The Connection Between Tipping and Corruption (and Tribalism)

May 17, 2013

TippingMagnus Thor Torfason, professor of Harvard Business School, and colleagues have made an interesting study on tipping and corruption, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science (for a larger image click on this link). They found that countries in which tipping is common are more corrupt than others, according to the Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI). The raw correlation is a whopping 0.6, but since other factors affect corruption these must be controlled for in order to see if there is some new unique effect linked to tipping. So they controlled for other relevant factors, namely Individualism Index, Power Distance Index, GDP per capita, income inequality, homicide rates, civil liberty restrictions, highest marginal tax rate, minimum wage and public funding of health care. When all these are taken into account there is still a unique influence linked to tipping, about half the size of GDP per capita (which btw is a rough proxy of intelligence which for some reason wasn’t included).

Two Kinds of Tipping

So what lies behind this mysterious tipping effect? Torfason’s hypothesis is that it has to do with temporal focus. It’s tipping in order to influence future behavior that he thinks is linked to corruption. Not all tipping has this temporal focus; some people will tip simply as a way of saying thanks. It’s the others, those who tip in an attempt to manipulate the person they tip, that are thinking in the same way as a corrupt person and that supposedly makes up the link between tipping and corruption.

In order to test this hypothesis Torfason & Co made secondary study comparing two countries equal in the prevalence of tipping but very different in levels of corruption – Canada and India. The participants were asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like “I want to motivate this person to give me good service in the future.” Agreeing with this statement would obviously indicate a temporal focus on future events. They then filled in a bribery attitude measure form, judging actions like for instance whether it’s ok to bribe a policeman to avoid getting a traffic ticket.

The result clearly indicated that Indians were thinking about tipping with a temporal focus on future rewards to larger extent than the Canadians, and at the same time they were more accepting of corruption. The researchers also also crunched the numbers to ensure that the temporal focus did in fact mediate the link between tipping and attitude to corruption.

Further exploring this issue Torfason writes,

If cross-cultural differences in attitudes toward bribery are driven by temporal focus, it seems reasonable to assume that differences in temporal focus, at the individual level, will relate to bribery attitudes in the same way, even for citizens of the same country.”

To test this idea, a third study was conducted, this time using only American participants. Unfortunately, Torfason didn’t just measure temporal focus and attitude to corruption, instead he primed the participants by letting half read an article titled ‘‘Basic Tips on Tipping: Encouraging Good Service’’ and the other half an article titled “Basic Tips on Tipping: Rewarding Good Service.” I’m not sure why they did this. Perhaps they were afraid of getting to little variance from a rather small convenience sample, or maybe it was the political implications – after all, priming conceals the whole issue of whether this temporal focus (read manipulation) is a matter of personality or not. Since all known personality traits are highly inheritable, such a result would leave no doubt that Indians are inherently more manipulative than Canadians.

Corruption Is Caused by Something Much Worse than Low Intelligence

Still, even if Torfason doesn’t want to spell it out, it’s pretty obvious that this is at least in part a matter of personality. Because tipping someone in the hope that they in the future will behave in a certain manner that benefits you is by definition a form of manipulation. And manipulative behavior is an aspect of Machiavellism, a well-documented personality trait characterized by manipulative and exploitive interpersonal behavior.

Although more research is needed, this certainly adds a piece to the puzzle of personality and corruption that I’ve been discussing in a previous post. In that post I found modest correlations between nation-level corruption and Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism. These correlations suggests that the corrupt person is not just someone with low intelligence who fails to understand the long-term gains of avoiding corruption, a theory proposed by German economist Niklas Potrafke. Torfason adds further evidence linking corruption to Psychoticism, or one of its aspects, Machiavellism, a trait that along with Psychopathy and Narcissism make up the so-called Dark Triad of traits often found in criminals. Far from Potrafkes image of the corrupt person as a pretty harmless person who doesn’t quite understand what he’s doing, Torfason’s research suggests a much more sinister and calculating person.

