Monthly Archives: June 2010

Club Discrimination

Sociologist Lauren Rivera knows what it takes to get behind the velvet rope. She recommends, “Know someone. Or know someone who knows someone. If you’re a guy, bring attractive women—ideally younger women in designer clothes. Don’t go with other dudes. And doormen are well versed in trendiness, so wear Coach, Prada, Gucci—but don’t show up in a nice suit with DSW shoes.” …

Bouncers [at exclusive clubs] ran through a hierarchical list of qualities to determine in seconds who would enhance the image of the club and encourage high spending. Social networks mattered more than social class, or anything else for that matter. Celebrities and other recognized elites slipped through the door. And people related to or befriended by this “in crowd” often made the cut, too. Wealth is considered to be one of the strongest indicators of status, yet bouncers frowned upon bribes even though bribes are obvious displays of money. “New Faces,” as the bouncers called unrecognized club-goers, were selected on the basis of gender, dress, race, and nationality. Sometimes the final call boiled down to details as minor as the type of watch that adorned a man’s wrist. …

Bouncers weighed each cue differently. Social network mattered most, gender followed. For example, a young woman in jeans stood a higher chance of entrance than a well-dressed man. And an elegantly dressed black man stood little chance of getting in unless he knew someone special. The fact that women ranked higher than men in the pecking order testifies to the idea that judgments of status depend on context. … The bouncers (many of whom are Black or Latino) claimed that letting Black or Latino Americans in might jeopardize safety at the club. … At a nightclub, the distinction between Prada and Levi’s can determine who hobnobs with the upper echelon. (more; HT Alex T)

So nightclubs routinely and frankly discriminate by gender and race.  Country clubs have been sued for such discrimination; so why doesn’t anyone sue exclusive night clubs? It should be easy to document such discrimination – just video the front of the line and collect stats on features of folks accepted vs. rejected. Is it that we see such clubs as mainly about sex, where we are fine with discrimination and inequality, and not about business or careers, where we object much more?

Added 23June: The media seems amazingly ignorant of their transparent hypocrisy; they assume “race/gender selective country clubs bad, city clubs good.” For example, the Post.

Added 6Sept:  Someone did sue clubs for discrimination, and was rejected because “The court … said nightclubs weren’t `state actors,’ and dismissed the action.” You see, this suit was based on the constitutional Equal Protection clause, which only applies to the government, and sporadically to anyone regulated “enough” by the government.  (Such as a bar that had refused to serve women.)  Not clear why they didn’t sue via Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by employers (not employees) and “hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations.”  Apparently that approach has worked at least once.  (Many huge hat tips to Carey Lening.)

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All Together Now

In the classic dystopian novels, 1984 and Brave New World, societies encourage conformity by discouraging strong personal relationships. For example, in Brave New World:

The maxim “everyone belongs to everyone else” is repeated often, and the idea of a “family” is considered pornographic; sexual competition and emotional, romantic relationships are rendered obsolete because they are no longer needed.

Since schools are a big way we now train “self-control” to conform to social pressure, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that schools now discourage close friendships:

Increasingly, some educators and other professionals who work with children are asking a question that might surprise their parents: Should a child really have a best friend? … The classic best-friend bond — the two special pals who share secrets and exploits, who gravitate to each other on the playground and who head out the door together every day after school — signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying.

“I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults — teachers and counselors — we try to encourage them not to do that,” said Christine Laycob, director of counseling … “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.” … If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t yet gotten to know. …

Such an attitude worries some psychologists who fear that children will be denied the strong emotional support and security that comes with intimate friendships. …

School officials admit they watch close friendships carefully for adverse effects. “When two children discover a special bond between them, we honor that bond, provided that neither child overtly or covertly excludes or rejects others.”

HT Robert Koslover.

Added 21June: Bryan weighs in.

