Friday, September 7, 2012

Racism is not clever

On August 19 Alex Tabarrox over at Marginal Revolution responded to a Chris Hayes quote “It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other” with a blog post entitled Racism by Political Party. He checked out data available on the General Social Survey and found that there was no difference in the extent of racism between the Democrats and Republicans. This no doubt came as a surprise to many on the left. I thought it would be interesting to extend his analysis beyond party identification. In particular I wanted to see what the Smart Vote i.e. intelligent opinion, had to say about racism. Without any controls racism varies strongly with IQ. The higher a person’s IQ the less likely they are to be racist. Every 2-3 IQ points reduces the chances of some racist view by about one percent among whites. It is negligible at IQs above 132 (Mensa level), jumping to 1in 10 at average IQs and to 1 in 3 at IQs below 70. Now IQ also varies with education and income, and maybe with political outlook, so it would be a good idea to control for these variables before we deduce that intelligent opinion per se is opposed to racism. It could be that what looks like intelligent opinion is simply the effect of more education in a system that explicitly tries to eliminate racist views. Consider the Table below. The column under each heading is the list of regression coefficients and the column to the immediate right of those are the significance levels. The first two rows of results utilized linear regression on racism variables with more than two alternatives. The third row utilizes logistic regression to predict the probability of one answer on binary racism questions. Firstly note that while racist views increase with age there has been a decline in racism across all groups over the years. Secondly Political Party identity is indeed unrelated to racism on seven of eight questions. Republicans are only more likely than Democrats to think the relative lack of achievement of blacks is due to ‘lack of will’. On the other hand, conservatism is strongly related to racism on seven of eight questions. Only on the relative lack of black achievement being due to ‘inborn disability’ do conservatives not differ from liberals. In other words conservatives tend to be racists but Republicans do not so perhaps the equating of Republican with conservative is unwarranted. Women are less racist than men on two out of eight questions (even after their greater liberalism is accounted for). There are economic theories suggesting that poor whites may be more racist because they face greater job competition from blacks however income shows no relationship to racist views – except on one question where higher earners are more likely to oppose laws against interracial marriage. Lower education and lower IQs are both independently and strongly related to racism on all but one question (and that one they are just outside of statistical significance). So education does persistently and effectively work to oppose racist attitudes but it (and all the other control variables) do not account for the strong rejection of racism by intelligent opinion. Racism is truly a stupid attitude. On a more general level it seems that intelligent opinion is opposed to restricting the freedoms and rights of members of any group.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Smart Immigration Policy

Almost everyone is at least a little suspicious of out group members, so it should come as no surprise that most citizens view foreigners who want to live and work in their country with suspicion. Immigrants tend to be blamed for many negative things. They are accused of taking away jobs that citizens believe should be reserved for them and quite a few countries have laws saying a company can only employ a foreign national if they can show that a citizen could not be found to fill. The presence of foreign labor is frequently protested when labor markets are tight and in some countries this has reached the point of violence and mass displacement of immigrants. Immigrants are disproportionately blamed for crime. Some think immigrants come to live off welfare systems at the expense of citizens. Still others see immigrants as a threat to national culture e.g. Muslims are frequently seen as threat to countries with a Christian or secular history, and no doubt visa versa. Then there is outright racism or ethnocentrism.

To be fair suspicion and hostility aren’t the only reactions to immigrants. Some do view them positively. However on balance feelings are negative. So much so that between half and two thirds of the adult population of the USA wish to see immigration reduced from current levels, and only 5-10% wish to see it increased.

Before discussing empirical findings on the various purported pros and cons of immigration, and various intellectual arguments around it, I want to explore what intelligent opinion has to say about the issue.

The General Social Survey has a number of questions around the possible effects of immigrants. For each alternative on each question I tabled the percentage of public support and a Smart Vote score. The Smart Vote score is a measure of how much and in which direction IQ variations are related to an opinion. It is calculated as follows.

I calculate the ratio of the probability that the smartest and dullest IQ groups will support an alternative i.e. p(IQ>116)*(1-p(IQ<85))/((1-p(IQ>116))*p(IQ<85)) – call this the extreme ratio. Next I calculate the same for the intermediate IQ ranges i.e. p(IQ 100-115)*(1-p(IQ 85-99))/((1-p(IQ 100-115))*p(IQ 85-99)) – call this the intermediate ratio.

The Smart Vote score is 100*√((3*extreme ratio + intermediate ratio)/4)

I restricted the analysis to white opinion only because race is likely to be a strong confounding factor regarding immigration.

The table can be seen below.

Overall it seems more intelligent opinion thinks immigrants are good for America and that they contribute to improving America and making it more open. More intelligent opinion denies that immigrants make things bad. The Smart Vote is against immigrants increasing crime, taking away local jobs or undermining national unity. Finally more intelligent opinion is that there a small but non-zero chance that immigrants lead to economic growth. In short, the more intelligent the person the more likely they are to think that immigrants are not bad but good for America. The general public however tends to think unintelligently on immigration taking jobs away and undermining national unity.

In line with this more intelligent opinion is also in favor of treating immigrants better. The table below shows that more intelligent opinion is in favor of solid rights for immigrants, and that it doesn’t think immigrants are too demanding about it. More intelligent opinion is also in favor of helping immigrants overcome bias and extending government assistance if needed and doesn’t think the government spends too much on them.

On the other hand more intelligent opinion is against illegal immigrants getting work permits and access to public education. However, intelligent opinion seems neutral on whether the US should exclude illegal immigrants altogether. Finally, should the USA let in more or fewer immigrants? In spite of intelligent opinion regarding immigrants as a good thing generally this doesn’t translate into advocating letting in more of them. More intelligent opinion seems to think current immigration rates are close to ideal. Overall, more intelligent opinion is for assisting legal immigrants to overcome problems and bias, and perhaps granting them equal rights, but for keeping the rate of immigration close to the current rate. The majority of the general public, however, seem to lean toward the less intelligent choice of being unhelpful to immigrants and toward greater exclusion of them – both legal and illegal.

Before we accept this picture the issue of special interests associated with intelligence need to be addressed. The following table is a summary of the multiple regression results on all the questions dealt with above, controlling for education, income, gender, age and ideology. Race is already controlled for because all results apply to white opinion only. The table shows the significance level achieved and the direction of the relationship.
** Means a significance level > 5% but less than 10%.

Note that the more intelligent view i.e. the Smart Vote, that immigration is good rather than bad, is confirmed. On the other hand it seems the seemingly intelligent view that legal immigrants should be assisted and granted equal rights, or that illegal immigrants not be given access to work permits or public education, is probably special interests speaking rather than intelligent opinion per se. The intelligent opinion that current rates of legal immigration are about right is confirmed.

It seems that increased education in the US leads to a strong pro immigrant attitude across the board. The interests associated with gender or income differences don’t seem to matter much. A Conservative outlook is associated with believing immigrants lead to crime and unemployment, with the view that they shouldn’t be assisted or given more rights and the view that illegal immigrants should be totally excluded. Liberals tend to hold the opposite view. Surprisingly, at least to me, is that while older people tend to reject giving immigrants greater rights or helping them they are more inclined to think immigrants are good rather than bad for America than are younger people.

To summarize – the smartest view on immigrants is that they are good and not bad for America, and that the current rate of legal immigration is about right. Whether to help them or give them greater rights is unanswered. The general public’s view however is that immigrants do have a few bad effects and leans towards reducing the rate of immigration generally.

Why should we restrict immigration?

So much for the arrow of the Smart Vote in the absence of evidence and argument, but what does the evidence say? Here are some of the findings.
The labor force participation rate among immigrants is higher than that of the native born and higher still among illegal immigrants1.

Immigrants tend to self select states with lower social or welfare spending especially illegal immigrants who have no reason to favor welfare states since they aren’t eligible. Immigrants clearly aren’t moving in order to live off American welfare1.

The fiscal effects of illegal immigrants was very slightly negative – they consumed 24.4% more in services than they paid in taxes - but the economic effects are very strongly positive – over 35 times the fiscal loss!2

Since people don’t like paying for people different from themselves immigration will undermine welfare spending and not increase it.

Low skilled immigrant labor frees high skilled natives to do more productive work thereby increasing the growth rate.3

Low skilled immigrants e.g. those whose comparative advantage is manual labor, open up slightly higher level coordination and integration jobs for low skilled natives who speak English, and improves their pay.3

Immigration keeps America young and mostly working – good for growth and maintaining the social security system.4

Immigrants have lower per capita crime rates.

Border enforcement is costly – much more so than the fiscal costs incurred by illegal immigrants.

What we gleaned from intelligent opinion alone is correct – immigration is good and not bad for America.