Torfason’s  – unwanted? – discovery is for that reason more in line with hbd* chick’s theory of how high corruption levels are linked to clan-based societies. In these societies evolution has favored those with gene variants for familial altruism, creating an overly friendly attitude to relatives and an equally hostile attitude towards outsiders. This hostility, Torfason’s study suggests, goes beyond being wary of strangers or putting your own children before others. It takes the form of manipulative behavior towards outsiders. And the government is one such outsider which then explains corruption.

What Can Be Done About It?

You rarely encounter research of this kind so I can understand that Torfason is cautious, kudos to him for even going there. I’ve always liked India and I think it has loads of potential. The country actually scores higher than many other countries on Openness and Agreeableness suggesting that they have the capacity to change. But having an accumulation of anti-social traits in your population is not a joke. If India and other countries with this problem want to change, they need to face reality in order to find the solutions. There are ways of reducing genes for familial altruism, anti-social behavior or any other behavioral traits. Sadly, the PC establishment will stigmatize anyone who tries to discuss this issue, since mentioning genetic differences between peoples is Nazism, and all you really have to do is give children books to read, right? It seems the people calling themselves progressive today represent the worst kind of conservatism – the let’s-not-change-anything-that-hurts-my-feelings variety.

Extraversion, Still Relevant

That’s not to say that anti-social traits are the only possible link to tribalism and corruption. I’m still holding on to my Extraversion hypothesis, given how obviously very introverted countries like Finland and Japan have so little corruption, and, as I mentioned in my previous post, Extraversion correlates some -0.30 with corruption in Western Europe. It’s also worth mentioning that people who are overly honest and open towards strangers, tend to have Asperger-like personalities, which are characterized among other things by a very strong introversion. And anyone who has been a student has probably noticed how enthusiastic highly extraverted people are about the tribal rituals of student life, initiations and the like. Hopefully there will be some research on this too sometime in the future.

(As a fun fact, the combination of tribalism, inbreeding and anti-social attitudes is nothing new. It has been described in popular culture many times. In American films, such as for instance Deliverance (1972) featuring Burt Reynolds, the isolated inhabitants of the Appalachians are often depicted as inbred and possessing a mind-boggling cruelty towards strangers. For some reason it’s ok to exaggerate and make fun of that, probably because they’re white. But it seems political correctness draws the line somewhere between the Appalachians and Morocco.)

Book Review: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain

April 25, 2013
The author Susan Cain doing her TED talk.

The author Susan Cain doing her TED talk.

A book just about introversion? At first blush, this may seem like a too narrow focus, but according to Cain, this trait is the “single most important aspect of personality.” She makes a good case by listing the various things in life that are linked to the dichotomy of Introversion/Extraversion – choice of friends, career and education, exercise, adultery, risk-taking, delayed gratification, to mention a few.

Why America Became Extraverted

But in spite the many qualities inherent in the introverted mind, American society is still biased in favor of Extraversion, Cain argues. Already in school, the outgoing jocks and cheerleaders are popular while introverts go under labels like nerds or weirdoes, outcasts that most kids avoid. The same attitude can be found among adults, although usually expressed less bluntly. Studies show that talkative people rate as smarter, better-looking, and more interesting than the rest. This bias has even been prominent in psychology and psychiatry where introversion often has been viewed as dysfunctional or outright pathological. Adler is perhaps the best example of the academic bias (in his terminology introverts are called the Avoiding type and extraverts the Socially Useful type).

But things weren’t always like this. Cain points to what historian Warren Susman has called the transition from the Culture of Character to the Culture of Personality that took place in America in the early 1900s. This change was supposedly brought on by the industrialization and urbanization. The mass market and city life meant that you had to be able to get along with strangers in a way you never had to when living in a village or a small town. To illustrate the change, Cain presents Susman’s findings on word frequencies in self-help books and advice manuals of earlier times. In the 1800s the words that were most frequent were, Citizenship, Duty, Work, Honor, Integrity and similar. In the early 1900s these words were gradually replaced with others like Magnetic, Fascinating, Stunning, Attractive, Glowing, Dominant, Forceful and so on.

