Diversity on campus (sex, drugs, and tattoos edition)

A new study out in The Social Science Journal by Keith King and Rebecca Vidourek shows something that everybody already knows: Party kids are more likely than abstinent virgins to get tattoos. In a sample of 998 students from a Midwestern university (they don’t say which one), almost 30% had tattoos. Consistent with prior research (as well as Wedding Crashers), the inked kids were more likely to drink, smoke, and use drugs, and especially more likely to be sexually active than their non-inked classmates.

There are various other details, of course: Women were more likely to have tattoos than men; tattooed students used birth control more than non-tattooed kids, something that cuts against their reckless image; and so on. The study is also a good example of the folly of asking people why they do the things they do — turns out the major reasons people give for getting tattoos include super-illuminating things like it being fun.

Another point embedded in the data relates to media portrayals of college students. They’re all a bunch of promiscuous partiers, right?

Well, no. I constructed the accompanying chart from the data presented in the paper. It shows the relative size of groups from the sample, splitting them up by those who have had sex and those who are virgins, and, among those who have had sex, those who drank or used drugs the last time they had sex versus those who last had sex while stone-cold sober.


If you take the anecdotal methods of click-hungry journalism seriously, you might think that the majority of the sample would be in the partied-the-last-time-I-had-sex category and that very few would be virgins. In fact, these groups are close to the same size, with a slight lead for the virgins: 19% were virgins and 15% used alcohol or drugs the last time they had sex. The other two-thirds were in the too-boring-to-write-about middle — they had had sex before, but didn’t last have sex in the context of partying.

The important story missed by most articles about those crazy kids is the tremendous variation on campus when it comes to what the literature likes to call “risky behaviors.” In data I’ve collected over the years, I find that there’s generally about a fifth or a quarter of college kids who do extremely little by way of sex/drinking/drugs, balanced out by a similar-sized group made up of the kinds of students you’ll typically see profiled in stories — regular weekend drinkers who have had a number of hook-up partners.

So, you know, don’t believe the hype and all that. But also, keep your eye on the big theme, which is the impressive diversity of modern lifestyle patterns.

The study: King, K. A., & Vidourek, R. A. Getting inked: Tattoo and risky behavioral involvement among university students. The Social Science Journal (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.soscij.2013.09.009

Article on political socialization buries the lede

A recent article in Psychological Bulletin looks at various studies on the resemblance between parents and children when it comes to discriminatory political attitudes. The article is framed as investigating socialization accounts — accounts claiming that people get their varying political attitudes by being raised in different ways. The authors find that, indeed, there really is a correlation between the attitudes of parents and children, and, thus, that one of the big roadblocks to socialization theories has been cleared away: “The general argumentation that parental attitudes are irrelevant for prejudice formation in children because of an absence of a parent–child correlation can thus no longer be maintained.”

But then, tucked away at the end, is this:

[F]inally, we must address the question whether significant indices of parent–child similarities even in methodologically rigorous longitudinal studies can be interpreted as reflecting socialization effects (be it parent–child, child–parent, or environment–parent/child) given the possibility of genetic influences. Because effects of parental genes and parental attitudes and behaviors are correlated, ostensible influences of parental attitudes may actually be artifacts of genetic influences. Several twin studies provide first evidence that intergroup attitudes and related attitudes, such as social conservatism, social dominance orientation, right-wing authoritarianism, and political attitudes, have modest to substantial heritability coefficients. Notably, these heritability indices are similar in magnitude to the effect sizes we have found in the current metaanalysis. Furthermore, the shared environment of siblings—which would include parental attitudes and behaviors—appears to be of negligible importance in these studies (as compared to the unshared environment). This could be taken to imply that parents have little direct influence on their children’s intergroup attitudes, or at least that they do not affect different siblings in the same ways.

In other words: Yeah, well, we’ve been telling you for 20 pages about how important parent-child socialization is for political attitudes, but it turns out that adults’ attitudes probably don’t have much to do with how they were raised.

It has the feel of something that probably wasn’t in the authors’ submitted draft, but was added at the insistence of a reviewer/editor later in the process (I could well be wrong about that, as I have no inside information here).

Behavioral genetics findings have thrown a monkey wrench in traditional social science. We’re at that awkward stage where everyone knows it, but there’s so much inertia behind the old approaches that we’re likely to see many more weird examples like this of burying the lede.

The paper: Degner, J., & Dalege, J. (2013). The apple does not fall far from the tree, or does it? A meta-analysis of parent-child similarity in intergroup attitudes. Psychological Bulletin, 6, 1270-1304.