Archive

Archive for October, 2014

Gaming the Studies – Judgemental Minds

Fri 31 Oct 2014 16:47:09 1 comment

This post is part of a series on the research studies on sexism cited in the FeministFrequency video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. The first post in that series covered my views on the FeministFrequency videos and can be found here.

This post in the series is continues covering background information about the relevant parts of the field of social psychology, the beginning of which can be found here. I plan on doing detailed explanation and analysis of each study in subsequent posts.



Operationalising Imagery

The studies cited by FeministFrequency mostly rely on presenting sexualised imagery of women. There are other elements involved, such as the objectifying virtualised behaviour in the Leisure Suit Larry game, but manipulation of appearance is consistent. For this reason it is important to consider what other effects have been observed from manipulating appearance.

In a 2009 study,1 researchers took photographs of 113 individuals and had subjects judge the individual’s personality from the photographs alone. No individual knew they were going to be photographed beforehand and they were each photographed twice: once in a natural position and once directed to hold a neutral expression and posture. The subjects judged one photo of each person and rated them against 49 different criteria covering a range of personality traits. The photographed individuals were also judged against the same critiea by three ‘informants’ who knew the individual well in real life. Each of the photos was also independently coded for visual cues such as smiling, folded arms, tiredness, etc.

The results demonstrated to what extent various cues influenced peoples perceptions. Results for static cues present in both natural and neutral poses showed that healthiness, distinctiveness and neatness could affect perceptions of range of personality traits including extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, likability, self-esteem, and politcal orientation. Results from dynamic cues, present only in the natural poses, showed that smiling, stance energy and stance tenseness could affect perceptions of the same range of traits. The results also indicated that the perceptions based solely on naturally posed photos correlated well with the views of the ‘informants’ on a number of traits including extraversion, agreeableness, openness, self-esteem, loneliness and religiosity.

Other studies have identified other influentual cues. A study by Jane Workman and Kim Johnson2 found that the college aged women perceived their peers as less moral when they wore more makeup. A study by Norbert Schawrz and Eva Kurz3 in 1989 found that subjects would rate individuals as possessing more intelligence, assertiveness, ambition, etc when looking at a photo cropped to portrait-style and resized than when looking at the original full-body photo. This effect was found to be mostly consistent across genders. Finally, a recent study by Laurden McDermott and Terry Pettijohn4 showed that the impact of certain factors can intersect and have a reverse affect. They studied the perceptions of both African American and Caucasian women wearing sweatshirts with either “Kmart”, “Abercrombie & Fitch” or no logo. The results showed that subjects were less likely to consider African American women as potentional friends when they were wearing the “Abercrombie & Fitch” compared to the “Kmart” logo, while the effects were reversed for Caucasian women.

It is evident from these studies that a wide range of visual cues influence perceptions of people including perceptions of their mental capabilities and moral worthiness. This can only add to the complexity of using human images rather than words as stimili in experiments on priming effects. It also raises the question of how people might form their judgments.



Reasonably Moral

The majority of the FeministFrequency studies utilise questionaires that probe the subjects for responses about views on sexual harassment, rape or the mental attributes and moral worth of women. In order to be able to interpret the meaning of these responses the best we can, it is worth considering what we know about how people form their views about moral issues. This is an area of social psychology that is at least as much about philosophy as it is about empirical research, yet it may still offer some insight into what is going on in people’s minds.

The most prevalent theory on moral reasoning comes from the work of Lawrence Kolberg. Kolberg’s theory is that as individuals age they progress through a series of steps that represent capacity to reason about morality in a particular ways. The six steps are divided by their relationship to ‘conventional’ reasoning:

Pre-Conventional 1. basic obedience;
2. self-interest;
Conventional 3. conformity;
4. authority;
Post-Conventional 5.social contract; and
6. universal ethical principles.



The level of moral reasoning is assessed by asking subjects to address moral dilemmas, such as the Heinz Dilemma, in an open ended manner. The structure of the responses is then scored against the six forms of moral reasoning in the theory.

In a 20 year longitudinal study5, Kohlberg and others recorded the development of moral reasoning in a group of boys. The study revealed how the moral reasoning most commonly used moved through stages as the boys aged. Kohlberg managed to produce only limited evidence for the use of stage 5 reasoning and eventually concluded he should drop stage 6 from the theory due to the lack of consistent evidence of its use.

I’ve reproduced the graph from that study and included an indication of the mean age of the subjects in the experimental studies cited by FeministFrequency. Although the maximum ages in the studies indicates some outliers (e.g. 37, 44), the fact that the minimum age (18) in the studies is close to the mean implies the majority of the subjects fall roughly in the area of the lines. As seen below, this suggests any results may be reflective of only certain forms of moral reasoning.