While this shift is interesting, I remain skeptical to the idea that external forces brought on such a dramatic shift in national personality. Given the how heritable personality traits are, and especially how little shared environment means, it seems more likely that this shift was due to an influx of extraverts. The early settlers were Puritans and others who came to practice their religion in peace, and they came from Northwest Europe. This no doubt was a more introverted group than the European average. When large scale immigration resumed around 1830 it wasn’t so much people fleeing religious persecution; it was people who had heard stories about the land of opportunity, and a lot of them came from Southern Europe. This demographic change seems to provide a better explanation to the emerging Culture of Personality, which perhaps more appropriately should be called the Culture of Perception.

The American Business Culture

When you compare America with Europe or the rest of the world, it’s tempting to view extraversion as an important factor in how America became so successful. Cain, however, rejects this idea. She visits Harvard Business School which is obsessed with social activities and perception – “good luck finding an introvert here” one student told her. But in real life, you’ll find loads of successful introverted CEOs, like Bill Gates, Brenda Barnes and many others. Studies linking leadership to extraversion are based on modest correlations and, more damaging, leadership is rated on impression rather than results. The personality of a good leader, Cain says, depends more on the situation. According to result-based studies, introverted leaders are good at handling active employees, putting their ideas to use, while extraverted leaders are better at inspiring passive employees, rallying the troops.

But in the business culture these insights are not taken to heart, most likely because the business world is full of extraverted salespeople who have been told and want to believe that their social skills will bring them to the top. This culture, according to the author, is irrational and destructive in that it is based on faith rather than facts. A typical example is the open office plan, which research show is linked to low productivity, high blood pressure and conflicts in the workplace – but it’s still popular because it promotes the extraverted ideal.

Cain even claims that the current Great Recession we are in right now is largely due to those pesky extraverts. That people who try to warn about potential dangers are seen as weak and ungrateful. She quotes from Kurt Eichenwald’s book Conspiracy of Fools about how when in 2001, Vincent Kaminski, a managing director of Enron, just before the bankruptcy, tried to warn about the problems his company was in and what kind of feedback he received,

There have been some complaints, Vince, that you’re not helping people to do transactions,” the president of Enron told him, according to Conspiracy of Fools, a book about the Enron scandal. “Instead, you’re spending all your time acting like cops. We don’t need cops, Vince.”

And a more general quote directly from Kaminski,

“Many times I have been sitting across the table from an energy trader and I would say, ‘Your portfolio will implode if this specific situation happens.’ And the trader would start yelling at me and telling me I’m an idiot, that such a situation would never happen. The problem is that, on one side, you have a rainmaker who is making lots of money for the company and is treated like a superstar, and on the other side you have an introverted nerd. So who do you think wins?”

I think this part of the book is very interesting, and alarming since we know that this culture is alive and well, eagerly waiting for new opportunities with little concern for the risks involved. You have to wonder if maybe places like Harvard Business School should have a quota for introverts. Not to say that introverts are better at this game – America is a great example of entrepreneurship – but it’s not the 1950s anymore, today’s world is complicated and more caution, reflection and analysis is needed.

The Introverted Ideal

It’s understandable that an introvert living in America feels unappreciated and may want to compensate for this in some ways. But reading this book it’s hard not to feel that Cain is replacing the extraverted bias with an introverted one instead. She constantly talks about the virtues of Introversion. How it’s linked to intellectual and artistic achievements, empathy, integrity, conscientiousness, persistence and so forth. Extraverts, on the other hand are generally described as simple folk who are full of energy but without any judgment or sophistication. No, she doesn’t say that but that’s what it sounds like. The title of the book alone gives you a hint of this: extraverts are the ones who can’t stop talking.

Yes, there is a bias against introverts, and yes we should do something about that. But using that as a cover for unbridled self-glorification is not an improvement.

