Personality Regions: The Friendly Midwest, the Left Coast and the Wicked (Possibly Irish) Witch of the Northeast

March 18, 2014

I find the geographic distribution of personality traits to be a very interesting topic. It can give us insights on so many things, like human evolution, culture, politics etc. As I blogged about before here, psychologist Peter Rentfrow has noted that America is split in two halves that score high and low in neuroticism. And German psychologist Martin Obschonka has identified a personality profile that is more common in the region called the Mountain States or Interior West that correlates with entrepreneurial activity. Last year, Rentfrow  dug deeper into this with an interesting study which didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, so here is a little something to correct that mistake. The study combines large samples of Big Five test data (a total sample size of almost 1.6 million) and use so-called cluster analysis to identify psychological regions within America. To get a bird’s eye view of his findings, let’s start by showing some maps of the regions in question,

cluster 1

The “friendly and conventional” (FC) region in the middle and southern part of the country is characterized as being more extraverted, agreeable and conscientious, a little more emotionally stable (low neuroticism), but also much less open to experience than the national average.

cluster 2

The “relaxed and creative” (RC) region in the western part of the country is characterized above all by being very open to experience and emotionally stable, but also introverted and slightly less agreeable than the average.

cluster 3

And finally, the third region, “temperamental and uninhibited” (TU), located in the northeastern part of the country, from Maine down to West Virginia, is characterized as very emotionally unstable and low in conscientiousness while being moderately introverted and open to experience. I wonder if that’s how they describe themselves on dating sites : )

I think most people can recognize that these differences exist to some degree. I’ve never been to America myself, but a friend of mine was there on a business trip and he noted how friendly and pleasant the Midwesterners were. But when he mentioned that he was heading to California they shook their heads and one of them said, “you won’t like it, it’s all Mickey Mouse.” But how much of this can be validated by society level measures?

The PESH – Political, Economic, Social and Health – Correlates

Rentfrow & Co used a variety of so-called PESH variables, and some general demographic variables. They then calculated correlations between them and state prototypicality, that is to say the measure of how well a state fits the personality profile of its region. And here is what they came up with,

PESH Friendly & Conventional Relaxed & Creative Temperamental & Uninhibited
Women -0.22 -0.16 0.39*
Non-Whites -0.26t 0.52* -0.10
Median Age -0.18 -0.17 0.44*
Votes Republican 0.50* -0.35* -0.42*
Mainline Protestant 0.43* -0.49* -0.24*
Wealth -0.42* 0.35* 0.28*
Human Capital -0.50* 0.47* 0.26t
Innovation -0.42* 0.45* 0.22
Social Capital 0.34* -0.37* -0.14
Social Tolerance -0.38* 0.54* 0.08
Violent Crime -0.17 0.24t 0.01
Residential Mobility 0.12 0.27t -0.38*
Well-being -0.23* 0.47* -0.06
Health Behavior -0.46* 0.56* 0.15

The correlations marked with a * are at the 5 percent level and those marked “t” is at ten percent. As you can see the PESH variables in many ways show what we would expect from the personality profile of the regions. As the maps suggest, these regions are also fairly concentric – the geographical center is also the most prototypical part of the region and then states become gradually less so the further out from the center they are located. And given that the PESH correlations are based on prototypicality we would expect these variables to follow the same pattern. But we would expect wrong…

Things Fall Apart; the Center Cannot Hold

For instance, the FC region has the strongest positive correlation to political conservatism. This region has a core consisting of six states: Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin. Rentfrow measured political conservatism as the tendency to vote Republican, by using a combination of percentages of votes for George W Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. Now, I’m no statistician but if this measure correlates 0.50* to how typical a state is of the FC region I would think the most typical states would be the most Republican and then gradually less so in a concentric fashion. But looking at the results (in the link above) for 2008 we find that Obama actually won three core states – Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. And the rest of the core states were not nearly as big victories for McCain as they were in the more remote and less typical states in the South.

It’s also worth mentioning that voting results are most likely affected by the personal style and charisma of the candidates as well as specific issues that may be important in one election and region but not the other. Gallup measure of political conservatism (and liberalism) more directly by simply asking people. In the core states 36.2-42.9 percent identify as politically conservative, which is slightly above the national average of 36.9. And again the southern states that fit the profile less well score much higher, with an interval of 41.8-47.9 percent. So again, we find the same reversed pattern where the PESH variable is the strongest in the states that are less typical of the region.

Same thing with religiousness, which was measured with mainline Protestant affiliation, a rather narrow measure the source of which I haven’t been able to retrieve. But since Gallup also tracks Protestant affiliation it should make a fairly good substitute. Again, it turns out we have a weak center and a strong periphery: the six core states have an average of 55.5 percent Protestants while the southern states average at 75.2 percent. No overlap between the core and peripheral states.

Further, the economic wealth measure is a composite which I can’t reconstruct because they don’t explain how it’s defined, but it’s based on things like GRP, median household income per capita, poverty rates etc.  With a correlation between this wealth measure and state prototypicality of -0.42* the implication is that the FC region is poor. I didn’t find median household per capita but I looked at the similar measure per capita income for the same year (2007).  While the six core states were slightly below the national average we again find that the southern states are way lower, again with no overlap between the richest southern state and the poorest core state. Or we can look at poverty rates, here from 2008 which is around the same time Rentfrows data are from,

Poverty by State

As you can see, it’s the same thing again: the core states have fairly little poverty but the less typical southern states have plenty. Yet again, there is no overlap.

A Flyover Bias?

Whether intentional or not, I find this highly misleading. I’m not sure what makes Rentfrow do this but I have a suspicion it may be a liberal bias against the “flyover states.” This bias can be seen when comedian/pundit Bill Maher recently interviewed actor Bruce Dern and dismissed Nebraska as old and poor. As I’ve shown in a previous post, Nebraska is not at all poor – unlike California which has the highest poverty rate in the country – and its median age, according to US Census 2010, is 36.2 years, one year higher than that of California but still below the national average. Since some 95 percent of personality and social psychologists are liberal and plenty admit to a rather hostile bias against conservatives, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

The Real FC Region: The Friendly Midwest

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we restrict this region to only the most typical states, the core, then we have something that looks homogeneous and concentric in terms of both personality, geography and society level correlates. They are east Midwesterners, they are indeed friendly and conventional, but in contrast to what the study suggested, they don’t stand out in any conspicuous way. They are moderately conservative and religious, they earn slightly less money than the average but they also have slightly less poverty and crime. And that’s pretty much what you’d expect from friendly and conventional people.

The RC Region: Creative and Relaxed, But Also Violent and Poor

It’s also easy to spot a similar but positive bias for the RC region. For instance, the correlation with violent crime is only slightly elevated at 0.24 at the ten percent level. But if we look at murder rates, we again see how peripheral and less typical states, like Idaho and Utah with really low murder rates, help keeping the region looking relatively peaceful. But of the most typical core states, California, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, only Oregon is below average.