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Beware Active Placebos

In my health econ class I review a classic ’98 paper by Irving Kirsch and others, suggesting that the apparent benefit of antidepressants is actually an “active placebo effect,” a stronger placebo effect than from sugar pills; patients who see they get side effects, like sleepiness or dry-mouth, feel assured they have a “real” drug:

Mean effect sizes for changes in depression were calculated for 2,318 patients who had been randomly assigned to either antidepressant medication or placebo in 19 double-blind clinical trials. As a proportion of the drug response, the placebo response was constant across different types of medication (75%), and the correlation between placebo effect and drug effect was .90. … These data raise the possibility that the apparent drug effect (25% of the drug response) is actually an active placebo effect. (more)

Kirsch is still working on the topic. His new paper avoids publication selection bias by looking at all 47 trials ever done. He still gets similar results:

We requested from the FDA all publicly releasable information about the clinical trials for efficacy conducted for marketing approval of fluoxetine, venlafaxine, nefazodone, paroxetine, sertraline, and citalopram, the six most widely prescribed antidepressants approved between 1987 and 1999. … Forty-seven clinical trials were identified in the data obtained from the FDA. … Unlike prior studies, we restricted our analysis to complete datasets that included all trials conducted, whether published or not. Thus, simple publication bias cannot underlie the results. … We found no linear relation between severity and response to medication. … The differences between drug and placebo were not clinically significant in clinical trials involving either moderately or very severely depressed patients, but did reach the criterion for trials involving patients whose mean initial depression scores were at the upper end of the very severe depression category. … The response to placebo in these trials was exceptionally large, duplicating more than 80% of the improvement observed in the drug groups. In contrast, the effect of placebo on pain is estimated to be about 50% of the response to pain medication. (more)

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Science ROI Hype

Years ago as a researcher at NASA Ames, I considered returning to grad school. Thinking about where I might study prediction markets as applied to academia, economics of science looked promising, especially as Paul David headed an econ of sci group nearby at Stanford. But reading the literature I got a bad feeling – authors seemed to be dishonestly trying to help research agencies justify funding. So I instead when to Caltech to do experimental econ, whose results I trusted more. My distrust is confirmed in a recent three page Nature article:

Spending on science is one of the best ways to generate jobs and economic growth, say research advocates. But … the evidence behind such claims is patchy.

The number one current rationale for extra research investment is that it will generate badly needed economic growth. … Heeding such arguments, governments in Germany, Sweden, Canada and Australia, as well as the United States, have increased research spending as part of stimulus packages …  Beneath the rhetoric, however, there is considerable unease that the economic benefits of science spending are being oversold. … The problem, economists say, is that the numbers attached to widely quoted economic benefits of research have been extrapolated from a small number of studies, many of which were undertaken with the explicit aim of building support for research investment, rather than being objective assessments. … “Too much of what has been done, has been done as a process of advocacy.” …

In one of the bedrock papers in this field, Edwin Mansfield, the late University of Pennsylvania economist, estimated that academic research delivered an annual rate of return of 28% (E. Mansfield Research Policy 20, 1–12; 1991). The figure has been widely quoted ever since. But Mansfield reached this estimate by interviewing chief executives, asking them what proportion of their companies’ innovation was derived from university research and, in effect, demanding that they come up with a number. “He was asking an impossible question.” …

Measuring the ROI from research has proved tough, and has produced a wide range of values (see table). Some … [ask] what contribution did a dozen neuroscience grants received by the University of Cambridge in 1972 eventually make to drug development? Such efforts are complicated, however, by the difficulties of attributing credit for any given drug to the numerous research teams involved over time. … “It is fair to say that this is an analytical dead end.” …

This [PR] influence derives in part from the activities of US medical research lobbyists. An example is the 2000 report Exceptional Returns: The Economic Value of America’s Investment in Medical Research by … Mary Woodard Lasker Charitable Trust that advocated biomedical research spending. … The document estimated that the steep decline in cardiovascular deaths in the United States between 1970 and 1990 has an economic value of $1.5 trillion annually, and deduced that one-third of this — $500 billion a year — could be attributed to medical research that led to new procedures and drugs. … Robert Topel, … whose work was cited in the report, distances himself from some of its claims. “Probably only a little of the fall in the cardiovascular death rate has to do with surgery and beta-blockers,” he says. …

Research agencies have no interest in assessing the costs of research fairly, says Barry Bozeman, a science-policy specialist. … “Honest clients are in short supply” for research in this field, he says. “Most of them think they already have the answers, and want someone to find the numbers to prove them right.”

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Are Drugs About Sex?

