Book Review: Intelligence (2015) by Stuart Ritchie

August 12, 2015

Stuart Ritchie


An Uphill Battle

It’s no easy task to explain why intelligence is so important. The reason for this is oddly enough that many highly intelligent people insist it’s not important at all. While their arguments are weak, their eloquence, learned references, and general cleverness, charisma etc, often conceal this, at least to the unsuspecting part of the reading public.

To show what he is up against the author, psychologist Stuart Ritchie, begins with a quote from the late left-wing intellectual Christopher Hitchens,

“There is…an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and [their] propensity to be impressed by the measurement of IQ.”

As some of you may have noticed, this is an illogical statement. Correlation, as Hitchens no doubt knew, is a mathematical measure of the linear relationship between two variables. So to speak of a correlation between stupidity and something else implies that he relies on some measure or estimate of stupidity – which would be a reversed IQ test – to make the point that such tests are useless.

Or as the author says, “Smart people don’t like the idea of intelligence.” Strictly speaking this isn’t true. It’s mostly Western, left-leaning intellectuals who don’t like this concept, but they have been the most vocal and influential in the debate. Their critique is of course political rather than scientific in nature and they have made pretty ugly straw men out of proponents of IQ tests and research.

The Factual Psychologist?

So what do you do if you’re already cast as the Villain before having spoken your first line? Like the “factual feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers, Ritchie’s strategy seems to be to counter politically biased and emotional arguments with plain facts. The facts being that intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, is highly heritable, stable across the lifespan and linked to a number of life outcomes most of us find very important, like level of education, work performance, income, crime, health etc. Critics dismiss this by saying that IQ tests simply measure the socio-economic status which these correlates reflect. But high heritability and stability makes a strong case for causality going in the other direction. We’re born with a certain amount of intelligence and differences in this regard will explain later differences in terms of education, health etc. And if you think these correlates are important, you’re simply forced to agree that the intelligence that contributes to them is important too.

This is not to say that intelligence is “all that matters,” as it says on the cover of the book (referring to the name of the series the book is a part of and not the title). Leadership effectiveness, for instance, correlates a modest 0.35 with IQ. And there are “facts” in this book that can be contested. Like the link between IQ and socially liberal attitudes, which has a more sizable correlation of 0.45. This is possibly due to the fact that most research is done in the West where these attitudes are popular, especially among politically correct university students who make up the common “convenience” samples. A similar case can be made against the inverse relation between IQ and religious belief, a weak correlation of 0.25 to begin with, but even weaker if you look at the research behind it, something I have covered in more detail in an earlier post here.

That said, I haven’t found much to remark on in this book. And besides facts relevant to the importance of intelligence and to the critique against the concept, Ritchie also presents lots of other interesting stuff, explaining the basics of intelligence research and how it relates to subjects like behavioural genetics, evolution, neuroscience etc. And the book is so well-written I doubt anyone without prior knowledge will have a problem understanding it.

The Norwegian Enigma

One of the most interesting studies the author mentions is one that suggest a case for environmental influence, and a pretty hefty one too. It concerns the addition of two additional school hours in Norway which took place in the 1960s. This reform appears to have added on average 3.7 IQ points per year, which is a very big effect. This is in line with a global trend of increasing test scores over the recent century, called the Flynn Effect – which coincides with more children going to school all over the world.

According to the author there is no current theory that explains this boost, or the larger Flynn Effect. It could be simply that training a skill will improve it. Like a naturally muscular person will be stronger than the average but even more so if he works out in a gym frequently. While this study may hold a clue to how we can boost intelligence, the author also mentions that similar projects (of which there have been many) have given short-term increases with no lasting impact on the adult person. The Norwegian IQ tests that showed this effect come from the military so it’s young adults who were in school not long ago. Still, it’s intriguing, given the big effect. I would have liked some more space devoted to this study, what other researcher say about it, if there have been follow-up studies later in life or anything else to corroborate the test results.

The Controversy

In the last chapter, Ritchie returns to the controversial aspects of intelligence research that he mentioned briefly in the beginning of the book. Presumably because at this point readers now armed with the facts will be less likely to have their brains hijacked by their emotions. This seems like a good strategy, although even better would have been to keep presenting the facts and simply put the critics in the historical overview at the beginning. After all, most of the prominent opponents of intelligence testing are now dead or very close to death (no offense, we’re all headed there). That way he could have ended the book by highlighting interesting research areas and discuss future directions.

Instead the author tries to reason, coax, and negotiate with the critics, which to me implies that the facts somehow don’t hold up on their own (which they do). For instance, he mentions that Nazi doctors discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer, and that this finding is valid and useful regardless of who uncovered it. True, but in the very next sentence he goes on to say, “Also, it should be remembered that not all of the history of intelligence testing is tainted by eugenics,” thus undermining the point he just made. Or he tries to be nice by saying that differences in intelligence “might be influenced in part by biology,” when he has already stated that heritability trends toward 0.8 in adults.

Adopting the emotional arguments of your opponents on an issue like this is just a terrible idea. Even if Ritchie should win that game (and to his credit he doesn’t), it invalidates the research that shows intelligence to be an important concept, which was the reason the book was written in the first place. Evidence is the only currency of science. Responding to emotional arguments by appealing to those emotions is to short-change yourself to intellectual bankruptcy.


That said, my overall view of this book is very positive. Although I disagree with how the author deals with critics, he is at least trying to push things in the right direction (towards what the evidence tells us). He also packs a lot of interesting information into just over 100 pages without making the text feel crammed; in fact the book is so clearly written it almost reads itself. And Ritchie is a great teacher who knows how to explain things to a wider audience without becoming too technical or dumbing it down. In short, I doubt you can find a smoother ride to basic literacy on the subject of intelligence than this.

Chicks Dig Jerks, Right?

January 1, 2015


Milhouse putting on his bad boy-suit for Liza.

The Bad Boy Allure

There is a widespread notion that girls and women have a thing for bad boys. Sure, they say they like nice guys, who are attentive and caring, who play by the rules, and whom you can trust. But in reality, they prefer the arrogant, self-centered, manipulative guys – the bad boys or jerks.

We find this theme in literature, films and TV shows ranging from the dark attraction of cold-blooded serial killers, the seductive charm of vampires to more light stuff like the TV show The Simpsons, where the straight-A student Lisa falls for the unsophisticated bully Nelson.

This view is also held by the boys and men of the manosphere, an online community about gender issues from a male perspective, inspired by evolutionary psychology, pick-up artistry and personal experiences. Here too the consensus seems to be that chicks dig their jerks, only with the dark, optimistic belief that you can and should learn how to be a jerk, or in their biologically inspired jargon, an alpha male.

While this consensus is intriguing, it’s not necessarily compelling. For one, consensus varies over time. We used to believe in the existence of witches but now that belief might get you a psychiatric diagnosis. And it varies by population. According to PEW, most Buddhists and Hindus embrace the theory of evolution, but only a small minority of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do so. In short, consensus is no substitute for evidence. And neither is the cynicism of the manosphere, for that matter. So is there any evidence?

Attraction Research

As one might expect, there is plenty of research on what women look for in men, and vice versa. In a huge international and cross-cultural study (possibly the largest of its kind), psychologist David Buss and colleagues asked 10 000 participants what characteristics they desire in a potential marriage partner. Most of the top ten turned out to be personality traits, things like sociability, pleasing disposition, dependability, emotional stability, ambition, refinement/neatness, and intelligence (which not everyone views as a personality trait). All of these were considered more important than things like for instance financial prospects, social status or religious and political background.

But the desirable traits listed above do not paint a picture of a bad boy – or girl for that matter, as the difference between the sexes was very small. In Big Five terms it translates to extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and lack of neuroticism. The bad boy, however, is not well captured in the Big Five model, but matches the Dark Triad (DT) traits of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. As no test of this triad was included we can’t tell for sure, but correlations between DT and Big Five are positive for extraversion and emotional stability, but negative for agreeableness and conscientiousness. And there is nothing “dark” per se about an extraverted and emotionally stable person. So it’s clear that, these findings can’t support the chicks-dig-jerks theory as correlations fail to match DT, and with “dependability” and “pleasing disposition” as two conspicuous deal breakers.

Besides these desired traits, there is also research showing that people of both genders like those similar to themselves. All Big Five show moderate correlations between how much a person likes a trait in a partner and how much he or she has of that trait. This birds-of-a-feather effect goes beyond personality, as Buss explains,

For nearly every variable that has been examined— from single actions to ethnic and racial status—people seem to select mates who are similar to themselves. Even for physical characteristics such as height, weight, and, astonishingly, nose breadth and earlobe length, couples show positive correlations. Indeed, the only characteristic on which “opposites attract” that has been reliably documented is biological sex: Men tend to be attracted to women and women tend to be attracted to men.

But as both psychologists and members of the manosphere have pointed out, women may want jerks or bad boys for short-term relationships rather than for marriage. So let’s push onwards and explore that possibility as well…

Women’s Flings

In doing so, we immediately hit an obstacle. Because if it is generally true that chicks dig jerks, it would also mean that women in general enjoy short-term relationships. There is, however, a lot of research that says the opposite. Here is some taken mostly from Randy Larsen and David Buss’ book Personality Psychology – Domains of Knowledge About Human Nature (2010) and Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology -The New Science of the Mind (2007),

As far as sexual fantasies goes here is a N=1500 study from last year, showing 83 percent of men having the fantasy of sex with someone other than their partner, as compared to 56 percent for women.

From Wikipedia: The National Health and Social Life Survey found that 4% of married men, 16% of cohabiting men, and 37% of dating men engaged in acts of sexual infidelity compared to 1% of married women, 8% of cohabiting women, and 17% of women in dating relationships (Lalasz & Weigel, 2011) (If someone has a full-text of this article please let me know.)

69 percent of men had solicited a prostitute, less than one percent of the women had done so.

Men report wishing on average 18 sex partners over their lifetime, while women want on average 4.

Four men in a lifetime. That alone gives us a hint of just how uninterested most women must be in short-term relationships – and, as a consequence, the men who provide that type of experience.

Still, some psychologists appear very fond of this idea and are conducting research into the possibility of Dark Triad traits having evolved as a strategy for short-term sexual encounters. And if this is the case they should be attractive to women. So let’s hear them out as well…

Physical Attractiveness

One idea is that women can tell just by looking at Dark Triad men, by facial or other bodily characteristics, that they have some superior genetic qualities. In a study looking into this, psychologist April Bleske-Rechek and colleagues (2008) had 102 participants (51 couples) rate how attractive and sexy they think they are compared to other people. As expected, narcissism scores correlated with how hot participants thought they were. The main finding, though, was that a panel of 17 judges of both sexes, who showed strong consensus in all their ratings, found the narcissist to be no more or less attractive than other participants. This after being shown face pictures. So it’s possible that full body pics would have produced a different result, but the authors claim that facial attractiveness is a good predictor of general attractiveness. At any rate the study lent no support to the idea of facial symmetry, a compelling gaze or whatever, as a visual indication of some biological sexiness.