Kohlberg vs Studies Graph

Kohlberg’s theory is not without its critics. Feminist Carol Gilligan has criticised Kohlberg’s theories as too focused on the male perspective. In her 1982 book A Different Voice6, Gilligan proposed an alternative theory of moral reasoning which she called the Ethics of Care. Gilligan’s theory frames female moral reasoning as focused on obligations to care for one another, rather than about the pursuit of abstract justice. She put forth three stage development process that consists of:

Pre-Conventional 1. self-interest;
Conventional 2. self-sacrifice; and
Post-Conventional 3.responsibility to care and avoid harm.


Researchers Nancy Clopton and Gwendolyn Sorell have seemlingly offered a compromise between these two different theories. They considered both perspectives in a study on parents of both abled and disabled children.7 A number of different dilemmas were put to the parents that varied between low personal relevance (i.e. about a someone else’s child) and high personal relevance (i.e. about their own child). One of the dilemmas include a hypothetical disabled child that was theorised to have more personal relevance to the parents of disabled children.

The finding contradicted Gilligan’s theory of a gender basis for moral reasoning. Analysis of the responses showed no variation in moral reasoning approach between the mothers and the fathers. Instead, analysis showed that the responses varied in relation to the personal relevance of the dilemma. An ethics of care approach was typically used for dilemmas of high personal relevance, while a justice approach was used for dilemmas of low personal relevence. This suggests the moral reasoning could vary depending on circumstances of the dilemma but not directly on gender. One of the conclusions was that the different life experiences of men and women would explain discrepancies in the different ways they might prioritise or report the forms of moral reasoning they use.

Kohlberg’s theory has also come under criticism from a conservative perspective. Conservative critics observed that placing forms of reasoning associated with progressive ideals (social contract, universal ethics) above the conservative ideal of law and order demostrated a progressive bias in the theory. There haven’t been any major theories put forward from the conserative perspective (perhaps for not-so-good reasons), however there have been some studies looking at the relationship between moral reasoning and political orientation.

A 1973 study by James Fishkinm, Kenneth Keniston and Catherine Mackinnion supported such a relationship.8 They found that use of stage 2 reasoning (self-interest) correlated with favourable views of violent radicalism, use of stage 4 reasoning (authority) correlated with conservative views and use of stage 5 and 6 reasoning (post-conventional) correlated with rejecting conservative but not accepting radical views. Although not published in a peer-review journal, I also found an potentially interesting thesis dissertation by Jeffrey Kunka9. He conducted a study and observed that subjects who reported conservative political views scored lower on moral reasoning when expecting their responses to be anonymous. He also found when subjects expected to have to justify their views to others, there was a sizable increase in the moral reasoning level used by conservative subjects. This suggests that the use of moral reasoning may be as much about personal values and circumstance as it is about capacity to reason.



Reactively Moral

In a 2001 essay10 Jonathan Haidt proposed a theory that turned the moral reasoning approach on its head. He theorised that people form their moral conclusions first and then subsequently form a rationalisation in order to justify it. In a 2007 study,11 together with Jesse Graham, he proposed five moral foundations people intuitively use to react to moral issues, and in 2012 proposed adding a sixth.12 Haidt’s moral foundations are:

Original 1. self-interest;
2. Fairness/cheating;
3. Loyalty/betrayal;
4. Authority/subversion;
5. Sanctity/degradation;
2012 Addition 6. Liberty/oppression


They measured the relevative weight of each foundation by directly asking subjects to what extent they were thinking about it (e.g. “How important is whether or not someone acted unfairly?”). They also asked subjects to rate their political orientation from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. The results showed those with extremely liberal orientation felt that the first two foundations were much more important that the others. Those who had an exteremly conservative orientation felt that all the foundations had roughly equal importance.

A 2012 study by Lars Hall, Petter Johansson and Thomas Strandberg13 supports Haidt’s post-hoc rationalisation theory but perhaps not necessarily the importance of the moral foundations. They conducted an experiment where they surveyed people to rate their views about general moral principles and contentious issues reported in the media. Once people had filled out their responses they used a simple trick to reverse the meaning of two of the prompts and hence reversed the meaning of the ratings. After the trick the experimenters interviewed the subject about the questions and confirmed the meaning of each issue with the subjects. The results showed “a full 69% of the participants failed to detect at least one of two changes”. Perhaps more striking is that they also found that “participants often constructed coherent and unequivocal arguments supporting the opposite of their original position”.

Those results strongly suggest that peoples’ moral views are vulnerable to manipulation. Combining the study above with the conclusions from Kunka’s study, we see that people are prone to morally defending a position they are expected to even though is not their own, and that the reasoning they use may depend on their audience. This suggests that views on morality may well be driven by the popular narratives of the company people choose to keep.

The discussion of the theory of priming in my previous post provides another possible form of manipulation. Priming could conceivably activate one form (or part of one form) of moral reasoning or foundation causing it to be more likely used and tehefore result in a potentional shift in moral conclusions. Given the nuance contained within each of these theories, and the general issues with priming research I covered in my previous post, it could be quite challenging to construct an experiment that provides confidence the results are related to one particular theory and not another.