Why should they be treated as criminals for wanting to do an honest day’s work? Why should a free transaction between a US citizen and a foreigner be banned? Free trade is almost an article of faith among economists of all ideologies so why not free trade in labor? The most convincing arguments I’ve seen for open immigration are those of Bryan Caplan – professor of economics at George Mason University. I lifted the following verbatim from his blog EconLog.

Many libertarians would condemn [the American government's treatment of immigrants] as "inexcusable." I rest my argument on a weaker premise: whether or not the facts are "inexcusable," they do require an excuse. On the surface, it seems wrong to prohibit voluntary exchange between natives and foreigners. Proponents of immigration restrictions have to show why, moral appearances notwithstanding, immigration restrictions are morally justified.

They fail to do so. Immigration restrictions are not necessary to protect American workers. Most Americans benefit from immigration, and the losers don't lose much. Immigration restrictions are not necessary to protect American taxpayers. Researchers disagree about whether the fiscal effects of immigration are positive or negative, but they agree that the fiscal effects are small. Immigration restrictions are not necessary to protect American culture. Immigrants make our culture better--and their children learn fluent English. Immigration restrictions are not necessary to protect American liberty. Immigrants have low voter turnout and accept our political status quo by default. By increasing diversity, they undermine native support for the welfare state. And on one important issue--immigration itself--immigrants are much more pro-liberty than natives.

Even if all these empirical claims are wrong, though, immigration restrictions would remain morally impermissible. Why? Because there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote. Whatever your complaint happens to be, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy.

Elsewhere Caplan argues that immigration is fantastically beneficial to immigrants themselves. Unskilled labor from the developing world earn on average 10 times more in the developed world as they would in their country of origin, and that open immigration globally would double global GDP. Open immigration is by far the best anti-poverty measure in existence.

Mat Yglesias on Moneybox (part of Slate) – another superb commentator but from a different ideological camp to Caplan – argues that immigration should lead to improved labor conditions in the country of origin, because good workers would vote with their feet and employers would have to increase wages and improve working conditions to compete. He has also argued that immigrants (including illegal immigrants) will need houses, food, medicine, transport, clothing, entertainment, etc which means more business for suppliers of those things and therefore more jobs for locals.

Intelligent opinion is that a policy of increasingly restricting immigration is likely to be stupid and badly thought through. The arguments and evidence above strongly confirm that view. I don’t know why the Smart Vote is not more frankly for open immigration.


1. Immigration and the Welfare State by Daniel T Griswold
2. Immigration and Economic Growth by Gordon Hanson
3. Immigration, Labor Markets and Productivity by Giovanni Peri
4. America’s Demographic Future by Joel Kotkin & Erika Ozuna
5. Why Should We Restrict Immigration? by Bryan Caplan
6. Economics and Immigration: Trillion Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk? by Michael A Clemens

Friday, March 16, 2012

Chess, intelligence and winning arguments


We have all had arguments. Occasionally these reach an agreed upon conclusion but usually the parties involved either agree to disagree or end up thinking the other party hopelessly stupid, ignorant or irrationally stubborn. Very rarely do people consider the possibility that it is they who are ignorant, stupid, irrational or stubborn even when they have good reason to believe that the other party is at least as intelligent or educated as themselves.

Sometimes the argument was about something factual where the facts could be easily checked e.g. who won a certain football match in 1966.

Sometimes the facts aren’t so easily checked because they are difficult to understand but the problem is clear and objective. One famous example is the Monty Hall dilemma. In a certain game show a contestant is presented with three doors, behind one of which is a really desirable main prize and behind the other two are booby prizes. The contestant is asked to choose the door he thinks the main prize is behind. The game show host, who knows where the prize is, then opens a booby prize door. He can do that even if you picked the main prize door. The contestant is now offered the chance to change his choice to the other closed door. The question is – should he? The correct answer is that he should because it would double his chances of winning the main prize. This fact proved so hard to grasp that only 8% of the laymen and 35% of academics who tried it, got it right initially. Many of them damned Marilyn vos Savant for misleading the public with her answer in her Parade column Ask Marilyn. Among those academics getting it wrong, were a fair number of senior professional mathematicians and statisticians, including the great Paul Erdos. After a great deal of explanation, the proportion of people who accept the correct answer increased to 56% of laymen and 71% of academics. The figure is more like 97-100% for those who carried out an experiment or simulation, so in essence a large proportion of those approaching the problem through pure logic continue to fail to grasp it.

Sometimes the facts aren’t as mathematical or logical as the Monty Hall solution. Each party to the argument appeals to ‘facts’ which the other party disputes. The disputed facts could be anything from the validity of the theory underlying a phenomenon, or the empirical results supposedly shedding light on the topic. A good example would be the debate among economists about the causes of the most recent US recession and the most useful way out of it. On one side are those who think the solution is less government spending to reduce deficits, and simply leaving the economy to painfully sort out major structural mal-investments and imbalances. They believe intervention is likely to create worse problems later. The other side says aggregate demand is the problem and that the recession can and should be fixed via some kind of fiscal and monetary intervention. This side believes intervention will make things better, not worse, in both the long and short term. Both sides claim that the other side’s view has been thoroughly discredited by empirical events in the past, and will point to current events ‘obviously’ supporting their expectations, or when they haven’t will issue dire warnings that it will, soon. A similarly insoluble argument is being had around the ‘facts’ of global warming.

Sometimes the arguments boil down to differences in values. For example, what tastes better chocolate or vanilla ice cream, or who is prettier Jane or Mary? In these cases there isn’t really a correct answer – even when a large majority favors a particular alternative. Values also have a strong way of influencing what people accept as evidence or indeed what they perceive at all.

The unreasonableness of continuing disagreement

The interesting thing is that when the disagreement isn’t a pure values difference it should always be possible to reach agreement. Robert Aumann, a Nobel winning game theorist (who I’ve had the pleasure of chatting to) proved that under conditions of common knowledge it isn’t possible to agree to disagree – even when the parties start with completely different information, facts and theories. In a simplified format it goes like this. Party A says the answer is X. Party B, who considers the answer to be Y, hears this and, if rational, will think “A must either have access to evidence that I don’t or doesn’t have access to some evidence that I do.” Under the notion of evidence I include not only facts but also the reasoning process. B may say that “Notwithstanding the possibility that I may have missed evidence I am still very confident in the evidence that I have so I will say I think the answer is Y”. A now hears B’s answer and goes through a similar chain of reasoning. He thinks “Gosh B has evidence he is so confident about that exposure to the knowledge that I have different evidence hasn’t shaken him. He must think his evidence is particularly strong. I should take that into account when evaluating my own evidence.” At this point A could decide he isn’t all that confident in his own evidence, and concede the argument to B. Alternatively he could decide that in spite of B’s confidence he still considers his own evidence to be persuasive, and re-affirm that he thinks the answer is X.

The ball now passes back to B, who now faced with A’s continued confidence in his evidence, even after making allowances for B’s confidence in his own evidence, must upgrade his view of the strength of A’s evidence relative to his own. He must then decide whether he is still thinks his evidence is strong enough to carry the day. He can decide “No it isn’t”, and concede the argument to A, or “Yes it is” and say he still considers Y to be correct. The process goes on until one of the parties concedes. At any point either party’s actual evidence can, and probably will, be shared and explained. Some readers may recognize this as an iterative Bayesian process. Others have extended Aumann’s analysis, and have shown that the process won’t go to infinity and should come to a conclusion in a reasonable number of iterations. The upshot of this is that if an argument doesn’t result in an agreement, at least one of the parties involved is being irrational or dishonest.

The rest of the article makes the unrealistic assumption that people will be rational and honest when arguing.

IQ and relative correctness

Item response theory connects a latent trait e.g. intelligence or IQ, with the probability getting a particular item in a test correct. Typically they look like this.

The formula producing these lines is


The “a” coefficient tells one how steeply the probability rises as IQ rises i.e. how much solving the item depends on ability as measured by IQ versus how much the solution depends on uncertainty and luck. The “b” coefficient tells one the difficulty level of the item.

Suppose we select two IQ levels and compare the probabilities of a correct answer for each IQ level. With a bit of arithmetic we can show that the ratio of

p(IQ2)/p(IQ1)=exp(a*( IQ2 - IQ1)).

Suppose two people with IQs at level 1 and 2 respectively disagree about the answer. In effect they argue about it. Then the probability of person with being right in the event of a disagreement is

p(2 is right) = p(2)*(1-p(1))/((p(2)*(1-p(1)) + p(1)*(1-p(2))). Similarly for p(1 is right).

More arithmetic gives

p(2 is right)/p(1 is right) = exp(a*( IQ2 - IQ1)) too.

Therefore, when two people argue over the correctness of something, the probability of who is right is determined by the difference between their respective abilities and the degree to which solving that problem actually depends on ability. The difficulty of the item is irrelevant.

