Life’s short, have you had an affair?

Today, millions of very nervous adults are furtively checking sites like “Have I been Pwned” to check if their account details at Ashley Madison have been leaked. Others are checking if their partners or acquaintances had accounts. The hacking and subsequent release of data from the world’s biggest infidelity-focussed dating service continues to reverberate, provoking an interesting suite of ethical questions.

Unless you’ve confined your news intake to re-runs of Jarryd Hayne’s BIG MOMENT in a trial game for the 49ers, you will be well aware that a group calling themselves Impact Team hacked the systems of Avid Life Media (ALM), who operate a number of sex and dating websites. Impact Team threatened to release sensitive information about users unless ALM close down Ashley Madison, which specialises in connecting people looking to have extra-relationship affairs, and Established Men, which they argue is a “website for rich men to pay for sex”. Established Men, understandably, puts it a little more gently: “connecting young, beautiful women with interesting men”.

Shhhhh! Ashley Madison screenshot.
Shhhhh! Ashley Madison screenshot.

So much for the libertarian hacker stereotype. Impact Team are waging a moralist crusade against both the websites themselves, and the people whose extra-marital or transactional sex shennanigans the websites enable.

Neither website has been shut down and yesterday Impact Team uploaded information about over 30 million users, including their email addresses. Security experts quoted in news outlets seem to agree that the data dump is genuine.

The media coverage has varied from titillating attempts to dissect where the “cheating” hotspots are to the very real personal stories of spouses who’ve been busted. Sydney radio station NOVA even tried, and rather spectacularly failed, to turn it into edgy commercial radio, searching the database on behalf of callers. They very quickly learned how spectacularly bad their idea was when they found the husband of one of their callers was indeed subscribed to Ashley Madison.

Nobody wins here. The whole business reeks of weakness and failure. As Gaby Hinsliff put it in the Guardian,

it’s hard to decide which of the activities involved – cyber blackmail, building a business on wrecking marriages, or just good old-fashioned philandering – is least charming.

More than gossip

But some people seem bouyed by the whole business. I’m intrigued by the level of schadenfreude; so many people are relishing the slow implosion of Ashley Madison and the exposure of millions of people’s most embarrassing intimate details. What disappoints me most is how the exposure of 30 million people is being shoe-horned into a one-size-fits-all view of sex and relationships. How this is all about “cheating”, and that infidelity means the same thing in every relationship.

We might not like to admit it to ourselves, but relationships differ enormously from one another. So do the reasons people have sex, both within and outside of committed relationships. Yes, a great many – probably most – Ashley Madison clients were furtively seeking extra sexual partners without the knowledge and consent of their long-term partners. And many did so despite their relationships being otherwise functional, productive and respectful. This kind of infidelity has its victims: the partners who remain at home, pouring their selves into the shared enterprise of coupledom, unaware that the other party isn’t matching their effort and commitment.

According to Leonard Cohen (Live in London), “Everybody Knows that you’ve been faithful. Give or take a night or two”.

And yet nobody can properly evaluate another’s relationship from outside, much less 30 million relationships. The evolutionary sciences continue to show that humans have a marvellous capacity to form loving, cooperative relationships, to remain sexually faithful to one another, and to work hard to build both families and wealth. Marvellous as those relationships can be, profound as the love that binds us together might feel, not all relationships remain functional.

One of the less-explored dimensions of the Ashley Madison schamozzle is the fact that many people had quite defensible positions for looking outside their relationships. Their current relationships might be loveless, sexless, dysfunctional, exploitative or even abusive. They may be in the process of coming out to themselves, facing the daily dissonance of being gay in a straight marriage.

A great many people are trapped by economic circumstances and questions of child custody in hellish relationships. Who would deny those people the chance to connect with another, perhaps to find the courage or even the ally they need to escape, or perhaps to enjoy being loved, appreciated and getting properly laid?

How many people, whose names appeared on that database last night, had to go home to their controlling, jealous, or abusive partners? How many people, living straight lives, many in countries where homosexuality is illegal and harshly punished, were outed by Impact Team’s self-righteous moralism?