The correlation to wealth at 0.35* looks good and in line with what you might associate with a modern and open-minded region. As I mentioned above, the measure of wealth is complex and not explained in the article so again I looked at per capita income for 2007 (the year his index is based on) from the US Census. The core states are in the range 33K-41.6K dollars with an average of 37.5K, slightly below the national average of 38.6K, (although slightly above the FC core of 36K). The peripheral states have smaller incomes. I’ve already shown the poverty map above and that doesn’t help either. Somehow Rentfrow manages to make this region look wealthy but it seems to be an artifact of his calculations and perhaps wishful thinking.

The Real RC Region: The Left Coast

Again, this is not to say that the Relaxed & Creative region doesn’t exist, but like the FC region, it would become more homogeneous and meaningful if limited to a smaller area, in this case the coastal states. This is not just a matter of bias, but also how these calculations are made. I’m no statistician but Utah, although in the periphery is clearly marked on the map above as part of this region even though it is slightly above average in extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness while slightly lower in openness. It seems to fit this region by virtue of low neuroticism alone. And half the country is low in neuroticism. Have a look for yourselves at the eight main states of this region, traits listed in the order extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness,

Oregon          30.9, 59.1, 45.8, 39.5, 58.8

Washington   30.6, 55.8, 45.0, 36.9, 56.6

California       51.4, 49.0, 43.2, 39.1, 65.0

Arizona          50.6, 46.6, 58.4, 38.1, 54.7

Nevada          46.4, 31.8, 55.8, 44.0, 61.3

New Mexico    32.4, 45.4, 58.5, 51.6, 62.0

Idaho             40.7, 52.9, 44.5, 44.2, 44.7

Utah               55.8, 69.4, 54.5, 30.4, 47.7

As you can see, Oregon and Washington are virtually identical, while California fits fairly well, even though the state is now just above average in extraversion, possibly due to migration. This would make a region of low to average extraversion, average to high agreeableness, low conscientiousness, low neuroticism and high openness. There may of course exist other personality regions with interesting correlates too, but right now I’m going with what Rentfrow generated. If we map the modified FC and RC regions along with the original TU region on a map of social and economic conservatism and liberalism created by statistician Andrew Gelman we see how these states stick together pretty good,

Gelman

The Wicked Witch of the Northeast

When I saw how well this region fits into Gelman’s map I had a suspicion that Rentfrow got it right. But let’s check some correlates anyway. The biggest correlations are those of higher  median age and a larger female population. This is fairly easy to check since this region is practically identical to what the US Census Bureau defines as the Northeast Region. The personality version of the region has a core area consisting of Pennsylvania and Delaware in the south and every state further north up to Maine. Peripheral and less typical states are Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and the more remotely located state of Texas. According to the Census 2010, their Northeast Region has the highest median age (39.2 years) and the lowest sex ratio (94.5 men per 100 women). The average of the core states is 95.0 and for the peripheral states it is 96.1, so that looks nice and concentric. In case you wonder about the populous states of New York and Texas, I haven’t weighted anything but their averages are 93.8 and 98.4 so that would confirm the pattern even more. As for median age, it’s a similar picture with a core average of exactly 40 years while and a peripheral average of 37.9 years.

Finally, the last big correlate, political view, again I use Gallup’s record on how many identify as politically conservative rather than the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 for the reasons I stated above. In the core states there is an average of 31.3 percent who think of themselves as politically conservative, well below the national average of 36.8, and equally important, below the average of 38.0 for the peripheral states.

Still, these correlates are pretty neutral. Violent crime is less flattering so maybe the zero correlation to this personality region is kept low by some tricky calculations as in the RC region? A quick look at the murder stats show that the core states have 3.9 murders per 100K people as compared to the periphery which has 4.7, identical to the national average. That’s the reverse of what we’d expect but it’s only one metric that varies over time so all in all, this region looks like it makes some sense. And there is no suspicion of bias.

All in All, a Brave Effort

While I’ve been whining a lot about the liberal bias in this study, I still think this is a bold step in the right direction. After all, all behavioral traits are highly heritable so research about these regions and their behavioral correlates can only be described as human biodiversity research. And we don’t see too much of that, unless it’s unintentional. It would have been nice if Rentfrow had shown how racial/ethnic groups differ since most of the samples had that information. Such differences could explain, at least to some degree, why we have these regions. When you see the high levels of neuroticism in the Northeast, it’s hard not to think of the Irish who are plenty in that region. It would also have been great if they had measured dark traits too – I mean, this is America we are talking about : )

But I’ll get back to the issue on how these regions came to be in a later post. Right now I just wanted to introduce them – and of course to show what they really look like : )


Altruism and the Dark Side of Agreeableness

February 28, 2014
Trying a bit too hard to be nice.

That smile looks like hard work.

After reading Elijah Armstrong’s skeptical pondering regarding the moral quality of the Big Five trait agreeableness, I began thinking and digging and here is what I’ve found.

The construct of the trait certainly suggests that it’s more than “day-to-day niceness”, as can be seen by its facets,

Trust, Straightforwardness, Altruism, Compliance, Modesty, Tender-mindedness

Looks like a pretty nice guy, right? But this opens the door for social desirability skewing the score. To illustrate this, here are some test items from IPIP,

Believe in human goodness

Cheat to get ahead (reversed score)

Make people feel welcome

Love to help others

Feel sympathy for those who are worse off than my self

It’s pretty obvious that this is the sort of feel-good things people say about themselves. Still, we know that agreeableness correlates negatively to the Dark Triad so doesn’t that give it some validity? Possibly, although these correlations are fairly modest, around -0.4 as compared with the honesty-humility trait of the HEXACO model which is around -0.6.  But more importantly, an average person will probably score higher on agreeableness than a “dark” person and this will yield a negative correlation. But that doesn’t mean that whoever scores high on agreeableness will be a more modest, altruistic or empathic person than the average.

Heroes

One way of getting around these problems is to look at altruistic behavior directly. One study by psychologist Lawrence Walker and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, examined people awarded for being exceptionally brave or caring. Although they didn’t find many mean associations with personality and altruism they identified three distinct clusters that did. They named these clusters communal, deliberate and ordinary. The communal is what we’d call a Florence Nightingale type who they found was in fact characterized by a high degree of agreeableness, but also of higher conscientiousness and emotional stability (low neuroticism). The second type is a little more ambiguous, scoring high on extraversion and openness. This might be a fire fighter type but it could also be a WEIRD person; Walker exemplifies this cluster with a guy who seems very principled, suggesting the latter. Or it could be a combination: a WEIRD thrill seeker like an environmentalist who will chain himself to a nuclear power plant or something like that. The third cluster is named fairly appropriately since these people score very similar to the control group, but there was a difference in that they scored lower on openness. It’s hard to know what to make of that. Since openness correlates to IQ it could be people with lower intelligence who want to help but fail to understand or contemplate the costs involved.