A chess diversion

Chess’s ELO rating system uses a similar method to calculate the probability of a player winning, but use base 10 rather than base e. So according to the ELO rating system used by FIDA

p(player a)/p(player b)=10**(Ra – Rb)/400 (which obviously = exp(a*( IQ2 - IQ1)).)
- where Ra is the ELO rating of player a.

This means that if the player’s ratings differ by 200 points then the highest ranked player should take roughly 3 out of every 4 wins between them. A ratings difference of 400 points means 10 wins for the highest ranked player for every win for the lower ranked player. The median rating for members of the US Chess Federation was 657 and rating of 1000 is regarded as a bright beginner. International Grandmasters typically rate 2500+, and the very best players have ratings slightly over 2800. To give you an idea of the differences in skill, consider that if the very best were to play an average player the ratio of wins is likely to be 227772 to 1. The difference between a grandmaster and a good beginner would be 5623 to 1.

The identities above mean that we can easily convert an IQ difference into an equivalent ELO ratings difference, using the following formula

Ratings difference = 173.7178*a*(IQ difference)
- “a” is the coefficient telling us how much the item depends on IQ for its solution.

I looked at the distribution of FIDA ratings in order to convert them to an IQ metric. For example, about 2% of chess players have ratings as 2300 or higher and 0.02% have ratings over 2700. If IQs are normally distributed, with an SD of 16, then these ELO ratings would correspond to 132 and 157 on the IQ scale. Note this doesn’t mean that chess players with a rating of 2700 will actually have an average IQ of 157 – it’s just a different way of specifying the same thing e.g. like a change from the Imperial to the Metric system.

I did however find a study (1) that allowed me to map real IQs onto chess ratings in experienced players. The equation is

Chess rating = 18.75*IQ – 275.

It turns out that the expected real IQs are very close to the IQ metric I calculated from the ratings distribution. (Note that the equation I developed is quite different from the one hypothesized by Jonathan Levitt (3) i.e. Rating = 10*IQ + 1000.) One should also be aware that the equation gives an average IQ – the actual IQs vary quite a bit around the expected figure. For example, the authors show that threshold effects exist and that the minimum IQ needed to achieve a rating of 2000 is around 85-90. This is 30-35 IQ points lower than the expected IQ. Also from his peak rating Garry Kasparov’s expected IQ is 167 (and wild claims of 180+ have been made) but his actual IQ was measured at 135 (in a test sponsored by Stern magazine), some 32 IQ points lower.

I suppose one could derive a rule that the minimum IQ required for a peak rating is some 32 IQ points (or 2 SDs) below the expected IQ. Alternatively, it means that if you have a combination of memory and industry in line with elite professional chess players, your peak rating is likely to be 600 ELO points higher than it would be if you were like an average chess player in these respects. Your chances of winning could be as much as 31.6 fold higher than your IQ suggests – or that much lower. That says something about the relative value of focused application.

Assuming that the distribution of combined effort and memory is symmetrical, it also means that a 64 IQ point advantage can not be overcome - even if the brighter player is also among the very laziest with a bad memory, and the less intelligent player has a superb memory and is among the most dedicated.

Even after accounting for IQ and work the predicted ratings are still a little fuzzy so perhaps random factors play a role too.

IQ and ELO rating differences in other domains

Here I look at converting the effect of IQ gaps to ELO rating differences, across a variety of domains

Let’s get back to the IQ to ELO rating conversion. Recall that the equation is

Ratings difference = 173.7178*a*(IQ difference).

All that remains is to find “a” for everything we are interesting in.

Clear Objective problems

The obvious place to start is IQ test items. The “a” coefficient for more fuzzy IQ test items tend to be around 0.046, and around 0.086 for really efficient IQ test items. That means that for fuzzy items each additional IQ point is worth 8 ELO points, and it’s worth 15 ELO points for good IQ items. If these items are used in a weird tournament where players compete to solve puzzles instead of play games, and we set the bar at a 3 to 1 win ratio (a 200 point ELO rating difference), then fuzzy items will require a 25 point IQ gap, and efficient items a 13-14 point IQ gap.

Physics mastery

Using information from an article by Steve Hsu (2) I worked out that a 3 fold advantage at “winning” at a physics exam – where a ‘win’ is an A in the exam when your opponent failed to get an A – requires an IQ gap of 12 points. If however a win is defined as a 3.5 GPA (where your opponent fails to attain this), then a mere 6 IQ points will provide a 3 fold advantage.


We could view cops and killers as being involved in a grim contest. In the USA around 65% of all murders are solved. That converts to an average “murder” ELO rating difference between police and murderers of 108 ELO points. It is also known that the mean IQs of murderers and policemen are 87 and 102, respectively. So successfully solving murders is a puzzle then the “a” coefficient is 0.041, and each IQ point difference is worth 7.2 ELO points. A 3 fold advantage could be had with a 28 point gap between cops and killers. In other words some 31% of outstanding murders could be solved if the USA selected its policemen to have an average IQ of 125 i.e. to be as smart as an average lawyer. I’m not sure if that’s worth it but maybe some cost benefit analysis would help. Such an analysis would have to take into account the drop in murder rates (with a life currently being valued at $2 million) due to the greater odds of being caught, and the opportunity cost of taking professional level IQs out of the pool for other professions, where they might be even more productive.

Controversial issues

Finally we get back to real arguments – disagreements over controversial topics. According to my Smart Vote concept (see, if proportionally more smart people systematically favor an alternative then that alternative is likely to be correct or better. Using that definition of “correct”, and information in the General Social Survey, I calculated the “a” coefficients and ELO to IQ ratios etc for a few controversial questions. Typically it would take an IQ difference of 30-50 points to gain a 3 fold advantage in a rational argument.

Tasks with a high level of uncertainty

For comparison I looked at an intellectual game that includes a large element of chance – backgammon. A rating equation gives

p(player a)/p(player b) = 10**Rating diff/2000

for individual games. The difference from chess is that it divides the rating difference by 2000 instead of 400. It would take the result of a string of 21-22 games to provide the same test of relative skill as does a single game of chess. Controversial questions are less fuzzy, less uncertain, or more tractable to intelligence, than backgammon. If people ‘played’ a series of arguments over controversial questions instead of a series of backgammon games, then it would take maybe 5-6 such arguments to provide the same test of relative skill/wisdom in arguments, as a single game does in chess.

A summary table

Some meaningful IQ or ELO rating differences

Some research shows that friends and spouses have an average IQ difference of 12 points, that for IQ differences less than 20 points a reciprocal intellectual relationship is the rule, for IQ differences between 20-30 points the intellectual relationship tends to be one way, and that IQ differences greater than 30 points tend to create real barriers to communication.

An IQ gap of 12 points implies a roughly 67-72% chance of winning an argument over a clear objective issue, like verbal or math problems, and close to a 57-61% chance of winning an argument over a controversial question. A 30 point IQ gap implies an 87-91% chance of winning a verbal/math item argument, and a 63-67% chance of winning an argument over controversial issues. It seems as though there is a very fine line between intimacy and incomprehension on controversial issues (a mere 6% difference) but a fair gap on more objective issues (a 20% difference).

Perhaps it isn’t so much the IQ gap that matters to people, as the proportion of differences of opinion they win or lose i.e. the ELO rating difference. That in turn depends on the balance of clear objective, uncertain, and controversial issues in their disagreements. In general however, it seems that people don’t like to lose more than 2 in 3 disagreements, and when they lose more than 3 in 4 of them they feel like they aren’t on the same planet anymore. Those proportions correspond to ELO ratings differences of 100 and 200 respectively. An ELO rating difference of less than 100 feels tolerable and reciprocal while a difference of more than 200 feels unfair or unbalanced. If that theory is right, when most of the issues are fuzzy or uncertain the larger IQ differences should occur between friends and spouses, but when they are mostly clear objective issues then those IQ differences will be smaller.


1. Individual differences in chess expertise: A psychometric investigation. Roland H Grabner, Elsbeth Stern & Aljoscha C Neubauer. Acta psychological (2006) but I got it from
2. Non-linear psychometric Thresholds for Physics and Mathematics. Steven D.H. Hsu & James Shombert.
3. Genius in Chess. Jonathan Levitt.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pornography - an intelligent view


With the advent of the internet, and high tech phones, pornography became significantly easier to access and the porn industry has grown exponentially. Currently in the United States the pornographic film industry is centered in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, with an estimated 200 production companies in the region employing as many as 1,500 performers, making up to 11,000 films and estimated to earn as much as $13 billion a year. This is believed to be larger than Hollywood.

So pornography is popular, but some say that pornography has a variety of harmful effects, which argues for it being illegal.