The Biology of Introversion

More interesting is Cain’s foray into the biological and evolutionary roots of Introversion. Like me, she prescribes to the optimal arousal theory which states that variation on this trait is a matter of sensitivity. An introvert is more easily aroused and will for that reason interact with their environment in a way that keeps stimuli at a low level – staying indoors, having just a few friends they know well etc. But what kind of stimuli are we talking about? Psychologist Hans Eysenck was the first to answer this. He claimed that it was a difference in the Ascending Reticular Activating System (ARAS) that made some into introverts and other extraverts. Others, like Jerome Kagan has found a correlation between the Fight-or-Flight response and this trait, although since this is an emotional response others have pointed out that this is more related to Neuroticism. Personally, I think a sensitive ARAS could trigger the fight-or-flight response more easily making this response and indirect measure of introversion/extraversion. Then there is the theory of Reward Sensitivity, the idea that extraverts are more rewarded by stimuli. This theory would essentially make Extraversion the same thing as Sensation Seeking – a trait of thrill-seeking and hedonism.

The author presents a lot of interesting research on this although it feels like they are all finding things that relate to this trait without being able to pinpoint it. Introversion is not fearfulness or aggressiveness as measured by the Figh-or-Flight response, and extraversion is not hedonism either – there are plenty of fearful extraverts and hedonistic introverts. The nature of this trait must be something else. I think Eysenck was right on the money with his ARAS theory – at heart it is a simple matter of attention and wakefulness, although all these system appear to interact in complicated ways.


As for the evolutionary reason for the Extraversion/Introversion trait, Cain mentions one theory by psychologist Kenneth Olson, who claims that Extraversion is the mark of the migrant, the more fearless person. This, Cain (and presumably Olson) mean, would explain why White people are more extraverted than Blacks or Asians. I can buy that Whites score higher on Extraversion than Asians, but are Africans and their descendants in America and elsewhere really that quiet and reclusive? Are African-American kids bullied in the school yard for being nerdy or socially inept and less cool than the other kids? Perhaps the Big Five, a problematic measure for sure, is to blame, or maybe it’s the incompatibility of cultures, but something is off here.

Still, the difference between America and Europe could well be that those who migrated were more extraverted, more sensation seeking and less fearful than those that stayed behind. But generally speaking I think the theory that evolution favored extraverts in a warmer climate and introverts in a cooler climate makes more sense. Cain practically admits that something like this could be a possibility when she mentions Kagan’s impression that high-reactive children (statistically related to Introversion) tend to have blue eyes more often than low-reactive children. Sadly there is hardly any research on this at all, so there is no way to know for sure. But kudos to Cain (and Kagan) for even talking about such “dangerous” notions.

Cain goes on to present various evolutionary theories. Like the simple but sensible idea that introverts add a bit of caution necessary for the group to survive. A purely extroverted group would crash like Wall Street – but with no one to bail them out.  Or Jung’s idea that Extraversion represents a strategy of high fertility and high mortality and vice versa. This would be in line with the climatic theory but it also fits with the idea that extraverts are pastoralists who are fighting to protect their cattle and most likely stealing other people’s cattle. Introverts would instead be the agriculturalists who will expose themselves to less risk and have fewer children and think more ahead. Cain mentions an interesting study about a gene variant linked to the trait Novelty Seeking, which correlates to both Extraversion and Sensation Seeking. Among Kenyan pastoralists with this variant were found to be better nourished than Kenyan farmers with the same variant. This may lend evidence to the idea that Extraversion is an adaption to a riskier and more improvised way of living. (This is also relevant to my previous post about the trait of Tribalism.)

A Yay or a Nay?

I have mixed feelings about this book. Cain’s idea of introverts as an oppressed minority, although partly true, feels a bit silly. As an introvert I object to her idea that we are “like women in man’s world.” Women are still oppressed and victimized in numerous ways whereas introverts can become both rich and powerful in any culture without anyone objecting to it.

That aside, she does write well, and although theoretically confusing, this book offers a lot of interesting facts, and she even dares to touch on some sensitive issues. So all things considered, it’s a yay.

All About Your Pop Culture Personality

April 8, 2013


Loves Morrissey.

Mexican Emos, probably at a Morrissey concert.

Entertainment: An Uncharted Territory

There are plenty of silly tests and quizzes that will tell you what kind of person you are based on your pop culture preferences. But is there any real research on this? Surprisingly little, according to psychologist Peter Rentfrow and collegues who went through some of the major scientific journals on personality from 1932 to 2008 and found that only 0.6 percent of the articles had any words referring to entertainment in their subject headings.

