2 (1)What creeps us out? Psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke wanted to know.

Their hypothesis was that being creeped out was a signal that something might be dangerous. Things we know are dangerous scare us — no creepiness there — but if we’re unsure if we’re under threat, that’s when things get creepy.

Think of the vaguely threatening doll, not being able to see in a suddenly dark room, footsteps behind you in an isolated place. Creepy, right? We don’t know for sure that we’re in danger, but we don’t feel safe either, and that’s creepy.

 

They surveyed 1,341 people about what they found creepy and, among their findings, they found that people (1) find it creepy when they can’t predict how someone will behave and (2) are less creeped out if they think they understand a person’s intentions. Both are consistent with the hypothesis that being unsure about a threat is behind the the feeling of creepiness.

They also hypothesized that people would find men creepy more often than women since men are statistically more likely than women to commit violent crimes. In fact, 95% of their respondents agreed that a creepy person was most likely to be a man. This is also consistent with their working definition.

Generally, people who didn’t or maybe couldn’t follow social conventions were thought of as creepy: people who hadn’t washed their hair in a while, stood closer to other people than was normal, dressed oddly or in dirty clothes, or laughed at unpredictable times.

Likewise, people who had taboo hobbies or occupations, ones that spoke to a disregard for being normal, were seen as creepy: taxidermists and funeral directors (both of which handle the dead) and adults who collect dolls or dress up like a clown (both of which blur the lines between adulthood and childhood)

If people we interact with are willing to break one social rule, or perhaps can’t help themselves, then who’s to say they won’t break a more serious one? Creepy. Most of their respondents also didn’t think that creepy people knew that they were creepy, suggesting that they don’t know they’re breaking social norms. Even creepier.

McAndrew and Koehnke summarize their results:

While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual nonverbal behaviors… odd emotional behavior… or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This activates our “creepiness detector” and increases our vigilance as we try to discern if there is in fact something to fear or not from the person in question.

Re-posted at Mental Floss.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

While I am fairly certain A Year Without a Santa Claus will not be receiving an Oscar this year, I do believe it will be a future cult Christmas classic particularly for your radical feminist friends. In fact, I expect this movie to have most people redder than a Starbucks Satan Sipper for its cautionary tale of the indispensability of women’s emotional labor and uncelebrated ingenuity.

The story begins in the North Pole with Santa getting a man cold and feeling underappreciated.  So much so that he decides to just call off Christmas altogether. Ms. Claus to the rescue. As the true socio-emotional leader of all things Christmas, Ms. Claus sets forth a plan to get Santa out of bed. Recognizing that masculinity is so fragile, she sends two elves and Vixen to find evidence that Christmas won’t be Christmas without Santa.

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The trick is to inspire the Christmas spirit by making it snow in Southtown, a town where, like my home region of Central Texas (I am in shorts and a tank as I type), it never snows. Southtown is controlled by Snow Miser, brother of Heat Miser. The brothers have divided up the country and fight over of where it can be warm and mild or cold and snowy.  They illustrate to the audience the pettiness of male-typical competitiveness.

This time the emotion work is done by their mother, Mother Nature, who steps in to get her sons to stop the feud for just one day. It begins to snow in Southtown and, inspired, the children break their piggy banks to send gifts and cards to Santa saying “Let’s give Santa a Merry Christmas.” The movie takes an artistic twist to a wonderful cover of Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” by a child and spends a great bit of time on one mindful little girl and the construction of her Christmas card for Santa. Likely, the focus on the emotional intelligence of even girl children is meant to invoke women’s emotional  superiority as derived from an identification with the mother-nurturer.

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It works. Christmas is on! He is missed and loved.

