One of my relatives died this week, so I’m going to go be sad, now. Please, if you have any fights with your relatives, try to make up if you can before they die. Sometimes people die a lot younger than you think they will.
And don’t let all of this election bullshittery drive you apart. Just don’t.
(Warning: this post is based on personal, entirely anecdotal observations of other humans.)
I interact, on a fairly regular basis, with people from a wide range of backgounds: folks who’ve spent decades living on the streets; emotionally disabled folks and folks who were emotionally traumatized but recovered; working, middle, and upper class folks.
“Functionality” may not be the easiest term to define, but you know it when you see it: people who manage to pick up the pieces when bad shit happens and continue on with their lives. Non-functionality does not automatically make you poor, (nor does functionality make you rich,) but it is often a major contributing factor.
I’m not going to claim that we all go through equal amounts of trauma; certainly some of us, like infants who were dropped on their heads, have truly shitty lives. Still, almost all of us endure at least some trauma, and there is great variation in our responses to the tragedies we endure.
Among the people I know personally, I’ve noticed that the less-functional tend to have “sticky brains.” When trauma happens, they gloom onto it and get stuck. Years, sometimes decades later, you hear these people still talking about things other people did to them.
For example: two people I know (we’ll call them Foxtrot and Golf, following my alias convention,) had rough childhoods. Foxtrot is still quite bitter over things that happened over 50 years ago, committed by relatives who are long dead. He’s is also bitter about things that happened recently; I often hear about very minor conflicts that normal people would just be angry about for a day or two that Foxtrot is still losing sleep over a month later. Unsurprisingly, he is an unstable emotional wreck with no job, a string of divorces, and virtually no contact with his family.
Golf’s childhood was, by all objective measures, far worse than Foxtrot’s. But Golf doesn’t talk much about his childhood and is today a functional person. When bad things happen to Golf, he deals with them, he might get angry, and then he finishes with them and puts them aside. He has his bad spells–times when things are going badly and he gets really depressed. He also has his good times. But he has managed to keep himself together well enough, even through these bad times, to stay married and employed (to the same person and at the same job, for decades,) is in contact with most of his family, and enjoys a decent reputation in the community.
The homeless people I interact with also have “sticky brains.” When bad things happen to them (and, yes, being homeless is like a permanent bad thing happening to you,) they get really focused on that bad thing. For example, one homeless woman I know has worried for decades about a possible indiscretion she might have committed back in highschool–it is a very minor thing of less importance than copying a few answers on a math test, but she is still worried that she is a cheater and dishonest member of society. Another is fixated on a bad interaction with an aid worker that happened over a year ago. Most people would say, “yeah, that guy was a jerk,” and then stop worrying about it after a week or so; in this case, the hurt is reviewed and re-felt almost every day.
And, of course, I have many personal friends who’ve endured or dealt with traumas in their own more or less useful ways. (Not to mention the various ups and downs of my own life.)
Because trauma is common–some, like the death of a loved one, strike almost everyone who makes it to adulthood–societies tend to adopt guidelines for trauma response, such as a funeral for the dead followed by a six-month mourning period for widows, official days of mourning or remembrance for people who died in wars, therapy and anti-depressants, confession and forgiveness, head-hunting (among head-hunters), or sympathy cards among the less violently inclined. My own family has a tradition of visiting the graveyard where many of our older relatives are buried once a year and cleaning the gravestones. (The children have a tradition of pretending to be zombies.)
Anthropologists like to call these things “rituals” and “customs.” Different societies have different customs, but all of the ones listed exist for the purpose of helping people cope with trauma and grief. (Or at least, that’s what the head-hunters claimed.)
Watching people attempt to cope with life has made me appreciate (most of) these customs. “Six months of mourning,” may seem arbitrary, but it is also pretty useful: it dictates that yes, it is very normal to feel terrible for a while and everyone will be understanding of that, but now the time has passed and it is time to get on with life.
Christianity and Judaism (and probably other religions) command forgiveness:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. — Leviticus 19: 18
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? “Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” — Matthew 18: 21-22
This is ostensibly for practical reasons:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Matthew 6:14-15
On Yom Kippur, Jews observe a tradition of forgiving others and asking forgiveness for themselves. (It is not surprising that forgiveness should be handled similarly in two religions that share much of their scriptures; Christianity seems to differ primarily in making the institution of forgiveness a more personal matter rather than an annual ritual.)
I’m pretty sure forgiveness is a big deal in Buddhism, as well, but I don’t know much about Hinduism and other belief systems, so I can’t comment on them.
But why should God require forgiveness? It seems rather unfair to say to someone who was raped as a child and has done nothing worse than tell a few lies in their life, “If you don’t forgive your rapist, God won’t forgive you for lying.”
But this assumes that forgiveness exists for the forgiven. In some cases, of course, it does. But forgiveness also serves a function for the forgiver. I shall leave the concept of spiritual purity to the spiritual; as a practical matter, forgiveness allows the hurt party to stop focusing on their pain and resume life. Most people do this fairly naturally, but some of us need a bit of encouragement–and perhaps ritual focus and faith–to heal.
“3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. — Matthew 5: 3-12
I don’t think the point of this is that it is morally superior to be insulted or hurt or poor, but reassure and comfort those who have been.
So I was thinking about taste (flavor) and disgust (emotion.)
As I mentioned about a month ago, 25% of people are “supertasters,” that is, better at tasting than the other 75% of people. Supertasters experience flavors more intensely than ordinary tasters, resulting in a preference for “bland” food (food with too much flavor is “overwhelming” to them.) They also have a more difficult time getting used to new foods.
One of my work acquaintances of many years –we’ll call her Echo–is obese, constantly on a diet, and constantly eats sweets. She knows she should eat vegetables and tries to do so, but finds them bitter and unpleasant, and so the general outcome is as you expect: she doesn’t eat them.
Since I find most vegetables quite tasty, I find this attitude very strange–but I am willing to admit that I may be the one with unusual attitudes toward food.
Echo is also quite conservative.
This got me thinking about vegetarians vs. people who think vegetarians are crazy. Why (aside from novelty of the idea) should vegetarians be liberals? Why aren’t vegetarians just people who happen to really like vegetables?
What if there were something in preference for vegetables themselves that correlated with political ideology?
Certainly we can theorize that “supertaster” => “vegetables taste bitter” => “dislike of vegetables” => “thinks vegetarians are crazy.” (Some supertasters might think meat tastes bad, but anecdotal evidence doesn’t support this; see also Wikipedia, where supertasting is clearly associated with responses to plants:
Any evolutionary advantage to supertasting is unclear. In some environments, heightened taste response, particularly to bitterness, would represent an important advantage in avoiding potentially toxic plant alkaloids. In other environments, increased response to bitterness may have limited the range of palatable foods. …
Although individual food preference for supertasters cannot be typified, documented examples for either lessened preference or consumption include:
Mushrooms? Echo was just complaining about mushrooms.
Let’s talk about disgust. Disgust is an important reaction to things that might infect or poison you, triggering reactions from scrunching up your face to vomiting (ie, expelling the poison.) We process disgust in our amygdalas, and some people appear to have bigger or smaller amygdalas than others, with the result that the folks with more amygdalas feel more disgust.
Humans also route a variety of social situations through their amygdalas, resulting in the feeling of “disgust” in response to things that are not rotten food, like other people’s sexual behaviors, criminals, or particularly unattractive people. People with larger amygdalas also tend to find more human behaviors disgusting, and this disgust correlates with social conservatism.
