I love reading Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias. Today, a post on conspicuous consumption and public causes caught my eye. It reminded me of Tor Norretranders‘s keynote at EuroOSCON last year, and not just because Robin is keynoting this year. Tor took us through evolutionary psychology attempts to account for the peacock’s tail. The tail is bright, colourful, and it makes the peacock an easy target to pick off. Tor’s question was: why would any animal invest in advertising saying “eat me”?
Because, the reasoning goes, it attracts mates. Peacocks who can survive despite the handicap of a garish tail obviously have genes far stronger than those of bland peacocks. Similarly, being fat shows that you can afford lots of food, wearing jewellery shows you can waste time and resources and still thrive, and so on. Tor’s thesis was that contributing to open source is a form of philanthropy, ostensibly helping others more than ourselves, but that it’s a similar “costly signal” to show the strength of our genes–“I have commit access, therefore you should marry me”.
Robin’s blog pointed to a study that tested luxury consumption and helping (two costly signals) to see how they varied between the sexes. The result was that the possibility of romance increased female public helping and male costly displays. Presumably this defied the hypothesis that women buy jewellery and men open car doors when in romantic situations.
The parallels with software are obvious to me. This logic suggests that men will brag about how much their proprietary software cost when attempting to impress a potential mate. Similarly, women will contribute to open source.
Glossing over what this says about the romantic lives of open source contributors, the article suggests to me that to overcome the shortage of women in open source men just need to romance them. Obviously you can’t do this randomly, the gents will need to be thoughtful. Candle-lit WINE and Cheese dates. Ditch the Godiva, give her a box of Arduino microcontrollers for Valentine’s Day. Surprise her with a commit bit. You can do this, men.