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.


Sadism: A New Addition to the Dark Triad?

February 10, 2014


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


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

Reality and Reality

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

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

The First Study: Killing Bugs

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

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

The Second Study: Hurting Innocent People

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

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

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

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

Conclusion and Reflections

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

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

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

TV Review: Girls (HBO) – Intellectuals without Intellects

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

Girls. Nothing more, nothing less.

Critic’s Pet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millennials, SWPLs, Hipsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inexplicable Tragedy of Regression to the Mean

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

The Modern Storyteller Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

December 21, 2013

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

Why a Good Story Must Be Archetypal and Why Modern Storytellers Must Lie About It

December 9, 2013
Der Supermensch.

Der Supermensch.

A Fascist Called Superman

At the highly liberal, contributor Richard Cooper is criticizing the superhero trend in movies. The superhero, Cooper says, is “essentially a fascist concept.” Superheroes are the worshipped strong leaders who by their innate superiority rule over the weak-willed masses and fight their enemies with force and often cruelty. At the same time Cooper acknowledges that he enjoys this genre,

…why can’t I stop watching these movies? Because my imagination is shaped by superheroes: fights and chases are iconic, mythic triggers for me.

He ends the article with a wish that someday there will be a more liberal superhero who uses his intelligence rather than force and who reforms society rather than conserves the established order. Like Recycle Woman or Organic Food Girl?

Archetypes – The Elements of Stories

Don’t get me wrong; I recycle and I eat a fair amount of organic food too, even kale. That’s my choice. But when it comes to storytelling, we don’t have as much choices as we might think. Stories in all known cultures and in all historical records, sometimes going back thousands of years, display certain common elements. Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung was among the first to discover this and he called these universal elements archetypes. In his book Man and His Symbols, he describes the archetype of the hero like this,

The universal hero myth, for example, always refers to a powerful man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of dragons, serpents, monsters, demons, and so on, and who liberates his people from destruction and death.


These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them the more one sees that structurally they are very similar. They have, that is to say, a universal pattern, even though they were developed by groups or individuals without any direct cultural contact with each other—by, for instance, tribes of Africans or North American Indians, or the Greeks, or the Incas of Peru.

And it’s not just the hero; there is a whole bunch of archetypal characters and motifs that can be found all over the world as well as in extinct cultures, such as the Wise Old Woman, the Trickster, the Flood, to mention a few. Jung concluded – quite correctly I believe – that the reason why these characters and motifs are so similar across different cultures must be that they are a part of innate human nature.

Two Kinds of Human Nature – Traditional and Modern

So it seems like archetypes are something like hardwired predispositions, and that a good story is one which will resonate with this wiring. But this begs the question: why is Cooper and people like him dreaming about stories that aren’t archetypal and don’t resonate within us? Well, obviously his political views contrast with the archetype of the hero. Even though he appreciates the “mythic triggers” of the archetype he is still dreaming of something else. The question then becomes why does anyone have political views that, at least in part, go against their nature?

One explanation could be that he and his ilk represent a different kind of human nature. Personality psychology has shown that there are plenty of individual and group differences. One such difference, perhaps the most important, is the variation on a dimension of traditional versus modern. This dimension has been explored by among others social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in the context of his Moral Foundations Theory, although he usually talks of conservatives and liberals instead. According to Haidt, we base our moral judgments on six moral foundations – Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation, but we vary in how much we rely on the different foundations. He found that traditional people – non-Westerners, conservatives, children, uneducated and lower class people – rely on all these foundations fairly evenly, while modern people – Westerners, liberals, adults, educated and upper class people – are much more limited to mainly Care/harm and to a lesser degree Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression.

What Haidt says about these foundations is essentially what Jung said about his archetypes – that they are not a matter of choice but a part of human nature, an innate way of thinking, although Haidt clearly states that the moral foundations are a product of evolution.