To what extent are “taste” and “disgust” independent of each other? I don’t know; perhaps they are intimately linked into a single feedback system, where disgust and taste sensitivity cause each other, or perhaps they are relatively independent, so that a few unlucky people are both super-sensitive to taste and easily disgusted.
People who find other people’s behavior disgusting and off-putting may also be people who find flavors overwhelming, prefer bland or sweet foods over bitter ones, think vegetables are icky, vegetarians are crazy, and struggle to stay on diets.
What’s that, you say, I’ve just constructed a just-so story?
Michael Shin and William McCarthy, researchers from UCLA, have found an association between counties with higher levels of support for the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and higher levels of obesity in those counties.
Looks like the Mormons and Southern blacks are outliers.
(I don’t really like maps like this for displaying data; I would much prefer a simple graph showing orientation on one axis and obesity on the other, with each county as a datapoint.)
(Unsurprisingly, the first 49 hits I got when searching for correlations between political orientation and obesity were almost all about what other people think of fat people, not what fat people think. This is probably because researchers tend to be skinny people who want to fight “fat phobia” but aren’t actually interested in the opinions of fat people.)
Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to eat fresh fruit daily, and 17 percent more likely to eat toast or a bagel in the morning, while conservatives are 20 percent more likely to skip breakfast.
Ten percent of liberals surveyed indicated they are vegetarians, compared with 3 percent of conservatives.
Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to enjoy beer, with 60 percent of liberals indicating they like beer.
(See above where Wikipedia noted that supertasters dislike beer.) I will also note that coffee, which supertasters tend to dislike because it is too bitter, is very popular in the ultra-liberal cities of Portland and Seattle, whereas heavily sweetened iced tea is practically the official beverage of the South.
The only remaining question is if supertasters are conservative. That may take some research.
Update: I have not found, to my disappointment, a simple study that just looks at correlation between ideology and supertasting (or nontasting.) However, I have found a couple of useful items.
Standard tests of disgust sensitivity, a questionnaire developed for this research assessing different types of moral transgressions (nonvisceral, implied-visceral, visceral) with the terms “angry” and “grossed-out,” and a taste sensitivity test of 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) were administered to 102 participants. [PROP is commonly used to test for “supertasters.”] Results confirmed past findings that the more sensitive to PROP a participant was the more disgusted they were by visceral, but not moral, disgust elicitors. Importantly, the findings newly revealed that taste sensitivity had no bearing on evaluations of moral transgressions, regardless of their visceral nature, when “angry” was the emotion primed. However, when “grossed-out” was primed for evaluating moral violations, the more intense PROP tasted to a participant the more “grossed-out” they were by all transgressions. Women were generally more disgust sensitive and morally condemning than men, … The present findings support the proposition that moral and visceral disgust do not share a common oral origin, but show that linguistic priming can transform a moral transgression into a viscerally repulsive event and that susceptibility to this priming varies as a function of an individual’s sensitivity to the origins of visceral disgust—bitter taste. [bold mine.]
In other words, supertasters are more easily disgusted, and with verbal priming will transfer that disgust to moral transgressions. (And easily disgusted people tend to be conservatives.)
If you aren’t familiar with the “replication crisis,” in social psychology, start here, here, and here.
I consider the courses I took in college on quantitative and qualitative methods the most important of my undergraduate years. I learned thereby a great many important things about how not to conduct an experiment and how to think about experimental methodology (not to mention statistics.)
If I were putting together a list of “general education” requirements I wanted all students to to take in order to declare them well-educated and ready to go out into the world, it’d be a course on Quantitative and Qualitative Methods. (Much like current “gen ed” and “distribution requirements,” the level of mathematical ability required would likely vary by field, though no one should be obtaining a college degree without some degree of numerical competence.)
But the real problem with the social science fields is not lack of rigorous statistical background, but overwhelming ideological conformity, enforced by the elders of the fields–advisers, hiring committees, textbook writers, journal editors, etc., who all believe in the same ideology and so have come to see their field as “proving” their ideology.
Ideology drives both the publication biases and the wishful thinking that underlie this crisis. For example, everyone in “Women’s studies” is a feminist who believes that “science” proves that women are oppressed because everyone they know has done studies “proving” it. You’re not going to find a lot of Women’s Studies professors aiming for tenure on the basis of their successful publication of a bunch of studies that failed to find any evidence of bias against women. Findings like that => no publication => no tenure. And besides, feminist professors see it as their moral duty to prove that discrimination exists, not to waste their time on studies that just happened not to be good enough to find the effect.
In the Social Sciences more generally, we get this “post modern” mish-mash of everything from Marxists to Freudians to folks who like Foucault and Said, where the goal is to mush up long-winded descriptions of otherwise simple phenomena into endless Chomsky Sentences.
(Just reading the Wikipedia pages on a variety of Social Science oriented topics reveals how very little real research or knowledge is generated in these fields, and how much is based on individual theorists’ personal views. It is often obvious that virtually anyone not long steeped in the academic literature of these fields would not come up with these theories, but with something far more mundane and sensible. Economists, for all their political bias, at least provide a counterpoint to many of these theories.)
Obviously different fields study different aspects of phenomena, but entire fields should not become reduced to trying to prove one political ideology or another. If they are, they should label themselves explicitly, rather than make a pretense of neutrality.
When ideology rather than correctness become the standard for publication (not to mention hiring and tenure,) the natural result is incorrectness.
More statistical knowledge is not, by itself, going to resolve the problem. The fields must first recognize that they have an ideological bias problem, and then work to remedy it by letting in and publishing work by researchers outside the social science ideological mainstream. It is very easy to think your ideas sound rigorous when you are only debating with people who already agree with you; it is much more difficult to defend your views against people who disagree, or come from very different intellectual backgrounds.
They could start with–hahahaha–letting in a Republican.
Continuing with yesterday’s discussion (in response to a reader’s question):
Why are people snobs about intelligence?
Is math ability better than verbal?
Do people only care about intelligence in the context of making money?
1. People are snobs. Not all of them, obviously–just a lot of them.
So we’re going to have to back this up a step and ask why are people snobs, period.
Paying attention to social status–both one’s own and others’–is probably instinctual. We process social status in our prefrontal cortexes–the part of our brain generally involved in complex thought, imagination, long-term planning, personality, not being a psychopath, etc. Our brains respond positively to images of high-status items–activating reward-feedback loop that make us feel good–and negatively to images of low-status items–activating feedback loops that make us feel bad.
…researchers asked a person if the following statement was an accurate description of themselves: “I wouldn’t hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble.” Some of the participants answered the question without anyone else seeing their response. Others knowingly revealed their answer to two strangers who were watching in a room next to them via video feed. The result? When the test subjects revealed an affirmative answer to an audience, their [medial prefrontal cortexes] lit up more strongly than when they kept their answers to themselves. Furthermore, when the participants revealed their positive answers not to strangers, but to those they personally held in high regard, their MPFCs and reward striatums activated even more strongly. This confirms something you’ve assuredly noticed in your own life: while we generally care about the opinions of others, we particularly care about the opinions of people who really matter to us.
(Note what constitutes a high-status activity.)
But this alone does not prove that paying attention to social status is instinctual. After all, I can also point to the part of your brain that processes written words (the Visual Word Form Area,) and yet I don’t assert that literacy is an instinct. For that matter, anything we think about has to be processed in our brains somewhere, whether instinct or not.
