Men aren’t from Mars, Women aren’t from Venus. We’re all from Earth. Get over it.

Alora Griffiths–Unsplash

There has been a lot written about gender differences in communication as well as many other activities, but very little of it seems to be of any lasting meaningful value. For some reason these tempests are cyclical with a limited lifetime, coming on suddenly but then quietly dying away.

According to Katherine Hanson, Director of the Women’s Educational Equity Act Resource Center (WEEA):

“Through-out their learning, girls are encouraged to be passive, caring, to take no risks and to defer to the male voice.” [1]

This might be true. On the other hand, maybe females are genetically disposed to be passive, caring, and not take risks. Human history doesn’t provide very many examples of risk taking, aggressive, and uncaring females. One would think that if men and women were genetically equal in terms of skills and personality there would be roughly equal numbers of aggressive risk taking men and women, but there aren’t. If there were traits were distributed equally female Navy Seals would be commonplace.

Then again, I know many women who have male characteristics, as well as men with female characteristics. And no, I’m not talking about homosexuality, either. There are many heterosexual men who are effeminate, as well as heterosexual women who are, well, masculine.

Many of these characteristics are very subtle. My friend Kevin, for instance, makes a decent living jumping out of airplanes videotaping skydivers in freefall. When he was in the Army, he was a Paratrooper, and served with the legendary 82nd Airborne Division during the invasion of Grenada. He’s a macho kind of person.

Well, most of the time.

In some ways, he is more of a mom to his kids than their mom is. When his kids were little and scraped their knees or got scared of something they’d run right past their mom and climb up Kevin’s legs. If you could have seen the way he was with his kids the reason would be obvious.

Kevin was more nurturing, caring and attentive to his kids than many women — including their mother. That’s not to say she was a bad mother in any way, it’s just that Kevin had maternal traits that overshadowed hers, and their kids responded to it.

He’d cuddle and coo and tickle them, and look entirely natural and appropriate while he was doing it. Kevin has traits that are unmistakably female, yet he is unmistakably male. When he’s away from his kids jumping out of airplanes or talking about his war experiences you’d never guess that he can be such a mom, but he is.

It seems to me that we have a culturally necessary myth male and female are opposites, that each gender is well defined, and that there is no overlap, grey area or middle ground. Our gender defines us. Men are stronger than women are, and that’s that. Women communicate, men dominate and that’s the end of the discussion.

That’s not true, though.

To show you what I mean, look at the following table. The word in the left column beneath each gender was collected by asking people to list the attributes of each gender. [2] The words on the right column are antonyms I found in the American Heritage Dictionary. If the genders really are opposites of each other, we would expect the antonyms to be as descriptive of the opposite gender as the chosen words are of the identified gender. But they aren’t.

It might serve a useful social purpose to think of men as active and adventurous and women as inactive and cautious, but I know plenty of people of both genders who do not fit those stereotypes. Some men are timid wimps, and some women are adventurous swashbucklers. And some of those timid men are adventurous in circumstances where the adventurous women are absolutely panic-stricken. And vice versa, of course.

Although a myth of diametric opposition and mutual exclusion might help us socialize into gender roles needed to establish and maintain our culture, it doesn’t otherwise stand up to scrutiny. It might serve a purpose, in other words, but it simply isn’t true. The truth is most of us are androgynous, whether we like it or not.

Gender seems to occur along a range or continuum. Few of us are male or female; we all fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Consider this:

In the 1980’s there was a controversy regarding gender testing of female Olympic athletes. A significant number of women — womanly women — weren’t female according to the tests. We’re talking genetic testing here, you understand, and feminine females, not the stereotypical truck driving diesel dyke weight lifting Amazon woman.

A number of women were emotionally shattered when they failed their gender test and were not allowed to compete in the Olympics. They assured the press that they really were women. They were married, had kids, liked having sex with their husbands. Contrary to initial speculation, this clearly wasn’t a matter of a few steroids or an especially extreme and virulent form of lesbianism.

It turns out that these women — and presumably a significant portion of men and women in the general population — were victims of the myth of gender opposites. Science had come far enough that it could begin measuring where individuals stand along a continuum of gender.

According to Puffer, [Dr James C. Puffer, of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine], there are a number of disorders of sexual differentiation where an individual has a [male] genetic make-up but is female for all intents and purposes. ‘Each case is very complex,’ he says, ‘and needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity because of the issues involved.’
A case in point is the condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) or testicular feminization, which experts estimate affects about 1 in 500–600 female athletes. Although such individuals are genetically male because they have both an X and a Y chromosome, their tissues cannot respond to androgens and they develop as women. [3]

Here is another interesting fact that challenges the diametric opposition gender myth. Women’s scores are catching up to men’s in most Olympic sports. Olympic organizers might one day have to consider combining men and women’s events as a way to cut costs. It just doesn’t make sense to field two competitions in which the competitors are so evenly matched that they turn in the same scores. We aren’t quite there yet, but the trend is very disconcerting for Olympic organizers.

Here is a graph showing the difference between men’s and women’s winning times in the Olympic 100 Meter Freestyle Swimming event from 1912 to 2000 [4]:

The difference in the winning times of men and women in this event has declined from more than 18 seconds to less than six since 1912. Although men and women are both improving their times, women are improving faster. In addition, this is happening in almost every Olympic event. If physical ability defines difference between genders, the difference is getting smaller and smaller.

Col. Des Barker, Commanding Officer Tactical Fighter Defense Command, of the South African Air Force eloquently summarizes the point I’ve been trying to make in this paper in his fascinating article on female fighter pilots:

There’s a reason that there are so few male midwives (less than two percent). These are not the primary or best-developed characteristics or instincts that most men have. There are always exceptions, though. There are also very few female fighter pilots, that’s a job that requires characteristics that, on average, most men possess more than most women. There are a few women fighter pilots, though, that have distinguished themselves in conflict. Very few women want to be fighter pilots, and very few men want to be midwives. That doesn’t mean, though, that those very few outliers can’t be good at these jobs. Most probably, those female fighter pilots wouldn’t make the best midwives, either.[i][5]


Men and women are more similar than they are different.

There is more absolute variation between individuals than there is average variation between genders. In practical terms, gender predicts nothing about the skills or abilities of the next person who walks through your door.

There is a reason that the studies we see every year “proving” a gender difference cost tens of thousands of dollars and require the efforts of highly skilled scientists to create. Gender differences are so subtle that it takes this level of time, money and effort to detect and measure them. Differences between the genders, (beyond the physical ones, anyway), simply are not very obvious.

Communication is hard for everyone. Concentrate on making sure you have a clear idea of what you want to say before you say it, and let someone else maintain the gender score.

Men aren’t from Mars, women aren’t from Venus. We’re all from Earth. Get over it.


[1] Panel: “Gender Equity” and Civil Rights, Independent Woman’s Forum,

[2] Morone, Nicky, Women and Risk, St Martins Press, New York, New York, 1992.

[3] Peak Performance Online, “Why The Olympic Sex Test Is Outmoded, Unnecessary And Even Harmful,

[4] Index to the Olympics, (I created the graph)

[5] Women Pilots In Operational Combat, Col Des Barker, Officer Commanding TFDC, SALUT, August-September, 1999,


If You Want Social Mobility, Choose Your Parents Well!

A few years ago, I was researching the value of bachelor’s degrees and discovered a research study for the Department of Education called Baccalaureate and Beyond (Cataldi, Siegel, Shepherd and Cooney 2014).

It is a longitudinal survey – one that follows a group of individuals over a long period. In this case, researchers looked at subjects four years after earning a bachelor’s degree. The thing I found interesting was that about 30% of the subjects did not have a single full time job.

This caught my attention because the education industry insists that the more education one has the better job prospects become and the more money made. That promise implies that college graduates would have “good” jobs – traditional 40 hour per week positions with some degree of job security.

This study certainly did not support that claim.

Of the thirty percent who did not have a single full time job, about half, or 15%, were working one or more part time jobs and the other half were unemployed. The other half had dropped out of the labor force, either returning to school or becoming a housewife/husband.

I found this so stunning that I called up the lead investigator of the study and asked him, rather bluntly, “If a bachelor degree is not a good predictor of socioeconomic success, what is?”

He didn’t skip a beat.

“Zip Code”

The best indicator of future social status is the social status you happened to have been born into, even more than education. socio-economic status is inherited, it seems.

In his still very relevant and interesting 2003 book, Somebodies and Nobodies, physicist and college president, Robert Fuller argues that social hierarchies are natural and needed but takes special aim at the unfairness inherent in them.

In one passage he shares the divergent life courses taken by him and his childhood friend, Gerald, whose family owned a chicken farm. Both boys were interested in math and they enjoyed a friendly competition for twelve years that sharpened their math skills.

“At a high school reunion a few years ago, I asked Gerald whether he regretted not developing his talent for math…With an unmistakable wistfulness, he explained that it had always been assumed he’d work the farm. None of his teachers took his mathematical talent seriously. No one ever encouraged him to aim higher. He never even considered anything beyond high school. I’m sure he could have become a college math professor…” (Fuller 2003, p. 36).

Both men started at the same place with the same interests and talents, one becomes a physicist and college president, while the other spends his life driving an egg truck. The only difference between the two was the social status of their families.

If your parents were wealthy and went to elite universities you will likely follow that path. On the other hand, if your parents went to land grant colleges and end up in the working class that is probably your fate as well.

That just rubs me the wrong way. So I started researching academic studies in order to bring some sense and clarity to the issue of the value of education.