Morality Objectified

The theories put forward by the studies cited by FeministFrequency are all based around the concept of objectification. As put forward by Martha Nussbaum14, objectification consists of seven features:

Objectification
Features
1. instrumentality;
2. denial of autonomy;
3. inertness;
4. fungibility;
5. violability;
5. ownership; and
5. denial of subjectivity.

The measurements in the studies focus on issues of sexual harassment and rape. This indicates that violability, that is violating boundaries, is the key feature of objectification that is being investigated. They also look at perspectives on women’s mental characteristics which indicates that denial of autonomy, intertness and denial of subjectivity may also be relevent.

The impact of objectification on how people make moral choices would seem to be something that could occur within a particular moral reasoning or intuition rather than as a result of a shift in the method. For example, within Kohlberg’s stage 3 reasoning of conformity, the denial of subjectivity feature could be a result of the perceived target norm of conformity shifting away from the objectified person’s perspective. Likewise,violability could represent a relative decrease in the importance of the care/harm or authority/subversion foundations when morally judging the objectified person or actions harmful actions against them. Given that moral reasoning or intuition can be influenced by circumstance, is it not unreasonable to theorise that objectification represents a mechanism through which this occurs.



Wrapping Up

I think that’s quite enough background information and hopefully that will provide some perspective of the broader research context. I had originally expected to cover all of it in a single post, however I found quite a bit of interesting information that can be related to the issue at hand. I should stress that although I’ve cited many studies, this does not mean I stand by them or their conclusions as some form of definitive evidence. I do feel that the studies I’ve cited are at least as convincing as any of the studies cited by FeministFrequency, and thus form a valid basis for criticism.

In my next post I’ll be setting out some criteria that I’ll be using in my assessment of the studies and how well they support the various claims.



  1. Laura Naumann, Simine Vazire, Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling (2009). Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1661-1671.
  2. Jane Workman & Kim Johnson (1991). The Role of Cosmetics in Impression Formation. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 10, 63-67.
  3. Norbert Schwarz & Eva Kurz (1989). What’s in a picture? The impact of face-ism on trait attribution. European Journal of Social Psychology, 19, 311-316.
  4. Jane Workman & Kim Johnson II (2011). The Influence of Clothing Fashion and Race on the Perceived Socioeconomic Status and Person Perception of College Students. Psychology & Society, 4(2), 64-75.
  5. Anne Colby, Lawrence Kohlberg, John Gibbs & Marcus Lieberman (1987). A Longitudinal Study of Moral Judgment. Monpgraphs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 48(1), 200.
  6. Carol Gilligan (1982). In a Different Voice. Harvard Univesity Press. as discussed in: Candida Peterson (2012). Looking Forward Through the Lifespan: Developmental Psychology. Pearson Australia.
  7. Nancy Clopton & Gwendolyn Sorell (1993). Gender Differences in Moral Reasoning: Stable or Situational? Pschology of Women’s Quarterly, 17, 85-101.
  8. James Fishkinm, Kenneth Keniston & Catherine Mackinnion (1973). Moral Reasoning and Political Ideology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 109-119.
  9. Jeffrey Kunka (1986). Sociopolitical Orientation and Self-Presentation in Measurement of Moral Judgement. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
  10. Jonathan Haidt (2001). The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Psychological Review, 198(4), 814-834.
  11. Jonathan Haidt & Jesse Graham (2007). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.
  12. Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Peter Ditto & Jonathan Haidt (2012). Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366.
  13. Lars Hall, Petter Johansson & Thomas Strandberg (2012). Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45457.
  14. Martha Nussbaum (1995). Objectification. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24(4), 249-291.
Advertisements

Gaming the Studies – Beginning in Earnest

Mon 27 Oct 2014 11:20:50 6 comments

This post is part of a series on the research studies on sexism cited in the FeministFrequency video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. The first post in that series covered my views on the FeministFrequency videos and can be found here.

This post in the series is focused on background information about the relevant parts of the field of social psychology. While I present a table briefly summarising the studies that are the focus of this series, the purpose of the next two posts is to cover some background information and my approach to reviewing the studies. I plan on doing detailed explanation and analysis of each study in subsequent posts.

I feel I should point out that I am not a researcher in the field, nor do I possess qualifications that major in any form of psychology. I do have an ongoing interest in psychology, and I have studied a few psychology subjects during my time at university, and it is that experience and knowledge that I used as a springboard for the research done for this post. If anyone spots any errors in the way I’ve presented the information please let me know in the comments.



Studying the Studies

In order to understand what studies in social psychology can tell us about ourselves, it’s necessary to understand the basic process they typically follow. A sample population (“subjects”), usually undergrad students roped into it with promises of partial credits, are given a task where some are exposed to some stimulus material while others form a control group. The researchers then make observations of the way the subjects react to the stimulus in comparison to the control groups. Although the subjects are aware they are being experimented on, they are usually ignorant of the details of the experiment until a debrief session after the observations are made.

