magic as of 2019. According to same, every time a new Muggle UK Prime Minister is elected, the Minister of Magic has to give them a briefing. Writing prompt: describe the meeting between Hermione Granger and Boris Johnson.

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Sleep Support: An Individual Randomized Controlled Trial

I worry my sleep quality isn’t great. On weekends, no matter when I go to bed, I sleep until 11 or 12. When I wake up, I feel like I’ve overslept. But if I try to make myself get up earlier, I feel angry and want to go back to sleep.

A supplement company I trust, Nootropics Depot, recently released a new product called Sleep Support. It advertises that, along with helping you fall asleep faster, it can “improve sleep quality” by “improv[ing] sleep architecture, allowing you to achieve higher quality and more refreshing sleep.” I decided to try it.

The first night I took it, I woke up naturally at 9 the next morning, with no desire to go back to sleep. This has never happened before. It shocked me. And the next morning, the same thing happened. I started recommending the supplement to all my friends, some of whom also reported good results.

I decided the next step was to do a randomized controlled trial. I obtained sugar pills, and put both the sugar pills and the Sleep Support pills inside bigger capsules so I couldn’t tell which was which. The recommended dose was two Sleep Support pills per night, so for my 24 night trial I created 12 groups of two Sleep Support pills and 12 groups of two placebo pills.

Then I asked a friend to flip a coin 24 times, and depending on the result place either a pair of Sleep Support pills or a pair of placebo pills in each slot of a monthly pill planner, and record which slot contained which pills on a secret piece of paper I could see at the end of the experiment. Then every weekend night for three months I took the next pair of pills in the planner and recorded:

– the time I went to bed
– the time I woke up
– my subjective rating of how well-rested I was upon waking
– my subjective rating of how much energy I felt like I’d had that day
– my subjective rating of how vivid my dreams were that night
– my subjective guess about whether I’d taken placebo or experimental that night

The time I went to bed wasn’t intended to be a dependent variable; I generally took the pills just before going to bed, so they couldn’t affect that. And I had no way of measuring what time I went to sleep. It was just so that I could measure my total time in bed that night.

The time I woke up was the hardest to operationalize. Usually I wake up a few times in the morning, groggily check the clock, and decide to go back to bed, then wake up for good once it becomes so late I start feeling guilty about how much of the day I’m wasting. I considered setting wake-up time as the very first time I woke up to check the clock, but sometimes I wake up at 5 AM to go to the bathroom, and I didn’t want that to get recorded as me “waking up” at 5 AM. And if I used a cutoff like “the first time I wake up after 7”, then a night I wake up at 6:59 and go back to bed and wake up for good at 11 would get recorded completely differently from a night I wake up at 7:01 and go back to bed and wake up for good at 11. But if I defined wake-up time as the time I finally woke up for good, then it would be too easy for me to subconsciously bias the experiment. “This feels like a night I took placebo, better stay in bed until at least 11:30”.

I decided to eliminate the whole problem by forbidding myself to check the clock while in bed. I would go to sleep, wake up, either decide to go back to sleep or not, and I wasn’t allowed to check the clock until I had gotten out of bed and gotten dressed.

Here’s the headline results of the experiment – number of hours I slept during experimental vs. control nights, and wake up time during experimental vs. control nights

On average there was no difference between the two groups on either measurement. There was also no difference on any of the subjective measures. My subjective guess about whether I’d taken experimental or placebo capsules that night had no correlation with the reality.

My conclusion isn’t that Sleep Support doesn’t work; I didn’t even try it for its main indication of helping with insomnia. My study was too underpowered to detect even medium-sized effects. And just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for somebody else.

My conclusion is that the effect I thought that I observed – a consistent change of two hours in my otherwise stable wake-up time – wasn’t real. This shocked me. What’s going on?

I think my original strategy of “wake up a few times in the morning, check the clock, and finally get out of bed when you really feel like it” is very susceptible to the placebo effect. Usually I might wake up at 9, decide that was too early to face the world, and go back to bed. Maybe I wouldn’t even remember doing this. Part of this was probably inertia – I wasn’t used to getting up at 9, I figured I must not have gotten enough sleep to feel good, and so I didn’t want to do it today. Once I had an exciting new sleep supplement in my system, I woke up at 9, actually checked whether or not I felt ready to wake up, and absent my usual prior that I wasn’t, I found that I was, and woke up.