The sociological objection is that pornography decreased respect for long-term, monogamous relationships, and attenuates a desire for procreation. Pornography can “potentially undermine the traditional values that favor marriage, family, and children”, and that it depicts sexuality in a way which is not connected to "emotional attachment, of kindness, of caring, and especially not of continuance of the relationship, as such continuance would translate into responsibilities"

The religious/conservative objection is similar to the sociological objection. They argue that this industry undermines the family and leads to the moral breakdown of society. They say that it is amoral, weakens family values, and is contrary to the religion's teachings and human dignity.

Some feminists argue that it is an industry which exploits women and which is complicit in violence against women, both in its production (where they charge that abuse and exploitation of women performing in pornography is rampant) and in its consumption (where they charge that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment). They charge that pornography contributes to the male-centered objectification of women and thus to sexism.

Other objections are that the sex industry is sometimes connected to criminal activities, such as human trafficking, illegal immigration, drug abuse, and exploitation of children (child pornography, child prostitution). However these effects are related not so much to pornography as to prostitution.

How valid are these criticisms?

The Evidence

I will only address the consumption issue, not the criticisms around its production.

Firstly (using the General Social Survey) I found no relationship between being pro the legality of porn, or propensity to watch porn, and pro social behaviors e.g. volunteer work, blood donation, etc.

We can dismiss the feminist (and sociological) charges of porn increasing sexual violence and leading to sexism. The USA, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands (2) and Japan were just some of the countries that suddenly went from no legal pornography to quite widespread availability and consumption of it. These studies all found that greater availability of, and exposure to, pornography does not increase the rate of sexual assaults on women, and probably decreases it (3). Japanese porn is quite frequently violent and yet even there rape decreased from an already very low base. It’s interesting that an increase in porn exposure decreases sexual violence only, and has no effect on other crime. Economists would put this down to a substitution effect.

Several countries have sex offender registers – mainly of pedophiles. A wide variety of professions are represented on these registers. Members of professions that supposedly promote morality e.g. clerics or teachers, are quite common on it yet conspicuously absent from such registers are men who have worked in the porn industry.

This study (1) found no relationship between the frequency of x-rated film viewing and attitudes toward women or feminism. From the GSS (controlling for IQ, education, income, age, race and ideology) I found that those who are pro the legality of porn are less likely to support traditional female roles, more likely to be against preferential treatment of either gender, and to find woman’s rights issues more frequently salient. Although I found that women’s rights issues are less salient to male watchers, and female watchers are less likely to think women should work, I also found that watching porn is unrelated to negative attitudes toward women and feminism.

In short exposure to and tolerance of pornography does not cause anti-social behavior (and may even reduce it in relation to sex) and does not get in the way of pro social behavior either.

The sociological and religious charge that pornography undermines monogamy and family values does however receive support. From GSS (and controlling for IQ, education, income, age, race and ideology) I found that men who are pro legalizing porn are less likely to marry and are more pro cohabitation. There was no such association for women. A higher propensity to watch porn movies is also associated with a lesser likelihood of marrying but is unrelated to cohabitation attitudes - in both men and women. So a pro porn attitude is consistent with a reduced respect for marriage.

Both genders also tend to have fewer kids in marriage, if they are pro the legalizing of porn. However, for men, a higher propensity to watch porn movies is associated with having MORE children within marriage. Note that pro legal porn attitudes and porn movie viewership is not associated with having children out of wedlock – for men its associated with a lower chance of that happening – so porn doesn’t lead to that kind of irresponsible behavior.

Possibly part of this general pattern, I found that both being pro the legality of porn and watching porn are related to lower voting rates in general elections.

I found no relationship to a variety of ‘family values’ type questions e.g. importance of family, or to the value of relationships and friendship.

Being pro the legality of porn, and porn viewing, are associated with unhappiness with the family or marriage – especially for men. Those who are pro porn also tend to have a greater number of sexual partners and are more likely to have a sexual affair. This supports the 1984 and 1988 discoveries of Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant (4) that the effects of repeated exposure to standard, non-violent, commonly available pornography includes: increased callousness toward women; distorted perceptions about sexuality; devaluation of the importance of monogamy; decreased satisfaction with partner’s sexual performance, affection, and appearance; doubts about the value of marriage; and decreased desire to have children. Later research studies further confirm their findings.


I’ve already mentioned that exposure to porn doesn’t increase anti-social behavior or reduce pro-social behavior. However it does have a clear effect on satisfaction with relationship institutions and personal relationships. It can make a person think that what they have is poor in comparison. Naturally they’ll be unhappy if they think what they have is wrong, or can’t be improved upon. Some things can’t be improved upon, but in principle others can. I imagine it’s mostly those things possible in principle but unlikely in practice, that makes porn viewers especially unhappy.

Typically at this point the therapist says “therefore stop watching porn and learn to be happy with what you have”. The assumption here is that the solution to unhappiness always lies in going back to the pre-shock situation. While this may sometimes be the best option it is not always and necessarily the best option. Sometimes embracing the shock will not only solve the unhappiness but raise the relationship to a new high. For example what if the other partner comes to the party and is willing to try some of the pornographic possibilities? There are some findings that viewing porn together as a couple can provide some shared excitement and adventure, and lead to a more closely bonded and satisfactory relationship. Isn’t that a better result than what the therapist had in mind?

Suppose we divide people into 4 groups – don’t watch porn & think porn should be illegal to all, have watched or seen porn & think porn should be illegal to all, don’t watch porn but think it shouldn’t be illegal to all, and watch porn & think it shouldn’t be illegal to all. Suppose further that the men and women marry randomly with respect to those categories.

There will be no marital happiness issue if both partners do not watch porn, or both have seen it and want it banned, or if one partner has seen porn but that partner wants it banned. Naturally there would also be no issue if both partners watched porn and both want it legalized. That would be an example of the high adventure marriage mentioned above. The other combinations will result in unhappiness. If one partner watches porn and wants it legal, while the other wants porn to be illegal to all, then the outcome is bound to be unhappy. Finally, if only one partner watches porn but both want it legalized then there is potential for the non-watching partner to join the party. Based on those assumptions I did some number crunching using the GSS data for married people.

The marriages would distribute as follows
- 70.8% ‘no problem low octane’
- 14.3% ‘unhappy by reason of porn’
- 12.6% ‘unhappy by reason of porn with potential to convert to the ‘no problem high octane’ sort.
- 2.3% ‘no problem high octane’

Restricting things to those marriages where some sort of porn viewing is happening I get
- 16% no problem low octane
- 41% unhappy
- 36% potentially happy
- 7% happy high octane.

In theory 26.9% of marriages (14.3% unhappy plus 12.6% potentially happy) could face unhappiness due to the effect of porn. The generally accepted solution of asking the porn watcher to make a sacrifice, and move toward accepting a low octane marriage, is fairly negative. When there is no potential for the other partner to join the party this is a neutral-lose situation. For an economist this is akin to supporting declining industries, which is not in the best long term interests of stakeholders or the overall economy. Chances are there is a fundamental mismatch of outlook within the marriage and both would be better off ending it and searching for a better match. Potential partners who share the porn watcher’s outlook do exist in numbers sufficient to make a high octane life a real possibility. It’s not clear why preserving a low octane marriage is necessarily better.

When there is potential for the other partner to join the party the potential outcome is win-win but the standard solution is lose-lose. Attempting to convert the non-viewer is a better option. If that partner doesn’t prove to be open to joining the party then the situation changes to the former i.e. maybe it’s best to move on.

The anti-porn perspective on this is that porn negatively influences 27% of marriages and positively influences 2.3% marriages – a ratio of 11.7 bad to good - so exposure to it must be denied. The perspective argued above says that porn improves or has the potential to improve 14.9% of marriages and make 14.3% of marriages unhappy – a ratio of 0.96 bad to good and that even the bad isn’t necessarily bad, if moving on to find greener grass is accepted as an option.

The sociological and religious critique would say, correctly, that porn undermines the value of monogamy, marriage, children and a certain kind of staid vanilla sexuality. However they assume that these things are all indisputably good, or better than the alternatives. The Smart Vote (direction of difference between intelligent and stupid opinion) strongly contradicts that assumption. It says not getting married, cohabiting and having fewer children (both in and out of wedlock) are the smarter things to do.

It’s also smarter to accept (if not practice) alternative sexuality e.g. homosexual sex, swinging, BDSM, impersonal recreational sex, general sexual permissiveness, etc - especially if one controls for confounding factors.

As we shall see the Smart Vote is also pro porn being legally available.

The Smart Vote and Pornography

The General Social Survey has a number of questions on pornography. There are four questions on the effect of pornography – does pornography lead to rape, does it undermine morality, is it a useful source of sexual information, and is it an alternative sexual outlet? The GSS also asks whether pornography should be legal and whether the respondent had viewed an X-rated film during the previous year. I converted each of these to a common scale – a percentage between the most pro and most anti positions, with a higher number meaning more pro.