Here is Alison Wolf, (2009), a leading UK professor writing in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning:

“In Britain, returns to degrees have already dipped badly for specific groups, especially those majoring in the liberal arts or attending low-status schools… You earn more…if you go to a highly selective institution, particularly if you go on to advanced academic or professional education and even more if is a world-renowned university (Harvard, Oxford).” (Wolf, 2009, p. 14).

There is no doubt that the choice of major has a lot to do with earnings, but notice that Wolf has added something new – the status of schools.

So, if the status of schools influences future earnings, what happens when aspiring students compete for entry into highly respected schools?

Just this month the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis released a study asking this very question. Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, (July 2018), performed a meta-study of 42 previous research papers and data sets going all the way back the early 20th century.

A meta-study does not involve any original research. The investigators combine all the data from previous studies and subject it to statistical analyses. The goal is to aggregate data from a range of previous studies to look for long-term trends or consistent results.

Here is what these investigators say about how intense competition for high quality education affects US colleges and universities:

“The key intuition is that although the rising demand for college accepts all types of students equally, it sets off a chain reaction …”

“…The result is a transition from an equilibrium where all students had access to colleges of roughly the same quality to an equilibrium where high-ability students had access to better colleges but low-ability students had access to worse colleges…” (Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, July 2018, p. 36)

In other words, the competition between colleges for good students has created a hierarchy of school quality. People aspiring to college try to get into the best schools, but the schools are “sorting” students by ability. Elite schools accept people with the best student skills, while people with lesser student skills go to less respected schools.

The path one takes to a bachelor’s degree signals social status to employers and graduate programs. A path starting with community college and transfer to a land grant college signals something much different from four years at an elite university or notable local institution.

This starts making sense.

If you know anything about social psychology or sociology you are aware of one very basic truth about human beings – we always arrange ourselves in a social hierarchy. It is such an automatic and inherent ability that we barely take notice. Our social circle usually consists of people very much like us – and that means people with similar socio-economic status.

So, what is it about our family of origin that anchors us so permanently into its socio-economic status?

Annette Lareau tells us all about it in her eye-opening book, Unequal Childhoods (2003). Lareau is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who took on a monumental study of how parents transmit social values related to class their children. She and her graduate student assistants observed interactions of poor, working class and middle class families over a period of years and came to some sobering conclusions.

Lareau identified two general differences in the way parents socialized their children, “concert cultivation” and “natural growth”.

Middle class families and “concerted cultivation”.

According to the observations Lareau and her team made, middle class families tend to see their role as nurturing their children. They have the resources to dominate and control their children’s lives with all sorts of structured experiences intended to enrich their lives. These parents are highly involved in managing their children’s after school time, with organized sports, music and dance lessons and other highly structured activities.

They interact with their children much like adults, explaining why things are best done in certain ways, reminding the kids about chores and homework, and negotiating conflicts with reason, logic and compromise rather than using their authority to end them.

According to Lareau, these middle class children tend to develop a sense of entitlement, but also learn sophisticated methods of interacting with adults who are in positions of authority, such as teachers and doctors.

Middle class children, even in the fourth grade, frequently succeed in requesting special attention and privileges from teachers and other adults in positions of authority. They learn this from seeing their parents reminding teachers to respect their children’s learning style, or encouraging their children to ask doctors or dentists specific questions. Lareau contends this grows out the sense of entitlement middle class children develop.

They learn middle class “rules of the game”.

Poor and working class families and “natural growth”.

Lacking the resources of middle class families, poor and working class parents see themselves as authorities keeping their children on the proper path to adulthood. They are less concerned with feelings, opinions and thoughts, and more concerned with compliance and respect.

Their parents are working overtime, or on a second job or using time consuming public transportation and do not have the time or resources to closely shepherd their children. For these families the focus is on simply staying on top of things such as jobs and transportation instead of teaching the “rules of the game” like middle class.

Poor and working class children have far more unstructured time. They spend far more time playing with other children, interacting with extended family like aunts and cousins, and considerable time in cooperative activity with siblings and other children.

School structure is very rigid compared to structure found at home. Poor and working class children very quickly developed a sense of constraint in schools. They readily accept directives by adult authorities such as teachers, but resent the loss of autonomy and self-direction they enjoy at home.

The result is “neck down compliance” – going through the motions of compliance, but not integrating into the education system. For these kids there is no value in school and the point of learning is lost to them.

According to Lareau, poor and working class parents teach their children powerlessness in the face of schools because they don’t know how to assert themselves to authorities any more than their children do.

Putting it all together

So what does all this mean?

First, we find that bachelor’s degrees don’t return the level of value promised by the education industry, at least not for everyone. A researcher reveals a variable – zip code – that seems to influence the outcome of education.

Next, Robert Fuller, physicist and college president, shares a story illustrating how powerful the socio-economic status of the family of origin can be in determining the course of ones life.

After that, an observation from a UK academic about how much more valuable a degree from an elite university is than a degree from lesser-valued schools.

Next, the meta-study from scholars at Minneapolis Federal Reserve supporting the observation that universities have a hierarchy of value. Further, they conclude that schools and students “sort” themselves into hierarchies with poor students attending poor schools at the bottom and excellent students attending excellent schools at the top.

Finally, Annette Lareau identifies the mechanism parents use to transmit assumptions of how the world works into values that determine socio-economic status.

If any of this is an accurate explanation of how socio-economic status passes from one generation to the next, it brings in to question how much influence we have over the course of our lives. See what Robert Sapolosky thinks here, and share a comment.

Here are the sources cited in this article:

Cataldi, E. F., Siegel, P., Shepherd, B., & Cooney, J. (2014). Baccalaureate and Beyond: A First Look at the Employment Experiences and Lives of College Graduates, 4 Years On (B&B: 08/12).

Fuller, R. W. (2003). Somebodies and nobodies: Overcoming the abuse of rank. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Hendricks, L., Herrington, C., & Schoellman, T. (July 2018). College Access and Attendance Patterns. Minneapolis, MN: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wolf, A. (2009). Misunderstanding Education: Why Increasing College Enrollments Can’t and Won’t Fix the Economy. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41(4), 10-17.

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If your kids are obnoxious little demons in public, try this

I see it all the time. Misbehaving children, parents either embarrassed or unconcerned, onlookers uncomfortably pretending to ignore the spectacle.

Parents don’t seem to know what to do. In a department store, I saw a father gazing at a display of jeans while his daughter, about four or five years old, dangled by his hand, writhing on the filthy floor screaming at the top if her lungs. She wasn’t crying. She was laughing, delighted with the looks she was getting form other customers. Dad was oblivious.

I refuse to be held hostage to these children. When I find myself irritated by screaming misbehaving children in a public place I leave.

Then I call or email the owner or manager of the business and tell them.

Nothing confrontational or even a complaint. Just the facts. “I was in your store a while ago and a kid was squalling so loudly that I got uncomfortable and left.” That’s it. When owners or managers hear that more than once they begin to intervene when kids are out of control in their store.

At the risk of appearing arrogant, I’m going to offer some help to parents of children who misbehave in public.

I want to offer two related interventions that will solve the problem you have with your misbehaving kids. You have probably heard of them, but have never heard them explained correctly.

Time Out and Negative Reinforcement.

Neither involves punishment and both are pleasant experiences that relieve stress and offer an opportunity for learning new behaviors more appropriate than the ones they replace.

First, Negative Reinforcement.

A reinforcement is anything that increases the chances of a particular behavior occurring in the future. Positive reinforcement means giving something that results in a behavior occurring and negative reinforcement means removing something that results in a particular behavior occurring.

For example, I’ve been going to economics sem

inars hosted by Voices on the Economy, (VOTE) for the last couple of years. I’ll spend a Saturday locked in a room with a bunch of other teachers and listen to lectures comparing and contrasting different economic theories on specific issues, like international trade, health care, or taxation.

Admittedly, I’m kind of a nerd and I enjoy these lectures. At least at first. We usually go for two or three hours at a stretch, and by the time a break comes, I’m ready to get up and move. As soon as the door opens, I’m off like a jet. While everyone else socializes and takes advantage of the snacks provided, I’m taking a brisk walk outside.

Where is the negative reinforcement you might ask?

One minute I’m sitting in a crowded room on a hard chair at a table. My butt hurts, the air is stale, people are too close, and I’m a tad claustrophobic. Suddenly the door is opened, I walk away, and I’m relieved of all those discomforts. The fact that those discomforts go away when I leave the room increases the chances that I will leave the room and take a brisk walk the next time I’m getting antsy and a break comes.

Here’s another example.

I’m at a fast food outlet, standing in line waiting to order. Someone comes in with an obnoxious misbehaving child. I wonder how long I can put up with the caterwauling little irritant and decide to make my order to go. The line isn’t moving. The kid is just warming up and now adds shrieking and yodeling to the repertoire.

I walk out the door and…blessed peace!

I’m not stuck immobile in a line! Freedom of movement! Birds are singing! The air smells good!

Again, all those discomforts are suddenly gone, and the chance of repeating my “leaving behavior” in the future increases. That’s negative reinforcement.

On to Time Out.

Actually, the full title is Time Out From Reinforcement. That’s important, because it captures what the intervention is really all about.

I can’t tell you how badly I feel when I hear parents or teachers threaten a kid with time out.

“One more time and I’m putting you in time out!”

It is a threat of pain and coercion. It teaches abuse of power and that adults can have their way with people who are smaller and weaker. Its intention is to intimidate through fear. It produces petty tyrants and adolescent bullies.

The threat of time out means an adult intend to physically drag the kid to the door of a small room, throw the child in, and keep them there as punishment. Just like those child abuse stories of parents throwing kinds into closets or bathrooms and locking the door.

That is not time out.

The legal term is false imprisonment. It is child abuse and it’s illegal.

When I hear those kinds of threats, I take a photo with my cell phone or note identifying details and call the police or child protective services. Really.

