Abortion and self-interest

Bryan Caplan, true to his word as usual, has a new post on my book with Rob Kurzban, this time focused on a topic near and dear to my heart — abortion attitudes, which were the subject of my doctoral dissertation a dozen years ago.

Oh, the stories we tell

Abortion attitudes are one of the hardest political areas to puzzle through. To begin with, there are powerful red herrings everywhere. Pro-choice people talk about it as an issue of women’s rights, even though women and men don’t differ much on abortion. Pro-life people talk about it as an issue of Biblical fidelity, even though the Bible is silent on abortion and ambiguous about when life begins.

On pages 60 to 64 of our book, Kurzban and I place these kinds of abortion stories in the wider psychological context. People quite frequently have nice-sounding stories (“I’m protecting women!” “I’m protecting children!”) about their own motives that, while genuinely believed by their conscious mental Spokespersons, nonetheless are inaccurate spin covering up the actual motives of their unconscious mental Boards of Directors, motives that often tend towards self-interest. The broad psychological point is one Caplan seems to agree with, though he thinks that politics is an exception to the general rule.

When trying to piece together an account of why people clash on something like abortion, then, knowing the content of someone’s verbal defenses isn’t the same thing as knowing their underlying motives. We have to look for other clues.

So what’s the behind-the-scenes mental Board of Directors up to when it comes to pro-choice and pro-life opinions? My view is that it has a lot to do (but not everything to do) with people’s conflicting sexual and reproductive lifestyles.

Abortion and one’s own sex life

To whom is the availability of abortion most useful? The initial answer is rather obvious, once I point it out. Some people are sexually very active at times in their lives when it’s really important that they not have kids. The availability of safe, legal, reasonably priced abortion services is a desirable backstop, even if they never use those services.

And, of course, there are other people for whom abortion services are much less useful. Though many in my own social circle doubt their existence, the data nonetheless show that there are plenty of Americans who wait to have sex until they’re in committed relationships, and then have lots of kids without doing much to explicitly plan the timing or number.

Lots of other people, of course, exist in places in between these prototypes.

Now, how do we find these contrasting groups in the data? Back when I studied the abortion attitudes of undergraduates, I was able to ask things like how old they were when they started having sex (or, if they hadn’t yet, what they expected for their sexual futures) as well as what age they expected to have their first child. And, indeed, I found that a major predictor of undergraduates’ abortion attitudes is, quite simply, how many years they expect to be sexually active before having kids. I had a sample of middle-aged college graduates and found the same thing retrospectively – their abortion attitudes had a lot to do with how many years they were sexually active before having children.

With larger surveys, though, one can’t pick the questions asked, and it’s tougher going. Few large surveys ask the right range of questions. We have to cobble together indirect clues.

The U.S. General Social Survey is the best large database I know for these purposes, though it’s far from perfect. We can look at number of past sex partners (seeing who has slept around a lot and who hasn’t), number of children (seeing who has had many children and who has had few), and related measures like going to bars (something strongly related to having more low-commitment sex partners and fewer current children). None of these fully captures the underlying ideas about the utility of abortion services, but add them together and they get you in the ballpark.

Another big clue is education level. The more educated people are, the more they delay having kids on average. And the more educated people are, the more is at stake from screwing up plans to delay having kids.

So far, though, we only have partial ideas about pro-choice attitudes – there are people for whom the availability of abortion services is more useful than for others. Those people should show markedly higher levels of pro-choice attitudes. But, then, why would anyone else care enough to oppose them?

Abortion and other people’s sex lives

One of the big points my co-author, Rob Kurzban, and his colleagues (especially Peter DeScioli), have emphasized is that moral attitudes have as much — probably more — to do with trying to regulate other people’s conduct as they do with regulating one’s own conduct. I’ve often thought of this as, for example: If your motivational systems don’t want you doing behavior X, then you’ll simply dislike doing behavior X; but if you’re motivational systems don’t want other people doing behavior X, then you’ll not only dislike doing it, but dislike when other people do it, and further try to get in their way and rally support by announcing that you think people who do behavior X deserve punishment.

So why would anyone care if other people got abortions? In the book, we trace this back to a wider set of moral and political issues that centrally are about regulating sexual promiscuity (including premarital sex, pornography, marijuana legalization, birth control, and, of course, abortion). For example, people trying to maintain committed relationships, particularly when they have more kids, have more to lose when other people treat sex lightly and present a constant stream of temptations. Pro-life attitudes are in part an arrow in a larger quiver meant to increase the social and legal costs of what we’ve called Freewheeler lifestyles.

Who are the people who would tend to benefit from increasing social and legal costs on promiscuity, partying, and related behaviors? People who are not themselves promiscuous, have more kids, and so on (people we’ve labeled Ring-Bearers). Who are the people who are harmed by increased social and legal costs on promiscuous partiers? Mostly it’s the Freewheelers.

So there’s clear overlap between the people who have a higher need for abortion services and the people who are harmed when others impose social and legal costs on Freewheeling. And there’s a clear overlap between the people who have a reduced need for abortion services and the people who benefit from reducing Freewheeling in others. Overall, on abortion, we’re looking for high-education Freewheelers on the liberal side, and less-educated Ring-Bearers on the conservative side.