This hypothesis is supported by the results of the experiment. On about a third of days, I woke up before 10 – again, something I never would have done before starting Sleep Support. I think the active ingredient here was not letting myself look at the clock. Without external cues to tell me how tired I should feel, I was forced to rely on how tired I actually felt, which in many cases was “not tired at all”. This happened regardless of whether I was taking Sleep Support or placebo that day.

Ironically, even though the supplement failed to differentiate itself from placebo, I think this is one of the most successful biohacking experiments I’ve ever done. I’m getting up on average an hour or so earlier than I did before, getting more done, and not feeling any more tired by the evening.

Future research: see if this keeps working even now that I know what’s going on.

You can download my raw data here. If you want to replicate this experiment, you can buy Sleep Support capsules here. There are lots of ways to make a placebo; I found these very large empty capsules helpful.

I’m interested in hearing about anyone else’s experience conducting controlled trials of supplements on themselves; if you do something like this and want to publish it on a blog, let me know.

Addendum to “Targeting Meritocracy”

I’ve always been dissatisfied with Targeting Meritocracy and the comments it got. My position seemed so obvious to me – and the opposite position so obvious to other people – that we both had to be missing something.

Reading it over, I think I was missing the idea of conflict vs mistake theory.

I wrote the post from a mistake theory perspective. The government exists to figure out how to solve problems. Good government officials are the ones who can figure out solutions and implement them effectively. That means we want people who are smart and competent. Since meritocracy means promoting the smartest and most competent people, it is tautologically correct. The only conceivable problem is if we make mistakes in judging intelligence and competence, which is what I spend the rest of the post worrying about.

From a conflict theory perspective, this is bunk. Good government officials are ones who serve our class interests and not their class interests. At best, merit is uncorrelated with this. At worst, we are the lower and middle class, they are the upper class, and there is some system in place (eg Ivy League universities) that disproportionately funnels the most meritorious people into the upper class. Then when we put the most meritorious people in government, we are necessarily seeding the government with upper class people who serve upper class interests.

This resolves my confusion about why people disagree with me on this point. It reinforces a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: if people seem slightly stupid, they’re probably just stupid. But if they seem colossally and inexplicably stupid, you probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that you didn’t realize you were assuming it, and should poke at the issue until you figure it out.

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Confirmation Bias As Misfire Of Normal Bayesian Reasoning

From the subreddit: Humans Are Hardwired To Dismiss Facts That Don’t Fit Their Worldview. Once you get through the preliminary Trump supporter and anti-vaxxer denunciations, it turns out to be an attempt at an evo psych explanation of confirmation bias:

Our ancestors evolved in small groups, where cooperation and persuasion had at least as much to do with reproductive success as holding accurate factual beliefs about the world. Assimilation into one’s tribe required assimilation into the group’s ideological belief system. An instinctive bias in favor of one’s in-group” and its worldview is deeply ingrained in human psychology.

I think the article as a whole makes good points, but I’m increasingly uncertain that confirmation bias can be separated from normal reasoning.

Suppose that one of my friends says she saw a coyote walk by her house in Berkeley. I know there are coyotes in the hills outside Berkeley, so I am not too surprised; I believe her.

Now suppose that same friend says she saw a polar bear walk by her house. I assume she is mistaken, lying, or hallucinating.

Is this confirmation bias? It sure sounds like it. When someone says something that confirms my preexisting beliefs (eg ‘coyotes live in this area, but not polar bears’), I believe it. If that same person provides the same evidence for something that challenges my preexisting beliefs, I reject it. What am I doing differently from an anti-vaxxer who rejects any information that challenges her preexisting beliefs (eg that vaccines cause autism)?

When new evidence challenges our established priors (eg a friend reports a polar bear, but I have a strong prior that there are no polar bears around), we ought to heavily discount the evidence and slightly shift our prior. So I should end up believing that my friend is probably wrong, but I should also be slightly less confident in my assertion that there are no polar bears loose in Berkeley today. This seems sufficient to explain confirmation bias, ie a tendency to stick to what we already believe and reject evidence against it.

