Geoffrey Miller on Research and Politics in Psychology


This is the second part of our NYC rationality group’s conversation with Dr. Goffrey Miller. The transcript of the conversation is in three parts:

  1. On effective altruism, AI, and rationality.
  2. On research and the state of psychology and academia. (This one)
  3. On mating, dating, and polyamory.

Our questions are in bold, Dr. Miller’s answers are in normal font and lightly edited for readability, my post hoc comments are [in brackets].

A few years ago you were asked what people should be worried about and you said: Chinese eugenics. In China, that’s not a dirty word. Now over here, Gwern wrote about genetic sequencing and embryo selection. The average American couple can get a couple extra IQ points, and an even greater benefit if they also screen for things like BMI, diabetes, and mental health. This can all be done for less than $10,000, which is a fraction of what Americans will spend on their child anyway.

Are we all crazy for not doing embryo selection right now, in 2018 America?

Yes, if you can do it it’s totally worth it.

If it means your kids are likely to get into UPenn rather than Ohio State, if it means they’ll be really good at Python programming instead of whatever people do who aren’t good at programming; the returns to IQ are going to keep increasing throughout the 21st century with automation etc. I’m a big fan of Brian Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have Kids which points out the high heritability of many behavioral traits, and that parenting doesn’t matter as much as you’d think with regards to the kids’ cognitive ability, personality, and moral values. Genetics is where the action is.

However, the cheapest way to have a great kid is to do really good mate choice. That’s your highest leverage option. And most people are pretty good at mate choice, but we’re not calibrated to what really matters now. We overestimate the importance of physical attractiveness and underestimate IQ, for example. We overestimate agreeableness and underestimate conscientiousness, as a predictor of success. If you familiarize yourself with the behavioral genetics literature, and you think really hard about who do you want to have kids with, that will get you 90% of the way to a pretty good kid. Embryo selection can then supercharge that. But if your mate choice sucks, embryo selection won’t really help you that much.

And China isn’t paying enough attention to the mate choice issue.

If the advantage is really there, is it inevitable that the technology will spread?

Yes. It will be like AI, the incentives to develop this would be irresistible. The question is whether it will be misused for a while.

For example, there’s one thing I alluded to in the Chinese eugenics piece. Mental illness is very heavily stigmatized in China. So one of the first things that Chinese parents will do is try to minimize the chance of, let’s say, bipolar disorder. They can do that, but if you select out all the alleles that predict bipolar disorder, you may also select out a bunch of alleles that predict creativity. You’ll end up with very emotionally stable kids who aren’t creative. They may end up selecting out a lot of valuable traits if they do embryo selection in an unsavvy way.

A strange hobby of mine is getting angry at the abuse of statistics in psychology research. Now unlike you, I’m not actually an academic psychologist, I just read Andrew Gelman’s blog. Given the possible statistical illiteracy and political bias of so many psychologists, how can we tell which research to trust? Is the entire field hopeless, or am I just seeing the worst examples of research malpractice?

I think social psychology is in a zombie state. It’s dead and it’s too dumb to realize it. For 70 years the heart of social psychology has been driven by a certain political view of the world. It’s all been about how fascism is bad, and conformity is bad, and obedience is bad. The core experiments in social psychology have all had that flavor; it’s very ideologically driven. And those are the studies that really don’t replicate very well.

If you go to a social psych conference, as I’ve had the misfortune to do, you cannot find anybody who deviates from a certain political ideology. It’s one of the most biased fields in the behavioral sciences. So, you should be very skeptical of anything that comes out of it.

Every field of psych has had its own replication crisis for its own reasons, I don’t think it has to do with statistical illiteracy, though. I think psych people are better trained in stats than almost any scientists are. Even physicists and doctors don’t get good stat training. But we just haven’t had access to big data. We haven’t had Facebook-level data.

I wrote a paper 5 years ago called The Smartphone Psychology Manifesto. It was making a plea for running studies through phone apps and the web, and getting access to Facebook’s and Google’s data. It got cited a couple hundred times and basically ignored. The most important and replicable behavioral science being done today is done by Facebook and Google, but it’s all proprietary. That’s one reason why it’s so frustrating to work in psych – I know the action is elsewhere, but I don’t know what they’re discovering.

[Jacob: I would back a group of physicists to beat a group of psychologists on a statistics test at 10:1 odds. Of course, I’ll have to explain what “odds” are to the psychologists, since they only know p-values.]

What do you see as the future of academia in general as a credible institution?

I think it’s also in kind of a zombie state. There are about 4,000 institutions of higher education in America, I suspect about 70% of them will be bankrupt within 20-25 years.