Better evidence comes from anthropology and zoology. According to Wikipedia, “All societies have a form of social status,” even hunter-gatherers. If something shows up in every single human society, that’s a pretty good sign that it is probably instinctual–and if it isn’t, it is so useful a thing that no society exists without it.
Among animals, social status is generally determined by a combination of physical dominance, age, relationship, and intelligence. Killer whale pods, for example, are led by the eldest female in the family; leadership in elephant herds is passed down from a deceased matriarch to her eldest daughter, even if the matriarch has surviving sisters. Male lions assert dominance by being larger and stronger than other lions.
In all of these cases, the social structure exists because it benefits the group, even if it harms some of the individuals in it. If having no social structure were beneficial for wolves, then wolf packs without alpha wolves would out-compete packs with alphas. This is the essence of natural selection.
Among humans, social status comes in two main forms, which I will call “earned” and “background.”
“Earned” social status stems from things you do, like rescuing people from burning buildings, inventing quantum physics, or stealing wallets. High status activities are generally things that benefit others, and low-status activities are generally those that harm others. This is why teachers are praised and thieves are put in prison.
Earned social status is a good thing, because it reward people for being helpful.
“Background” social status is basically stuff you were born into or have no effect over, like your race, gender, the part of the country you grew up in, your accent, name, family reputation, health/disability, etc.
Americans generally believe that you should not judge people based on background social status, but they do it, anyway.
Interestingly, high-status people are not generally violent. (Just compare crime rates by neighborhood SES.) Outside of military conquest, violence is the domain of the low-class and those afraid they are slipping in social class, not the high class. Compare Andrea Merkel to the average German far-right protester. Obviously the protester would win in a fist-fight, but Merkel is still in charge. High class people go out of their way to donate to charity, do volunteer work, and talk about how much they love refugees. In the traditional societies of the Pacific Northwest, they held potlatches at which they distributed accumulated wealth to their neighbors; in our society, the wealthy donate millionsto education. Ideally, in a well-functioning system, status is the thanks rich people get for doing things that benefit the community instead of spending their billions on gold-plated toilets.
The Arabian babbler … spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.
When it’s living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These “non-territorials” are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. … Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense “all-out” fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. …
Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They’ll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They’ll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group’s territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is “guard duty,” in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon. …
Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it’s a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn’t compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, wealthy private individuals substantially supported the military, with a particular wealthy men buying stuff for a particular regiment or particular fort.
Noblemen paid high prices for military commands, and these posts were no sinecure. You got the obligation to substantially supply the logistics for your men, the duty to obey stupid orders that would very likely lead to your death, the duty to lead your men from in front while wearing a costume designed to make you particularly conspicuous, and the duty to engage in honorable personal combat, man to man, with your opposite number who was also leading his troops from in front.
A vestige of this tradition remains in that every English prince has been sent to war and has placed himself very much in harm’s way.
It seems obvious to me that a soldier being led by a member of the ruling class who is soaking up the bullets from in front is a lot more likely to be loyal and brave than a soldier sent into battle by distant rulers safely in Washington who despise him as a sexist homophobic racist murderer, that a soldier who sees his commander, a member of the ruling classes, fighting right in front of him, is reflexively likely to fight.
(Note, however, that magnanimity is not the same as niceness. The only people who are nice to everyone are store clerks and waitresses, and they’re only nice because they have to be or they’ll get fired.)
Most people are generally aware of each others’ social statuses, using contextual clues like clothing and accents to make quick, rough estimates. These contextual clues are generally completely neutral–they just happen to correlate with other behaviors.
For example, there is nothing objectively good or bad for society about wearing your pants belted beneath your buttocks, aside from it being an awkward way to wear your pants. But the style correlates with other behaviors, like crime, drug use, and aggression, low paternal investment, and unemployment, all of which are detrimental to society, and so the mere sight of underwear spilling out of a man’s pants automatically assigns him low status. There is nothing causal in this relationship–being a criminal does not make you bad at buckling your pants, nor does wearing your pants around your knees somehow inspire you to do drugs. But these things correlate, and humans are very good at learning patterns.
Likewise, there is nothing objectively better about operas than Disney movies, no real difference between a cup of coffee brewed in the microwave and one from Starbucks; a Harley Davidson and a Vespa are both motorcycles; and you can carry stuff around in just about any bag or backpack, but only the hoity-toity can afford something as objectively hideous as a $26,000 Louis Vutton backpack.
All of these things are fairly arbitrary and culturally dependent–the way you belt your pants can’t convey social status in a society where people don’t wear pants; your taste in movies couldn’t matter before movies were invented. Among hunter-gatherers, social status is based on things like one’s skills at hunting, and if I showed up to the next PTA meeting wearing a tophat and monocle, I wouldn’t get any status points at all.
We tend to aggregate the different social status markers into three broad classes (middle, upper, and lower.) As Scott Alexander says in his post about Siderea’s essay on class in America, which divides the US into 10% Underclass, 65% Working Class, 23.5% Gentry Class, and 1.5% Elite:
Siderea notes that Church’s analysis independently reached about the same conclusion as Paul Fussell’s famous guide. I’m not entirely sure how you’d judge this (everybody’s going to include lower, middle, and upper classes), but eyeballing Fussell it does look a lot like Church, so let’s grant this.
It also doesn’t sound too different from Marx. Elites sound like capitalists, Gentry like bourgeoisie, Labor like the proletariat, and the Underclass like the lumpenproletariat. Or maybe I’m making up patterns where they don’t exist; why should the class system of 21st century America be the same as that of 19th century industrial Europe?
There’s one more discussion of class I remember being influenced by, and that’s Unqualified Reservations’ Castes of the United States. Another one that you should read but that I’ll summarize in case you don’t:
1. Dalits are the underclass, … 2. Vaisyas are standard middle-class people … 3. Brahmins are very educated people … 4. Optimates are very rich WASPs … now they’re either extinct or endangered, having been pretty much absorbed into the Brahmins. …
Michael Church’s system (henceforth MC) and the Unqualified Reservation system (henceforth UR) are similar in some ways. MC’s Underclass matches Dalits, MC’s Labor matches Vaisyas, MC’s Gentry matches Brahmins, and MC’s Elite matches Optimates. This is a promising start. It’s a fourth independent pair of eyes that’s found the same thing as all the others. (commenters bring up Joel Kotkin and Archdruid Report as similar convergent perspectives).
I suspect the tendency to try to describe society as consisting of three broad classes (with the admission that other, perhaps tiny classes that don’t exactly fit into the others might exist) is actually just an artifact of being a three-biased society that likes to group things in threes (the Trinity, three-beat joke structure, three bears, Three Musketeers, three notes in a chord, etc.) This three-bias isn’t a human universal (or so I have read) but has probably been handed down to us from the Indo-Europeans, (“Many Indo-European societies know a threefold division of priests, a warriorclass, and a class of peasants or husbandmen. Georges Dumézil has suggested such a division for Proto-Indo-European society,”) so we’re so used to it that we don’t even notice ourselves doing it.
(For more information on our culture’s three-bias and different number biases in other cultures, see Alan Dundes’s Interpreting Folklore, though I should note that I read it back in highschool and so my memory of it is fuzzy.)
(Also, everyone is probably at least subconsciously cribbing Marx, who was probably cribbing from some earlier guy who cribbed from another earlier guy, who set out with the intention of demonstrating that society–divided into nobles, serfs, and villagers–reflected the Trinity, just like those Medieval maps that show the world divided into three parts or the conception of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.)