The anti-vaxxer is still doing something wrong; she somehow managed to get a very strong prior on a false statement, and isn’t weighing the new evidence heavily enough. But I think it’s important to note that she’s attempting to carry out normal reasoning, and failing, rather than carrying out some special kind of reasoning called “confirmation bias”.

There are some important refinements to make to this model – maybe there’s a special “emotional reasoning” that locks down priors more tightly, and maybe people naturally overweight priors because that was adaptive in the ancestral environment. Maybe after you add these refinements, you end up at exactly the traditional model of confirmation bias (and the one the Fast Company article is using) and my objection becomes kind of pointless.

But not completely pointless. I still think it’s helpful to approach confirmation bias by thinking of it as a normal form of reasoning, and then asking under what conditions it fails.

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Welcome (?), Infowars Readers

Hello to all the new readers I’ve gotten from, uh, Paul Watson of Infowars. Before anything else, consider reading this statement by the CDC about vaccines.

Still here? Fine.

Infowars linked here with the headline Survey Finds People Who Identify As Left Wing More Likely To Have Been Diagnosed With A Mental Illness. This is accurate only insofar as the result uses the publicly available data I provide. The claim about mental illness was made by Twitter user Philippe Lemoine and not by me. In general, if a third party analyzes SSC survey data, I would prefer that media sources reporting on their analysis attribute it to them, and not to SSC.

As far as I can tell, Lemoine’s analysis is accurate enough, but needs some clarifications:

1. Both extreme rightists and extreme leftists are more likely than moderates to have been diagnosed with most conditions.

2. Leftists might be more likely to trust the psychiatric system and get diagnosed. My survey shows some signs of that. Liberals are 60% more likely than conservatives to have formal diagnoses of depression, but only 30% more likely to have a self-diagnosis of depression.

3. Leftists might be more likely to think of their issues through a psychiatric lens than rightists, meaning that even the self-diagnosis numbers might be inflated.

4. The SSC survey is a bad sample to use for this, not just because it’s unrepresentative, but because it might be unrepresentative of different political affiliations in different ways. For example, SSC Marxists really are surprisingly depressed, but maybe the only Marxists who would read an anti-Marxist blog are depressed Marxists looking for things to be miserable and angry about (though see below for some counterevidence).

5. A commenter on Lemoine’s tweet links to this blog post by someone who found the same thing in the General Social Survey. The General Social Survey is much larger and more rigorous than my survey, and there’s no reason to care what my survey has to say when there are GSS results available.

In general, if a survey analysis is posted on this blog, it’s mine. If not, then it isn’t mine and you should link to whoever performed it and let them clean up their own mess. Thanks – and seriously, vaccines are fine.

Autogenderphilia Is Common And Not Especially Related To Transgender

“Autogynephilia” means becoming aroused by imagining yourself as a woman. “Autoandrophilia” means becoming aroused by imagining yourself as a man. There’s no term that describes both, but we need one, so let’s say autogenderphilia.

These conditions are famous mostly because a few sexologists, especially Ray Blanchard and Michael Bailey, speculate that they are the most common cause of transgender. They point to studies showing most trans women endorse autogynephilia. Most trans people disagree with this theory, sometimes very strongly, and accuse it of reducing transgender to a fetish.

Without wading into the moral issues around it, I thought it would be interesting to get data from the SSC survey. The following comes partly from my own analyses and partly from wulfrickson’s look at the public survey data on r/TheMotte.

The survey asked the following questions:

First of all, thanks to the 6,715 people (182 trans, 6259 cis, 274 confused) who answered these questions despite my disclaimers. Here’s how it worked out. 5 is maximally autogenderphilic, 1 is no autogenderphilia at all:

Group (n) Autogynephilia Autoandrophilia
Cis men (5592) 2.6 1.9
Cis women (667) 2.5 2
Trans men (35) 1.9 2.3
Trans women (147) 3.2 1.3

