The Enlightened Caveman

Jack White, the Rat Race, and the Rejection of Easy

Last night, I watched the recent documentary called, It Might Get Loud, which revolves around a meeting of three electric guitar virtuosos, each from a different generation.  The elder statesman is none other than Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.  The mature, but still in his prime, slot is held by U2’s The Edge, and the younger generation is represented by one of my absolute favorite musicians, Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and Dead Weather).  It’s a terrific film from a lot of different perspectives, but the ethic espoused by Jack White really hit on something I’ve been dwelling on for quite some time.  Right at the beginning, he comes out with this…

Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Opportunity doesn’t do anything for creativity.  Yeah, it makes it easier, and you can get home sooner.  But it doesn’t make you a more creative person.

White expands on this idea again and again by talking about his need to struggle as a musician.  He purposefully strips things down to make it harder to create something emotionally meaningful.  He uses guitars that are cheap and won’t stay in tune.  He arranges the instruments on stage in a way that is inconvenient, so even the act of getting to the organ after playing the guitar is difficult.  The idea is that pushing through the hardship is what leads to creativity and emotional truth.  When it’s too easy, finding truth and beauty is too hard.  It seems paradoxical, but I think Jack White is on to something that can be generalized way beyond creating art.

The processes for obtaining the things we want and need are so streamlined these days that I wonder if we aren’t slowly optimizing all of the beauty and joy out of our lives.  Before I go any further, let me just say that my focus here is not on technology as an evil; this is not a Luddite’s lament.  What I want to talk about is what we’re using all of this technology for.  I think I know.

We want everything to be easy.  But why?  In theory, when something is easy, it takes less time to accomplish.  Okay, so we want more time.  I’m onboard with that.  But for what?  So we can work more? Come again?

It sounds crazy, but I’ve been noodling on this for a long time, and that’s the best I can come up with. It seems that those who are the best at optimizing every little thing in their lives also tend to be the people who work the most.  At least that’s the world I live in.  So the next question is why work so much?  I’m assuming that work for work’s sake isn’t the goal.  So what is?

This is where the caveman thing comes into play.  If we’re not paying attention, we simply fall into the norms of our social group.  We adopt the goals of those we interact with the most.  At my stage in life, my social surroundings are other thirty-somethings (some with kids, some not), all focused on achievement.  It’s trite to say they’re after the brass ring, but it’s not far off.  Bust your ass now so you can get the promotion, which requires you to bust your ass even more to get the next promotion. The distant hope is that the brass ring brings a level of happiness and contentment – and ease – that makes it all worthwhile.

And what of technology?  Well technology makes it possible to dispense with the mundane so you can focus on work.  Why go to the store twice a week when you can go to Costco once a month?  Why visit the local library when the Internet is a click away?  Why call when you can text?  You get the idea.

But what if all of this ease, which just gives us more time to pursue the goals most present in our social groups, is eroding the possibility of finding real satisfaction in life.  After all, it’s called the rat race because it is an endless, pointless pursuit – a constant footrace on a wheel that never stops turning.  With every perceived success, we take on another goal, which invariably takes up more of our time.  How do we get off?  For this, we go back to Jack White.

What happens when we try to reject easy?  What happens when we purposefully place the coffee maker in the laundry room?  I’ll admit, I’m not good at this.  There’s an old saying, “Leave it to the lazy man to find the easiest way.”  That’s me.  But it’s acute laziness, not chronic laziness that afflicts people like me.  I want this or that little task to be easy because I want to devote my efforts to “bigger” things that really matter to me.  But maybe that’s the problem.

What if this quest to optimize all of the little things is causing me to completely lose sight of the good economist’s favorite axiom – life is about tradeoffs?  More and more, I’m finding that what’s really happening is that we’ve collectively bought into this idea that we can have it all.  By optimizing here, I can have something else there.  In the end, when I would previously have had to choose between two wants, I now can have both.  Is this good for me?  Jack White would say no, and I’m really beginning to think he’s right.

This is an illusion, this notion that we can have it all.  By buying songs one at a time, I’m missing the songs on records that I’d love ten times more than the hits.  Tradeoffs never go away; we just lose the ability to spot what we’re giving up.

So is that it?  Reject easy?  Manufacture hardship?  There are consequences, though.  Putting aside the obvious changes in terms of “productivity” that come with rejecting easy, what about the social implications?  What about that nagging feeling that we’re not keeping up?  It’s genetic, ya know, so it will reveal itself one way or another.