To summarize, these heroes do not provide convincing support of the association between altruism and agreeableness, although a subset of them score high on this trait.

The Dictator Game

Another perspective on this issue can be found in a highly interesting study by economists Avner Ben-Ner and Amit Kramer at the University of Minnesota. They’ve used the so-called Dictator Game to examine altruism towards different categories of people as well as its association with personality. In this game one person is given money and then gets to decide how much of it he wants to share with another person. Not much of a game in the conventional sense of the word, but it creates a situation in which it’s reasonable to give something but with no real hint about how much. So the amount chosen would be a measure of altruism.

As an interesting twist, Ben-Ner & Kramer had participants (students) give to four categories: kin, collaborator, neutral person and competitor. This way they can distinguish between kin altruism and other forms, like if someone is thought of as collaborator you may give more in the anticipation that this game will lead to the possibility that the other person will reciprocate – known as reciprocal altruism. Playing against a competitor you’d might not give anything at all.

They found that on the average, people who scored high on extraversion and neuroticism while scoring low on agreeableness and conscientiousness were the most altruistic to all target groups. Openness was unrelated to altruism in this study. They also found that the relationships between altruism and the Big Five personality traits were curvilinear rather than linear, and there were differences depending on who you gave money to as well as shown below,

Altruism 2

We have something like two U curves for extraversion and conscientiousness and two inversed U curves for agreeableness and neuroticism. But none of the curves are completely symmetrical so we get max and minimum levels of altruism distributed a little differently with each trait. Extraversion shows a minimum level of altruism at around one standard deviation (SD) below the mean and max at two SDs above it and so on. We can also see that these relationships are very similar for all categories of receivers.

But these categories differ in the absolute level of altruism. Participants showed a clear tendency to favour kin (the blue line) over all others, largely independent of personality. This, as Ben-Ner & Kramer pointed out, is what we would expect given that we are products of evolution and kin altruism provides inclusive fitness. But more surprisingly, participants were almost as generous towards competitors as to neutral persons. The researchers speculate on various causes for this, the most likely in my view being that some subjects are “inequality averse or fairness prone”, or as some might put it, WEIRD and pathologically altruistic.

Behind the Veneer

But the perhaps most interesting finding is the dynamics of altruism and agreeableness. Not only is this trait – with altruism as one of its facets – inversely linked to altruism; we also find that the relationship is almost linear with very low altruism at very high levels of agreeableness. This again points to the social desirability of this trait that I mentioned earlier. It also points to a possible link to dark traits; people like narcissists and psychopaths like to convey a highly likable but unrealistic persona. Criminologists and police officers know this – lying excessively about who you are is a warning sign that the person may be a psychopath or something similar.

Another interesting finding is that although kin is favoured there is also a tendency to be relatively altruistic to collaborators, something that makes sense in view of that they would be good candidates for reciprocal altruism. But for higher than average scores of agreeableness, we can see a unique gap opening up between kin and collaborator altruism. This suggests the possibility that behind the agreeable veneer lurks not only selfishness and a potential Dark Triad personality, but also some form of clannishness. Not the in-your-face violent Middle East clannishness, but a smart and sophisticated (this sample was university students) variety; people who act nice and say the right things but who will do nothing for you in the end because you’re not family. People like the Kennedys.

It will be interesting to see if this study is replicated because altruism and clannishness are such important aspects of human behavior and there is still very little research on how they relate to personality.

And beware of really nice people. If they seem too good to be true, they usually are.


Sadism: A New Addition to the Dark Triad?

February 10, 2014

Nelson

Recently, I was informed by Jayman (who needs a new computer btw, if you have money burning a hole in your pocket…) that new research is being done on the trait of sadism. I’ve finally gotten around to reading the full article (abstract here and a review from sott.net here), and I have to say it looks very interesting. As usual, the new development is taking place outside the box known as the Big Five model. Anyway, here is a little something on that article and the subject of sadism in general,

History

Most people think of sadism as something sexual and of the sadist as a disturbed person, likely to be a sex offender. This idea was spawned by German psychiatrist von Krafft-Ebing who wrote about it in his influential book Psychopathia Sexualis. As the title implies, Krafft-Ebing viewed sadism as sexual in nature and as the complement to masochism. This ying-yang idea was then adopted by the no less influential psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and was spread to a wider public through books and films. And so sadism became kinky and weird. The sexual sadist in the form of the serial killer has become an iconic figure in pop culture. There have been an endless amount of books and films made about this modern villain. Even here in quiet Sweden, the sexually sadistic serial killer is “celebrated” in movies and mystery novels, despite the fact that there is not a single account of such an individual here. I think this says something about how the sexual aspect of sadism became so blown out of proportion – it was simply a titillating idea and people fell for it.

Reality and Reality

This is not to say that sadomasochism doesn’t exist. Most sexual relationships probably have an element of S&M. According to Wikipedia, one German survey showed 69 percent of female respondents engaged in fantasies of that kind. So it’s fairly normal. But, more importantly, sadistic behavior is not confined to a sexual context but can be found in lots of everyday situations. Take reality TV for instance. Numerous of these shows end with an ostracization ritual in which one contestant is singled out and dismissed. Or the talent shows in which crappy performances aren’t weeded out before the show begins but highlighted for amusement. It doesn’t get any clearer than this,

And it’s equally clear that there is no sexual arousal involved here (if it was for you, please consult your doctor). These shows are extraordinarily popular and give an indication of just how common mundane, nonsexual sadism really is. And yet we know very little about this type of sadism. Which brings me to the research,

The First Study: Killing Bugs

The two studies in question were conducted by psychologists Erin Buckels and Delroy Paulhus from the University of British Columbia, and Daniel Jones from the University of Texas at El Paso. In the first study they had the participants (students) take questionnaires measuring sadism along with a measure of the Dark Triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism, machiavellism) and the Disgust Sensitivity Scale developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Then participants were allowed to choose to perform one of four tasks: you could choose to clean toilets, do some unspecified chore with your hands submerged in ice-water or you could kill bugs or assist in killing bugs without actually doing the killing. And finally, they inquired how the participants felt after the experiment was over.

As expected they found that people who measured high on sadism also chose to kill bugs to a greater extent. They also found that sadism was not just a combination of Dark Triad traits but something that uniquely predict the participant’s choices when the Dark Triad was controlled for. Also, the dark traits did not predict choice when sadism was controlled for. Sadism only correlated slightly to moderately with these traits and it was unrelated to disgust sensitivity. While this is a small study of only 71 participants, it indicates that this nonsexual sadism is a unique trait and that we for this reason the Dark Triad should be called a tetrad instead.