When the Penn researchers questioned almost 1,000 people in two subject populations, one undergraduate and one Internet-based, [they found that] … differences in reproductive strategies are driving individuals’ different views on recreational drugs.  While many items predict to some extent whether people are opposed to recreational drugs, the most closely related predictors are people’s views on sexual promiscuity. While people who are more religious and those who are more politically conservative do tend to oppose recreational drugs, in both study samples the predictive power of these religious and ideological items was reduced nearly to zero by controlling for items tracking attitudes toward sexual promiscuity. …

According to the researchers’ evolutionary model, people develop complex differences in their sexual and reproductive strategies. One key difference that creates strategic conflict arises in people’s orientations towards casual sexual activity. The relationships of people following a more committed, monogamous reproductive strategy are put at greater risk when casual sex is prevalent. On the other hand, people pursuing a less committed lifestyle seek to avoid having their choices moralized, forbidden and punished. The researchers cite prior work showing that recreational drug usage is often associated with promiscuity. The results of the study imply that attitudes against recreational drugs are part of a larger attempt to advance the cause of committed, monogamous reproductive strategies. (more; source; HT David Pearce)

OK, it is plausible that the main thing folks fear from drugs is that drugs lead to promiscuous sex.  But if so, then why does the US pay a terrible cost to (poorly) discourage drug use, and yet allow great promiscuity with only weak punishments.  We even prevent blackmail that would naturally tax illicit promiscuity.  Perhaps we don’t like to admit that sex is our concern?

Added 4:30p: OK, maybe there are three main types: 1) abstainers – those who don’t want promiscuity, 2) stoners – those who do want promiscuity, are willing to admit it, and use drugs to help get it, and 3) cheaters – those who want promiscuity, but aren’t willing to admit it, don’t use drugs to get it, and compete with stoners for partners.  Groups 1&3 together support anti-drug laws, while groups 2&3 together keep punishments of promiscuity weak.  I’m suggesting the survey used in this study measured willingness to admit to liking promiscuity, not willingness to actually be promiscuous.

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Imperialist US?

Recent US war history in a nutshell: Responding to an ’01 terror attack on NYC by activists from Saudi Arabia, funded by Pakistan, and trained in Afghanistan, the US in ’03 attacked Iraq, supposedly because they had “weapons of mass destruction,” never found. US denied it wanted control of the strategic resource-rich Persian Gulf, saying it remains there to “nation-build.”  In ’07 US geologists reported Afghanistan has $1 trillion in mineral wealth, and then in ’09 the US more than doubled its Afghanistan troops, supposedly to fight terrorists and “nation-build.”  It now denies it wanted the minerals:

Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday that the $1 trillion figure didn’t surface until recently because a military task force working on the issue had been focused on Iraq. … It wasn’t until late last year that the task force got around to looking at a 2007 study by the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s when the group estimated the minerals’ value, Lapan said. The New York Times first reported the $1 trillion figure on Sunday night.

Many are suspicious of US motives in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An ’04 world survey:

Majorities in all four Muslim nations surveyed doubt the sincerity of the war on terrorism. Instead, most say it is an effort to control Mideast oil and to dominate the world. … There is broad agreement in nearly all of the countries surveyed – the U.S. being a notable exception – that the war in Iraq hurt, rather than helped, the war on terrorism. … Solid majorities in France and Germany believe the U.S. is conducting the war on terrorism in order to control Mideast oil and dominate the world. … Large majorities in almost every country surveyed think that American and British leaders lied when they claimed, prior to the Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction.

Today in Afghanistan:

The Pentagon’s announcement that Afghanistan possesses $1 trillion worth of unexploited minerals will have the unintended consequence of confirming one of the most deeply entrenched conspiracy theories among Afghans.  Many Afghans I have spoken with believe firmly that America wants to permanently occupy the country in order to take Afghan land and resources. Even educated Afghans friends who generally support a temporary US presence have told me the same. I had to laugh when one suggested that Americans would want to move to Afghanistan to snatch up Afghan land for homes. … For many Afghans, it makes no sense that the US cannot wrap up the Taliban – so an imperialist land grab becomes a plausible explanation.

Historians agree that once upon a time colonial powers, including the US, did invade nations to try to gain their natural resources. (Not clear they benefited overall though.)  The world is now asked to believe that the US has lost this inclination and ability – gosh, the US folks who chose to attack Afghanistan didn’t even know it was a gold mine, honest.  Nor did Iraq’s oil influence invading it.  So why didn’t the US invade lots of other nations similarly plagued by terrorists, or nations like Iran, North Korea, or Pakistan that threaten nuclear instability?  It’s just random, the world is asked to believe.