Before looking at these questions I looked at the Smart Vote on how important pornography should be, how well informed one claims to be, and how firmly one should hold one’s opinions. I found that the more intelligent don’t think issues about pornography totally unimportant but they don’t think it much more important than that. They are well informed on issues on pornography but do not claim to know all they need to, and say that while they are unlikely to change their minds on any of the issues there is a chance they will. The least intelligent option is to regard pornography as one of the most important issues or completely unimportant, and be very unlikely to change one’s views, while being extremely uninformed about pornography.

In the graph below I plot the mean scores on each of the main questions for each intelligence level.

Intelligent opinion is that exposure to pornography doesn’t cause harm, at least in the form of rape or undermining morality. This is pretty much in line with the results of the studies mentioned above. On the other hand intelligent opinion is also very slightly against the view that porn has benefits in the form of useful information or being an alternative outlet. In light of the above it should be no surprise that intelligent opinion is in favor of porn being legal. The Smart Vote though is for porn being illegal for those younger than 18 rather than for it to be legal for everyone. Actually watching pornography appears to have no relationship to intelligence.

It is possible however that there is no direct relationship and that these results could however be due to something else - like class, gender or age interests etc. To test this I ran multiple regressions on all these questions controlling for education, income, age and ideology separately for each gender – for whites only, to control for race too. Men are more positive about porn on every question than women.

Among men, only ideology matters with respect to any possible benefits of pornography. Only liberals think it provides useful information or serves as an outlet. Among women, younger and less intelligent women are more likely to agree with liberals.

The Smart Vote holds up strongly on pornography not causing harm – for both men and women – and younger, more educated, higher earning and more liberal people agree that pornography doesn’t cause rape.

The patterns are the same on the issue of pornography not undermining morality and the opinion that porn should be legal. The Smart Vote holds up very strongly again. Younger and more liberal people are more likely to accept both. More educated men are more likely to accept them too but income is not significantly related. Higher earning women are more likely to agree but education levels are not significantly related.

The Smart Vote says pornography is not harmful (and probably not beneficial either) but it cannot tell us which particular choice about pornography consumption is best. Older, and more conservative, men and women are less likely to consume pornography. More educated and lower earning women are also less likely to view X-rated films. In contrast higher earning women with less education are more likely to view X-rated movies.


The smart approach to pornography is to regard its consumption as a minor, largely harmless issue, and making it illegal for adults is stupid. The actual personal consumption of pornography is neither correct nor incorrect, in spite of its proven potential to change relationships.


1. Voluntary Exposure to Pornography and Men’s Attitudes Toward Feminism and Rape, Kimberley A Davies, The Journal of Sex Research, Vol 34 No 2, 1997, 131-137.
2. Pornography and rape: theory and practice? Evidence from crime data in four countries where pornography is easily available. Katchisky B. International Journal of Law Psychiatry, 1991: 14(1-2), 47-64.
3. The pleasure is momentary …. The expense damnable?: The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault. Ferguson CJ, Hartley RD, Aggression and Violence Behavior 2009, 14(5): 323-329.
4. Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Considerations by Jennings Bryant, Dolf Zillmann.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ethical and Political Philosophy


A while ago while reading Bryan Caplan’s blog EconLog, he alerted me to The Philpapers Surveys on philosophy. This survey asked some 3226 actual and potential philosophers their views on 30 philosophical questions. It also calculated correlations (for 931 philosophy professors) between the answers, and between the answers and their philosophical field and the philosophers they identified with. This is where I come in. I can’t resist the allure of a correlation, especially when applied to the results of serious thinking.

I decided to focus on a few questions of particular interest to me. These deal with ethical theory and political philosophy. I only looked at the question on normative ethics and the question on political philosophy. The normative ethics question asked which of the three main schools of normative ethics - deontological, consequentialist or virtue ethics - the philosopher found most convincing or compelling. The political philosophy question asked which of three main political philosophies – communitarian, equalitarian or libertarian – the philosopher found most convincing or compelling. I figured that a person’s preference for any of these views will tend to hang together with, or be conditioned by, a host of other philosophical positions. If so, the results may shed some light on why the chosen ethic, or political philosophy, tended to be more convincing than the others. All I did was note how each choice correlated with other philosophical preferences and then I summarize the results into a somewhat simplified picture.

Choice of Ethical Philosophy and philosophical fellow travelers.


I’ll start with normative ethics. Deontological ethics is about adherence to rules or principles. It is a ‘duty’, ‘obligation’ or ‘rule’ based ethics. The 10 Commandments are an example. An action is right or wrong in and of itself, and not because of the outcome it may lead to. Deontology is a moral absolutism in the sense that an act is wholly right or wrong in this philosophy. For example, it remains wrong to lie even if the lie were to result in the avoidance of much suffering. The notion of ‘rights’, especially natural rights, is part of this ethical philosophy.

Deontology has been criticized for failing to justify the authority of the rules, and because it is vulnerable to incoherence via contradictions and conflicts.

I found that a preference for deontology tends to go with a philosophical idealism or anti-materialism – the notion that minds are not physical, that complete free will exists, that value statements in general have a ‘truth’ value e.g. aesthetics is objective, and that the truth is ‘out there’ in a sort of world of PlatonicForms that can be accessed through pure reason or in the form of a priori knowledge. Empirical work is unnecessary as knowledge is directly available through pure thought. There is a greater tendency toward theism in those who chose this form of ethical philosophy. A good example of this outlook is their tendency to believe that zombies are metaphysically possible.

Deontologists tended to avoid philosophical fields that have a materialist bent e.g. philosophy of science, or probabilistic decision making e.g. decision theory, and had a greater tendency to focus on fields where rules could be prescribed e.g. political philosophy, philosophy of law, normative ethics, and philosophy of religion. They don’t however favor any particular political philosophy.

The appeal of rules of behavior that have pretensions toward absolute truth and authority, seems to be grounded in a more general tendency to believe in the reality of abstractions, and to consider these to be above mere the material.


Consequentialism is the view that the ultimate basis for any judgment of the rightness of an act is the consequences of the act. If the consequences are good then the act is moral. Morality in this view is not absolute but proportional to the good done or harm avoided. One of the better known consequentialist views is utilitarianism, where the aim of ethics is the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

It seems intuitively obvious that behavior that makes lives better is praiseworthy but consequentialism has been criticized. It is said to permit the unfair imposition of a cost on people who have done no wrong, if the overall consequences are thereby increased. The problem of measuring goodness of outcome has always plagued consequentialism. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find a common scale, and even there was one it’s very difficult to rule out contrary long term consequences. It has also been argued that consequentialism is too demanding intellectually and that it requires an attitude to be so impersonal as to be alienating.

Unsurprisingly, given that deontology and consequentialism are often contrasted, I found that favoring this form of normative ethic tends to be related to favoring a naturalistic view of the world, and a physical view of the mind. The will is not seen as completely free (if at all) but subject to material causes and effects. Consequentialists tend to believe that the contents of the mind are ‘pictures in the head’ and de-emphasize the ‘feel’ of mental experience. They tend to believe that although zombies are conceivable, they are metaphysically impossible. They are also more likely to be atheists. To them psychological continuity determines whether someone is the same person over time.

Consequentialists deny that values can have a ‘truth’ value, or that any a priori knowledge is possible. Naturally they are more inclined to see the need for empirical evidence and have less faith in arm chair rationalism, than deontologists. They are less likely to be worry about ‘how do you know that’ questions and to focus on the fit between belief and the real world.

Consequentialists tend to favor philosophical fields that have a materialist bent, or involve some kind of optimization problem e.g. decision theory, and they avoid conservative philosophical fields. Politically they tend to favor egalitarianism and reject communitarianism.

A preference for consequentialism seems to be part of a general tendency to believe in material cause and effect, and disbelieve in the reality of abstractions. With such a world view the calculus of material harm or welfare may seem to be the only meaningful option.

Virtue Ethics

Here the driving force of morality is not adherence to absolute principles, or the outcome (benefit or harm) of the conduct, but what it implies about the character of the person – the virtues or vices developed by the person. For example, saints are deemed especially moral individuals on the basis of their extreme exemplification of the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice/fairness, courage/fortitude and temperance/moderation, and the three religious virtues faith, hope and charity/love. Purity is another popular virtue. Some Buddhist virtues are compassion and discipline. Badness, on the other hand, is seen as the possession of certain vices e.g. wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.

This approach has been criticized because there is cross cultural and historical disagreement on what the virtues and vices are, and because the approach often doesn’t tell one what to do in any specific situations. For example, murder isn’t condemned as wrong. Rather the murderer is seen as lacking compassion or fairness. For Nietzsche however, this relativism and lack of focus on the act per se, are things to be sought rather than avoided.

