Flashback Friday.

Add to the list of new books to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine. Feeding my interest in the issue of sexual dimorphism in humans — which we work so hard to teach to children — the book is described like this:

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars.

Good reviews here and here report that Fine tackles an often-cited study of newborn infants’ sex difference in preferences for staring at things, by Jennifer Connellan and colleagues in 2000. They reported:

…we have demonstrated that at 1 day old, human neonates demonstrate sexual dimorphism in both social and mechanical perception. Male infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face.

And this led to the conclusion: “The results of this research clearly demonstrate that sex differences are in part biological in origin.” They reached this conclusion by alternately placing Connellan herself or a dangling mobile in front of tiny babies, and timing how long they stared. There is a very nice summary of problems with the study here, which seriously undermine its conclusion.

However, even if the methods were good, this is a powerful example of how a tendency toward difference between males and females is turned into a categorical opposition between the sexes — as in, the “real differences between boys and girls.”

To illustrate this, here’s a graphic look at the results in the article, which were reported in this table:

They didn’t report the whole distribution of boys’ and girls’ gaze-times, but it’s obvious that there is a huge overlap in the distributions, despite a difference in the means. In the mobile-gaze-time, for example, the difference in averages is 9.7 seconds, while the standard deviations are more than 20 seconds. If I turn to my handy normal curve spreadsheet template, and fit it with these numbers, you can see what the pattern might look like (I truncate these at 0 seconds and 70 seconds, as they did in the study):

Source: My simulation assuming normal distributions from the data in the table above.

All I’m trying to say is that the sexes aren’t opposites, even if they have some differences that precede socialization.

If you could show me that the 1-day-olds who stare at the mobiles for 52 seconds are more likely to be engineers when they grow up than the ones who stare at them for 41 seconds (regardless of their gender) then I would be impressed. But absent that, if you just want to use such amorphous differences at birth to explain actual segregation among real adults, then I would not be impressed.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

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

Flashback Friday.

In August of 2010, NPR reported on a scale developed by a forensic psychologist, Michael Stone, on which murderers could be placed according to how evil they are (from slightly evil to really, really really evil).  To illustrate the scale, NPR developed this graphic:

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the artists designing this graphic did not purposefully associate darker skin-like colors with more evil and lighter skin-like colors with less evil.  I think this is a fair assumption, though I don’t know for sure that this is true.  But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

If they didn’t do this on purpose, then race never consciously entered their minds.  Once you notice that the colors are skin-like colors, and if you are a member of a society that discriminates against darker-skinned people, you immediately see that this graphic reproduces those stereotypes… AND YOU CHANGE THE COLORS.   Any color, going from light to dark, will illustrate intensity.  How about red?  In Western societies, red is associated with anger.   If you insist on using black because black signifies evil in our culture, how about using a true black (that is very rarely if ever seen on people) and a gray scale?  How about any color other than brown?

I think this is likely a case in which the producers of the image did not think.  And not thinking is one of the most insidious ways that racism and other bigotries get reproduced.  People who don’t think about race are the most likely to endorse racial stereotypes.  When people who think about race are distracted — with another task, or loud music, or some other intervening stimulus — they are more likely to think stereotypically than when they are not distracted.  We can’t be colorblind.  Our unconscious is steeped in racial meanings.  Consciously fighting those associations is the only way to be less racist.

Not thinking about race is a cousin to thinking racist thoughts.  Only thinking hard about race helps alleviate racism.  And this graphic is an excellent example of why.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

A girl takes a selfie, posts it to Instagram, and waits. She doesn’t have to wait long – a minute or two – before the likes and comments start rolling in. “Gorgeous,” “So pretty OMG,” “Stunning,” “Cutest.”

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You can see why people might look at this and think: narcissism. You can see why they might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post, I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing that place.

