Tag Archives: social psychology

SI Review: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Sure to be a classic!

The tale begins with a baby calf named Rudolph born to what is assumed to be a typical reindeer family.  Immediately we recognize that this is no typical Hollywood tale. As we all know, male reindeer lose their antlers in late fall, but female retain throughout the Christmas season. By making Rudolph, Donner (the head of the family), and all of Santa’s reindeer female, the film makes a strong departure from the androcentric status quo.

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The new baby girl fills the house with joy until the parents discovered the calf to be quite queer—Rudolph had a red nose that glowed. Initially ashamed, Donner drew on a very functional and literal cover-up of mud and clay to hide the nose. It is believed this was for the good of the calf as this story was set in a pretty cruel place—a place where even Santa was unkind and unaccepting of differences.

Spring training comes along with masculinity classes for Rudolph. This was a highlight of the story for me. It was nice to see time was taken to demonstrate that gender is socially constructed and masculinity is learned. Girls can do anything that boys can do and our young protagonist was exceptional, even best in the class.

However, the mud and clay would be an impermanent fix. Rudolph’s glowing nose was revealed during play and the names and bullying began. In fact the bullying was even legitimated by the coach. With such an unaccepting family and community, Rudolph runs away.

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Meanwhile, in (one of) Santa’s workshops, an elf named Hermey was having a Jerry McGuire day. Hermey, perhaps the most relatable character to mainstream American society, was questioning the system. Hermey wanted to do what made him happy. He wanted to be a dentist. Working in an assembly line factory with long hours and no dental was not living the dream. Hermey decides he is a Dentist and also sets out alone.

Unsurprisingly, Rudolph and Hermey run into each other on the path out of town, also called loneliness. After a day in the polar wilderness they meet another queer named Yukon Cornelius who is always in search of gold or silver.

The three misfits then encounter the abominable snow monster. “Mean and nasty,” he “hates everything about Christmas.” Clearly, his teeth and wide reaching claws are designed to compel compliance with the social order.  White, male, and against magic for the masses, this character is clearly intended to represent the kyriarchy, the system meant to uphold the intersecting oppressions of class, race, and gender. The movie’s central challenge is set: smash the kyriarchy.

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The group initially retreats, only to find themselves on The Island of Misfit Toys where they are greeted by a flamboyant Charlie-in-the-box. It is here Hermey and Rudolph begin to dream of having an accepting place and we see the strong desire for a community. Surely, if dolls with low esteem, pink fire trucks, and trains with square wheels can be free of oppression, they can too.

Emboldened, the trio now returns to kill the kyriarchy. Using the never fail logic that bacon trumps all meats, Hermey makes like a pig to get the abominable snow monster’s attention. Once the snow monster steps out of the cave, Yukon knocks him out by dropping a boulder on his head; Hermey pulls out all his teeth in a symbolic and literal de-fanging.

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Yukon pushes the monster off a cliff, but he falls, too. This is the most symbolic part of the tale, as the group has bonded together to kill the kyriarchy but not without some loss. The message is clear: if we build alliances, we can take down the power elite, but there will be sacrifices.

I will not ruin the end of the tale for you, only to say that Rudolph does in fact save Christmas, but it is by demonstrating value to the man—Santa. Once Santa sees Rudolph and his misfit friends as an asset he de-identifies at least slightly with the kyriarchy. For now, Christmas town was a cheerful place. A small battle had been worn.

Overall, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer gets two thumbs up!

It is sure to become a classic tale of systems of oppression and privilege, stigma, and the struggle for self-acceptance. In Rudolph, difference can be good. It was quite progressive with its message advocating inclusivity, alliance, and dissent against systems of power. I love the commentary on the lack of queer community organizing and the role of misfits in fighting capitalism and the power elite. It took on some hot button issues in nuanced ways, especially the policing various classes of citizens and the importance of open carry laws.

It also took some big risks related to casting. It was gender progressive and, outside of the binary, we have at least two characters that blur sex categories. Clarice, for example, presents as feminine and female pronouns are employed with her, yet she has no antlers in late winter. While Hermey dresses like the male elves, but he has swooping blonde hair and a small nose like the female elves.

For years to come, Rudolph will no doubt be a wonderful conversation starter for both awkward and fun winter gatherings alike.

D’Lane R. Compton, PhD is a lover of all things antler, feather, and fur. An associate professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans with a background in social psychology, methodology, and a little bit of demography, she is usually thinking about food, country roads, stigma, queer nooks and places, sneakers and hipster subcultures. You can follow her on twitter.

