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Gender equality and evolutionary psychology can co-exist

29 May

I was perplexed by this post in Slate: “Sorry, Evo Psych Fans. Our Caveman Ancestors Probably Practiced Gender Equality.” The first Paragraph reads:

“It’s a sad week for evolutionary psychology buffs. A new paper out in Science, by a group of scientists led by University College London anthropologist Mark Dyble, suggests that despite widespread claims to the contrary, early hunter-gatherer societies likely practiced equality between the sexes.”

Why does author Amanda Marcotte assume that evolutionary psychologists would be upset by these findings?

Evolutionary psychology is based on the assertion that human cognition is shaped by the same forces of natural selection that shapes our anatomy and physiology. This seems so obviously true to me.  A lot of attention is paid to the work of evolutionary psychologists on how human sexual behavior is shaped by selection, but this hardly exhausts the field. For example, as a developmental and educational psychologist I am very interested in why speaking a language comes easy to children, while learning to read is much more difficult. Or take the question of obesity, isn’t it plausible that there is a mismatch between our evolutionary propensity to seek high calorie foods and the food abundant environment that we now inhabit?

Moreover, there seems to be an epistemic-values confusion here. Gender equality is worthwhile goal and it should not be tied to any particular scientific finding. Suppose the findings Marcotte cites were overturned by later investigations? Would we then be required to abandon the struggle for gender equality? Of course not. We should strongly resist the is – ought fallacy.



Do moral stories promote honesty in children?

8 Jul

When my kids were little I used to read to them a lot. As a parent you quickly discover there are two kinds of children’s literature, ones that the child prefers and the one’s that adults like. Great children’s literature appeals to both parents and child.

There is a category of books and stories that are supposed to impart values to the child. This study is the first I know of that investigates if these stories have an effect on behavior. The results are fascinating:

“The classic moral stories have been used extensively to teach children about the consequences of lying and the virtue of honesty. Despite their widespread use, there is no evidence whether these stories actually promote honesty in children. This study compared the effectiveness of four classic moral stories in promoting honesty in 3- to 7-year-olds. Surprisingly, the stories of “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” failed to reduce lying in children. In contrast, the apocryphal story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” significantly increased truth telling. Further results suggest that the reason for the difference in honesty-promoting effectiveness between the “George Washington” story and the other stories was that the former emphasizes the positive consequences of honesty, whereas the latter focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty. When the “George Washington” story was altered to focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty, it too failed to promote honesty in children.”


Time of day affects ethics

13 Feb

A paper in Psychological Science reports that time a day affects moral behavior. The abstract:

“Are people more moral in the morning than in the afternoon? We propose that the normal, unremarkable experiences associated with everyday living can deplete one’s capacity to resist moral temptations. In a series of four experiments, both undergraduate students and a sample of U.S. adults engaged in less unethical behavior (e.g., less lying and cheating) on tasks performed in the morning than on the same tasks performed in the afternoon. This morning morality effect was mediated by decreases in moral awareness and self-control in the afternoon. Furthermore, the effect of time of day on unethical behavior was found to be stronger for people with a lower propensity to morally disengage. These findings highlight a simple yet pervasive factor (i.e., the time of day) that has important implications for moral behavior.”

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The life you can save

1 Feb

Here is a video presentation of Peter Singer’s famous thought experiment:


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