The Enlightened Caveman

Concurrence and March Madness
March 27, 2005, 5:06 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories

Original Post (with comments)
A friend of mine, a Georgia Tech fan, said last night to a Louisville fan, “Yeah, y’all put it to us pretty good the other day.”

The Louisville guy: “It wasn’t exactly hard. We had you beat by the end of the first half.”

My friend (following a deferential sigh), “Well, now that we’re out, I’m rooting for you guys. I think you have a great shot.”

The Louisville guy: “Yeah, it’s gonna be tough, but we’re up to it.”

I always crack up when I hear these kinds of exchanges. It strikes me as comical that people who neither play or know anyone who plays on the team they like afford themselves honorary membership on the extended roster. Maybe it’s because I really could care less who wins, precisely because I’m not playing and don’t know anyone playing. It may also be because I think I know what’s going on and I find it highly entertaining to watch.

You see, these people are fans, which is short for fanatic. I won’t say that all sports fans are fanatical, but some of them definitely are. Anyhow, as the extended roster, their job is ideally to create a happening that will give the team that extra something. I believe a happening occurs when mass concurrence is achieved.

Over the years, it has dawned on me that something simpler, something more powerful may be behind the human tendency to cooperate, which, as we should all know, is one of the main reasons we are here. It has long been thought that the benefits of reciprocal altruism were sufficient to catch natural selection’s eye. But what if humans developed the need to concur with one another, to get to the kind of emotional tightness where they feel one another’s pain, long before the tendency to account for favors done and favors owed? Would that not have spawned all the cooperative behavior, including reciprocal altruism, that led Homo sapiens to outlast all other hominids? To my knowledge, no one else is talking about this, which means it is pure conjecture. However, even if we can’t say the quest for concurrence is among the grandest and most universal of human emotional drives, I think we can use the concept as a tool for talking about how humans interact with one another. March Madness is a perfect example.

As I stood at a bar watching the Illinois-Villanova game come to its exciting conclusion, I observed, captivated, as the concurrence in the room mounted. Sitting at the bar, the folks were into the game. They were in groups of two to five or six, and they were very much emotionally connected to each other. Eyes glued to the screen as the play unfolded. A guy scores and they either erupt with high fives and cheers, or they groan and then quickly begin to reassure each other. As the game drew to its final minutes, and Illinois started coming back, the concurrence started to expand. People standing behind the people sitting at the bar started becoming concurrent with each other and the true fans. The high five ritual got longer and longer, as each person had more people to high five. Then, by the last shot of regular play, the whole bar was singularly focused on the TV screens. A tie! Overtime! Pandemonium. Disbelief coupled with visceral elation. A happening was officially underway. It continued right up to the last second of the game, and lasted for at least another ten minutes.

What an experience. You really can feel it, the energy in the air, the emotional highs and lows, all of it, and it feels good. It’s like being one of the few in on an inside joke that has been heard by many. That feeling, I think, is nothing more than the result of our drive to concurrence achieving its goal. It is not unlike the relationship between an orgasm and the emotional drive to reproduce. (Remember that our emotions are physiological and neurological programs designed to get us to do things that facilitate our survival and reproduction. Our feelings are the conscious experiences that follow the execution of those programs.) If I’m right, then we have an answer to why people become sports fans.

Being in attendance at a happening is not common for most people, sports fans included, so we can’t assume that this is the primary motivator. However, there is significant concurrence to be had even in small groups watching the game at a person’s house, and the same is true at the water cooler the next day. Indeed, the quest for concurrence is really about one on one and small group relationships. But, like most of our caveman emotions, it doesn’t know when to quit. Add more people feeling each other’s pain and the feeling intensifies, sometimes culminating in a happening. The point is that people who appoint themselves standing as part of the extended roster do so because it affords them easy access to concurrence. This is useful information.

Try this if you’re not much of a sports fan. Pick a person you know to be a big fan of a particular team and start paying attention to how his team is doing. (We’ll assume he’s a male, for obvious reasons). Then, the next time you see him, mention that you caught such and such game, and oh what a nail-biter, and watch his ears perk up. Unless he’s a jerk, you will have established a baseline level of concurrence with him, a level that affords you less scrutiny and more acceptance than you would ordinarily enjoy. It’s uncanny how consistently this works. I’ve never done it to manipulate someone. I just overhear sports discussions and am not above regurgitating a factoid or two later to strike up a conversation with someone I don’t know well. (The curse of the extrovert, I guess. ) The interesting thing is that you can expand this concept to explain why people align with most any group.

At the end of the day, the big universal is that we all want to belong, and this need is about as genetic as it gets. The tool that creates belonging is concurrence, and it is on display all around us. March Madness is just an apt illustration. I just hope my guys score more runs than their guys.

The Pair Bond and the Chiiiildren.
March 22, 2005, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Parenting, Politics

Original Post (with comments)
I went for a run today, a baby-jogger run (i.e. harder than your average hilly run, and sometimes complete with whining soundtrack). Coming off of the flu, a vacation, and a lot of travel for business, I found that the work part of the phrase work-out kept passing across my giant movie screen – it started hurting less than two miles in. Nevertheless, at one point, another runner turned onto the road I was running. Suddenly, my focus was no longer on the discomfort I was feeling with every stride.

Me to Thomas: “Ahh, aren’t we lucky? It looks like we now have a mark (drawn out to indicate the presence of a new word for his lexicon). Now we have someone we can try to chase down and pass. And if we’re successful, it will feel so good that we’ll forget how our fitness has deteriorated.”

Thomas: “Muh.”

Me: “Very good. Let’s get him.”

Alas, my running foe turned off again before I could pass him. (I was gaining, though.) This scenario reminded me of the usefulness of competitive instincts in physical conditioning. Though being competitive is a direct result of the quest for status, and it is often the cause of serious interpersonal problems in life, it isn’t always bad – it pushes me to work harder than I might otherwise. And, to expand the concept a bit, I think many of the caveman proclivities that I usually denigrate and recommend harnessing are actually useful in the right contexts. The pair bond, particularly where kids are concerned, may be another example.

Yesterday on Michael Medved’s radio show, the discussion was centered around an article in the Northwestern periodical, The Oregonian, entitled: “Single mom a sign Rose court grows with times.” Apparently, each year for the last 75 years, during the Rose Festival, a Portland senior has been chosen as the Queen of Rosaria. This year the Queen is Rosa Montoya, a single-mom with a 7-week old daughter. Not surprisingly, Medved was appalled that a girl in such a situation would be honored in such a way. I’m inclined to agree with him, but not for the reasons he gives.

Make no mistake, there’s some substantial liberal diversity/tolerance/devictimization sentiment behind this Rose Queen selection.

Chet Orloff, director emeritus at the Oregon Historical Society and a member of the festival’s centennial committee, thinks Montoya’s election is good for Portland.

