Category Archives: Social Studies - Page 2

Genocides Target Competent, Yet Cold People

Wired has a very insightful interview with a social psychologist from Harvard Business School named Amy Cuddy. She says that since World War II, we have been trying to figure out a more scientific answer for why the Jews were targeted for genocide. The most prevalent theory was that of ingroups and outgroups: during hard times, one group of people kills the ones that aren’t in their group. It sounds good, but in practice that theory couldn’t predict who would be discriminated against. So she did a study which involved finding out the groups within a society and then asking the members of that society to rank each group on a number of traits. This revealed that what actually matters are two qualities: competence and trustworthiness.

Competence is how good someone is at turning their intentions into successful action, and trustworthiness is the feeling that their intentions toward you are good. (Warm people are generally perceived to be trustworthy, while cold people are not.) With any two traits, there can be four emotional and behavioral outcomes:

  1. Incompetent and untrustworthy: disgust and avoidance. Think bums.
  2. Incompetent but trustworthy: pity. Like kids and small animals.
  3. Competent and trustworthy: the Holy Grail that everyone wants. Jesus.
  4. Competent but untrustworthy: respect, admiration, resentment and antipathy. What you feel for Scrooge.

If you think someone is competent and doesn’t really care one iota whether you’re happy, lying in a ditch somewhere, or getting tortured, then that may just scare you. What if you fall into their bad graces or get on their radar? They’re obviously able to destroy you, since they’re competent. So when the situation arises, like during war, famine or depression, those are the people that get killed: the aristocracy in the French Revolution, the Jews under the Nazis, the educated under the Khmer Rouge. With the right circumstances, Occupy Wall Street might have ended up there too.


Of course, they don’t have to be killed — just made incompetent. During World War II, the US government incarcerated the highly competent and very untrustworthy Japanese living in America. The Civil War was basically fought because, while almost everyone thought blacks were incompetent, southerners thought them to be untrustworthy and therefore worthy of the chains, while northerners thought of slaves like Uncle Tom, and therefore worthy of pity. In presidential elections, both candidates are usually competent, but the one that’s warmer generally wins, because he’s perceived more trustworthy. The exception that proves the rule is the election in 2000: both candidates were trustworthy, but George W. Bush, who did not appear competent, lost the popular vote. However, in 2004, he won by a good margin after proving his competence in handling the aftermath of 9/11 and starting a war no one wanted — and being more trustworthy than flip-flopping Kerry.

The lesson to take away here is that smart or not, you should try to be nice and popular. If you’re not well-liked, people will be disgusted by you if you’re incompetent, or resent you otherwise. Even pity for being dumb but nice is better than resentment, because at least then the villagers won’t try to burn your house down the first chance they get. Or more likely, you won’t die alone. But, according to science, the best thing is to ask yourself: what would Jesus do?

Update, 11 March 2013: A new book called The Charisma Myth makes a similar point about trustworthiness and competence. In it, the author says that charisma is made up of warmth (trustworthiness) and power (competence), underlined by presence — the ability to be completely in the moment. Warm, powerful and present people are very charismatic.

From Wired, via Lifehacker

Video Makes You Feel Better About Your First World Problems

Something about seeing an African kid who can’t get clean water stand in front of his crumbling shack and talk about how his phone charger issues just makes you feel better about your own life.

Warning: realizing that you don’t have a maid or a house big enough for two wi-fi routers may detract from the aforementioned benefits.

But if it still made you feel good enough about yourself to think you’re Warren Buffet to the Africans (which you probably are), you can donate to WATERisLIFE. Or Heifer International. But nowhere else!

From YouTube, via Neatorama

Why Routines Make You A Better Person

The Harvard Business Review has an article which points out that many busy, important people like Steve Jobs and President Obama wear basically the same clothes and eat the same meals every day. Why? Because they intuitively know what psychological studies have recently shown us: that we have a limited amount of mental energy; we can only spin our brains’ wheels so much per day.