Here is how Time Out From Reinforcement really works.

First, you have to understand that Time Out From Reinforcement is a teaching method. Several skills are being taught simultaneously.

The first is agency.

Social psychologists use the word agency to mean that we have free will, can make decisions, and that our behavior results from autonomous decision-making. Self-direction, and independence might be synonyms.

Note that we are not teaching obedience or compliance. Those things are meaningless without agency. Also, obedience and compliance are fine as long as there is something to comply with or be obedient to. Our fundamental goal is the help the learner learn to act independently in unpredictable situations. That is, to make decisions on the fly and behave in ways that advances their interests, rather than result in social disapproval.

Next, we want to teach coping skills, or behaviors that have to help this particular learner overcome internal stress, like frustration, anger, boredom, or excitability.

Here is an example:

Imagine a third grade classroom. Forty kids, one teacher and one or two aids. It’s time for art, a relatively unstructured time when the students are allowed some independence and self-direction. As you might expect things get a little loud and chaotic.

The teacher notices one special needs child who seems to be on the verge of losing control. His attention darts from one thing to another in the bustle of activity all around him and his movements are getting more and more frenetic and animated.

The teacher says, “Jonny I notice you are on the verge of vibrating,” (a word chosen by the learner describing the frenetic behavior), “why don’t you go in the office and practice your deep breathing?”

That’s it. Time Out From Reinforcement.

In this case, the reinforcement is the chaos and lack of structure in the classroom causing the learner to show behaviors – called “vibrating” by the learner — typically present right before a major outburst. In the case of this child, that means a tantrum, involving throwing, and breaking things.

Before getting to this point, of course, the learner has already mastered deep breathing exercises as a way to calm down, and they have been found to be effective. He has also already gone to the office. Now the idea is to simply practice recognizing a behavioral precursor – the vibrating – and respond to it by engaging in the coping mechanism – removing himself form the classroom chaos and going into the office to calm down with deep breathing.

That’s time out.

What if the child does not go into the time out room and practice his relaxation exercises?

Chances are he will decompensate, have a tantrum, and throw things about. He might end up physically restrained, and will certainly have to clean up the mess he makes. These things will probably have an audience of classmates, adding social disapproval to the mix. There are all sorts of disagreeable outcomes and the parent or teacher did not have to make any of them happen.

They were all the result of the learner’s behavior. Social psychologists call them logical and natural consequences because they are not imposed by the parent or teacher.

Go in the timeout room and relax, and good things happen; act like a chimp in a zoo and bad things happen. Best of all, the learner can blame no one but herself. They are the one in control of their behavior.

How might this work in the real world?

Imagine this.

Mom walks into the grocery store with her five your old in hand. Immediately the child begins to cry or scream. Mom might say something like, “We don’t scream in stores, honey,” and goes about her business, avoiding giving undue attention to the child after an inappropriate behavior.

The child notices other people looking at her. She like the attention and feels an odd surge of power. She can get mommy in trouble! She begins to wail.

Mom might say helpfully, “If you don’t want to be here we can go back to the car,” and again goes about her business. No threats, no abuse of power, just making the choices clear and allowing the child to make a decision.

Now the child plops onto the floor, still clutching moms hand and puts out a full volume tune up scream. Now mom says, “We can’t stay here if you are screaming, you are disturbing other people. Let’s go out to the car and calm down.”

Mom abandons her cart in the middle of the aisle, picks the screaming child up, and goes to the car where she helps her child practice appropriate behaviors, then returns to the grocery store with the child for a second try.

That’s Time Out From Reinforcement. No threats, arguing, or punishment. Moreover, no surprises. Both learner and teacher know what happens when inappropriate behaviors are repeated.

I can hear it now. “But I don’t have time for that!”

I disagree. You do have time. When you have a child, you stop living for yourself and start living for your child. Your primary duty is to raise your kid, not go grocery shopping. As long as the child is with you, they are your primary responsibility. Everything else is secondary.

“But I have buy groceries so the rest of the family can eat dinner.”

Make sure you have some good, but uninteresting food on standby. If your kid prevents you from buying dinner warm up the leftovers, or macaroni and cheese, or whatever you have on standby, tell the rest of the family that your child was so unruly that you could not buy dinner. Peer disapproval is a powerful motivator.

Jordan Peterson talks about parental responsibility at length in chapter five of his excellent new book, 12 Rules for Life. You can raise a self-centered little bully who will rule your home when he is 12, or you can raise a decent young

man or woman. Raising decent young people is easy. Raising disrespectful hellions is hard, not because takes no effort, but because of the embarrassment and humiliations your kid puts you through, and the consequences of your own angry or passive-aggressive behaviors you have in private.

This isn’t “tough love” or any other pop psych trending fad. It’s common sense with a little structure thrown in.

Try it.

Sex Scandals and Psychology: John Watson, Rosalie Rayner and the Emergence of Behaviorism

One of the most charismatic pioneers of psychology was John Watson. He was born into poverty and abuse, yet managed to turn psychology into a science and posed questions about who we are as humans that we continue to ponder half a century after his death. He enjoyed a spectacular rise to academic fame and public celebrity, and fall from grace just as spectacular leading to academic obscurity that resounds as a mystery to this day.

What led to that spectacular fall? A salacious sex scandal of course!

Born in 1878 on a South Carolina farm Watson was the fourth of six children who suffered through abuse and poverty. His father was an alcoholic who had difficulty holding a job, but was skilled at fighting, drinking, extra marital affairs and what we now call domestic violence.

His mother was a conservative Baptist who sought to rein in her son with the twin threats of God and the Devil. The threats did not seem to do much to curb his delinquent behaviors, but were quite effective in initiating anxiety attacks that lasted a lifetime.

By all accounts, Watson seemed destined to follow his father’s example, especially after the trauma of his father abandoning the family for another woman when Watson was 13. His teachers remembered him has lazy, argumentative, and disrespectful. As a teen, he was arrested several times for fighting and once for shooting a gun inside the city limits. Exactly who or what he was shooting at has been lost to history. Although Watson’s mother was intensely religious, she was unable to turn him from what seemed to a path to prison and poverty.

But Watson had several things in his favor. He was a handsome young man, very articulate, and extremely bright. He was also ambitious, yet very conscious of his less than stellar social status. In spite of his propensity for alcohol, partying and violence he was able to use his more urbane skills to win admission to Furham University to satisfy his mother’s somewhat unrealistic hope that he become a minister. Although his peers viewed him as a nonconformist and his teachers barely tolerated him, one professor saw some value in the rough-hewn Watson and encouraged his academic growth. Strangely enough, he found his calling in academia. Something must have clicked with Watson because he graduated from Furham with a Master’s degree and gained admission at the University of Chicago intending to earn a PhD Philosophy.

His first exposure to philosophy at Chicago convinced him that he needed to choose something else to study. The noted philosopher John Dewey delivered one of the first lectures Watson heard at the University of Chicago, and left young Watson completely befuddled. “I never knew what he was talking about then, and unfortunately for me I still don’t know”, he said years later.

This was the beginning of an incredible stretch of luck and coincidence that propelled Watson to the heights of academia, and then to wealth and social status in business. Watson entered the University of Chicago in 1899 when psychology was just emerging from philosophy as an academic discipline of its own. At the time, psychology focused on how individuals organized perceptions into an understandable whole — that is, consciousness. Watson was destined to turn psychology on its head and reinvent it for the 20th century.

One of the leading psychologists at the University of Chicago was James Angell, who would soon become President of a powerful academic organization, the American Psychological Association. In one of many amazing coincidences, Watson worked as a janitor to earn money for school, and drew the task of cleaning Angell’s office. The two became acquainted and developed a respect for one another, and Angell became Watson’s dissertation advisor.

In 1903, at the age of 25 Watson was the youngest ever to earn a PhD. at the University of Chicago. In addition, he graduated magna cum laude and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key. He was a rising star on the fast track to academic success, and everyone knew it. He married Mary Ickes, a student of his whom, legend has it, came to Watsons attention after writing a love letter as an addendum on a psychology essay. Ickes was from a wealthy and socially prominent Chicago family, giving Watson the social credentials he sought since his days at Furman.

At the turn of the century, psychology was in disarray, without clear direction or a unifying theme. Psychology came to America twenty-five years before when William James, a wealthy dilettante with a medical degree from Harvard, traveled to Europe where he learned of the new discipline of psychology, then little more than a philosophical concept. He found the new discipline fascinating and learned enough about it that he was able offer a class in physiology and psychology upon his return to Harvard in 1875.

For the next quarter century, psychology languished as an interesting philosophical school of thought, but failed to gain traction as a science. The problem was there was nothing to measure. Unlike natural sciences like chemistry or biology, psychology was concerned with internal mechanisms that defied measurement. Psychological research consisted of introspection — simply examining thoughts and perceptions that one experienced. Slowly attention turned to questions concerning how people related to their environment. Still there was little to measure, and psychology was not able to earn a reputation as a true science.

The abstract nature of philosophy did not appeal to Watson, and neither did the abstract nature of introspection and consciousness. His dissertation was on the neurological maturation of white lab rats — a line of study he was attracted to because it was so much more concrete than introspection.

Watson found himself in a dilemma: newly married to a woman from a successful family, and newly graduated with such notoriety that palpable expectations for academic success hung in the air, yet he did not really like working with people –the object of his chosen field. What to do? What avenue could he take that would allow him to make his mark on psychology, yet not require studying humans?

Watson turned his attention to the behavior of animals. He began to wonder why his lab rats did the things they did. Influenced by the work of Russian scientists IP Pavlov, Watson abandoned a psychology of introspection and concentrated on the study of observable and measurable behaviors. Watson published papers on the new concept of behaviorism after earning his PhD, and began to emerge as a leader in the quest to make psychology a natural science.