And yet entertainment is everywhere. Americans spend over 9 hours per day watching TV, films, read books or magazines, or listen to music. TV is the major medium accounting for 5.5 of those hours. They spend almost as much money on entertainment as they spend on health care – and no country spends more on health care than America. Most likely, other Westerners are similar in this regard.

The Study

So given how important entertainment is in our culture and the lack of research on the connections to personality, Rentfrow & Co made a study to examine people’s preferences for different entertainment genres and how these preferences relate to personality as well as other demographic factors like age, gender, race, intelligence and education.

They used three samples of participants: 1946 university students (the so-called convenience sample), a community sample of 736 residents of Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, and an internet sample of 545.  They then constructed a 108 item questionnaire called the Entertainment-Preference Measure (EPM) in which they rated the 108 genres or combination of genres and mediums (for instance Romance Books is one item and Romance Film another). They also had participants do an intelligence test and a measure of the Big Five personality factors .

Emerging Factors: The Big Five of Entertainment?

Next, they did their statistical mojo in which correlations between all the 108 genres were compared to see if they clustered into any separate factors, which they did. The major divide was found between what the researchers, surprisingly politically incorrect called Highbrow and Lowbrow. Furthermore Highbrow turned out to consist of two separate factors, named Aesthetic and Cerebral where as Lowbrow was made up of three factors called Communal, Dark and Thrilling for a total of five factors – two fancy and three folksy. To get a general idea of what these factors look like here are some of the major items in each of them,

  • Aesthetic – classical music, arts and humanities TV shows, art books, opera music, foreign film, classic films, folk music, world music, philosophy books
  • Cerebral – business books, news and current events TV shows and books, educational TV shows, reference books, computer books, documentary films, science TV shows
  • Communal – romance films, romance books, daytime talk shows, made-for- TV movies, soap operas, reality shows, pop music
  • Dark – horror movies, heavy metal music, rap and hip hop, alternative music, erotic movies, erotic literature, cult movies
  • Thrilling – action movies, thriller and espionage books, spy shows, science fiction TV shows, films and books, suspense movies, war movies

The Correlates

If we sum up all the major correlations between the above factors and the demographic and personality data, we get some interesting, and sometimes surprising, portraits of different types of people.

The correlations for the Aesthetic preference are fairly predictable. This taste correlated slightly with the female gender, a little stronger with intelligence and education. It was unrelated to race. On the Big Five it correlated strongest with Openness, slightly less with Agreeableness and slightly (inversed) with Conscientiousness.  Looks very much like the typical liberal.

The Cerebral preference was slightly correlated to with the male gender, age and education. It was unrelated to race, and surprisingly, it was also unrelated to intelligence. This may partly be explained by the personality profile; this type was slightly correlated with Extraversion, inversely to Neuroticism (that is emotionally stable), and to Openness. The combination of Conscientiousness and lack of Neuroticism most likely make them very organized and efficient, thus compensating for their average intelligence. This type may correspond to the ISTJ of the MBTI personality measure, a type which has been found to achieve academic success with relatively little intelligence. Closest stereotype would be a nerd although this is also a slightly conservative profile.

The Communal preference was correlated most strongly to the female gender (although these factors emerged independent of gender so there is a male bunch with this taste too). It was clearly correlated with low intelligence and low education. It was slightly correlated with African American ethnicity/race. This crowd is extraverted, agreeable, slightly conscientious and low on Openness. This type of person is very common, which explains why there is always a reality show, a talk show or a soap opera on when you turn on the TV.

The Dark preference was most strongly linked to a young age and to the male gender. There was a slight correlation to Hispanic ethnicity as well as intelligence and education. It is linked to Extraversion, but this was almost entirely due to the facets Provocativeness and Self-Disclosure. Further, they were low on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness and high on Openness.

Finally, the Thrilling preference was most clearly linked to the male gender. It was unrelated to race and there was a slight correlation to low education but there was very little data on intelligence for this type. In terms of personality they were unrelated to all the Big Five factors except for Openness were the younger university sample showed a slight positive correlation and the older community sample showed a slight negative correlation. This is consistent with the trait known as Sensation Seeking which is largely outside the Big Five.