Beyond the many dysfunctional relationships from which affairs might offer respite or escape, the Ashley Madison affair forces us to confront even more uncomfortable realities about relationships. Even “a mommy and daddy who love each other very much” are likely to find that they cannot be everything one another needs. Our evolved capacity to be really quite good at monogamy has its limits. We have also evolved, thanks to our ancestors’ tastes for sexual intrigue, an exquisitely context-dependent capacity to throw off the shackles of monogamy when it suits us. It takes a spectacular denial of human nature to believe that life-long heterosexual monogamy represents some kind of social zenith and that deviations from this one true path represent deep aberrations.

On-line dating has imposed what economists call a “technological shock” on the mating market, reshaping how people meet, court and, ultimately, mate. Ashley Madison’s success, and the marketing genius behind it’s quasi-inspirational slogan (“Life’s short. Have an affair.”), reshaped the extra-couple mating market. And the realisation to which so many customers are waking today, that even a website set up to guarantee discretion in extracurricular hooking up is vulnerable to hacking and public shaming, will change the dynamics of sex once again.

I would be disappointed if the whole business turns into a witchhunt on “cheaters”, if we slide back toward the puritanism that had Hester Prynne wearing the Scarlet Letter. Perhaps we need to embrace the messier, more complex reality that sex does not equal love, and love does not always mean exclusively and forever. Our relationships are negotiated every day in the way we treat one another and accept our partners, and lovers, as they are, rather than packing them into the neat box of a one-size-fits-all relationship.

The Conversation

Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Early bird gets the sperm … to the egg

What gets you out of bed in the morning? Before morning has broken, and some time before blackbird has spoken, songbirds rise for sex. And a clever new experiment reveals just how important it is for male songbirds not to sleep in.

A great many species of songbirds nest in pairs, presenting to the world a facade of monogamy. Until the 1990’s, songbirds were rhapsodised by social conservatives as paragons of family values, mother and father working together faithfully to fledge their demanding chicks. Until new genetic technologies revealed that most socially monogamous birds were playing a lot of away games.

For a long time, ornithologists failed to spot the shennaniganising because most of it happens just before dawn, when even the hardiest birdo is still rubbing sleep from their eyes. That’s actually a bit unfair: ANU’s Professor Andrew Cockburn and his many collaborators have risen unspeakably early for decades to study Australia’s superb fairy wrens, revealing them to be Olympic medallists of extra-pair sex. Female wrens leave the nest before dawn, heading straight to males singing in the dawn chorus.

This kind of behaviour gives male birds two reasons to rise early: to prevent their social mate from mating with another male, and perhaps to get a little bit on the side from some other male’s social mate. European blue tit males who start singing early in the morning sire more chicks with other females, chicks he doesn’t have to raise because the female and her social mate do all the heavy lifting.

No wonder those Three Little Birds were cheerful when Bob Marley rose and smiled with the rising sun!

Consequences

But how do early and late risers do with their social mates? A team based at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, found an ingenious way to answer this question.

By inserting slow-release melatonin implants beneath the skin of free-living male Great Tits, just before the breeding season, they tweaked the birds’ circadian rhythms. The body releases the hormone melatonin at night, and animal circadian activity patterns are cued by melatonin levels. Nocturnal animals are stirred into activity and dirurnal animals to sleep by rising melatonin.

Early rising male Great Tits can get the sexy stuff over with and spend the res of the day looking fabulous. Israel Gutiérrez/flickr
Early rising male Great Tits can get the sexy stuff over with and spend the res of the day looking fabulous. Israel Gutiérrez/flickr

Male great tits in the control group became active about 22 minutes before dawn, but those with melatonin implants took an extra ten minutes to get going. They were no less active during the day, and they stopped for the night at the same time, a few minutes before dusk.

But those extra ten minutes cost the males dearly. Twelve percent of chicks fledged from the nests of control males were sired by another male, but 42 percent of chicks in the nests of melatonin-implanted males had been conceived with another male’s sperm.

As an early riser, I’d like to claim victory for the early birds at this point. But of course I can’t. For humans, Sex at Dawn remains niche. Many even prefer to rise early for bird watching.