Think of mental energy like a battery: if you spend it on making decisions about what to wear and where to eat, you have less to spend on designing the iPhone. If you spend it on trying to avoid eating the cheesecake in the fridge or on talking yourself into going for a run, you’ll have less to spend on beating Romney in a televised debate. If you spend it trying to stay awake longer than you’re supposed to, you won’t have enough to spend on keeping your temper in check when your airheaded BFF asks you what you did this weekend for the 52nd time.


Steve Jobs' outfits at keynote speeches, 1998-2010


Faced with limited mental resources, productive people came up with a simple plan: use the battery only for important things. If you make everything a routine, you don’t have to spend any mental energy on your clothes, your diet, your fitness or any number of daily activities. Regular people already do this to a degree: imagine if every day you had to decide whether or not to brush your teeth, whether or not to go to work, whether or not to put shoes on. You’d have no faculty left to even hold a conversation, much less do anything productive, like show up at work and look alive.

The most successful people take this to a more extreme level: they eliminate every choice possible. When you wake, how you dress, what you eat, when (not if) you exercise all become a foregone conclusion. If and/or when they happen is not up for debate, just like brushing your teeth in the morning isn’t. And since they’re routine, they’re one less thing you have to worry about. Which means you now have more mental power to spend worrying about things that matter — like becoming a better person.

From Harvard Business Review, via Slashdot

Food Riots Fed The Arab Spring; More Predicted For 2013

The French Revolution is probably history’s most famous food riot. It came about due to the aristocracy ignoring widespread hunger among peasants — an episode in history we now erroneously associate with “let them eat cake.” The French had forgotten what the Romans figured out 2,000 years before, and implemented via their bread and circuses policy: a well-fed, entertained, and somewhat free population doesn’t overthrow the government.

We like to think that we revolt against tyranny, but the truth is that we don’t mind tyranny that much, as long as there are enough things for us to eat and be amused by. However, when the food runs out and people believe their rulers are standing in the way of nourishment, governments will fall. And in that respect, the Arab Spring was no different than the French Revolution: it started when Tunisian police confiscated a 26 year-old street vendor‘s fruit cart, which was the only, meager source of income for his mother and six sisters; he set himself on fire in front of the governor’s office, after shouting “How do you expect me to make a living?”

Food price index, 2004-2011, with the timing of riots around the globe


In 2011, researchers noticed that the number one predictor of riots worldwide in the prior 5 years, was the price of food. Since 1990, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has been calculating a monthly food price index and if that number is above 210, recent history shows that riots become a lot more likely. The data fits this month’s American consulate riots which are supposedly due to the Muhammad video, but are probably more about the price of food — the current index is at 213. People will put up with a lot, but once they can’t afford to eat and death looms around the corner, consequences disappear and they begin to think of their legacy: it’s better to die in a riot while trying to change the world than to die of starvation in your bed.

During the Arab spring, the food price index was around 230. Due to widespread drought, prices are expected to rise 3 to 4% in 2013, likely putting the index above 220 and causing even more rioting. Meanwhile, America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic caused by food being too cheap — so cheap, in fact, that 40% of it gets thrown away.

See also:

From MIT Technology Review, via motherboard and Slashdot

The Truth About College Education

Also, the less tangible effects of networking and being indoctrinated with the jargon and behaviors of the upper half.


Subway Etiquette

Good video on the dos and don’ts of subway transit:

  • The subway’s way hotter than the surface: wear layers so you don’t sweat and stink
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • Get your Metro card out (and make sure it’s got money on it) way before you get to the turnstile so you don’t block people
  • Hold on to the poles on the subway that are comfortable, not the ones that place your arm pits in someone’s face
  • Give up seats for pregnant women, old people and cute girls
  • Only eat stuff that doesn’t make a mess or smell
  • Check your earbuds before putting them in your ear to make sure they’re not so loud that others can hear your poor taste in music
  • The subway’s not the place to take care of your personal hygiene and grooming
  • Read a Kindle or a newspaper if you’re bored

See also:

From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

Why You’re Very Likely To Settle For A Spouse

Back in 2002, a computer scientist wrote a paper (PDF) in the May 2002 issue of The Annals of Improbable Research which lays out why he would likely never have a girlfriend. His findings, unfortunately, can be extended to most people:

  • Starting with the 5.6 billion people on Earth at the time, he counted — using census data and population statistics — only those who were female, lived in countries he would at least visit, were of appropriate age, were good-looking enough, smart enough, and not already taken and was left with some 118,000 women.
  • Of those, he estimated that less than 19,000 would actually like him back — 15.8655% of the available pool of eligible 118,000, representing those who thought his characteristics were more than one standard deviation above average.
  • If he were to go on a blind date with a girl around his age every week, it would take him about 67 years to stumble into a date with one of the 19,000 above. This calculation is actually flawed, because he forgot to remove the girls that are taken, so it would really “only” take him about 33 years to find someone. If he wrote this as a grad student at 24, he would be 57 at the time and not 91; but most people will have settled by then anyway.


From xkcd


Of course, the paper is unrealistic in at least three ways:

  1. People rarely go on blind dates, exactly because of the high failure rate. So if he would only go on dates with single girls he found attractive, his pool would shrink from roughly 65,000,000 to 744,000. He also doesn’t need to actually go on a date with the girl, just to ask her out: if she says no, that will weed out the ones that aren’t interested. So if he just asks out one of those girls every week, it will take him 40 weeks to find one of the 19,000: less than a year and 32 years sooner, if he just avoids blind dates!
  2. But, except for the few that are prolific at networking, almost no one finds a different eligible girl every week. (At first blush, online dating seems like it would help in this aspect, but you are actually 12x more likely to get married this year if you’re not on So using the more reasonable figure of one date request per month, the 40 dates would take him just over 3 years — still not bad!
  3. Except that his model is much too simplistic: it assumes the only criteria people use when selecting a spouse are availability, age, beauty and intelligence. If that were true, everyone would marry their best friend of the opposite sex. In reality, chemistry plays a much larger role than anything else, and similarity is probably second: most successful couples have common interests (movies, music, vacations) and common beliefs (religious, political, parenting). Using political affiliation as an estimate, the similarity criterion would probably cut at least another half of the pool out, leaving him a little over 9,000 eligible girls. Chemistry would weed out most of the rest, bringing to total down to just a couple of thousand eligible bachelorettes. To find one of them out of the 744,000 available would take him 372 date requests, which at once per month would take… 31 years!

And so, we’re back to being somewhere in your 50s by the time you find a soulmate. If you’re the type that always picks the right number in roulette, maybe you’ll be lucky and find a special someone after 37 tries instead of 370. And if not, maybe it’ll take you 500. But long, long before that, you will have probably thrown in the towel, started dating someone you don’t hate, and settled for less than you would’ve liked.


So how do you avoid settling? You can hope for the best and pray that you’re lucky, or prepare for the worst and become prolific at networking. Meet anyone and everyone; ask the eligible ones on a date, ignore the people you don’t like, and befriend the rest (you might meet someone awesome through them). If you meet one new potential date every week, chances are it’ll take a little over seven years to find someone pretty perfect for you. And that’s just by random meetings — if you focus on places, activities and friends that draw people from a particular demographic you’re interested in (e.g., going to happy hour at classy places to meet guys in their late 20s who have decent jobs), you can find your soulmate in a fraction of time. Also, just say no to blind dates.

From The Annals of Improbable Research (PDF), via Neatorama

Pascal’s Wager


Pascal’s Wager says that since there are only two possibilities (either there is a God or there isn’t), if you’re a selfish ass just looking to save your hide from eternal damnation in the fires of hell, you might as well just believe in God. If there isn’t a God, you don’t lose anything — but if there is, you gain a lot. The two main problems with this way of thinking are:

  1. the one shown above: the probability of choosing the correct god out of the hundreds of religions — without any actual evidence to help you out — is very low.
  2. assuming you somehow choose the correct religion, once reaching the Pearly Gates or their equivalent, they would probably kick you out anyway, because you’re nothing but a self-serving coward who only believed out of convenience and fear, not out of conviction.

