Musical Mystery

Singer Tom Jones, famous recipient of ladies’ panties

There are three categories of supersars who seem to attract excessive female interest. The first is actors, who of course are selected for being abnormally attractive and put into romantic and exciting narratives that our brains subconsciously interpret as real. The second are sports stars and other athletes, whose ritualized combat and displays of strength obviously indicate their genetic “fitness” for siring and providing for children.

The third and strangest category is professional musicians, especially rock stars.

I understand why people want to pass athletic abilities on to their children, but what is the evolutionary importance of musical talent? Does music tap into some deep, fundamental instinct like a bird’s attraction to the courtship song of its mate? And if so, why?

There’s no denying the importance of music to American courtship rituals–not only do people visit bars, clubs, and concerts where music is being played in order to meet potential partners, but they also display musical tastes on dating profiles in order to meet musically-like-minded people.

Of all the traits to look for in a mate, why rate musical taste so highly? And why do some people describe their taste as, “Anything but rap,” or “Anything but country”?

Mick Jagger and Chuck Berry

At least when I was a teen, musical taste was an important part of one’s “identity.” There were goths and punks, indie scene kids and the aforementioned rap and country fans.

Is there actually any correlation between musical taste and personality? Do people who like slow jazz get along with other slow jazz fans better than fans of classical Indian? Or is this all compounded by different ethnic groups identifying with specific musical styles?

Obviously country correlates with Amerikaner ancestry; rap with African American. I’m not sure what ancestry is biggest fans of Die Antwoord. Heavy Metal is popular in Finno-Scandia. Rock ‘n Roll got its start in the African American community as “Race Music” and became popular with white audiences after Elvis Presley took up the guitar.

While Europe has a long and lovely musical heritage, it’s indisputable that African Americans have contributed tremendously to American musical innovation.

Here are two excerpts on the subject of music and dance in African societies:

source: A Voyage to Senegal: The Isle of Goreé, and the River Gambia by  Michel Adanson, Correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences

and:

source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience Aardvark-Catholic. Vol. 1
Elvis’s pelvis, considered too sexy for TV

Both of these h/t HBD Chick and my apologies in advance if I got the sources reversed.

One of the major HBD theories holds that the three races vary–on average–in the distribution of certain traits, such as age of first tooth eruption or intensity of an infant’s response to a tissue placed over its face. Sub-Saharan Africans and Asians are considered two extremes in this distribution, with whites somewhere in between.

If traditional African dancing involves more variety in rhythmic expression than traditional European, does traditional Asian dance involve less? I really know very little about traditional Asian music or dance of any kind, but I would not be surprised to see some kind of continuum affected by whether a society traditionally practiced arranged marriages. Where people chose their own mates, it seems like they display a preference for athletic or musically talented mates (“sexy” mates;) when parents chose mates, they seem to prefer hard-working, devout, “good providers.”

Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky, from War and Peace by Tolstoy

Even in traditional European and American society, where parents played more of a role in courtship than they do today, music still played a major part. Young women, if their families could afford it, learned to play the piano or other instruments in order to be “accomplished” and thus more attractive to higher-status men; young men and women often met and courted at musical events or dances organized by the adults.

It is undoubtedly true that music stirs the soul and speaks to the heart, but why?

 

Is Racism an Instinct?

Everyone is a little bit racist–Hillary Clinton

If everyone in the world exhibits a particular behavior, chances are it’s innate. But I have been informed–by Harvard-educated people, no less–that humans do not have instincts. We are so smart, you see, that we don’t need instincts anymore.

This is nonsense, of course.

One amusing and well-documented human instinct is the nesting instinct, experienced by pregnant women shortly before going into labor. (As my father put it, “When shes starts rearranging the furniture, get the ready to head to the hospital.”) Having personally experienced this sudden, overwhelming urge to CLEAN ALL THE THINGS multiple times, I can testify that it is a real phenomenon.

Humans have other instincts–babies will not only pick up and try to eat pretty much anything they run across, to every parent’s consternation, but they will also crawl right up to puddles and attempt to drink out of them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: What, exactly, is an instinct? According to Wikipedia:

Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living organism towards a particular complex behavior. The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern (FAP), in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus.

Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors. …

Instincts are inborn complex patterns of behavior that exist in most members of the species, and should be distinguished from reflexes, which are simple responses of an organism to a specific stimulus, such as the contraction of the pupil in response to bright light or the spasmodic movement of the lower leg when the knee is tapped.

The go-to example of an instinct is the gosling’s imprinting instinct. Typically, goslings imprint on their mothers, but a baby gosling doesn’t actually know what its mother is supposed to look like, and can accidentally imprint on other random objects, provided they are moving slowly around the nest around the time the gosling hatches.