“It’s a recognition of something that’s quite realistic,” he said. “Girls are having children in high school. Getting that out into the realm of something as traditional as the Rose Festival is healthy.”

Medved disagreed. He stated that getting pregnant as a single teen is sign of poor character, and that it should not be praised or promoted as anything other than that. In my view, that’s a bit overboard. Kids are kids, which means they often to do stupid things. They have time horizon problems, so it’s hard to think of them as bad people (Isn’t that what people who accuse others of having character problems are really saying?) when they get themselves into predicaments involving pregnancy. To me, the real test of character is what they do after they learn they are pregnant. Every situation is different, so I can’t say which course of action will be the right one. However, I think it’s safe to say that most all situations will offer a hard right and an easy wrong. Which is chosen says much more about the character of the teen than the fact that he or she is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. But the character issue is not my main concern here. Given the liberal penchant for upending tradition, should we not entertain the notion that the pair bond is archaic and on its way out (or that it should be)?

Is the notion that a standard step along the path through life is getting hitched up to one person nothing more than our caveman machinery driving the bus? It’s hard to say. Evolutionary psychology would seem to suggest that the monogamous pair bond is unnatural. Though the best female strategy in ancestral times entailed selecting males who had good genes and who would make good fathers, there’s really nothing to suggest that females should have stayed with their childrens’ fathers forever. But…this is not the ancestral world.

We have tens of thousands of years of culture that has shaped the way these caveman (or cavewoman, in this case) tendencies translate into behavior. Our genes push us toward love because it promotes reproduction and caring for our offspring, but our culture pushes love towards long-term, monogamous (at least on paper) relationships. Like I said, it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s better to just ask if it makes sense.

Those who are distressed that single parents are not honored nearly enough would seem to be suggesting that two-parent families are no better. Here we see shades of the theme behind multiculturalism – things (cultures, lifestyles, etc.) should not be thought of as better or worse, just different. Are they right? I think not, but not for moral reasons. I think this is a practical matter.

An Urban Institute article entitled, “Poverty among Children Born Outside of Marriage,” says:

Children born outside of marriage are more likely to have a mother who did not graduate from high school than are children born to married parents. They are also less likely to live with a mother who works full-time year-round. While 44 percent of children born to married parents have a mother who is fully employed, this is true for only 26 percent of children born outside of marriage. Similarly, a third of the mothers of non-marital children do not work at all, compared with only a fifth of children born to married parents.

What we can take from this is that being a single parent is a huge financial risk. A shocking revelation, to be sure. Having been raised by a single-mom, I can personally attest to this – my mother worked two jobs well into my college years. In the end, it seems like the usefulness of the pair bond in modern society revolves around the issue of children. If two individuals have no intention of having children, it seems hard to say that long-term monogamy is anything more than a persistent cultural relic. But, the moment kids come into the picture, it becomes a pragmatic extension of the natural propensity to provide for offspring. In that context, genetic love in the hands of monogamous cultural norms is a good thing, a better thing.

Notice I’ve never said the couple should be heterosexual. As the primary component of this equation, at least in my mind, is financial, I don’t think the sex of the parents is relevant here. What is relevant is the probable consequence of having a child out of wedlock. On that, there are mountains of statistics that make it quite clear that kids do better in life when they have married parents. It’s one thing to honor someone for overcoming hardship – one hopes this is what’s really behind Rosa’s selection as Rose Queen – but it’s something different altogether to honor someone just because she’s a single mom. If anything, the difficulties of being a single mom should be in the spotlight. Rosa should not be congratulated for raising a child on her own. If she must be foisted upon her peers, it should be as an object lesson in what not to do.

We can’t (and shouldn’t even consider) ridding ourselves of the caveman need for love, especially where children are concerned. Therefore, given that our culture has discovered that long-term, monogamous pair bonds are the best arrangements for harnessing love where children are concerned, we find ourselves in another situation where the caveman mind in the modern world isn’t a problem at all. Sometimes, I guess, enlightenment means nothing more than knowing that the old way is still the right way.

Personality Paradigms?
March 17, 2005, 5:02 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
The time I spent recently in Canada got me thinking about some generalities in human personality. I have always found Canadians to be extremely accommodating and somewhat non-confrontational, and this trip was no different. They’re nice, even when I wouldn’t be, and even when most people I know wouldn’t be. I don’t mean they take abuse with a smile; I mean they go out of their way to be nice to people around them, even in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. Here in America? Not so much. I wonder what accounts for this?

It’s hard to say how it happened, but maybe there’s some amateur codification to be done here. Why are people nice? One reason – they want something. Sometimes what they want is concurrence, and sometimes they want something more tangible. Sometimes they want both. In Canada, I think they mostly want concurrence. That’s why they’re nice to pretty much everyone, even when there’s nothing to gain. What if we call this a concurrence personality paradigm? I don’t think this is what we have in America, at least not a lot of us, and less and less of us as you go back in history.

In cities in America, people are more business-oriented, more transactional. We talk to the people we know, but we interact with the people we don’t. In a sense, we’re nice to the former and not as nice to the latter. This distinction is less pronounced in Canada. We could call the American mindset the status personality paradigm. Our quest for concurrence is limited to a fairly small circle of people, but we’re not monsters out in the world. We’re nice, and the more we have to gain from it, the nicer we are (to a point, of course). This is because what we gain translates directly into status. When we gain wealth, we can acquire the goods and services that afford us membership in higher and higher social strata. The proceedings in lower-class situations, therefore, are understandably far less “cordial” than they are in upper class situations – no one stands to gain much of anything by being nice. And it is not coincidental that our economic systems are set up to promote this mindset bent on upward mobility.

With the emergence of innovative financial systems (including the fractional reserve system), the status-seeking fire has been perennially stoked. They make it possible to obtain status (through consumption), even when you can’t afford it. You can borrow and, if you’re good, create enough wealth to pay interest on the money and walk away with a profit. The end result is an elevation in status through nothing more than calculated manipulation of available resources – a skill not unfamiliar to the ancestral caveman.
If we accept the existence of these different personality paradigms, then there’s an interesting question to ask. Could it be that the intense presence of the status paradigm accounts for much of the socio-economic difference between America and many other nations? More status people equals more business and more financial prosperity. Look at countries like France and Italy. While they’ve been around far longer than the US and they have natural resources aplenty, they are nowhere near the US, economically speaking. This could be a manifestation of their majority paradigm.

I would say the concurrence paradigm is the default paradigm in these two countries. Sure, people in Paris can be very nasty, but my experience has been that most areas of France and Italy are inhabited by very nice people if you make an effort to communicate with them. You could descend into a conversation with pretty much anyone. And if the feeling overtakes them, they may act in a way that is anything but profitable – like keeping the bar open late night (for free) for some traveling and rambunctious Americans. In America, not so much. And the divergence in personality paradigm doesn’t just account for anecdotal and macro-economic differences. It may very well account for the disparity in national views about war.