While there is no surprise how much women contribute to our holiday traditions and men’s careers, I thought the story took a gutsy twist in showing that Santa is merely a figurehead. In fact, my favorite scene is the one in which Ms. Claus dresses up in Santa’s suit and proclaims, “I could. I couldn’t, but I could!” Here she knows she could be Santa on this day, but realizes the importance of men feeling needed. She decides, instead, to be the wind beneath his sleigh. The end result is that “the squeaky wheel,” aka Santa, gets to be the hero, showing how men’s bad behavior all too often gets rewarded and even celebrated.

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The director is smart to lure even non-feminists into watching A Year Without a Santa Claus by carefully obscuring its true message in its advertising. No women even appear on the movie poster (with the exception of Rudolph, who doesn’t even appear in the movie). Yet, in the movie, the women do all of the work and are portrayed as the true leaders. From Ms. Claus, to Mother Nature, to Vixen, and the little girl in blue, not one problem is resolved by a male character. Nor do any move the story forward. The male characters are mere set pieces and characters in place to highlight the capabilities and thoughtfulness of women.

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The message of the movie is that women are taken for granted like air — invisible, unacknowledged, yet essential for life. Because #masculinitysofragile, they could lean in, but don’t. So they find what solace they can in the power of enabling.

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.

Previous reviews include: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day has come and gone, falling this year on Friday, December 18th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a”safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.

“Future research is needed to identify the process,” write the authors, but it appears that pregnant women have some control over when they give birth. A study of birth incidence on Halloween and Valentine’s Day, by public health scholar Becca Levy and colleagues, showed that spontaneous births dipped on the former and rose on the latter.

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The authors suggest that this contributes to growing evidence that culture influences birth timing. Women’s bodies resist giving birth on a day associated with fright and death, but give into birth on a day associated with love. The authors recommend extra staffing on obstetric wards on Valentine’s Day and sending a few more doctors and nurses into the streets on Halloween.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Two of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab and Quirks and Quarks, have stories bout how inertia and reliance on technology can inhibit our ability to find easy, cheap solutions to problems.

Story One

The first story, at Radio Lab, was about a nursing home in Düsseldorf, Germany.  As patients age, nursing homes risk that they will become disoriented and “escape” the nursing home.  Often, they are trying to return to homes in which they lived previously, desperate that their children, partners, or even parents are worried and waiting for them.

When they catch the escapee in time, the patient is often extremely upset and an altercation ensues.  If they don’t catch them in time, the patient often hops onto public transportation and is eventually discovered by police.  The first outcome is unpleasant for everyone involved and the second outcome is very dangerous for the patient.  Most nursing homes fix this problem by confining patients who’ve began to wander off to a locked ward.

An employee at the Benrath Senior Center came up with an alternative solution: a fake bus stop placed right outside of the front doors of the nursing home.  The fake bus stop does two wonderful things:

(1)  The first thing a potential escapee does when they decide to “go home” is find a bus stop.  So, patients who take off usually get no further than the first bus stop that they see.  “Where did Mrs. Schmidt go?”  “Oh, she’s at the bus stop.”  In practice, it worked tremendously.  This meant that many disoriented patients no longer needed to be kept in locked wards.

(2)  The bus stop diffuses the sense of panic.  If a delusional patient decided that she needed to go home immediately because her children were all alone and waiting for her, the attendant didn’t need to restrain her or talk her out of it, she simply said, “Oh, well… there’s the bus stop.”  The patient would go sit and wait.  Knowing that she was on her way home, she would relax and, given her diminished cognition, she would eventually forget why she was there.  A little while later the attendant could go out and ask her if she wanted to come in for tea.  And she would say, “Ok.”

Listening to this, I thought it was just about the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard.

Story Two

The second story, from Quirks and Quarks, was regarding whether it is true that dogs can smell cancer.  It turns out that they can.  It appears that dogs can smell lots of types of cancer, but people have been working specifically with training them to detect melanomas, or skin cancers.  It turns out that a dog can be trained, in about three to six weeks, to detect melanomas (even some invisible to the naked eye) with an 80-90% accuracy rate.   If we could build a machine that was able to detect the same chemical that dogs are reacting to (and we don’t know, at this time, what that is) it would have to be the size of a refrigerator to match the sensitivity of a dog’s nose.  When it comes to detecting melanomas, dogs are better diagnosticians than our best humans and our most advanced machines.