The night time is where the action is for our species. Night owls tend to be more extrovert, novelty-seeking, and night-owl men (but not women) report having more sexual partners. Night-owls are more likely than early risers to be single and open to short-term commitment-free sex. Being a night owl is associated with risk-taking in women on a levels similar to males (both night-owls and early risers). Risk-taking predicts short-term sexual behaviour, suggesting that female night owls might be especially oriented toward sex.

Interesting, it’s true, but not yet the basis for any firm prescriptions. Unless you’re Charlotte Alter writing at Time Magazine. Anybody spot the implicit bias and rampant earlybirdophobia?

Women who stay up late are more likely to get laid, but less likely to get married than women who get up early to do a sun salutation or whatever.

Whatever indeed!

Up all night to get lucky? Thank you Daft Punk!

The Conversation

Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The tragedy of the over-surveyed commons

By any metric, Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons article in Science, a copy of his address as 1968 president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, rates among the most important in the history of ecology. Hardin’s thesis builds around the metaphor of the commons, a pasture open to all, on which it benefits each herder to run as many livestock as possible, and to pay no heed to the inevitable degradation and collapse. His pessimistic message: that individual self-interest makes restraint in reproduction and consumption irrational, leading to irreversible pollution and environmental damage.

Hardin’s vision and eloquence make him essential reading in many disciplines. But his pessimism, and his suggestion that only “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” could resolve the commons-like tragedy of human overpopulation, have also seen him parodied as a crank by more optimistic economists and opponents of environmental prudence.

Check out the citations on this one!

I’m less interested today in the importance of Hardin’s thesis than his amazing 26000+ citations. I mean who doesn’t love a good metric? I’m also interested in something he said about young people playing their music too loud (hell, it was 1968!), and advertisers polluting our visual landscape:

In a still more embryonic state is our recognition of the evils of the commons in matters of pleasure. There is almost no restriction on the propagation of sound waves in the public medium. The shopping public is assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our government is paying out billions of dollars to create supersonic transport which will disturb 50,000 people for every one person who is whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and television and pollute the view of travellers.

Excessive advertising can look glitzy, in Times Square or Tokyo. Mostly it’s just a blight.
Tom Roeleveld/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Hardin was lucky enough to live and work in an era less obsessed than our own is with feedback, surveys and metrics. If he had been with us today, I’m sure he would have saved a special place on the degraded commons to relegate those who inflict upon us all the burden of collecting meaningless data and unheeded opinion.

What better way to ruin a perfectly nice stay in a hotel than to spy, propped on the crisp white pillow case, an obsequious request that we rate how the room has been turned out? Can there be any more irritating feature of buying a new app or e-book than a pop-up message asking us to rate the experience?

I bought the product, I stayed in your hotel. If you want to know if this time worked, then see if I come back and buy something else. You have the information in your databases and frequent-visitor files. Pay somebody with quant skills to find the real answer.

If you need to know if the room is being attended well then quietly tally up the complaints! I don’t ask you to fill out a form to ask if you liked the colour of my credit card, the angle of my signature, when I paid the bill. Do I?

Is it feedback you are after, or reassurance?
Schnik78/Flickr

Student surveys

Every meaningless survey is doing the world damage. In academia two types of survey have the potential do more damage than most: the student survey and the management survey – often administered by monkey.

Any well-designed measurement tool, properly applied, can provide useful information for lecturers to improve their teaching and their courses. Just as well-designed assessment can give students the kinds of guidance they need to learn properly.

Once upon a time lecturers designed their own surveys, which they asked students to fill in in the final lecture. Conscientious lecturers asked questions to gauge what students were learning well, or not so well, and how the lecturers might improve. And improve they did; the student survey became an important tool of the good lecturers, the ones who were responsive to students, deliberate in how they taught, and willing to change in order to improve.

Little wonder, then, that administrators, often with the support of student leaders, saw the potential to measure and improve teaching quality. And so they pushed toward standardised item banks and then just a few standard questions, rolled them out across universities and started using them in promotion and performance review processes. Standardisation, and careful thought about questionnaire design certainly improved measurement, but at the cost of the kinds of information most useful to lecturers who want to improve.