I found that philosophers who favored virtue ethics tended to believe that the mind isn’t physical, emphasize the ‘feel’ of mental experience and don’t think mental experience is necessarily connected to sensory data, but they do think mental content is partly determined by outside influences. They also tend to believe in a completely free will.

Virtue ethicists tend to think knowledge or truth depends to some extent on context or perspective. They think of truth in terms of ‘how do you know that’ and have doubts about how much one can really know.

They tend to believe that whether a person remains the same person depends on more than psychological or bodily continuity, and in particular deny that psychological continuity is decisive.

Virtue ethicists are more likely to be theists and to focus on religious and political philosophy, particularly Ancient Greek or Medieval philosophy. They are less likely to be involved in science or critical approaches to ethics. Politically they tend to favor the communitarian perspective and reject the egalitarian perspective.

Virtue ethicists lack the deontologist’s belief in the reality of abstractions, see more organic connections around them, and look toward a personal, traditional and community based approach rather than to cold impersonal principle or brute scientific law.

Choice of Political Philosophy and philosophical fellow travelers.


Egalitarianism is a school of thought that favors some kind of equality between people (or even living things). The basic presumption is that people have the same fundamental worth e.g. in the eyes of God, or because we all have the same quality of being rational and therefore should be given the same consideration and respect. Politically this implies being treated as equals and having the same political, social, economic and civil rights. Social equalitarianism stresses greater equality of economic outcomes and/or political power – preferring decentralized power.

The basic presumption of equal worth has been questioned. For much of human history this presumption has been denied and even today people don’t really act as though they believe it. If an average egalitarian had to decide between whether a film star or a random working class stranger got a kidney, most wouldn’t be willing to make the decision by tossing a coin. Another criticism is that it is often anti-meritocratic.

I found that egalitarians tended to view the mind in physical terms and consider the will to have limited freedom from cause and effect. They de-emphasize the ‘feel’ of mental experience and emphasize the ‘picture in the head’ view. They believe psychological continuity determines whether someone remains the same person over time.

Egalitarians tend to believe that truth doesn’t depend much on context or perspective. They don’t think truth applies to moral statements. Although much religion is in principle egalitarian, in practice egalitarians are more likely than non-egalitarians to be atheists. Ethically, egalitarians think personal character is unimportant but good outcomes are important.

As philosophers they tend toward normative ethics and political and legal philosophy, and avoid philosophical history and religious philosophy.

It’s not at all clear from their other philosophical beliefs why egalitarians favor equality. Insofar as egalitarianism is part of progressivism the picture makes more sense. They are more likely than non-egalitarians to be secular humanists that stress material welfare.


Libertarianism is a group of philosophies that stress freedom, individual liberty and voluntary association. It generally favors limited to zero government. Some forms of libertarianism regard property rights as the basis of liberty (and favor capitalism), and other regard property as a threat to liberty (and favor socialism).

Libertarianism has been criticized for championing individual liberty to the exclusion of all other values and hold that it should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values and causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable - all are to take a back seat. Sometimes this bias leads to extreme positions e.g. the moral value of saving the lives of a multitude of poor people simply does not register when compared with minor infractions against the liberty of a rich person.

As befitting the origin of the term I found that libertarianism is strongly associated with a believe in free-will libertarianism i.e. the idea that free will is incompatible with determinism, and that since we have free will determinism is false. It endorses the notion that mental experience is fairly independent of external influence. The ‘feel’ of mental experience is emphasized and the ‘picture in the head’ view de-emphasized.

Libertarianism tends to go with the view that there is no necessary connection between moral convictions and moral motives.

As philosophers they prefer the hard sciences, and stay away from the philosophy of life or social issues. They also seem to favor religious philosophy or metaphysics and are more inclined than non-libertarian philosophers to be theists. Naturally they identify more with philosophers with an individualist focus and those that hold that the world we have is the best possible world. They disavow philosophers who wanted to apply the same rules to all, or argue for some kind of collectivism.

It seems that libertarian philosophers are very struck by the feeling that their thinking and choices are self-determined, and they obviously want to extend this liberty into the practice of their lives. If our minds are so free to make choices then it’s entirely appropriate to expect people to decide their life courses themselves, and to respect their choices.


Communitarianism is an ideology that emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community. In their view ideologies are incoherent if they see communities as being voluntarily chosen by ‘pre-community’ individuals. Instead they emphasize the role of the community in forming and shaping individuals, and they believe this community role is insufficiently recognized in liberal (or individualist) theories of justice. Politically communitarians tend to be leftist on economic issues and conservative on social issues. In this sense they are the opposite of libertarians who believe in property.

Communitarianism has been criticized for leading to moral relativism, for being too defensive of the status quo (which may include many unsavory practices e.g. 2nd class status for women), for standing in the way of progress, and for considering the community or the state as foundational. It has also been accused of being authoritarian and promoting prejudice.

I found that philosophers who favored communitarianism tended to be similar to libertarians in having a strong belief in free-will libertarianism, and stressing the independence of mental life from outside causation and the ‘feel’ of mental experience.

They differed in having a more non-naturalist or non-physical perception of life. They tended to believe in the reality of abstractions and the truth value of moral statements. They believed that it required more than psychological and biological continuity to determine if a person was the same person over time.

Communitarians tended to be theists and are more likely to be attracted to religious or ancient philosophy, as well as philosophical history. They tended to avoid fields such as normative ethics or political philosophy.

Finally, they prefer a virtue ethics perspective and reject consequentialism.

Communitarian philosophers tend to believe in the reality and authority of some non-material, or non-natural, realm, and they seem to venerate the wisdom of the past and the building of character.


Philosophers are generally not fools. Philosophy is close to having the brightest practitioners among all the intellectually demanding professions. Furthermore philosophers comprehensively pick apart the grounding and implications of any view, and have spent years, if not decades, doing so. Chances are they really do understand the strengths and weaknesses of their views.

What does all this tell us about the relative virtues of different political ideologies? Not much really. A lot of questions were not asked e.g. existentialism, pragmatism, and those that were asked were too vague. They could have distinguished between left or right libertarianism, egalitarian communist or equal opportunity and rights liberal, etc. Still the questions and correlations do shed a little light on the reasons why these ideologies are compelling to those who adopt them, but not to those who don’t.

We can say that a strong secular materialist world view predisposes you toward an egalitarian/progressive political ideology and a consequentialist moral outlook, simply because material cause and effect is more salient and meaningful.

We can say that those who have a rather strong belief in free-will will be predisposed toward either a libertarian or communitarian/conservative political ideology, depending on how idealist or non-materialist they are. The more they lean toward materialism the more libertarian they tend to be. Since there tends to be a negative relationship between belief in free-will and a materialist outlook, one would suspect that libertarians have an almost supernatural belief in free-will.

A hypothesis occurs to me. It seems to me that the social liberal-conservative dimension lines up with a materialist-idealist dimension, and that the economic liberal-conservative dimension lines up with the degree to which free-will is believed in. So I’m thinking liberals/socialists will be high materialism low free-will believers, libertarians high materialism high free-will believers, conservatives low materialism high free-will believers, and true populists/communitarians low materialism low free-will believers.

Scientists are more likely to be in the high materialist low free-will quadrant. A Pew survey of scientists found that Democrats/liberals are highly over-represented and Republican/conservatives highly under-representative among them.

One would expect someone in the low materialism low free-will quadrant to believe that supernatural agencies play an active determinative role in everyday life. I think there is plenty of evidence that true populists/communitarians are among the most religious in a literal fundamentalist sense.

Libertarians I know (and have read about) do seem to maintain beliefs in both materialism and a strong form of free-will.

The conservative combination of belief in personal responsibility and less welfare in the economic realm with a less permissive attitude to social questions, would seem to match a belief in a will free enough to rise above circumstances while at the same time believing in the existence of a moral rules that go beyond mere material welfare.

Deontologists seem to be the moralizers across all ideological camps.

I suspect much of these belief patterns reflect one’s basic personality and temperament. Professional philosophers are by no means immune to this influence. Ben-Ami Sharfstein’s book The Philosophers details the close connection between the personal demons of various famous philosophers, and the philosophy they developed. It’s as though each philosopher’s philosophy was painted in such a way as to harmonize their own personal psychological dynamics and their relationship to how the world is. Each philosophy is an attempted solution to a personal problem. So to some extent you need to share that problem before the philosophy is likely gel with you.