The Second Study: Hurting Innocent People

As before participants were administered a self-report measure of sadism along with a Dark Triad test, but unlike the previous study Bruckels and colleagues now included a Big Five and an empathy measure. Participants then got to play a game in which you simply press a button first to win over your opponent who is supposedly located in a different room but in reality doesn’t exist. If you win you may blast your opponent with white noise. The game is rigged so that everybody loses the first round and the alleged opponent never blasts any noise (thus making him innocent). They also added a variant in which participants could only blast their opponent if they completed a simple but boring task. The intensity and duration (chosen by the participants) of the blast was combined to a measure of aggression.

Again, sadism predicted the expected behavior, this time that of blasting your non-aggressive opponent, when the Dark Triad was controlled for. But unlike in the previous study, psychopathy emerged as an independent predictor whereas narcissism and machiavellism did not. When they added the condition that you had to perform a boring task to blast your opponent only sadism remained as a unique predictor. They summarize these findings as,

 Together, these results suggest that sadists possess an intrinsic appetitive motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others—a motivation that is absent in other dark personalities. Inflicting suffering on the weak is so rewarding for sadists that they will aggress even at a personal cost.

Some other correlation were pretty much what you’d expect: sadism was moderately correlated to dark traits, -0.56 to empathic concern, -0.46 to agreeableness and, perhaps surprising to some, -0.28 to conscientiousness.

Conclusion and Reflections

Although both these studies are small, they strongly suggest that there is a new kid on the block, a relative of the other dark traits but at the same time clearly independent of them. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has read about or come into contact with psychopaths, since they display this trait so clearly. However, a psychopath in the clinical sense is someone who is at the extreme end of this trait. That person would have to be compared to an equally extreme sadist. Then there is the fact that a psychopath often engages in violence. His sadism then becomes more salient than someone who is obsessed with crime literature or torture porn which even people close to him or her may know little of.

Another interesting finding is in regard to politics. Disgust sensitivity is a trait linked to conservatism as well as a negative attitude towards people of other races and homosexuals. It’s very easy to make the leap from that to the assumption that conservatives are sadists, as many liberals believe. But this research found disgust and sadism to be completely unrelated. And conscientiousness, a trait also linked to conservatism, showed a modestly negative correlation to sadism. Sure, it’s early days yet but so far so bad for that theory. My personal guess is that sadists, like most people who score high on the dark traits, are disinterested in politics. They all lack empathy and politics is caring about people, in different ways depending on your viewpoint.

Next question would be why there is such a thing as sadism. As with personality in general, I think we need to view it from an evolutionary perspective to answer that; look for how it may be adaptive, what problems it solves. Just off the top of my head, I’m guessing this has something to do with social hierarchy. Sadism is about putting people down, and that’s sometimes necessary to maintain the hierarchy. As much as you may dislike Nigel Cowell in the clip above, he’s not only put that poor contestant down, but he also putting him in his place. The reason that guy thinks he is a great singer is because no one has had the heart to tell him the truth. So maybe the gene variants for sadism persist because a few sadists in a group provide realistic and meritocratic hierarchy without losing much cohesion. You have a Nigel who tells him that he sucks and then the rest can pat him on the shoulder and say, “hey, maybe you’re good at something else.”


TV Review: Girls (HBO) – Intellectuals without Intellects

January 29, 2014
Girls, nothing more, nothing less.

Girls. Nothing more, nothing less.

Critic’s Pet

For those of you who don’t have premium cable or get HBO through public TV as I do, the network has a show called Girls that has created a lot of publicity since its launch in 2012. It is a half hour show about a twenty something struggling writer in New York named Hannah Horvath. Her life revolves around her friends, work, boys, family, parties etc. There are no murders, no vampires, no spies or exotic locations (unless you think of New York as exotic). Just the everyday humdrum that we all share. This may sound painfully trivial, but most critics beg to differ,

“Lena Dunham’s [the creator of the show who also does the role of Hannah] much anticipated comedy about four single women in New York is worth all the fuss…” (Alessandra Stanley, NYT)

“Girls represents an exciting moment in television history because, like a handful of other shows (MTV’s ‘Awkward,’ most notably) it not only makes great use of the medium but has the creative guts to realign it for a new century and a new generation.” (David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle)

“It’s the distillation of a distinctive, incisive and brutally funny point of view and most importantly, it’s its own thing.” (Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post)

“Girls has potential to become a once-in-a-generation work that helps define a shared era.” (Hank Stuever, Washington Post)

“From the moment I saw the pilot of Girls, I was a goner, a convert.” (Emily Nussbaum, New York Magazine)

Millennials, SWPLs, Hipsters

A recurring word in the reviews is “generation.” Critics love to think of Girls as the voice of the so-called Millennial generation. But only the part of that generation which they think of as socially relevant – the White, liberal, urban people, sometimes referred to as SWPLs. This reminds me of Judith Rich Harris who I wrote about in my previous post, and her ideas of how we develop from children into adults. We don’t think that much about who we are as individuals but more about which social category we fit in. That social category becomes our tribe. Which explains why critics love the show – they are just cheering for their team, or in this case their junior team.

This tribalism is made painfully obvious when Hannah dates a Black guy but breaks up with him because he turns out to be a conservative. By that happy accident her world is again as White as that of any SWPLs watching the show, who can appreciate her effort to fraternize and be liberally inclusive while at the same time be ok with the fact that all their friends are White. The ethnic friend fantasy should never become real. At least not unless the friend in question has been properly whitewashed. Needless to say, SWPLs see racism everywhere.

The Genius Working at the Coffee Shop: From Modernity to Hipsterity

But in spite of the boring social and political correctness, Dunham does try to portray the Millennial SWPLs unique situation – with both sympathy and criticism – although she says little of why they are in their particular situation; it’s just some existential backdrop that works as a common denominator for the characters. Their world is one of economic recession, in sharp contrast to when they were kids, and it’s socially confused; no one seems certain of what is right and wrong or how to behave. This insecurity occasionally creates some much needed nervous energy to the show, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying because it lacks meaning and never leads to any conclusions. It’s just weird rather than interesting.

At any rate, the young SWPLs in Girls find it hard to navigate this increasingly confusing and harsh reality. But they aren’t mere victims, but also pretty full of themselves. Dunham’s self-criticism (because she must be counted as a SWPL herself) is evident: this tribe is deluded and narcissistic. That insight saves the show from complete disaster, but it doesn’t save it from a clear failure in my view. Dunham tries to go for brutal honesty, but the question of where this delusional and inflated sense of self-worth comes from is left glaringly unanswered.