In another study, psychologists Nicholas Holztman and Michael Strube (2013) looked at the relationship between attractiveness and personality with a special focus on adorned versus unadorned attractiveness as well as effective adornment, which is how much your adornment will improve your attractiveness. Note that effective adornment is not merely a matter of skill as some people use adornment very skilfully for personal expression or according to what is appropriate for the occasion, rather than to make themselves attractive. While in the study mentioned above, Bleske-Rechek controlled for how much participants were smiling and for resource display, previous research has not specifically distinguished between the adorned and unadorned condition.

Holztman & Strube had 111 students full body pictures taken as they entered the lab in their normal clothes, makeup etc, that being the adorned condition, and then dressed in grey clothes with makeup, jewelry, men’s facial hair, and so on, all removed in the unadorned condition. They combined self- and peer ratings of personality, a good way to reduce measurement error, and used students of the opposite sex, not previously acquainted with the participants to rate their attractiveness. In line with Bleske-Rechek’s study, they found very small correlations between unadorned attractiveness and personality, the biggest being 0.23 for extraversion – known as a desired trait for long-term relationships. The other personality trait measures of Big Five, a Dark Triad composite measure as well as its individual scales were all below 0.1. One measure of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) reached 0.20, so extreme cases of narcissism were on level with regular extraversion.

Again, this is not much to build a chicks-dig-jerks case on, especially as the only link between attractiveness and Dark Triad was a clinical measure, and the size of the correlation was rather modest. But it would be interesting to compare the result with correlations with other clinical measures of things like schizotypy, Borderline Personality Disorder.

Peacocking and Persona

As for the adorned condition, bad boys did slightly better. The Dark Triad composite reached 0.20 and the highest correlation was for NPD at 0.26, with extraversion second at 0.25. (All other Big Five correlations were very low as in the unadorned condition.) Dark Triad was also associated with effective adornment, the ability to enhance attractiveness by adornment, which is no surprise as people with dark traits by definition put a lot of effort into portraying themselves favourably as a way to manipulate and exploit other people.

But again, the effect is not striking and it raises questions about whether women are superficial or easily tricked rather than crazy about Dark Triad people per se. An attractive veneer signals things like physical fitness and material wealth, characteristics that were considered attractive according to Buss’ cross-cultural study mentioned above. So that only means bad boys try to come across as conventionally attractive by displaying some attributes that they may or may not possess. Indeed, there would be little point of hiding their person behind a veneer if it was the person that was the attraction. And yet, many Dark Triad people go to great length to not only create a physical veneer, but also a psychological one, a persona or mask that sometimes contrasts sharply against their real personality. As an example, consider crime author Ann Rule’s description of psychopathic serial killer Ted Bundy, a man she had spent a long time with before discovering who he really was,

Ted’s treatment of me was the kind of old-world gallantry that he invariably showed toward any woman I ever saw him with, and I found it appealing. He always insisted on seeing me safely to my car when my shift at the Crisis Clinic was over in the wee hours of the morning. He stood by until I was safely inside my car, doors locked and engine started, waving to me as I headed for home twenty miles away. He often told me, “Be careful. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Compared to my old friends, the Seattle homicide detectives, who routinely saw me leave their offices after a night’s interviewing, at midnight in downtown Seattle with a laughing, “We’ll watch out the window and if anyone mugs you, we’ll call 911,” Ted was a like a knight in shining armor.

So why would a bad boy impersonate a nice guy to attract women when it’s the bad boy they want?

A Flirt with the Devil?

But still. That’s anecdotal, and other anecdotal information goes in the other direction. As popular manosphere blogger Heartiste so charmingly puts it,

I’ve never gotten more radical, more INSTANT, positive results when hitting on cute babes than when I deliberately amped up my asshole vibe. I mean, to the point of nearly insulting them. Eyes brightened and sparkled, legs uncrossed, fingertips danced all over my arms. And these were the upper class smart chicks with multiple degrees.

Can we rule out that women are attracted to the bad boys because they are bad? It could be the thrill of a dangerous man, or they may think of these guys as the alpha male winners they see themselves as.

There are studies on this too. One is by psychologists John Rautmann and Gerald Kolar (2013), and another one by Gregory Carter and colleagues (2014). Both eliminated the veneer of physical appearance, resource display etc by using vignettes, fictional descriptions based on the so-called Dirty Dozen measure, a short Dark Triad composite questionnaire. In order to see if the vignettes were perceived as Dark Triad and to control for other traits, both studies also had participants rank the vignette characters on the Big Five. Overall, these ratings were as expected, high on extraversion, lower on agreeableness, neuroticism and conscientiousness while more or less unrelated to openness. (There were some discrepancies however, more on that later.)

Rautmann & Kolar created vignette characters separately for each of the three DT traits which participants rated on various types of attractiveness – likeability, friendship material, general attractiveness, as a potential partner in long- and short-term sexual relationships. It turned out that these characters rated fairly low on most scales. All but two ratings were below the neutral/disinterested midpoint of 2 (going from 0 to 4) of the five point Likert scale. These were for narcissists and Machiavellians on short-term sexual relationship, scoring 2.42 and 2.05 respectively, the latter being negligibly over the neutral rating. Or as the authors sum it up – “Narcisssists are perceived as hot, Machiavellians and psychopaths not.”

This might look as a win for the chicks-dig-jerks theory, at least in the case of narcissists. But scoring 2.42 on a scale from 0 to 4 is not a striking result. The authors also concede that the vignettes don’t take into account that DT traits are intercorrelated. This means that real life narcissists will be somewhat psychopathic and Machiavellian as well, which should reduce their modest attractiveness ratings even further. Then there is the Big Five rating which showed that participants viewed narcissists as more normal and, as a consequence, less bad or dark, than psychopaths and Machiavellians. In terms of Big Five correlates it was the psychopaths who rated darkest, scoring lower on neuroticism and agreeableness, suggestive of a cold-blooded and hostile person. Interestingly, psychopaths also scored lowest on attractiveness – including the scale for short-term sexual interest. Again, not good news for this theory.

At Least Sexier Than Nervous Geeks?

Carter and colleagues, however, got a different result. They created a composite DT vignette character, rather than one for each part of the triad, and this character rated as relatively attractive. And unlike Rautmann & Kolar, Carter introduced a control character too so that we can see how attractive the DT vignette was compared to an average guy. Well, that would have been the obvious way to do it, but instead they went with a control character that simply lacked all DT traits. And as traits tend to be normally distributed, meaning most people are close to the average, the control in this study is just as rare and extreme person as the Dark Triad person. What kind of person?

Judging by the Big Five traits that participants rated the control with, this was an introverted, neurotic and conscientious person, or in more plain English, an unsociable, nervous, geeky guy. Not that I have any evidence that such a person would score as less attractive than most personalities, but I think we can agree that it’s reasonable to suspect that correlations between DT personality and attractiveness may have been inflated in this way. Even so, the correlation was not more than 0.37 as compared with -0.35 for neuroticism and 0.33 for extraversion. The authors also concede that the general attractiveness rating used means they know little of the sexual competitiveness of the DT personality, but they still try to imply that they do,

…we are not asserting that female respondents who rated the DT character as attractive would necessarily be willing to engage in sex with them. However, our findings do indicate that the DT personality is attractive to our participants. This in turn supports previous work that has suggested DT men are more sexually successful.

The “previous work” being based on self-reports from men who by definition are boastful and self-enhancing. That’s somewhat like two drunks leaning on each other to stay upright. Then, in a paper only a month later, the Carter reconsiders the whole idea of DT as an evolved strategy for male short-term mating when he found that women with subclinical DT traits are about as common as men,

We propose that focus on DT as a male adaptation to short-term mating has been overstated and that men’s greater preference for casual sexual encounters is not explained by DT traits.

To conclude, all research I’ve found on this fails to support the hypothesis that women like bad boys, be it long-term or short-term. It echoes earlier research showing extraversion and emotional stability to be attractive traits but does nothing to establish an effect of the Dark Triad beyond those correlates.

The Sexiest Men Alive

Women only like him because they can sense that his a complete jerk?

Henry Cavill. Women only like him because they can sense that his a complete jerk.

Still, science is rarely perfect, especially not soft science. Sometimes constructs and study designs can fail to model what takes place in the real world. Perhaps we are better off looking to popular culture for answers? It’s not controversial to say that we live in sexualized celebrity culture. It’s not uncommon for pop culture media to rate celebrities on how attractive or sexy they are. I’ve looked at some of these lists of highly desired men to see if they can shed some light on this question. First off, here is Glamour Magazine (UK) reader’s vote on sexiest men 2013 (95K voters),

  1. Henry Cavill
  2. Robert Pattinson
  3. Liam Hemsworth
  4. Tom Hiddleston
  5. Benedict Cumberbatch
  6. Harry Styles
  7. Chris Hemsworth
  8. Idris Elba
  9. Jamie Campbell Bower
  10. Justin Bieber

As an, admittedly limited, bad boy indicator, I looked at the “controversy”, “personal life”, and “public image” sections on Wikipedia entries for these boys and men. I could not find dirt on anyone but Justin Bieber, but as his stardom preceded his controversial behavior that’s irrelevant. If anything his star appears to have waned as his bad boy image emerged.

Next, People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive 2013, not voted but with 46 million readers and ad revenues of around a billion dollars yearly, they probably know something about what celeb starved readers like,

  1. Adam Levine
  2. Idris Elba
  3. Luke Bryan
  4. Jimmy Fallon
  5. Bruno Mars
  6. Jonathan and Drew Scott (identical twins)
  7. Justin Timberlake
  8. Chris Pine
  9. Pharrell Williams
  10. Ronan Farrow

Same story here. Adam Levine has had some drug problems in his adolescence but is now sober and a successful musician and entrepreneur who is also committed to helping children with ADHD. Chris Pine has one DUI but it’s from this year so as with Bieber it precedes his celebrity status. There may of course still be some controversy to be found if you dig a little deeper, but digging deep is not what celebrity culture is about. If the popularity of these men depended on a bad boy image you wouldn’t have to look further than Wikipedia to find evidence of it.

They may seem dangerous but girls love them ; )

One Direction. They may seem dangerous but girls love them.

Then you have the boy bands – intentionally designed to appeal to girls and younger women. This genre should be overflowing with bad boys. But has there ever been a boy band of bad boys? Or even a non-cute boy band?

