Nation of Beancounters

Game theory and consent

Posted in Culture, Gender by Navin Kumar on February 17, 2014

A man asks a woman out on a date. She’s interested in a long-term relationship i.e. a boyfriend. She doesn’t want to waste her time or money on someone interested in casual sex i.e. a player . She doesn’t know what her proposer wants. Asking would be silly – a man who’s only interested in sex would lie, enjoy a romp in the hay, and not call the next day. She decides to “play hard to get” – pretend to be more reluctant to go on a date than she is. She believes that a would-be boyfriend would persist in asking her out, while a player wouldn’t.

Now let’s look at things from the man’s perspective. He doesn’t know if the woman is genuinely uninterested or merely playing hard to get. If he wants casual sex, it doesn’t matter – the cost of persisting is too high to bother. If, on the other hand, he wants a long-term relationship and thinks that there is a reasonable chance that she is “just playing”, it’s in his interest to persist. The expected gain from her eventually saying yes may (and here we assume does) exceed the cost of pursuing her. Thus, a player will back off, while a would be boyfriend will not*.

Thus, men and women both end up having their beliefs confirmed. Women who want relationships play hard to get because they know that would-be boyfriends will persist and players won’t. Thus some fraction of women who say “no” don’t mean it. Would-be boyfriends know this and persist. Players don’t persist because sex isn’t worth the trouble. Thus all the individuals in this little game are playing their best response to each others strategies. This is what game theorist call an equilibrium.

The problem is that some women are genuinely not interested in the men asking them out. For them, being repeatedly approached isn’t a positive sign; it’s harassment. It imposes serious psychological costs. It is for such women that sexual harassment laws have been introduced.

However, men’s persistence isn’t the only thing causing their plight. It’s ultimately caused by the equilibrium that all the players find themselves in. An important part of that equilibrium is the strategy other women use to filter out players from potential boyfriends. If they stopped playing hard to get, men would have no incentive to persist, and our victim would have been spared. This is not to let men off the hook. After all, if all men backed off as soon women said no, it would be impossible to tell players and non-players apart from how quickly they backed off. Thus, women would no longer have an incentive use “playing hard to get” as a filter. Both men and women are to blame for this bad equilibrium.

(This is not “blaming the victim”. The victims are the women who are uninterested and so feel harassed; the accused are the women who are interested but play hard to get.)

Yet, whenever the question of consent arises, activists demand changes in male behavior, while ignoring the female behavior that supports it. Worse, they present “No Means No” as a factual statement: all the women who are saying “No” to you are genuinely uninterested in you. This is false. One famous study examined whether women ever say no to sex when they mean yes. 39% of their sample had done so at least once, and more than two thirds had said no when they meant maybe.

Filtering boyfriends from players is just one reason for women to pretend more reluctance that they feel. I’ve given it the spotlight because it’s the easiest one to model. Other reasons include: the desire to filter confident, assertive men from “weak” men; the desire to avoid being labelled a “slut” by others; the desire to prove to oneself that one is not a “slut”; the belief that one will not be “respected” if one “gives it up too easily”; the thrill of the being chased; the desire to enact a rape fantasy; the desire to gain power in a relationship; the desire to extract more resources (attention, dinners etc) before terminating a casual relationship etc. And while I’ve presented the refusal as happening at the point of the date, this logic can apply to any stage of the relationship.

If the consent movement ignores this facet of mating behavior, it will fail. Why? Suppose that men in our model were presented with the proposition that women never play hard to get. If all men believed it and changed their behavior instantly, women would be forced to change theirs as well. The equilibrium would collapse. However, suppose instead that some men believe it and others remained skeptical. Women still have an incentive to play hard to get. By doing so, they would snag the skeptics who are interested in relationships as boyfriends, while avoiding the skeptics and believers who are interested in casual sex. A month after the news that “No Means No” came out, the believers and skeptics gather at the pub and compare notes. All the skeptics who want girlfriends now have them, while the believers don’t. The believers conclude that their new strategy is bust, and go back to persisting in the face of resistance. This is true of any movement which tries to sell “No Means No” as a fact. When skeptics do better than believers, beliefs collapse.