Instead, by the peculiar alchemy that happens when people quantify rather than think, student assessment scores transmuted into shiny fool’s gold, a glimmer of a tool which, viewed from just the right angle, might tell us how much students really really like the lecturer. Those lecturers who scored highly used the numbers in their promotion applications. Those who didn’t waited for another year in the hope of showing evidence of “feedback-driven improvement”.

And students went from filling out one survey per semester, during class time, to doing it for every lecturer in every course. In the students’ own time on their own computers. Little wonder then that return rates of 10-20 percent are now considered normal.

The usefulness of student surveys remains hotly disputed. In some years it appears like the lecturer’s clothing or hairstyle weighs more heavily on results than the teaching and learning process. Others argue that student surveys measure only popularity or charisma, rather than the quality of teaching. Merlin Crossley, Dean of the faculty in which I work, is more upbeat about their usefulness and the way they correlate with other measures of teaching quality.

I believe that by and large they don’t measure anything at all. When fewer than one in five students responds, you aren’t measuring anything more than idiosyncratic noise in how motivated students are to fill in yet another survey. Because students have been treated like the overgrazed commons, chronically over-surveyed since the day of enrollment. No lecturer benefits from opting out of the relentless evaluation cycle (except for not having to confront one’s “numbers” and read the more toxic open-ended responses). Few heads of teaching benefit by encouraging staff to focus on their teaching and treat evaluations for the flawed tool they are.

If student surveys are to be used for anything meaningful, we need to recognise the costs to students and the value of drawing a representative sample. Make it easy for them to respond. And always obey the first commandment I got from my honours supervisor:

don’t gather information if you don’t know exactly what you are going to do with it.

But instead of restraint, surveys continue to degrade due to careless over-use, from once-useful tools for measurement, into misunderstood and misapplied metrics. The descent is complete when the metric falls into the wrong hands. When some managers (and I stress the some) place blind faith in the pseudonumbers that dribble forth from broken student surveys, reading what amount to no more than tea-leaves with the confidence of cops operating a fine-tuned academic radar gun.

Surveys, monkeys, keyboards

Second, and somewhat more benign, is the pseudo-consultation via survey. I know of academic leaders, fortunately not my direct managers, who can’t decide what colour shirt to wear without the help of Survey Monkey. Instead of making eye contact, asking a question and listening to a well-chosen sample of their staff, they run off an electronic survey.

It’ll only take 5 minutes!

Five minutes times 100 staff equals eight person hours. What you are really saying when you send out a survey is that your own time is more valuable than that of all the people on whom you have inflicted your email. Just as one should never convene a meeting unless the benefit to be gained from it exceeds the person-hours spent by people attending it, so should it be with surveys.

Which is why I have a policy of never speaking to survey monkeys.

I recently spent an enjoyable hour over beer with a colleague designing a system by which anyone who sends out a survey must first reimburse the budgetary units that employ each subject for the time involved in reading the email, deciding whether to respond, and then responding. The surveys would be fewer, but the data far more valuable.

The economists call this internalising negative externalities. That’s the kind of solution that makes the tragedy of the commons – and other apparently intractable problems – far easier to crack than Garrett Hardin could ever have predicted.

While Hardin raged against the Tragedy of the Commons, The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” was the biggest song of 1968. There’s something in there about making it better, and not by survey.

The Conversation

Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Violence: blaming the bloke but not the booze

“Spoiling for a Bar Fight” Jonathan Cohen/Flickr, CC BY-NC
“Spoiling for a Bar Fight” Jonathan Cohen/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Is alcohol-fuelled violence caused by the booze itself or by the macho culture in which the drinking occurs? If we are to believe a recent study commissioned by the alcohol company Lion, it’s the culture that’s to blame. That’s a rather convenient conclusion for the alcohol industry. But it hinges on a fallacy and has the potential to cause much damage.

The study was conducted by Dr Anne Fox, consultant anthropologist and founding director of Galahad SMS Ltd (SMS stands for Substance Misuse Solutions) who studies drinking cultures. Fox has been promoting her report in the broadcast media and op-eds, pushing her conclusion that

It is the wider culture that determines behaviour while drinking, not the drinking per se. While there are very good health reasons to reduce excessive drinking, you must influence culture if you want to change behaviour.