If girls and women really like their jerks so much, why then would they favor men who don’t have a hint of a mean streak, when voting in polls, buying music, watching movies or attending concerts? To convey a socially acceptable persona? We’re talking about teenage girls here. It seems infinitely more plausible to assume that they spend time and money on the men they do find attractive – and they’re not Dark Triad. They appear to share the DTs extraversion and emotional stability, but there is just nothing dark per se about them.

So again, we find no support for the theory. And yet people seem convinced of the bad boy allure. It would seem the real mystery then is not why chicks dig jerks, but why this belief is so popular despite of the overwhelming lack of empirical evidence, or evidence to the contrary.

Male Hypervigilance

I haven’t found any research on this particular issue, but I have found some stuff on related ideas that may explain this belief. First, Dark Triad men exist and pursuit short-term sexual relationships. To say, as Carter did in his retraction, “men’s greater preference for casual sexual encounters is not explained by DT traits” is going too far in the other direction. By all accounts these men are players, just not all that successful at what they do. But even so, they constitute a danger to other men, and men who disregard this danger may have been weeded out by natural selection. Because from an evolutionary perspective, the worst thing you can do, short of getting yourself killed, is to raise someone else’s children. Still, this doesn’t answer why men overestimate the bad boys’ attraction on women. Wouldn’t a realistic assessment lead to the highest fitness? Not necessarily. Evolutionary theorists have a concept called agent detection, according to the Wikipedia entry defined as,

“…the inclination for animals and humans to presume the purposeful intervention of a sentient or intelligent agent in situations that may or may not involve one.”

Assuming there is someone out there, an enemy, a tiger or some other danger will be a relatively little cost compared to the risk of assuming it was just the wind. Like a motion detector that will go off regardless of whether it’s a cat or a burglar on your lawn. Better safe than sorry, at least when the cost of being sorry is sufficiently high.

This agent detection mechanism should apply to any situation in which hypervigilance can pay off due to potentially high costs. And raising another man’s child will drastically reduce your fitness, so being overly suspicious may well pay off.

A related topic that lends some support to this theory is that of paternity fraud. According to an article in Discover Magazine by biologist and science writer Razib Khan, estimates of false paternity among the public is very high, ranging from 10 to 30 percent. He contrasts this with a survey of the research in this field which has paternity fraud at 2-3 percent among men with relatively strong paternity confidence (and even lower among Northwest Europeans and Jews). For men with lower confidence who have decided to take a test to settle the issue, which must be a pretty strong level of suspicion, a full 70 percent are still proven wrong.

As Khan argues, this may relate to agent detection, the logic of erring on the side of caution when a lot is at stake. It seems very likely that the chicks-dig-jerks idea is part of this hypervigilance since paternity uncertainty means worrying some smug bastard had his way with your woman, and unless she’s a complete whore it must be the man who made it happen, someone who is actively pursuing short-term sex, who sees himself as a womanizer and brags about it. Someone like a Dark Triad man. The hypervigilance will then be post-hoc rationalized as being due to the fact that chicks dig jerks.

Well, that’s my theory any way, and sad if true, since at least some of these men think of their delusion as an almost heroic form of realism. Unlike all the saps and phonies (the betas in manosphere parlance) who buy the sugar-coated, fluffy crap about human nature, they believe they alone see things the way they really are. Is there a way to snap out of that? I’m not so sure.

Book Review: The Ten Thousand Year Explosion (2009) by Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending

October 27, 2014


I have a feeling most people don’t read reviews, but with some books I still think it’s worth making a little noise. Books like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris, and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. And now this one, so yes, it’s kind of a big deal. Many readers of this blog are no doubt already familiar with it, but since some probably aren’t, and it has been ignored by most of the media, I feel I should throw my two cents in.

The Persistence of Blank Slatism

The authors, physicist Greg Cochran and anthropologist Henry Harpending, challenge a common view among both the public and in Academia that evolution ended some 50 thousand years ago after the exodus out of Africa, or that it’s too slow to have any meaningful impact on humans within that time period. For that reason we must, they claim, be the same biological creatures as we were back then. As a consequence of this view, the cultural diversity that we see today and throughout history must also be unrelated to biology. They quote the late biologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould who sums up (and embraces) this opinion,

“Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.”

Most of his readers gladly accept this as the truth. It is after all the Blank Slate that has dominated Western thought on human nature for the last 400 years or so that claims we are all built of the same stuff, we all share an incredible ability to change, improve, and evolve. Steven Pinker did some damage to this idea but most people who have read him seem to have landed in a half slatism, admitting they were wrong but only half wrong. In psychology, this is known as anchoring: people don’t change opinion to fit the evidence but meet the evidence half way. And ironically you can be as anchored in thinking you’re a free spirit as in any other point of view.

But “the same body”? Are there Japanese people who can be mistaken for Scandinavians? Are there Peruvians who could pass themselves off as Nigerians?

More likely, as the authors argue, is that when leaving Africa humanity spread to various different environments, each with its own unique selective pressures. East Asians (to be) who passed through the extremely cold climate of central and northern Asia got shorter extremities. They and northern Europeans became paler as they were less exposed to the sun and they lost the ability to retain salt while sweating as they sweated less in their new environments. The people of the Andes and Himalayas became adapted to high altitude, and so on.

In short, our bodies are not the same. There are plenty of differences that are obvious adaptations to new environments giving rise to slightly different variants of Homo sapiens. And there are no supernatural elves guarding the blood-brain barrier either; the brain, for all its sophistication and complexity, is still part of our body, so anyone seeking the truth about human nature must at least entertain the possibility that evolution may have produced mental, biologically based group differences.

The Upper Paleolithic Revolution

There is little doubt that something big happened around 45 thousand years ago. At this time all sorts of innovations pop up – bow and arrow, fishnet and fishhook, cooking, rope, basket, textiles. Other novelties such as art, music, trade, and ritual burials indicate that there was a sudden and fundamental shift in human thinking, away from the day-by-day living of roaming bands, towards a more reflective, planned and organized way of life.

This abrupt change is hard to understand in terms of natural selection as there is very little time and no signs of strong selective pressures. In fact it seems so hard to understand it that many scholars deny it altogether. Instead, they argue for a gradual development by showing cultural artifacts that predates that of the Great Leap Forward, as it’s sometimes referred to. But I think it’s clear that they make their case more with words than with actual evidence. The extent to which they ascribe ingenuity and artistic qualities into the artifacts predating the Great Leap is similar to how some mothers will praise the scribblings of their children. As geographer and science writer Jared Diamond pointed out in another interesting book, gradualists have a tendency to give fancy names to early primitive tools as a way of creating an appearance of continuity,

Early stone tools vary in size and shape, and archaeologists have used those differences to give the tools different names, such as ‘hand-axe’, ‘chopper’, and ‘cleaver’. These names conceal the fact that none of those early tools had a sufficiently consistent or distinctive shape to suggest any specific function, as do the obvious needles and spear-points left by the much later Cro-Magnons. Wear-marks on the tools show that they were variously used to cut meat, bone, hides, wood, and non-woody parts of plants, but any size or shape of tool seems to have been used to cut any of those things, and the tool names applied by archaeologists may be little more than arbitrary divisions of a continuum of stone forms.

So most likely there was a Big Leap, and a corresponding biological leap that enabled it. But what kind of biological change could have such a dramatic effect?

The Neanderthal Within

As I said earlier, natural selection is not a likely candidate. The change is just too large and rapid, even if the new environments presented strong selective pressures and humans had lots of pre-existing genetic variation to work with. And clearly the new environment did not set the Neanderthals already living there on a highway to any kind of cultural revolution.

Instead the authors suggest that the change was caused by interbreeding between the Homo sapiens leaving Africa and the Neanderthals who lived in Europe and Asia. These two species split up some half a million years ago and Cochran & Harpending point out that no primate species have split completely in such a short time. And as human population genetics shows, people who live next to each other will inevitably mix to some extent. So common sense dictates that interbreeding was very likely.

This way Homo sapiens could have picked up a number of advantageous gene variants almost instantly. Most likely some of these variants relate to language skills (it’s very hard to think of something like trade without some kind of language). One such candidate gene is the FOXP2 that involved in speech, another suggested by the authors is MCPH1 that regulates brain size, as these both have new versions that roughly fit the time when Homo sapiens met Neanderthals and the cultural explosion that followed.

Since this book was written in 2009, you may wonder how well the theory holds up in view of current evidence. Well, recently gradualists have seized on a piece of depictive cave painting in Sulawesi, Indonesia, estimated to be around 35 thousand years old. They argue that this find somehow makes their case, but I honestly can’t see how it would do that. It leaves plenty of time for Homo sapiens to leave Africa, pick up the crucial Neanderthal gene variants in the Middle East or Europe and then migrate to Southeast Asia. And fact remains that advanced artifacts, such as depictive paintings, are still only found in times and places where people are likely to have Neanderthal admixture.

Meanwhile the evidence for interbreeding, doubted by gradualists like anthropologist Sally McBrearty, is now pretty solid. Recent studies also indicate that the authors were slightly off regarding the time line as it appears that interbreeding happened just before the window of opportunity would have closed. The FOXP2 is also ruled out as a Neanderthal contribution to contemporary humans. But the main point is that it did happen and that and non-Africans (Neanderthals were never in Africa) worldwide now have a few percent Neanderthal DNA as a consequence. So thus far, their theory is holding up pretty well.


This, however, isn’t even the main point of the book. The Upper Paleolithic Revolution is just the starting point of a new chapter in human evolution. Cochran & Harpending argue that the cultural innovations that emerged around 50 thousand years ago created selective pressures that were much stronger than those already in place so that we evolved faster than before. Sure, innovations had no patents back then so they were accessible for all. But not everyone was equally skilled at using them. If you’re good with a bow and arrow you’ll shoot the game from a safe distance, if you’re less skilled you’ll have to get closer and take the higher risk. But that would still be preferable to getting up close and bludgeoning it to death with a club, which seems to have been the Neanderthal way.

Language, as the authors point out, may well be the most important cultural innovation of them all, and no doubt one creating an enormous selective pressure. With good language skill you can excel at trade, you can convince, seduce, and deceive as well as detect deception. You can make detailed plans together with others. All of this confers obvious fitness – in proportion to your skill level. And thus far we don’t know of any skills that aren’t highly heritable. So if you agree that language and other cultural innovations have been of great importance to our success and survival in our recent past, then you must also agree that the genes behind the corresponding skills would have been selected for in proportion to that success. These skills then changed how we think which must have led to further innovations, “Men made better tools and then, in turn, were reshaped by those tools over many generations.” This of course must have been going on since the dawn of humanity. But with the Upper Paleolithic explosion the process shifted gears.