This is unfortunate. I want the “No Means No” movement to succeed. Heck, I want the even more ambitious “Yes Means Yes” movement – which calls for a verbal affirmation before sexual acts – to succeed as a social norm**. These movements started in the West, but I think they will eventually find their way to India. What changes do activists have to make to succeed?

Firstly, they must recognize that female behavior is also responsible for this unhappy state of affairs. They must work to raise awareness about it, and to discourage women from engaging in it. They must recognize that actions that are in the interests of individual women (filtering suitors) are not in the interests of women as a whole (avoiding harassment.)

Secondly, they must present “No Means No” as an ethical norm, rather than a factual statement. The idea should be: a moral man should treat “no” as meaning “no” even if the person is possibly faking it. A moral woman doesn’t say “no” unless she means “no”. As time goes on, and we gradually shift from one equilibrium to another, “no means no” will become a factual statement. In the interim, our best bet is impose the costs for immoral behavior (guilt, shame, censure, ostracism etc) on those who break the rules. Few men will take seriously a movement that claims that “[affirmative] Consent is Sexy” when it’s so far from what experience teaches them and women themselves say. Best stick to Consent is Right.

In closing, there are three additional problems with the current male-centered approach:

Firstly, it denies women agency, to invoke a term that is much in vogue. More correctly, it denies that women have agency. It treats them as playing an entirely passive role in the mating process. It ignores the fact that they are savvy players in a complex game. It contributes to the narrative where women are helpless victims at the mercy of men.

Secondly, it treats the mating process as though it were something simple, made complex because of something called “culture”. Somehow, everyone wants an honest, open, mutually respectful relationship, but “culture” thwarts their attempts to enter one. The reality is different. Most people want the same things from a relationship – sex, companionship, children etc. However, relationships are also the site of much conflict, over sex, money, freedom etc. He wants commitment; she wants a fling. He to splurge; she wants to put the money in a retirement account. He wants to spend the night out with the boys; she wants him home by 10. It is these inescapable conflicts of interest that complicates matters, and lead to dishonesty, not “culture”. In this case, there is a conflict of interest (woman wants commitment; man might want casual sex) that leads to dishonesty (playing hard to get). The man’s persistence isn’t the result of a “culture that devalues consent.”

Finally, it is unfair to men. It forces them to bear the entire costs of shifting from one equilibrium to another. It holds them accountable for a terrible state of affairs while letting equally culpable women off the hook.

UPDATE: To clarify: “Persisting” here is a metaphor or stand-in for all behavior that involves ignoring a woman’s stated preferences. “Playing hard to get” is a metaphor or stand-in for all behavior that involves pretending more reluctance than one feels. The story at the beginning was a metaphor for all situations in which women and men have an incentive to lie and persist respectively. All models are parables of some kind.

Disclaimer: over the course of the post, I’ve used “man” to mean the initiator of a sexual act, and “woman” to mean the non-initiator. I’ve done so for the sake of clarity, and because it it’s a reasonable assumption, given modern gender roles. Nonetheless, it doesn’t always hold: women do initiate, men do respond, these roles aren’t clearly delineated in homosexual relationships, and men too can be the victims of harassment and sexual assault, sometimes at the hands of women.


* To make this example more concrete, let’s assume the following: the cost of persisting is 45 to both men. The payoff to the man seeking sex is 80. The payoff to the man seeking a relationship is 100. 50% of all women are interested in a relationship, while 50% of women are not. The payoff to not persisting is zero.

Thus the payoff to persisting for the man who’s interested in sex = (.5*80) – 45 = -5, which is less that zero, the payoff to not persisting. The payoff to persisting for the man who’s interested in a relationship = (.5*100) – 45 = +5, which is greater than zero, the payoff to persisting. Thus men interested in only sex wouldn’t persist, and others would.