When it comes to the GSS data, what I’ve shown (in the book and in yesterday’s post), is that we can combine a number of imperfect demographic items – sexual history, number of children, bar attendance, and education – to make pretty good predictions about abortion attitudes. Indeed, in yesterday’s post, I found that combining some of these items accounts for marginally more variance in abortion attitudes (10.6%) than does asking people whether they are liberal or conservative (9.5%).

What’s God got to do with it?

It’s also clear that abortion attitudes (and related lifestyle items) relate strongly to church attendance. The usual story is that people are taught in church that these things are bad, and so that’s why they oppose them.

But in the book (pages 81 to 88), Kurzban and I confront this story with another big database, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. This study has tracked a big group of people born in the early 1980s with yearly surveys from their mid-teens to late 20s.

What we found was that lots of kids are raised religious, with parents going to church every week. But here’s the thing – by the time these kids reached their mid-20s, only 25% of these raised-religious kids were themselves going to church every week. Why the huge decline? We show that the likely answer involves, well, Freewheeling. Lots of raised-religious kids start partying and hooking up and shacking up in their late-teens and 20s. And when they do, their church attendance drops to about the same low level as kids not raised religious. The kids who remain in church are mostly those who largely abstain from Freewheeling and then get married.

Findings like these drive our view that churches are in large part support groups for Ring-Bearers. Churches often provide practical benefits especially helpful to young couples with children, help monitor and enforce their own member’s sexual traditionalism, and provide an organization that helps pressure the wider society to increase the costs of Freewheeling.

So, we argue, you can’t just say that going to church is the big cause of everything, because people really do stop going when it doesn’t fit their own lifestyles, and, we also show, often start going (despite having less religious parents) when it does fit their own lifestyles. The causality here is really complex.

As always: What are Caplan and I arguing about?

Caplan thinks that self-interest is usually a trivial factor in public opinion. I think that it’s often (but not always) a substantial factor (though not an exclusive one).

This is, as those of you following the discussion will know, a remarkably thorny dispute. One part of the dispute is simply over what demographic items in fact relate to issue opinions and whether those relationships are “substantial.” Another is whether those relationships indicate causal direction from the demographic items to the issue opinions. Another is whether those demographic items are in fact consistent with “self-interest,” which might be defined in different ways and might be accurately or inaccurately perceived. Another is whether, even if the demographics are causal and even if they are consistent with actual and perceived self-interest, it’s in fact evidence of self-interested motives — maybe, for example, as I seem to recall Andrew Gelman arguing (don’t ask me where), people are centrally motivated to do what’s best for everyone, but their own experiences affect their judgments in ways that create a sort of accidental selfishness.

So there’s no chance for motivated opponents to reach full agreement here — there are too many ways to defend essentially unresolvable differences.

But we can agree on some things. I say that certain sets of demographics in combination substantially correlate with certain political issues. I think Caplan agrees. (Though we disagree as to why — I think they are evidence of self-interested motives; Caplan does not.) On abortion, for example, we agree that sexual history is a substantial correlate.

Caplan says that lib-con labels substantially correlate with many issue opinions. I agree. (Though we disagree as to why — I think Caplan thinks these correlations are evidence only of causal flow from lib-con labels to issue opinions; I think they’re both causes and effects of issue opinions.) On abortion, for example, we agree that lib-con labels are a substantial correlate.

I say that there are ways to introduce non-casual correlates into a regression model that can suppress the coefficients for actual causes (see, e.g., pages 227 to 235 of my book). This makes me cautious about just popping everything into a regression model and hoping God sorts it out. I think Caplan would agree if he were to acknowledge this point. So far, it looks to me like he might think regressions reveal rather than assume causal directions, which is false.

So how do Caplan’s new regression models relate to our disagreements? It turns out, not at all. He shows something we agree about: Sexual history predicts abortion views. And something else we agree about: Lib-con labels are even bigger correlates of abortion views than sexual history. And something else we agree about: Predict abortion views with both sexual history and lib-con labels, and they both remain substantial. And something else we agree about: Religiosity is a big deal here as well, and suppresses (though doesn’t eliminate) sexual history as a predictor (we showed this in our book by first running our analyses of lifestyle issues without religious predictors, and then re-running them with religious predictors).

Caplan is trying to make hay out of the fact that lib-con labels are bigger correlates of abortion attitudes than sexual histories are. He needs to be really cautious here, however. I showed in my post yesterday, for example, (1) that combined demographics are a (marginally) bigger deal than lib-con labels on abortion, and (2) that for things like school prayer and immigration, the demographics are much bigger deals than lib-con labels. If he’s going to argue that the person with the biggest correlation wins, then he’s going to lose lots of the contests. In fact, though, these are the wrong contests. We agree that lib-con labels are often big correlates. The main disagreement is about whether self-interest-related demographics are also big correlates.

And we’re back to our starting point. I think the demographic correlates we’ve identified help show that self-interest is often a big deal in public opinion. Caplan doesn’t, not because he thinks these things don’t correlate, but because he thinks the correlations don’t signal self-interest. I think I’ve made some progress in helping Caplan to see what some of those correlates are (on abortion, for example, I don’t think it had ever occurred to him to check Freewheeler/Ring-Bearer features like sexual history). But we’re unlikely to ever agree on what those correlations mean.