At any rate, I am skeptical of any system that lumps 65% of people into one social class and 0.5% of people into a different social class as being potentially too-finely grained at one end of the scale and not enough at the other. Determining the exact number of social classes in American society may ultimately be futile–perhaps there really are three (or four) highly distinct groups, or perhaps social classes transition smoothly from one to the next with no sharp divisions.
I lean toward the latter theory, with broad social classes as merely a convenient shorthand for extremely broad generalizations about society. If you look any closer, you tend to find that people do draw finer-grained distinctions between themselves and others than “65% Working Class” would imply. For example, a friend who works in agriculture in Greater Appalachia once referred dismissively to other people they had to deal with as “red necks.” I might not be able to tell what differentiates them, but clearly my friend could. Similarly, I am informed that there are different sorts of homelessness, from true street living to surviving in shelters, and that lifetime homeless people are a different breed altogether. I might call them all “homeless,” but to the homeless, these distinctions are important.
Is social class evil?
This question was suggested by a different friend.
I suspect that social class is basically, for the most part, neutral-to-useful. I base this on the fact that most people do not work very hard to erase markers of class distinction, but instead actively embrace particular class markers. (Besides, you can’t get rid of it, anyway.)
It is not all that hard to learn the norms and values of a different social class and strategically employ them. Black people frequently switch between speaking African American Vernacular English at home and standard English at work; I can discuss religion with Christian conservatives and malevolent AI risk with nerds; you can purchase a Harley Davidson t-shirt as easily as a French beret and scarf.
(I am reminded here of an experiment in which researchers were looking to document cab drivers refusing to pick up black passengers; they found that when the black passengers were dressed nicely, drivers would pick them up, but when they wore “ghetto” clothes, the cabs wouldn’t. Cabbies: responding more to perceived class than race.)
And yet, people don’t–for the most part–mass adopt the social markers of the upper class just to fool them. They love their motorcycle t-shirts, their pumpkin lattes, even their regional accents. Class markers are an important part of peoples’ cultural / tribal identities.
But what about class conflicts?
Because every class has its own norms and values, every class is, to some degree, disagreeing with the other classes. People for whom frugality and thrift are virtues will naturally think that people who drink overpriced coffee are lacking in moral character. People for whom anti-racism is the highest virtue will naturally think that Trump voters are despicable racists. A Southern Baptist sees atheists as morally depraved fetus murderers; nerds and jocks are famously opposed to each other; and people who believe that you should graduate from college, become established in your career, get married, and then have 0-1.5 children disapprove of people who drop out of highschool, have a bunch of children with a bunch of different people, and go on welfare.
A moderate sense of pride in one’s own culture is probably good and healthy, but spending too much energy hating other groups is probably negative–you may end up needlessly hurting people whose cooperation you would have benefited from, reducing everyone’s well-being.
(A good chunk of our political system’s dysfunctions are probably due to some social classes believing that other social classes despise them and are voting against their interests, and so counter-voting to screw over the first social class. I know at least one person who switched allegiance from Hillary to Trump almost entirely to stick it to liberals they think look down on them for classist reasons.)
Ultimately, though, social class is with us whether we like it or not. Even if a full generation of orphan children were raised with no knowledge of their origins and completely equal treatment by society at large, each would end up marrying/associating with people who have personalities similar to themselves (and remember that genetics plays a large role in personality.) Just as current social classes in America are ethnically different, (Southern whites are drawn from different European populations than Northern whites, for example,) so would the society resulting from our orphanage experiment differentiate into genetically and personalityish-similar groups.
Why do Americans generally proclaim their opposition to judging others based on background status, and then act classist, anyway? There are two main reasons.
As already discussed, different classes have real disagreements with each other. Even if I think I shouldn’t judge others, I can’t put aside my moral disgust at certain behaviors just because they happen to correlate with different classes.
It sounds good to say nice, magnanimous things that make you sound more socially sensitive and aware than others, like, “I wouldn’t hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble.” So people like to say these things whether they really mean them or not.
In reality, people are far less magnanimous than they like to claim they are in front of their friends. People like to say that we should help the homeless and save the whales and feed all of the starving children in Africa, but few people actually go out of their way to do such things.
There is a reason Mother Teresa is considered a saint, not an archetype.
In real life, not only does magnanimity has a cost, (which the rich can better afford,) but if you don’t live up to your claims, people will notice. If you talk a good talk about loving others but actually mistreat them, people will decide that you’re a hypocrite. On the internet, you can post memes for free without havng to back them up with real action, causing discussions to descend into competitive-virtue signalling in which no one wants to be the first person to admit that they actually are occasionally self-interested. (Cory Doctorow has a relevant discussion about how “reputations economies”–especially internet-based ones–can go horribly wrong.)
Unfortunately, people often confuse background and achieved status.
American society officially has no hereditary social classes–no nobility, no professions limited legally to certain ethnicities, no serfs, no Dalits, no castes, etc. Officially, if you can do the job, you are supposed to get it.
Most of us believe, at least abstractly, that you shouldn’t judge or discriminate against others for background status factors they have no control over, like where they were born, the accent thy speak with, or their skin tone. If I have two resumes, one from someone named Lakeesha, and the other from someone named Ian William Esquire III, I am supposed to consider each on their merits, rather than the connotations their names invoke.
But because “status” is complicated, people often go beyond advocating against “background” status and also advocate that we shouldn’t accord social status for any reasons. That is, full social equality.
This is not possible and would be deeply immoral in practice.
When you need heart surgery, you really hope that the guy cutting you open is a top-notch heart surgeon. When you’re flying in an airplane, you hope that both the pilot and the guys who built the plane are highly skilled. Chefs must be good at cooking and authors good at writing.
These are all forms of earned status, and they are good.
Smart people are valuable to society because they do nice things like save you from heart attacks or invent cell-phones. This is not “winning at capitalism;” this is benefiting everyone around them. In this context, I’m happy to let smart people have high status.
In a hunter-gatherer society, smart people are the ones who know the most about where animals live and how to track them, how to get water during a drought, and where that 1-inch stem they spotted last season that means a tasty underground tuber is located. Among nomads, smart people are the ones with the biggest mental maps of the territory, the folks who know the safest and quickest routes from good summer pasture to good winter pasture, how to save an animal from dying and how to heal a sick person. Among pre-literate people, smart people composed epic poems that entertained their neighbors for many winters’ nights, and among literate ones, the smart people became scribes and accountants. Even the communists valued smart people, when they weren’t chopping their heads off for being bourgeois scum.
So even if we say, abstractly, “I value all people, no matter how smart they are,” the smart people do more of the stuff that benefits society than the dumb people, which means they end up with higher social status.
So, yes, high IQ is a high social status marker, and low IQ is a low social status marker, and thus at least some people will be snobs about signaling their IQ and their disdain for dumb people.
I am speaking here very abstractly. There are plenty of “high status” people who are not benefiting society at all. Plenty of people who use their status to destroy society while simultaneously enriching themselves. And yes, someone can come into a community, strip out all of its resources and leave behind pollution and unemployment, and happily call it “capitalism” and enjoy high status as a result.
I would be very happy if we could stop engaging in competitive holiness spirals and stop lionizing people who became wealthy by destroying communities. I don’t want capitalism at the expense of having a pleasant place to live in.
As we were discussing yesterday, I theorize that people have neural feedback loops that reward them for conforming/imitating others/obeying authorities and punish them for disobeying/not conforming.
This leads people to obey authorities or go along with groups even when they know, logically, that they shouldn’t.
