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

September 2, 2014

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

The Long Reach of Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Haidtian Elephant in the Room

And yet at the beginning of the dialogue Pinker stated,

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

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

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

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

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

The Chinese Anomaly

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Biodiversity (General introduction here)

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

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

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

The English Vegetarian

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

Vegetarians

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

English Ancestry

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

White by state

 

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

vegetarians by english ancestry.php

 

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

vegetarians by white ancestry

 

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

What Is Moral Progress?

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

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

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

 

 

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Men Who Hate Women

June 19, 2014
Is this something Western culture encourages?

Is this something Western culture encourages?

 

Elliot Rodger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Misogyny?

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

Intimate Partner Violence

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

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

The Regular (Spanish/Hispanic) Wife Beater

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

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

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

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

Sacralization

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

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

Politicizing

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

The Romantic Misogynist

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

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

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


The Most Feminine Country in the World

May 8, 2014
The Swedish Model

The Swedish Model

Mars, Venus, and All That

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled

 

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

The Difference between WEIRD and Feminine

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

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

Health Care

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

mortality

 

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

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

Consensus versus Majoritarian Democracy

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

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

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

The Feminine Madness

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

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

The Angel of Reason

Tanja Bergkvist – The Angel of Reason

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

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

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

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

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

March 18, 2014

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

cluster 1

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

cluster 2

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

cluster 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Fall Apart; the Center Cannot Hold

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

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

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

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

Poverty by State

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

A Flyover Bias?

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

The Real FC Region: The Friendly Midwest

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

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

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

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

The Real RC Region: The Left Coast

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

Oregon          30.9, 59.1, 45.8, 39.5, 58.8

Washington   30.6, 55.8, 45.0, 36.9, 56.6

California       51.4, 49.0, 43.2, 39.1, 65.0

Arizona          50.6, 46.6, 58.4, 38.1, 54.7

Nevada          46.4, 31.8, 55.8, 44.0, 61.3

New Mexico    32.4, 45.4, 58.5, 51.6, 62.0

Idaho             40.7, 52.9, 44.5, 44.2, 44.7

Utah               55.8, 69.4, 54.5, 30.4, 47.7

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

Gelman

The Wicked Witch of the Northeast

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

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

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

All in All, a Brave Effort

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

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


TV Review: Girls (HBO) – Intellectuals without Intellects

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

Girls. Nothing more, nothing less.

Critic’s Pet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millennials, SWPLs, Hipsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inexplicable Tragedy of Regression to the Mean

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

The Modern Storyteller Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 21, 2014
Ms Smarty-Pants.

Ms Smarty-Pants

Historical Background

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

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

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

The Post-Slate Situation

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

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

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

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

Judith Rich Harris and the Enigma of Non-Shared Environment

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

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

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

Gene-Environment Interactions

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

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

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

Family Interactions

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

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

The Three Systems Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

I think Harris may be on to something.


Changelings, Infanticide and Northwest European Guilt Culture

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

And he is always hungry…

Guilt and Shame Cultures

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

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

How to Measure Guilt

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

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

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

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

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

When Did Modernity Begin?

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

The Changeling

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

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

Infanticide Made Easy

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

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

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

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

Geography

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

Before There Were Changelings, There Was Exposure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kreusa: Even I. My vesture darkling swaddled him.

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

Kreusa: None – Misery and Secrecy alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 2014-03-01:

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


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