Stray dog nursing kittens
Stray dog nursing kittens

Here we come to something I think may be useful for distinguishing an instinct from other behaviors: an instinct, once triggered, tends to keep going even if it has been accidentally or incorrectly triggered. Goslings look like they have an instinct to follow their mothers, but they actually have an instinct to imprint on the first large, slowly moving object near their nest when they hatch.

So if you find people strangely compelled to do something that makes no sense but which everyone else seems to think makes perfect sense, you may be dealing with an instinct. For example, women enjoy celebrity gossip because humans have an instinct to keep track of social ranks and dynamics within their own tribe; men enjoy watching other men play sports because it conveys the vicarious feeling of defeating a neighboring tribe at war.

So what about racism? Is it an instinct?

Strictly speaking–and I know I have to define racism, just a moment–I don’t see how we could have evolved such an instinct. Races exist because major human groups were geographically separated for thousands of years–prior to 1492, the average person never even met a person of another race in their entire life. So how could we evolve an instinct in response to something our ancestors never encountered?

Unfortunately, “racism” is a chimera, always changing whenever we attempt to pin it down, but the Urban Dictionary gives a reasonable definition:

An irrational bias towards members of a racial background. The bias can be positive (e.g. one race can prefer the company of its own race or even another) or it can be negative (e.g. one race can hate another). To qualify as racism, the bias must be irrational. That is, it cannot have a factual basis for preference.

Of course, instincts exist because they ensured our ancestors’ survival, so if racism is an instinct, it can’t exactly be “irrational.” We might call a gosling who follows a scientist instead of its mother “irrational,” but this is a misunderstanding of the gosling’s motivation. Since “racist” is a term of moral judgment, people are prone to defending their actions/beliefs towards others on the grounds that it can’t possibly be immoral to believe something that is actually true.

The claim that people are “racist” against members of other races implies, in converse, that they exhibit no similar behaviors toward members of their own race. But even the most perfunctory overview of history reveals people acting in extremely “racist” ways toward members of their own race. During the Anglo-Boer wars, the English committed genocide against the Dutch South Africans (Afrikaners.) During WWII, Germans allied with the the Japanese and slaughtered their neighbors, Poles and Jews. (Ashkenazim are genetically Caucasian and half Italian.) If Hitler were really racist, he’d have teamed up with Stalin and Einstein–his fellow whites–and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima. (And for their part, the Japanese would have allied with the Chinese against the Germans.)

picture-2Some quotes from the NewScientist article:

The murder victim, a West African chimpanzee called Foudouko, had been beaten with rocks and sticks, stomped on and then cannibalised by his own community. …

“When you reverse that and have almost two males per every female — that really intensifies the competition for reproduction. That seems to be a key factor here,” says Wilson.

Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University, who has been studying this group of chimpanzees in south-eastern Senegal since 2001, agrees. She suggests that human influence may have caused this skewed gender ratio that is likely to have been behind this attack. In Senegal, female chimpanzees are poached to provide infants for the pet trade. …

Early one morning, Pruetz and her team heard loud screams and hoots from the chimps’ nearby sleep nest. At dawn, they found Foudouko dead, bleeding profusely from a bite to his right foot. He also had a large gash in his back and a ripped anus. Later he was found to have cracked ribs. Pruetz says Foudouko probably died of internal injuries or bled out from his foot wound.

Foudouko also had wounds on his fingers. These were likely to have been caused by chimps clamping them in their teeth to stretch his arms out and hold him down during the attack, says Pruetz.

After his death, the gang continued to abuse Foudouko’s body, throwing rocks and poking it with sticks, breaking its limbs, biting it and eventually eating some of the flesh.

“It was striking. The female that cannibalised the body the most, she’s the mother of the top two high-ranking males. Her sons were the only ones that really didn’t attack the body aggressively,” Pruetz says …

Historically, the vast majority of wars and genocides were waged by one group of people against their neighbors–people they were likely to be closely related to in the grand scheme of things–not against distant peoples they’d never met. If you’re a chimp, the chimp most likely to steal your banana is the one standing right in front of you, not some strange chimp you’ve never met before who lives in another forest.

Indeed, in Jane Goodall’s account of the Gombe Chimpanzee War, the combatants were not members of two unrelated communities that had recently encountered each other, but members of a single community that had split in two. Chimps who had formerly lived peacefully together, groomed each other, shared bananas, etc., now bashed each other’s brains out and cannibalized their young. Poor Jane was traumatized.