Just for Fun: The Teaching Evaluation Experience

This is totally what it’s like to read teaching evaluations…2

By Death Bulge.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Four years ago, twenty-three economists (mostly conservative) signed a letter to Ben Bernanke warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy – adding billions of dollars to the economy – would be disastrous. It would “debase the currency,” create high inflation, distort financial markets, and do nothing to reduce unemployment.

Four years later, it’s clear that they were wrong (as Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us). Have they changed their beliefs?

Of course not.

Bloomberg asked the letter-signers what they now thought about their prophecy.  Here’s the headline: “Fed Critics Say ’10 Letter Warning Inflation Still Right.”
This despite the actual low inflation:

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I don’t know why I assume that high-level economists would be more likely than some ordinary people to change their ideas to adjust for new facts. Fifty years ago, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed that even in areas like chemistry and physics, scientists cling to their paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts. Why should big-shot economists be any different? It also occurs to me that it’s the most eminent in a profession who will be more resistant to change.  After all, it’s the people at the top who have the greatest amount invested in their ideas – publications, reputations, consultantships, and of course ego. Economists call these “sunk costs.”

So how do they maintain their beliefs?

Most of the 23 declined to comment; a few could not be reached (including Ronald McKinnon, who died the previous day).  Of those who responded, only one, Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, came close to saying, “My prediciton was wrong.”

“All of us, I think, who signed the letter have never seen anything like what’s happened here.”

Most of the others preferred denial:

“The letter was correct as stated.” (David Malpass. He worked in Treasury under Reagan and Bush I)

“The letter mentioned several things… and all have happened.” (John Taylor, Stanford)

“I think there’s plenty of inflation — not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.” (Jim Grant of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” Kinda makes you wonder how closely he’s been observing interest rates.)

Then there was equivocation. After Thursday night’s debacle – Giants 8, Pirates 0, knocking Pittsburgh out of the playoffs– someone reminded me, “Hey, didn’t you tell me that the Pirates would win the World Series?”

“Yes, but I didn’t say when.”

Some of the letter-signers used this same tactic, and just about as convincingly.

“Note that word ‘risk.’ And note the absence of a date.” (Niall Ferguson, Harvard)

“Inflation could come…” (Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation)

The 1954 sociology classic When Prophecy Fails describes group built around a prediction that the world would soon be destroyed and that they, the believers, would be saved by flying saucers from outer space.  When it didn’t happen, they too faced the problem of cognitive dissonance – dissonance between belief and fact. But because they had been very specific about what would happen and when it would happen, they could not very well use the  denial and equivocation favored by the economists. Instead, they first by claimed that what had averted the disaster was their own faith. By meeting and planning and believing so strongly in their extraterrestrial rescuers, they had literally saved the world. The economists, by contrast, could not claim that their warnings saved us from inflation, for their warning – their predictions and prescriptions – had been ignored by Fed. So instead they argue that there actually is, or will be, serious inflation.

The other tactic that the millenarian group seized on was to start proselytizing – trying to convert others and to bring new members into the fold.  For the conservative economists, this tactic is practically a given, but it is not necessarily a change.  They had already been spreading their faith, as professors and as advisors (to policy makers, political candidates, wealthy investors, et al.). They haven’t necessarily redoubled their efforts, but the evidence has not given them pause.  They continue to publish their unreconstructed views to as wide an audience as possible.

That’s the curious thing about cognitive dissonance. The goal is to reduce the dissonance, and it really doesn’t matter how.  Of course, you could change your ideas, but letting go of long and deeply held ideas when the facts no longer co-operate is difficult. Apparently it’s easier to change the facts (by denial, equivocation, etc.). Or, equally effective in reducing the dissonance, you can convince others that you are right. That validation is just as effective as a friendly set of facts, especially if it comes from powerful and important people and comes with rewards both social and financial.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Does Homogamy Matter? A Query by OKCupid

In general, married couples are homogamous.  That is, they are more likely than not to match on a whole host of characteristics: age, income, education level, race, religion, immigration history, attractiveness level, and more.

But, does homogamy really translate into compatibility?  Or, do we just think it does?

OKCupid set about to find out.  This is the second of two posts about recent revelations that they, like Facebook, have been doing experiments on users. The last one was a depressing look at the role of attractiveness on the site. This one is about the impact of match ratings.  Yep, they lied to see what would happen.

OkCupid users answer a series of questions and the site then offers a “match rating” between any two users.  The idea is that people with a higher match rating are more homogamous — by some measure not identical to those that sociologists typically use, to be clear — and, therefore, more likely to get along.