Genetic Evidence

As plausible and common sense as this sounds, the authors also offer more direct evidence of recent selection. For instance that which is based on a phenomenon called recombination. Thing is, we don’t inherit single genes, instead chromosomes from our parents are cut into 2-4 pieces and half of these pieces from each parent are then put together – recombined – to make our own chromosomes. As the cuts are few and the chromosomes contain enormous stretches of DNA, it’s unlikely that a cut will be anywhere near a single gene. So when a favorable mutation starts spreading through a population its closest neighbors usually tag along, like the entourage of a rising star. Together they make up a characteristic pattern called a haplotype. The more advantageous the mutation is the more common the haplotype will become. But with every generation that passes the cuts in the chromosomes will reduce the length of the haplotype so that fewer and fewer genes around the mutation will be shared in the population. So while fitness is indicated by how common the haplotype is, age is indicated by its length (the longer, the younger).

This means that common and long haplotypes can only exist if there is still strong and recent selection. This is for instance the case with lactose tolerance among people of European ancestry, which is only a few thousand years old. But according to the authors, recent studies show plenty of long and young haplotypes, some of which have reached 100 percent frequency in their populations. This can only mean that there is both strong and recent selection on a large scale. So evolution is still going strong

They offer other types of evidence too, supporting the idea that the rate of evolution is accelerating, but this is the part I found most convincing.


Unlike the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, agriculture was a single innovation that emerged some 12 thousand years ago. But its impact on the course of evolution was probably at least as big. It increased the world population from ca 6 million to 600 million by the time of Christ. As mutations are proportional to the size of the population this means a hundred fold increase of new mutations to speed up evolution even more. But like any innovation promoting fitness it also created a selective pressure benefitting the most skilled farmers.

But it also meant a new diet, based heavily on grain. While more people could be fed this way, the diet itself was low on protein and other nutrients. Average height dropped almost five inches with the introduction of agriculture. This meant that any mutations that would somehow increase access to protein would be selected for as was the case with those rendering owners lactose tolerance. The mutations that enabled adults to consume dairy food spread like wildfire among early farmers. This is a very compelling piece of evidence of the process of gene-culture coevolution that the authors mean is the force that has created our human nature. Culture (in this case agriculture) created a selective pressure for lactose tolerance which then in turn affected our culture as our diet and food production changed. And all this in just a few thousand years. Do we have any particular reason to assume that this process wouldn’t affect our culture and our behavior in other aspects?

Personality: The Rise of the Nerds

I ask this because just like the Upper Paleolithic innovations made certain skills important so did agriculture. The former most likely brought complex speech and the ability to deceive. Before that life was probably no picnic, but there wasn’t much room for Dark Triad personality traits. Language, however, must have created a huge selective pressure for such traits. And with agriculture came new traits, since traits tend to correspond to skills. The hunter-gatherers didn’t need to make plans; they roamed, and they may have memorized certain places and routes where food was plentiful or where they could find shelter. As the authors point out, instant gratification would not be a problematic trait under those circumstances. But the farmer who ate just a little of the grain needed for next year’s sowing may well have sealed his and his family’s fate that way, especially a northern farmer.

Farming changed the whole way of life. It required making plans, collecting and evaluating information, and thinking ahead – sometimes years ahead. It required intelligence, true, but also a kind of personality captured by Big Five Conscientiousness, MBTI Thinking and Judgment, or the Cerebral factor of interests isolated by psychologist Peter Rentfrow and colleagues. These all refer to being rational, deliberate and careful. While this sounds like being intelligent none of these measures correlate with actual intelligence. It’s more similar to being nerdy. This cerebral/nerdy trait is most likely an even newer aspect of human personality than the Dark Triad.

What about the Pastoralists?

This begs the question of why people in the Middle East, who the authors argue should be the most adapted to agriculture, can be so unnerdy? They mention resistance to type 2 diabetes as an example of an adaptation to agriculture (a larger intake of carbs), but people in the Middle East have the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the world. There is a possible explanation for this in the form of nomadic pastoralism. This culture emerged around 3000 years ago in the Middle East and remains strong right up to the modern era. So their experience of agriculture is interrupted and mixed with this other culture and corresponding diet, richer in meat. And since agriculture has been an accelerating process, cutting off 3000 years at the end means a whole lot more than at the beginning.

But pastoralism is more than an end of agriculture. It’s a cultural innovation with its own pressures, taking people in that culture down a different evolutionary path. This path leads to inbreeding, clannishness, honor culture and a warrior-like lifestyle. This is where I feel this book is lacking a conspicuous piece of the puzzle. It focuses too much on agriculture and gives the reader the impression that differences between populations are mainly about how long they’ve been farmers. They do mention it but mainly in the discussion of how early Indo-Europeans conquered the steppe with the edge of lactose tolerance. But if human nature has been shaped varying selective pressures of agriculture then the same should hold for pastoralists. (This type of human is described in some detail by blogger HBD Chick.)

Ashkenazi Intelligence

As a final example of just how fast the wheels of evolution are spinning, the authors present the rise of Ashkenazi intelligence. This would be a significant change in less than a millennia, which may be hard to believe in. But although speculative, it’s not a matter of belief, but of evidence and plausibility.

The Ashkenazi has existed as a distinct group of Jews since medieval times, but according to the authors their intellectual prominence is as late as the 1800s. Today their average IQ is estimated at 112-115. They have won more than 25 percent of all Nobel prices but make up only 0.17 percent of the world’s population. That is pretty mind-blowing. So how did it happen?

The cause, Cochran & Harpending suggest, is a well-known historical fact that most people simply don’t think of as relating to the theory of evolution,

“When persecution became a serious problem and the security required for long-distance travel no longer existed, the Ashkenazim increasingly specialized in one occupation, finance,

left open to them because of the Christian prohibition of usury. The majority of the Ashkenazim seem to have been moneylenders by 1100, and this pattern continued for several centuries. Such occupations (trade and finance) had high IQ demands, and we know of no other population that had such a large fraction of cognitively demanding jobs for an extended period.”

So they were effectively forced into high IQ professions and as success translated to more children this constituted a very strong and unique selective pressure that increased their intelligence. This sounds plausible, but while we know of their later achievements we don’t have any way to estimate their intelligence at the beginning of this period. The fact that they were sought after in the finance sector must mean that they had some smarts right from the start. As blogger Jewamongyou points out, in his overall positive review, religion may be an overlooked selective pressure, “It was specifically religious scholarship that made a man coveted as a husband.”

I have no idea of just how sexy Talmudic analysis was back then and to what extent those who excelled at it could extract resources to afford more children than others. But if this was the case then it certainly changes things a bit. It would weaken the case for superfast evolution, but the authors would still have a case for very fast ditto. How so?

Well, Ashkenazi Jews are a genetically distinct group with a number of serious genetic diseases. The popular explanation for this is that they at some point passed a bottleneck, a point when the population was so small that single individuals would leave their genetic mark on future generations. This has happened before but in this case the gene variants behind these diseases cluster together in regard to very specific functions of the brain and nervous system, DNA repair etc. A bottleneck would be random – no clusters.

Instead these clusters suggest that selection for something having to do with the brain – something that improves fitness – has taken place. And it would be recent selection as the genetic diseases are caused by homozygosity in these genes. Because in the long run adaptive genes with harmful side effects will be replaced by less harmful ones. So like haplotypes, harmfulness is another way of dating adaptations. And these diseases like for instance Tay-Sachs are among the worst imaginable.

So be it finance skills or perhaps religious fervor (that would surely give Richard Dawkins a stroke), there is still a case for some recent selection relating to intelligence.


Like I said in the beginning of this review, I think this book is among the top science books of recent years. It replaces the highly popular nonsense idea of halted evolution with a plausible theory of accelerating evolution. It provides a theory of how human nature has been shaped and differentiated into genetically distinct groups, not just by the physical environment, but increasingly by the social environment that various cultures represent, the most important factor being agriculture (or lack thereof). I still miss the pastoralist/clannish branch but maybe that will be in the next edition.

It would be easy to dismiss it had it not been so plausible and backed up by hard evidence. So the natural reaction from science journalists, pundits etc, the majority of whom still feel Stephen Jay Gould view is valid, is to ignore this book. Economist Tyler Cowen (who also doubted Homo sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals despite of the common sense appeal of the idea) wrote a sweeping 14-line review, snubbing it without addressing anything specific, hardly more than a hit-and-run. One professor of biochemistry by the name of Larry Moran even tried to question the veracity of the Gould quote above, presumably hoping that fact checking is now a thing of the past. (Anthropologist John Hawks set him straight on that one).

I think this silence and these inferior attempts at dismissal speak volumes by themselves. If critics really had a good argument against Cochran & Harpending then surely they would use it. Given how the academic community tends to react to theories about heritability of intelligence and personality trait, innate group differences etc, I think they would use it much like a Neanderthal would use a club to bludgeon someone from an enemy tribe to death with. But don’t take my or anyone else’s word for it. It’s a short book, an easy read, and it only costs 10 dollars. If you’re a truly intellectually curious person, chances are you’ll get a good buzz from it. I certainly did.


The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian

September 2, 2014

This is a comment at Santi’s blog that became so long I figure it can stand alone as post. He mentioned this TED talk dialogue between Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein as it appears to be in line with his own optimistic view of moral progress and opposed to my more pessimistic view. If you haven’t seen the video before I highly recommend it. In the following I’ll just summarize the main points and then go on to present my own view on the matter.

The Long Reach of Reason

Obviously, reason has its merits. As Goldstein begins by  pointing out, we wouldn’t have a debate about that using anything other than reason. And when we have reason, and the knowledge that comes with it, we rarely look for alternatives. No one asks a witch doctor to fix their car – not even a superstitious person. We ask a mechanic because mechanics is based on reason and reason will fix the car as it fixes so many other problems. In short, we don’t argue with success, and reason has been enormously successful in many ways. But exactly how long is the reach of reason – and is it equally successful in the moral domain?

Goldstein says it is, although on two conditions – humans must have self-interest and there must be a community of reasoners with the capacity to communicate and affect each other’s well-being. This vague and somewhat libertarian sounding idea seems plain wrong to me. It presupposes a lot of things, for instance that all citizens would be equipped with reason, that they would care about the well-being of others etc. But perhaps this is just a rhetorical starting point of the dialogue?

Anyway, Pinker questions this idea by asking if it accords with the cruelties we find in cultures world wide right up until the modern era, and if it can explain how we from there on have become more humane. Instead of reason, he points to the better angels of our nature, “self-control, empathy, a sense of fairness.” These angels, he argues, gain ground as the circle of empathy expands,

“…with the expansion of literacy and travel, people started to sympathize with wider and wider circles, the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race, and perhaps eventually, all of humanity.”