Honestly, I don’t know how do this.  I just have a feeling that it is the right thing to do.  I’m going to start by picking one easy thing every day and doing it the hard way.  Who knows.  Maybe in a week I’ll realize that this is the dumbest idea I’ve had in a while.  But I want to try.  It just feels wrong to race to the table at every meal so I can be spoon-fed a huge helping of easy.  What am I giving up?  I need to find out.

I’ll keep you posted.

Keep Your Eyes On Your Big Screen
March 16, 2006, 4:08 am
Filed under: Enlightened Living, My Theories, Science

I’ve talked before about my theory of consciousness.  The essence of it is that we have this big screen in our minds that is occupied by the aspects of our mental proceedings that are winning the moment-by-moment competitions that are going on continuously below the surface.  What we experience (sight, sound, etc.) on the big screen is what we are conscious of.  It’s all about attention.

What are we paying attention to?  The answer drives such a monumental part of our experience, yet few of us routinely ask ourselves what is on our big screens.  That’s probably because no one else has posited the big screen metaphor – at least I’ve never come across it.  Nevertheless, visual metaphors can be extremely useful, and this one is at the high end of the utility scale.  Perhaps an everyday example.

You’ve just come from the grocery store.  You walk in the door to your home and find that your wallet or purse is not with you.  It’s no shocker what’s on your big screen for the foreseeable future until you recover what you’re missing.  You’re completely absorbed, which is to say that your big screen is occupied by one thing almost entirely.  Yes, the big screen in our heads, unlike the one at your average movie theater, has split-viewing capability.  In fact, it more resembles those walls you’ve seen that are made up of dozens of TVs – they can each play individually, or they can work together to produce several multi-TV experiences, or even a giant, cohesive experience.  So, in that context, losing your wallet is an absorbing conscious experience, but most things are not.

In this multi-tasking world with so many have-to-dos right next to so many want-to-dos, it’s obvious that our big screens are in multi-image mode most of the time.  We’re thinking about the people in our lives, our jobs, our problems, our hopes, and whatever happens to be going on from second to second.  The big screen is a melange of ever-changing images and sounds.  Most of life is a fragmented conscious experience.  I have found that simply being aware of this concept has profound effects on how I can modulate my conscious experiences, and thus influence my levels of contentment and awareness.  (Sounds all zen and meditative, huh?  Not really.)

We all have things that pop up on our big screens that we’d rather not think about, and we all have our ways of ushering those experiences off the screen.  It is my sincere opinion that most people are really good at getting rid of things that they should keep, while they have almost no ability to get rid of things that have no place on our big screens.  This, I believe, is mostly a function of our caveman heritage.  For example, most people simply have not learned that status in a modern, largely anonymous world is irrelevant.  Dave Ramsey, the radio consumer advocate, is fond of saying that people are all the time spending money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.  That about nails it – we’re doing what we’re programmed to do – we don’t know any different.  And what about the things we should keep on our big screens?

Though some folks may disagree with me, I would argue that at least 80% of the population is absolutely unwilling to accept truths about themselves, even the ones they know, but try to deny.  My most recent boss was an absolutely abysmal manager, and he had indications almost weekly that confirmed it.  Nevertheless, were he asked, he would undoubtedly proclaim his skill at governing and guiding the actions of other people.  We’re talking about a massive blind-spot.  How does something like this emerge, you ask?  By kicking the truth off your big screen when you don’t like how it makes you feel.

The hallmark of human maturity is self-awareness, and it only comes by letting the rough stuff have its 15 minutes on our big screens.  I’m not about to say that I’m the most mature guy in town – I do stupid shit on a regular basis – but I will say that I have a good handle on where I’m strong and where I’m weak.  In other words, I would argue that I don’t have any blind-spots, at least no big ones.  I may overestimate or underestimate some aspect of my personality, but I know who I am, and one thing I know is that, though I may resist, I always eventually manage to accept the truth when it reveals itself to me.  This is because of how I control my big screen.