Another version of the traditional/modern dimension is presented by blogger hbd* chick, who distinguishes between clannish and modern peoples, a difference that she theorizes is based on inbreeding. The clannish peoples are those who have been inbreeding for a long time and live in extended families where everyone is closely related. This means that they can pass their genes to the next generation through close relatives to an extent that others for obvious reasons can’t. So an inbred clan of highly interrelated people will display a huge amount of group loyalty, not just for the closest relatives but for the entire clan – and that in a nutshell is what clannishness is. And since they do everything together that naturally leads to a conservative and traditional lifestyle with little or no individualism that could threaten the group coherence.

At the other end of this dimension we have those peoples who have outbred for a long period of time and for this reason become less interested in family and instead more individualistic, but also more inclusive and civic-minded since the view more people as ingroup members. These modern peoples are most notably those of Northwestern Europe and their descendants.

Both moral foundations theory and the theory of clannishness suggest that the modern person is partly detached or elevated from his innate tendencies. The moderns in Haidt’s theory have to some extent abandoned the three moral foundations that most of us view as the most traditional, old-fashioned or even primitive – Loyalty, linked to the tribal or outright clannish behavior, Authority, linked to the idea of innate superiority, and Sanctity, the foundation linked to religious belief. In a similar way, we find that the peoples who have outbred for a long time have weeded out the genes responsible for familial altruism and evolved into (relatively) free thinkers. These peoples started the Enlightenment and to this day democracy and human rights are strongest in their nations.

The Modern Storyteller

Now, given that a modern person is partly freed of moral foundations and clannishness, it would make sense to argue that such a person is also partly freed from his archetypal predispositions too. Because archetypes are so intertwined with these concepts it would be impossible to disentangle them from each other. The archetype of the hero alone incorporates many of the traits and concepts that the traditional/modern dimension is based on. He clearly represents Authority, but also Loyalty/Clannishness as the person who unifies the group, and Sanctity as he is often a half-god.

This means that if the modern person is relatively free from conventional morality and clannish/tribal tendencies, he is also less prone to archetypal thinking, which should make him a pretty poor storyteller.  And yet the film industry is full of modern people. How can that be given that film is the prevailing art form for storytelling? Short answer is that they are bound by the laws of the free market which forces them to make archetypal movies. But there was a brief period of time when modern people were dominant in Western culture – the 1960s and 1970s – and they could do pretty much as they pleased. They made arty, existential, surrealistic and generally experimental films. Given the amount of modern films created during this period the film studios no doubt thought it was the next big thing. But like any stories that lacks that archetypal magic, they appealed to the critics – a group that is clearly modern – but they were never a big hit with the broader audience. This is well illustrated in the IMDBs rating of the top 250 movies, as you can see from this chart,


The overall trend is towards increasingly better movies. This inflation is most likely because anyone can vote and most people have short memory and live in the moment – a lot of those who vote have probably never seen a movie from the 1930s or 1940s. But even so, we can see how the films of those modern decades rate lower than the surrounding decades. The same effect can be found in the critic-based ratings of Rotten Tomatoes top 100.

Rotten Tomatoes

Critics have better memory so there is no inflation here, and as I said before, they are also more modern than the regular audience – and yet they too show a similar dislike for the movies of the 1960s and 1970s.

Modern Frailty and Charades  – Spoiler Warning for The Kids Are All Right (2010)

So the modern people of the film industry were left with no choice but to go back to making archetypal movies. And somehow they manage that pretty well. This may seem illogical but it illustrates another important aspect of the traditional/modern dimension – while traditional people are stable (rigid or stuck in their ways you could say), modern people are imbalanced. This is because being traditional is relatively easy – you rely on your traditions and the social support of your group. Being modern means you have to make your own decisions with no traditions to guide you and with little or no advice from like-minded people. In reality, this often fails and the modern person is constantly falling and when he does he falls back into some form of traditionalism. One example of this is the rich feminist who insists on gender equality but marries one of the very few men who is richer than her. Another is the multiculturalist with a recurring daydream of having a Black friend, but who pays good money to live in a White neighbourhood. They are usually in denial about these regressions into traditional living and will perform rituals and charades to convince themselves that they are true to themselves.