I can see why the world is skeptical here. Now I can also understand the position that the US is no longer organized or capable enough to purposely target and gain advantage from invading resource-rich nations.  What I can’t understand is how folks who believe this can simultaneously believe the US is organized and capable enough to “build nations,” a task where we’ve seen little success lately, and a task made even harder by widespread suspicion of US motives. Really, that’s your story?!

Added 17June:  Some question the trillion dollar figure.

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Layers of Delusion

Humans have many delusions, i.e., mistaken beliefs they are especially reluctant to correct. To understand such delusions, it helps to understand the many layers that make up the human mind. In the following I outline my best guesses, ordered roughly by time/layer.  (I’m especially interested in what I’ve missed or mis-classified.)

Animal – Animals have core mental processes to manage desires for food, warmth, sex, and to avoid harms. These processes can misfire, creating errors that other levels are reluctant to override.  For example, we can be terrified of heights, even when we “know” we are safe.  Animal minds are organized by level of abstraction (near vs. far), and so expect things near (far) in some ways to be near (far) in other ways. Animals usually act as if things not directly in view don’t exist. Embedded in brain architecture, these mistakes are hard to correct.

Socialite – Animals that pair-bond have bigger brains, to deal with trust issues in long-term relations. Social animals can betray one another, and have relative status, and so can be mistaken about status and partner loyalty. Social distance adds to near/far. Social mammals use a standard stress response for social stress; being disliked hurts health as if others had psychic powers.

Primate –  Very social animals have meta-beliefs about who thinks what about who, and so on. So they can be mistaken about meta-beliefs. Primates can often gain from errors via favorably influencing others’ meta-beliefs. For example, overconfidence in one’s ability or loyalty induces confidence in others. This creates selection pressures for delusions. In very social primates, power and status depend less on individual abilities and more on political coalitions. Primates can thus be deluded about who supports which coalition, and how strong are coalitions.

Talker – With language, we can say more things, and so can lie, be mistaken, and be deluded about more things. We find it hard to appreciate how language changes our thought, and so are often deluded to think reality divides neatly according to our word categories. We want our words to be believed, and to seem confident they will be believed. So we are deluded to think we reason more to find truth than to win arguments, and to think reality constraints shared beliefs more than it does.

Forager – Using language, foragers coordinate to enforce social norms against overt non-family dominance, bragging, sub-band coalition, and band-harming selfishness. Norms add to near/far as far goals. But since norms can only limit commonly-visible behavior, foragers violate norms covertly. Since conscious thoughts are more visible, they dominate, brag, ally, and self-serve unconsciously, via hard-to-verify eye contact, body motions, tone of voice, word double-meanings, etc. Consciously homo hypocritus foragers are deluded, especially in far mode, to less see the unflattering functions of their acts, and their bowing to social pressure. For example, foragers and their descendants have diverse styles (dress, body, music, food, language, stories, etc.) and are biased toward seeing :

  • Personal styles as preference, discernment, vs. show wealth, autonomy, loyal, tough, skills.
  • Changing styles as just better, vs. show gossip ties, social savvy, loyal.
  • Local styles as just better, vs. show local ties.
  • Attraction from shared values, vs. impressed by features, loyal.
  • Medicine, charity as help, vs. show loyal, wealth.
  • Gossip as curiosity vs. collusion, status moves.
  • Politics as help group, vs. show values, loyal.
  • Far talk as curious, info share, vs. dominate, show smarts, ties.
  • Laughter as due to funny events, vs. show comfort, loyal.
  • Stories as social practice, “fun” vs. show values, discernment.
  • Art as a pursuit of beauty, insight, function, vs. bond, show off.
  • Sport as healthy, “fun”, vs. show off.

Farmer – Higher forager density led to trade and rapid innovation, which led to herding, farming, marriage, war, and social classes. Social norms expanded, to induce behavior in conflict with forager inclinations. These included norms of long hard work hours, fair trade with strangers, life-long marriage, deference to elite classes, and of patriotic devotion in war. Frequently invaded regions evolved pro-community over pro-family norms. Added farmer self-control (i.e., norm adherence) came from norms encouraging far-thinking, persecuting deviants, just-world-delusions,and religion, i.e., submission to supernatural moralizers. Farmers were deluded on norm origins, and on high costs of environment alienation and from repressing forager-desires.