Occasionally, things absorb my screen that I’d rather not experience.  Instead of invoking a default program to wipe away the unpleasant and replace it with the pleasant, I split the screen.  Next to the negative experience, I add a vignette about why this experience is so unpleasant to me.  Nine times out of ten, it’s because the answer is some truth about myself that I’d rather not accept.  (A disclaimer – this is personal best practices stuff, which means I try to always do this.  Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail and have to try again later.  Such is life.)  Maybe I’m being selfish in a way that is unacceptable.  Maybe I’m being vain – as in when I lost my tooth recently.  Whatever.  The point is that the mind always knows when we’re going astray.  It’s up to us to listen when it throws our foibles up on the big screen.  If we don’t, we’re just asking for pain later.

The bottom line, folks, is that truth will get you in the end.  It always does.  You may live in a fantasy land, and it may hold up pretty well, but one day, truth will burst your bubble.  And when it does, the agony will far exceed what you’d have experienced if you’d just have watched your big screen a little longer when it wasn’t feeding you candy.

So the next time you’re absorbed in something, think about your big screen (which will, incidentally, immediately split the screen).  If what you’re absorbed in – say, a rock concert – is worthwhile, then you can take pleasure in knowing that your mind is tuned into something positive that is giving you pleasure.  (There’s nothing like good art to reboot a fragmented big screen.)  Conversely, if you’re obsessed with envy at your supposed best-friend’s good fortune, your newly split big screen will also let you know that you’re being a shallow douchebag.  That, too, is something positive, so pay attention.

Abstract to Happy Fantasy – A Leap to the Abyss?
November 9, 2005, 3:45 am
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, My Theories, Science

My thinking right now begins with the idea my brain (and yours, too) has an approximation of reality digitally represented within its physical existence. It all hinges on two things. The first is the notion that there is such a thing as absolute truth, if you take it to mean that there is a consistency to things, an immutable quality (or multitude of qualities) that permeates the perceivable universe. The second is the idea that our neurons are malleable enough to gather information about the world and code it into some sort of usable storage. Both are utterly defensible. In simple terms, our little neurons work together to construct a complex model of the perceivable universe, which is knowable and constant. What got me down this path is thinking that there was no fortune, evolutionarily-speaking, for the flawed mental model, but only to a point. After that, the flawed model may be the key to happiness. (And the little annoying tap on the shoulder.)

I suppose the evolutionary background for this is the idea that starting back in ancestral time and moving forward, those individuals who had the most “realistic” neural models of reality stood a better chance of surviving than those whose models were, shall we say, deficient. Perhaps the bad models were overly general, classifying all berries as edible, thus resulting in the demise of their purveyors. Or maybe they were overly specific in their grouping of entities; they could not generalize that a large, agile cat, though it might not have stripes, might be dangerous. The genes that made these inferior mental models were, so it would seem, stopped dead in their tracks. Literally.

But it goes further than that. Evolution is about escalation. It’s safe to assume that the totally inferior models would have fallen away early in the mental evolutionary process. But there would still have been the matter of scarce resources, which lead directly to competition. That is to say, once the simple things killed off the stupid people, there was still a competition for limited resources. And, once again, the accuracy of the neural model would have been the chief arbiter of survival.

The basic details of reality would, at that point (some theoretical space in time), have been fairly consistent among the existing humans. Most everyone would share a similar mental model for the difference between poisionous berries and edible berries (or at least the notion that there are different types), or the similarity between tigers and lions. But more complex aspects of reality, such as the tendency of humans to deceive one another, especially in certain situations, might not be shared. And those types of differences would have to have been heavily influential on the genetic makeup of the populations that followed. Basically, the suckers didn’t make it.

And here we are. It seems clear that our mental models are now the result of genetic predispositions in the hands of significant cultural influences. Who knows when the shift from primarily genetically-influenced minds to minds built by genetics mixed with culture happened. All we know is that, now, nature and nurture are heavy-duty bedfellows. The notion of a human mental model of reality is greatly affected by this.

I’d venture to say that most humans, at least western humans, share a very complex mental model of reality, some of which is genetic, and some of which is cultural. However, there are also vast differences, and many of them are completely fabricated, and most (if not all) of those are cultural. In fact, the point of this wandering is to say that we are now, and probably have been for quite a while, living in a time when the direction of our shared mental model is straying markedly away from reality. Our culture is driving, and it cares not where absolute truth wants to go.

It’s not that we’re straying purposefully. It’s just that some aspects of reality have actually been changed. For example, for most of man’s existence, it has been an axiom that if you didn’t take steps to provide for your own food, you were going to starve to death. Nowadays, in some places (most western cities), you can do just about nothing, and you’ll never starve. That’s a big change to the basic mental model of reality that has existed in the minds of humans for millennia. And when an axiom of reality shifts, it isn’t nuts to suppose that lots of them have shifted. This is how we get to fantasy land.