The status paradigm, being not so nice to begin with, fares better in conflict. As the desire for concurrence begins on the back burner, judgement is not clouded when disputes arise. The status seeker is a cool negotiator. The bargaining benefactor of his status machinery is in charge, looking for the win-win, and when there isn’t one, there isn’t a nagging desire to get along. There is only a rational examination of the logical consequences of alternative actions. And as obtaining status is often risky, the status-seeker is courageous enough to follow through with the correct (i.e. profitable) course of action, even if it’s going to cost him. He’ll take his licks and cut his losses. In short, the status personality paradigm enables the willingness to go to war. This, I think, also explains much of the difference between America and many other countries. We fight when we have to; they resist till its too late.

So what can we do with this concept? Can we make any determination as to whether it is cultural or genetic? Probably not. That’s always tough, but maybe we can say that a good bit of it is cultural. Could we not say that the proportion of people with the concurrent paradigm to status paradigm is growing? This country gets more touchy, feely every day. That would seem to suggest that the mindset is at least partially cultural – if you grow up in a family of concurrence paradigm people, you’re likely to end up the same way. It would also suggest that the cultural shift toward the concurrence paradigm may have a tipping point, a point at which America would experience something akin to what transpires in Ayn Rand’s, Atlas Shrugged. So, here we come upon a serious question? Which paradigm is better?

Before we answer, we have to acknowledge that the two paradigms naturally clash with one another. Status folks don’t have much patience for concurrence folks, and concurrence folks are horrified at the shallow callousness of status folks. Indeed, differing personality paradigms could explain a lot of the difference between the “bleeding heart” liberal and the “evil” Republican. Now to the question. Which is better? I’d say you need a good helping of both. Though the exact proportion would be difficult to nail down, I think it’s fair to say that we need enough to status folks to keep our rights intact and to keep pumping out better and better Barcoloungers, and we need enough concurrence folks to remind us to get off our Barcoloungers and talk to each other.

We Have It So Good – Perspective Part 2
March 14, 2005, 5:01 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Foreign Affairs

Original Post (with comments)
This country is still very much divided, unnecessarily so. Yes, there are issues about which many people disagree, and there are worthwhile opinions to be found on both sides of the divide, but the fact is that most of the fuss is manufactured by politicians who have everything to gain by pitting one side against another. Given that the political philosophies that once underpinned the Democratic and Republican parties have long since been extinct, it seems that the team mentality is driving the bus nowadays. So with roughly half the masses in Democrat jerseys and the other half in Republican jerseys, the stage is set. The politicians appeal to each team’s desire to win, to their desire to vanquish their evil competitor, and they do so by creating the appearance that, if they lose, America goes down the drain. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Bush is ruining America!” or “The liberals are out to destroy everything this country stands for!” People, it’s time for a reality check. What follows is an email report from a guy serving in the Peace Corps in Togo (West Africa), which has been in the midst of some serious political upheaval.

Subject: A Brief Hello & Update From Togo
Hello Everybody,
Hope all is well back home in The Good (According to many these days, The Big Bad) Old US of A.. While briefly in Lome I wanted to take the time to let you all know how’s it going here.

Good news is things are relatively calm in Lome and especially throughout the country and other than a couple opposition rallies which took place past resulting in some people killed (In Lome) by the government supported military things are honestly quite safe. I’ve been back in village these past weeks continuing my work which is going very well and it’s not too surprisingly one of the safest places to be as politics don’t reach so far out as the rural bush (Not many politicians could stand a dusty and bumpy ride out to a place with no electricity and without the modern comforts). Most of the villagers can’t read Ewe or French and haven’t even got an elementary level education so the inter workings of politics are somewhat out of thought for them on many levels. What’s on our minds today? What’s going on in the Capital or what my family will eat and whether the crop is growing well to sustain us throughout the rest of the year. Answer # 2 would be more correct. This is not to say that many, especially the men, in village aren’t having a wonderful time discussing their hopes for the future with what’s recently happened.
The death of Eyadema and his 38 years of justiceless rule can make for change and a chance at democracy for these people. It is for sure a very interesting time to be in Togo and I’m learning quite a bit about African politics. Much I’m seeing and learning of these politics is very very sad and very well hidden from the outside world. One shocking thing is that Eyadema was a good friend of the French President Chirac and he has also contributed large amounts of money (Togolese money and wealth) to support Chirac’s election campaigns in France. A developed nation President taking money from a poor small country such as Togo! The last thing money should be doing is leaving this country. I am truly convinced that France continues to help destroy this country rather than help rebuild it and this is quite a sad reality. Our World Needs Way Better Leaders! I’ll have more to say on this whole thing in my next official update to you all, so stay tuned.

One thing I can propose to you in the meantime is to take the time to open your eyes and seek out to inform yourselves about what goes on around you in this world especially outside the USA (With the wide existence of the internet today this is so much easier to do). Make an effort to know what’s happening to people. The injustices and inhumanities are mindblowing and most often the world hardly ever notices! It’s quite sickening.

Take good care of yourselves and again thanks to all sending me their well wishes, love, and support. It’s great to have. Hope you enjoy the photos.

Peace Be With You,

Folks, I have a truly hard time mounting anything close to outrage about anything domestic when I read things like this. We have come so far in the US that we have completely lost perspective on what life can be like, and is for many, many people on this planet. If we could just take a step back and reflect upon how good we have it, I think we could find a way to let go of some of the team mentality. Like Chirac in the email above, our politicians are doing dispicable things in the name of leadership, and we, instead of calling them on it, brush their actions aside because the alternative is unthinkable – our team might take a beating in the next election.

After 9-11, we came together as a nation. We remembered what it really means to be an American – to live in a land where people are free to live as they choose, to live in a land where prosperity is the norm, not the exception, to live in a land where the rule of law is a given, where there is equality of opportunity the likes of which this planet has never seen. This happened because an event transpired that forced us to turn our attention away from domestic in-fighting and toward an enemy whose greatest goal is the demise of our republic. Granted, the unity was only a tad longer than the blink of an eye, but it happened, and I hope I am not being too idealistic in hoping it could happen again, but under less devastating circumstances.

As I have said before – there are two teams in this country, but they are not the Republicans and the Democrats. They are the weasels serving, nay plundering, as politicians and us, the people who are being stirred into a frenzy to take the focus off their nefarious activities. The time has come to put aside the differences that are so largely cosmetic and come to realization that Joe Lunchbucket and Jan Q. Public really aren’t that different from one another. Both want the best for their children, both hate the thought of people who are down and out, and both would rather leave politics to people with the time and inclination to do their homework. Of course, there are issues about which they will differ greatly, but those, in my view, are beside the point. Until those who represent us locally and in DC deserve the title of “civil servant,” our efforts should be aimed at replacing them.

