Recent Reading: Aggression, Retaliation, Memories, Stories, Attraction, Identity, Social Norms, Neural Avalanches

Well, I’m back to my old habit of reviewing a bunch of online reading at once. These all relate to how we think, how the mind works.


** How To Make Women Less Picky: Short answer:  make them the initiators and/or rivals.

This was a speed dating study where, contrary to the usual way it’s done, the men were sitting at tables and the women were moving from table to table trying to impress and win a date:

“Regardless of gender, people who were required to approach a date were less picky than people who were seated.”

One explanation is that “whoever makes the first move has more invested in a positive outcome.”That sounds reasonable to me.

As does the explanation put forth by the study’s author, who thinks that this is a case of people being “attracted to those who attract others,” i.e., the mimetic theory concept that the value of an object increases when it’s perceived to be an object that others desire.

As Sager summarises: “The guys seemed more attractive because so many other women appeared interested in them. While rotating men might appear desperate, seated men seem desired.”

(Nice motto.)


** Enhancement of Core Identity: The results of  a (2-yr-old) study seem to show that “the more people considered a feature to be a key part of their identity, the less they wanted to improve it.”

And from this study, Robin Hanson suggests extrapolating:

“I suspect something similar holds for beliefs: the more important a belief is to our identity, the less eager we are to improve that belief via evidence or analysis.

While I agree that his extrapolation is likely true (and from a mimetic theory standpoint it is: we have a vested interest in seeing ourselves as originals whose beliefs express our true self), I’m not so sure that the original table can be explained in this way. I’m inclined to agree with what one commenter said:

“A more likely possibility is that most of the respondents believe — rightly or wrongly — that they have just enough kindness, empathy etc., thank you very much. Whereas we have all felt the frustration of bad reflexes, wonky memory and drowsiness and are willing to admit so to ourselves.”

That’s the first thing that occurred to me when I looked at the identity attributes: Most people think — or want to think — that they are nice enough, whatever their relative level of niceness. Because (a), what we want is an edge on other people, and more niceness (kindness, empathy, self-control) doesn’t seem to offer that, and (b), we don’t want to admit to ourselves or anyone else that we are deficient in kindness, empathy, and self-control, because then we seem to have something in common with sociopaths, and we don’t want to admit we’re deficient in self-confidence because then we seem like losers who don’t have anything to be confident about. But admitting we’re deficient in memory or language skills? Meh. No biggie. Those are skills, not traits.


** Another one from Overcoming Bias: 40% of U.S. Moms Unwed. What’s interesting here isn’t the mere statistic (whose validity and expression is debated in the comments, as always) but the interpretation Hanson offers: we’re creating more sexually aggressive men who will spend more time signaling their dominance:

“The new equilibrium we are moving toward seems a very different world.  Women free to pick a dad without expecting him to stay as a long term helper probably pick sexier men.  … Women would get to have kids fathered by sexier men, but at the expense of raising those kids with less male help.  More men would be sex-failures with more free time to pursue long-shot plans to reverse their fortunes, and without wives to moderate them.  How many of those plans will be peaceful?

Well. I would never have thought of this! Hmm.

And, on the other hand, as commenters point out, a significant percentage of the increase in single moms may come from moms who are not married but who are in marriage-like long-term relationships with men, as it’s become more socially acceptable to do so. So more men may be safely under the moderating care of a woman (!) than the interpretation assumes.


** Contagion: Social Norm Psychology is a Potent Anti-violence Vaccine. More mimetic theory at work. David DiSalvo reports on Cease-Fire, an ambitious  program used in cities to reduce violent crime:

The program is based on the idea that killing is a disease psychologically transmitted from one person to another, particularly in economically deprived areas.  The program employs a unique psychological angle, in that it chiefly targets potential retaliators of violence rather than all potential perpetrators of violence.”

(Funny, Jesus famously did the same thing.)

DiSalvo notes that the program is based on the idea that social norms determine our actions and he cites another study that uses MRIs and punishment threat applied to fairness norms to explore the brain science and neural networks of  social conformity in young males.

From the intro and discussion sections of that study:

“The dissolution of obedience to prevailing norms occurs because people often comply with social norms conditional on others’ compliance (Fischbacher et al., 2001). Thus, even a minority of noncompliers can trigger a process that induces widespread defection from prevailing norms … due to the conditional nature of many people’s compliance.”

That’s obvious to anyone driving on the highway. A common scenario I find is that everyone is driving along apace until one car comes speeding by in the far left or far right lane. (It can even be a police car.) Seconds later, someone pulls out of the line and zips off following it, then perhaps another.  Within a minute, the pace of most all the cars has increased a little.