** But not as a legal one.

The “Dekh Le” video is award bait crap

Posted in Culture, Gender, Reviews & Critiques by Navin Kumar on December 23, 2013

Here is a pro-tobacco advertisement:

cig 11

A sexy macho man doing sexy macho man things, like science. While smoking and gazing into the distance in a sexy macho way. This ad was meant to sell. Here is an anti-tobacco ad:

cig anti

The image is gorgeous, and the message is subtle. Too subtle. Hospital beds aren’t scary. The number of people actually persuaded to not smoke by this ad is probably zero. This ad was meant to demonstrate how clever the ad firm was, with it’s “creative” copywriters, and artists who have a highly developed understanding of negative space. It is meant to win awards for the firm. This kind of ad usually crops up around a few weeks before the Cannes deadlines, and has a very small circulation. There’s nothing wrong with these ads, insofar that they contribute to making the world a place full of beautiful things, but it’s foolish to pretend they have any impact on smoking.

Here is the new viral video that is sweeping through social media:

Let’s start with what the main thing the video doesn’t do – it doesn’t persuade lecherous men to not stare at women. Men aren’t women, and if they received overt sexual attention, whether from their reflections or from other people, they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable – they’d feel flattered. The response of these men to their reflections is inexplicable, and weirdly abrupt. Contra what some say, it doesn’t even send out the message that “You look ridiculous and creepy, and we can see you” – the men look neither ridiculous nor creepy, and two of the four women don’t notice that they’re being stared at (one is asleep and another has her back turned to the gazer). It’s not clear what harm the gazers are inflicting in the latter cases. The film will definitely not have any impact on those men who publicly engage in overt sexual behavior (whistling, singing, making lewd comments) in order to induce annoyance in, and thus extract attention from, women.

Another thing that films and ads can do is demonize people who behave in a socially harmful way. People internalize these depictions and, eager to avoid seeing themselves as “bad” people, desist from acting in this fashion. Unfortunately, the ad fails at this. The men aren’t particularly repugnant – some are objectively good-looking (sharp angular face, dark blazer, macho stubble.) The expression on their faces wouldn’t strike most men as particularly leery. If you want to demonize men who stare, you need to portray them as disgusting, foul villains; the kind of people you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I never thought I’d say this, but this film humanizes the men too much.

There’s a difference between looking at someone of the opposite sex – which is not only acceptable, but necessary in any society that doesn’t rely exclusive on arranged marriages to generate pair bonds – and staring, which can make people feel uncomfortable. The film could’ve highlighted the difference. It could’ve helped distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. It didn’t. Two of the stories – the one on the scooty and the one in the cafe – didn’t seem to involve prolonged staring at all. This fact is, I think, what annoyed many of the viewers.

If the film didn’t do any of these things, what did it do? Well, it allowed Whistling Woods International – an expensive private film school – to gain some free publicity by latching on to an important social issue. It allowed some of it’s alumni to showcase their film making skill – look at how creatively we can use reflective surfaces! Look at how tight our screenplay is! It will give a bunch of film geeks the masturbatory pleasure of abstraction – ten to one says that, before the week is up, some prominent film critic will talk about how the video “reflects the male gaze back on itself” and includes two other mirror metaphors in a 500 word column. The video is naked award bait.

As a student film, the video is excellent. The use of reflective surfaces is actually pretty clever, and the editing and direction are very good. The soundtrack is fantastic. But let’s not pretend that it’s anything more than a work of art that has little impact on the behavior of lecherous men. “Public Interest” films should raise awareness about a problem, suggest social norms to combat it, help define where those norms begin and end, and penalize individuals who violate them. This film did none of that.

Is there something to the “tattoo taboo”?

Posted in Culture by Navin Kumar on June 24, 2013

The Times of India has an article on how people with tattoos are negatively judged – as unprofessional, rebellious, and “loose” . It’s tempting to dismiss these judgements as baseless, but they aren’t necessarily. Stereotypes can be self-fulfilling – for example, suppose blacks are thought of as being criminal, reducing legal employment opportunities (who wants to hire a convict?). This increases the number of blacks committing crimes, and thus confirms the stereotype that blacks are criminal. Discovering this kind of vicious circle is one of the more fun parts of being a social scientist.