Now I’ve been around long enough to know that what I wish for is about as likely as free elections in Iraq. Okay, bad example. As likely as a Red Sox world series. Damn. Missed again. Anyway, I can’t help but believe that it is possible to overcome the team mentality if enough opinion-makers take up the fight. It all comes down to perspective – whether gays can marry or not, there will still be enough to eat. As Thomas says, we need to open our eyes to see what’s going on around us. We need only be mindful of how good we have it to put aside the pettiness and get started on a project to take America back to the days when political disputes were in the hands of the informed, to when, liberal or conservative, being American was the most important thing . You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

In Dire Need of Perspective
March 10, 2005, 4:59 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living

Original Post (with comments)
I’ve spent the past five days snowboarding in Whistler, British Columbia. What a staggeringly idyllic place, even if this year’s snowfall has been only a fraction of what they usually get. As cancellation policies prevented me from choosing another destination, I resigned myself to short days on the mountains accompanied by aesthetically-inspired writing sessions. I was wrong on both accounts. It turns out that even when Whistler only has 50% of the snow it usually has, it still beats the shit out of most resorts – it’s huge. So I spent as much time as possible on the slopes. And the writing, well, they didn’t have high-speed internet in my condo. Really.

I actually had to walk 10 minutes to an Internet Cafe to get connected. That oppressive burden was enough to prevent me from spending anything but the bare minimum amount of time in front of my laptop. Instead, I investigated the temporal limits of what is known as the apres-ski, but not without a bit of underlying indignation at being forced upon such a task. It wasn’t my fault. Really. And now that I’m home and jacked in wirelessly (ahh, that’s more like it), I can take a step back.

It’s amazing how quickly we Americans get used to things, and it’s even more amazing how irritated we often get when proceedings deviate from the new norm. How could such an obviously planned and well laid-out village such as Whistler not be blanketed in Hot Spots? The nerve of some people. But as trivial (and absurd) as my whining is, I think it points to a larger trend in this country. It seems that American culture promotes a tendency to regularly recalibrate expectations about how life should unfold. As they say in the world of finance – past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In fact, the past is becoming more and more irrelevant every day.

Think of all of the ads that gently bombard us throughout the day. They’re all about the future, the better future, the one that is only a truckload of products and services away. Want something now, but can’t afford it? No problem. No interest till 2006. Want to be thin? In just a few short weeks, with the right book, diet, meal-plan, and/or pill, no problem. Still paying for your past mistakes? It’s not your fault. Don’t beat yourself up. The future is about second chances. It’s about third, fourth, and fifth chances. Chin up. Tomorrow is a new day…provided you drink enough coffee. The rat race moves forward, always forward, and faster, always faster. In its path, it leaves the tattered remains of perspective.

It’s not that we need aspire to be active historians, holding candlelight vigils for the “best of 1997.” We need only widen the lens through which we view our lives, and this is hard at high speeds. Moving at a fast pace necessarily requires focus. Going a mile at a walk, we can take in the scenery. We can see the details of our surroundings, and if we look close enough, we can often see what’s come before. We can get a feel for how far things have progressed. Going the same mile at 60 mph offers us no such opportunity. We have to keep our attention mostly forward – to navigate, make necessary course corrections, and to avoid obstacles. There’s simply no time for taking it all in. Our lens is too narrow. The same is true in life, but here lies a dilemma – what do we do?

The obvious, but, in my view, incorrect answer, is to simply drop out, to get off the wheel, to quit the rat race. This is certainly the cure for the perspective problem, but it often brings with it the kind of scenery that doesn’t make much use of a wide-angle lens. Yes, you can despise the rampant consumerism that, perhaps more than anything else, regrettably defines this country today, but I don’t know how you can reject it without hopping from the frying pan into the fire. The fact is that life in this country can be as blissful as it can be anywhere on the planet. You can shape your environment in any way you like, and you can surround yourself with wonderful, like-minded people, even if you’re a total wackjob. But – there’s always a but – there is a direct correlation between the degree to which you can manipulate your environment and the amount of money you have.

These are the kinds of statements that prompt outrage in some people. Hands will wave and dust will fly at the injustice of it all. But as David Hume warned, it is a mistake to confuse what we want with what is. So, while others will reject the rat race out of hand, I think we should accept it and endeavor to get what we want out of it…without getting sucked in too far. Our harbor in the storm is perspective, and it works in two ways.
First of all, perspective is what allows us to realize that we have it good. I try to step outside myself and view my world with a wide lens. I try to remember that, in pure prosperity terms, I have it better than 99.99% of the humans that have ever lived. You do, too. We have come an amazingly long way, baby. Items that were once only available to the tippy top of the upper crust are now household items for most everyone. Not so long ago, a trip to Whistler, BC from Atlanta would have taken weeks, not hours, and I’d have had to either plan my trip months and months in advance or hope for the best when I got out there. Nevertheless, we curse the gods when we have to take our shoes off to go through security and we fly into fits of rage when our cell phones drop calls. It’s pathetic, really. Life has never been so comfortable for humans, and while the information age makes me keenly aware of what the other guy has, I try to remember that there is always more. You can always be richer, more powerful, better looking, smarter, and so on, which brings me to the second thing we get from perspective.

When we take a step back, it becomes easier to see that there is a very real point of diminishing returns with respect to the rat race. Not only do we recognize that we have it seriously good; we recognize that it may not be much better if we get what the rat race directors are pushing on us. Books like Gregg Easterbrook’s, The Progress Paradox, and Barry Schwartz’s, The Paradox of Choice, make it clear that increasing prosperity is not bringing a corresponding rise in individual happiness. (FYI – I generally disagree with both authors’ conclusions. However, their statement of the problem makes sense to me.) That means that, at some point, good is good enough. Though our caveman minds will urge us to keep chugging along the wheel (anything to keep up with the Joneses), perspective is what allows us to determine when every extra turn is a waste of time and a distraction from what really matters in life. The only folks I would exempt from this are the folks who should be covering the world with wireless high-speed internet. Just a couple more turns, fellas.

Zero-Sum Versus Wealth Creation
February 27, 2005, 4:56 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Economics

Original Post (with comments)
I keep thinking about Wilkinson’s article on Capitalism and Human Nature. I spent some time on his blog site, The Fly Bottle, and I noticed a trackback to a blog (Mixing Memory) that is, you might say, less than impressed with his work, and with evolutionary psychology (EP) in general. The writer, known only as Chris, asserts that Wilkinson’s reliance upon EP is unfounded at best, and illogical at worst. This is no surprise to me – there are lots of folks, many of them reputable academics, who think EP is a farce, mainly because they think you can’t prove any of it. I’ll put aside my response to the naysayers at large for now and deal directly with one of Chris’ statements against Mr. Wilkinson.

A central point in the Capitalism and Human Nature piece is that humans in the ancestral environment lived in relatively small groups, which led them to be coalitional (proned to in-group prejudice), hierarchical (aware of and in pursuit of status), and envious zero-sum thinkers (that is, they conceived of a finite pie and felt enmity toward individuals who amassed too much of it). This is standard fare for EP. Wilkinson’s point, however, which is a very good one, is that this kind of nature does not bode well for the invisible-hand type of economy. Chris, of Mixing Memory fame, however, sees this aspect of Wilkinson’s article as bordering on the nonsensical.