What to Make of It All

There are some obvious limitations to this study. The samples are mainly White middle class. The community sample was 98 percent White – why pick a a town like Eugene-Springfield which has so little diversity? It seems psychologists, who to 95 percent identify as liberals, avoid people who aren’t White middle class like themselves. There is also the question of to what extent minority students are representative of their respective groups. There is a possibility that they are white-washed or perhaps genuinely more similar to Whites than to their own groups.

Still, the racial connections to cultural preferences and personality that were found make sense to me. According to Nielsen, Black people watch more of the light stuff featured in the Communal factor. The Hispanic link to the Dark factor accords with for instance the Mexican Emos, although I don’t know exactly how common they are. I get the general feeling that a lot of latin culture is dark, bizarre and sexual in line with this finding.

More robust was the finding that the highbrow Cerebral factor wasn’t related to intelligence, but the lowbrow Dark factor was. The fact that Cerebral and Aesthetic were correlated (making up the Highbrow factor) suggests that personality may be more important than intelligence in deciding cultural preferences.

Personally, my preferences were a little bit in most of these factors, although I fit the liberal Aesthetic factor best, even though I’m more of a social conservative. They even share my taste for Bluegrass, a genre that originated among White low-IQ people in the Appalachians. Awkward…


To Ann-Marie

March 16, 2013

Personality Psychologists Hate Romantics

January 29, 2013

When you read books and articles about personality it becomes very clear that psychologists generally prefer some traits over others. And it seems the trait they dislike the most is something they usually call neuroticism or emotional stability (or lack thereof in this case). Their dislike is obvious in the choice of these names alone but can be further illustrated by looking at the words describing the facets or sub-traits in the Big Five model of personality that is prevailing in academic research,

Openness: Fantasy, Aesthetics Feelings, Actions, Ideas, Values

Conscientiousness: Order, Dutifulness, Competence, Self-discipline, Deliberation

Extraversion:Gregariousness, Assertiveness, Excitement seeking, Activity, Positive emotions, Warmth

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

And then the black sheep,

Neuroticism: Angry hostility, Depression, Self-consciousness, Impulsiveness, Anxiety, Vulnerability

Anyone with a hint of critical judgment can see that this choice of words reflects a bias. Openness is the clear favorite, followed by Conscientiousness, both described with exclusively positive words.  Extraversion and Agreeableness are about equal in third place and described with mainly positive words with the exception of excitement seeking and compliance. And then, at the bottom of the order, we have neuroticism described in overall negative words that hint at various psychiatric problems.

Surely, openness can include gullibility and superstition, conscientiousness rigidity and pedantry, both extraversion and agreeableness could include conformism? But no, there is only one black sheep in the family. So what exactly is neuroticism, and does it really deserve to be described like it’s a contagious disease?

Neuroticism involves strength and variety of feelings. The supposedly neurotic person feels things intensely and takes things very seriously. They often have very strong ideals and values. In fact, values would make a great facet of this trait, but since that word is so positively charged it has been reserved for openness instead. I think a more positive and also more accurate name for this trait would be romanticism. That term would convey the notion that people with this trait has made extraordinary contributions to our civilization. Because no one can deny that many of the greatest artists could ever have created their art without the romanticism. Without it Wagner and Verdi would never have written their operas, Charlotte Brontë wouldn’t have written Jane Eyre, and Adele would never have written Someone Like You, let alone been able to sing it.

So why are psychologists so eager to paint such an ugly picture of this noble trait? Because they don’t possess it, that’s why. People are tribal and academics are no exception to the rule. Tribal animosity isn’t just about ethnicity or religion. Just about any quality can form the basis of a tribe or ingroup. There is plenty of evidence of this in forums like Personality Café (great site nonetheless). You can also find it in personality research: people seek out others whose personalities match their own for friendship or love. And the personality psychology researchers have openness – which is largely just a fancy word for intelligence – and conscientiousness. That’s what’s required for designing questionnaires, gathering data, and making calculations. So those traits become defining for their little tribe/ingroup, and romantics become an outgroup of which they have only bad things to say.