My personal guess is that the unflattering aspects of SWPLs have emerged gradually over a long period of time. An early incarnation of this tribe arose from Enlightenment, the modern people as I call them for lack of a better word, who in the 1700s embraced the new thing called science and wanted to implement the same rationality to society. These radicals were smart, creative and principled – an elite in many respects. But they were also naïve and blank slatist, not understanding that they too constituted a social category or tribe and were governed by the same psychological mechanisms as other tribes. So the moderns allowed more or less anyone admission to their tribe thinking the newcomers were genuinely like themselves. And being financially successful and generous they could bring in a steady stream of new members most of whom weren’t as intelligent, creative or civic-minded as they were, but instead more traditionally tribal and hostile towards outsiders.

And so the modern tribe became today’s SWPLs. They live in gentrified White neighborhoods (if they can afford it), and wear clothes that scream gay casual friday to mark their tribal distinctiveness. They get their degrees in sociology, arts or some other subject that doesn’t require too much brainpower. They eat organic food, recycle and perform all their other rituals but have much less of the inner qualities of their original modern ancestors. And this dumbing down, I believe, is the unique situation that Dunham doesn’t want to look into too carefully – the growing gap between an intellectual, elitist self-image and the horrifying reality of being a mundane, average person.

The Inexplicable Tragedy of Regression to the Mean

A phenomenon related to this decline is that of regression to the mean. This refers to the way intelligence (and probably a lot of similar traits) is inherited. Children don’t just inherit the average of their parent’s respective intelligence. Instead they’ll average somewhere between their parent’s level and the average of the larger population they belong to. So two SWPLs with IQs of 120 will have children whose average IQs might be around 110.  And being blank slatists, they can’t just accept this as a fact of life but will be disappointed or blame themselves or try to convince themselves that their little Hannah, working at the coffee shop is just as smart as they are. It’s just the economy, or all the existential issues that this new and highly complicated world entails. Or it could be a psychological problem. SWPLs have a lot of psychiatric conditions that supposedly make them look interesting rather than just dumb. (In Hannah Horvath’s case it’s OCD.) Because if all that’s wrong with her is an IQ of 105 then she is just like a regular White girl who listens to Taylor Swift. And Mom doesn’t like Taylor Swift, partly because her fans are the wrong kind of White people, and partly because Taylor Swift has talent and intelligence, and in the back of her head she knows that her daughter has neither.

The Modern Storyteller Fail

While you could make a decent show about a plain Jane and her equally plain friends, Girls also suffers from the modern kind of story-telling that I’ve mentioned in a previous post which fails to recognize that good meaningful stories have a basic archetypal structure – good versus evil and such. Instead Dunham just makes up little sketches and when she has enough to fill half an hour that becomes an episode. I’m in no way exaggerating when I say that these episodes can be seen in any random order. There is no beginning, no end, no one is really good and no one is really bad, no strong conflicts. It’s just one trivial event after another.

The critics don’t mind this because they are the small clique who love the modern nonsensical crap, and they also look at Hannah and think their deadbeat daughter really is special after all. The rest, I imagine, look at Dunham’s perky boobs that the camera lingers on for long periods of time in every single episode. One critic, Tim Molloy, had the audacity to ask Dunham about the purpose of all the nudity (more than I have ever seen in a TV show) and got this vitriolic response from Dunham,

Yeah. It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem…

On top of this, producer Jenni Konner asked Molloy why he thought he could talk to a woman that way, and producer Judd Apatow wondered how things would go with Molloy’s girlfriend after his misogynistic question. Which supports my idea that the gap between self-image and actual performance among the SWPLs has been growing for a long time and is not a problem exclusive to the Millennials.

But ultimately, boobs, even real and perky ones, will not keep the audience interested. Only storytelling can do that. That’s why no one really cares about the films from the 1960s and 1970s. And this is why no one really cares about Girls either,

Viewers (in millions) of the latest ten episodes of some HBO shows.

Viewers (in millions) of the latest ten episodes of some HBO shows.

This lack of interest is also interesting in that it shows how little people care about what these SWPL critics think. In spite of all the superlatives from all the big media, the Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards etc, the ratings haven’t even momentarily risen above the abysmal level that they been on since the show started. That’s gotta hurt.

I’m thinking if Hannah hadn’t wasted her time on that sociology degree, and practised really hard she might have been able to be a backup singer for Taylor Swift,


The Nurture Enigma – How Does the Environment Influence Human Nature?

January 21, 2014
Ms Smarty-Pants.

Ms Smarty-Pants

Historical Background

As some of you are well aware, a predominant idea among intellectuals has been that human nature is shaped by the environment, commonly known as the Tabula Rasa or in English, the Blank Slate. This has been the cornerstone of the Enlightenment, the political and philosophical movement of that grew out of late 1600s England and spread throughout the world (although mainly to countries of Northwest European origin). It was an idea that justified social reforms that greatly improved life for most people who were affected by them.

The Tabula reigned pretty much until 1975 when biologist E. O. Wilson wrote Sociobiology, a book that attempted to use evolution to explain not only animal but also human social behavior. Although this book shook things up in Academia it didn’t make that much impact elsewhere. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the reaction against the Blank Slate began to get serious. At this point in time people in the field of behavioural genetics conducted studies on the heritability of things like personality and intelligence that were so extensive and of such quality that they simply couldn’t be ignored. And they showed substantial heritabilities of not just some traits but all of them, something that still holds today. There were some die hard blank slatists, like biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who persisted but most of the resistance to the idea of an inheritable human nature had waned by the mid 1990s (at least that’s my impression).

So the general idea of all nurture and no nature was losing the battle but the vast majority of people were still unaware of this and continued their lives as if nothing had changed – carefully rearing their children during their “formative years” according to “expert” advice, and feeling great when they turned out good, and feeling guilty when they didn’t.  Then in 1998, a text book writer named Judith Rich Harris wrote a book called The Nurture Assumption, summarizing and popularizing the findings of behavioural geneticists, focusing especially on the implications for child development. This was followed in 2002 by psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate, a broad exposé of the whole nature-nurture issue that in its informative and entertaining style became popular in wider circles. People still talk of the formative years even today (I just got a comment from one of them), but by now the tide has irreversibly shifted.

The Post-Slate Situation

So, what does the “new” research from the 1980s, that is now finally beginning to reach public awareness, tell us about human nature? The most obvious part is that nature is a major factor. This is typically summed up in textbooks in the 50/50 rule, claiming that genes and environment can explain about half of the variance each of things like intelligence, personality, psychopathology etc. Which is easy to remember – but also incorrect. This is due to the fact that there is something called measurement error. Most studies are done in a way that doesn’t distinguish this error from the environmental factor. So it’s 50 percent nature and 50 percent environment plus measurement error. Studies that have managed to minimize measurement error typically yield heritabilities for personality traits and similar characteristics around 70 percent. You also have the fact that some of the traits linked to the most important life outcomes, like intelligence and impulsiveness, have even higher heritabilities, around 0.75-0.80.