Perhaps the second car had been chomping at the bit for a while to speed up, and the first speeding car has provided radar cover to do it (cover to the front, anyway), but what about the rest of the cars? The rest are probably speeding up simply because, in a semi-conscious way, we perceive that ‘everyone else’ is, and we’re primed to do it because of the conditional nature of our compliance in the first place: many of us think speed limits are artificially low,  or meant for ‘bad’ drivers who are always other people, or unnecessary in a free society, etc.  So, we are ready to defect and given the slightest stimulus, we do.

And from the summary of that same study, “lateral orbitofrontal cortex activity is strongly correlated with Machiavellian personality characteristics.” ! Machiavellian traits — ‘a combination of selfishness and opportunism” — are measured with, yes, a Machiavelli questionnaire developed in 1970.


** Disorderly Genius: How Chaos Drives the Brain in New Scientist.Our brains are like sandpiles, earthquakes, wildfires, and avalanches, both critical and self-organising, characterised by “periods of stability followed by catastrophic periods of instability that rearrange the system into a new, temporarily stable state.”

“…In reality, your brain operates on the edge of chaos. … The neuronal avalanches” that occur when a neuron fires and triggers another one to fire “are perfect for transmitting information across the brain. If the brain was in a more stable state, these avalanches would die out before the message had been transmitted. If it was chaotic, each avalanche could swamp the brain. At the critical point, however, you get maximum transmission with minimum risk of descending into chaos. …

“Hovering on the edge of chaos provides brains with their amazing capacity to process information and rapidly adapt to our ever-changing environment, but what happens if we stray either side of the boundary? The most obvious assumption would be that all of us are a short step away from mental illness. Meyer-Lindenberg suggests that schizophrenia may be caused by parts of the brain straying away from the critical point. However, for now that is purely speculative.”

These neuronal avalanches may play a role in memory:


“certain chains of neurons would fire repeatedly in avalanches, sometimes over several hours. …  Because an entire chain can be triggered by the firing of one neuron, these chains could be the stuff of memory…; memories may come to mind unexpectedly because a neuron fires randomly or could be triggered unpredictably by a neuronal avalanche.


** And more on memory, from an often lovely and moving essay (marred in places by sounding like an offhand apologetic for abusers and a polemic against memoirists in particular and writers in general) by Joseph Bottum at First Things, titled The Judgment of Memory:

“[T]he logic of human imagination always joins what might be with what has already been, every possible future somehow dependent on the past. Anyone can cure a patient’s neurosis, an old psychoanalysts’ joke runs. All you have to do is travel back in time and change the way his parents were treated as children. … We do so much in vain, attempting with memory to repair the broken past—as though we might arrange thereby a perfect future, as though the Eden we lost at the beginning is the same as the Heaven we must find at the end.

“Every memoir of childhood is necessarily overshadowed by parents, and I could find, were I to turn my mind that way, stories of my father’s drinking, his pretension, his bounce.

“But my father, being dead, is not here either to be triumphed over by my telling of those stories or to defend himself against them. The death of parents leaves their honor in their children’s hands, and the cruel accuracies we might fling in anger against them while they are alive seem even more wrong to use against them once they are gone.  …

Memory may be our best tool for self-understanding, but only when we remember how weak a tool it really is: prone to warping under the narrative drive of storytelling, vulnerable to self-interest, susceptible to outside influence.” …

“Leaping from a particular moment to some great universal claim about the way things always were, memory is false, even when it’s true — maybe especially when it’s true, maybe especially at the moment we think we’ve finally gotten the story right.”

Bottum’s further description of the geography of storytelling and memory so matches my experience and observation, and it’s probably what makes me doubt the integrity or the wholeness of most storytelling that purports to be true, and especially of stories that claim to be “not just a story but the story, the overarching master tale that explains everything away.” (Some might say that the Bible does this, but I think it’s we who tend to use it to explain; its format of letters, myth, songs, narrative, laws, dialogue, etc., and its obvious brokenness in time are hardly conducive to providing a single explanation.)

It may be why I find poetry to be a more reliable vehicle for truth, because it consists of crevices, disconnections, missing pieces, “extraneous bits,” and finds its significance in the incidental; because each poem is a reflection of a truth, never a satisfactory explanatory summing up.

As Bottum himself sums up:

“The simple truth of autobiography is this: The accurate details of memory do not come naturally packaged into stories. You have to take a hammer and beat them into shape, a little.”


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