Here is a slightly edited-down excerpt of the first part of the show. As Ira Glass says, if you have teenage girls in your life, you’re probably familiar with this. I don’t and I’m not, so I found it fascinating listening. (When the girls were reading their comments, I thought one of the girls, Jane, was saying “Hard eyes,” and I couldn’t imagine why that was a compliment. Turns out, she was saying “Heart eyes.”) Here’s Ira Glass’s distillation:

They want comments from other girls. This is not about sex. It’s not about boys. It’s about girls, and friendship. And it’s very repetitive – the same phrases, over and over.

All these moves – the posting, the commenting and liking – have a meaning that girls know intuitively but that must be decoded for outsiders like me and Ira.


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Transcript:

Ira Glass: These comments are a very specific language that tells the girls all kinds of things.  And a lot of the meaning in the comments has nothing to do with the actual words. . .  It’s about who is doing the commenting . . .  Liking a photo means something totally different from commenting. You comment with someone you’re close to or someone you want to get close to.

Ella: It’s definitely a social obligation, because you want to let them know, and also let people who are seeing those, that I have a close relationship with this person, so close that I can comment on their pictures, like, this is so cute, or, you look so great here.

Jane:  Especially because we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you’re cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

It’s hard to find narcissism or vanity in any of this. The girls are not preening, not basking in their triumphs, not nursing an ego wounded from some social slight. They are reading a constantly changing sociogram or network model of their world.

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Transcript:

Ira Glass:  They’re only three months into high school, so there is a lot at stake right now.

Julia:  One of my, like, best friends posts a selfie. Maybe this isn’t, like, healthy. But I might go through the comments and see who she’s, like, really good friends with, just ’cause we’re in high school and there’’s that sense of jealousy between everyone.

Ira Glass:  Do you have people who you’re jealous of?

Jane: Yeah.

Julia:  Yeah. I definitely would. I go through, like, the comments that people see– like that people say, and like, I see what other people have said to other people.

Jane:  Yeah.

Julia:  Just to see, like, the whole– like, the whole social like map.

Jane:  Looking, mapping out your social world, seeing who’s with who, who’s hanging out with who, who is best friends with who.

Julia:  If you didn’t have it, like, I feel like I’d be missing so much. And it would just –

Jane:    Because you wouldn’t see what other people were saying. A lot goes on.

Ira Glass:  Well, no, that’s, I feel like, the thing that I’m understanding from this conversation, is like – it’s actually like, you’re getting a picture of your entire social world and who’s up and who’s down and who’s close to who, and it’s like you’re getting a diagram of where everybody stands with everybody else.

Jane:  Yeah.

Ella:  Yeah.

Jane:  Definitely. Definitely.

Ira Glass: As it changes in real time, every day, every 10 minutes.

Ella: Yeah.

Jane:  Yeah. Everyone can see it.

Julia:  It’s crazy.

If you look at the individual –a girl posting a selfie and reading the laudatory comments – you see a personality trait, narcissism. But the behavior that looks like narcissism is really an aspect of the social structure (girls’ friendships networks) and the institution those networks are embedded in (school).

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

According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of votes are rejected or miscast because of known bad ballot designs. Intuitive design is especially important because approximately 50 million people each year encounter a ballot design for the first time, either because they’ve moved, are new to voting, or because the ballot has been revised. People who are most vulnerable to ballot design disenfranchisement are people living in poverty, older voters, and new voters.

Some problems with ballot designs:

  • Including all instructions at the beginning of the ballot instead of alongside each task.
  • Passive voice; negatives.
  • Small or unreadable fonts, like this:

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  • Unnecessarily complex language.
  • Listing candidates for a single office on multiple pages.
  • Including more than one contest per page.
  • Centered, all-caps, and dense text, like this:

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  • Inconsistent use of font or failure to differentiate different kinds of information with shading or font.
  • Confusing indications as to how to indicate the voter’s choice.
  • Publicizing sample ballots that don’t match actual ballots.

There are many examples of good and bad ballots at the Brennan Center’s report, Better Ballots.

The Brennan Center asserts that these problems are easily identified. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions aren’t paying attention: very few pre-test their ballot designs to discover problems and few examine results of election to discover which counties’ elections are most undermined by lost and miscast votes. Some jurisdictions, moreover, are operating under laws that require the use of ballot designs that we know are bad and many are using voting machines that are not flexible enough to accommodate good design.