By this logic, moral progress occurs as the circle of empathy expands to include more and more people we previously thought of as strangers or whose existence we didn’t reflect on at all. The circle would have begun to expand from the late 1400s during the Age of Discovery, when global trade interconnected the world in an unprecedented way. And it wouldn’t require much reason, just empathy and an increasing awareness of people around the world.

Goldstein counters with an Adam Smith quote from 1759, claiming that a European would be more upset to lose a finger than at the prospect of China perishing in an earthquake. If that was the sentiment in mid 1700s Europe, we’d have around 250 years of getting acquainted and not much empathy to show for. Instead she argues that it was Enlightenment (aka the Age of Reason), beginning from late 1600s, that expanded the circle of empathy, a process driven by the thinkers of that era,

“…if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held.”

We wouldn’t like to be kept as slaves, we wouldn’t like this for our family or friends either, so why would we like it for foreigners? Reason compels us to widen our circle of empathy.

She then proceeds to illustrate her point with some humanitarians like Bentham, Erasmus, John Locke, Mary Astell etc. Pinker concedes and they both reflect on how this reason-driven process will make our grandchildren think of us as barbarians given how much further their circle of empathy will reach. End of story.

The Haidtian Elephant in the Room

And yet at the beginning of the dialogue Pinker stated,

“My fellow psychologists have shown that we’re led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact.”

This of course refers to Jonathan Haidt and others whose research makes a good case for such post hoc rationalization being an important aspect of human nature. To illustrate this behavior he likens our emotions with an elephant and our reason with the rider. The elephant, being much stronger, walks about as he pleases while the helpless rider pretends that he is in complete control.

Given this statement, it’s a bit disconcerting how easily Pinker ignores the obvious risk that their conclusion might also be post hoc rationalization. After all, two top notch academics agreeing that all you need is reason sounds a bit like two hippies agreeing that all you need is love. So is it post hoc? It definitely has some conspicuous flaws that suggest so.

As Pinker himself pointed out back in 2002 in his book The Blank Slate, all behavioral traits are highly inheritable and change very little over the lifespan and, most importantly, they are unaffected by shared environment, such as schools, education – and humanitarian essays. But width of empathy must, by any reasonable definition, be a behavioral trait. But by their logic it would be a trait like no other, strongly affected by shared environment, even though all other traits, thus including very similar traits like ingroup loyalty and identification, aren’t. So either width of empathy isn’t a behavioral trait – which is crazy – or it is somehow a completely unique trait affected by shared environment. Either way Pinker and Goldstein have some serious splaining to do.

Still, moral progress has been achieved, no argument there, so what exactly did happen during the last 4-5 centuries? I would argue that there was progress, but without any widening of the circle of empathy. How can that be? I believe that the people Locke and others addressed were already equipped with a wide capacity for empathy. When they heard of other people around the world and the arguments on how they should be treated they responded accordingly and this naturally had implications for other categories too, like women, children and even animals. Before that their concern had been mainly with family, clan, and tribe because that was their world.

The Chinese Anomaly

But if width of empathy is so large in most people, does it really matter if it’s a behavioral trait or not? Doesn’t growing awareness and the empathic inclusion that follows amount to the same thing as an expansion of our circle of empathy? Yes, you might say this is all semantics, weren’t it for one important thing: width of empathy is only large in Northwest Europeans and their descendants. People sometimes referred to as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). This trait is intimately (inversely) linked to ingroup loyalty which is weaker among the WEIRD populations as well as among liberal/progressive people, as Haidt’s research has shown.

The rest of the world is not very impressed by Enlightenment ideals and it never was. To this day most of the world is not very into human rights. It’s something you do to make rich Western friends. And now with the rise of China many are abandoning this pretense altogether.

In fact, present day China makes an excellent example of how awareness and reason (this is a highly intelligent people) in no way has expanded the circle of empathy. The internet is full of videos from China illustrating cruelty and lack of concern for both humans and animals. This is a glaring contradiction that Pinker and Goldstein fail to address. Another friend of the expanding circle (who even wrote a book with that name), Australian philosopher Peter Singer has made an attempt to resolve this problem in his own TED talk. In it he shows very disturbing film clip (so click at your own peril) in which a 2-year-old Chinese girl is run over by a car and then left lying in the street. Other people look at her but walk by without helping in any way. He then goes on to compare this behavior with Westerners who can prevent child mortality by supporting UNICEF but fail to do so, at least sufficiently to eradicate the problem,

Does it really matter that we’re not walking past them in the street? Does it really matter that they’re far away? I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference. The fact that they’re not right in front of us, the fact, of course, that they’re of a different nationality or race, none of that seems morally relevant to me. What is really important is, can we reduce that death toll? Can we save some of those 19,000 children dying every day?

As you can see by this quote, in Singer the circle is wider than the sky. But this attempt at killing the anomaly implies that Westerners fail to help in other ways and that the difference between his (largely WEIRD) audience and the Chinese is illusory. But do Westerners (and especially Northwesterners) fail in other ways? I don’t know about UNICEF specifically but if you look at foreign aid as a percentage of gross national income, 18 of the top 20 contributors are all in Northwestern Europe, directly bordering to these countries or having substantial ancestry from this region (USA, Canada and Australia). The two outsiders are Portugal at 17th and Japan at 20th place. So on closer inspection it would seem Singer’s implication is false and the difference is even bigger than you may have thought initially.

And I wonder what he would make of this scene, which is also very disturbing to watch, a Chinese dog vendor pressures soft-hearted woman to buy dog at a high price by threatening to kill it. In the surrounding crowd people are smiling and taking pictures. Not trying to bash China here. I could show much scarier pictures from the Middle East or Africa. I’m just trying to make a simple point: width of empathy varies across populations, and these differences persist despite efforts by the influential Northwest Euros to promote their really wide circle as the global norm.

Human Biodiversity (General introduction here)

My thinking is that this can be explained by HBD Chick’s observation that cultural and social differences around the world can largely be explained by varying degrees of inbreeding and how this phenomenon applies to basic evolutionary theory. There is research to show that humans care more for those they share gene variants with – in all populations. This for the simple fact that if you do, then you pass on your gene variants via others and increase your fitness. When you for instance ask people who they’d save first from a burning building they tend to make young close relatives their top priority, especially their own children. But this circumstance is not a human universal because populations differ in how inbred they are. The more inbred, the more gene variants you can pass on via relatives and the more of a priority relatives become.  And this familial altruism is more or less the reverse of width of empathy.

Using anthropological and historical records as well as biological data, the aforementioned Chick  has tracked the varying degress of long-term inbreeding of populations over the world. Her conclusion is that evolution must have created distinct variations in familiar altruism/empathic width. And most interestingly, she finds that Northwestern Europe is expected to have the least familiar altruism/widest circle of empathy.  The center of this area, she concludes, must be England (not the UK) and the Netherlands. As you may have noticed, of the seven humanitarians and reformers that are mentioned in this TED talk, four are English, one of English descent, one Dutch, one French and one from northern Italy. Enlightenment is often referred to as an Anglo-French phenomenon, but it’s way more Anglo than French. (If you want to read further about the moral characteristics of Northwestern peoples there are several posts on this topic on Peter Frosts’ blog Evo and Proud.)

A skeptical reader might say that England’s geographic location was optimal for getting acquainted with the world and starting the process Pinker and Goldstein speak of. But Portugal and Spain were better poised and did in fact start the Age of Discovery way before the rest. But couldn’t it have been a combination of geography and intelligence since it seems, going back at least to Victorian England, the population may have been very intelligent. This makes more sense, but if so, shouldn’t all such advantages be gone by now? We are more interconnected than ever before so with geography out of the equation we’d expect countries on the same IQ level to have the same width of empathy. But looking at foreign aid and similar indicators we find that countries on the same level or even higher than Northwestern Europe, like South Korea, China, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary do not have wide circles of empathy. This all points to HBD Chick being right on the money.

The English Vegetarian

A way of illustrating this theory is by using maps of ethnic correlates, maps I’ve come to think of as JayMaps, for obvious reasons. In this case I looked at vegetarianism and English ancestry in America. For vegetarians empathy transcends the art barrier which I figure is an indication of extremely wide empathy something we might expect to find more of among the English than in any other population. English ancestry varies a lot by state so it enables us to use national data rather than the mess of international comparisons. In this case I used a catalog from of 11782 restaurants and health food stores across America half of which are completely vegan or vegetarian and half are vegetarian friendly. With the measure of restaurants/million inhabitants as a proxy for vegetarianism, I made this map showing the variation across the contiguous states except for Washington DC,


And another one showing self-reported English ancestry according to Wikipedia/US Census 2000,

English Ancestry

As you can see the maps are fairly similar. They could hardly be identical since people have moved around. There is for instance good reason to believe that WEIRD people of all ethnicities have flocked to California. As an indication that English isn’t just a proxy for white, I made a non-hispanic white map too,

White by state


Here you can clearly see that vegetarianism is way more English than generically white. How much? I used one of the online number crunchers and came up with this correlation between diet and English ancestry,

vegetarians by english ancestry.php


As you can see that’s a pretty hefty correlation, 0.68 to be precise. For non-hispanic whites the same picture looks like this,

vegetarians by white ancestry


This correlation is a measly 0.13.  The difference is striking, especially considering that most people of self-reported English ancestry probably are white. It looks like the English brought their empathic width with them to their new country and incorporated it in their culture in this way. Other white Europeans with more narrow empathy did not.

What Is Moral Progress?

Moral progress can’t be the expanding circle as Pinker, Goldstein and Singer believe simply because everything point to the size of the circle being a behavioral trait like any other. But it can also not be progress unless you’re WEIRD/Northwestern to begin with. As Haidt has pointed out, the rest of the world value ingroup loyalty more. Expanding the cirlce would go against their morals.  Moral progress is better defined as the implementation of morals specific to certian groups and individuals. By this definition progress will mean different things in England, Syria, and China. And one man’s progress is inevitably another man’s decline.

So, from my relatively WEIRD perspective, am I an optimist or a pessimist? I would say I’m cautiously  optimistic. I don’t think Northwestern civilization is doomed, only its current cultural manifestation of multiculturalism which combines pathological altruism with an equally oppressive attitude towards anyone dares stand up against it. We recently got an example of the destructiveness of this culture when it was uncovered that 1400 children have been systematically raped by Muslim men in Rotherham, just one small city in England, while those who were supposed to protect the children hushed it up out of fear of racist accusations. (Kind of makes a sadistic dog vendor in China look like small potatoes.) But this oppressive PC culture is finally coming to an end. A recent poll by BBC showed 95 percent thought multiculturalism had failed.