There are certainly many situations in which we want people to conform even though they don’t want to, like when my kids have to go to bed or buckle their seatbelts–as I said yesterday, the feedback loop exists because it is useful.
But there are plenty of situations where we don’t want people to conform, like when trying to brainstorm new ideas.
Under what conditions will people disobey authority?
But in person, people may disobey authorities when they have some other social systtem to fall back on. If disobeying an authority in Society A means I lose social status in Society A, I will be more likely to disobey if I am a member in good standing in Society B.
If I can use my disobedience against Authority A as social leverage to increase my standing in Society B, then I am all the more likely to disobey. A person who can effectively stand up to an authority figure without getting punished must be, our brains reason, a powerful person, an authority in their own right.
Teenagers do this all the time, using their defiance against adults, school, teachers, and society in general to curry higher social status among other teenagers, the people they actually care about impressing.
SJWs do this, too:
I normally consider the president of Princeton an authority figure, and even though I probably disagree with him on far more political matters than these students do, I’d be highly unlikely to be rude to him in real life–especially if I were a student he could get expelled from college.
But if I had an outside audience–Society B–clapping and cheering for me behind the scenes, the urge to obey would be weaker. And if yelling at the President of Princeton could guarantee me high social status, approval, job offers, etc., then there’s a good chance I’d do it.
But then I got to thinking: Are there any circumstances under which these students would have accepted the president’s authority?
Obviously if the man had a proven track record of competently performing a particular skill the students wished to learn, they might follow hi example.
If authority works via neural feedback loops, employing some form of “mirror neurons,” do these systems activate more strongly when the people we are perceiving look more like ourselves (or our internalized notion of people in our “tribe” look like, since mirrors are a recent invention)?
In other words, what would a cross-racial version of the Milgram experiment look like?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone has tried it (and to do it properly, it’d need to be a big experiment, involving several “scientists” of different races [so that the study isn’t biased by one “scientist” just being bad at projecting authority] interacting with dozens of students of different races, which would be a rather large undertaking.) I’m also not finding any studies on cross-racial authority (I did find plenty of websites offering practical advice about different groups’ leadership styles,) though I’m sure someone has studied it.
However, I did find cross-racial experiments on empathy, which may involve the same brain systems, and so are suggestive:
Using transcranial magnetic stimulation, we explored sensorimotor empathic brain responses in black and white individuals who exhibited implicit but not explicit ingroup preference and race-specific autonomic reactivity. We found that observing the pain of ingroup models inhibited the onlookers’ corticospinal system as if they were feeling the pain. Both black and white individuals exhibited empathic reactivity also when viewing the pain of stranger, very unfamiliar, violet-hand models. By contrast, no vicarious mapping of the pain of individuals culturally marked as outgroup members on the basis of their skin color was found. Importantly, group-specific lack of empathic reactivity was higher in the onlookers who exhibited stronger implicit racial bias.
Using the event-related potential (ERP) approach, we tracked the time-course of white participants’ empathic reactions to white (own-race) and black (other-race) faces displayed in a painful condition (i.e. with a needle penetrating the skin) and in a nonpainful condition (i.e. with Q-tip touching the skin). In a 280–340 ms time-window, neural responses to the pain of own-race individuals under needle penetration conditions were amplified relative to neural responses to the pain of other-race individuals displayed under analogous conditions.
In this study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how people perceive the actions of in-group and out-group members, and how their biased view in favor of own team members manifests itself in the brain. We divided participants into two teams and had them judge the relative speeds of hand actions performed by an in-group and an out-group member in a competitive situation. Participants judged hand actions performed by in-group members as being faster than those of out-group members, even when the two actions were performed at physically identical speeds. In an additional fMRI experiment, we showed that, contrary to common belief, such skewed impressions arise from a subtle bias in perception and associated brain activity rather than decision-making processes, and that this bias develops rapidly and involuntarily as a consequence of group affiliation. Our findings suggest that the neural mechanisms that underlie human perception are shaped by social context.
None of these studies shows definitevely whether or not in-group vs. out-group biases are an inherent feature of neurological systems, or Avenanti’s finding that people were more empathetic toward a purple-skinned person than to a member of a racial out-group suggests that some amount of learning is involved in the process–and that rather than comparing people against one’s in-group, we may be comparing them against our out-group.
At any rate, you may get similar outcomes either way.
In cases where you want to promote group cohesion and obedience, it may be beneficial to sort people by self-identity.
In cases where you want to guard against groupthink, obedience, or conformity, it may be beneficial to mix up the groups. Intellectual diversity is great, but even ethnic diversity may help people resist defaulting to obedience, especially when they know they shouldn’t.
Using data from two panel studies on U.S. firms and an online experiment, we examine investor reactions to increases in board diversity. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we find that appointing female directors has no impact on objective measures of performance, such as ROA, but does result in a systematic decrease in market value.
(Solal argues that investors may perceive the hiring of women–even competent ones–as a sign that the company is pursuing social justice goals instead of money-making goals and dump the stock.)
Additionally, diverse companies may find it difficult to work together toward a common goal–there is a good quantity of evidence that increasing diversity decreases trust and inhibits group cohesion. EG, from The downside of diversity:
IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.
But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.
As usual, I suspect there is an optimum level of diversity–depending on a group’s purpose and its members’ preferences–that helps minimize groupthink while still preserving most of the benefits of cohesion.
So I was thinking the other day about the question of why do people go along with others and do things even when they know they believe (or know) they shouldn’t. As Tolstoy asks, why did the French army go along with this mad idea to invade Russia in 1812? Why did Milgram’s subjects obey his orders to “electrocute” people? Why do I feel emotionally distressed when refusing to do something, even when I have very good reasons to refuse?
As I mentioned ages ago, I suspect that normal people have neural circuits that reward them for imitating others and punish them for failing to imitate. Mirror neurons probably play a critical role in this process, but probably aren’t the complete story.
These feedback loops are critical for learning–infants only a few months old begin the process of learning to talk by moving their mouths and making “ba ba” noises in imitation of their parents. (Hence why it is called “babbling.”) They do not consciously say to themselves, “let me try to communicate with the big people by making their noises;” they just automatically move their faces to match the faces you make at them. It’s an instinct.
You probably do this, too. Just watch what happens when one person in a room yawns and then everyone else feels compelled to do it, too. Or if you suddenly turn and look at something behind the group of people you’re with–others will likely turn and look, too.
Autistic infants have trouble with imitation, (and according to Wikipedia, several studies have found abnormalities in their mirror neuron systems, though I suspect the matter is far from settled–among other things, I am not convinced that everyone with an ASD diagnosis actually has the same thing going on.) Nevertheless, there is probably a direct link between autistic infants’ difficulties with imitation and their difficulties learning to talk.
For adults, imitation is less critical (you can, after all, consciously decide to learn a new language,) but still important for survival. If everyone in your village drinks out of one well and avoids the other well, even if no one can explain why, it’s probably a good idea to go along and only drink out of the “good” well. Something pretty bad probably happened to the last guy who drank out of the “bad” well, otherwise the entire village wouldn’t have stopped drinking out of it. If you’re out picking berries with your friends when suddenly one of them runs by yelling “Tiger!” you don’t want to stand there and yell, “Are you sure?” You want to imitate them, and fast.
Highly non-conformist people probably have “defective” or low-functioning feedback loops. They simply feel less compulsion to imitate others–it doesn’t even occur to them to imitate others! These folks might die in interesting ways, but in the meanwhile, they’re good sources for ideas other people just wouldn’t have thought of. I suspect they are concentrated in the arts, though clearly some of them are in programming.