Then another series of uncanny coincidences unfolded that propelled Watson to fame. In 1906 James Angell, president of the American Psychological Association and Watson’s dissertation advisor gave the keynote speech at the APA annual conference in which he declared that the true focus of psychology must be behavior, not the process that underlie it.

And there stood Watson, already a leader in the nascent behaviorist movement.

Two years later in 1908 Watson accepted a professorship at Johns Hopkins University offered by James Baldwin, chair of the psychology department, and founder and editor of Psychology Review, an influential academic journal. Only a year after Watson’s arrival, Baldwin embarrassed both himself and Johns Hopkins when a raid on a notorious local whorehouse resulted in his arrest and plenty of newsprint. He resigned in disgrace from Johns Hopkins, and Watson took his place as the chair of the Department of Psychology, as well as the editorship of Psychology Review. Watson was only 31 years old.

This is when things begin to get very interesting. Watson continued his meteoric rise in the field of psychology, and began to be somewhat of a public celebrity. In 1914, he published his first book about psychology. In 1915, he won election as president of the APA. He turned his attention to social issues and began writing lay articles about child rearing and parenting. About this time, Johns Hopkins administrators rejected a proposal from Watson to research sexual activity and alcohol use among adolescents, holding that such work was too controversial for a conservative university. As it turned out Watson would not take no for an answer.

Nevertheless, Watson’s ability to sell himself and his ideas was bringing grant and foundation money to the university to such an extent that he earned a 50% salary increase in 1919 to forestall his defection to other universities competing for him. He had just published groundbreaking research demonstrating that fear of ordinary objects could be created in people under the right circumstances. His future was assured. He was untouchable, or so he thought.

In 1920, it came to light that Watson was having an affair with a much younger woman named Rosalie Rayner, who just happened to be his research assistant. Because of the social stature of his wife’s family, and Watson’s position as one of the first scientific celebrities of the 20th century the news caused frenzy in the press. His love letters to Rayner made it to the newspapers at the beginning of what promised to be a wonderfully salacious divorce case. However, the divorce case was abruptly settled and Watson was summarily fired from his position at Johns Hopkins. Subsequently he was not able to get a job anywhere in academia, and began what turned out to be a very lucrative career in advertising. Watson married Rosalie Rayner and they had two children.

The dismissal, combined with universal rejection from academia, seems harsh but makes more sense in light of what we consider very conservative sexual attitudes in the 1920’s.

There is something wrong with that explanation, however. The 1920’s were anything but conservative. Women had earned voting rights, were venturing into non-traditional jobs in government and academia and were making steady progress in areas as diverse as contraceptive availability, business ownership and political office. Certainly, affairs and divorce did not warrant such reactionary measures as blackballing a famous and promising academic professional who had achieved celebrity status while at Johns Hopkins, not to mention recently ascending to the presidency of the American Psychological Association, and the recipient of a 50% bonus only a few months before his fall from grace.

It seems there is more to the story.

Suspicion began to arise that Watson’s abrupt departure from the public stage had something to do with information Ickes family lawyers leaked to the administration of Johns Hopkins. The last thing the University wanted was to be drawn into a long and highly public divorce trial involving its’ star professor.

For years, rumors have circulated that the real reason for Watson’s excommunication from psychology was not a simple extra marital affair, but rather sex studies that he undertook with the assistance of “the other woman”, Rosalie Rayner. Furthermore, these sex studies involved measurements of physical attributes during the act of sexual intercourse.

A private sexual peccadillo and consequent divorce are one thing, but public admission implicating a university in clandestine sexual research is quite another, particularly when the investigators are also the experimental subjects. The fact one of them is married to someone who is not an experimental subject exacerbates the matter, and the allure to the press of wealth and society complicates things even further.

The story might have remained a hushed rumor had it not been for the discovery of instruments used to measure sexual response found in a collection of Watson’s effects in a Canadian museum in 1978. Had Watson and Rayner used these instruments for sexual research they surely would have maintained research notes, data and other records of their findings. It is easy to imagine that this was the evidence that Ickes lawyers revealed to Johns Hopkins administrators that led to Watson’s downfall. The 1920’s was an era of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck challenging the status quo, and flappers, birth control and woman’s suffrage challenging sexual roles. Watson’s affair might have been tolerated, but detailed notes on sexual response arising from that affair might not. This might be the real reason for the unexpected end of Watson’s academic career.

Although Watson lived an outwardly enviable life, he carried the burden of personal sadness and tragedy.

Handsome, articulate and urbane, Watson easily mingled in the upper class of New York society throughout the 1920’s and thirties. He cut a path as a debonair and daring gentleman, racing speedboats, drinking with movie stars and tycoons, and gracing the pages of magazines and newspapers. He built a huge house in Connecticut for his new family, staffing it with servants. For a while, it seemed that his charmed life would continue in new directions. It was not to be.

Personal tragedy and disappointment followed Watson for the rest of his life. Rayner died in 1935 at the age of 37. Watson became estranged from the children from both his marriages and lived alone in a small house in Connecticut from the time of his retirement from advertising in 1945 until his death in 1959 at the age of 80. The American Psychological Association awarded him a lifetime achievement award shortly before his death, but he refused to accept it, sending a friend instead.

The evidence remains unconvincing, and the “sex experiments” are no longer mentioned in psychology textbooks or histories. Just the same, if such experiments did exist they would make Watson’s harsh treatment more rational and easily understood.

We will likely never know how much truth there is to Watson’s alleged sexual escapades, but the possibility brings a refreshing bit of humanity to the otherwise dryly academic study of the history of behaviorism. It also makes for a much more interesting introduction to BF Skinner, who enters the behaviorism story shortly after Watson left, or more accurately, was yanked form the stage.

The psychological tricks we use to fool ourselves into believing fake news

One of the things I hope my statistics students learn is how irrational, subjective and suggestible human beings are. It is very easy for us to believe things that are obviously not true because random factors can have a huge effect on how we see the world.

Renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman pioneered the idea of behavioral economics. His research reveals so much about how chance elements influence our thoughts that he won the 2002 Nobel in Economics. He shared his life’s work in Thinking, Fast and Slow, a hefty book explaining many of the things that make us poor interpreters of the world around us.

For example Kahneman and his research partner, Amos Tversky, performed an experiment involving the use of a modified Wheel of Fortune game. Students simply played the game in the same way contestants play it on TV.

There was a twist, of course.

There are actually two wheels. Unknown to participants, both had a series of random numbers, but one series of random numbers were larger than the series on the other wheel. Participants were randomly assigned to a wheel, played the game, won modest prizes, and competed a short survey before leaving.

Here is where it gets interesting .

The survey consisted of a number of arcane questions whose answers are unlikely for most people to know, forcing a guess. How old was Gandhi when he died? How deep is the deepest point in the ocean? How high above the Earth does space begin?

Amazingly, the people exposed to the lower set of numbers guessed lower to the questions and the group exposed to the higher set of numbers guessed higher.

Simple exposure had an effect on how subjects interpreted their world.

In another experiment, subjects were shown to a small office and asked to complete an assessment of altruism — attitudes about sharing and caring for others. Again, there were two experimental conditions. In one, the computer monitor on a nearby desk had a screen saver of a dancing dollar sign. In the other was a screen saver of a dancing heart.

Again, this seeming inconsequential random variable had a measurable effect. People exposed to the dollar sign scored lower on measures of sharing and caring than did the people exposed to the dancing heart.

These and similar experiments show that the way we experience the world can be influenced by events to which we do not realize we have been exposed.

This is why it is so important to know something about science and statistics. These subjects teach us a disciplined method of interpreting the world.

Even then, our brains are hard wired to trip us up.

Kahneman tells us we interpret the world using one of two methods.

System 1 operates very quickly with little conscious awareness. Generally, this method consists of heuristics — mental shortcuts that help us make decisions or gather information quickly. Soliciting an opinion from an expert in an example of a heuristic.

System 2 is the one with which we are most familiar. This the cognitive process of recalling previous information, thinking about it, reflecting, weighing the strength of variables and finally coming to a decision. An example might be working out a math problem, or inferring probabilities from tables of numbers.

These two systems are in the title of Kahnemans’ book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

One of the subtle System 1 methods of decision-making involves substituting an emotional/heuristic question for an objective/rational one. Kahneman gives the example:

Objective/rational question

“How much would you contribute to endangered species?”

Heuristic/emotional question:

“How much emotion do I feel about dying dolphins?”

We do this without being aware that we are doing it.

This might explain a behavior I find puzzling.

In one breath, staunch supports of universal health care passionately criticize the pharmaceutical industry as greedy opportunists preying on vulnerable ill people. In the next, they argue just as passionately for universal health care, which would open the gates of the US Treasury to pillage by the pharmaceutical villains they demonize.

Here is another example from the recent past:

Providing universal health insurance for all Americans is a monumental task with a host of interlocking challenges.

System 1 substitutes the hard objective/rational question of “how to pay for universal health care” with the emotional/heuristic question “how passionate am I about providing health care to everyone?”

System 1 provides a short cut to decisions, but it is not objective or rational. Subjecting the question of universal health care to System 2 thinking — the coldly logical cognitive process — reveals that without substantial rationing universal health care is simply unaffordable:

The California Legislature spent an entire session trying to hammer out such a system, but could not come to an annual price less than $400 billion dollars — more than the entire budget of the state of California.

None of the proposed solutions — taxing the rich being the most common — is workable. If any of them were viable the problem would be solved and California, (and maybe the rest of us too), would have top-notch health care.

There are other ways System 1 deceives us.