The most common way to make observations in social psychology is to get the subjects to fill out self-report questionnaires. These questionnaires involve subjective questions or prompts to which the subject response on a scale such as “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” or “very likely” to “very unlikely”. These responses are numerically coded and then used to produce statistical results. This constrasts to experiments in cognitive psychology where observations are made with regards to the performance or capacity in undertaking a specific task. Tasks are often focused on word recognition, logic puzzles and/or reaction times.

To get a basic feel for the types of experiments that have been cited by FeministFrequency, I have listed the stimulus material along with the socially significant observations made. Notably, one of the studies (Fox & Tang) is an online study that seeks to examine correlations rather than explore causative effects through experimentation.

Study Stimulus (Priming) Material Main Observation
Loughnan1 Images of men & women with varying levels of clothing Self-reports of attitudes and beliefs about the individuals pictured
Rudman2 Sexist/sexual advertisements and a subsequent simulated job interview Levels of sexual and dominating behaviour were independently observed
Dill3 Images of sexist stereotypes in video games Self-reports of beliefs about women and sexual harassment
Yao4 Playing either Leisure Suit Larry, The Sims II or Pacman II Self-reports of beliefs about women and likelihood to sexual harass
Fox5 Virtual Reality environment with avatar wearing revealing or conservative clothing Self-reports of body-related thoughts and beliefs about rape
Fox & Tang6 This was study was an online survey that measured the correlation between demographics, gaming exposure, attitudes, beliefs and sexism in gaming.

The next step is to look at the theories that social psychologists use to explain why they expect the given stimulus to provoke a measurable response.



Prime Words

The foundation for these studies is the cognitive psychology theory of priming. The basic premise of the theory is that exposure to certain stimuli activates the mental features related to that stimuli, and that as a result they become ‘primed’ and more readily accessible for subsequent use. The primary focus of the theory is on words and Wikipedia provides a useful example:

“For example, if a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they are not primed.“


Experiments with priming need to involve two distinct stimuli. The first stimulus is used to prime some of the subjects. The experimenters then attempt to measure the reaction to a second stimulus and compare the differences between the primed subjects and the control subjects. This is the relationship between the two columns in the table above.

Importantly, this effect has been demonstrated even where the subjects are not consciously aware of its effect. A 1982 study lead by Endel Tulving7 asked subjects to study a given set of words. The subjects were then tested in 2 ways: conscious recognition of the words, and the ability to recognise the words when prompted only a few letters. For example, if two of the words the subjects studied were “ADENOID” and “EPITAPH” the subject may have later been asked (Yes or No) if they recognised the word “ADENOID” but then asked to complete the word “_PI__PH”. Half the words the subjects were tested on were not words they had studied to enable the relative effect of the priming to be measured.

When tested 1 hour after studying the word subjects were able to both conscoiusly identify which words they had studied and which they had not with reasonable accuracy, and more easily recognised the partial words that they had studied compare to words they had not. When retested 7 days later, the benefit to conscious identification had significantly diminished but the ability to more easily recognise partial words had not. This study provided evidence to support the theory that priming can work even when subjects are not consciously aware of its effect.

The priming effect has been demonstrated to go beyond simple word recall and extend to the priming of semantic concepts. One more widely known concept that is related to this is subliminal messages. The stroop effect also provides an accessible and practical example. Another relatable example of the basic concept is how memories are become much easier to recall when listening to familiar music, smelling familiar scents or simply reading the name of an old acquaintance.



Primed for Uncertainty

The studies I’ll be reviewing aim to extend these basic theories of priming both by extending the stimulus from words into multimedia, and extending the observations from cognitive performance into social beliefs and behaviours. While priming is a recognised cognitive theory, it is not without criticism and not necessarily a straight forward topic to study especially when extended to research the social and behavioural domains of psychology. Many of the studies in social psychology I’ve read in researching this post tie their social conclusions to the priming theory by including word recognition tests developed in cognitive experiments. They do this to establish that their priming stimulus has caused at least some cognitive effect, however they still face challenges in experimentally linking the priming to subsequent views and behaviours in the subjects.

In a 1996 John Bargh8 lead an experiment to study the effects of priming with words related to elderly stereotypes. Some subjects were primed with a scrambled sentence task that involved words such as “worried, Florida, old, lonely, grey, selfishly, etc”, while controls performed the task with neutral words. When the subjects left the room they were unknowingly timed by the experimenters using hidden stopwatches. The results showed that “Participants in the elderly priming condition (M = 8.28 s) had a slower walking speed compared to participants in the neutral priming condition (M= 7.30 s)”. In the subsequent discussion it was stated the results “suggest that exposing individuals to a series of words linked to a particular stereotype influences behavior nonconsciously.” They go on to note that the lack of time or speed related words indicates it’s the activation of stereotype that drives the differences in behaviour.

However, a subsequent study in 2012 lead by Stephane Doyen9 aimed to replicate the Bargh study and produced some striking results. In a first attempt to replicate the study, Doyen replicated the study increasing the number of subjects and using automated infra-red timing hardware. This effort failed to result any priming effect.