Normal people’s feedback loops kick in when they are not imitating others around them, making them feel embarrassed, awkward, or guilty. When they imitate others, their brains reward them, making them feel happy. This leads people to enjoy a variety of group-based activities, from football games to prayer circles to line dancing to political rallies.
At its extreme, these groups become “mobs,” committing violent acts that many of the folks involved wouldn’t under normal circumstances.
Highly conformist people’s feedback loops are probably over-active, making them feel awkward or uncomfortable while simply observing other people not imitating the group. This discomfort can only be relieved by getting those other people to conform. These folks tend to favor more restrictive social policies and can’t understand why other people would possibly want to do those horrible, non-conforming things.
To reiterate: this feedback system exists because helped your ancestors survive. It is not people being “sheep;” it is a perfectly sensible approach to learning about the world and avoiding dangers. And different people have stronger or weaker feedback loops, resulting in more or less instinctual desire to go along with and imitate others.
However, there are times when you shouldn’t imitate others. Times when, in fact, everyone else is wrong.
The Milgram Experiment places the subject in a situation where their instinct to obey the experimenter (an “authority figure”) is in conflict with their rational desire not to harm others (and their instinctual empathizing with the person being “electrocuted.”)
In case you have forgotten the Milgram Experiment, it went like this: an unaware subject is brought into the lab, where he meets the “scientist” and a “student,” who are really in cahoots. The subject is told that he is going to assist with an experiment to see whether administering electric shocks to the “student” will make him learn faster. The “student” also tells the student, in confidence, that he has a heart condition.
The real experiment is to see if the subject will shock the “student” to death at the “scientist’s” urging.
No actual shocks are administered, but the “student” is a good actor, making out that he is in terrible pain and then suddenly going silent, etc.
Before the experiment, Milgram polled various people, both students and “experts” in psychology, and pretty much everyone agreed that virtually no one would administer all of the shocks, even when pressured by the “scientist.”
In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock, though many were very uncomfortable doing so; at some point, every participant paused and questioned the experiment; some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment. Throughout the experiment, subjects displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures. (bold mine)
I’m skeptical about the seizures, but the rest sounds about right. Resisting one’s own instinctual desire to obey–or putting the desire to obey in conflict with one’s other desires–creates great emotional discomfort.
So much so, that it feels really dickish to point out that dogs aren’t actually humans and we don’t actually treat them like full family members. Maybe this is just the American difficulty with shades of gray, where such an argument is seen as the moral equivalent of eating puppies for breakfast, or maybe extreme dog affection is an instinctual mental trait of healthy people, and so only abnormal weirdos claim that it sounds irrational.
As we discussed yesterday, pet ownership is normal (in that the majority of Americans own pets,) and pet owners themselves are disproportionately married suburbanites with children. However, pet ownership is also somewhat exceptional, in that Americans–particularly American whites–appear globally unique in their high degree of affection for pets.
Incidentally, 76% of dog owners have bought Christmas presents for their dogs. (I’ve even done this.)
Why do people love dogs (and other pets) so much?
The Wikipedia cites a couple of theories, eg:
Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis is based on the premise that our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was partly dependent on signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that now, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may signal to us safety, security and feelings of well-being which in turn may trigger a state where personal change and healing are possible.
Since I tend to feel overwhelmingly happy and joyful while walking in the woods, I understand where this theory comes from, but it doesn’t explain why suburban white parents like pets more than, say, single Chinese men, or why hunter-gatherers (or recently settled hunter-gatherers) aren’t the most avid pet-owners (you would think hunter-gatherers would be particularly in tune with the states of the animals around them!)
So I propose a different theory:
Pets are (mostly) toy versions of domestic animals.
Europeans–and Americans–have traditionally been engaged in small-scale farming and animal husbandry, raising chickens, pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, and occasionally goats, geese, turkeys, and ducks.
Dogs and cats held a special place on the farm. Dogs were an indispensable part of their operations, both to protect the animals and help round them up, and worked closely with the humans in farm management. Much has been written on the relationship between the shepherd and his sheep, but let us not overlook the relationship between the shepherd and his dog.
Cats also did their part, by eliminating the vermin that were attracted to the farmer’s grain.
These dogs and cats are still “working” animals rather than “pets” kept solely for their company, but they clearly enjoy a special status in the farmer’s world, helpers rather than food.
For children, raising “pets” teaches valuable sills necessary for caring for larger animals–better to make your learning mistakes when the only one dependent on you is a hamster than when it’s a whole flock of sheep and your family’s entire livelihood.
Raising pets provides an additional benefit in creating the bond between a child and dog that will eventually transform into the working relationship between farmer and farm-dog.
Empathy has probably played an important role in animal domestication–the ability to understand the animal’s point of view and care about its well being probably helps a lot when trying to raise it from infancy to adulthood. People with higher levels of empathy may have been better at domesticating animals in the first place, and living in an economy dependent on animal husbandry may have also selected for people with high levels of empathy.
In other words, people who treated their dogs well have probably been more evolutionarily successful than people who didn’t, pushing us toward instinctually treating dogs like one of the family. (Though I still think that people who sell cancer treatments for cats and dogs are taking advantage of gullible pet owners and that actually treating an animal just like a human is a bad idea. I also find it distasteful to speak of adopted dogs finding their “forever homes,” a phrase lifted from human adoption.)
However, if you’ve ever interacted with humans, you’ve probably noticed by now that some would give their dog their right kidney, and some would set a dog on fire without blinking.
(I am reminded here of the passage in Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect in which the anthropologist is shocked to discover that violent Nuyorican crack dealers think torturing animals is funny.)
I have been looking for a map showing the historical distribution of domesticated animals in different parts of the globe, but have so far failed. I’d be most grateful if anyone can find one. To speak very generally, Australia historically had no domesticated animals, South America had llamas, North America had dogs, African hunter-gatherers didn’t have any, African horticulturalists had a chicken-like animal, and then Europe/Asia/The Middle East/India/other Africans had a large variety of animals, like camels and yaks and horses and goats.
…a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene. Carriers remember emotionally arousing images more vividly and for a longer time, and they also show more activation of the amygdala when viewing such images (Todd and Anderson, 2009; Todd et al., 2015). … Among the Shors, a Turkic people of Siberia, the incidence was 73%. Curiously, the incidence was higher in men (79%) than in women (69%). It may be that male non-carriers had a higher death rate, since the incidence increased with age (Mulerova et al., 2015). … The picture is still incomplete but the incidence of the ADRA2b deletion variant seems to range from a low of 10% in some sub-Saharan African groups to a high of 50-65% in some European groups and 55-75% in some East Asian groups. Given the high values for East Asians, I suspect this variant is not a marker for affective empathy per se but rather for empathy in general (cognitive and affective). [source]
The Shors are a small, formerly semi-nomadic group from Siberia. I haven’t found out much about them, but I bet they had dogs, like other Siberian groups.