Doggy doctors offer some really wonderful possibilities, such as delivering low cost cancer detection to communities who may not have access to clinical care.  A mobile cancer detection puppy bus, anyone?

Both these stories — about these talented animals and the pretend bus stop — are fantastic examples of what we can do without advanced technology. I fear that we fetishize the latter, turning first to technology and forgetting to be creative about how to solve problems without them.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

In her fantastic book, Talk of Love (2001), Ann Swidler investigates how people use cultural narratives to make sense of their marriages.

She describes the “romantic” version of love with which we are all familiar.  In this model, two people fall deeply in love at first sight and live forever and ever in bliss .  We can see this model of love in movies, books, and advertisements:

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She finds that, in describing their own marriages, most people reject a romantic model of love out-of-hand.

Instead, people tended to articulate a “practical” model of love.  Maintaining love in marriage, they said requires trust, honesty, respect, self-discipline, and, above all, hard work.  This model manifests in the therapeutic and religious self-help industry and its celebrity manifestations:
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But even though most people favored a practical model of love in Swidler’s interviews, even the most resolute realist would occasionally fall back on idealist versions of love. In that sense, most people would articulate contradictory beliefs. Why?

Swidler noticed that people would draw on the different models when asked different kinds of questions. When she would ask them “How do you keep love alive from day to day?” they would respond with a practical answer. When she asked them “Why do you stay married?” or “Why did you get married?” they would respond with a romantic answer.

So, even though most people said that they didn’t believe in the ideal model, they would invoke it. They did so when talking about the institution of marriage (the why), but not when talking about the relationship they nurtured inside of that institution (the how).

Swidler concludes that the ideal model of love persists as a cultural trope because marriage, as an institution, requires it. For example, while people may not believe that there is such a thing as “the one,” marriage laws are written such that you must marry “one.” She explains:

One is either married or not; one cannot be married to more than one person at a time; marrying someone is a fateful, sometimes life-transforming choice; and despite divorce, marriages are still meant to last (p. 117-118).

That “one,” over time, becomes “the one” you married. “The social organization of marriage makes the mythic image true experientially…” (p. 118, my emphasis).

If a person is going to get married at all, they must have some sort of cultural logic that allows them to choose one person. Swidler writes:

In order to marry, individuals must develop certain cultural, psychological, and even cognitive equipment. They must be prepared to feel, or at least convince others that they feel, that one other person is the unique right ‘one.’ They must be prepared to recognize the ‘right person’ when that person comes along.

The idea of romantic love does this for us. It is functional given the way that contemporary institutions structure love relationships. And, that, Swidler says, is why it persists:

The culture of [romantic] love flourishes in the gap between the expectation of enduring relationships and the free, individual choice upon which marriage depends… Only if there really is something like love can our relationships be both voluntary and enduring (p. 156-157).

Presumably if marriage laws didn’t exist, or were different, the romantic model of love would disappear because it would no longer be useful.

The culture of love would die out, lose its plausibility, not if marriages did not last (they don’t) but if people stopped trying to form and sustain lasting marriages (p. 158).

Even when individuals consciously disbelieve dominant myths [of romantic love], they find themselves engaged with the very myths whose truths they reject—because the institutional dilemmas those myths capture are their dilemmas as well (p. 176).

Cultural tropes, then, don’t persist because we (or some of us) are duped by movies and advertisements, they persist because we need them.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

The ideology of intensive motherhood is a cultural approach toward parenting that suggests that competent childcare demands “copious amounts of time, energy, and material resources” and that providing such childcare should take priority over everything else a mother might like or need to do.  In South Korea, this imperative is at work even before babies are born and the practice is called tae-gyo. A reporter for the Korea Herald, a local newspaper, explains:

Since over 600 years ago, expectant mothers in Korea have been practicing taegyo, a series of prenatal routines aimed at nurturing a healthy, virtuous and skilled child. They try to see and hear only the most pleasant things starting from three months of pregnancy.