There is probably a Rotherham effect in this poll but  UKIP became the largest party in the EU elections and we’re seeing anti-immigration parties rising throughout the region. And it’s not people dreaming of the 1950s or of old-school fascism either. You’ll sometimes see both the Israeli and rainbow flag at their rallies. People who are tolerant and inclusive but without forgetting their identity or allowing themselves to be exploited or victimized. Perhaps some will think I’m an incurable optimist but I think I see a new healthier incarnation of the Northwestern spirit in this movement.



Men Who Hate Women

June 19, 2014
Is this something Western culture encourages?

Is this something Western culture encourages?


Elliot Rodger

The recent shooting spree in Isla Vista, has some feminists suggesting that the perpetrator, Elliot Rodger, was motivated by misogyny and that he is only the tip of the iceberg made up of everyday misogynists. Here are some reactions,

Amanda Hess/Slate: Rodger was not a domestic abuser. He was a mentally ill young man who had better access to firearms than he did sufficient mental health care. But his stated motivation behind targeting both male and female victims—“If I can’t have them, no one will”—echoes the attitudes of the perpetrators of domestic violence.

Jessica Valenti/The Guardian: After all, while it is unclear what role Rodger’s reportedly poor mental health played in the alleged crime, the role of misogyny is obvious.

Katie McDonough/Salon: …we must also examine our culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which devalues both women’s and men’s lives and worth, and inflicts real and daily harm.

Ryan Buxton/HuffPost quoting Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks :

“The problem for most women when they looked at that manifesto and they looked at these videos is not how strange he sounds, it’s how familiar he sounds, because we’ve all heard some measure of those sentiments in some form in our lives,” Franks said.

In varying degrees these voices all try to link Rodger’s action to misogyny and to view them as an expression of a misogynist culture. Some, like Salon’s Brittney Cooper saw the shooting as result of White male privilege but Salon’s Joan Walsh later downgraded this to a half-white privilege in a more nuanced article that discusses his mixed race and its potential implications. She even dares to finish her piece with,

To suggest that other races and other cultures don’t treat women as property is to miss how prevalent that attitude is. Sadly, misogyny and male entitlement come in every color and culture.

I don’t agree with much of what she is saying since she still claims that Rodger’s rampage was due to misogyny and male entitlement, but I appreciate the effort to go beyond the blame-Whitey reflex that progressives typically rely on.

The common denominator to all of these claims is that they are not backed up with any sort of evidence or even basic logic. A minimum of common sense suggests that if culture is a major factor behind this, then it would be happening everywhere all the time. So at most culture could be a factor for certain susceptible individuals. But people who do crazy stuff like this tend to have personality disorders – Rodger shows very clear signs of narcissism – and they are known to be extremely resistant to external influence. And as for Mary Anne Franks statement that he doesn’t sound strange in his videos have a look here and try to agree with her,

What is Misogyny?

It’s possible that misogyny is both common and the cause of a lot of violence directed at women. But there doesn’t seem to be much research indicating this. There doesn’t even seem to be any consensus of what misogyny is – a simple hatred, the idea that women are inferior to men, that they should have a certain role in society etc. These criteria obviously don’t mix well since insisting that for instance women should be subordinate to men isn’t necessarily hateful. It may be stupid, but stupidity is not hate. Amanda Hess offers a definition by fellow feminist Julia Serano, stating that misogyny is the belief that “femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and exist primarily for the benefit of, maleness and masculinity.” This doesn’t make sense either since you could easily hate women without believing that. In short, there is no meaningful and consistent definition of misogyny but this is not stopping anyone from having an opinion of that which they can’t define.

Intimate Partner Violence

But let’s disregard the issue of definition for a moment and assume that Rodger’s spree is the tip of the iceberg of misogyny. What would that iceberg of men committing the more mundane violence look like? There is some research on a particularly common form of violence towards women, intimate partner violence, that I’ve discussed before. It suggests that psychopaths and men with borderline personality disorder are very common in this category. But psychopaths are not by any definition misogynists since they will indiscriminately use and abuse just about anyone they come in contact with.

A stronger case could be made for borderline men (to be clear, a subset of these men), although at least anecdotally borderline women and gay men display a similar behavior towards their male partners. Borderliners sometimes end up with a bad attitude towards the category of people they are sexually and romantically interested in and for most of the men that category would be women.

The Regular (Spanish/Hispanic) Wife Beater

Still, if we stick to the iceberg metaphor, we should perhaps look at men without psychiatric diagnoses who have been convicted of domestic violence. In a recent study of this kind, psychologist Maria Vecina at the Complutense University of Madrid examined a sample of 295 such men using her colleague Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, in this measure only of the five Harm, Authority, Fairness, Ingroup and Purity excluding Liberty for some reason. She focused on the so-called sacralization of moral foundations, the degree in which some (or all) foundations are viewed as sacred or non-negotiable. The reason for this being that sacralization has the potential for conflict,

The need to defend what we hold sacred—whether peace or war, freedom or slavery, my interests or yours—can quickly become an attack on those who question these values.

Considering that this sample is of convicted men it looks surprisingly heterogeneous and normal, with 25 percent having higher education and 25 percent elementary education, 27 percent identifying as liberals, 23 percent as conservatives and 50 percent as moderates. Vecina chose only Spanish-speaking men, that is ethnic Spaniards and immigrants from Latin America. This doesn’t seem like a big limitation and overall her claim that this is an ecological rather than WEIRD sample seems justified. She also included three control samples. One of these was Spanish-speaking women convicted of domestic violence, a much smaller sample of only 13 women, the only ones who, like the men, were prescribed a court-mandated psychological treatment for domestic violence during that time period.

The other control groups consisted of 100 male psychologist who work with violence prevention and 160 female psychologists. The first sample is certainly bound to be highly WEIRD and the author justifies this with wanting something that would contrast with the original sample, not sure what the point would be. The female psychologist not specifically working with violence prevention is probably a less WEIRD sample; some 40 percent of them identified as conservatives in sharp contrast to other samples of Western psychologists that have been up to 95 percent liberal.


As Vecina hypothesized, the convicted men sacralized moral foundations much more than others. This may seem obvious given the nature of the other samples but they did this even comparing with the subset of conservative women – and both conservatives and women are known to sacralize more than others. Here are some key results,

  • There was no significant differences between the violent men group and the violent women group in any of the sacredness subscales.
  • There were significant differences in all of the sacredness subscales between both of the violent groups of men and women and both of the non-violent groups of men and liberal women.
  • There were significant differences in the Fairness and Authority sacredness subscales between both of the violent groups and the conservative (non-violent) women with the violent groups sacralizing more.


Vecina also found that political conservatism predicted risk of violence, although keeping in mind that most nonviolent participants were academic women, and men working with violence prevention, that’s not saying much. Just looking at the original sample of convicted men, we can see an even distribution of conservatives and liberals (in fact, slightly more liberals even), which suggest that this is not a big factor. And yet the author tries to fit the convicted men into a profile from previous research showing conservatives sacralizing Authority, Ingroup and Purity more than liberals. The problem is that the men sacralized all foundations more than control groups. So Vecina suggest that for Harm this might be a matter of responding in a socially desirable way – “gee, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.” While this is possible, I would argue that for a Latin sample, where honor culture is strong, reporting a sacralization of Authority might also be socially desirable given that in such a culture you’re supposed to assert yourself, often with violence. In fact, a measure of pro-violence belief used by the author was how much participants agreed with the statement, “sometimes one has to resort to violence if one does not want people to think one is dumb.” That item could easily fit into a measure of honor culture.

The Romantic Misogynist

Again, since there was an equal amount of liberals and conservatives among the convicted men it doesn’t seem to be a matter of political orientation, but of sacralization as such. This is also in line with the findings of BPD being linked to intimate partner violence since both BPD and sacralization are about emotional intensity and unrealistic idealization. Or in plainer English: romanticism, which in personality psychology sorts under neuroticism, the only major trait that is consistently more common among women than men. This suggests that the bulk of the iceberg of violence, and possibly also misogyny, comes from men who are somewhat like women.

That’s where the evidence leads us: not to a culture of toxic male entitlement, but the frustrated reactions of a small group of men who are emotionally unstable, who have an idealized and unrealistic view of the world in general and whose personalities are if anything more similar to that of women than men. At least some of these men may well be genuine misogynists if simply defined as hating women – although I’m sure they love their feminist enablers.

This is not to say that women can’t be part of the problem. The question of what might characterize the women who become victims of male violence is interesting and no doubt a sensitive topic that I might pursue in a later post…

The Most Feminine Country in the World

May 8, 2014
The Swedish Model

The Swedish Model

Mars, Venus, and All That

Continuing on the theme of culture and personality, I’ve noticed that social psychologist Geert Hofstede has found Sweden to be the most feminine country in the world according to his theory of cultural dimensions. Apart from masculinity/femininity, these dimensions – that he also views as personality traits, at least judging by his website – also include individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance (strength of social hierarchy), long-term orientation, and indulgence/self-restraint. But in this post I’m going to focus on the gender dimension in this post. Is Sweden the most feminine country in the world?

As a Swede myself, I think this might be true, but it all depends on your definition of course. Here is how Hofstede defines it on his website,

The masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

As all definitions, this one can be criticized. Women have part of achievement too – in a world of global capitalism you may argue that being modest and caring for the weak are big achievements. And men don’t necessarily look for material rewards, as can be seen in the case of for instance psychologist Hans Eysenck, composer Arvo Pärt or architect Antoni Gaudi. But overall, there is probably something to the general idea that men are competitors and doers and that women are caring and cooperative.

One way to validate this dimension would be with measures of gender equality, since we should expect feminine cultures to have more gender equality. Here is Hofstede’s measure compares to the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI),



As you can see, there are clear similarities between these indices. The Nordic countries and the Netherlands (which is culturally similar to those countries) make up 5-6 spots of the top ten on all three.  Outside this zone the measures start varying with some European, Anglosphere and Latin American countries. So the Nordic region plus the Netherlands is where femininity is the strongest. I’ll refer to this as the Feminine region from now on.

The Difference between WEIRD and Feminine

This may come as a bit of a surprise since femininity and the related concept of gender equality appear to be an integral part of the Enlightenment legacy that is mostly found throughout Northwest Europe and the Anglosphere, sometimes given the acronym WEIRD (as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), a region characterized by its civic-mindedness, human rights and lack of corruption. And while the Feminine region is within the WEIRD region it’s only one half of it with the Anglosphere with countries like America, Australia, and Great Britain making up the other half, which is no where near as feminine.