The first thing they did was artificially alter the match rating for couples whose true match was only 30%.  Users could read the profile, look at the pictures, reviews answers to questions, and see a match rating.  In other words, they had a lot of information and one summary statistic that might be true or false.

People were slightly more likely to send a message and continue a conversation  if they thought they were a 60% match or better.  This is interesting since all these couples were poorly matched and it shouldn’t have been too difficult to discover that this was so.

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Rudder’s interpretation of the data is that you can make two people like each other by just telling them that they should.

Or maybe, he considered, their algorithm was just terrible. So, they took couples who matched at the 30, 60, and 90% rating and displayed a random match rating that was wrong two-thirds of the time.  Then, they waited to see how many couples got to exchanging four messages (their measure of a “conversation”).

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The lower right corner suggests that the ideal situation is to be a good match and know it.  Likewise, if you’re a bad match and you know it things probably won’t get very far. But the difference between actually being a good match and just thinking you are isn’t as big as we might think it would be.  At least, not in the space of four messages.

So, does homogamy really translate into compatibility?  Or, do we just think it does?  Maybe a little of both.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Skoal’s Imagined Community

Flashback Friday.

Benedict Anderson famously coined the phrase “imagined community” to describe the way that large groups of people without direct contact could nonetheless think of themselves as a meaningful group.  He originally discussed this in the context of nations.  In his book, he writes:

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion… it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

Whenever someone refers to “Americans,” he or she is conjuring up this idea of an imagined community.  Why do we feel that we have so much in common with other Americans?   We will only meet a very small percentage of Americans in our lifetimes.  We have things in common with some other Americans, but very little in common with still others.  And, in many important ways, we are probably more like certain segments of other societies (e.g., individuals in the middle class in the U.S., for example, are probably more like those in the middle class in the U.K. than they are like very poor or very rich Americans).

Others have used Benedict Anderson’s term to describe other kinds of imagined communities.  Apparently Skoal is hoping that “dippers” will find a sense of comraderie and devotion to each other (“loyalty”) and the product through the imagining of a Skoal community (“Brotherhood”):

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Text:

OUR 75th ANNIVERSARY IS ALL ABOUT YOU.

75 years ago we created Skoal Smokeless Tobacco.  And on that day, dippers created something else: A Brotherhood.

Guys who share a love of quality dip.  Enjoyed the finest way possible.
It’s something we never could have anticipated.  And something we’re honored to be a part of.
That’s why, instead of making our 75th anniversary about us, we’re making it about you.

2009 is the Year of the Dipper.  And we’ve come up with some pretty big ways to celebrate it.  And we’re not just talking cake.
So keep an eye out.  And a pinch ready.
You’ve been giving us your business — and your loyalty — since 1934.
It’s time you got some thanks in return.

SKOAL
WELCOME TO THE BROTHERHOOD

Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

New Orleans Voodoo: Before and After Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans and flooded 85% of the city, 100,000 people were left homeless. Disproportionately, these were the poor and black residents of New Orleans. This same population faced more hurdles to returning than their wealthier and whiter counterparts thanks to the effects of poverty, but also choices made by policymakers and politicians — some would say made deliberately — that reduced the black population of the city.

With them went many of the practitioners of voodoo, a faith with its origins in the merging of West African belief systems and Catholicism.  At Newsweek, Stacey Anderson writes that locals claim that the voodoo community was 2,500 to 3,000 people strong before Katrina, but after that number was reduced to around 300.

The result has been a bridging of different voodoo traditions and communities. Prior to the storm, celebrations and ceremonies were race segregated and those who adhered to Haitian- and New Orleans-style voodoo kept their distance.  After the storm, with their numbers decimated, they could no longer sustain the in-groups and out-groups they once had.  Voodoo practitioners forged bonds across prior divides.

Voodoo Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman performs a ceremony at Bayou St. John (photo by Alfonso Bresciani):

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Voodoo Priestess Miriam Chamani performs a ceremony at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple:

3Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

OKCupid Experiments on Its Users, Makes Us Hate Ourselves

In the aftermath of the revelation that Facebook has been manipulating our emotions – the one that prompted Jenny Davis to write a post titled Newsflash: Facebook Has Always Been Manipulating Your Emotions – the folks at OkCupid admitted that they been doing it, too.

I’ll let you debate the ethics. Here’s what Christian Rudder and his team found out about attractiveness. Let me warn you, it’s not pretty.

OkCupid originally gave users the opportunity to rate each other twice: once for personality and once for score.  The two were strikingly correlated.