A second experiment in that study was conducted which was identical to the first with two exceptions. First the experimenters were divided into two groups: half were told the priming was expected to cause the subjects to walk slower, while the other half were told the priming was expecting to cause the subjects to walk faster. Second the experiments were asked to do manual timing with stopwatches under the false pretence that the infra-red equipment was faulty. The results of the automated timing showed that the subjects only slowed their movements when the experimenters were told to expect the prime to result in slower walking speed. Compared to the automated timing, the manual timing produced results correlated with experimenters expectations rather than consistent with the actual priming of the subjects.

This rather awkward result was not received terribly well by the original researcher. Perhaps not surprisingly, another failed attempt to replicated the “Elderly-related Words Prime Slow Walking” effect is (currently) the most read replication attempt on psychfiledrawer.org, a site designed to provide access to unpublished replication attempts. In a Science News article10 on the priming controversy, the researcher behind both that replication attempt and the psychfiledrawer.org site itself, Hal Pashler, was interviewed and voiced concern about the impact of publication bias on psychological research. It was also noted that there are four other replication studies in social psychology that Pashler has undertaken that have failed to reproduce the results of the original and that have not been published in journals.

It has become evident that priming is a cognitive process that is extremely sensitive to corruption by unintended factors. When studying the subtle response to a subtle stimulus it is important to ensure all other potentially confounding factors are appropriately excluded from the experiment. This presents an exceptional challenge as the research has shown that stimuli of which people (including the researchers themselves) are not consciously aware can still have a priming affect. Given the complex and opaque nature of the human mind, it seems studying the priming effect may require a process of elimination. A simple a demonstration of a causal effect in a particular combination of circumstances that happen to include the focus stimulus may not be sufficient.

For this reason it is important to ensure maximum capacity to examine and reproduce a particular experiment. The most important part of that is providing detail on the stimulus material, as this will allow review of that material against alternative theories and tested in alternative scenarios. During my research I found what I thought was a great example of how to provide information on stimulus material in a 1984 study into priming and the stroop effect. The study found a correlation between the level of conscious awareness of the prime and the magnitude of the priming effect, but this wasn’t the only thing I think is interesting. Note the level of detail cognitive psychologists Jim Cheeseman and Philip Merikle11 recorded their description of the stimulus material:


During the experimental trials, each stimulus display was composed of a letter-string prime and color-patch target. The color patches were centrally located rectangles of blue, green, yellow, and orange, which measured .95 cm (.6°) horizontal X .65 cm (.4°) vertical. They were enclosed by black borders that formed a larger rectangle measuring 1.25 cm (.8°) horizontal and .95 em (.6°) vertical. An identical rectangle drawn on a white card served as the fixation stimulus throughout the experiment.


The primes were letter strings that could appear either above or below the color patches. The primes included the four color words, BLUE, GREEN, YELLOW, and ORANGE, as well as a letter string consisting of five Xs. All primes were printed in uppercase 28-pt Helvetica Medium Outline Letraset (No. 2517). The dimensions of each letter were approximately .65 em (.40) horizontal X .80 ern (.5°) vertical, and the vertical distance from the center of a color patch to the center of a letter string was 1.45 em (.9°).


There were three different relationships between primes and targets. For congruent trials, the prime had the same name as the color patch, whereas on incongruent trials, the prime and the target had different color names. For control trials, the letter string of five Xs served as the prime.


This is an example of a description of a stimulus that ensures that competing theroies can be applied to the experiments to consider if they can provide an alternative or supplementary explanation for the impact of stimulus on the resulting measurements. It’s important to note that the stimulus is not the only part of the experiment, and also that it will obviously not be possible to document every single detail of all parts of an experiment. Existing theories can provide a guide as to which elements are important to record even if the experiment isn’t designed to exclude them as possibilities.



Valuable Boundaries

Moving on from controversies about the methods social psychologists study priming, some studies have looked at what factors can have an impact on the priming effect. A 2008 study lead by Dirk Smeesters12 looked at how the consistency of people’s views affected the capacity of priming to have effect. In one experiment the subjects were surveyed to measure how consistently they answered Social Value Orientation (SVO) questions which are designed to elicit either pro-self or pro-social responses. Subjects were then subconsciously primed with religious words (e.g.“priest”, “forgiveness”), business words (e.g. “manager”, “turn-over”), or non-word letter patterns (“XXXXX”). The subjects then participated in a ‘dictator game’ where they could decide how many chips they would keep and how many they would give to another unknown person.

The results showed that people who gave consistent pro-social answers were more giving in the game. The more interesting results were that people who gave more consistent SVO responses (whether consistently pro-self or consistently pro-social) were not affected by the prime while those who gave less consistent SVO responses were affected. The discusson noted “These results are in line with our theorizing that individuals with a highly accessible self-concept (such as high consistent SVO individuals) are less susceptible to priming influences than are individuals with a less accessible self-concept (such as low consistent SVO individuals).”