Equally important – and especially problematic for the adherents of Enlightenment –  is the distinction between shared environment and non-shared environment. It’s the shared environment – family, school, neighbourhood etc – that would lend itself to social reforms. But the research has consistently shown that this factor is very small, often close to zero. As behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin says,

‘Nurture’ in the nature–nurture debate was implicitly taken to mean shared environment because from Freud onwards, theories of socialization had assumed that children’s environments are doled out on a family-by-family basis.

So while there is still a fair amount of environmental influence, it’s not coming from parents, schools, teachers etc. Some people will never accept this; they are too stuck in their political views, they like to blame their parents for how they turned out or take credit for the success of their children. But rational and intellectually honest people will be forced to accept it.

Judith Rich Harris and the Enigma of Non-Shared Environment

But this still leaves us with a substantial environmental influence of the non-shared variety, the unique experiences of the individual, that undeniably affects our personality and intelligence. So what experiences are we talking about?

Oddly enough, 30 years after behavioural geneticists uncovered the importance of non-shared environment, we still don’t know anything about the nature of this influence. This great mystery that goes right to the heart of human nature seems to be uninteresting to both psychologists and the media. Possibly because of the political implications but it might be that they simply lack ideas or intellectual curiosity. After all, personality psychologists – 95 percent of whom identify as liberal – do not praise the Big Five model for all the theories it has generated but for all the consensus it has achieved. Yay…

But one woman, the above mentioned Judith Rich Harris, is actively searching for answers. In a chapter in the anthology The Evolution of Personality and Individual Differences by psychologists David Buss and Patricia Hawley, she reviews the evidence, the old theories and proposes a new one that could explain the nature of the non-shared environmental influence.

Gene-Environment Interactions

This is not to say that she is the first to have attempted this. Some have claimed that parents, school and all that may still be important because of gene-environment interactions: the fact that the same environmental factor will affect two persons differently because of their different DNA. This would mean that the environment believed to be shared is really unique and non-shared and possibly very important.

While gene-environment interactions do occur, Harris argues that it’s highly unlikely for these interactions to cancel each other out. Would an overbearing teacher make one child anxious but the other calm and confident? Even if some children would become angry by such a teacher this would not be the opposite of anxious but rather two expressions of neuroticism. Apart from being implausible, Harris also points to the fact that interactions seem to be rare and most of the documented cases involve sensitivities in which people have the same reactions in varying degrees, not opposite reactions that would cancel each other out.

Even more damning to this theory is the research on identical twins. If things like family was in fact unique and non-shared due to gene-environment interaction for siblings it could not be that for the twins since they have identical DNAs so no interactions are possible. This would mean that parents, school etc would have a profound effect on all people with the exception of identical twins for whom it would mean little or nothing, which would make them fundamentally different from the rest of us. At the same time identical twins have the same size of shared and non-shared environment influence as everyone else. So even though it would be made up of completely different experiences it would still by some happy accident add up to exactly the same size. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Family Interactions

Another couple of theories that both try to save the idea of family as an important influence on human nature, are those of differential parental treatment and birth order effects. While it has been found that parents do treat their children differentially, Harris mentions research on this that showed no effect of this on the children. Instead it suggested that parents do this as a response to the children’s varying behavior. Which sounds very plausible: you would not expect a parent to lose his or her temper as often with a quiet and conscientious child as with an impulsive and emotionally unstable one.

Research has also failed to provide support for any effects from sibling interactions, a very popular theory. Sibling rivalry is something most people can recall from their childhood. It may seem only natural that all that bickering would have some impact. But to date, there is no evidence of that. Identical twins again provide further evidence to the contrary, since they have been found to compete less with each other (as they should according to the laws of evolution). This would mean that the sibling interaction effect would be smaller on them and we again end up with the idea that identical twins have a different shared environment than the rest of us but that it serendipitously adds up to the exact same size.

The Three Systems Theory

Instead of these half-hearted attempts at rescuing any possible remains of the Blank Slate, Harris proposes a different theory based on evolutionary psychology and especially on the observation that traits or mechanisms tend to evolve to solve specific problems and that they for this reason often are largely independent of each other.  So, what problems and what mechanisms?

Well, we know that personality is more malleable in childhood than in adulthood. This is most likely because the brain’s plasticity gradually decreases over the life span. So the environment should exert most of its influence during childhood. This means that we should look for basic adaptive problems that children face. Harris identifies three such problems: how to form personal relationships, how to fit in among your peers, and how to compete among your peers. To solve these problems she hypothesizes that the brain has evolved three mechanisms or systems which she calls the Relationship System (RS), the Socialization System (SS), and the Status System (STS).

The RS is basically an ever-growing database of information on people along with judgments of them based on that data. Since these judgments are used to relate to people they tend to be emotional – who we love, hate, fear, pity and so on. Another characteristic is that the data collected is consciously retrievable. The RS is the base of gossip; we talk about people we have stored information on and compare notes. Although in the modern world this is often done about celebrities that aren’t socially relevant to us.

The SS also collects data but on social categories – male, female, adult, child, rich, poor etc. This is essential information if you want to fit in because you need to know where to fit in – which social categories apply to you. Unlike the RS that looks at personal experiences of specific individuals, the SS generalizes about groups, stereotypes you might say. It’s the basis of our ingroup/outgroup distinctions, according to Harris. But when did we learn about these categories? At no particular time, it just builds up gradually. So unlike the information in the RS, there is no consciously retrievable memory of it.

Finally, we have the STS which collects information about where we stand in comparison to other people in our social category – because that’s where the competition takes place. The reason for keeping track of all the possible status hierarchies – being funny, smart, tough etc – is that it enables the child to find an optimal competitive strategy. So this system looks for things like respect, appreciation and recognition.

So which of these systems is the most likely mechanism by which non-shared environment can influence personality? Although Harris doesn’t say much about why the RS couldn’t do this, we already know that some central relationships in a child’s life are those with family members – which is shared environment and thus of little importance. Still, close friends seems like a possible candidate here… She points out that the least likely mechanism would be the SS, since this is a process by which the social environment (peers) reduce variance in personality as it makes children conform to the people in their social categories. But the STS looks very promising. When a child looks for an optimal strategy for competition, it isn’t looking to conform but to stand out. And if one niche is taken it will have to look for other venues. Like if you’re a big boy who is moderately funny in a peer group of plenty of really big guys but no one who can tell a joke, you may go against your genetic disposition and become the comedian rather than to assert yourself physically.

Evidence

Now that sounds like a plausible theory, but is there any evidence?

Harris agrees that her theory needs to be tested but she does have some evidence too. She mentions the fact that men who were tall as boys grow up to be more assertive and confident as adults. That height in adolescence predicts salary better than height in adulthood. Although she admits that the same thing that makes a person grow fast (androgens) may also be causing their assertiveness. To get around this Harris suggests that we look at relative age within peer groups. One important peer group is that of classmates in school, in which children can differ in age up to a year. This makes for differences in size and maturity that are unrelated to hormones or other biological factors. This relative age effect can be seen in sports where the older boys in groups of selection are picked up by better teams. This may seem stupid if all you do is select players who happen to be older than their peers. But what if being bigger also give them confidence that in turn make them better players?