I think there is an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups. People often have multiple defined in-groups (“I am a progressive, a Christian, a baker, and a Swede,”) but one of these identities generally trumps the others in importance. Ethnicity and gender are major groups most people seem to have, but I don’t see a lot of evidence suggesting that the grouping of “race” is uniquely special, globally, in people’s ideas of in- and out-.

For example, as I am writing today, people are concerned that Donald Trump is enacting racist policies toward Muslims, even though “Muslim” is not a race and most of the countries targeted by Trump’s travel/immigration ban are filled with fellow Caucasians, not Sub-Saharan Africans or Asians.

Race is a largely American obsession, because our nation (like the other North and South American nations,) has always had whites, blacks, and Asians (Native Americans). But many countries don’t have this arrangement. Certainly Ireland didn’t have an historical black community, nor Japan a white one. Irish identity was formed in contrast to English identity; Japanese in contrast to Chinese and Korean.

Only in the context where different races live in close proximity to each other does it seem that people develop strong racial identities; otherwise people don’t think much about race.

Napoleon Chagnon, a white man, has spent years living among the Yanomamo, one of the world’s most murderous tribes, folks who go and slaughter their neighbors and neighbors’ children all the time, and they still haven’t murdered him.

Why do people insist on claiming that Trump’s “Muslim ban” is racist when Muslims aren’t a race? Because Islam is an identity group that appears to function similarly to race, even though Muslims come in white, black, and Asian.

If you’ve read any of the comments on my old post about Turkic DNA, Turkey: Not very Turkic, you’ll have noted that Turks are quite passionate about their Turkic identity, even though “Turkic” clearly doesn’t correspond to any particular ethnic groups. (It’s even more mixed up than Jewish, and that’s a pretty mixed up one after thousands of years of inter-breeding with non-Jews.)

Group identities are fluid. When threatened, groups merged. When resources are abundant and times are good, groups split.

What about evidence that infants identify–stare longer at–faces of people of different races than their parents? This may be true, but all it really tells us is that babies are attuned to novelty. It certainly doesn’t tell us that babies are racist just because they find people interesting who look different from the people they’re used to.

What happens when people encounter others of a different race for the first time?

We have many accounts of “first contacts” between different races during the Age of Exploration. For example, when escaped English convict William Buckley wandered into an uncontacted Aborigine tribe, they assumed he was a ghost, adopted him, taught him to survive, and protected him for 30 years. By contrast, the last guy who landed on North Sentinel Island and tried to chat with the natives there got a spear to the chest and a shallow grave for his efforts. (But I am not certain the North Sentinelese haven’t encountered outsiders at some point.)

But what about the lunchroom seating habits of the wild American teenager?

If people have an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups, then races (or religions?) may represent the furthest bounds of this, at least until we encounter aliens. All else held equal, perhaps we are most inclined to like the people most like ourselves, and least inclined to like the people least like ourselves–racism would thus be the strongest manifestation of this broader instinct. But what about people who have a great dislike for one race, but seem just fine with another, eg, a white person who likes Asians but not blacks, or a black who like Asians but not whites? And can we say–per our definition above–that these preferences are irrational, or are they born of some lived experience of positive or negative interactions?

Again, we are only likely to have strong opinions about members of other races if we are in direct conflict or competition with them. Most of the time, people are in competition with their neighbors, not people on the other side of the world. I certainly don’t sit here thinking negative thoughts about Pygmies or Aborigines, even though we are very genetically distant from each other, and I doubt they spend their free time thinking negatively about me.

Just because flamingos prefer to flock with other flamingos doesn’t mean they dislike horses; for the most part, I think people are largely indifferent to folks outside their own lives.

Capitalism Wins

A recent article in Stanford Magazine highlighted the work of psychologist Richard Lampiere. Back in 1931, Lampiere, a Chinese student of his, and his student’s Chinese wife drove cross-country, visiting 250 hotels and restaurants.

One business refused them service, presumably because of race.

Then Lampiere sent surveys to the businesses they’d visited (plus controls) asking if they served Chinese people. The businesses responded:

235 said NO,

18 said maybe,

and only 2 said YES.

Basically the complete opposite of reality.

Social signalling is cheap; losing actual customers on the ground is expensive.

People today still say whatever they think will gain them approval, though our politics have changed a lot since 1931. For example, 89% of people these days report being willing to marry someone of another race:

PP-2014-06-12-polarization-3-08

but of marriages conducted in 2013, only 12% actually were. By contrast, while a similar number of people said they would be unhappy about a cross-political marriage in their family:

picture-2

but about 30% of (all) married people (in the 30 states that track party affiliation) are in a cross-ideological marriage.

Likewise, recall that much of the poll data coming out before the 2016 Election showed Hillary Clinton winning and Donald Trump losing.