The Representativeness heuristic

The representativeness heuristic states that the more similar a person is to what we think are characteristics of a group the more likely we assume they are members of that group.

A woman moves into the apartment next door. She is prim and proper, wears conservative clothing, reading glasses hang form her neck and you notice the movers carrying in crates of books.

The System 1 representativeness heuristic would compare what you know about your new neighbor to people you know in various occupations and decide that she is a librarian, and not a business manager, doctor or truck driver.

However if you had used System 2 and gone to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and compared numbers of women in those occupations you would find out that any of those other occupations have far more women than the occupation of librarian. Therefore, your new neighbor is not likely to be librarian.

The Availability heuristic.

The easier it is to being information to mind — the more salient it is — the greater its influence on decision-making.

We tend to give greater weight to negative and emotionally powerful information. There is good reason for this. Our species wandered savannas and jungles for hundreds of thousands of years. In that environment, information about sightings of snakes and lions is more important than wildflower blooms.

This is why we overestimate the probably of rare, but terrorizing events. Airline crashes are in the news for days or weeks, while fatal auto crashes are so common they barely make into a news feed. Consequently, many people are afraid of air travel, but have no qualms about driving to the airport, even though they are far more likely to be die driving there than flying somewhere else.

The current media and special interest driven hysteria about school shootings is another good example of the availability heuristic. Children are far more likely to die at the hands of parents, stepparents and foster parents than by a crazed gunman at school.

Another example of a media related availability heuristic the common fear of being murdered. The truth is that we are far more likely to commit suicide than to be murdered. This is because the media publicizes murder, but never mentions suicide, in the belief it would encourage “copycats”. (The same argument can apply to publicizing murders, by the way.)


Similar to the availability heuristic, priming refers to the availability of conscious information. Medical students often enter a stage of hypochondria because they are exposed to information about so many ailments, they interpret physical sensations they would otherwise ignore as a symptom of disease.

Priming also explains why we startle easier after watching a horror film.

Here is a real life example.

In 1974, I was walking along a sidewalk with a knot of people after watching The Exorcist. If you have seen the movie you know it contains graphic scenes of projectile vomiting . I noticed a young woman across the street vomiting into a sewer grate as her boyfriend held her steady. I have no idea why she was sick — maybe she had stomach flu, food poisoning or simply drank too much beer.

It didn’t matter to a woman well primed by the movie who yelled frantically and loud enough for everyone to hear, “My God, she’s possessed! Get away from her!”

Everyone was silent for a moment, and then broke into laughter as the embarrassed woman ran across the street to apologize and comfort the young woman.

Anchoring and Adjustment heuristic

The Anchoring and Adjustment heuristic is when we use a number or event as a starting point and make adjustments as we move forward.

You see a car on Craigslist you think you might want to buy. The price the owner lists is the anchor. It is at that point you and the owner negotiate adjustments.

That sounds straightforward enough, but what if you go to a used car lot?

In that case, there are all sorts of anchoring and adjustment: how much the salesperson offers for your trade in, the interest rate, the stated price of the car. This is why used car salespeople have such a poor reputation — they are very skilled at anchoring and adjusting variables to their advantage.

Here is a suggestion:

Let System 2 take over. Learn how to use Excels’ Payment (PMT) and Solver functions, then negotiate with the used car salesperson.

Anchoring and adjustment does not apply only to decisions involving numbers. Imagine you try a new restaurant, and have a bad experience. The server is surly, the food is cold and the plates look dirty. You vow never to go again, but a few weeks later a friend asks you give the restaurant another chance. You do and your dining experience is completely different. Great service, fabulous food and the place looks clean and inviting. Your opinion of the restaurant improves, but not to the extent that it might if you had not had the original bad experience. You will not likely choose the restaurant again, nor would you be likely to recommend it to your friends.

These are just a few of the ways that events we may not even realize influence our judgement and decision-making.

System 1 is fast and handy. Hundreds of thousands of years of cognitive evolution shaped System 1and its value is unquestioned.

But System 1 is more suited to immediate interactions with the physical world.

When we really want to know what causes things to happen — to identify cause and effect relationships — we need the discipline of System 2 thinking. It is slow and deliberate, but returns more accurate information than System 1, especially when we make judgements about other people.

Just yesterday a gentleman claiming to be an employment recruiter challenged a statement I made about a research finding that about one third of the men laid off during the Great Recession were still unemployed three years later and likely exited the labor force completely.

I posted a quote from the study supporting my assertion along with the citation.

His response?

“So 67% did (have a job). In my math, that’s a majority.”

He seems to accept the fact of the numbers, but completely ignores their meaning. Two thirds sounds so good!

For the person laid off a 33% chance of not getting another job for three years and possibly exiting the labor force is what is relevant, unlike the fact that a majority — more than 50% — might not face that experience.

A similar incident at the community college where I teach made me cringe for my colleagues running a vocational program.

A recurring advertisement on one of the big screen monitors all over campus featuring this vocational program quoted the total price of books and tuition as $12,500, and the tag line bragged of an 85% job placement rate after graduation.

Eighty-five percent makes me feel good, but…

Wait a minute! Two years and twelve thousand dollars for a vocational program that fails to place 15% of it’s graduates in a job? That’s awful! The unemployment rate hasn’t been that high since the depths of the Great Recession!

If we can turn objective questions into easy to solve heuristic/emotional questions to get a quick answer, we can do the opposite to turn heuristic/emotion questions into objective rations ones.

Would I gamble my life savings of $12,500 and two years of work without pay, (the two years of education), and the labor it takes to replace that $12,500 if there were a 15% chance of losing it all?

Only if I were desperate enough.

That’s why we need to approach many of life’s questions in a disciplined and methodical way.

So take that stats class!

Sharing: How giving to others returns wealth and creates friendships

Bloggers get a lot of conflicting advice about monetizing the opinions and advise they cast into the internet ether.

“Give away your thoughts, build a following, and then charge for content”

“No, anything given away for free is by definition worthless; don’t establish yourself as worthless.”

“It’s not worthless if people are reading it, but would they pay for it if asked?”

“Just share your passion; your goal is to make the world a better place. But throw up links to what your readers might want to buy to help pay the bills and keep the train rolling.”

All this conflicting advice got me thinking about sharing.

Jordan Peterson has written a wonderful book called 12 Rules for Life that is making quite a splash in the online world. The book has twelve chapters, each one containing one of the twleve rules in the title. Chapter 7, “Pursue what is meaningful, (not what is expedient)”, says a lot about sharing.

Peterson shares an interesting story about a monkey hunter in the jungle. He constructs a jar with an opening just big enough for a monkey to insert its open hand, but too small to accommodate a closed fist full of food. He fills the bottom of the jar with heavy rocks, and then puts a delicious treat easily seen on top of the rocks. A monkey comes along, sees the treat, easily puts its hand into the jar and grabs a fistful of treats, but cannot remove its hand without letting go of the treats. The monkey wants the treats so badly that continues to clutch them even as the hunter walks up and easily dispatches him.

This is an inability to delay gratification.

Ever try to teach a young child about sharing? Until about the age of three or four kids do not have the ability to predict future events based on present occurrences. Sometimes bloggers don’t either.

“Why should I give this brat of a brother? I like it — it has value to me. And you want me to — what, just give it to my insufferable little brother?”

For the child there is no sense in giving things to another. Being able to see only to the immediate future, young children have no idea they might eventually get something back.

Scientists call sharing “reciprocal altruism” — the idea that giving freely to someone results in them sharing back. This deeply a seated predictably interactive behavior in human beings. Today it’s part of the “social contract,” those unspoken rules so basic to social order that we barely take notice of them.

Consider a small band of human beings living on the African savannah 75,000 years ago. One member of the band receives food from the others, but does little to return the favor. He or she lives on the largesse of the rest of the band. Eventually the group faces a shortage of food. Maybe winter comes, or climate changes and game disappears and edible plants don’t grow.

How long until the non-sharing member, has nothing offered to him or her? Not very long.

In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright tells us about an early computer program called “Tit for Tat” that shook up the world of anthropology and psychology in the late 1970’s. Political scientist George Axelrod popularized a contest among computer savvy social scientists. He invited academics to submit programs that automated the game theory known as prisoners’ dilemma.

Imagine the police interrogating two suspected felons in separate rooms.

They give the two prisoners these choices:

· Rat on your partner and he gets ten years and you get off scot-free.

· If he rats on you first, you get ten years in the slammer.

· If you rat on each other, you both get three years.

What to do?

The problem is that the suspects have little information, only one chance and no time. There is no waiting to see what the other suspect does before deciding on the best choice.

The most generous of the suspects keeps his mouth shut while the most selfish and self-centered spills his guts to the cops.

Ratting on the other guy is kind of like one person in a prehistoric tribe benefitting from the largesse of others without giving back.

Axelrod was interested in what would happen if he repeated the prisoners’ dilemma many times. Doing this would create a history of how generous or self-centered each suspect is, and previous behaviors would provide information on the trustworthiness of the two suspects. Is the best strategy mutual altruism or to look out for ones interests at the expense of others?

Axelrod collected programs using different strategies for maximizing individual benefit from interested academics and set them upon one another. The winning program, Tit for Tat, had only five lines of code encapsulating a very simple algorithm:

On the first exchange, cooperate, and on all subsequent encounters do whatever the other program did last time.

The results were both predictable and breathtaking.

After repeated iterations, involving multiple interactions with the other programs Tit for Tat concentrated its interactions to programs that were the most honest and reliable.

Interesting, but not breathtaking.

Keep in mind that these were interactions among computer programs — machines with no morality, feelings, or moral expectations. In a completely objective manner, Tit for Tat was self-serving, advancing its own interests.