He writes, “In fact, it is the coalitional and hierarchical nature of human groups that makes economic and power hierarchies so natural, and readily accepted by most individuals.” Really? In my view, the only thing natural and readily accepted by humans is the tendency toward reciprocity. Getting from small-group trade to a free-market economy, complete with free-market financial systems, is not just a series of baby steps, all easily navigated by our default DNA. Chris’ statement, in my mind, betrays his misunderstanding of the depth of Wilkinson’s insight here. I’m not at all shocked that one who understands science, or appears to, would be less erudite in matters economic. Indeed, I’d say most people don’t understand the difference between having a zero-sum economy and an economy that creates wealth. Allow me to oversimplify it. It all comes down to where the money is kept.

The concept of wealth creation is sometimes difficult to grasp, but at its most basic level, it has to do with the relationship between the aggregate amount of money the country would have if each person kept his or her portion at home under the mattress (we’ll call this real money) and the aggregate amount of money the country has when most money is kept in banks (call this funny money). To understand this, we need only understand the fractional reserve system, which is the system used by all banks in the US. The idea is that banks only keep a fraction of their deposits on hand. When you deposit a dollar into your bank, it may only add 15 cents to its cash. The rest is loaned out to other customers. The borrowers may then deposit the money in that bank or another bank, and the process is repeated again and again. The effect is the creation of a huge difference between real money and funny money. This was made possible the moment the US went off the gold standard, but we need not digress.

(Update: Jan 2010: I have since learned that a fractional reserve system is possible, nay probable, even with a gold standard, so I retract this statement.  It doesn’t impact the point of the post, but I thought it was worth noting.)

The point is that when money is kept in banks, the economy as a whole has considerably more money than it would have if everyone kept their money at home under their mattress. Wealth is created. In a zero-sum economy, there is a finite pie that can only be divided so many times. In a wealth-creating economy, there is what is normally a finite pie, and then laid over it is this artificial pie that miraculously expands the pie below as it grows. Don’t worry if it’s hard to visualize – your genes have no frame of reference for this, because it occurs nowhere else in nature. The wealth-building economy (also known as the free-market economy and the capitalist economy) is the brain-child of men who were so far outside the box, they couldn’t even see it. How about a more practical example?

(I think I’ve heard Neal Boortz use this example.) Suppose two people win the lottery, five million cash for each of them. One guy buys himself a big, nice house. He buys lavish gifts for his friends and family, and generally lives it up till the money runs out. The other guy uses his money to buy a Waffle House. He ends up hiring 20 people, taking out a loan for a piece of property, and staying in business for years to come. The question that is usually asked is, who is better? Both guys are rich, so if you hate the rich, should you hate them both equally? I’ll sidestep that and use this example to point out the difference between zero-sum and wealth creation. The first guy lives in a zero-sum world. He takes his money and spends it till it’s gone. The second lives in a wealth creation world. He takes advantage of the fractional reserve system that underlies our economy and he creates a money machine that ends up bringing in far more revenue than his original five million. It cost no one anything for him to do this. No exploitation involved. No cheating involved (we may assume). In fact, he created jobs in the process. He expanded the pie for everyone.

So, to get back to Mr. Mixing Memory, Wilkinson’s point is that our nature is not inherently equipped to grasp a wealth-creating economy – an economy that is not finite, an economy that is not zero-sum, and economy that is not hierarchical (at least relatively speaking), and an economy that is not coalitional (our Waffle House lottery winner did not know about, nor did he care about, whomever might benefit from his choices). But…as the invisible hand concept evokes, man has no need to grasp the mechanics of this kind of economy. It does its job – it satisfies individual small-scale demands; the rest takes care of itself. Indeed, Wilkinson is saying that capitalism works well with human nature, even if humans are not wired to understand it. Am I the only one who sees the irony in guys like Chris at Mixed Memory not understanding it either?

Consumerism – Status Gone Haywire

Original Post (with comments)
The last post prompted some back and forth discussion regarding the legitimacy of the Enlightened Caveman concept. I hold that there is a duality between what our genes were designed for and want and what we as conscious, sentient beings want. I also believe that the best approach to life entails having the latter control the former. But some seem to think that the more the latter controls the former, the more the world looks like a Vegas version of Pottery Barn. It’s as if the enlightenment is getting us nowhere. Well, folks I’m here to tell you that this is not enlightenment. This is caveman 101, and, if anything, it proves my point beyond dispute.

I’ve been talking lately about appearances. Why? Not because I’m obsessed with the topic, but because it has everything to do with how our world is unfolding. The idea that one should be aware of his or her appearance delta is what is known in the software development world as a work-around – it’s the best you can do with the situation. Ideally, as the world becomes more rational, and less caveman, the need to be aware of an appearance delta diminishes. Just like it is no longer socially acceptable to utter the “N” word in any city with more than 250,000 people, so should it be no longer acceptable to judge a book by its cover, to automatically cut slack to someone because they are physically, or better yet, viscerally appealing to you, or to do the opposite when someone does not make it over your bar. But to operate as if things were already this way would be foolish. It would be failing to recognize reality.

Like it or not, our genes are in command in the public at large, and this explains the Wal-Martification of America. Appearances also, particularly what we want others to think of us, play a crucial role in shaping our goals in life. It’s all about buying big stuff, expensive stuff, but it’s not our fault. Today’s mass-media world provides the general public with the most insidious of insights – what the other guy has. Everyone watches TV, and TV is a barrage of what the other guy has, the life the other guy leads, the car the other guy drives, and on and on. Conservative parrots will cry about how the growth of government has created the crisis that is the two-career home – the tax burden is so high that the wife, the one who used to be able to stay home with the kids, now has to work full time to make ends meet. The truth is that today’s families have an expectation of two $30,000 cars, private school for the kids, expensive yearly vacations, second homes, and all manner of gadgetry and conveniences, and all that costs a heck of lot more than the necessities of the 70’s. And why would they want so much? Cause that’s what the other guy has, and now they know it. The caveman is but a moth to the flame when it comes to what the other guy has.

Status, status, status. In caveman days, you had to be in the upper echelon if you expected to snag a mate…or lunch. That meant you paid close attention to what the folks with food and mates had and were doing, and you followed suit. And here we are, tens of thousands of years later, and nothing has changed. Well, something has changed – the smarts we used to master our environment eventually bit us in the ass. When we were tribal people, all we knew was our immediate environment. We knew where we stood. We paid attention to the folks with status, and we worked at moving up, but we knew where the top was and we knew, fairly well, how close we could get to it. But when we became more explosed to the outside world, when we started to find out that the guy at the top of our particular hierarchy was nothing, that the pinnacle was much higher, all hell broke loose. Things went from a local contest to a national contest quick, and the caveman is still reeling.