Good ballot design, the report emphasizes, is non-partisan, well understood, inexpensive, and simple to implement. It may not be the most scandalous way to lose hundreds of thousands of votes, but it’s a real and substantial problem, and one that can be easily fixed.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Why do so many Americans continue to support Donald Trump with such fervor?

Hillary Clinton now leads Donald Trump in presidential polls by double-digits, but Trump’s hardiest supporters have not only stood by him, many have actually increased their commitment. It seems clear that in a little less than a month’s time, tens of millions of Americans will cast a vote for a man who overtly seeks to overthrow basic institutions that preserve the American ideal such as a free pressfreedom of religionuniversal suffragethe right of the accused to legal counsel, and the right of habeas corpus. This is over-and-above his loudly proclaimed bigotry, sexism, boasts of sexual assault, ableism, history of racial and anti-Muslim bias, and other execrable personal characteristics that would have completely destroyed the electoral prospects of past presidential candidates.

Trump is a uniquely odious candidate who is quite likely going to lose, but more than 40% of Americans plan to vote for him. The science of group conflict might help us understand why.

Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

In a powerful 2003 article in the journal American Psychologist, Roy Eidelson and Judy Eidelson foreshadowed Trump’s popularity. Drawing on a close reading of both history and social science literature, they identified five beliefs that — if successfully inculcated in people by a leader — motivate people to initiate group conflict. Trump’s campaign rhetoric deftly mobilizes all five.

  • Confidence in one’s superiority: Trump constantly broadcasts a message that he and his followers are superior to other Americans, whereas those who oppose him are “stupid” and deserve to be punched in the face. His own followers’ violent acts are excused as emanating from “tremendous love and passion for the country.”
  • Claims of unjust treatment: Trump is obsessed with the concept of fairness, but only when it goes his way. Given his presumed superiority, it naturally follows that the only way he and his supporters could fail is if injustice occurs.
  • Fears of vulnerability: Accordingly, Trump has overtly stated that he believes the presidential election will be rigged. His supporters believe him. In one recent poll, only 16 percent of North Carolina Trump supporters agreed that if Clinton wins it would be because she got more votes.
  • Distrust of the other: Trump and his supporters routinely claim that the mediagovernmenteducational institutions, and other established entities are overtly undermining Trump, his supporters, and their values. To many Trump supporters, merely being published or broadcast by a major news outlet is evidence that a fact is not credible, given the certainty they have that media professionals are conspiring against Trump.
  • A sense of helplessness: When Trump allows that it’s possible that he might lose the election because of fraud, conspiracy, or disloyalty, he taps into his followers’ sense of helplessness. No matter how superior he and his followers truly are, no matter how unjustly they are treated, there is little that they can do in the face of a nation-wide plot against him. Accordingly, many of Trump’s most ardent supporters will see the impending rejection of their candidate not as a corrective experience to lead them to reconsider their beliefs, but as further evidence that they are helpless in the face of a larger, untrustworthy outgroup.

By ably nurturing these five beliefs, Trump has gained power far beyond the level most could have dreamed prior to the present election cycle.

It seems clear that, if and when Trump loses, he won’t be going anywhere. He has a constituency, stoked by effective rhetorics shown to propel people to group conflict, one some of his supporters are already preparing for. And, since he has convinced so many of his supporters that he alone can bring the changes they desire, it is a surety that he will use their mandate for his own future purposes.

Sean Ransom, PhD is an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Tulane University School of Medicine and founder of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of New Orleans. He received his PhD in clinical psychology at the University of South Florida.

Flashback Friday. 

Outlet malls are often in the middle of nowhere, in places that are hard to get to, or in places that you wouldn’t think of as retail magnets. For instance, you’ve got the outlet mall in Barstow, California:

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Barstow is roughly mid-way between L.A. and Las Vegas, so locating it there might be a smart move to try to get some of the weekend traffic between the two cities. And there are some logical reasons you might want to locate outlets in places like Barstow: by putting them in outlying cities, you make sure they don’t overlap too much with the customer base for the main stores, potentially stealing customers who would otherwise pay full-price for new products rather than going to the outlet. You want the outlet to be complement the regular store, not compete with it.