It remains to be seen whether problem type is basically genetic, or whether they arise because of some childhood family dynamics and the like. If the latter it will be interesting to describe the etiology of the core problem leading to various political ideologies. On the other hand heritability estimates of the left-right dimension are fairly high, so genetically based temperament probably plays a fairly strong role. We will always have representatives of the full spectrum of ideologies, although the balance might change if certain camps start out breeding others. Right now conservatives/communitarians are out breeding liberals/libertarians.

It may seem like the world would be a better place if everyone had the same ideology, but I think that would be a mistake because each ideology acts in part as a corrective to the excesses of the others. For example, without some conservative to slow them down progressives may push change to absurd lengths – think grand social engineering, like communism. If there were no progressive to drive change a society of conservatives may never develop at all.

In the future I hope to explore what intelligence would have to say about all this. I can tell you that the Smart Vote is decidedly in favor of social liberalism and moderately in favor of economic free markets (see for example my post on economic freedom .) I don’t know what ethical philosophy will be seen as most in line with differences in intelligence.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thinking about Extramarital Sex


Extramarital affairs are fairly common. Estimates are that by the age of 60 somewhere between 50-60% of men and 40-50% of women will have had at least one incident of extramarital sex.

Affairs are generally very intense and passionate and sometimes loving but tend to end painfully in an average of 2 years. However both men and women who have had affairs consider it a good experience. Some affairs evolve into intimate friendships, and those that do can last a lifetime.

A major motive for having an affair is dissatisfaction with one’s marriage. In fact many who have affairs claim that it helps their marriage, but the evidence is that affairs do not stabilize marriages. The desire for a new mate may be compelling and seemingly irresistible but having an affair is very risky because a fairly high percentage of divorces are the direct result of infidelity.

Slightly less than 15% of couples are currently in marriages where they agree that it is acceptable to pursue sex outside their marriage however most partners deceive their spouse rather than negotiate an open marriage. Furthermore open marriage is not a successful means of preventing divorce. More than half of all open marriages end in divorce.

Another option is swinging. In swinging both partners in a committed relationship agree, as a couple, for both partners to engage in sexual activities with other couples as a recreational or social activity. It provides sexual variety, adventure, the opportunity to live out fantasies as a couple without secrecy and deceit, and the possibility of reconnecting physically and emotionally. About 5% of married couples have been engaged in swinging at some time. Active swingers tend to be happier with their sex life, marriages and life in general than non-swingers, and women were just as happy with the arrangement as men. However when swinging works it’s because the marriage was solid and happy to begin with. Swinging too is not a solution to a bad marriage.

So there are reasons to have extramarital sex and reasons not to have it, and large proportions of the adult population find themselves on either side of the divide. The question I want to deal with in this post is whether having extramarital sex is a smart or foolhardy thing to do.

Attitudes and morality

Let’s start with attitudes toward the acceptability of extramarital sex. Although the practice is very common, social norms in virtually every society are opposed to the open and flagrant practice of it. In the table entitled ‘Smart Vote Score’ the first 4 rows tell the tale of the acceptance of extramarital sex. Opinion differs strongly and systematically along IQ lines. Smart opinion fairly decisively rejects (and stupid opinion accepts) the notion that extramarital sex can never be OK. On the other hand this trend doesn’t imply that extramarital sex is generally OK either. The biggest ratio of smart to dull opinion was found on the “Extramarital Sex is Almost Always Wrong” option, and the next highest ratio on the “Sometimes Wrong” option. So while the bright are much more likely than the dull to think there are circumstances where extramarital sex is not immoral or a mistake, they are also more likely to think these circumstances are fairly unusual and rare. (Bright means an IQ over 116 and dull an IQ below 88.)

Moral philosophy agrees with the conclusion of the Smart Vote perfectly. It concludes that an affair is wrong most of the time but that there are exceptions. There are three basic approaches to morality – utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics. Justifications for affairs can be made in all three approaches. Utilitarianism says having an affair is wrong because it can hurt your spouse (as well as children, other family, friends and co-workers). On the other hand maybe you believe you and your affair partner stand to gain more than the sum of all the hurt, or that by not having an affair you (and your paramour) will suffer more than everyone else will gain in happiness. Maybe the person figures that even if it does create a net hurt in the short term in the long term things will be better for everyone. This approach is very demanding with respect to the foresight it requires, so even though it concludes exceptions are sometimes justified it also concludes that the odds are against a good outcome.

Deontology says affairs aren’t wrong because of consequences but because it involves violating important principles – like the duty to keep a promise, tell the truth or respect your spouse, or it violates the other’s right to fidelity, respect and the truth. However, most deontologists place conditions on duties and rights, e.g. ‘thou shalt not kill unless your own life is at risk’. A deontological condition for fidelity would be things like a spouse not neglecting their duty to see to your emotional needs. This approach requires less in the way of insight than utilitarianism because it refers to clear conditions around your rights and duties rather than guessing how a multitude of people will feel.

Virtue ethics says affairs should be avoided because they would smear those qualities that make you a good person – or character - even if only in your own eyes. Being honest, kind or wise are obvious examples of virtues one should strive to have to be a good person. Some that are outstanding with respect to certain virtues are deemed so good they are declared saints. Fidelity is generally seen as one of the virtues one should have to be a good person. Nonetheless sometimes virtues clash. For example one can be honest to the point of telling unkind truths that hurt, in which case you are failing to be kind, and perhaps failing to be wise too. Virtue ethicists such as Aristotle therefore argued that one not take any virtue to the extreme but try to find some balance or practice moderation. Goethe too preached balance. With respect to affairs there will be some circumstances where remaining faithful would not be virtuous e.g. where denying your own wellbeing is unwise and dishonest to yourself.

The justifications of moral philosophy aside, research suggests that one of the biggest contributing factors to affairs is simply opportunity. So those with greater means of controlling their time, and meeting people, are more likely to have affairs. In fact, the greater independence of men almost fully explains why they are more likely to have affairs. When the opportunity is the same, women have affairs as readily as men. That’s why it’s important to control for social class and income, along with marital happiness. The results of a multiple linear regression on attitude to extramarital sex (controlling for important confounding factors) can be seen in the table below entitled ‘Extramarital sex is not wrong’.

As expected, higher social class is associated with greater acceptance of extramarital sex (especially for men), and being older and more conservative with being less accepting of it. Unsurprisingly, marital unhappiness is clearly a major factor in accepting extramarital sex. There is also a trend toward less tolerance for affairs in more recent years. Nonetheless, even when all these risk factors are controlled, intelligence remains associated with accepting extramarital sex (at a very high level of significance for both sexes).


Attitudes are one thing but actually engaging in extramarital sex is another. The 5th and 6th rows of the table above, entitled ‘Smart Vote Score’, show the ratio of smart to dull people who have actually had affairs, or haven’t had them, by gender. Bright men are 30% more likely to have affairs than dull men. Bright women are 50% more likely than dull women to have an affair. Alternatively bright men are 80% as likely as dull men to remain sexually faithful to their spouse. Bright women are only 75% as likely as dull women to remain faithful. (Bright means an IQ over 116 and dull an IQ below 88.)

The table entitled ‘Have had extramarital sex’ below shows the results of a logistic regression on having an affair with a number of risk factors controlled.

Unexpectedly, unlike with attitudes, social class doesn’t seem to play a role in actually having an affair. For men there is a similar trend toward less infidelity in recent years. Conservative men are also less likely to have affairs. There is a trend toward older men being more likely to have had an affair, no doubt because they had far more time. Again, as expected, marital unhappiness is associated with having affairs. Strangely age, ideology and the fashion of the day don’t have any significant effect on female infidelity. Still higher intelligence increases the odds of an affair even when all these risk factors are controlled. This result suggests that intelligent opinion leans toward the benefits of infidelity often outweighing the risks or costs.

Combining behavior and attitudes.

Interesting things happen when one combines attitude and behavior. I call those who both accept that extramarital sex is sometimes justified, and have had extramarital sex, ‘swingers’. Those who ethically accept that extramarital sex can be justified but haven’t been unfaithful I call ‘open’. Those who think extramarital sex is wrong but have had an affair anyway, I call ‘cheaters’. Finally those who consider infidelity to be wrong and have been faithful I call ‘traditional’. Rows 7-10 in the table above entitled ‘Smart Vote Scores’ show that brighter people support all options other than ‘traditional’ in greater proportions than do dull people. Nonetheless the ratio of smart to dull support for ‘cheating’ is close to equal. The Smart Vote is thus not for ‘cheating’ but goes to the ‘open’ group for men (although the ‘swinger’ group is pretty much the same) and strongly for the ‘swinger’ group for women.

The table entitled ‘Attitude and Behavioral Interactions on Extramarital Sex’ below shows the results of a multiple linear regression on the combination variable (scored as shown below the title) with the usual risk factors controlled.