The elite colleges will keep going, Harvard and Stanford will still be around as finishing schools for the elites, and as IQ signaling as long as IQ testing for jobs is illegal in hiring. But I think it doesn’t make sense for the typical state college student to amass a lot of debt learning things inefficiently and using their degree to signal intelligence and conscientiousness. There are cheaper and easier ways to signal those.

I think there’s also going to be a backlash by centrist and conservative parents who say “I spent 18 years building character in my children, I don’t want some gender studies professor fucking it up”. I think a lot of the pressure will come from the parents refusing to send their kids into an insane asylum.

So you mentioned that social psychology has an ideological bent, and some other communities tend to also have something similar going on. What do you think is going on there from an evolutionary psychology perspective, with these ideas self-perpetuating in the groups and the groups spreading these ideas?

It’s academic virtue signaling. If you’re the kind of person as an undergrad who really cares deeply about eliminating prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination then you take a social psych course. You’ll go “Oh that’s really cool! That’s a field that is absolutely dedicated to eliminating prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination as it’s whole raison d’être” and that’s very attractive. There’s a lot of self-selection into the field, not for a general Leftist political ideology, but for a concern with particular issues like racial and sexual justice.

If you started grad school in social psych as a libertarian or a conservative, you could not stand to stay in it for more than a year, you would get driven out. And so, as a result, you get a very tight ideological consensus within that field.

And what’s going on with the evangelizing portion of it? Do you think these groups are trying to grow in numbers by spreading these ideas?

I think initially it was sort of a guilt tax. Psychology departments in the Fifties were two-thirds behaviorist learning theory and one-third loony psychoanalytic clinical psych. And then the sixties happened, with the civil rights movement, women’s rights, etc. Psych departments thought they should have the appearance of caring about these things, so they hired a social psychologist. And suddenly all the departments needed a social psychologist.

It was almost like reparations that we’re paying to appear virtuous. I think that’s the origin of it. And the funny thing about that field is it they haven’t had any theoretical advances in several decades, because they serve their purpose simply by existing and by teaching undergrads a certain way of thinking about these issues.

You’ve written a book with Tucker Max, and you mentioned pickup artists. Do you think that academic psychologists are ever going to empirically research PUA, and see if there is some actual validity to their theories?

No, they won’t research it. One of the key ideas among Pickup Artists, the Red Pill, or the Manosphere is hypergamy – that women are attracted to guys that are dominant, formidable, and high status. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, from primate behavior and the way BDSM works, and even the way female romance novels are written. But it is so politically incorrect to study that stuff.

Or consider rape fantasies. We know rape fantasies are very common in women. A lot of people who enjoy roleplay enjoy “consensual non-consent” scenes. They enact scenes like “the intruder and the helpless housewife”.

Now imagine you’re the tenure track psych professor and you’re writing in your NSF grant: “I want to study rape fantasies, how people play with them in marriages, and how that can help marriages.” Even if the NSF grant administrator think that it’s pretty cool and maybe that could help relationships, they will not fund it because it’s too easy for the conservative senators to mock it and be outraged that you dare to spend taxpayer money on that.

So sadly, a lot of these really important issues in sex and relationships will never be studied in mainstream empirical academic psychology.

[Jacob: It’s worth mentioning that Miller and Max’s book does not really endorse PUA, instead focusing on the importance of seeing women as partners rather than targets.]

There’s some amateur research showing that the rate of rape fantasies among women is much higher than the rate of rape domination fantasies among men. Do you know why that is?

That’s a really good question, I haven’t really thought about it. There’s such a taboo in men against thinking about that. It’s often said we live in a rape culture; I think we really live in a very strong anti-rape culture. I think boys are socialized that rape is one of the absolute worst things you can do. The taboo against it is so strong; no parent would be proud to find out that their son is a rapist.

So we internalize this anti-rape view, and I think the only people who can even start to overcome it are the people in the kink community who can learn to play around with this, and discover that they actually like it and it’s fun to tap into the dark side. They’ve learned how to do it safely, and how safewords work, and so forth. I think those guys figure out that these kind of instinctive, forceful copulation wirings are in there, that they just didn’t acknowledge beforehand, but that apparently their girlfriend or wife enjoys.


5 thoughts on “Geoffrey Miller on Research and Politics in Psychology

  1. What does the rate of rape victim fantasies among men look like? The null hypothesis is just that being raped is in general sexier than raping others.


    1. The theory I’ve heard is that rape-victim fantasies occur in people who internalize sex-negative/slut-shaming norms–they’re not comfortable imagining themselves choosing to have sex, but they’re still driven to imagine themselves having sex.

      The analogous motivation for rape-perpetration fantasy–a Catch-22 “I wouldn’t want anyone slutty enough to sleep with me”–is I think less common.


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