Group* (n)** Autogynephilia (1 – 5) Autoandrophilia (1 – 5)
Straight cis men (4871) 2.6 1.8
Bi cis men (430) 2.6 3.3
Gay cis men (197) 1.7 3.4
Straight cis women (375) 2.4 1.9
Bi cis women (201) 2.8 2.5
Lesbian cis women (31) 2.5 1.9
Straight trans men (5) ??? ???
Bi trans men (19) ??? ???
Gay trans men (3) ??? ???
Straight trans women (5) ??? ???
Bi trans women (76) 3.1 1.4
Lesbian trans women (39) 3.4 1.2

*sexual orientation was self-reported. Almost all transgender people report sexual orientation relative to their current gender rather than their birth gender, so for example a “lesbian trans woman” would be someone who grew up male, currently identifies as female, and is attracted to other women. This is the opposite of how Blanchard and Bailey sometimes use these terms, so be careful comparing these results to theirs!
**results are marked as ??? for groups with sample size lower than 20

The survey confirmed Blanchard and Bailey’s finding that many lesbian trans women had strong autogynephilia. But it also confirmed other people’s findings that many cis people also have strong autogenderphilia. In this dataset, autogenderphilia rates in gay cis men were equal to those in lesbian trans women.

Autogenderphilia in cis people was divided between fantasies about being the opposite gender, and fantasies about being the gender they already were. What does it mean to fantasize about being a gender you already are? I asked a cis female friend who admitted to autogynephilia. She told me:

My literal body is arousing – it’s hot that I have breasts and can get pregnant and have a curvy figure and a feminine face and long hair, and it’s hot to dress up in femme clothes. There are certain gendered/social interactions that are very hot, or that can easily springboard into ones that are very hot. I’ve honestly wondered whether I might not be nonbinary or trans male, because I’m not really sure how euphoric being female is, besides that it’s like living in a sex fantasy.

(score one for the hypothesis that this kind of thing causes gender transition, because after reading this I kind of want to be a woman.)

Uh…moving on. The highest rates of autogenderphilia were found in bi cis men (autoandrophilia), gay cis men (autoandrophilia), bi trans women (autogynephilia), and lesbian trans women (autogynephilia).

These groups all have three things in common: they identify as the gender involved, they are attracted to the gender involved, and they are biologically male.

I would guess biological men have more of every fetish, regardless of their current gender identity, so it’s not surprising that they have more autogenderphilia also. In fact, we see that in biological women, the two highest categories are bi cis women (autogynephilia), and lesbian cis women (autogynephilia); again, they identify as the gender involved, and they are attracted to the gender involved.

So abstracting that away, the SSC survey data suggest a very boring hypothesis of autogenderphilia: if you identify as a gender, and you’re attracted to that gender, it’s a natural leap to be attracted to yourself being that gender.

The SSC survey hypothesis explains the same evidence that Blanchard and Bailey’s hypothesis explains (that lesbian trans women very often have autogynephilic fantasies), but reverse the proposed causation: it’s not that autogynephilia causes gender transition; it’s that identification as a gender is one factor that causes autogenderphilia.

But after that, it can go on to explain other things that Blanchard and Bailey can’t explain, like why cis gay men have as much autoandrophilia as trans lesbian women have autogynephilia. Or why some people with low levels of autogenderphilia transition, but many people with high levels don’t. I think it’s a simpler and more defensible explanation of the evidence.

I asked some people I know who supported Blanchard and Bailey’s theory for their thoughts. They focused on a few concerns about the data.

First, weird Internet samples plausibly have more of every paraphilia. This might inflate the rate for cis gay men and the number of trans lesbian women, assuming the latter all had to be above some cutoff; that might falsely lead me to believe the two groups have the same rate.

One counterargument might be that the responses among cis people alone are enough to generate the hypothesis discussed above. The low rates of autogynephilia in gay men, compared to in straight and bi men, suggest that being attracted to a gender is a prerequisite of autogenderphilia to it. And (adjusting again for the general tendency of male-bodied people to have more fetishes) the higher rates of autogynephilia in cis women/autoandrophilia in cis men, compared to autoandrophilia in cis women/autogynephilia in cis men, suggest that identifying as a gender is a prequisite to autogenderphilia to it.