It’s been a looong time since little differences in our mental models have had any significant impact on our survivability. The creation of institutions (both government and economic) pretty much gutted that risk factor – by shifting reality in some areas and promising to shift reality in other areas. As long as we don’t die, there are really no consequences for believing erroneous things, such as that the minimum wage helps poor people, or that Allah demands the annihilation of the west. We’re able to disconnect from reality more and more as our institutions grow in their influence upon our everyday lives. And we would have it no other way. Indeed, this could very well be part of the force behind our tendency to cling to institutions. (The other being the need for concurrence, but I don’t want to digress.)

Our minds, being good at building models, which ultimately are nothing more than categories (and all of the characteristics that describe them) filled with definitions of specific entities, are masters of abstraction. They assimilate disparate ideas into concepts that define their relationship, and then use the new concepts as disparate ideas to be included in still broader terms. When you get high enough on the abstraction ladder, you are creating reality. You’re imagining ideas that may or may not be true, and you have no practical means to tell the difference. And so long as these ideas don’t fail you (i.e. nothing contrary to the concepts happens to you), you have no reason to suspect their inaccuracy. So your mind constructs a fantasy. The question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Whenever I travel to third-world countries, I’m always reminded of how far my fantastic version of reality can venture from the real thing. Actually, maybe it’s better to say that my flimsy version of reality – the one that holds up most of the time but could fall at any moment – is a far cry from the more sturdy version of reality that I see when I travel. But no matter how much “perspective” I may gain from my forays into the land of bare necessities, I’m always glad to pull into my driveway, the perfectly smooth concrete driveway in my fantasy land where food, health, shelter, and lifelong companionship are a given. And not the basics – the high end stuff. It’s a given, all of it. I’m happy to excuse thoughts of mortality and deprivation as mere glimpses into a reality that I don’t experience. Indeed, I have to. We all do.

I met an old American Indian guy this past weekend who has a little village set up as a tourist attraction. While my two-year old son was running wild from tee-pee to tee-pee, this old guy was telling my wife and I how his ancestors lived off the land. He showed us all the things they made from the animals they hunted. Story after story of ingenuity and independence. I finally commented that the Indians must have been really tough folks to have lived like they did. He came back with a fitting closing to this post. He said, “To be us now and look back to their life, yeah it looks tough. But to them, not knowing what we know now, life was easy. Easier than it is now. The earth provided everything they needed, and they spent their time on the good things – enjoying the life they were gi

I’m not advocating some dumbass “get back to nature” lifestyle. That’s nothing more than placing bets on the cards you wish you had instead of the cards in your hand. I’m just saying that it’s useful to recognize that our version of reality, though it may be durable, is likely to be something entirely different from what reality is (and always has been) for most humans. Considering the possibility that something like a Hurricane Katrina or a 9-11 could come along and re-introduce us to man’s most experienced reality, it’s not a bad idea to spend a little time pondering what to do if the fantasy fails. This is not sky is falling kind of stuff; just a little light contingency planning.

Riding The Horse
June 17, 2005, 5:17 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Enlightened Living, My Theories

Original Post (with comments)
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty nervous around horses. They’re very big, and they are (as far as I’m concerned) very unpredictable. I’ve heard horror stories of people who got kicked by horses, and I’m pretty much soured on them. But it occurred to me this evening that managing the caveman within each of us is very much like riding a horse. First you have to tame him, then you can take him wherever you please.

Think of our primal tendencies as the horse. When unsaddled and unbroken, the horse does pretty much what he wants, according to his natural proclivities – he seeks safety, food, and sex, and not necessarily in that order. And he’s big, which means he’s due a wide berth when he’s got a head of steam for something. Our goal as enlightened cavemen (and women) is to contain the horse, to control it. This is not unlike the process of breaking a wild mustang.

I have long believed that the human populations (in Africa or the Middle East, for example) that fare the worst in life are dominated by people who are driven exclusively by unbroken horses. Ancient emotions run wild – the quest for status, the indignation and enmity that come from reciprocal altruism unfulfilled, the in-group versus out-group mentality, the male urge to spread his seed far and wide, the willingness to believe falsehood if it supports any of the aforementioned, all of it. The horse lacks the benefit of a harness that is held by a rational, big-picture thinker. But, lest we miss a critical component of this concept, the thinker is not enough.