Aristocrat – Sedentary farmers accumulate durable goods, which gives material inequality, allowing elites. Elite classes need delusions that they deserve their status, and that they adhere to idealistic codes of chivalry, which placates other classes. Elites need to save wealth, accept within-class ranking, and function well in chains of command. To achieve these, farming elites pioneered writing and multi-media propaganda, schools with frequent rankings and far mode primes, and complex bendable rules with bureaucratic doublethink. Expensive art signaled wealth, and strengthened delusions of moral superiority.

City – Many folks living close is a productive, if alien, lifestyle whose anonymity can reduce norm pressures that come from non-work social monitoring.  This weakened non-work norms like marriage, family, and religion. It also made social status depend less on informal reputation and more on clear signals like wealth, degrees, fame, etc. City folk seem deluded to think informal reputation and social monitoring are stronger than they are; e.g., they credit confidence more than they should. Cheap surveillance, however, may soon strengthen social monitoring.

Industry – Industrial methods require worker specialization and coordination, which greatly increased the value of self-control. So industrial societies adapted and improved self-control-promoting methods pioneered by farming elites: far-mode schools with frequent ranking, and multimedia artistic idealistic news/entertainment.  Such folks deludedly think school classes and news media are mainly to give useful neutral info. Ubiquitous hierarchical organizations hone homo hypocritus skills regarding local formal rules and commands, opportunistically bending them while deludedly denying doing so.

Rich – Industry has recently made non-elites rich enough to afford to reduce alienation, e.g. more greenery, and to please their inner forager by reducing non-work self-control. Such folk return toward forager levels of sexual promiscuity, though via cheating and serial monogamy instead of polygamy, and less social monitoring in cities. Rich folk get less religious and patriotic, and seek political forms to mimic forager-style democracy, deliberation, food sharing, and sick-helping. They deludedly justify such policies in other ways, e.g., medical market failures. Coordination remains harder than most realize.

Stimulant – Industry has devised hyper-stimulating food, art, stories, sport, games, drugs, etc., which rich low-self-control folks eagerly consume, at the expense of work, kids, and work-like-hobbies. Hyper-status-seeking can compensate, inducing more work and hobbies, but not more kids. Most are deluded to think this a stable situation; if allowed, gene and culture selection would rapidly cut such waste.  Most also have the addict’s delusion, “I can quit anytime I want.”

Emulation – The next big change is likely whole brain emulations (i.e., ems), within a century or so. Profit-seeking investors may make trillions of copies of dozens of most suitable humans, and further select among trillions of ways to tweak each em.  This will allow enormous selection for the most adaptive em minds.  Adaptive behavior in the early em era has high work coordination, accepts more alien bodies and environments, has little interest in kids or hyper-stimuli, and accepts death, high trainee failure rates, long work hours, and near-subsistence wages.  Some of this may be achieved via genuine preference changes, but initially most will be achieved via strong delusory self-control.

Stability – More big eras may appear after ems, but soon rapid change will end.  We now live in the brief few-millenia “dreamtime” when people are poorly adapted to their environment. Within a few millennia, and then for trillions of years thereafter, economic growth and innovation rates will slow to a near halt, and people will once again be well adapted to their stable slow-grow world – as were foragers for millions of years.  As with foragers, what they do will mostly be adaptive, even if they are deluded about why they do it. And they may well be much less deluded, due to better academic knowledge, more mental transparency, ubiquitous documentation, and more prediction markets.

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Types of Thinkers

You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. … I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. … It turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12. ….

People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to. But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea. … The head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going. … Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. …

You will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader. … For too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. …

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. … Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets. (more)

It is tempting to agree that our organizations are inefficient because they systematically fail to reward the right sort of thinking.  After all, the author of the above and I fancy ourselves as this other neglected but superior sort of thinker.  But while there are indeed many sorts of thinkers, this author offers no evidence that the currently rewarded mix is actually the wrong mix. (And it is a bad sign that it doesn’t seem to occur to him to look for such evidence.)

Routine-preserving conformists may not look as impressive to the eyes of foragers, to Versailles courtiers, or to me.  But they may still be what our world most needs, and so most rewards. See also the overlapping debate on if multitasking is vital or vile.

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Athletes vs. Musicians

Consider three kinds of celebrities: politicians, athletes, and musicians. We clearly hold politicians to higher moral and social standards than we do musicians. This makes sense because we feel more vulnerable to bad behavior by politicians than by musicians. An out of control politician could kill us all, while an out of control musician would at worst just fail to make music we like.