A second experiment duplicated the first, except that half the subjects were first primed though a translation task with words that would encourage a sense of self (“me”, “myself”) while the control were primed with locations (“city”, “village”). The subjects were then primed a second time as per the first experiment and participated in the same dictator game. The results showed that being pre-primed with a sense of self resulted in no effect from the religious or business word priming, while the others showed similar priming effect to the first experiment. The discussion talked about two boundary conditions for priming:


A first, and important, boundary condition for priming effects is the chronic accessibility of behavioral responses… high consistent SVO individuals were impervious to primed religious and business constructs …
A second boundary condition is the activation of the self. … we found that primes only determined the behavior of low consistent SVO individuals when the self was not activated.


A similar 2008 study by S. Christian Wheeler13 looked at how self-consciousness moderated the effects of priming. It found that a strong internal-state-awareness (e.g., “I am alert to changes in my mood”) reduced the magnitude of the priming effect while high self-reflectiveness (e.g., “I’m always trying to figure myself out”) resulted in increased priming effect. These studies show that priming can be as much about the individual subjects involved as it is about the priming stimulus.

Considering the qualities of the subjects brings us back to something I noted at the beginning of this post: the widespread use of psychology undergraduates as subjects for psychology experiments. One of the contempory concerns in researching psychology is how this makes results WEIRD. That is, the results only reflect people from Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic societies. Also important to note is that the subjects are typically in the 18-25 year old range. Given the recent change in views that adolescence extends throughout this range, it raises the question of how widely applicable the results of psychological studies are to even western societies. That is something that’s more closely linked to something I’ll look at in the next post.



Moving On…

In this post I’ve focused on the priming theory and how social psychologists have attempted to study its social and behavioural impacts. In the next post I’ll be moving on to focus on some of the principles behind the self-reporting of values and beliefs that dominate the measurements in the FeministFrequency studies.




1. Steve Loughnan, et al. (2010). Objectification leads to depersonalization: The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), 709–717.
2. Laurie A Rudman & Eugene Bordgia (1994). The Afterglow of Construct Accessibility – The Behavioral Consequences of Priming Men to View Women as Sexual Objects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31(6), 493–517.
3. Karen E. Dill, et al. (2008). Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(5), 1402–1408.
4. Mike Z. Yao, et al. (2010). Sexual Priming, Gender Stereotyping, and Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Examining the Cognitive Effects of Playing a Sexually-Explicit Video Game. Sex Roles, 62(1), 77-88.
5. Jesse Fox, et al. (2013). The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatar. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(3), 930–938.
6. Jesse Fox & Wai Yen Tang (2014). Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation. Computers in Human Behaviour, 33, 314–320.
7. Endel Tulving, et al. (1982) Priming Effects in World-Fragment Completion Are Independent of Recognition Memory, Journal of Experimental Psychology 8(4), 336-342.
8. John A. Bargh, et al. (1996) Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230-244.
9. Stephane Doyen, et al. (2012) Behavioral Priming: It’s all in the Mind, but Whose Mind?, PLoS ONE, 7(1): e29081.
10. Bruce Bower (2012), The Hot and Cold of Priming, Science News, 181(10), 26-29.
11. Jim Cheesman & Philip M. Merikle (1984), Priming with and without Awareness, Perception & Psychophysics, 36 (4), 387-395.
12. Dirk Smeesters, et al. (2008) When do primes prime? The moderating role of the self-concept in individuals’ susceptibility to priming effects on social behavior, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45, 211-216.
13. S. Christian Wheeler, et al. (2008) Does self-consciousness increase or decrease priming effects? It depends (2008), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 882–889.

Gaming the Studies – A Prelude in Defence of a Messenger

Sat 25 Oct 2014 17:02:35 2 comments

The outbreak of the Great Gaming Flame War of 2014 (a.k.a. #gamergate) has caused the intersection of gaming, on-line harassment, ethics and sexism to become a popular focus of discussion. As someone with a strong interest in both gaming and gender politics, this focus has re-energised my interest in writing on this blog. However, I wanted to write something that was a little more than simply adding a ‘me too’ to cacophony of voices already echoing across the internet.

To that end I decided to focus my energy on writing a review of the pay-walled academic studies that have been cited in by the FeministFrequency Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. These studies have been used to support the claim that sexist and/or sexual gaming content is propagating sexist view and conduct within the gaming community. However, given the on-going hostile context surrounding this topic I thought I’d start by saying some positive things about the video series (even though it’s not really in my nature) before moving onto reviewing the studies.



FeministFrequency – Before Video Games

I’m going to start this by pointing out I was something of a ‘fan’ of the FeministFrequency series before it gained in popularity during the Kickstarter campaign. The videos that stick out most in my mind are the ones covering the way Lego has been marketed. Although my own opinions often vary significantly from common feminist viewpoints, the videos are a great vehicle to critically reflect on popular culture and its potential for significant social impacts.