What’s breathtaking is that even though Tit for Tat was advancing its own interests, it was also sharing. In the world of Tit for Tat everyone comes out ahead.

Even though Tit for Tat had no understanding of reciprocal altruism, it illustrates the concept perfectly.

“He who has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

That is how Ben Franklin said it, but what he really means is that asking a favor of someone puts you under obligation, and that is the start of a social relationship.

Back to our band of pre-historic humans on the savannah.

It is not in anyone’s interests to be selfish because selfishness comes back to haunt them. Sharing information is in everyone’s best interests because doing so generates results for all. If everyone in the band shares knowledge of food and danger, they are aggregating their knowledge about survival, and that serves everyone’s needs because everyone feels an obligation to everyone else.

That is how highly cohesive social networks are formed.

Do highly cohesive social networks share only information about food and danger? We modern human live highly cohesive social networks. Do we share information about things other than food and danger?

Of course!

One of our most common social pastimes is exchanging information about altruism of others.

From office assessments of most and least productive co-workers, to celebrity gossip about the biggest real life jerks, to hate speech about those with different political affiliations than ours, we trade information about who shares, who they share with and if they will share with us.

It doesn’t matter if we talk about who received invitations to the latest royal wedding, which celebrities are jerks or whether the Republican’s or Democrats are the most selfish and self-centered. It’s a topic we all share in across a range of settings.

Hoarding knowledge might be to some limited and immediate benefit to an individual, but delaying gratification by sharing knowledge will pay off in the end, for the individual doing the sharing as well as the entire tribe.

In Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade, Robert Cialdini gives dozens of examples of how markets apply this principle in everyday life. If you are old enough to remember Easter Seals, you grew up watching this. Easter Seals was a charity funding research into Muscular Dystrophy that sent solicitations for donations to just about everyone.

The Easter Seal Society found that when they included gummed address lables with the name of the prospective donor on them donations increase dramatically.

Simply by giving something the potential donor found valuable increased the chances of donating.

(Everyone ought to read Influence if for no other reason to be a step ahead of the marketers)

Think about bloggers. The content they generate is cheap for them — it costs them nothing to pound out an essay that readers might find interesting, but not quite interesting enough to exchange for money. Bloggers can give away content in exchange for clicks linking readers to valuable goods and services. The more the reader values information in the article, the more likely they are to buy a book related to the information the blogger is writing about, and the more likely they are to visit the bloggers page in the future. The reader gets a book full of interesting ideas and the bloggers gets a few cents towards their DSL or cable bill.

Everyone is happy.

If you want to read more about this I highly recommend the books mentioned in this article:

Cialdini, R. B. (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade (First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition. ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Peterson, J. B., Doidge, N., & Van Sciver, E. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Stop avoiding exercising your mind and body

Our minds and bodies are at their best when involved in action and activity, yet most people find themselves sitting at desks, repeating the same routines day after day. Our bodies, though, are much better suited to the physical demands of hunter –gatherer societies, or even the agrarian economies of a century or two ago.

Plowing the south forty behind an ox might not be the most attractive of occupations, but it does wonders for the heart and lungs.

We live in an amazing era in which financial security usually requires hours of sedentary activity, but in order to maintain physical health we are obliged to spend more hours at the gym.

The same thing holds true for our minds. Psychiatrist John Ratey writes about the relationship between exercise and brain functioning in his fascinating book, A Users Guide to the Brain.

Formal education and constant academic learning correlates with improved mental functioning at older ages. We are learning, growing creatures, and mental challenges are necessary to keep our brains healthy, yet most occupations do not require constant academic style learning.

The widespread use of television, video games and internet use tends to pacify our need for mental challenges, rather than satisfying it.

Healthy mental and physical aging seems to be a product of lifestyles that incorporate mental and physical challenges and activity. It seems that what we usually identity as signs of physical aging are controllable to a large degree. Things like physical strength; muscle mass, cholesterol levels, bone density and body fat are all subject to lifestyle habits, particularly exercise.

It does not seem to take much exercise to gain real benefits, either.

In Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, Deepak Chopra tells us about the research of Stephen Blair at the Institute for Aerobic Research. His findings show that mortality rates were about equal for people incorporating walking for half an hour a day and those who run thirty or forty miles per week.

The same thing seems to be true for maintaining mental abilities. In his excellent book on healthy cognitive aging, The Creative Age Gene Cohen tells us that points out that poets aged 65 and over are over-represented in collections of award winning poetry, and professional mathematicians tend to remain creative far into old age.

The ongoing study of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minnesota shows that intellectual challenges in old age stimulates the growth of dendrites in the brain, increasing neuron connections, countering the effects of aging, adding in recovery from strokes, and resisting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. (See A Users Guide to the Brain for details.)

It seems that countering the conditions of aging is straightforward — take a walk, read a book, stay involved. Actually integrating those habits, as simple as they are, is more challenging. Reading a book is easy, but finding the time for it is hard. How do we incorporate an hour a day into simply walking?

There are ways to do these things, but there is a cost.

I find exercise to be incredibly boring. I enjoy walking, but not enough to spend an hour doing it. Instead of listening to rock and roll while exercising, I listen to C-SPAN interviews or the excellent science podcasts from Big Picture Science.

I find out about so many innovative discoveries, books I need to read and ideas that captivate and motivate me. When I do this, I’m also motivating myself to exercise. I don’t look forward to getting sweaty and fatigued, but I can’t wait to hear the latest from Seth and Molly at Big Picture Science

(I’m probably one of the last people on earth who does not own a smart phone, so I use an old fashioned AGPtEK A20 PDA to listen to podcasts. I’m quite happy with it.)

Like so many other people, I own a TV. Unlike most others, however, I keep mine in a box at the back of a closet.

Simply forgoing TV gives me an incredible amount of time for more productive activities, and I find that I do not miss the TV trash that passes for culture at all. This comes at the cost of being out of touch with popular culture, however.

I do not have much to say when the people around me talk about the latest Kardashian controversy, or about how Katy Perry kissed a boy. In fact I probably would not be able to recognize Katy Perry if I saw her.

On the other hand, I am reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and can talk at length about the Federalist/Republican controversy of 1801. It is hard to slip that sort of thing into conversation, but it is more interesting and rewarding than discussing the extent of Katy’s latest new look. And I know my brain is better for it.

If you liked this article, you may enjoy the books mentioned in it:

Chopra, D. (1993). Ageless Body Timeless Mind. New York, NY: Random House

Cohen, G. (2001). The Creative Age. New York, NY: Harper Collins

Ratey, J. (2001). A Users Guide to the Brain. New York, NY: Random House

Another School Shooting? Protect Yourself — From the Media!

Have you noticed that the media uses a standard formula when covering school shootings?

Only in the beginning do they report the Who, What Where and When of the tragedy. Immediately after reporting the news, they focus on the individual victims and their families, focusing on the emotional suffering they are experiencing.

At this point, the media is no longer reporting news and have shifted into influencing the emotions of viewers. Witnessing the emotions of others creates the sensation of those same emotions in us.

Emotions are contagious.

Back in 1991, Italian researchers were exploring how the brain controls muscles. They had implanted sensors into the motor cortex of a monkey and connected a buzzer that would go off when go off when motor neurons fired causing a muscle to move. One day a researcher returned from lunch with an ice cream cone. A buzz indicated that the monkeys neurons had fired, but the monkey had not moved.

This marks the discovery of “mirror neurons.”

We all understand that our thoughts drive our behaviors. Something not quite so apparent is our ability to predict the thoughts of others by observing their behavior. If we see someone intently scanning the ground, we could infer they are looking for something they might have dropped.

We also can infer emotions. When we see someone crying we understand that they are thinking something that is causing emotional distress. If we know what has recently transpired we form highly accurate assumptions about the cause of their distress. Humans begin to demonstrate the ability to infer emotion from simple observations at about the age of three. By five they are experts.

Our emotions, whether positive or negative affect those around us, and in turn, their emotions affect our emotions.

This is why television shows used to feature laugh tracks and now include studio audiences. The happy enthusiasm of a crowd having a good time influences us to have an even better time than we would otherwise.

This is such an automatic and ingrained human property that we are not aware of it until we think about it. In fact is such a basic feature of being human that we sometimes assign emotional intent to inanimate objects.

Matthew Lieberman, in his excellent book, Social, recounts a demonstration in which an animation of two triangles and a solid circle move around a square enclosure. People observing assigned emotional intent to the movements of these inanimate objects. It seemed the triangles were bullying the circle, even though the objects were actually moving randomly.

In his now famous book Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell tells us about a fascinating experiment by Howard Friedman in which he measured the ability of people to impart emotions to others. Some people are naturally better at influencing the emotions of others. We refer to these people as charismatic, and they often attain leadership roles when working with others.

Friedman then paired individual high scorers with two lower scoring people and asked the three to sit in a small room without talking for two minutes. After the two minutes, subjects described their mood in detail.

The results indicated that the charismatic high scorers influenced the mood of the others. If they were a little depressed so were the others; if they were happy and in good spirits, the others reported they were as well.

Our ability to sense and influence the emotions of others is very strong and at the same time very subtle. You do not really notice it when it is happening.

In his amazing book Human, neurologist Michael Gazzaniga describes couples the experience of volunteering for an experiment exploring how physical pain can be transmitted form one person to another. While one person watched, a harmless, but painful shock to the hand was applied while each volunteer’s brain was observed in an fMRI-imaging chamber.

Both the observer and the person receiving the shock showed activity in the part of the brain that processes emotional perception of pain. Related fMRI studies by Matthew Lieberman demonstrated that social pain — emotional pain brought on by the behaviors of others — is process through the same brain structure.