These charades naturally find their ways into the movies too since they enable film makers to make good movies while maintaining a positive self-image. A great example of this is the movie The Kids Are All Right (2010), written and directed by archliberal Lisa Cholodenko. The movie begins with a modern family of two lesbian mothers who have one biological child each, both from the same sperm donor. And so the film unravels without any reference to their biological father because the modern view is that blood is not thicker than water? No, the kids look up their father and the whole movie is about the dynamics and conflicts between him and the family. And then, right at the end of the movie it is as if the director suddenly remembers that she is a modern person, and makes a scene in which Nic, one of the lesbian mothers, argues with the biological father, Paul, and tells him that the children are not his and that if he wants a family he should get his own. And as soon as Paul is out of the picture Cholodenko hastily wraps things up since the archetypal energy is gone. Audience captivated, self-image preserved, mission accomplished. The critics, who share the director’s predicament, were even more enthusiastic than the regular audience. It was a complete success – except for those last minutes after Paul has left and that energy is gone but a scene or two are needed for a proper ending.  Everyone knows the movie is over and yet it’s just awkwardly hanging around. Or put differently: being modern.

No wonder these guys need therapy. Or superman,

Openness to Experience – That Liberal Je Ne Sais Quoi

November 5, 2013
Forgot where he put his weed.

Looking for the anthology on existentialism, or maybe just his stash of weed.

Whatever you think of the Big Five personality model, most of its traits are easy to understand. Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness are all pretty much what they sound like. Neuroticism is a little more problematic since it deals with emotional instability but only in regard to negative emotions, but it’s still easy to understand what it means – being anxious, worrisome, sometimes depressed. But then there is openness to experience. You’d think that would be equally straight-forward: being into new experiences, like travelling and experiencing other cultures, having broad interests, making new friends, maybe sexual experimentation and trying drugs as well. Not so much.

The Official Picture

Here is a list of words and phrases that psychologists feel characterizes this trait,

Intellectual, imaginative, artistic, cultured, refined, original, insightful, curious, creative, independent and divergent thinkers, appreciation of art and beauty, willingness to consider new ideas, unconventional.

And here are some test items that measure openness,

Have a rich vocabulary.

Have a vivid imagination.

Have excellent ideas.

Quick to understand things.

Use difficult words.

Spend time reflecting on things.

Am full of ideas.

Carry the conversation to a higher level.

Catch on to things quickly.

Love to think up new ways of doing things.

Love to read challenging material.

Am good at many things.

Or in reverse,

Have difficulty understanding abstract ideas.

Am not interested in abstract ideas.

Do not have a good imagination.

Try to avoid complex people.

Have difficulty imagining things.

Avoid difficult reading material.

Will not probe deeply into a subject.

Intelligence and Creativity

When looking at these items, it’s pretty easy to notice two separate factors, one of intelligence,

Intellectual, have a rich vocabulary, quick to understand things, spend time reflecting on things, catch on to things quickly. (Whoever makes these tests clearly has a thing for the word “thing”.)

And one of creativity,

Have vivid imagination, have excellent ideas, full of ideas, love to think up new ways of doing things.

This is not something I personally discovered just now. Already back in 1981 psychologists John Digman and Naomi Takemoto-Chock analyzed the openness factor and found two sub-factors, “one of which appeared to be concerned more with intelligence, the other with matters of culture.” Others have referred to these factors as “reflection and curiosity/experimentation/hypotheses testing.” (Couldn’t find a link to the article so if you have one please let me know.)

Not that there is anything wrong with combining two traits into one. The trait of psychopathy is a combination of impulsivity and lack of empathy. That’s a meaningful construct because while both factors are relatively harmful the combination produces a type of person that make up less than one percent of the population but 20 percent of all convicts. And many of the other prisoners are afraid of them. That effect makes it a useful construct.

Openness, however, is supposed to be a broad factor of personality, a basic building block that only breaks down into aspects of itself, so-called facets. Like the shades of a color. Although some facets of other Big Five factors are questionable, the overall picture is clear – they are really aspects of the same thing, not combinations of essentially different traits. The same goes for broad factors of other models, like those of Eysenck, Cloninger or the MBTI, based on Jung’s theory.  So you might say such a factor is a contradiction in terms – it’s not broad or basic, it’s narrow and specific.