A study by Dr Chris J Gee at the University of Toronto, published in the International Journal of Coaching Science gives some support for this idea. Gee has followed promising young hockey players over 15 years in order to see if personality can predict success in the sport. According to the study a composite measure of the typical traits thought to be linked to success – self-confidence, need for achievement, competitiveness etc – did in fact predict success. And in regard to the relative age effect common in drafting, Gee writes,

Interestingly, when height and weight (both commonly cited anthropometric indices used when scouting amateur hockey players) were entered into each of the previously mentioned regression models, they failed to significantly increase the amount of variance accounted for.

This strongly suggests that coaches pick the boys who are oldest in their age group, not because they are bigger or have more androgens or something like that, but because they have certain personality traits associated with athletic success. How did they get those traits if all that distinguishes them from other boys is that they happened to be born earlier? It seems to me that Harris’ theory fit these data very well: these boys became confident and assertive through their social environment of peers who couldn’t push them around. This put them on the track to athletic careers, while others who might have been of average size for their age but the youngest in their age group turned to comedy or some other way of becoming popular and getting status.

I think Harris may be on to something.


Changelings, Infanticide and Northwest European Guilt Culture

January 2, 2014
And he is always hungry...

And he is always hungry…

Guilt and Shame Cultures

On his blog Evo and Proud, anthropologist Peter Frost recently wrote a highly interesting two-part article entitled The origins of Northwestern European guilt culture. In guilt cultures, social control is regulated more by guilt than by shame, as is the case in shame cultures that exist in most parts of the world. A crucial difference between these types of cultures is that while shame cultures require other people to shame the wrongdoer, guilt cultures do not. Instead, he or she will shame themselves by feeling guilty. This, according to Frost, is also linked to a stronger sense of empathy with others, not just with relatives but people in general.

The advantages of guilt over shame are many. People can go about their business without being supervised by others, and they can cooperate with people they’re not related to as long as both parties have the same view on right and wrong. And with this personal freedom come individualism, innovation and other forms of creativity as well as ideas of universal human rights etc. You could argue, as Frost appears to, that the increased sense of guilt in Northwestern Europe (NWE) is a major factor behind Western Civilization. While this sounds fairly plausible (in my ears at least), a fundamental question is whether there really is more guilt in the NWE sphere than elsewhere.

How to Measure Guilt

The idea of NWE countries as guilt cultures may seem obvious to some and dubious to others. The Protestant tradition is surely one indication of this, but some anthropologists argue that other cultures have other forms of guilt, not as easily recognized by Western scholars. For instance, Andrew Beatty mentions that the Javanese have no word for either shame or guilt but report uneasiness and a sense of haunting regarding certain political murders they’ve committed. So maybe they have just as much guilt as NWE Protestants?

This is one of the problems with soft science – you can argue about the meaning of terms and concepts back and forth until hell freezes over without coming to any useful conclusion. One way around this is to find some robust metric that most people would agree indicates guilt. One such measure, I believe, would be murder rate. If people in different cultures vary in the guilt they feel for committing murder, then this should hold them back and show up as a variation in the murder rate. I will here take the NWE region to mean the British Isles, the Nordic countries (excluding Finland), Germany, France and Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand and Canada for a total of 14 countries. According to UNODC/Wikipedia, the average murder rate in the NWE countries is exactly 1.0 murder per 100K inhabitants. To put this in perspective, only 20 other countries (and territories) of 207 listed are below this level and 70 percent of them have twice the murder rate or more.

Still, criminals are after all not a very representative group having more of the dark traits (psychopathy, narcissism, machiavellism) than the rest of the population. Corruption, on the other hand, as I’ve argued in an earlier post, seems relatively unrelated to regular personality traits, so it should tap into the mainstream population. Corruption is often about minor transgressions that many people engage in knowing that they can usually get away with it. They will not be shamed because no one will know about it and many will not care since it’s so common, but some will feel guilty and refrain from it.  Looking at the Corruptions Perceptions Index for 2013, the NWE countries are very dominant at the top of the ranking (meaning they lack corruption). There are seven NWEs in the top ten and two additional bordering countries (Finland and Switzerland).  The entire NWE region is within the top 24, of a 177 countries and territories.

But as I’ve argued before here, corruption appears to be linked to clannishness and tribalism (traits rarely discussed in psychology) and it’s reasonable to assume that it is a causal factor. How does this all add up? Well, the clannish and tribal cultures that I broadly refer to as traditional cultures are all based on the premise that the family, tribe or similar ingroup is that which should be everyone’s first concern. So while a member of a traditional culture may have personal feelings of guilt, this means little compared to the collective dislike – the shame – from the family or tribe. At the same time traditional cultures are indifferent or hostile towards other groups so if your corruption serves the family or tribe there will be no shame in it, the others will more likely praise you for being clever.

(In this context it’s also interesting to note that people who shame others often do this by expressing disgust, an emotion linked to a traditional dislike for various outgroups, such as homosexuals or people of other races. So disgust, which psychologist Jonathan Haidt connects with the moral foundation of sanctity/degradation, is perhaps equally important to the foundation loyalty/ingroup.)

When Did Modernity Begin?

One important question is whether this distinction between modern and traditional is to what extent it’s a matter of nature or nurture. There is evidence that it is caused by inbreeding and the accumulation of genes for familial altruism (that’s to say a concern for relatives and a corresponding dislike for non-relatives). Since studies on this are non-existent as far as I know – no doubt for political reasons – another form of evidence could be found in tracing this distinction back in time. The further we can do this, the more likely it’s a matter of genes rather than culture. And the better we can identify populations that are innately modern the better we can understanding the function and origin of this trait. Frost argues that guilt culture can be found as early as the Anglo-Saxon period (550-1066), based thing like the existence of looser family structures with a relatively late age of marriage and the notion of a shame before the spirits or God, which can be construed as guilt. This made me wonder if there is any similar historical evidence for NWE guilt that is old enough to make the case for this to be an inherited behavior (or at least the capacity for guilt-motivated behavior). And that’s how I came up with the changeling,

The Changeling

As Jung has argued, there is a striking similarity between myths and traditional storytelling over the world. People who have never been in contact with each other have certain recurring structures in their narratives, and, as I’ve argued before here, even modern people adhere to these unspoken rules of storytelling – the archetypes. The only reasonable explanation for archetypes is that they are a reflection of how humans are wired. But if archetypal stories reveal a universal human nature, what about stories found in some places but not in others? In some cases they may reflect differences in things like climate or geography, but if no such environmental explanation can be found I believe that the variation may be a case of human biodiversity.