Were we jockeys without horses, we would be largely unfit for purpose. The thinker would be deprived of the chief instrument of his plans. Indeed, the thinker is never as good at finding shelter, food, and sex as the horse is. No, the horse is essential. He brings with him the courage, the strength, and the resolve to execute the visions of the thinker, even the most primitive of visions. So the first task is to harness the horse, to control him, and a daunting task it is.

The choice of the horse as the embodiment of the caveman mentality is not arbitrary. It is precisely the juxtaposition of power and unpredictability that make the horse the obvious choice. We cannot simply lasso him and expect him to submit. We have to convince him that he cannot win. Fortunately, the rich history of our species is replete with examples from which we can draw our confidence as horse breakers. So long as the horse believes that we are in control, he is ours to do with what we will. And still, it is not easy.

The unpredictability of our horse, even when broken, limits our options. If he gets spooked by dogs, we cannot expect his submission to override this. We must extend our thinking to include accounting for his quirks, for at least he is predictably unpredictable – he won’t spook for nothing, but when he does, there’s no telling what he’ll do. So the thinker gets to know his horse. He gets to know what spooks him and what soothes him so he can guide him gingerly around the obstacles that promote unpredictability. This is our task, and as with any worthwhile task, the rewards are manifest.

When we tame the horse, when we control the horse, we can ride him. We can find a delicate (but durable) balance between our big-picture designs and his power to achieve them. We can steer him around interpersonal conflicts that back him into a corner, but, when options evaporate, a few heels to the hindquarters are all it takes to spur him into action. This is what I’m after. This is what we should all be after – a tame horse that can be unleashed at will. Luckily, this is all figurative. No matter how much I may like this analogy, don’t look for me on a horse any time soon.

Personality Typing I: Electrons with West’s Disease
May 8, 2005, 5:12 pm
Filed under: My Theories, Relationships, TV

Original Post (with comments)
Did I mention I’m addicted to Deadwood? Okay, maybe addicted is a strong word, but I’m really enjoying it, and as it happens, I’m in kind of a weird place, temporally speaking. I’ve absorbed the whole first season because I rented the DVDs. Now I’m ready to jump into the second season, but it’s already underway, four or five (or is it six?) episodes worth. What to do? Rather than lose the impact of seeing them all in order, I settled on the the methadone option – the “Special Features” DVD that came with the last two episodes of Season 1. DND (hereafter invoking a new acronym meaning, does not disappoint).

The guy who writes Deadwood is named David Milch. He’s one of those “established” TV writers, the guys who have the jobs that are the heart’s desire of countless inevitably unsuccessful writers. He’s there for a good reason, irrespective of the lock-out to new talent that typifies much of the industry. Milch started as a writer on Hill Street Blues (won an Emmy) and gained momentum up to co-creating NYPD Blue (won a couple of Emmys), which he rode all the way through the 90’s. Now, he’s doing Deadwood… unorthodox, like.

It turns out that the folks at HBO (geniuses, if you ask me) have given this guy a wide berth – a lot of what he writes is improvised on the set after he watches some aspect of an actor’s performance. The whole crew, according to the interviews on the “Special Features” disk, are like addicts waiting for new pages. (I can relate, but I’m okay.) Anyhow, the last segment on the disk is an interview between Milch and one of the stars of the first season, Kieth Carradine, who plays Wild Bill Hickok. I was impressed and intrigued by this gregarious but admitted self-hater before seeing this interview (he was on Jon Favreaux’s Dinner for Five not too long ago). Nevertheless, I was caught off guard by how insightful and esoterically erudite Milch was when, toward the end of the interview, Carradine asked him about a particular scene from Season 1 – a guy who was praising (and irritating) Wild Bill, after being asked to go away, changed his tune abruptly, and wished him dead. I’ll quote him so you can follow his train of thought as it comes around the bend.