Imagine that there are two types of people: conformists, who follow social norms because they fear being judged adversely, and non-conformists, who don’t. Both types enjoy having a tattoo equally. Suppose that it is impossible to tell them apart by just looking at them. Suppose, furthermore, that there is a social norm against tattoos. What kind of person would acquire them? The non-conformists, of course, who don’t care what others think of them.

Suppose that people face stern rebukes and stained reputations for being “unprofessional” or “unreliable”. Non-conformists are likely to not care about such things and thus face a lower cost for being “unprofessional” or “unreliable”. Thus, they will engage in more “unprofessional” and “unreliable” behavior. Similarly, non-conformists are more likely to disregard social norms against having sex (at the risk of being labelled “loose” or “easy”), or ignore norms that say that one shouldn’t “talk back” or otherwise disobey one’s in-laws (at the risk of being labelled “rebellious” or “opinionated”). In this model of reality, such people are also more likely to get a tattoo.

Some people will therefore observe (correctly) that individuals with tattoos are more likely to possess characteristics that they consider undesirable in a partner or colleague. This leads to them negatively judging individuals who have tattoos, and thus tattoos become things that only non-conformists acquire. The circle is complete. Note that tattoos are a completely arbitrary taboo in the above model – we could replace them with short haircuts, or butterfly earrings, and the argument would remain valid.

There is some supporting evidence for this in the article. Firstly, if judging tattoos are a matter of discovering some unknown quality, once the quality is known about, the tattoo should become irrelevant. Indeed, that is the case:

But, she adds, once you establish a good working relationship with someone, the tattoo becomes the most interesting aspect of your personality. “Then everyone wants to know the significance – the what, how and why of it,” she says.

Non-conformists are more interesting than conformists.

Secondly, people come from different backgrounds, and not everyone is breaking a social rule by getting a tattoo. People from places where tattooing is not frowned upon shouldn’t be judged negatively. Again, this is the case:

The armed forces recently issued orders, after recruitment centers reported that youngsters were sporting intricate tattoos, that “all aspiring candidates with elaborate tattoos should be rejected because they are against the military ethos and good discipline”. If the tattoos are small and had some religious significance, or if they are names etched on forearms or back of the hands, they aren’t a problem. Tribals are also allowed to have tattoos as per their customs.

Note that in certain subcultures, tattoos could a positive signal, indicating that a person has broken ties with the “mainstream”. I believe this is true for the “skinhead”, “hipster”, and some “gangster” subcultures.

*For some reason, sex is a moral issue in this country.

Sentence of the day

Posted in Culture by Navin Kumar on January 18, 2013

Does this count as prostitution or fraud?

Married lawyer, 58, ‘had affair with divorce client then billed her for times they had sex’

A puzzle for post-modern cultural theorists

Posted in Culture by Navin Kumar on January 17, 2013

Why don’t real life New York Chinese restaurants look like the ones you see in movies?

This is a Hollywood Chinese restaurant:

Hollywood Restaurant

This is a real Chinese restaurant:

Real Restaurant

Why isn’t life imitating art? Why isn’t the portrayal of restaurants in movies affecting the construction of restaurants in real life? Is it that these effects are stochastic, and might or might not happen? Or is there some threshold of over the top restaurant portrayal that must occur before these effects start becoming obvious? Please drop your answers in the comments.

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Veblen goods in the dark

Posted in Culture by Navin Kumar on January 16, 2013

For when you want people to know how high status you are, regardless of lighting.

1. The glow in the dark iPhone case

veblen iphone









2. Nothing says I have crap taste in music but money to burn like glow in the dark beats (by Dre) skin.

veblen skin









3. Conspicuous consumption doesn’t get less utilitarian than glow in the dark sunglasses.

veblen nooka











Culled from here.

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