The Correlates – In Search of the Je Ne Sais Quois Factor

Unless of course you think of intelligence and creativity as two aspects of some underlying factor that is for some reason called openness to experience. But what would that factor be? We all know what conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and extraversion boil down to, but what is the core of openness to experience? It’s clearly not being literally open to experience because sensation seekers and the similar novelty seekers are very open to various experiences and measures of those only correlate modestly with openness. Perhaps the behavioral correlates of openness can give us a hint. Unsurprisingly, it correlates to measures of intelligence and creativity but that’s to be expected since it measures exactly those traits in the tests. Is there some other correlates that suggests an underlying factor behind both of these?

Liberal values. A liberal attitude has consistently been linked to openness (as has conscientiousness to conservatism). There is some research to suggest that liberalism is linked to intelligence, although this study is of moderate quality. And artists, generally thought to be a liberal group, do score about half a standard deviation higher than non-artist according to a big meta-study made by psychologist Gregory Feist. So this correlate clearly supports the idea of a two-factor trait rather than an underlying factor of openness.

Entrepreneurship. Openness appears to be a part of the entrepreneurial personality (along with high extraversion and conscientiousness and low agreeableness and neuroticism). But this is almost by definition a matter of creativity and most likely to some degree intelligence, so again nothing lurking beneath these two factors.

Migration. People high on openness tend to move around more, both within and between countries. Could be something beyond intelligence and creativity. I don’t see it, but let me know if you do.

Extramarital Affairs. This has not been properly established. There is a huge global study on this that found no link between openness and infidelity. (Instead it found this to be a matter of low agreeableness and low conscientiousness.)

Trying new foods. This sounds like creativity maybe in conjunction with a liberal appreciation of other cultures.  And of course a bit of sensation seeking since as I mentioned before this trait has a modest correlation to openness.

Tattoos and piercing. I haven’t found any evidence that this relates to intelligence or even creativity. On the other hand, what underlying factor of openness would it be an indication of?

The Mystic Component

Dreams. People who score high on openness remember their dreams and often use their dreams to solve problems. This may be something that isn’t just a matter of intelligence or creativity or a combination of both. I have yet to see any research to confirm it but it’s a possibility perhaps suggesting that openness is some form of transcendent quality.

Spirituality. This somewhat vague dimension of religiousness, often defined more as a quest than a belief, has been found to correlate with openness.

Schizotypy. This trait, which is basically schizophrenia light, is also linked to openness.

This certainly looks like a candidate for an underlying factor but it’s most likely not. In a large high quality study of religion and intelligence, psychologist Gary Lewis found a correlation between spirituality and IQ of -0.05, which he generously refers to as support of the stronger inversed relation found by Kanazawa and others, but in reality it indicates that there is no relation between the two whatsoever. Other research has shown schizotypy to be linked to creativity so it would seem this mystic component belongs in that sub-factor.

Susan Sarandon - the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, a bit a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

Susan Sarandon – the poster girl for openness. Looks nice, like a mix between a Disney character and Mona Lisa.

In Any Way Useful?

But even if openness fails miserably, in my opinion, as a broad factor of personality it could still be useful. The two-factor trait of psychopathy has relevance in many situations, indeed, no one would find it irrelevant to know if the person in front of them is a psychopath or not.

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with openness. The correlates I’ve mentioned above represent a large portion of what we know about this trait. And they don’t suggest any real need for this trait at all. They can all be reduced to either intelligence or creativity or a unsynergistic combination of the two. With the possible exception of something like migration and tattoos and piercing. Compare this with just a few correlates of conscientiousness like divorce rate, overweight and health, school and work performance and leadership. It’s just very hard to understand what use psychology (or anyone) can have of the trait openness to experience.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

And yet, if we combine all the features and correlates into a portrait we might find a clue to have this trait has become so prominent in personality psychology. The open person is of high intelligence and presumably also creative. He (or she) is a liberal with interests that lean more towards the humanities and soft science than hard science. He is not an atheist but also not part of traditional religion – a searcher rather than a dogmatic person. To me, this sounds a bit like a well-educated hippie, a White Californian, like for instance the always interesting blogger Santi Tafarella. But more than anything else, it sounds like a psychologist.



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