The quest for status, more than anything else, is driving consumerism. We want the big things, the expensive things, but we only have so much money. That means we economize wherever we can on the little things – we go to Wal-Mart. Capitalism, the best but not perfect economic system, is always replete with suppliers for demand such as this, even if the profit motive pushes them to exploitation. What we save at Wal-Mart, we spend on what the other guy has. But every time we make another purchase, we watch another show on TV. We see another guy. Suddenly, the DVD isn’t enough. Now, it’s gotta be the plasma TV. And if we can’t afford it, fucking finance it! There are all these nice people mailing us cards that tell us how we can borrow more than the value of our home because we have good jobs. Jobs that we never leave, cause if we do, it’s time to pay up. And what would people think? But why do we have to have all this garbage? Why do we have to worry about what people think? Status.
It feels good. Every time we get what the other guy has, and he notices, this calm comes over our tormented by TV caveman psyche. Our genes are saying, ahh, we’re that much closer to the top, that much more assured of our persistence for another generation. So, I cannot side with the idea that it is our culture that has created this plastic world. It is the very essence of our nature that is pushing us in the wrong direction. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that life is not about what the other guy has. But it takes an enlightened caveman to recognize that a big part of him will never accept it.

And lest anyone think me an anti-corporate type – we need not rail against Wal-Mart for satisfying our caveman desires. Just as the drug war makes no sense because it is focused on demand, so is our indignation misplaced if we insist that companies that cater to our archaic side are the problem. We must simply endeavor to understand our “shallow” side so that we may harness it and retool consumer demand to complement what makes sense in life. It happens one person at a time. One conversation at a time.

Robitussin and the Gauche Theory of Mind
February 22, 2005, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Hijinks

Original Post (with comments)
Sorry for the absence – the guy who never gets a flu shot cause he never gets sick got the freaking flu, and I do not handle sickness well. On a scale of 1 to 10, I operate between a 9 and a 10 pretty much every day. So, on the ultra-rare occasion that I fall ill, I bitch and moan and wail as if I’m on my third week of chemo. I act like, as the Scots would say, a big Jessie. Fortunately for all involved, thanks to my superior immune system, I kicked that avian-borne nuisance as fast as it hit me. I’m back. Not full speed yet, but getting there.

Anyhow, as I was lying in bed yesterday (trying to match the pitch of my moan to the droning humidifier), my wife came rambling through the room and we spoke for a moment. This and that, nothing in particular, but she didn’t ask me how I was feeling. She didn’t ask how I was feeling!

That bitch!

Instantly, resentment washed over me. Sure, go on about your business and ignore the infirm. Wait’ll it’s your turn, honey. Ahh, the vindictive hue of the Robitussin-induced delirium. How could it slip her mind that she should be inquiring as to my status? Didn’t she know what was on my mind? Didn’t she know that the central theme on my giant movie screen was my own decrepit condition, complete with moan track in Sony Digital Audio? Acknowledge, please. Anyone? Anyone? Bitch. Bitch. Biiiiiii….

I moaned myself to sleep and forgot about it until today. But now, hovering at around a 6 (an 8, if I sit perfectly still), I am able to take a mental and emotional step back, and something has dawned on me. It seems like some of my smoothest moves have come by acting upon mistaken impressions of what either was or was not on the mind of whomever I was interacting with. Though this falls under the general heading of misunderstanding, it isn’t the miscommunication kind; it’s what I’d call a gauche theory of mind problem.

Theory of mind, in this case, is understanding that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view. So, if you have a gauche theory of mind, you have a tendency toward, shall we say, less than polished social behavior. You get that people have their own picture of the world, your perception of exactly (or even remotely) what that picture is just comes in a little fuzzy. In my recent time of need, I clumsily assumed that the all-consuming role of my symptoms extended well beyond the confines of my body. Get within the zone, and your mind, like mine, should be instantly preoccupied with my condition. And if you don’t act accordingly, well screw you.

Now, I’ll admit, this is pretty childish. That’s why it’s a good thing I don’t get sick often. I was pushing the envelope snagging my wife to begin with. But this notion of a gauche theory of mind, when it persists over an extended period of time, explains quite a bit of what we see all around us. Just watch the preliminaries of American Idol or just about any reality show and it’s on parade. We marvel at people who so misconstrue their reflection in the minds of others. They perceive themselves manifestly beautiful or talented or popular when in fact they are no such thing. In fact, this brings up an interesting by-product of the phenomenon – other people notice it, cringe, but can’t take their eyes away. And the news is?

This realization, obvious as it may seem, brings me back to the idea that we are well served if we familiarize ourselves with the somewhat universal baselines for acceptance in social situations. But, perhaps of equal importance, is being familiar with the notion that the bar is different in different places. These poor American Idol hopefuls, we may assume, enjoy insulated spheres of acceptance where they live, acceptance that they mistakenly ascribe to the wider swath of the general public. How many alligator tears would be saved if these youngsters were served a heaping helping of, “You may be great in Pascagoula, but that says nothing about how you’ll do in the City of Angels”? It doesn’t mean you quit, it just means you come to grips with how much work you have to do. Then you decide if you want to chip away at it. Believe it or not, our days here are numbered. But the American Idol syndrome is but one example of a gauche theory of mind.

How about the self-important among us? Are they not ascribing their own commanding presence upon our big screens? Are they not disturbed when we don’t respond accordingly? This must be the hardest thing to handle for celebrities. In their case, the bar is exactly where they think it is; it’s just higher than they think it is, at least when they find themselves in the midst of folks who don’t extrapolate what they’re famous for to other areas of measurability. So you celebs out there, I feel ya. Here’s a tip: You may be great in the City of Angels, but that says nothing about how you’ll do in Pascagoula.

Now why should I go to so much trouble to state the obvious? An evening of Robitussin and Coke. Salut.

Changing Your Cover – Appearances – Part 2
February 13, 2005, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, sometimes you can, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Whether or not this statement is true, the fact is that sometimes, lots of times, people will try. Furthermore, it’s usually really tough to tell who’s “thin slicing” based upon looks, and who’s not. As I mentioned in the last post, I think there’s a real value in understanding that a unknowable, but significant, percentage of the population is actively caught up in judging books by their covers.

They’re deciding who they’ll be courteous with, who they’ll ignore, who they’ll be afraid of, and who they’ll open up to, all based upon appearances (at least initially). And, for the most part, these are not rogues and lunatics. These are not simply people who occupy the fringes of the depth bell-curve, people who can and should be dismissed. An unknowable subset of these people only use this technique as a filtering process. They are open-minded and intelligent enough to modify their assessments with the acquisition of more and more data. For whatever reasons – maybe they’re extremely busy, maybe they’re inundated with books that bear out their preliminary cover assessments, maybe they’re fearful of social situations – these people modulate their up-front human interactions using the shallowest of information. We could fault them for it. But what if, in doing so, we miss the chance for deep and meaningful concurrence? What if, and this applies most to high delta people, we limit those whom we take seriously so much that we’re virtually guaranteeing ourselves loneliness? Thankfully, just as it takes infinite courage to really be a pacifist, it takes more than most people are willing to give to take a truly hard-line against appearance-based prejudice. Most folks, myself included, give in.