So it seems not all children of Enlightenment are created equal. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone explain or even mention this divide (although someone has probably mentioned it). If, as I suggested in my previous post, culture is ultimately the collective manifestation of our individual personalities, this would have to be a mainly genetic divide, perhaps created by different selective pressures within Northwest Europe. One possible explanation would be that farming in the Nordic countries, with its much harsher climate and long winters, would make flexibility in gender roles a fitness trait. The combination of scarcity of resources and the high energy costs of a cold climate means that margins are small even under normal circumstances. If your wife is too ill to milk the cows and your children won’t survive without the milk, then you have to be flexible and sometimes do women’s work.

Health Care

So, is femininity a good thing, besides for milking cows? Are these countries really more caring and cooperative? A society level measure of caring might be quality of health care. This can be highly subjective since health is made up of many subfactors not always easy to quantify into numbers. And poor health can be largely self-inflicted by people we don’t necessarily think of as weak. To get around these problems I went with child mortality. If we compare the Feminine region with the Anglosphere we also have the benefit of comparing otherwise very similar countries. Acording to a recent report published in the Lancet with estimates of  mortality rates for children under five years of age (deaths per 1000 live births for the year 2013), we have the following,



Compared to the Feminine region, the Anglosphere has a mortality rate that is 70 percent higher, and there is no overlap between these groups of countries. It may seem like a small difference compared to sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s striking to have such a difference between rich Northwest European countries (or their descendants).

Udate: Jayman wondered about whether race may be a factor for American mortality. According to CDC, first year mortality per 1000 births for White Americans is 5.11 so it’s roughly on the same level as the rest of the Anglosphere, especially given that the figures above are for the first 5 years. (Black 1-year infant mortality is at 11.42.)

Consensus versus Majoritarian Democracy

The other main aspect of femininity, cooperation, is something that is found in the political systems of these countries. The Feminine region is characterized by consensus democracy, especially in the sense that these countries have proportional electoral system, lots of political parties that form coalitions and with the ambition of getting broad support for decisions, not just within coalitions but with opposition and other interest groups and institutions. It’s the friendly, inclusive, and cooperative way of governing.

In contrast, the Anglosphere is characterized by the majoritarian model (see the link above) in which countries have fewer parties, form less coalitions with often just a single party in government at a time. The government also focuses more on their own agenda with less concern for and compromise with other parties, interest groups etc. It’s the competitive and take-charge way of governing.

Unlike with child mortality, it’s not obvious which of these models is the better; it depends on the situation and what you look to accomplish. Polls on how content people are with democracy and government do not show either of these models to be more popular than the other. But this offers more support to the idea that the WEIRD countries, while being very similar in other ways, differ in ways that can be described as masculine and feminine.

The Feminine Madness

Overall, femininity seems like a fairly good thing, seeing as how the most feminine countries in the world are wealthy, healthy and democratic.But what happens at the extreme ends of the spectrum? Just as for individual personalities you get crazy and maladaptive behavior. This can be seen in Sweden, where feminism has become so dominant that any critique is viewed as backward-minded bigotry by definition. The lack critique creates a sort of unsupervised playground for all sorts of crazy. According to a recent poll, 2.3 percent of the voters favoured the feminist party Feminist Initiative in the upcoming election to the European Parliament. Here is what one of their leaders said in 2002,

“The discrimination and the violations appears in different shapes depending on where we find ourselves. But it’s the same norm, the same structure, the same pattern, that is repeated both in the Taliban’s Afghanistan and here in Sweden.”

The Angel of Reason

Tanja Bergkvist – The Angel of Reason

But it’s in the academic community that feminism is the most influential and the consensus/conformity is the strongest. A rare example of someone rebelling against the insanity is Tanja Bergkvist, mathematician at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In her blog she reports on gender politics that the mainstream media normally don’t care to mention for political reasons. It’s unfortunately only in Swedish but if you’re interested you might try and crunch it through a translator. Otherwise, here are a few goodies from her blog that will show that words like “madness” and “insanity” are in fact appropriate,

  • In 2007, the University of Lund (one of the most prestigious) decided to introduce so-called gender certification for every single course. Meaning a course in for instance theoretical physics should include information about the implications and relevance regarding gender issues on things like quantum theory. One criteria for certification was whether the department in question was actively seeking an equal distribution of male and female teachers. However, the department of gender issues at the university turned out to have 89 percent female teachers!
  • The government guidelines on gender education in pre-school include reading only modern stories to children and avoiding the classics or at least changing the gender of the characters. Cinderella would be a pretty gay dude – but all the better I guess.
  • In 2008, the gender committee of the Science Council, a government agency created to promote scientific research, begins a three year project on the gender aspects of the musical instrument of the trumpet. Here is a quote presenting the project and the important questions it will raise, “What timbre in the wide spectrum of the trumpet becomes the norm and what timbre is perceived as deviant and labeled female and male respectively?”
  • Also in 2008, the company Swedish Nuclear Waste Disposal that manages all the waste from Sweden’s nuclear power plants, hired two gender experts to include a text in the company’s yearbook entitled, “Gender constructions, perceptions on gender and the experience of risk – a reflection on the meaning of gender in regard to attitudes to long-term management of nuclear waste.”
  • In 2009, a gender expert holds a lecture at a seminar at the University of Uppsala (like Lund a top university) and notes that a man in the audience appears inattentive. She later finds out from a third person that he commented on the way she was dressed. So she files a complaint of sexual harassment. The university informs the man that they have started an investigation about his conduct. So he calls the woman to explain the reason why he had commented on her clothes. The woman forwards this information to the university as evidence of further harassment. The man is then questioned and admits to looking in his papers at times during the lecture and apologizes for commenting her clothes, but is nonetheless officially reprimanded by the university president.

This is just 5 out of 213 posts on Bergkvist’s blog and I have in no way cherry picked them; I just took a few of the earliest that were easy to understand for non-Swedes. You might think I’m making this up (or that she is) but see for yourselves, there are links to sources on all this madness. When this happens on the individual level it’s called a personality disorder, but what do you call it on the societal level?

And at the other side of the spectrum of Hofstede’s cultural dimension, Japan scores as the most masculine country in the world. A whole different brand of crazy…


Honor, Dignity, and Face: Culture as Personality Writ Large

April 19, 2014
Honor and dignity divide American society to this day. Here illustrated in the Western classic "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

Honor and dignity divide American society to this day. Here illustrated in the Western classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”


I recently read an interesting yet largely ignored study from 2011 by psychologists Angela Leung and Dov Cohen. It’s about honor culture, dignity culture, and face culture. These cultures all deal with the concept of self-worth and how to preserve it when interacting with other people. It seems most countries or regions, possibly all, have one of these cultures, or sometimes a mix of them. In a broad categorization, we find honor culture in most parts of the world while dignity culture (often called guilt culture) is confined to Northwest Europe and the Anglosphere, and face culture to East Asia. Let’s kick things off with a brief introduction of the cultures in question,

Honor Culture

This culture is based on the idea that a person’s worth is based on his reputation. Reputation, in turn, is based on positive and negative reciprocity. This means that in order to be considered honourable you need to repay favors, but also revenge insults, even very small ones. If you fail in these obligations, especially in revenging insults, other people will shame you by laughing or expressing disgust, and your reputation/honor will be ruined. The motivating emotion that makes people do what they are supposed to do is shame. For that reason it’s sometimes called shame culture. People from honor cultures come off as friendly and generous, but with a dark side; they can quickly turn angry and violent if they feel slighted. This culture is masculine and can be found in male subcultures such as the military, student fraternities, in prisons, and among school boys.

Honor culture is the norm in societies where the state is weak and can’t enforce the rule of law properly. You can’t call the police so instead you deter bad people from attacking you by showing that the slightest disrespect will come at a cost. If you combine this with always repaying a favour people know that you are open for cooperation but you won’t be taken advantage of. In short, that you’re a person of honor. This culture is also closely linked to power and influence. The higher up in the hierarchy, the more honor.

Dignity Culture (AKA Guilt Culture)

The dignity culture is characterized by the conviction that all individuals have an inner, inalienable worth. The ideal person of dignity is one who stands by his principles and doesn’t listen to gossip. This attitude will of course not protect your life or property so it requires a state that enforces the rule of law. The person of dignity is less prone to corruption since he follows his internal standards and is less swayed by what other people say. And unless he is at odds with society he will abide the law even when he knows he could get away with breaking it. Because knowing he did something bad will trouble him even if no one else knows about it. The motivating emotion in dignity culture is that of a guilty conscience. This is why it’s also known as guilt culture.

Dignity culture has some obvious advantages. It allows people to be more free and individualistic and it prevents corruption. But it has a weakness in that a person prone to guilt can easily be exploited by someone who isn’t. Like honor culture, dignity culture features positive reciprocity, since most people feel that returning a favour is the good thing to do, but not necessarily an absolute must. It’s often done more like an understanding between two individuals. But there is definitely less negative reciprocity since this culture relies on the rule of law and if you agree to that you’d be breaking your own code if you took the law in your own hands. However, if your principles are in conflict with the law you can break it and maintain a sense of self-worth. In this case you become a prisoner of conscience. This fact also illustrates that dignity is unrelated to power. You can be in prison and have dignity and you can be the president and lack dignity if your principles have been compromised. While honor culture is conservative in nature, the dignity culture is found in liberal democracies. It’s the culture of Enlightenment but its roots are most likely older than that (for more on this see anthropologist Peter Frost’s posts on the subject).

Face Culture

This type of culture is predominant in East Asia and can be a bit elusive to an outsider, myself included. Face is similar to honor in that it’s largely determined by your reputation which depends on the judgments of other people. Shame is the motivating emotion so like honor culture it’s sometimes called a shame culture. But while honor culture enables a power struggle, face culture is intended as a way of cooperating within existing hierarchies. If you deprive someone of his honor then shame on him, but if you make someone lose his face – then shame on you. Face is a way of keeping the peace by helping each other to maintain a sense of self-worth. As such I think you can call it a feminine culture. It’s less competitive than honor and dignity cultures and more concerned with group cohesion. And while honor is determined heavily by your place in the hierarchy, face is also about how well you perform at your station. So it’s similar to dignity culture in that you can maintain a high sense of self-worth even if your role in society is minor. As you might expect reciprocity works like in dignity culture: returning favors is a virtue but getting personal revenge is not ok.

The Culture X Person X Situation Approach (CuPS)

In their study, Leung & Cohen wanted to go beyond a mere look at these cultures, but take into account how they will interact with personal characteristics of the individual as well as with specific situation – the CuPS approach. The point with the CuPS approach is that all three variables influence human behavior so they should all be taken into account instead of treating one as the signal and the others as noise as is often the case. A personality psychologist would for instance view the person as the signal, a social psychologist the situation and an anthropologist might view the culture as the signal. And whatever falls outside their field of expertise would then be the noise. So what does this CuPS approach look like in the study?