Nathaniel West wrote, I thought, beautifully about that syndrome, and W.H. Auden, the poet, wrote an essay about West’s analysis of that syndrome, which he called, ‘West’s Disease.’ It’s about people who, for whatever reason, are unable to turn wishes into passions in their life, and lacking that capacity, sit passively in mute outrage, anticipating disasters. They go to fires. Any sort of natural disaster attracts them. And in the absence of a natural disaster, they sometimes try and create disasters. And they hate the people whose lives, whether successful or not, are pursued with passion. And first they idolize them, then they want to destroy them. They want to appropriate the vitality of those people…

Whoa. I talk to lots of people and I’d be mesmerized to be in a conversation of this sort. Maybe it just hits home with me because I’m so obsessed with understanding and generalizing about human behavior (which more than a couple of people have told me is futile). Nevertheless, to me, this was fantastic. It rang so true that I just had to investigate this West fellow. Here’s a good bio link. It seems that his most famous work was the novel, Day of the Locust (1939, never heard of it), and it also seems that his most distinguishing characteristic was his tendency to exaggerate to absurdity. This review that followed the release of a compilation of his works in 1997 makes the point.

In West’s cosmology, exaggeration rules: a moment of self-doubt becomes profound self-loathing; fleeting hostility becomes a blow to the head; and the merest gesture of compassion becomes an act of martyrdom. Prose is not always easy to read at this volume — West’s crazy normality has, in the 57 years since his death, often perplexed both the tourists and the folks back home — but this edition, which demonstrates the range of West’s craziness as well as his normality, is convincing evidence that his work is worth looking at again.

I like this idea of exaggeration to absurdity. Clearly, “West’s Disease” isn’t pervasive in society, in literal terms, but it’s recognizable. Better said – you can’t miss it! We all know people like this, people who hate those who achieve or succeed or just plain live life with a smile on their face. Most of these electrons (as I call them – negatively charged and all) do so under the radar, though I find that they’re easy to spot, for the most part. Very few will actually translate their contempt into actions – recall that their problem to begin with is that they can’t do this – but some will.

Some folks will go out of their way to screw someone whose very existence, and only that, irks them to no end. These people, even the impotent ones, are cancer. They must be avoided at all costs, and I’ll go so far as to say that they should be shunned the moment their nefarious predilections reveal themselves sufficiently. To me, knowing that this personality type exists has significant value. It’s just part of knowing what we’re up against in our march through life, and knowing what to do about it is often the difference between realizing our dreams and going in circles. Electrons with West’s Syndrome. I fucking love it. Cross another nuisance off the Christmas Card list.

(DISCLAIMER: Never, in the course of identifying personality types, do I intend to suggest that any given personality type cannot be substantially altered via sustained diligence, and maybe some drugs. Therefore, no person who bears resemblance to this should assume that they are a loser and are in danger of being shunned. That is, of course, unless they don’t get their shit together, like soon.)

I suppose the reason I like Deadwood so much (besides the profanity, of course) is the fact that the characters have so much depth and so much complexity. What’s even more interesting is that to be able to write characters like that, you have to have in your mind an understanding of humanity that is the exact opposite of complex. David Milch, being the kind of guy who quotes Socrates as he thinks outloud about the plight of his characters, obviously has a strong grasp of this ostensible paradox. He’s good because he gets mankind, which he owes in some small part to Nathaniel West. Because West could generalize, and then make it so absurd as to paint it plainly in our minds (and maybe even put a face on it), we can watch a Western that isn’t full of cartoon characters. Now that is cool.

Thin-Slicing and Attraction Triggers
April 5, 2005, 5:07 pm
Filed under: Books, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
Even though I finished it a while ago, I continue to dwell on the notion of thin-slicing that Malcolm Gladwell writes about it his latest, Blink. ” ‘Thin-slicing’ refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based upon very narrow slices of experience.” Gladwell covers a variety of situations that exemplify how thin-slicing works, and more importantly, how it often works better than making decisions based upon a great deal of information. Indeed, this is really the point of Blink. But, upon further consideration, one example, the one I referred to in my appearance delta theory, has prompted me to extend the concept to include what I’ll call attraction triggers.

Gladwell, in illuminating the “dark side” of thin-slicing, spends some time on how we often form our opinions of individuals based upon the slightest of information. Our visual first impression often has the effect of coloring our assessments dramatically. He refers us to a test some psychologists have developed called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Subjects are given a list of words and are asked to choose which of two categories the words belong to. For example, the list may be a list of names and the category choices may be male or female. Subject responses are timed. Since most people have considerable experiences that say the name Mary is a female name, responses in this easy test are very fast (between 400 and 600 milliseconds). The association between name and gender is well established within our culture. But when the categories and words are changed, interesting things start to happen.