So, here we have an interesting question. If we acknowledge that we play along with this shallow game in certain circumstances, in lots of circumstances, then the question is how much do we give in? How much should we be willing to change our covers to plant the judgement we want in the minds of the judges, the ones we secretly despise for operating in such a way?
In America, it’s pretty much accepted that our teeth matter, and not just for health reasons. How else do we explain the massive industry that is orthodontia? It’s a given, once you get to even a modest socio-economic level, that your kids will get braces if their teeth are screwy. (Sure, some people are against this. But I think most folks, if they can afford it, are happy to be able to do this for their children.) The point is that getting braces is expensive and not altogether painless or trouble-free. Yet, we do it. We cower to the shallow beast of appearance anxiety and tweak our covers. The same is true with respect to fashion.

The big fads come along, and the masses get on board. One friend, a sales executive in the medical device field, works for a guy who is about 50. This guy, the owner of the company, is always teasing him about his clothes, the square-toed shoes, in particular. He says they’re “trendy” and that my friend is a boob for buying into the trend. My friend, being 35, single, and quick on his square-toed feet, comes back with a witty retort:

Say whatever you want, Pal, but I’m hunting ladies at all times, and it is essential that I do not limit my selection. I’m after that long-term relationship, which means I have to sift through the market to find what I’m looking for. The fact is that the kind of girls I’m pursuing have guys after them all the time. They make the first cut based upon appearances. If I’m Mr. Traditional, like you, in cap-toed shoes and pin striped suits, I come off like a dud – an insurance salesman or an accountant. Any girl who’s gonna be able to handle me for the long-haul is going to write the dud off in two seconds. So, to make the cut, I look the part. Then, once I’m in the door, the tables turn, and I’m making the next cut. Get it? So, mock my shoes all you want. Just know that when you call me at 8am on a Sunday morning and you go straight to voice mail, it’s because I was up all night banging a hot chick that likes square-toed shoes. That’s the only trend I care about perpetuating.

Now that is one enlightened caveman. Say what you will about the morality of his endeavors, but there’s no denying that he has a good handle on how to manipulate reality to his own ends. Fashion is like that for some people. I’ll wear some conservative variation on the faded-front jeans, but not because I feel I just have to be in style, but because it sends the message that I care about my appearance and that I’m aware of what’s big these days. That shaves a bit off my appearance delta, you might say. And look at it this way, if my plan backfires and someone dismisses me because I’m wearing trendy clothes, then there’s a good chance they’ll really object to some of my more outlandish views on the world. It’s a self-correcting system, I figure. Anyhow, all I’m saying is that the cover change, in itself, isn’t shallow or the equivalent of selling-out. But what is?

Some would say cosmetic surgery is beyond the line. I know women with capped teeth who absolutely abhor the thought of getting breast implants. Hmm. Is there really that big of a difference? Like it or not, a female with a nice chest, all other things being equal, will get noticed more than one with a modest lower neck. And the surgery, silicon scare aside (yes, scare, as in, not real), is pretty routine and is cheaper than veneers. And what about liposuction? How many people have saddle-bags or love handles that will not go away no matter how much they diet or exercise? What’s wrong with them having a doctor wave a canula to make it all disappear? Of course, the funny thing is that many proponents of cosmetic surgery will say, “But I’m doing it for myself. I just want to like what I see when I look in the mirror.” Suuuure. Whatever you have to tell yourself. But again, their delusions aside, I’m saying it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to want to change your cover, strictly for the benefit of the cover judgers in society.

It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. What do you get in terms of delta reduction, and how does it compare to the costs? This is the part many folks miss, I think. There’s an aspect of the appearance delta concept that must now be revealed – the ideal appearance, the one to which ours is compared to compute the delta, the one that gets us a free ride in terms of interpersonal acceptance (in particular circumstances of interest), includes an assessment of how hard we’re trying. You get points off (that is, your delta grows) if it looks like you’ve gone too far in changing your cover. You look needy. This is why the girls who get the massive DDD boob jobs actually diminish the field of acceptance, rather than expand it. This is why the guys who shave every hair from their bodies, for no practical reason (like say an Olympic swim competition), come off as odd-balls. This is why massive lip jobs, repeated face lifts, and botox-induced expressionless faces rarely yield the desired return on investment. These people just end up looking funny. So what to do?

If you’re going to change your cover, and I’m not saying you should, you should aim to change it so that strangers can’t tell. Girls, get reasonably-sized boobs for your frame. If guys really can’t determine if they’re real, but they break their necks trying, you’ve probably hit the target. Same thing for guys – if you’re driving a 10-year old Toyota, you might rethink the giant fin on the back. (Yes, the appearance delta applies to cars, too. But that’s another discussion.) But there’s still more to this.

Another complication to consider is what people you know will think. If you conduct your inner-circle affairs with an avowed disdain for appearance-based prejudice, then you may find it hard to explain changing your cover in any dramatic way. Maybe you could acquaint your closest friends and family with your enlightened rationale for the change, and maybe they’d understand. Or maybe there’s nothing you could say to make them understand. Maybe their view of you would be tainted forever. Who knows? I would simply argue that no substantial cover change should be undertaken without reflecting on this.

In the end, if we’re going get what we want out of the social side of life, the side that, more than anything else, determines the tenor of our happiness, we have to decide how much we’re willing to give in to this shallow, appearance-oriented game. We have to decide where the line is drawn, and we have to be careful to get what we pay for. Even if we can rationally justify the desire to improve our frail and thin lips, there isn’t much to be gained by looking like a duck. Unless of course, our desire is to be accepted at the ritzy spa for desperate housewives. That, too, is another discussion entirely.

The Appearance Delta and Gimmick Theory
February 11, 2005, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
I’ve written, on occasion, about the influence of looks in our society. Let me attempt to codify my thoughts. The whole thing hinges upon the generalization that individuals in America (and elsewhere, but America, in particular) respond differently to people they perceive as physically attractive versus people who come off as unattractive. I believe this is largely genetic.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spends some time discussing the biases that we all have below the surface of consciousness. The point of the book is to put forth the notion that our minds are very good at “thin-slicing,” which is using a small amount of information to make decisions very quickly, and that, while this should often be embraced, it happens behind the locked door of our subconscious. He cites the intuitive behavior of successful art dealers, professional athletes, professional poker players, and military leaders to demonstrate the good side of thin slicing. However, he examines the dark side of thin slicing when he discusses how people respond to physical appearance.