Ergo, Pascal’s Wager is asinine. Good thing Pascal also had triangles and pressure on his resume.

From imgur, via Adam

The People Who Live Long Are The Happy Ones

According to a study from Yeshiva University of hundreds of very old Ashkenazi Jews (who make up 80% of Jews worldwide), the ones that are almost 100 years old have a positive outlook towards life and are emotionally expressive. Specifically, they are optimistic, easy-going, outgoing, they laugh a lot, express their emotions openly and avoid bottling them up, and are less neurotic and more conscientious than the general population.

Students in the library at Yeshiva University


Details of the Study

The scientists wanted to find genes which help people live longer, so they looked at Ashkenazi Jews from the university’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Longevity Genes Project. That group was an easy choice for a few reasons: they already had the people’s info, Yeshiva is a Jewish university and most importantly, due to centuries of Jewish mothers asking “is she Jewish?”, the Ashkenazi are among the most genetically similar of any group worldwide. As a result, it’s easy to spot traits in the population that arise from genetic differences and therefore lots of genetic studies have been done on them. The researchers were curious if any of the personality traits that very old people possessed were inherited, so they gave them personality quizzes and ranked them on a scale of positivity which ran along the lines of two accepted personality models: the Big Five and the Life Orientation Test. What they found was that the centerians were positive and emotionally expressive people.

As we’ve seen before, scientific studies should be taken with a grain of salt, and while the study is relatively large and the effects significant, the subjects were not diverse at all, the individual trait scores were self-reported via questionnaires, the researchers used their own scale, and confirmed their feel-good hypothesis that happy people live longer. Nevertheless, this is one more notch in the belt of a large body of research showing that positive people lead healthier lives.

See also:

From The Impact Journal On Aging, via Medical Daily and Slashdot

And You Thought ‘Idiocracy’ Was Just A Movie

The premise for Idiocracy is that smart, successful couples have a lot less kids than trailer trash. It starts with a story (video clip below) contrasting a nice, intelligent upper-middle class couple who keep putting off having kids until the time is right, only to eventually find out that they can’t conceive. In the meantime, a redneck couple in a trailer park has four kids, while the husband or baby daddy has another few with other women, including the next-door neighbor, eventually totaling over a dozen. The movie then fast-forwards 500 years, to a time in which the whole country is a trailer park and humanity doesn’t even know how plants work.

Lest you think this is just a contrived movie premise, News Channel 3 in Memphis, TN has a story about a 33-year old man from Knoxville who makes minimum wage and has 30 kids by 11 different women. The state takes half his paycheck for child support, which obviously is not that much: some of the moms get 1.49$/mo from him. There have been two separate years in which he’s had four kids and in the past three years, he’s had nine. Of course, there are cases of successful people having lots of children too: for example, Steven Spielberg has seven (two adopted). But on the whole, rich people have less kids than poor people.

The spectre of an idiotic future for humanity is nothing new: in 1895, H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, most of which takes place thousands of years into the future, where the Eloi are the childlike descendants of modern humans. To stop such scenarios from happening, eugenics became a popular movement in the beginning of the 20th century, but after Hitler also decided it was a good idea and went crazy with it, the movement fell out of favor. Nevertheless, it did have some lasting effects: Planned Parenthood arose from the eugenics movement in 1916, and immigration policy starting in the 1920s was also generally centered around eugenics.

"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution": Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921, depicting Eugenics as a tree which unites a variety of different fields.


After the evils of Nazi Germany, eugenics-based policies gradually ended and the blank slate theory took a firmer hold. Today, the thinking is that genetics don’t play that large a role in intelligence, and that we can avoid Idiocracy through education. As a result, education policy is always a hot issue and in the United States, the federal government provides states with much more education funding than they raise on their own, while at the same time giving out grants and cheap student loans for anyone to have access to tertiary education. But income inequality in America keeps rising, and getting disadvantaged children interested in education is still an unsolved problem — as is convincing people to not create 30 more.

From WREG, via Neatorama