When judging the series it’s important to remember that Antia Sarkeesian is presenting herself as a feminist pop-culture critic. Sarkeesian is not presenting herself as some great feminist philosopher presenting novel insights into modern society. Nor is she presenting herself as an astute sociological researcher who is capable of backing feminist ideals with bountiful evidence. It is not fair to judge the video series (or Sarkeesian herself) on the basis that the videos need to achieve either of those things.

The purpose of the videos is to use established feminist ideals and concepts to critique patterns within the broad subject of popular culture. Their intended outcome is to bring considered attention to patterns (‘tropes’) that might otherwise be uncritically accepted as simply ‘the way things are’. One does not necessarily need to agree with the feminist perspective or the videos’ conclusions to see the validity of such an approach to critique regardless of medium.

The quality of the videography is one of the key draw cards of the series. The audio-visual format offers a more convenient way to engage in the topic than reading long written articles. Additionally the videos were a step above a lot of the basic vlog-into-a-webcam or faceless-rant-over-powerpoint-slides style videos that are quite common on YouTube. The combination of consistent lighting, quality sound and the quality editing made the videos easy to watch. The articulate and well-enunciated vocal commentary and inclusion of supporting multimedia content greatly lowers the barriers to engaging in what is often a fairly abstract and complex topic.

Numerous links are provided with each video posting on the FeministFrequency website. Consistent with the series’ purpose, these provide the sources for the ideas presented in the videos along with opportunities for further reading. It’s only recently that links have started to referencing academic journal articles and it’ll be these articles that are the focus of my subsequent posts in this series. It’s a little surprising that this detail is neither included nor directly linked from the YouTube description, however given the FeministFrequency address is regularly provided at the end of each video the information is not that difficult to locate particularly for anyone dedicated enough to actually read the linked content.



FeministFrequency – The Kickstarter

The Tropes vs Women in Video Games series was an ideal project for crowd sourced funding. The proposal was put forward by someone with an established record of quality content creation. The project represented a modest increase in scope over previous works. The initial budget was reasonable and could be easily justified by the cost outlay for software and hardware, as well as possibly some modest compensation for the time required to make the videos. The only criticism I’ll make is that the original completion time frame of 6 months was perhaps overly optimistic for reviewing “100’s of games”, and was possibly based on the previous experience of producing videos covering less time consuming media.

The Kickstarter campaign gained a fair amount of notoriety and with that came a fair amount of criticism. From all that I’ve read on the topic, I’ve not seen one major criticism of the way the Kickstarter was run that can be reasonably justified. The fact that the campaign reached 26 times the initial funding goal, and 6 times the highest stretch goals is quite significant. This entirely justifies a substantial increase in the scope of the project and the consequential delays.

To the extent that this funding outcome was inspired by the media coverage of the harassment and threats is in no way inconsistent with the underlying feminist principles on which the project was founded. Neither would the promotion the feminist views of the project through other means, such as attending and speaking at gaming conferences, be an unreasonable use of any excess funds (I’m not assuming this is happening).

There is perhaps some reasonable criticism in the way the rewards have been handled. Despite the promises made to most categories of supporters, I haven’t seen a single Kickstarter supporter named on either the FeministFrequency videos or website. However, given the well published harassment going on it is perhaps reasonable to not deliver on this promise for the time being. Other rewards cover physical goods, including DVDs of all the videos. Given production of the videos is still in progress, it is natural that the physical rewards have not yet been delivered.

Contrary to the sceptical predictions from some observers, Sarkeesian has managed to deliver 5 videos in the project to date. The videos are of a quality and format consistent with both the previous publications and the details of the proposal. The scope of each proposed video is greatly expanded. The new videos encompassing multiple parts of 20-30 minutes each in comparison to the much shorter 5-10 minute videos previously produced. My all reasonable measures, the outcome so far has been entirely consistent with expectations which stands in contrast to many other Kickstarter projects.



FeministFrequency – Existing Criticism

It’s worth briefly noting some of the substantive criticism directed at the substance of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. Youtuber KiteTales has posted a reasonable response to the videos on the Damsel in Distress trope. For the videos on the Women as Background Decoration trope, some people have observed that the games might be being misrepresented. However, at least one video game producer has come out and acknowledge the criticism of their game had merit.

There have also been accusations made that the FeministFrequency videos includes fanart and let’s play footage without the source being notified, linked or provided consent. While this might be an important issue, I won’t be addressing it here.



FeministFrequency – The Claims & Sources

“So why does any of this matter?”
“…the effects on people of all genders are quite clear and serious.”

In part one of the Women as Background Decoration episode, a number of claims were made that went beyond observations of the content of video games and began to comment on the impact the videos games on individuals and society. Accompanying the video on the FeministFrequency website is a list of sources that include a number of academic journal articles reporting on social psychology studies. The fact that these studies are behind a pay-wall does seem to be a source of frustration for critics.