For women being liberal and unhappily married move her from ‘traditional’ toward ‘swinger’. Other factors do not appear to matter much. For men, extra time to have an affair and the status of higher education also make the move more likely. The effect of higher intelligence still matters for men even after controlling for the risk factors (and comes close to significance for women). There is however some noise in this combination variable.

The graph below looks at the extreme groups – ‘swingers’ and ‘traditional’ (or rather ‘not traditional’). The chance of a person rejecting strict fidelity, in attitude, behavior or both – ‘not traditional’ - climbs from about 1/3rd for low IQs to around ½ for high IQs. The effect is slightly stronger for men. The chance of accepting both attitude and behavioral violations of marital sexual fidelity – ‘swinger’ - rises from 16% in low IQ men to just over 40% for very bright men. For women the change is even more marked – from 7% to 46%.

Many years ago I conducted some research relating a variety of personality scales to sexual attitudes and behavior in women. One of the personality scales was the California Psychological Inventory, which includes a scale called Intellectual Efficiency. This is a scale made up of personality items and interests that correlate highly with IQ. The total of this scale is so highly correlated to IQ that it can serve as a rough IQ test. I found that this scale correlated very highly with many sex related items – particularly those concerned with sexual permissiveness, and impersonal sex (or sex as recreation) such as swinging, sexual attraction toward women, group sex or orgies. Smarter women were very much more accepting of these activities. Alternatively, those who were accepting of these activities were much smarter than those who weren’t. They start expressing positive attitudes toward and admitting to taking part in some of these activities, when their IQs exceed around 130.


It appears that it’s silly to demand or expect strict sexual fidelity in marriage at all costs. It is often the sensible thing to do if trapped in an unhappy marriage, and not because it will help to preserve the marriage but because the marriage is probably not worth preserving. Also within happy and stable marriages swinging apparently adds spice to life without threatening, and usually enhancing, the relationship. The fact that the Smart Vote is for extramarital sex, implies that too much stress is being put on the costs, and too little on the benefits, of sexual relationships outside of marriage. Still, it is also silly to undertake sexual infidelity thoughtlessly. Most of the time, extramarital sex really is the wrong thing to do. Perhaps those who would struggle to think through the issues should avail themselves of help. My results suggest that anyone who isn’t smart enough to get through university should ask for wise independent council to help them think the issues through before embarking on extramarital sex.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dear God

By chance I came across some articles and debates involving the late Christopher Hitchens on the question of the existence of God, and the reasonableness of religion. Hitchens was vehemently anti religion but many of his pro religion opponents were very able and erudite people. There is no doubt the existence of God is a very controversial question with a great deal at stake. Those who believe invest a great deal of time and resources into their faith. If they are wrong they face the realization that this has been an enormous waste of the limited time they have and will look ridiculous for having an imaginary friend. If they are wrong then if they had put their weight behind secular humanism mankind would be far better off than it is today. If they are right however those who don’t believe may face a much graver fate and may be missing out on a more meaningful life now.

In the US 60% of the adult population are certain of God’s existence. On the other hand atheists are becoming a lot more aggressive and vocal. The divide is being expressed in the struggle over the teaching of evolution or intelligent design at schools. Muslim medical students in the UK recently walked out of class in protest of evolutionary approach taken in the course. I have heard both prominent atheists and a Christian bishop claim, with equal arrogant certainty that the other side privately knows that God doesn’t or does exist. The truth is so obvious to either side that they literally can’t comprehend that someone could genuinely hold a different view. Intellectual argument seems to have very little influence either way. This is one of those issues where there aren’t an infinity of possible answers where you never know if you are right. In this case there are only two options – God exists or does not exist – and one of them has to be right. So which camp is right?

Although the two camps don’t seem to respond to reasoned argument the Smart Vote is still perfect for this sort of question. People usually don’t form opinions on the basis of a carefully reasoned argument but instead use arguments to justify their choice after the fact – explaining why those who have already formed opinions don’t change them in response to the other side’s rationalizations. Intelligence is not however irrelevant to the forming of unreasoned opinions. The smart tend to be more correct even when they can’t tell you why they believe something. So if opinion differs systematically along IQ lines, and it cannot be accounted for by vested interest in the answer, then the option preferred more often by the more intelligent is extremely likely to be the correct option.

Let’s look at what the Smart Vote says about the existence of God. The General Social Survey asks several questions that are relevant to this issue. The first asks about the person’s confidence in the existence of God. Several alternatives were allowed.
1. Confident that God does not exist
2. It is not possible to know whether God exists or not
3. Does not believe in God but believes in some higher power.
4. Basically doesn’t believe in the existence of God but sometimes doubts.
5. Basically believes in the existence of God but sometimes has doubts.
6. Is very confident, if not certain, that God does exist.

I used those responses to form a scale of the degree of confidence in God’s existence. 0 would mean that everyone picked option 1 and 100 that everyone picked option 6. 80 means that the sample has settled on option 5 and 60 that they settled on option 4 etc. Below is graph of the scale over time.

There is a very mild trend toward greater disbelief over time. Below an IQ of 116 there are systematic differences but these are modest. Those who have an IQ above 116 however are considerably and consistently less confident that God exists. While the rest basically believe in God, but have the occasional doubt, the bright tend to hover between belief and disbelief, with a fair amount of doubt either way. Nevertheless it looks like the direction of intelligent opinion, the Smart Vote, points squarely away from theism. I did a linear regression so that I could control for a few possible confounding variables. The results can be seen in the left column in the table below.

Women, those who are older or more conservative are more likely to believe that God exists, while those with more education and who are more intelligent are less likely to believe. The association between IQ and non-theism holds up when these variables are controlled. So the Smart Vote is for atheism then. Actually it isn’t.

When I calculated the Smart Vote for each of the alternatives allowed in the General Social Survey question I found the following.

A value above 100 implies that the intelligent favor the alternative more than do the unintelligent and a value of less than 100 implies the opposite. One can see that while the Stupid Vote is for Belief in God the Smart Vote is for Agnosticism – the view that the existence or non-existence of God cannot be established either way – and not Atheism (the conviction that God does not exist). In fact in the earlier period Atheism wasn’t even the second most intelligent choice, Belief in a Higher Power was. There has however been a shift toward the more disbelieving alternatives being smarter over time. For example the Smart Vote on Atheism increased from 121 to 131, and for Sometimes Believes it increased from 85 to 117. At the same time the Smart Vote dropped from 166 to 120 for Belief in a Higher Power and from 114 to 106 for Sometimes Doubt.

Another way of looking at the question is by seeing who changes their mind. The General Social Survey had some information on that too. Firstly they asked directly about changes of belief in God and allowed four choices.

1. Don’t believe in God and never did (Smart Vote 178).
2. Don’t believe in God but used to (Smart Vote 241).
3. Believe in God now but didn’t before (Smart Vote 122).
4. Believe in God and always did (Smart Vote 66).

Firstly, whether one ends up a believer or a non-believer, it is smarter to have started from the opposite view.

Secondly, for those that didn’t change their mind about God, non-belief is smarter than belief.

Thirdly, for those who did change their minds, going from a belief to non-belief is smarter than going from non-belief to belief.

Fourthly, if one started with non-belief, it is smarter to stay there than become a believer.

Finally, if one started as a believer then it is far smarter to lose the belief than keep it.

In short, everything points towards the intelligence of changing from believing in God to not believing in God, and that whatever one believes, having to change one’s view to get there takes more intelligence than staying in one’s comfort zone.

A final way the General Social Survey allows us to look at the question is via shifts among those that believe in God i.e. between fundamentalist, moderate and liberal religious beliefs from what they were at 16 to what they became as an adult. The right hand column of the regression table above shows the results of a regression on the degree of change from fundamentalist to liberal. The scale went from -2 for a change from liberal to fundamentalist to +2 for change from fundamentalist to liberal. As can be seen, IQ is independently and significantly associated with the degree of shift towards the liberal side, and away from the fundamentalist side. What that means is that smarter people are more inclined to cease believing in some of the more literal religious beliefs or alternatively less intelligent people are more likely to seek more literal and less contingent religious views. Younger, more liberal people and males are more likely to change from a fundamentalist to a liberal religious view. There is also a significant trend over time towards a more liberal religious outlook.

So even among those that believe, it is smarter not to take religious stories and claims literally and maybe not to believe many of them at all.

I have seen a study that looks at belief in groups with much higher IQs than are represented in the General Social Survey and the trend toward less belief with higher IQ shows no sign of tapering off at even the highest IQs. As we saw though, the effect only seems to start in earnest at an IQ of 116. For 85% of the population IQ has less effect. Disbelief in God seems to be quite a difficult problem to think about.

At every point along the continuum of belief in God, from absolutely certain literal belief to atheism, the intelligent response is always to move further away from belief in God. The only position more intelligent than atheism is agnosticism.