Frost hypothesizes that extensive empathy developed as part of the suit of mental traits that made life possible in large communities of bronze-age hunter-gatherers along the Baltic:
This weak kinship zone may have arisen in prehistory along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic, which were once home to a unique Mesolithic culture (Price, 1991). An abundance of marine resources enabled hunter-fisher-gatherers to achieve high population densities by congregating each year in large coastal agglomerations for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting. Population densities were comparable in fact to those of farming societies, but unlike the latter there was much “churning” because these agglomerations formed and reformed on a yearly basis. Kinship obligations would have been insufficient to resolve disputes peaceably, to manage shared resources, and to ensure respect for social rules. Initially, peer pressure was probably used to get people to see things from the other person’s perspective. Over time, however, the pressure of natural selection would have favored individuals who more readily felt this equivalence of perspectives, the result being a progressive hardwiring of compassion and shame and their gradual transformation into empathy and guilt (Frost, 2013a; Frost, 2013b).
Empathy and guilt are brutally effective ways to enforce social rules. If one disobeys these internal overseers, the result is self-punishment that passes through three stages: anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation. [source]
Someone has been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky. But I’m wondering if the first ingredient is actually farming/animal husbandry.
1. People with high levels of empathy may have had an easier time domesticating animals/raising domesticated animals, creating a feedback loop of increasing empathy in farming populations.
2. This empathetic connection was strongest with dogs and cats, who aren’t meat to be slaughtered but human partners.
3. Children assigned the task of raising dogs and cats bonded with their charges.
4. Modern “pets” are (living) toy versions of the working dogs and cats who once helped manage the farms.
1. Do you have a pet?
2. Do you think pets should be treated like family members/humans?
3. Would you shoot your pet for a million dollars?
B. Yes, but I would use the money to raise 100 abandoned animals out of suffering.
D. That’s a terrible question! What kind of sick fuck makes up a question like that?
Much like religion and nationalism, I don’t really have the emotional impulses necessary to really get into the idea of a holiday dedicated to eating turkey. Maybe this is just my personal failing, or a side effect of not being a farmer, but either way here I am, grumbling under my breath about how I’d rather be getting stuff done than eat.
Nevertheless, I observe that other people seem to like holidays. They spend large amounts of money on them, decorate their houses, voluntarily travel to see relatives, and otherwise “get into the holiday mood.” While some of this seems to boil down to simple materialism, there does seem to be something more: people really do like their celebrations. I may not be able to hear the music, but I can still tell that people are dancing.
And if so many people are dancing, and they seem healthy and happy and well-adjusted, then perhaps dancing is a good thing.
The point of Thanksgiving, a made-up holiday, (though it does have its roots in real harvest celebrations,) is to celebrate the connection between family and nation. This is obvious enough, since Thanksgiving unifies “eating dinner with my family” with “founding myth of the United States.” We tell the story of the Pilgrims, not because they are everyone’s ancestors, but because they represent the symbolic founding of the nation. (My Jamestown ancestors actually got here first, but I guess Virginia was not in Lincoln’s good graces when he decided to make a holiday.)
In the founding mythos, the Pilgrims are brave, freedom-loving people who overcome tremendous odds to found a new nation, with the help of their new friends, the Indians.
Is the founding mythos true?
It doesn’t matter. Being “literally true” is not the point of a myth. The Iliad did not become one of the most popular books of all time because it provides a 100% accurate account of the Trojan war, but because it describes heroism, bravery, and conversely, cowardice. (“Hektor” has always been high on my names list.) Likewise, the vast majority of Christians do not take the Bible 100% literally (even the ones who claim they do.) Arguing about which day God created Eve misses the point of the creation story; arguing about whether the Exodus happened exactly as told misses the point of the story held for a people in exile.
The story of Thanksgiving instructs us to work hard, protect liberty, and be friends with the Indians. It reminds us both of the Pilgrims’ utopian goal of founding the perfect Christian community, a shining city upon the hill, and of the value of religious tolerance. (Of course, the Puritans would probably not have been keen on religious tolerance or freedom of religion, given that they exiled Anne Hutchins for talking too much about God.)
Most of us today probably aren’t descended from the Pilgrims, but the ritual creates a symbolic connection between them and us, for we are the heirs of the civilization they began. Likewise, each family is connected to the nation as a whole; without America, we wouldn’t be here, eating this turkey together.
Unless you don’t like turkey. In which case, have some pie.
But humans are not mere action-reaction systems; they have qualia, an inner experience of being.
One of my themes here is the idea that various psychological traits, like anxiety, guilt, depression, or disgust, might not be just random things we feel, but exist for evolutionary reasons. Each of these emotions, when experienced moderately, may have beneficial effects. Guilt (and its cousin, shame,) helps us maintain our social relationships with other people, aiding in the maintenance of large societies. Disgust protects us from disease and helps direct sexual interest at one’s spouse, rather than random people. Anxiety helps people pay attention to crucial, important details, and mild depression may help people concentrate, stay out of trouble, or–very speculatively–have helped our ancestors hibernate during the winter.
In excess, each of these traits is damaging, but a shortage of each trait may also be harmful.
I have commented before on the remarkable statistic that 25% of women are on anti-depressants, and if we exclude women over 60 (and below 20,) the number of women with an “anxiety disorder” jumps over 30%.
The idea that a full quarter of us are actually mentally ill is simply staggering. I see three potential causes for the statistic:
Doctors prescribe anti-depressants willy-nilly to everyone who asks, whether they’re actually depressed or not;
Something about modern life is making people especially depressed and anxious;
Mental illnesses are side effects of common, beneficial conditions (similar to how sickle cell anemia is a side effect of protection from malaria.)
As you probably already know, sickle cell anemia is a genetic mutation that protects carriers from malaria. Imagine a population where 100% of people are sickle cell carriers–that is, they have one mutated gene, and one regular gene. The next generation in this population will be roughly 25% people who have two regular genes (and so die of malaria,) 50% of people who have one sickle cell and one regular gene (and so are protected,) and 25% of people will have two sickle cell genes and so die of sickle cell anemia. (I’m sure this is a very simplified scenario.)
So I consider it technically possible for 25% of people to suffer a pathological genetic condition, but unlikely–malaria is a particularly ruthless killer compared to being too cheerful.
Skipping to the point, I think there’s a little of all three going on. Each of us probably has some kind of personality “set point” that is basically determined by some combination of genetics, environmental assaults, and childhood experiences. People deviate from their set points due to random stuff that happens in their lives, (job promotions, visits from friends, car accidents, etc.,) but the way they respond to adversity and the mood they tend to return to afterwards is largely determined by their “set point.” This is all a fancy way of saying that people have personalities.
The influence of random chance on these genetic/environmental factors suggests that there should be variation in people’s emotional set points–we should see that some people are more prone to anxiety, some less prone, and some of average anxiousness.
Please note that this is a statistical should, in the same sense that, “If people are exposed to asbestos, some of them should get cancer,” not a moral should, as in, “If someone gives you a gift, you should send a thank-you note.”
Natural variation in a trait does not automatically imply pathology, but being more anxious or depressive or guilt-ridden than others can be highly unpleasant. I see nothing wrong, a priori, with people doing things that make their lives more pleasant and manageable (and don’t hurt others); this is, after all, why I enjoy a cup of coffee every morning. If you are a better, happier, more productive person with medication (or without it,) then carry on; this post is not intended as a critique of anyone’s personal mental health management, nor a suggestion for how to take care of your mental health.
Our medical/psychological health system, however, operates on the assumption that medications are for pathologies only. There is not form to fill out that says, “Patient would like anti-anxiety drugs in order to live a fuller, more productive life.”
That said, all of these emotions are obviously responses to actual stuff that happens in real life, and if 25% of women are coming down with depression or anxiety disorders, I think we should critically examine whether anxiety and depression are really the disease we need to be treating, or the body’s responses to some external threat.