However, I think it’s a positive step for the research that underlies various claims to be linked from online discussions. It has the potential to both lift the quality of online discussions of contentious political or ideological issues, and possible also shift the focus away from personal ad hominem attacks and towards a debate on the substance of the issue.

Given I have access to the journals I thought I would review the studies to see how well they support the claims made in the video. If feminists are going to advocate that gaming communities and the gaming industry ought to reshape itself in response to these claims, then I think it’s important to understand the basis for the claims and ensure such a response is justified.

The studies cited are listed below:

  1. Steve Loughnan, et al. (2010). Objectification leads to depersonalization: The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), 709–717.
  2. Laurie A Rudman & Eugene Bordgia (1994). The Afterglow of Construct Accessibility – The Behavioral Consequences of Priming Men to View Women as Sexual Objects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31(6), 493–517.
  3. Karen E. Dill, et al. (2008). Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(5), 1402–1408.
  4. Mike Z. Yao, et al. (2010). Sexual Priming, Gender Stereotyping, and Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Examining the Cognitive Effects of Playing a Sexually-Explicit Video Game. Sex Roles, 62(1), 77-88.
  5. Jesse Fox, et al. (2013). The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatar. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(3), 930–938.
  6. Jesse Fox & Wai Yen Tang (2014). Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation. Computers in Human Behaviour, 33, 314–320.

The studies are all published in reputable journals which means it is not surprising that they are behind a pay-wall (even if it is frustrating). About the only point worth noting is that the Sex Roles journal is limited to articles written from a feminist perspective. I would expect there would be a certain ideological focus to the discussions in these studies but I would not expect that the methodologies employed would be any different.

Five of the links for the Women as Background Decoration video are not original research. I do not have access to the “How Fantasy Becomes Reality” book. I have read the other articles and watched the video, however I will only be commenting on the directly studies published in academic journals.

In the table below I have listed the various claims and attempted to match them with statements made in the conclusions of the studies.

FeministFrequency Claim Quote from Citation
exposure to [sexually objectifying] images negatively impacts perceptions and beliefs about real world women Loughnan – “The main effect of objectification emerged for all comparisons with objectified targets denied both mind and moral status. …objectification diminishes a second aspect of personhood, perceived moral status
reinforces harmful myths about sexual violence. Dill – “Detailed analysis revealed that males who saw the sex-typed images were most tolerant of sexual harassment when judging a real-life case of sexual harassment between a female college student and her male professor.
after having viewed sexually objectified female bodies, men in particular tend to view women as less intelligent Loughnan – “Objectification leads to people being viewed as lacking mental states…
view women as … less competent Rudman – “subjects [who viewed sexual advertisements] … (4) judged her as significantly less competent
express less concern for [women’s] physical well being and safety Loughnan – “objectified targets [were] given more [pain inducing] tablets than non-objectified targets

Loughnan – “Objectification leads to people being viewed as … being less deserving of moral status.

these sexist attitudes carry over to perceptions of all women … regardless of attire, activities or profession
after long-term exposure to hyper-sexualized images, people of all genders tend to be more tolerant of the sexual harassment of women Dill – “those with more reported long-term exposure to violent video games increased tolerance towards sexual harassment
more readily accept rape myths Dill – “Subjects with higher violent video game exposure showed greater Rape Supportive Attitudes
Viewing media that frames women as objects or sexual playthings, profoundly impacts how real life women are perceived and treated Rudman – “subjects [who viewed sexual advertisements] … sat closer to [the woman], display more dominance during the interview, and behaved in a more sexualized manner.

Yao – “the present study found that playing a sexually-charged video game for merely 25 minutes might increase a self-reported tendency to engage in inappropriate sexual advances

women internalise [sexually objectifying] images and self-objectify. Fox – “this study has demonstrated that women can be affected negatively by the avatars they wear. Women may be at risk for experiencing self-objectification and developing greater rape
myth acceptance
[viewing sexually objectifying images] results in all kinds of social issues, everything from eating disorders
clinical depression
body shame
habitual body monitoring Fox – “Women in sexualized avatars reported more body-related thoughts than women in nonsexualized avatars
decreases in self-worth
decreases in … life satisfaction
decreases in … cognitive functioning
those who most strongly believe that media is just harmless entertainment are also the ones most likely to uncritically internalize harmful media messages.

A number of the claims do not appear to be directly supported by the cited studies. It’s possible that support for this claims is contained within the book “How Fantasy Becomes Reality”. The background commentary in the studies I have read did include references to similar claims, so it is likely that supporting studies do exist. However, I do not plan to address these claims as I am focusing on the directly cited studies.

A surface level check of the studies does show clear support in the concluding discussions for most of the claims made in the FeministFrequency videos. Coupled with how they are described in the “Spillover Effect” effect article on the Psychology Today blog, it would seem their use by Sarkeesian is reasonable. However, being something of a sceptic I will be exploring the details of these studies before considering accepting the claims. To achieve that my next post leaves the pop-culture critic behind and enters the world of social psychology studies.