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Do better looking people have more fabulous personalities?  No. Here’s a hint: a woman with a personality rating in the 99th percentile whose profile contained no text at all.

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Perhaps people were judging both looks and personality by looks alone.  They ran a test. Some people got to see a user’s profile picture and the text and others just saw the picture. Their ratings correlated which means, as Rudder put it: “Your picture is worth that fabled thousand words, but your actual words are worth… almost nothing.”

Their second “experiment” involved removing all of the pictures from the site for one full workday.  In response, users said something to the effect of hell no.  Here’s a graph showing the traffic on that day (in red) compared to a normal Tuesday (the dotted line):

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When they put the pictures back up, the conversations that had started petered out much more aggressively than usual. As Rudder put it:  “It was like we’d turned on the bright lights at the bar at midnight.”  This graph shows that conversations started during the blackout had a shorter life expectancy than conversations normally did.

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It’s too bad the people are putting such an emphasis on looks, because other data that OkCupid collected suggests that they aren’t as important as we think they are.  This figure shows the odds that a woman reported having a good time with someone she was set up with blind.  The odds are pretty even whether she and the guy are equally good looking, he’s much better looking, or she is.  Rudder says that the results for men are similar.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

On Women’s Comfort with Topless Sunbathing

What should we make of changes in fashion? Are they the visible outward expression of new ways of thinking? Or do fashions themselves influence our sentiments and ideas? Or are fashions merely superficial and without any deeper meaning except that of being fashionable?

It’s summer, and once again magazines and newspapers are reporting on beachwear trends in France, proclaiming “the end of topless.” They said the same thing five years ago.

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As in 2009, no systematic observers were actually counting the covered and uncovered chests on the beach. Instead, we are again relying on surveys – what people say they do, or have done, or would do.  Elle cites an Ipsos survey: “In 2013, 93% of French women say that they wear a top, and 35% find it ‘unthinkable’ to uncover their chest in public.”

Let’s assume that people’s impressions and the media stories are accurate and that fewer French women are going topless. Some of stories mention health concerns, but most are hunting for grander meanings. The Elle cover suggests that the change encompasses issues like liberty, intimacy, and modesty.  Marie-Claire says,

Et en dehors de cette question sanitaire, comment expliquer le recul du monokini : nouvelle pudeur ou perte des convictions féministes du départ ?

But aside from the question of health, how to explain the retreat from the monokini: a new modesty or a loss of the original feminist convictions? [my translation, perhaps inaccurate]

The assumption here is that is that ideas influence swimwear choices.  Women these days have different attitudes, feelings, and ideologies, so they choose apparel more compatible with those ideas.  The notion certainly fits with the evidence on cultural differences, such as those between France and the U.S.

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Americans are much more likely to feel uncomfortable at a topless beach. But they are also much less likely to have been to one. (Northern Europeans – those from the Scandinavian countries and Germany – are even more likely than the French to have gone topless.) (Data are from a 2013 Harris survey done for Expedia.)

This second graph could also support the other way of thinking about the relation between fashion and ideas: exposing your body changes how you think about bodies.  If people take off their clothes, they’ll become more comfortable with nudity. That is, whatever a woman’s original motivation, once she did try going topless, she would develop ideas that made sense of the experiences, especially since the body already carries such a heavy symbolism. She would not have to invent these topless-is-OK ideas all by herself. They would be available in the conversations of others. So unless her experiences were negative, these new ideas would add to and reinforce the thoughts that led to the original behavior.

This process is much like the general scenario Howie Becker outlines for deviance.

Instead of deviant motives leading to deviant behavior, it is the other way around; the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation.  Vague impulses and desires … probably most frequently a curiosity … are transformed into definite patterns of action through social interpretation of a physical experience. [Outsiders, p. 42]

With swimwear, another motive besides “vague impulses” comes into play:  fashion –  the pressure to wear something that’s within the range of what others on the beach are wearing.

Becker was writing about deviance.  But when the behavior is not illegal and not all that deviant, when you can see lots of people doing it in public, the supportive interpretations will be easy to come by.  In any case, it seems that the learned motivation stays learned.  The fin-du-topless stories,  both in 2009 and 2014, suggest that the change is one of generations rather than a change in attitudes.  Older women have largely kept their ideas about toplessness. And if it’s true that French women don’t get fat, maybe they’ve even kept their old monokinis.  It’s the younger French women who are keeping their tops on. But I would be reluctant to leap from that one fashion trend to a picture of an entire generation as more sexually conservative.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.