Another counterargument might be the similarity of the histograms produced by cis gay male and trans lesbian female responses; they don’t look like they’re being generated by two different processes which have only coincidentally averaged out into the same summary statistic:

This doesn’t look like all cis men over a certain cutoff are becoming trans women; it looks like the curve for cis gay men and trans lesbian women are being shaped by the same process.

Second, did the survey questions accurately capture autogenderphilia? Fetishes range from very mild to very extreme; some people like being slapped during sex, other people have whole BDSM dungeons in their basement. Is it possible the survey captured some boring meaning of autogenderphilia, like “sure, I guess it would be hot to be a woman”, but some people have a much stronger and more obsessive form? The histogram above argues against this a little, but there might be ceiling effects.

Alice Dreger seems to take something like this perspective here:

Q: Do you think autogynephilia might be a part of the female experience, trans or cis? I’ve seen some (very preliminary) theorizing about it as well as a paper with a tiny sample size that suggest that cis women also experience sexual arousal at the thought of themselves as women.

A: I’ve talked with Blanchard, Bailey, and also Anne Lawrence about this, and my impression is they all doubt cis (non-transgender) women experience sexual arousal at the thought of themselves as women. Clinically, Blanchard observed autogynephilic natal male individuals who were aroused, for example, at the ideas of using a tampon for menses or knitting as a woman with other women. I have never heard a natal woman express sexual arousal at such ideas. I’ve never heard of a natal woman masturbating to such thoughts.

I asked the same cis female friend who gave me the quotation above, and she described using a tampon to masturbate and finding it hot. I think Dreger makes an important point that there are some pretty unusual manifestations of autogenderphilic fetishes out there and we should hesitate before drawing too many conclusions from a single question that lumps them all together. But also, Alice Dreger seems like an really dignified and important person who probably doesn’t hang out with people who talk openly about their menstruation-related masturbation fantasies, and she should probably adjust for that. Maybe she could move to the Bay Area.

There’s a common failure mode in psychiatry, where we notice people with some condition doing some weird thing, and fail to notice that huge swathes of people without the condition do the exact same weird thing. For example, everyone knows schizophrenics hear voices, but until recently nobody realized that something like 20% of healthy people do too. Everyone knows that LSD users can end up with permanent visual hallucinations, but until recently nobody realized that lots of drug-free people have the same problem. Schizophrenics definitely hear more voices than healthy people, and LSD users have more permanent visual hallucinations, but it’s movement along the distribution rather than a completely novel phenomenon.

I think autogenderphilia is turning out to work the same way, and that this will require us to reassess the way we think about it.

As usual, I welcome people trying to replicate or expand on these results. All of the data used in this post are freely available and can be downloaded here. I’ve also heard Michael Bailey is going to release his own interpretation of these data, so stay tuned for that. I’d like to delve into these issues further on future surveys, so let me know if you have ideas about how to do that.

And a big thanks to Tailcalled for helping me set up this section of the survey. If you’re interested in these issues, you might enjoy his blog or his own analysis of these results.

Open Thread 147

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. I’m no longer soliciting updates about when links in my old posts no longer work. There are over a thousand SSC posts, and some are 5+ years old. I’m sure there are lots of links that no longer work, but keeping up with them would be a full-time job and I’m not interested (if someone else is, let me know).

2. I’ve added this to my Mistakes page, but it seems important enough that I want to signal-boost it here too: I’ve been informed of some studies suggesting Ritalin is just as likely to increase Parkinson’s disease risk as Adderall. This contradicts my previous position expressed in Adderall Risks: Much More Than You Wanted To Know that only Adderall and not Ritalin had this risk. I can no longer trace down the evidence supporting my previous position. Sorry for getting this wrong.

3. I had originally planned to end my review of Human-Compatible with a push for Soeren Everlin’s AI Safety Reading Group, which meets online every Wednesday and which was discussing Human Compatible for a while. But I waited too long and didn’t publish the review until they were done with the discussion. But that’s not their fault, and I still think you should check them out [see this comment for logistical info]

4. Comment on the week is Nick on Tyler Cowen’s state capacity libertarianism and the whole ensuing comment thread. And somehow I’ve lost the source comment, but also check out this article on how latitude affects binge drinking and not alcohol consumption per se. This may mean we don’t have to bring in sexual abuse to understand Greenland’s continued high suicide rates.

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