So it seems that Bill Clintons much quoted and maligned, “I feel your pain” comment from 1992 really does have an element of scientific truth.

Observing someone in emotional distress feels very similar to observing someone in physical pain.

When we observe others in emotional distress, we experience the same emotions they experience. The more personally and intimately those emotions are express to us the stronger the affect. It is one thing have an emotional experience when reading about a plane crash, but more emotionally intense to see images of the wreckage, more emotional still when we see images of grieving relatives and even more so when we also hear their cries.

One death is a tragedy; a thousand deaths is a statistic.”

Let us get back to how the media reports shooting tragedies.

Right after the Parkland shooting, I spent most of the day turning NPR on and off. All they could talk about was the emotion carnage following the shooting. Nothing about international events, Nothing about the economy, nothing about escalating violence in the mid-east.

When I turned on NPR to find out about the looming trade war with China I heard:

“How did it feel when you were told your child had been brutally murdered?”

I turned off the radio. It was just too upsetting. I’d try again an hour or so later.

“Tell us what it was like when your saw your best friend shot down right in front of you.”

Off with NPR.

NPR even schedule special events so people could subject themselves to more emotional abuse.

“Tune in at seven o’clock for live eye witness accounts by the survivors of the Parkland shooting.”

I was shocked they would do such a thing, but maybe I should not have been.

Note how the media personalizes everything they can. They assail viewers with close up family pictures of smiling victims, thrust microphones in the faces of relatives in their most grief stricken moments, and maintain a constant assault on viewer emotions with endless loops of victim biographies.

They know how this affects their audience. They know how difficult is for us to turn away from others in need. They know there is nothing we can do, and that because of that we can hardly resist turning away from human suffering.

It is because we have empathy. The ability to share in the pain of others. Something the media does not seem to possess. If they did, they would not go to the extremes they do to inflict that pain on their viewers.

These people know exactly what they are doing. The major news networks have statistical experts monitoring data from all their TV, radio, and internet traffic looking for ways to increase the number of people accessing their streams.

More people attending their broadcasts means more they can charge advertisers who want the widest possible exposure for their products and services.

That is not all.

There are social and political goals at work also.

When our brain becomes emotional, it is no longer logical. Our brains cannot simultaneously hold strong emotions and logical cognitive function at the same time. In one of my previous articles on math anxiety, I go into detail about this. During times of emotional stress, the need to scan the environment for dangers overwhelms our working memory.

This is why people and organizations with agendas come out of the woodwork during items of crisis. The best chance of success in gaining approval or support for a plan is when people are not thinking clearly in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Rahm Emmanuel gets credit for the phrase: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

This is why the aftermath of tragic shootings is always followed by calls for gun control from the gun control advocates, calls for more funding for mental health from mental health advocates, calls for armed teachers from the pro-gun groups, and calls for armed guards from police and security organizations.

So how do we manage our lives during these media inspired emotional rollercoaster events?

First, simply know what is happening. The media is targeting you for emotional manipulation. They manipulate your emotions in such a way as to compromise your cognitive functioning. The immediate goal seems to be to keep up a high level of engagement with their websites and broadcasts.

If you know their goal is to keep you engaged the response should be to limit engagement. I am not suggesting ignoring tragic events, but rather taking steps to preserve our emotional state when they occur. We feel bad enough just knowing a tragedy occurred; it services no one except the media and organizations with agendas to focus our unblinking attention to tragedy.

So turn off the radio and the TV whenever something upsetting comes on.

We have something psychologists call agency. Agency means that we are capable of making decisions and carrying out actions that influences what occurs in the world. We can decide to turn off the radio or a TV or look away from a computer screen. We are not at the mercy of whatever others push into our consciousness.

We are not bits of flotsam and jetsam tossed about on heaving seas over which we have no control.

If you can insulate yourself from the emotional manipulation of the media, you might try subjecting the solutions offered by the agenda setters a logical test.

Simply ask:

“Would that proposed solution have prevented this tragedy?”

Chances are it would not.

The guns used in school shootings are usually either stolen or misappropriated from friends or family, so background checks and closing gun show loopholes would have no effect.

Shooters are very rarely mentally ill. In fact, people with mental illnesses have a lower rate of violence than those who are not.

Armed teachers and guards might mitigate these disasters, but at the same time increase the chances of injury through accidental discharges. However, most shooters intend to die by either their own hand or someone else while taking with them as many others as possible, this is not an ideal solution either. In fact it plays right into their hands.

When the next school shooting occurs, (and there will be a next), take measures to protect your emotional self from the excesses of the media. They will play you like a puppet on a string if they can.

Also keep in mind that more we can insulate ourselves from the abuses of the media the more able we will be to find a real solution to this tragic problem.

I think if know of a way to end school shootings. It has nothing to do with guns or mental health or armed teachers. Instead, it focuses on the root cause of school shootings — the students themselves.

Thanks for reading.

Here are the sources consulted for this article:

Gladwell, M. (2002). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference (1st Back Bay pbk. ed.). Boston: Back Bay Books.

Gazzaniga, M. S. (2008). Human: The science behind what makes us unique (1st ed.). New York: Ecco.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Crown.

How I Learned About Women Pt 2: A Topless Dancer Shows Me How Men Are Like Puppets on a String

A few years after Billy My Biker Buddy Put Me on the Path to Enlightenment, a new neighbor moved into the apartment directly above me. As I became acquainted with Cheri I found out she was a psychology student at the local university and was financing her education as a topless dancer. I was shocked at the amount of money this 19 year old was making. Not only could she afford a nice apartment and a new car, but she was also a full time student with no debt.

This got me thinking…Men are giving this woman a lot of money, but what were they getting in return? What were they really buying? Whatever it was it was worth a lot of money in their judgement.

A topless bar is an example of a typical marketplace. The fundamental purpose of a market is to establish value of goods and services. Buyers and sellers meet, negotiate prices for goods and services, when everyone is happy with the prices they have agreed upon we can say value of goods and services has been established.

Cheri was selling the service of dancing topless in front of an audience of men in exchange for money. Men were giving her money in exchange for dancing topless. Everyone is happy with the exchange. If the service is not worth the money, the men stop paying. If the money is not worth the effort, Cheri stops dancing.

That is the cold economic theory but my interest is in a particular aspect of this arrangement: Men are paying Cheri more than $100 an hour. What did they find so rewarding about Cheri topless that they would think their money is well spent?

Something more than just a voyeuristic thrill must be motivating men. If all they wanted was to see a bare breast, they could simply look at their wives or girlfriends. No wife or girlfriend? There are plenty of magazines around.

It has to be something more than that.

So I asked Cheri about it.

“Why do they pay me so much? I don’t know. Maybe they’re just stupid.”

Then she said something that galvanized my attention.

“I just look at them and they pay me.”

Wait a minute! What else do they do when you look at them?

“I dunno. They look back, I guess.”

Billy My Biker Buddy said that same thing about picking up women. He waited until a woman met his gaze, followed a ritual he didn’t know existed and would go home with a new friend.

I went into geek research mode again. Only this time I would not be researching in academic databases, but in a topless bar.

I asked Cheri if I could watch her dance.

Here is what I found out:

Topless dancers followed the same ritual as women in regular bars. The only difference was that they went a lot faster and there was not much subtlety.

First comes eye contact. As soon as the dancer comes on stage, she surveys the audience looking for men who had enough to drink to impair their judgement.

She makes extended eye contact with those men, just as women in regular bars do. Holding a gaze for a fraction of a second longer than normal indicates social interest. “Hey, you’re kinda cute.”

Next, she “temporarily closes proximity.”

This is the point in the ritual at which men in a regular bar find an excuse to walk past the woman with whom they have been exchanging eye contact. They can see each other a little better and both decide if the ritual continues. If so the man might return and ask to buy the woman a drink or invite her to the dance floor.

The men are immobile in a topless bar, so it is up to the woman to approach each man she had already identified. I found this part amazing. If you did not know what was going on you would just see a topless woman dancing on a stage in front of men. I saw her identify men she was about target for seduction and extract money.

Next comes the showing of the goods. Just like the mating behavior I saw in regular bars, at this point the women would present their breasts to the men. Shoulders back, chest out, once for each man she was targeting. Amazingly, the men would do the same thing. Not quite as enthusiastically as in a regular bar, but I always saw men at least make a gesture to move their shoulders back and their chest out.

How interesting, I thought. The same gender dynamics happens in the topless bar as in the regular bar. What was happening in the topless bar was the same mating ritual I saw in the regular bar. That is what men are paying for!

Of course, the men were responding with money as well. They held out bills when they saw something they liked or when they wanted the women to approach them.

That is only one side of the story.

Later Cheri told me that while she would target likely marks early in her routine, she was always ready to add to her list of potential contributors. Very often, alcohol already degraded their decision-making skills, to Cherie’s advantage. If the men she initially identified were out spent by other men, she would turn her attention from them to the men with the cash.

So what is going on here? Why do men find topless women so valuable that they willingly hand over hundreds of dollars to scantily clad young women just to see them dance? There is not possibility of anyone being picked up, having sex or starting a romantic relationship. So where is the value?

Men pay women to act as if they find the men sexually attractive. That’s it. They are looking to have their masculinity validated by an attractive woman. Even though they know it is an act, they still spend tremendous amounts of money for the illusion that woman find them attractive.

No cheap thrill, no sexual fantasy no gestures of dominance and submission. Just a desperate bid to feel what is like to be noticed by an attractive woman.

That is why men are willing to pay so much money to experience. Hormones and social pressure drive men to these extremes because being attractive to women is the crux of masculinity.

If you found this article interesting, you might enjoy these books:

Baker, R. (1996). Sperm wars: The science of sex (1st U.S. ed.). New York: BasicBooks.

Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Diamond, J. M. (1992). The third chimpanzee: The evolution and future of the human animal (1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Ellwood-Clayton, B. (2012) Sex drive: In pursuit of female desire. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

Natterson-Horowitz, B., & Bowers, K. Zoobiquity: The astonishing connection between human and animal health (First Vintage Books edition. ed.).

Wright, R. (1994). The moral animal: The new science of evolutionary psychology (1st ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.

How I Learned About Women, Part 1: How Billy My Biker Buddy Put Me on the Road to Enlightenment

Years ago, I had a motorcycle friend named Billy. Like many young men, Billy and I would ride around town, barhopping on our bikes trying to look cool and pick up women.

Billy was really good at it but I sucked and I didn’t know why.

I could not understand how he did it. It did not look like he was doing anything, but he spent a lot of time on the dance floor and rarely went home to his own house.

Me, on the other hand? It was as if I was invisible. Women practically pushed me aside to shove a napkin with a phone number into Billy’s hand.

Asking Billy how he did it was no help.

“I dunno. I just wait ‘till they look at me.”

What do you do when a woman looks at you?

“Well…I guess I look back.”

This went on for weeks until one fateful night when a woman put a napkin with her phone number on it in my hand.

Billy and I were sitting together at a small table in a cowboy bar. He left for a few minutes to visit the restroom. A woman walked up to the table where I now sat alone, looked at Billy as he walked away, then turned to me, shoved her napkin at me and said, “Here is my phone number. Give it to your friend,” and walked off.

That was a slap in the face! As far as she was concerned, I was just Billy’s social secretary.

What did I do? What I always do when I want to learn something. I got on the academic databases and researched “how to pick up women in bars.”

I found a trove a fascinating information. There were a number of academic studies about something called “human mating rituals,” natural and innate behaviors men and women use to communicate sexual attraction and availability.

Obviously, I did not have any of these natural and innate behaviors, which is way I was poking around in academic databases instead of meeting women at bars.

Here is what I learned:

There is a highly structured hierarchy of male and female behaviors involved in the search for romance. If you skip a step or do not wait for a signal to move to the next step, everything comes to a stop. If you do not stop the bouncer and the police get involved.


The first step in this process is eye contact.

Imagine you are a man sitting in a bar. You sip your drink and scan the environment. Nothing predatory or aggressive, just calmly looking at all the people in the room, chatting with your friends. Suddenly your gaze meets that of a woman halfway across the room. She holds your gaze for just an instant longer than would be appropriate in other settings.

That is the first step. Simply holding eye contact for about a quarter to half second longer than normal. It’s a sign of initial interest. That is what Billy meant when he said he waited for a woman to look at him.

Next in the human mating ritual is something called “temporarily closing proximity.” That means nothing more than getting physically closer and leaving, without any other kind of interaction, aside from another glance, longer this time.

So you walk past the table at which the woman is sitting, as if to go to the restroom or get another drink and glance in her direction and smile. If she returns the glance and the smile and then looks away, you can move to the next step. If she does not seem to notice you, she is communicating a lack of interest. Go back to your table and see if another woman holds your gaze.

Let’s say that she holds eye contact again. That is a good sign, but the game is just beginning. You have to follow each step in order or you will end up at home alone.

Now you can talk to her, but briefly. Ask her to dance, or offer to buy her a drink. Maybe send a drink over. This might seem like a minor thing, but it is vitally important. Eons of human evolution have gone into this mating dance, and sometimes-human evolution puts us in positions that may not seem fair, but have proven their value to human survival throughout history.

One of the primary roles of men is to protect and provide for woman and their children. Buying gifts for women is one way men show that they can provide for them. Dance is a way to demonstrate physical fitness and the ability to provide protection from other men or dangers in the environment. It is the Stone Age in a modern setting.

The first time you dance with a woman you cannot touch, so slow songs are out. Do not ask a woman to dance on a slow song. She will likely refuse. Instead, get on the dance floor during a fast song; make plenty of eye contact, smile and lead her back to her seat when the song ends.

Next step. Now the preliminaries are out of the way. At this point, the woman will do one of two things. She might thank you for the dance and look away, in which case it is game over. You blew it in the first test of providing security and support. Go back to your table and look for another gaze from a different woman.

On the other hand, she might invite you to sit at her table or the bar for a drink, or you might make the offer. The person making the offer is not important at this point, but agreement from the woman is paramount.

So now, you are sitting with her. Very likely, she will ignore you. She might not look at you, and instead check out the other men in the room. Maybe she will not respond to you, as if she cannot hear you or she has forgotten you are there.

At some point though, one of two things will happen.

Either she will turn her upper body towards you, smile and engage you in conversation, or she will ignore you until you go away. If you persist after she has made it clear she is not interested she will call the bouncer.

I have watched this hundreds of times and the lack of predictability at this stage is striking. There does not seem to be any indication of what is about to happen until she either turns her upper body towards you or ignores you while you try to spark a conversation.

So let’s say she wants to continue the ritual. You are talking to her and suddenly she turns her upper body towards you and smiles.

Now comes something I find amazing. Social scientists claim this particular thing happens every time a man and a woman get to this point. In addition, they usually do it almost simultaneously. I did not believe it until I saw it repeated many times.

They both sit up straight, throw their shoulders back, their chests out, and show off the goods. It is quick, subtle, and easy to miss, but if you watch for it, you will see it almost every time. Again, this has to do with the lessons of evolution. They are showing a potential mate their unique sexual attributes associated with protecting and nurturing offspring. For men, that means strength and muscles, while for woman it is about giving nourishment to babies.

Here is the interesting thing. Both women and men report noticing each other’s physique, but neither realizes that they have put themselves on display as well. They take note of the other persons attributes, and notice the other person taking stock of theirs, but have no idea of their complicity in this behavior.

Now you are sitting with this woman, getting to know a new friend. Again, no touching, only talk. But the talk is not really the important thing. If you want to know how things are going to end up keep an eye on the two glasses from which they are drinking.

Both parties use their drinking glasses as symbols indicating how emotionally close they feel to the other person. Watch people in a bar who have come to this stage and it sometimes looks like the glasses are chasing one another around. Most times, though, it is a gradual reduction in the space between the glasses.

This is a more intimate version of the “temporarily closing proximity” stage we examined earlier, but this time it is not so temporary. If things go well the woman will allow your glass to touch hers. The first time this happens might seem like an accidental or unintentional contact, but it isn’t. It is permission to move to the next step.

The talking continues, and if the talking is going well it will lead to direct physical touch, usually by the woman. Maybe a hand brushing against a shoulder or a very brief touch of fingertips to a thigh. Again, this might seem inconsequential because it is so fleeting, but it is a beginning.

Now physical touching becomes more frequent, and the couple turns their entire bodies towards one another, maybe shoulders touching while they sit, creating an intimate space to talk even in a roomful of people. The conversation becomes more intimate as well, planning the rest of the evening.

Now we will leave our couple to their plans, while we examine a few important lessons that might not be obvious.

Note that the man cannot get to the next stage without the express consent of the woman. If he misses a cue or misinterprets a behavior, he commits a serious social faux pas if he is lucky or a sex crime if not.

This is the thing I find most interesting about this ritual. We think of the man as being the aggressor, pursuing women until they acquiesce to his advancements, but that is not what is really happening at all.

Instead, men offer themselves up hoping for approval and acceptance. Men are always in competition with one another and the most important competition is the ability to attract females. At this point it is the women who hold power and make decisions about sex, romance and mating. That is true in every human culture for as far back as anthropologists can see, and it is true for every primate species and just about all mammals. And rattlesnakes, too, as we will see in a moment.

The important distinction to make is that attracting means just that — the ability to make oneself desirable to females. For example, male gazelles will taunt a pride of lions by grazing very close as if they do not realize the danger in which they put themselves. Eventually a lion will make the charge for dinner and the gazelle gracefully jets away, but after a while wanders back to repeat the performance.

Biologists watched this behavior for years and until recently could make no sense of it. What would compel a prey animal to taunt powerful predators, risking death in every encounter?

It is another mating ritual. It turns out that the only time male gazelles taunt lions until they charge is when female gazelles are present. The males are demonstrating their physical ability. The females chose mates that get closest to the lions and survive.

Mating rituals of rattlesnakes take on a similar contest. Male rattlesnakes follow the scent of females, so a confrontation between male snakes is inevitable. But it is not a contest of slashing fangs.

The two male rattlesnakes meet each other nose to nose, almost touching. Then one raises his head a little. The other raises his head a little higher. The first one out does him by a couple of inches. As this continues the snake’s bodies are touching. Sometimes intertwining as if they are mating. There is no aggression or violence. The contest ends when one snake cannot raise his head higher than the other can. The female snake offers herself to the winning snake as the loser slithers away.

For males of any species, it is all about displays of strength and dominance with females rewarding the winners with the opportunity to pass their superior DNA into the next generation. And it is the females who hold the power and make the decisions. Men propose, women dispose.

Next: How I Learned About Women, Part 2: My Neighbor Shows Me What Men Really Buy at Topless Bars

If you found this article interesting, consider reading these books:

Baker, R. (1996). Sperm wars: The science of sex (1st U.S. ed.). New York: BasicBooks.

Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Diamond, J. M. (1992). The third chimpanzee: The evolution and future of the human animal (1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Ellwood-Clayton, B. (2012) Sex drive: In pursuit of female desire. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

Natterson-Horowitz, B., & Bowers, K. Zoobiquity: The astonishing connection between human and animal health (First Vintage Books edition. ed.).

Wright, R. (1994). The moral animal: The new science of evolutionary psychology (1st ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.