The Lion and the Fox

Fox’s report reads as a series of anecdotes and quotes, gathered during discussions with drinkers in a variety of situations, workers in bars, taxi drivers, police, emergency workers, government officials and various other people. Fox’s observations are organised thematically, interspersed with folk-evolutionary speculation of the following kind:

Could ritualised drunken behaviour be a re-enaction of an evolved ancient need for joyous bonding that still persists? Given what we know about alcohol and the brain, and the evolution of the brain itself, the question can at least be asked.

And simplistic characterisations of national drinking cultures, such as:

Spaniards and Italians … are culturally much more emotionally extroverted and do not associate alcohol so much with romantic or sentimental expression.

There is no attempt to grapple with numbers surrounding violence, or the consumption of alcohol. In fact there seems to be no way of sifting evidence with any kind of fairness to the competing alternatives at all. Instead, as might be expected when a liquor company commissions an expert on ‘drinking culture’ to study what causes the violence that too-often erupts in and around venues where alcohol is served, the conclusions seems inevitable: you have to change the culture in which the alcohol is consumed.

And which aspects of culture are most in need of changing? Why, masculinity, of course. As Fox put it in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The way to tackle the real underlying causes of anti-social behaviour is to address the cultural reinforcers of violence, misogyny, and aggressive masculinity in all its cultural expressions from schoolyards to sports fields, politics and pubs, movies and media.

Who better to tie together alcohol, misogyny and high culture then Snoop Dogg? Gin and Juice (1993)

Could it work?

The Fox/Lion report reminds me of nothing more than the American gun lobby slogan that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. By reducing the complex issues of gun-related homicide to two apparently contradictory alternatives, those most wedded to their right to bear arms find rhetorical – if not logical – comfort in blaming the shooter and not the weapon.

Having read the report, I think there are interesting observations about the relationships that Australians and New Zealanders have with alcohol, well worth injecting into the national debate on antisocial behaviour. But should we leap from observing that culture is important to focusing all interventions on the remodelling Austral masculinity? I’m sure the liquor lobby would like to do so, but I’m not the only one who disagrees.

Deakin’s Peter Miller has already published an excellent Fact Check on the Fox/Lion report, concluding:

It’s not correct to say you can’t “alter the culture of violence and anti-social behaviour in any meaningful way” by tackling the way people drink. There is a lot of evidence showing that changing people’s drinking hours and consumption patterns reduces violence and hospital admissions – which is a lot more significant than tinkering at the margins of culture.

Cultural creationist wishful thinking

It seems that those who study ‘culture’, that slippery omnipresence in which we all wallow, inevitably conclude that the only way to improve society is to change culture. Drain the toxically misogynist, masculine swamp, and replace it with a more rarified egalitarian pond, and everything will be okay.

Changing ‘culture’ isn’t easy. And it certainly amounts to far more than education campaigns, shaming and punishing bad behaviour.

Fox, to her credit, doesn’t insist on throwing out all biological insights. She recognises that night-time drinking among young people is about meeting evolved biological needs, for bonding, belonging and courtship. And that young men competing with men, and seeking to impress women are the well-spring of most of the anti-social behaviour.

Her report considers the example of Icelanders who consume more booze and own more guns, but do far fewer stupid, violent things per capita than Australians. She even recognises that Iceland’s low-levels of economic inequality remove some of the incentives for young men to pose, to impress, and to take out the competition.

If Australia wants to “change the culture” in which drinking takes place, it will have to change more than arbitrary social sanctions and “culturally constructed” ideas of what it means to be a manly man. If that is even possible. It will have to recognise that economic conditions, create the incentives for young men to strive, to compete and to take stupid risks.

And that means resisting the temptation to blame single causes. It isn’t just the booze, it isn’t just the blokes, it isn’t just the economy and it certainly isn’t just the culture. What matters is how those ingredients combine.

Perhaps we need to look more closely at the incentives for young men to strive and take risks. Eminem captures this in “Lose Yourself”.

The Conversation

Rob Brooks is Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.