This isn’t to say that the romantic is always a good person. The fascist is often a romantic. And conscientious people make this world a better place in many ways. They are a force in technological development and all kinds of logistics that make life more enjoyable for all of us.

But don’t believe the concept of neuroticism or any of the other derogatory terms. It’s a negative bias created by people who can’t appreciate romanticism. The fact that the bias comes from people who are supposed to be experts only makes it more insidious. If they can’t see the value in this, then that’s their loss,

Update: Thought I’d share this cover by Sierra Hull as well, really great stuff,

Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2012


This is a typical example of the work of Swedish painter Carl Larsson. He is my country’s Norman Rockwell, painting Sweden as an innocent idyllic and happy place. Larsson himself grew up in extreme poverty, his father was a choleric alcoholic. So no happy childhood Christmases for him.

But his teacher (he went in a special school for the poor) spotted his talent and recommended him to an art school and he eventually became one of the big names in the 1800s. He never painted anything from his miserable childhood, but there are lots of children in his paintings, living the happy childhood he never had.

I don’t know if that’s messed up or not. We all deal with life in our own way. I just thought it was an interesting background story when you look at the picture. A lot of people struggle to be happy at this time of year, even a man like  Carl Larsson who became emblematic of an idyllic Christmas here in Sweden. That boy decorating the tree, that was never him.

Anne Marsen – Girl: Walk All Day

November 20, 2012

Just bumped into a dance film by Anne Marsen on YouTube called “Girl: Walk All Day”. I’m not really into dance or Hip Hop (or whatever this music is called) but I love her energy. She’s a good example of how impulsivity and sensation seeking don’t always predict things like drug abuse and crime, but also success in the performing arts. It’s they joy of the here-and-now, of just being alive,


If You Like Capital Punishment: Would You Volonteer as Executioner?

November 1, 2012

This is a clip from Werner Herzog’s film Into the Abyss; I just watched about half of it on public TV. In it Texas state executioner Fred Allen talks of his professional experience. He did some 120 plus executions before executing a woman, Karla Faye Tucker. Then it all sunk in, the horror of what he’d been doing. Maybe something to think about for those who approve of capital punishment. Just reading about it in the news or even attending the execution may not affect you very much, at least not that you are aware of. But there was clearly something eating Allen little by little until he couldn’t take it any longer.

I think this happens to all of us when we give in to hate. We lose our humanity, our dignity, and sense of purpose. You may not notice it but it all adds up so that one day you end up a hateful cynic with no capacity for love. Someone who needs hate to fill the void inside of them.

What impresses me the most about Allen is that – despite what he had done – he could still hear that voice in his head that said, “this isn’t you”. He fell down to the bottom of the abyss, so to speak, but could still turn himself around. Perhaps because he was so close to it. I think we can learn something from Allen: if you even suspect that you couldn’t execute a woman, then you probably shouldn’t execute a man either. And if you wouldn’t execute a man then you probably shouldn’t let someone else do it on your behalf.

Can You See if a Work of Modern Art Is Upside Down?

August 21, 2012

Is this how it should hang on the wall?

Modern art is often highly ambiguous and subjective, but not without limits. Every artist (at least that I’ve heard of) has an intended orientation of his or hers visual art – an upside and downside to every painting. This orientation suggests that there is an objective quality to the art as well, but does the audience agree?

Or like this?

According to a study from the University of Essex, people can recognize the proper orientation of modern art better than chance but far from perfectly. A part of this has to do with meaningful content that gives a hint of the right orientation – something looking a bit like a house or a face for instance. But the difference between these paintings and the completely abstract work was not huge.

Or this?

So what do you make of art that most people would hang upside down or 90 degrees off? Do they have bad taste or is it a failure on behalf of the artist? The example shown here is Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematism Composition, shown in it’s four possible orientations.

Or maybe like this?

For the record, I prefer one of these, but it’s not the one the artist intended. Then again, I’m not a very visual person.

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