Since America is a diverse nation, the authors could rely on American participants to represent all three cultures. The honor group consisted of Southerners and Hispanics, the dignity group of Northern Anglos, and the face group of Asian Americans. While Southerners and Hispanics may seem to differ in many ways they acted very similar in terms of honor and could be combined into one group. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that male and female participants of all cultures were similar enough to be combined into single groups.

The personal characteristic in this study was that of whether a person embraces or rejects a particular culture or not, regardless of whether they are of that culture or not. For honor culture this was measured by having participants view film clips of honor violence and evaluate them (this under the pretence that the study was about violence in the media). Note that this violence was not the extreme honor violence common in the Middle East that the term usually refers to. Instead the clips showed more general situations where insults were revenged in a violent manner. For dignity culture they used a questionnaire regarding the individual’s inalienable worth versus socially conferred worth, the central element of dignity culture, and for face culture they used another questionnaire called the Loss of Face Scale which had been modified to contrast to the other cultures.

The situations Leung & Cohen looked at were one where participants had the chance to reciprocate, more specifically return a favour, and another in which they were given the opportunity to cheat. And this is how it all came together,

Experiment 1: Returning Favors in Different Cultures

As I’ve mentioned earlier, participants were told that the study was about violence in the media. Then every participant was offered candy by an experimenter posing as a participant, thus introducing the favour. This experimenter, or in some cases another undercover experimenter who didn’t offer any candy, then conspicuously dropped a disk marked either “Term paper” or “Softball schedule 2002 – can erase” at the feet of the participant. When the experiment was supposedly over, the experimenter with the disk would ask the participant for directions to another room in the building, claiming to have an appointment there. If the participant didn’t know where the room was another undercover experiment would answer, thus informing the participant of where the person was headed. The experimenter with the disk would then leave the disk in plain view of the participant and head off. This gives us several scenarios: participants could return the disk that was either important or not to a person who had either done them a favour (offered candy) or not. To measure the eagerness to return the favour (or simply help out) they put a sign on the door to the room in question saying the meeting had been move to another location, and other similar complications to get a scale of eagerness to reciprocate.

Embracers and Rejecters

The findings are a mix of expected and perhaps less expected behaviors. The first interaction looked at how endorsement of honor violence related to returning favors in the honor group and the non-honor groups. As you might expect they found that for the honor group, endorsement of honor violence significantly predicted the eagerness to return a favour, but not the eagerness to help out when no one had offered them candy. This is simply saying that people who live in and endorse a fundamental characteristic of honor culture will be more likely to behave according to that culture in other ways too.

But what about the rejecters, the people in honor groups that didn’t endorse honor violence and the people in the non-honor groups that did endorse it? These people were significantly less eager to return favors. So they weren’t renegades who embraced another culture than the one they lived in – since all three cultures hold returning favors as a virtue. Leung & Cohen’s explanation for this result is that people from non-honor groups who endorse honor violence are selfish and immature, something that is in line with the fact that they were less willing to reciprocate. While this sounds plausible it doesn’t explain the contrarians in the honor group. And it makes conforming sound like the only sane option. As if Ayaan Hirsi Ali would have been better off conforming to the local Somali honor culture and not disgrace her relatives with her childish defiance. My guess is that there are many reason people will reject their culture and selfish childishness is just one of them.

The Airy Fairyness of Dignity Culture

Next they looked at the willingness to return a favor in dignity versus non-dignity groups as a function of how much participants agreed with the idea that an individual’s worth is inalienable or if it’s derived from the judgments of other people. In line with previous findings, a belief that all individuals have an inalienable worth predicted a higher willingness to return favors in the dignity group. So yet again, those who reject their culture are not adopting another culture but appear to act selfishly or rationally depending on how you interpret the result. More surprising is that this belief had no effect on willingness to return favors for the non-dignity groups. So for these groups there is no selfish or immature contrarianism linked to holding this belief even though it contradicts their group culture. It’s as if it didn’t matter either way. How can this be? The author’s offer no explanation but my suspicion is that non-dignity groups view dignity ideals either as a bit airy-fairy, or use them as pleasant fantasies without reflecting too much on how they conflict with their own culture. A man of honor, especially in a Western country, may well hold the belief that every human has an inalienable worth until one of them sleeps with his wife and brags about it. Then he finds out that the police may bring justice but it won’t restore his honor.

Experiment 2: Honesty and Trustworthiness in Different Cultures

In this experiment film clips of honor violence were shown to half of the participants (again under the pretence that the study was about violence in the media) to prime or make them aware of this culture. This should, according to the authors, make people from the honor group (who also embrace their culture) more honest and trustworthy since it makes their cultural ideals more salient. This is a rather ballsy assumption since it also implies that honor people living in dignity cultures will act less trustworthy than back home – not exactly a strong endorsement of diversity.

They also hypothesized that rejecters in the honor group would cheat more when reminded of the ideals of their culture (as shown in the film clips). The other half of the participants who didn’t view the film clips were simply thought of as honor people living in a dignity culture, since the experiment is conducted among students at the University of Illinois. For the dignity and face cultures they added another manipulation by offering half of these a piece of gum before the experiment began. Leung & Cohen hypothesized that this would make those embracing their own culture less prone to cheating. This makes less sense to me since at least for dignity culture, the whole point is that you act according to your principles and conscience which shouldn’t be affected by gifts.

Then followed the main part of the experiment, which was a simple word memory test with the possibility to cheat by “accidentally” leaving papers with the words in question in plain view of the participants. A measure of cheating was constructed by a statistical analysis of how many words a person retrieved from the exposed papers.


In line with previous results, people in the honor group who endorsed honor violence cheated less than those who didn’t endorse it – but only if they had been primed. (Those who weren’t primed got to watch the clips and evaluate them after the word test.) Those who weren’t primed had the reverse result: those who did not endorse honor violence were more honest than those who did; in fact, these non-primed honor-contrarians were the most honest participants in the entire study, which is a bit peculiar. This is the reaction of honor people living in dignity culture who the authors at least indirectly assumed would be less honest. I’m personally sceptical of diversity and half of this group is made up of White southerners. But it may hint that some non-White honor groups can adjust to a dignity culture. It’s certainly in line with the fact that the overrepresentation of Hispanics in American prisons is very modest (some 20 percent of prisoners and 16 percent of the population as opposed to 40 and 13 percent for Blacks). As for the non-honor groups, those endorsing violence cheated the most, which again is in line with earlier findings of how rejecters fail to reciprocate. The priming had no effect on these groups, most likely because honor violence is not part of the moral context provided by their culture.

Next, they looked at how dignity and non-dignity groups compared on cheating depending on whether they believed in every person’s inalienable worth and whether they’ve been offered gum before the word test or not. In the dignity group, those who endorsed inalienable worth and were offered a gum cheated less than those who didn’t. Again, I find this odd because the gum shouldn’t make a difference to a principled person of dignity. It may be that dignity culture is more idealized and that it has less impact in actual behavior than the other cultures. The non-dignity groups didn’t cheat more or less depending on whether they endorsed inalienable worth or not – and they were also unaffected by the offer of the gum, something I would have expected to find among those in the honor group who embrace their culture.

Finally, they looked at how face and non-face groups compare on cheating depending on whether they embrace face culture (as measured by the modified Loss of Face Scale) and whether they’ve been offered a piece of gum or not. In the face group, those who embraced their culture and were offered a gum cheated very little, almost on the level of the honor-contrarians I mentioned earlier. At the same time those who didn’t embrace their culture and were offered a gum cheated the most of all categories. Not sure how to interpret that. For non-face groups there was a slight difference between those who embraced face culture and those who didn’t in that again those who embraced their own culture (here by rejecting face culture) were more honest.

Culture as Personality Writ Large

So what can we make of all of this? For Leung & Cohen the answer to this question seems to be that culture and personality are separate entities, that personality will predict one behavior in one culture and another in the next. Here is their summary (the call the cultures “cultural syndromes”,

It is important to understand individual variation in a cultural context. Culture is important because it helps define psychological situations and create menaingful clusters of behavior according to a particular cultural logic. Individual differences are important because individuals vary in the extent to which they internaliz or endorse (or reject) a cultural syndrome.

While this sounds plausible it still doesn’t prevent culture from being personality writ large in the sense that traits common among a group of people will lead to a consensus on how to behave. That if for instance cautiousness is a common trait among East Asians, they would seek to avoid conflicts by always being polite and show respect, and when a conflict is a fact they would easily agree to resolve conflicts by appealing to figures or institutions of authority or the law rather than retaliating themselves with the risks that involves. And that would explain face culture. This makes perfect sense regardless of the existence of some rejectors.

Similarly, if the trait of clannishness or tribalism, the tendency to be loyal to your own group, is more common and cautiousness is less common, then the highest authority will always be your own family or tribe. So the state will be weak and unable to resolve conflicts while people will not hesitate to settle their conflicts head on. Also when the state is weak it will be hard to cooperate using contracts so it will make sense to be generous in returning favors as a way to build trust among friends. And that would be honor culture.

And if clannishness/tribalism is a rare trait and a sense of being principled and individually responsibe is common? Then it would make sense to rely on those principles to resolve conflicts because most people agree on what these principles are and a consensus culture of dignity could arise from that. Cautiousness would then become a neutral trait irrelevant to these cultures. Swedes and Norwegians are for instance much more cautious than Danes but all of Scandinavia is clearly dignity culture.

This is not to say that culture doesn’t affect human behavior, merely that it most likely is personality writ large in that the traits of the culture correspond to the average levels in the respective populations. There is always going to be plenty of individual variation so that the consensus culture will clash with the personality of the individual so we need both variables (as well as that of the specific situation) to explain human behavior.

This is in fact what the study itself suggests. There isn’t much social control in America and yet even today young students from the South hold on to their honor culture. How can that be if the ideal of this culture isn’t something they have within themselves? Something that affects behavior while being highly heritable and stable over the lifespan? And why are there so many Asian Americans holding on to face culture even though they live in America which has the most dominant culture in the world? How can Korean comedian Bobby Lee make a career with the simple shtick of acting as non-face as possible? And has any country or region ever changed from one of these cultures to another without the help of large-scale migration? Not that I know of. And yet culture which is less obviously linked to personality traits changes wildly. Fashion, literary genres, and the type of food we eat can change from one year to the next. Meanwhile dignity, honor, and face stay the same through the centuries. What other factor than human nature, innate tendencies – that which we call personality – prevents these cultures from changing?

It’s like hbd chick* insists, that “different peoples are different.” And the way they are different is in the same way as individuals differ from each other: by displaying different personality traits. The more common traits will inevitably become influential in deciding how we behave socially, and the different patterns of behaviors that emerge in different populations, due to these influential traits, may be called cultures. But they are really just personality writ large.




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