In evolutionary terms, there are physical attributes that indicate fitness – tallness, healthy hair, healthy teeth, symmetry in facial features, good posture, a muscular and lean physique, and so on. Youth in females indicates fertility, so males prefer younger women. Conversely, size and brawn and chiseled features indicate virility in males, which is why females prefer “hunks.” (We’re talking about cavemen here.) The idea is that our evolutionary ancient emotions, the ones operating under the radar of consciousness, are tuned to be drawn to people with these attributes. Gladwell mentions the ex-president Warren Harding as a prime example. Here was a guy who was big with a Roman aristocracy kind of good looks, but he wasn’t especially intelligent, nor was he an impressive public speaker, and he had a long list of character flaws. Nevertheless, with the help of a clever senator, he was elected to office, presumably for nothing more than his good looks. A more contemporary example is the poll Gladwell conducted of half the companies on the Fortune 500 list.

He found that almost all CEOs are tall white males. Brevity, if I am capable of it, prevents me from detailing all of his caveats and conditions, but suffice it to say that his findings bear a stark contrast to normal demographic distributions. In short, it appears that upward mobility is easier for tall white males than it is for short ones or non-white ones or both (surprise, surprise). Of course, the argument can (and should) be made that Gladwell’s findings only betray the extent of in-group prejudice among the few who make it to the top. But, even if this is the case, how things got to be that way still warrants an explanation. For my part, I’m inclined to agree with the author that individuals whose physical appearance indicates fitness in an evolutionary sense enjoy an advantage when dealing with other people, an advantage that is largely unknown by the people conferring it upon them.

If this is true. If. Then, it means that looks do matter in society. It means that no matter how enlightened we may become, no matter how we may deliberately look beyond physical appearance, we are ill-served if we expect the same thing out in the world. We may choose to take the higher ground and assert that people who modulate their interpersonal behavior based upon something so shallow are to be ignored. But the notion that much of this appearance bias happens below the level of consciousness strains the sensibility of this approach. No, I think there’s a better option. Once again, I find myself in a situation where I need two sets of rules for how I operate. I’ve stumbled on another sort of dualist strategy.

I think of all people as falling into one of two groups – people I want long-term relationships with and people I don’t. When I first meet someone, I don’t know which category they’ll fall into, so they start out in the latter. Over time, however, if we get along, and it makes sense, they can transition into the former. The point is that I apply different interpersonal rules to the two different categories.

For the long-term relationship folks, I prefer enlightenment. I encourage looking beyond physical appearance because I know that the rewards are plentiful. Shallow people don’t make the cut. But for people with whom I have no intention or interest in any meaningful long-term relationship, I have no requirements whatsoever. I abstract them all into this group that, among other things, is defined by the least common genetic denominator. I assume that they’re all cavemen doing precisely as their genes instruct. Sure, I’m proven wrong a lot, but it’s better than assuming that they’re all highly aware of their genes’ negative influences and are compensating for them all the time. The consequences of getting this wrong are regular disappointment. Anyhow, things get interesting we we realize that sometimes we need things from these people.

I need to get one of them to like me enough to hire me for a job, for example. I assume that this person will form an instant impression of me simply by how I look, and that depending upon what he or she comes up with, I may or may not have an easy time in the interview. Just to venture into absurdity for a moment, suppose there’s a scoring system that is used by the interviewer to determine if I get a thumbs up or thumbs down, say from 1 to 10. It takes a 9 or better to get the job. If my appearance impresses him or her, I may start with a 6 or a 7. That means I only have to come up with a couple of points to ensure success. It may be my intelligence or my personality or my experience, but whatever it is, it will not be about my appearance. But suppose another applicant comes in and the interviewer is dazzled by his appearance. He may start with a nine, meaning that if he doesn’t do anything to cost himself points, the job is his. What I’m getting at here is the notion of an appearance delta.

I would define this as the difference between my appearance and the appearance that would grant me instant acceptance in any given social situation. Women like Elizabeth Hurley, for example, have no appearance delta. She’s so attractive that people fall over themselves to spend time with her. This is the bane of the beautiful but intelligent woman’s existence – she has a tough time being taken seriously simply because she’s hot. Similarly, a guy with Sean Connery’s looks experiences an entirely different version of life than I do. I’m not upset by this; it’s a fact of life. Indeed, I think recognizing this has a lot to offer in terms of enjoying what little time we have here.

It’s very useful to figure out what your appearance delta is, and I should note that it is somewhat situation dependent. To a heterosexual soldier coming home from two months of all-male field exercises, an average-looking woman has less of a delta than she does if she meets him when he’s been in the general population for a while. Nevertheless, knowing where you stand looks-wise in the minds of others has its benefits. We have to acknowledge that much of the enjoyment we get out of life has to do with interpersonal acceptance. It’s that concurrence thing I keep talking about. It’s an axiom in human endeavors that not being accepted in social situations is emotionally distressing. Sometimes, given the idea of subconscious appearance bias, the culprit can be how we look. Regardless of how distasteful this may seem, I just can’t see how there’s anything to be gained by being indignant or burying my head in the sand on this. It’s a matter of practicality.

The key to the usefulness of the appearance delta is in the notion that it can be overcome by non-physical attributes. All it takes is a gimmick, and there are all kinds. Being smart can be a gimmick, as can being funny or empathetic. Being an artist, such as musician or painter, can also serve as a gimmick, and being rich and/or powerful works, too. The point is that knowing your delta tells you how much gimmick you need in any given situation if acceptance is what you’re looking for. Harsh as it is to say, if you’re short, fat, and bald, you’re gonna need a lot more gimmick than the guy who’s tall, lean, and well coiffed. Now, you can object and refuse to participate in this ever-so-shallow game of human interaction, but you should do so at your peril.

As for me, I do what I can with what I have. I stay in shape and I try to look presentable when I’m in situations where acceptance among folks in the non-long-term relationship category will be of benefit. I pay attention to what I wear and how I carry myself. I estimate my delta and decide which kind and how much gimmick I want to employ. Shallow? You bet. Does it work? Yup. However, when I’m around members of the long-term relationship group, I’m less concerned about appearance. I don’t care if my hair is messed up and I opt for flip-flops and t-shirts instead of nicer clothes. And I don’t bother with gimmick; I’m just myself. That’s the beauty of the inner circle – you can rise above the bullshit and just live.

At the end of the day, we all want to be accepted. We all want to be in on the inside joke. And as much as we’d all (especially those who have a high delta) like it if acceptance were strictly a function of character, it just isn’t, at least not enough to sustain us. What can start as a relationship founded on looks or looks plus gimmick can turn into anything but. To close ourselves off to these opportunities simply limits the amount of acceptance we’ll enjoy in life. This doesn’t mean that we long for acceptance so much that we pursue it indiscriminately. That’s trading problems for problems. It only means that we play the shallow game to get our feet in the door and then let our criteria for separating long-termers from non-long-termers kick in. It ain’t pretty, but it works.