And aside from that, surely real estate is cheaper in Barstow than in either L.A. or Las Vegas, which would keep costs down for building or renting retail space.

That’s part of the story. But there’s some interesting psychology going on, too, as Ellen Ruppel Shell explains in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. It turns out that being difficult to get to is, in fact, part of the appeal of outlet malls. The fact that they often require a drive of an hour or more signals to consumers that they must have really good deals. That’s the payoff for inconvenience — it’s harder and more time-consuming than going to your local mall, but in return you’re getting a great bargain. Right?

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Well… not really. I remember driving two hours once to go to this outlet mall I had heard so much about — friends would go and come back with bags full of clothes, telling me about all the money they’d saved. I got there and was shocked by the prices; they didn’t strike me as particularly cheap at all. I ended up going home without buying anything, trying to figure out how I had missed the great sales racks.

According to Shell, though, that’s pretty typical of outlet malls: they often don’t really provide great bargains. Instead, they provide the illusion of bargains, and a motivation for thinking you’re finding them.

It turns out that the more trouble people go through to get to an outlet, the more they overestimate the amount of savings compared to prices at regular stores. The very fact that it was hard to get to convinces people that it must provide something fantastic; if you aren’t saving a lot of money by going there, why on earth would it be so far out of the way? And the more remote it is, the cheaper the products must be!

Our efforts to understand the placement of outlet malls actually leads us to think we’re getting better deals than we are, because we must be. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense for them to be where they are. And so the location of outlet malls becomes proof that they’re cheap. Why else would they be there?

We have another powerful motivation to believe this. If you’ve driven an hour or more one-way to get great deals at the outlet mall, you are primed to believe you’re getting bargains because otherwise you just wasted a lot of time, effort, and gas for nothing. Once you get there, you’re psychologically motivated to believe your effort was worth it, and you do that by buying stuff and thinking the price is a steal.

As a result of these two factors, research shows that people perceive merchandise found at out-of-the-way outlet malls as being more of a bargain than they do if they see similarly-priced items closer to home. We overestimate what the original value of the item must have been and focus on the difference between that hypothetical price and the outlet price, rather than on the objective price itself. And consumers tend to discount the cost of getting to the outlet, not including the cost of gas and their time into the price of the items they buy.

So the placement of outlet malls isn’t just a simple reaction to real estate prices or an effort to not compete with the regular-priced store. The placement itself is an important element of marketing, signaling to consumers that wonderful bargains await those who are willing to accept a little inconvenience. When you combine this with the meaningless discount, you have a powerful marketing tool, a way to convince consumers they are saving more money, or getting higher-quality products, than they actually are.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

2 (1)Hey, they did a study.

Psychologist Paul Thibodeau and three colleagues decided that it was time to take a closer look at the word “moist,” writing:

The word “moist” … has been the subject of a Facebook page (called “I HATE the word MOIST”) with over 3,000 followers and was rated as the least liked word in the English language by a Mississippi State Poll … ; feature articles have been written in Slate Magazine … and The New Yorker … ; and popular TV shows like“How I Met Your Mother” (“Stuff”) and “The New Girl” (“Birthday”) have devoted entire plot-lines to the comic consequences of word aversion.

Now it’s not just anecdotal. Thibodeau found that between 13 and 21% of people have an aversion to the word.

But why?

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Is it just a gross-sounding word? If so, then people who hate moist should also hate foist and rejoiced. Verdict: No. Hating the sound moist is independent of one’s appreciation for words that rhyme.

Is it because it makes people think of sex? Verdict: Yes! Priming people to think of sex versus, say, cake, makes people dislike the word more. Bonus: People who scored higher on a measure of disgust for bodily functions were more likely than those who scored lower to claim an aversion to the word.

So, if you don’t like the word moist, get your mind out of the gutter. And, if your aversion is severely hampering your life, just think about cake!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.