The scientific study of human social behavior is a challenging endeavor, not least because we as scientists are necessarily colored by our own human perceptions. Aldous Huxley famously wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Descartes wrestled with the challenge of how far (if at all) to trust his own senses when investigating the world around him. If we understand anything at all, it is that behavior, and the psychology that enables it, is marvelously complex. Yet, as sure as human social behavior eludes our best efforts to reduce it to a few simple principles, there will always be those who brazenly take up the task anyway.

The most recent example of this comes from an unfortunately prominent magazine – The National Review – which has seen fit to publish Kevin Williamson’s itinerant ramblings on evolution and politics. Let’s go through some of the highlights:

“What do women want? The conventional biological wisdom is that men select mates for fertility, while women select for status…”

First of all, natural selection acts over time to favor psychological mechanisms that regulate behavior in ways that correlated with reproductive success ancestrally. Although fertility and status are necessary elements of the equation, the choice of a mate is an incredibly complex one. Organisms are not going around “choosing” mates based on fertility or status in an explicit or exclusive manner; instead, regulatory systems in the minds of organisms attend to cues in others that have ancestrally correlated with fertility or status, but also in conjunction with many other adaptively relevant cues. The processing of such a range of cues operates to regulate the experience of attraction toward others. What does all of this mean? It means that we are not consciously choosing mates based on fertility/status, and it means that these two cues are not the exclusive basis of such choices. As just one example of the latter, the choice of a romantic partner varies greatly depending upon context – the person you have a one-night stand with is probably not the same kind of person you want to marry. Furthermore, kindness and trustworthiness are also important attributes that both males and females seek in a partner. In addition, research shows that humans are apt to deem certain behavioral traits desirable in a partner contingent upon who the target of that behavior is (e.g. kindness, but toward whom?).

Again, fertility and status are inevitably components of the evolutionary calculus, but we do evolutionary theory a grave disservice when we reduce complex mating choices to a conscious or exclusive emphasis on these two cues, AND when we export this calculus beyond its proper social domain (i.e. from mating to leadership, as discussed below). Perhaps Williamson can be forgiven for going too far with a major finding from sexual selection and parental investment theories; surely he would not be the first to reduce the complexity of nuanced theoretical frameworks to gross behavioral generalizations. Many a science writer has done the same. What is especially disturbing, however, is Williamson’s suggestion that Mitt Romney deserves the entirety of the female vote purely as a consequence of his status. He writes:

“You want off-the-charts status? Check out the curriculum vitae of one Willard M. Romney…From an evolutionary point of view, Mitt Romney should get 100 percent of the female vote.”

Naturalistic fallacy, anyone? I’m hoping the readers of ETVoL are familiar with the naturalistic fallacy, and there’s only really space here to point out some of the more egregious of Williamson’s flaws, so let’s move on. Regarding status – how did we get from choosing a mate to choosing a leader? Williamson provides no justification for the theoretical leap from mate choice to leader choice. We are left to assume that since all women want in a mate is a high-status male, women should fall in line behind Romney. There are several reasons why this logic is flawed, but I’ll just discuss two. First, there is a significant body of literature on the psychology of courtship and mating, and there is a growing body of literature on the psychology of leadership. The findings are anything but entirely overlapping; that is, the attributes that may cause us to find a partner attractive are not the same attributes that may incline us to prefer one leader over another. Williamson’s logic becomes particularly problematic when we are considering situations in which female voters must choose between a male and female candidate. Should heterosexual women all vote for the male candidate because the female candidate would be – evolutionarily speaking – a poor mate choice? Hardly. Williamson’s claims regarding the female vote are not only derogatory toward women (surprise?) but are also just plain bad science. Although it is clear that some of the attributes of personal attraction can lead us to react more positively toward certain candidates than others, the psychology of leadership cannot be reduced to a matter of mate choice.

Second, some of you are probably wondering: just what does Williamson mean by “status”? Williamson treats the issue of status as monolithic and unproblematic. However, the term “status” is often conflated with at least two closely related constructs – dominance and prestige. For example, I may be perceived as high in status as a consequence of the fights I win, or I may be perceived as high in status as a consequence of my skill, dexterity, or wisdom in various domains of social relevance. Researchers increasingly tend to call the former category of status “dominance,” and the latter “prestige.” What is clear is that “status” does not fully and directly reduce to “wealth.” If it did, corruption would not be a vice but a virtue; greed would be esteemed, not ridiculed. Instead, there is good evolutionary reason to be suspicious of those who possess extreme wealth – in other words, our leadership psychology should represent the product of an evolutionarily recurrent effort to balance the need for a strong leader against the importance of avoiding exploitation by those in power. The cultural expression of this tension can easily be observed in hunter-gatherer groups, and we see it across modern politics. Just as our psychology of mating is highly contingent and domain-specific, the cues that our brains have evolved to attend to when selecting leaders are myriad and complex. Important research that has investigated the complexity of this psychology has been done by Brian R. Spisak and Mark Van Vugt. Lessons? In short, leadership psychology is not mating psychology, and the cues that humans have evolved to attend to in both domains are highly conditional and complex.

Unsurprisingly, democrats are up in arms regarding Williamson’s apparent social darwinism, and of course the blogs have taken up the debate as well. At the end of the day it can paradoxically prove useful when an article such at that in The National Review gets so much wrong in such a public way; it can spur debate and force scrutiny of issues that shouldn’t be overlooked. Writing for the magazine Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner recently wrote a piece aptly titled, “When a stupid op-ed produces some smart debate.” Let’s hope the same can happen here.

Published On: August 25, 2012

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