Open Thread, Comment of the Week, etc.

Hello my friends. How has your week been?

I thought this was really interesting:

cxljmo2ukaafqoy

Since I don’t watch much TV that doesn’t involve Thomas the Tank Engine, I’ve never seen John Oliver and don’t really know who he is, but I am generally aware of Colbert and the Daily Show and such.

Comments of the week go to SFC Ton and Rhetocrates:

t3_5citho-3“I have seen a lot of failed nation states, up close and personal over the years. They always break down over tribal/ racial lines. …

It is inevitable that the usa will go through some version of Yugoslavia. The question is when and to what degree.” — SFC Ton

“I don’t think we’re going to turn into Yugoslavia. I think we’re going to turn into Syria.

The main difference is that Yugoslavia was already mostly segregated when the violence broke out. …

The US (speaking here of the largest segments of the population…) are not ethnically segregated.

… our dissolution – if not stopped – will look like Syria.” — Rhetocrates

 

 

The liberal solution to ethnic breakdown is “Stop being racist.” The conservative solution is “Avoid people you dislike.” Both solutions kind of work–until they don’t.

Hrm. Any interesting articles this week? How about a somewhat speculative but still very interesting reconstruction of an ancient Greek warrior’s face, plus a discussion of his grave goods?

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.

 

Sticky Brains and Forgiveness

(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.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
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.

Weight, Taste, and Politics: A Theory of Republican Over-Indulgence

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?

Well, this is the part where I go looking for evidence. It turns out that obesity and political orientation do correlate:

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.

Shin and McCarthy's map of obesity vs. political orientation
Shin and McCarthy’s map of obesity vs. political orientation

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.)

The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee
The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee–note that Phoenix is #7, not #1.

Disgust also correlates with political belief, but we already knew that.

A not entirely scientific survey also indicates that liberals seem to like vegetables better than conservatives:

  • 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.

In Verbal priming and taste sensitivity make moral transgressions gross, Herz writes:

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.)

The Effect of Calorie Information on Consumers’ Food Choice: Sources of Observed Gender Heterogeneity, by Heiman and Lowengart, states:

While previous studies found that inherited taste-blindness to bitter compounds such
as PROP may be a risk factor for obesity, this literature has been hotly disputed
(Keller et al. 2010).

(Always remember, of course, that a great many social-science studies ultimately do not replicate.)

I’ll let you know if I find anything else.

Quick thoughts on the “replication crisis” and calls to make the field more mathematically rigorous

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.

Is Capitalism the only reason to care about Intelligence? pt 2

Continuing with yesterday’s discussion (in response to a reader’s question):

  1. Why are people snobs about intelligence?
  2. Is math ability better than verbal?
  3. 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.

The mental effect is stronger when we perform high-status actions in front of others:

…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.

Even animals have social status–“Social status hierarchies have been documented in a wide range of animals: apes,[7] baboons,[8] wolves,[9] cows/bulls,[10] hens,[11] even fish,[12] and ants.[13]” We may also add horses, many monkey species, elephants, killer whales, reindeer, and probably just about all animals that live in large groups.

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 millions to 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.

You may recall from “Slate Star Codex finds Aristocracy, doesn’t notice,” the quoted descriptions of social status among birds in “Contra Simler on Prestige,” (from Kevin Simler’s Social Status: Down The Rabbit Hole):

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.

And from Jim’s Blog, “A Lost Military Technology“:

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.

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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 warrior class, 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.)

c5933(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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

BUT.

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.

Part 3 tomorrow.

 

The Neurology of Cross-Cultural Authority? pt 2

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?

As we previously discussed, using technology to create anonymous, a-reputational conversations may allow us to avoid some of the factors that lead to group think.

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.

Or not.

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:

From Racial Bias Reduces Empathic Sensorimotor Resonance with Other-Race Pain, by Avenanti et al:

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.

From Taking one’s time in feeling other-race pain: an event-related potential investigation on the time-course of cross-racial empathy, by Sessa et al.:

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 Seeing is believing: neural mechanisms of action-perception are biased by team membership, Molenberghs et al. write:

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.

A study by McKinsey and Company suggests that mixed-race companies outperform more homogenous companies:

web_diversity_matters_ex_mk_v2

but I can find other studies that suggest the opposite, eg, Women Don’t Mean Business? Gender Penalty in Board Appointments, by Isabelle Solal:

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.

The neurology of cross-cultural authority?

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.

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.[1][2][3] Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. …  In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.[6] (Wikipedia)

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.

Normal people having fun by synchronizing their bodily movements.
Normal people having fun by synchronizing their bodily movements.

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,[1] 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.

To Be Continued.