What about athletes? While we may not hold athletes to the high of standards we hold politicians, we clearly hold them to higher standards than musicians. Tiger Woods was vilified for moral violations that wouldn’t be worth reporting about a musician. Yet the above explanation for politicians vs. musicians doesn’t work here. While we are no more vulnerable to athletes than to musicians, we still hold athletes to a higher standard.

For our distant ancestors, athletic skill was much closer to political power. Small forager bands feared that the few most physically powerful members would attempt to dominate the band by force. Foragers had much less reason to fear domination by the few most musical folks in the band. So it made sense for foragers to hold athletes to higher moral standards than musicians.

So I suspect our tendency to hold athletes to higher standards than musicians is a holdover from our forager days; I’d explain similarly the fact that it is easier for an athlete than a musician to covert into a politician.

We can understand why we treat different kinds of celebrities differently today in terms of reasons our distant forager ancestors had to treat them differently.  Can this approach help us understand our differing treatments of other kinds of celebrities?

Added 7p: The fact that athletes are held up as role models seems less an explanation for them being held to higher standards, and more as a restatement of the question. I’m not saying athletes are actually more moral, just that they are punished more severely when caught.  I think the fact that we tolerate far more subjectivity in judging musicians than athletes is also related, but I’m not sure how.

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On Teen Angst

Two complementary theories of teen angst:

  1. Our homo hypocritus ancestors overtly followed idealistic norms, such as against dominance and bragging, but covertly violated them. They also cheated often on norms of sexual fidelity. An important part of growing up in such a world was learning to see that acts oft deviate from spoken ideals, and to affirm ideals via outrage at such hypocrisy, before one was old enough to have been very hypocritical oneself. And since the young seek to displace the old in the positions of highest status, old hypocrisy makes a good rallying cry.
  2. In the vast majority of the past, and the vast majority of the future, people grow up in a world for which they were designed – their inborn expectations and intuitions are good guides to their world. But in this the great Dreamtime, only ten thousand years old, mostly done, and near its peak, our inborn intuitions are poor guides – we awake into a world we find strange, fake, and wrong. So when young, we are drawn to stories about righting those wrongs by exposing this fake world, replacing it with a true one, and in the process having an adventure where we prove our mettle and impress potential mates and allies.

Below are quotes on teen angst in fiction.  They inspire this open letter of mine:

Dear angsty teen,

As you suspect, the world into which you have been born is indeed strange, fake, and wrong, relative to your inborn intuitions. Adults have not been frank with you, or themselves, about how often they fail to live up to your ideals or theirs. In fact, much of the function of school and other ways adults shape your youth is to use social pressure to get you to replace your inborn ideals with new given ideals, and to accept your and others’ hypocrisies.

There maybe be places you could move which better fit your inborn ideals and expectations, and there may be ways to change your current place to better fit such things. You may even devote some energy to such moving or changing.  But the vast majority of you will mostly forget your angst, eagerly trading your inborn ideals for the hope of social approval and respect. A few of you will hold the most strongly to your inborn ideals, paying great costs to move or change. Some such efforts will even succeed, moving your world closer to your inborn ideals.

But know that your world is stable enough so that if you actually “fight the power,” you will on average lose.  Most of what looks like young “rebels” winning is actually part of the established order.  New art, tech, political groups, etc. often replace old ones with rhetoric about how the change better achieves natural ideals.  Such rhetoric can bind “rebels” together, helping them beat rivals. But most such changes do little about hypocrisy or idealism overall, and the few that do mostly reflect larger trends, not a triumph of some group’s moral fervor.

On average, real rebels who most hold to their inborn ideals do not thereby gain social approval or respect – they lose it.  Real rebels are little like the heroes of your teen angst fiction, who accumulate fascinating stories while proving their mettle and impressing potential mates and allies. While some real rebels succeed in exposing more hypocrisy to those willing to listen, it is the willingness to listen that is the main block. Those willing to look for hypocrisy can find it easily enough themselves, most anywhere they look.

Finally, pause for a moment and ask: how sure can you be that your inborn ideals are really better than the ideals society wishes to imprint on you? Your inborn ideals were adaptive to a world that is long gone, and only then in conjunction with lots of hypocrisy; the ideals adults want to imprint on you instead seem better adapted to your current world. There is no solid rock on which you can stand; we all float in a sea of choice; choose your ideals, and your level of hypocrisy, and pay the price.

Now for those quotes.  On JD Salinger: Continue reading "On Teen Angst" »

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