I believe one such variation relevant to guilt culture is the genre of changeling tales. These folktales are invariably about how otherworldly creatures like fairies abduct newborn children and replace them with something in their likeness, a changeling. The changeling is sometimes a fairy, sometimes just an enchanted piece of wood that has been made to look like a child. It’s typically very hungry but sickly and fails to thrive. A woman who suspected that she had a changeling on her hands could find out by beating the changeling, throwing it in the water, leaving it in the woods overnight and so on. According to the folktales, this would prompt the fairies or whoever was responsible for the exchange to come to rescue their child and also return the child they had taken.

Infanticide Made Easy

Most scholars agree that the changeling tales was a way to justify killing sickly and deformed children. According to American folklorist D. L. Ashliman at the University of Pittsburgh, people firmly believed in changelings and did as the tales instructed,

There is ample evidence that these legendary accounts do not misrepresent or exaggerate the actual abuse of suspected changelings. Court records between about 1850 and 1900 in Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Ireland reveal numerous proceedings against defendants accused of torturing and murdering suspected changelings.

This all sounds pretty grisly but before modern medicine and social welfare institutions, a child of this kind was a disaster. Up until the 1900s, children were supposed to be relatively self-sufficient and help out around the house. A child that needed constant supervision without any prospect of ever being able contribute anything to the household was more than a burden; it jeopardized the future of the entire family.

Still, there is probably no stronger bond between two people than that between a mother and her newborn child. So how could a woman not feel guilty for killing her own child? Because it must be guilt we’re talking about here – you would never be shamed for doing it since it was according to custom. The belief in changelings expressed in the folktales gave the women (and men) a way out of this dilemma. (Ironically, Martin Luther, the icon of guilt culture, dismissed all the popular superstitions of his fellow countrymen with the sole exception of changelings which he firmly believed in.) Thus, the main purpose of these tales seems to have been to alleviate guilt.

Geography

If this is true then changeling stories should be more common in the NWE region than elsewhere, which also seems to be the case. There are numerous changeling tales found on the British Isles, in Scandinavia, Germany and France. It can be found elsewhere in Europe as well, in the Basque region and among Slavic people and even as far as North Africa, but at least according to folklorists I’ve found discussing these tales, they are imported from the NWE region. And if we look beyond regions bordering to Europe changelings seem to be virtually non-existent. Some folklorists have suggested that for instance the Nigerian Ogbanje can be thought of as a changeling, although at a closer inspection the similarity is very superficial. The Ogbanje is reborn into the same family over and over and to break the curse families consult medicine men after the child has died. When they consult a medicine man when the child is still alive it is for the purpose of severing the child’s connection to the spirit world and make it normal. So the belief in the Ogbanje never justifies infanticide. Another contender is the Filipino Aswang which is a creature that will attack children as well as adults and is never takes the place of a child but is more like a vampire. So it’s safe to say that the changeling belief is firmly rooted in the NWE region at least back to medieval times and perhaps earlier too.

Before There Were Changelings, There Was Exposure

Given how infanticide is such a good candidate for measuring guilt, we could go back further in time, before any evidence of changelings and look at potential differences in attitudes towards this act.

I doing so I think we can find, if not NWE guilt, so at least Western ditto. According this Wikipedia article, the ancient Greeks and Romans as well as Germanic tribes, killed infants by exposure rather than through a direct act. Here is a quote on the practice in Greece,

Babies would often be rejected if they were illegitimate, unhealthy or deformed, the wrong sex, or too great a burden on the family. These babies would not be directly killed, but put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.

And the Archeology and Classical Research Magazine Roman Times quotes several classical sources suggesting that exposure was controversial even back then,

Isocrates (436–338 BCE)  includes the exposure of infants in his catalog of horrendous crimes practiced in some  cities (other than Athens) in his work Panathenaicus.

I also found this excerpt from the play Ion by Euripides, written at the end of the 400s BC. In it Kreusa talks with an old servant about having exposed an unwanted child,

Old Servant: Who cast him forth? – Not thou – O never thou!

Kreusa: Even I. My vesture darkling swaddled him.

Old Servant: Nor any knew the exposing of the child?

Kreusa: None – Misery and Secrecy alone.

Old Servant: How couldst thou leave they babe within the cave?

Kreusa: Ah how? – O pitiful farewells I moaned!

It seems to me that this play, by one of the most prominent playwrights of his time, would not make much sense to the audience unless exposure was something that weighed on many people’s hearts.

Compare this with historical accounts from other cultures, taken from the Wikipedia article mentioned above,

Some authors believe that there is little evidence that infanticide was prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia or early Muslim history, except for the case of the Tamim tribe, who practiced it during severe famine. Others state that “female infanticide was common all over Arabia during this period of time” (pre-Islamic Arabia), especially by burying alive a female newborn.

In Kamchatka, babies were killed and thrown to the dogs.

The Svans (a Georgian people) killed the newborn females by filling their mouths with hot ashes.

A typical method in Japan was smothering through wet paper on the baby’s mouth and nose. Mabiki persisted in the 19th century and early 20th century.

Female infanticide of newborn girls was systematic in feudatory Rajputs in South Asia for illegitimate female children during the Middle Ages. According to Firishta, as soon as the illegitimate female child was born she was held “in one hand, and a knife in the other, that any person who wanted a wife might take her now, otherwise she was immediately put to death”

Polar Inuit (Inughuit) killed the child by throwing him or her into the sea. There is even a legend in Inuit mythology, “The Unwanted Child”, where a mother throws her child into the fjord.

It seems that while people in ancient Greece practiced exposure, something many were troubled by, the active killing was common in the rest of the world and persists to this day in many places. While people in other cultures may or may not feel guilt it doesn’t seem to affect them as much, and it’s sometimes even trumped by shame as psychiatrist Steven Pitts and clinical psychologist Erin Bale write in an article in The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law regarding the practice of drowning unwanted girls,

In China, the birth of a daughter has traditionally been accompanied by disappointment and even shame.

To summarize, the changeling lore provides evidence of a NWE guilt culture dating back at least to medieval times, and the practice and attitude towards exposure suggests that ancient Greece had an emerging guilt culture as early as the 400s BC which enabled a similar individualism and intellectual development that we’ve seen in the NWE in recent centuries. I’m not sure exactly how genetically related these populations are, but the geographical proximity makes it hard to ignore the possibility of gene variants for guilt proneness in Europe responsible for guilt cultures both in ancient Greece and the NWE region. Some branch of Indo-Europeans perhaps?

Update 2014-03-01:

Assistant Village Idiot wrote an interesting post on HBD/folklore regarding gender issues, http://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.se/2014/02/fairy-tales.html


Merry Christmas!

December 21, 2013

Not really a Christmas song, but since they tend to be so cheesy or worn out I went with this old Bob Dylan song instead,  here sung by the lovely Sarah Jarosz. Enjoy,


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