Koreans believe that a mother’s state of mind and ongoing education during pregnancy determines a baby’s prospects. Their educational and occupational future, even their personality, is dependent on what their mothers do while they’re pregnant. A reporter, below, quotes a South Korean figure who claims that “nine months of prenatal education is more valuable than nine years of post-natal learning.”

Interest in tae-gyo is escalating thanks to declining birth rates and hyper-competition. Fewer Korean couples are having more than one child and they want to give these “single” children an edge by helping them from the womb.  They want their children to survive in a hypercompetitive educational environment.

Accordingly, while the most common tae-gyo used to be listening to classical music, women are facing increasing pressure to do more and more for their child before it is born. During the past 20 years, tae-gyo has incorporated learning calligraphy or floral arrangement, crafts like knitting and sewing, and doing yoga. Expected mothers are doing English and math tae-gyo, meaning that they study English and do math for their unborn children to ensure that they will excel in those skills. Korea’s tourism industry have developed a “taegyo travel package,” which is supposed to be beneficial for babies in the womb.

This can all be quite intensive, as you might imagine, as women are expected to personally practice all of the skills and traits they hope their baby will have. Intensive mothering in South Korea, then, starts before the baby is born.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Sangyoub Park, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology at Washburn University, where he teaches Social Demography, Generations in the U.S., and Sociology of East Asia. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.

In a new blog post, Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger ask, “are red or blue spouses happier?” Their answer — suspense — red.

Using the 2010-2014 General Social Survey, they start with this descriptive figure:

marital-quality-fig-1

Then they do adjustments, and show how their statistical controls explain the “Republican advantage in marital satisfaction.” And get this:

marital-quality-fig3

So, with all those controls, the “Republican advantage” remains.

That was enough for the sadly credulous David Leonhardt, editor of the New York Times Upshot site, to conclude:

Liberal attitudes toward gender equality, sexual orientation and education all seem to foster stronger, more stable family lives. But Mr. Wilcox’s recent writings strike me as significant because they’re a reminder that conservatism also has values and cultural attitudes — about the importance of marriage and family life — that seem to improve the environment in which children grow up.

Quite a conclusion to draw from a 3% net difference in a question on marital happiness — not exactly the best measure of “the environment in which children grow up.” But more importantly, I think it’s empirically wrong anyway.

Wilcox and Wolfinger left out all the details of their analysis, but it was easy to replicate it pretty closely. As a left-versus-right story it just doesn’t hold up. The GSS allows people to specify eight party identifications (including “other party”), not just three (Democrat, Republican, Independent). Wilcox and Wolfinger code those as “Independent, near Democrat/Republican” as identifying with the parties, but they don’t show the whole pattern:

marital-happiness-partyid.xlsx

The upward slope toward “strong Democrats” undermines the left-right story. Still, the figure skews right. When I apply the statistical controls, however, the differences are muted:

marital-happiness-partyid.xlsx

Now the “strong Democrats” appear happier than all but the “strong Republicans.” And not even the “strong Republicans” are significantly more likely to say they’re “very happy” in marriage than the “strong Democrats.” Here’s the relevant part of the table:

marital-happiness-partyid-coefs

Lots of ways you could interpret this. But I’m pretty sure the Wilcox and Wolfinger conclusion is not supported: “married Republicans are more likely than married Democrats to say they are in very happy marriages.” And the Leonhardt conclusion is just ridiculous (insofar as it’s based on these data).

Note: I did this really quickly. If I made a mistake, feel free to correct me. But I’m still calling this a “research brief” and a “report.”  More methodological details here.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality, where this post originally appeared, and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.