Suppose, there are two possible words for each category – say male or family on one side and female or career on the other. Then, the subject still has to put the words into one of two categories, but they have to figure out which is best by considering four alternatives, not two. Confused yet? Here’s an example.
Male………………………………….. Female
or……………………………………….. or
Family ………………………………..Career

So the subject simply has to place an X either to the left or the right of the word (Babies, for example) to indicate which category the word falls into. Interestingly, because we naturally associate maleness with careers and femaleness with families, this test is pretty tough. Our natural tendency is to want to put entrepreneur on the male side, but it is clearly related to career. That little mental wavering manifests itself in additional time to taken to make the choice – on the order of 200 to 300 milliseconds more than what is seen for a naturally strong association. The point is that, by pairing certain words together, the psychologists administering the IAT have found evidence of all sorts of inherent bias in how we assess things and other people.

One bias that we might not expect or want to accept is a racial bias. You can go here to take the Race IAT for yourself. (Be warned – you’re likely to be dismayed by the results.) When the categories are European American or Bad and African American or Good, all hell breaks loose. When we should be able to breeze through a series of pictures and take no more than 400-600 milliseconds to make our choices, we take much longer. When we should be able to take words like Evil, Hurt, and Wonderful and easily place them into their proper categories in short order, we simply do not. It appears that our thin-slicing proclivities are very much a function of our personal experiences and of our assessments of cultural norms. Though tests like the Race IAT should give us some serious pause, I wonder if we could take the same idea and apply it to how we assess appearance deltas.

Though the IAT asks subjects to assign words to categories, it isn’t very much different than the “hot or not” craze that has taken up residence in many corners of the Internet. In this case, subjects are asked if a person in a picture is hot or not. Now, they are not timed, so this isn’t particularly rigorous experimentation. But what if they were? What if the point were to determine one’s hotness or not hotness as quickly as possible, and the responses were measured in milliseconds? Would be there be ways that we could manipulate the pictures to get faster or slower responses? I say there would, and they would revolve around attraction triggers.

Suppose we put up a picture of a girl with a dead-pan look on her face and then gave the test to 100 people. Then, we put up the same girl, but with a big smile on her face. Would she get more “hots” than she did in the first test? Who knows? If she was on the fence – say 50 out of 100 said she was hot in the first test – we should expect that number to go up on the second test (unless she had major dental issues). This is because, all things being equal, someone who smiles is more attractive than someone who does not, and we know it in a fraction of a second. Is there more?

Ever seen someone from a distance and thought they were attractive, only to learn as they got closer that you were wrong? Of course, it’s happened to all of us. But can you put your finger on what it was that contributed most to the assessment early on? Maybe the person had an attractive walk, or maybe he or she was wearing a flashy outfit. Whatever it was, I think we can think of it as an attraction trigger, something that, when it is thin-sliced, leads people to think “hot.” Of course, a distant attraction trigger often dissipates as the distance closes. But, is it possible that there are attraction triggers that are seen up close and contribute disproportionally to one’s delta (or lack thereof)?

Teeth might be a good example. If someone has a brilliant smile, it may be so captivating that it offsets other features that might raise one’s delta. And this is not insignificant. As Gladwell’s book points out, the biases that are invoked when we’re thin-slicing are not just fleeting impressions. They color how we behave going forward. So if we could do something to alter those first impressions in our favor, we may find interpersonal acceptance easier to come by.

Again, we find ourselves up against the sell-out conundrum – which is to say, is it worth it to modify our appearances to get what we want from other people? In some cases, whether we want to admit or not, the answer for all of us is yes. So the real question is when. And now, with the notion of attraction triggers, we can consider large-scale changes (such as dieting, exercising, and cosmetic surgery) and more subtle changes.
One friend of mine loves girls in pony tails. On a scale of 1-10, she can be a 6 but he’ll go for her like she’s a 9. It’s weird really, but I’m convinced that most people have these quirks. So if an average girl happened to be interested in my friend, she would be well served to know his attraction trigger and wear her hair accordingly. This is a simplistic example, I know, but I’m just trying to throw another twist into the appearance delta concept. I think it’s useful, even if as only a more descriptive way to observe and contemplate the human drama as it unfolds. Would a working familiarity with attraction triggers constitute enlightenment? Why not? Maybe it makes things just a little bit brighter.

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.