In a mixed group, women become quieter, less assertive, and more compliant. This deference is shown only to men and not to other women in the group. A related phenomenon is the sex gap in self-esteem: women tend to feel less self-esteem in all social settings. The gap begins at puberty and is greatest in the 15-18 age range (Hopcroft, 2009).
If more women enter the workforce–either because they think they ought to or because circumstances force them to–and the workforce triggers depression, then as the percent of women formally employed goes up, we should see a parallel rise in mental illness rates among women. Just as Adderal and Ritalin help little boys conform to the requirements of modern classrooms, Prozac and Lithium help women cope with the stress of employment.
As we discussed yesterday, fever is not a disease, but part of your body’s system for re-asserting homeostasis by killing disease microbes and making it more difficult for them to reproduce. Extreme fevers are an over-reaction and can kill you, but a normal fever below 104 degrees or so is merely unpleasant and should be allowed to do its work of making you better. Treating a normal fever (trying to lower it) interferes with the body’s ability to fight the disease and results in longer sicknesses.
Likewise, these sorts of emotions, while definitely unpleasant, may serve some real purpose.
We humans are social beings (and political animals.) We do not exist on our own; historically, loneliness was not merely unpleasant, but a death sentence. Humans everywhere live in communities and depend on each other for survival. Without refrigeration or modern storage methods, saving food was difficult. (Unless you were an Eskimo.) If you managed to kill a deer while on your own, chances are you couldn’t eat it all before it began to rot, and then your chances of killing another deer before you started getting seriously hungry were low. But if you share your deer with your tribesmates, none of the deer goes to waste, and if they share their deer with yours, you are far less likely to go hungry.
If you end up alienated from the rest of your tribe, there’s a good chance you’ll die. It doesn’t matter if they were wrong and you were right; it doesn’t matter if they were jerks and you were the nicest person ever. If you can’t depend on them for food (and mates!) you’re dead. This is when your emotions kick in.
People complain a lot that emotions are irrational. Yes, they are. They’re probably supposed to be. There is nothing “logical” or “rational” about feeling bad because someone is mad at you over something they did wrong! And yet it happens. Not because it is logical, but because being part of the tribe is more important than who did what to whom. Your emotions exist to keep you alive, not to prove rightness or wrongness.
This is, of course, an oversimplification. Men and women have been subject to different evolutionary pressures, for example. But this is close enough for the purposes of the current conversation.
If modern people are coming down with mental illnesses at astonishing rates, then maybe there is something about modern life that is making people ill. If so, treating the symptoms may make life more bearable for people while they are subject to the disease, but still does not fundamentally address whatever it is that is making them sick in the first place.
It is my own opinion that modern life is pathological, not (in most cases,) people’s reactions to it. Modern life is pathological because it is new and therefore you aren’t adapted to it. Your ancestors have probably only lived in cities of millions of people for a few generations at most (chances are good that at least one of your great-grandparents was a farmer, if not all of them.) Naturescapes are calming and peaceful; cities noisy, crowded, and full of pollution. There is some reason why schizophrenics are found in cities and not on farms. This doesn’t mean that we should just throw out cities, but it does mean we should be thoughtful about them and their effects.
People seem to do best, emotionally, when they have the support of their kin, some degree of ethnic or national pride, economic and physical security, attend religious services, and avoid crowded cities. (Here I am, an atheist, recommending church for people.) The knowledge you are at peace with your tribe and your tribe has your back seems almost entirely absent from most people’s modern lives; instead, people are increasingly pushed into environments where they have no tribe and most people they encounter in daily life have no connection to them. Indeed, tribalism and city living don’t seem to get along very well.
To return to healthy lives, we may need to re-think the details of modernity.
Philosophically and politically, I am a great believer in moderation and virtue as the ethical, conscious application of homeostatic systems to the self and to organizations that exist for the sake of humans. Please understand that this is not moderation in the conventional sense of “sometimes I like the Republicans and sometimes I like the Democrats,” but the self-moderation necessary for bodily homeostasis reflected at the social/organizational/national level.
For example, I have posted a bit on the dangers of mass immigration, but this is not a call to close the borders and allow no one in. Rather, I suspect that there is an optimal amount–and kind–of immigration that benefits a community (and this optimal quantity will depend on various features of the community itself, like size and resources.) Thus, each community should aim for its optimal level. But since virtually no one–certainly no one in a position of influence–advocates for zero immigration, I don’t devote much time to writing against it; it is only mass immigration that is getting pushed on us, and thus mass immigration that I respond to.
Similarly, there is probably an optimal level of communal genetic diversity. Too low, and inbreeding results. Too high, and fetuses miscarry due to incompatible genes. (Rh- mothers have difficulty carrying Rh+ fetuses, for example, because their immune systems identify the fetus’s blood as foreign and therefore attack it, killing the fetus.) As in agriculture, monocultures are at great risk of getting wiped out by disease; genetic heterogeneity helps ensure that some members of a population can survive a plague. Homogeneity helps people get along with their neighbors, but too much may lead to everyone thinking through problems in similar ways. New ideas and novel ways of attacking problems often come from people who are outliers in some way, including genetics.
There is a lot of talk ’round these parts that basically blames all the crimes of modern civilization on females. Obviously I have a certain bias against such arguments–I of course prefer to believe that women are superbly competent at all things, though I do not wish to stake the functioning of civilization on that assumption. If women are good at math, they will do math; if they are good at leading, they will lead. A society that tries to force women into professions they are not inclined to is out of kilter; likewise, so is a society where women are forced out of fields they are good at. Ultimately, I care about my doctor’s competence, not their gender.
In a properly balanced society, male and female personalities complement each other, contributing to the group’s long-term survival.
Women are not accidents of nature; they are as they are because their personalities succeeded where women with different personalities did not. Women have a strong urge to be compassionate and nurturing toward others, maintain social relations, and care for those in need of help. These instincts have, for thousands of years, helped keep their families alive.
When the masculine element becomes too strong, society becomes too aggressive. Crime goes up; unwinable wars are waged; people are left to die. When the feminine element becomes too strong, society becomes too passive; invasions go unresisted; welfare spending becomes unsustainable. Society can’t solve this problem by continuing to give both sides everything they want, (this is likely to be economically disastrous,) but must actually find a way to direct them and curb their excesses.
I remember an article on the now-defunct neuropolitics (now that I think of it, the Wayback Machine probably has it somewhere,) on an experiment where groups with varying numbers of ‘liberals” and “conservatives” had to work together to accomplish tasks. The “conservatives” tended to solve their problems by creating hierarchies that organized their labor, with the leader/s giving everyone specific tasks. The “liberals” solved their problems by incorporating new members until they had enough people to solve specific tasks. The groups that performed best, overall, were those that had a mix of ideologies, allowing them to both make hierarchical structures to organize their labor and incorporate new members when needed. I don’t remember much else of the article, nor did I read the original study, so I don’t know what exactly the tasks were, or how reliable this study really was, but the basic idea of it is appealing: organize when necessary; form alliances when necessary. A good leader recognizes the skills of different people in their group and uses their authority to direct the best use of these skills.
Our current society greatly lacks in this kind of coherent, organizing direction. Most communities have very little in the way of leadership–moral, spiritual, philosophical, or material–and our society seems constantly intent on attacking and tearing down any kind of hierarchies, even those based on pure skill and competence. Likewise, much of what passes for “leadership” is people demanding that you do what they say, not demonstrating any kind of competence. But when we do find competent leaders, we would do well to let them lead.