Intelligence – a very short introduction

I figured that as I was already spending time reading stuff on related matters, I might as well cover this topic as well (intelligence is not a personality variable they spend many paragraphs discussing in the Handbook) – but given that I’m not that interested in this stuff, I also figured I didn’t want to spend too much time on it. So reading a book with the subtitle ‘a very short introduction’ made sense.

The book is not very technical, and I was seriously considering as I was reading the first few pages to just throw it away. But I decided that I’d give it a few more pages, and having done that I realized that even though the coverage was somewhat superficial I might as well finish it as it would take very little effort. From the outset I sort of expected the book to be a ‘downgraded’ version of a standard Springer publication. It turned out that it was not, the level was significantly lower than that – either that or my conceptualization of how such a ‘downgraded’ (‘more accessible!’) book looks like was erroneous. Either way I was somewhat disappointed. I ended up giving the book two stars on goodreads. There was too much fluff and he spent a lot of time dealing with simple stuff.

Some of the conceptual and methodological approaches applied in this line of research are also applied in other areas of psychologic research covered in Leary & Hoyle, but you certainly don’t need to have read anything about psychology, psychometrics etc. in order to read and understand this book. To give an example of what I mean by the first part, in various areas of personality research it’s common for researchers to in some sense look for ‘common factors’ that tend to cluster together – the existence of such common factors relate very closely to the existence of such a thing as personality traits in the first place. The idea is that people who are in some sense ‘alike’ along one ‘dimension’ of personality/behaviours are likely to also be ‘alike’ along ‘similar’ related ‘dimensions’, and once you add the various elements in such clusters together and construct new variables and use these to have a closer look at stuff you might be interested in, these constructs can be used to gain a better understanding of behavioural links, because they tend to predict behaviour better than do the elements they’re made up of. You can add stuff together at more than one level if you like. The search for ‘g’ in the area of intelligence research is in some sense just a hunt for such a ‘common factor’; a factor useful in explaining variation in peoples’ performances at various cognitive tasks. The important point here being that most intelligence researchers agree that it makes sense to look for such a common factor, because it looks a lot as if such a factor exists in the data. A bit from the first chapter of the book about this stuff:

Carroll’s strata of mental abilities emerged as an optimal result from a standardized statistical procedure, not from his imposing a structure on the data. He discovered rather than invented the hierarchy of intelligence differences […] Among psychologists working in this field there is no longer any substantial debate about the structure of human mental ability differences. Something like John Carroll’s three-stratum model almost always appears from a collection of mental tests. A general factor emerges that accounts for about half of the individual differences among the scores for a group of people, and there are group factors that are narrower abilities, and then very specific factors below that. Therefore, we can nowadays describe the structure of mental test performances quite reliably […]

The principal dissidents from this well-supported view are on the semi-popular fringes of scientific psychology. Howard Gardner’s popular writings on ‘multiple intelligences’ have suggested that there are many forms of mental ability and that they are unrelated. The facts are that some of Gardner’s supposedly separate intelligences are well known to be correlated positively and linked thereby to general mental ability, such as his verbal, mathematical, and musical intelligences. Some of his so-called intelligences, though valued human attributes, are not normally considered to be mental abilities, i.e. not within man’s ‘cognitive’ sphere. For example, physical intelligence is a set of motor skills and interpersonal intelligence involves personality traits.”

Here’s a little bit about ageing from the book (in the chapter he also talks a bit about the distinction between crystallized and fluid intelligence, among other things):

“what ages when we talk of intelligence ageing is something very general – some broad capability of the brain to handle ideas is changing, not just specific aspects of mental function […] what seems like a kaleidoscope of mental change can to a great extent be explained by one simple fact: as we get older our rate of processing information in the brain slows down.”

And below a few observations from chapter 3:

“there is a modest positive correlation between head size and brain size […] There is a modest association between brain size and psychometric intelligence. People with bigger brains tend to have higher mental test scores.” […]

“Psychologists today often refer to the ‘mental speed’ or ‘information processing speed’ ‘theory’ of intelligence. What they mean by that is that people who score better on intelligence tests might in part be cleverer because some key aspect(s) of the brain proceeds faster. My principal problem with this overall idea is that my colleagues can’t make up their mind how to measure this mental speed. Some use reaction times. Some use inspection times. Some use the brain’s electrical responses. Some even measure how long it takes electrical impulses to travel along people’s nerves. But these are all different measures, and it is an odd theory that can be tested without a common yardstick, and some of these mental speed ‘yardsticks’ don’t relate to each other very well at all. The truth is that we do not have an agreed measure of how fast the brain processes information, and that is because the workings of the nerve cells and their networks are largely mysterious. We must summarize by concluding, therefore, that intelligence is related to many things that involve speed of processing information, but that scientists have difficulty in conceptualizing ‘mental speed’ in a uniform way.”

I don’t really think it’s worth the trouble to cover more of the book in detail here, as a lot of the stuff covered in the book has already been covered here on the blog before – instead of reading the book you can just have a look at some of the stuff I’ve posted on intelligence before here – links like these: 1 (link vi.), 2, 3, 4, and 5 (not all of the stuff at the links is covered in the book, but I can’t be bothered to find all the matching papers and if you read the links in those posts you’ll probably learn more than you will from reading the book).

January 30, 2014 Posted by | books, IQ, Psychology | Leave a comment

Open Thread

A little random stuff from the web:

1914 alt(link)

I felt pretty much that way after watching the video below and skimming parts of Terence Tao’s related blogpost.

I did a little work on infinite series and their convergence properties in a previous course in micro – enough to know that this stuff sometimes makes no sense at all – but I do not think I have ever seen this one before. Incidentally I should point out that if you ever get the impression that you have a tendency to overestimate your own intellectual abilities and you would like an easy way to keep reminding yourself that you’re not actually that smart, making Tao’s blog your starting page for a couple of weeks should do the trick…

ii. A couple of Khan Academy videos (just to remind you guys that the site is still around and still has a lot of videos you may be interested in watching at some point):

iii. A few interesting wikipedia links from the bookmarks (I can’t be bothered to write a ‘wikipedia links of interest post’):
Empire of Japan.
Juan Perón.
Operation Keelhaul.
Project MKUltra.
List of animals with fraudulent diplomas.

iv. After the end of the last chess tournament I participated in I got curious as to how strong the opponents I’m regularly playing against on playchess actually are, so I decided to for a while semi-systematically look up the ratings of the players I play against to get an idea how well I actually do. I got curious to a significant degree because despite a rather horrible end of the aforementioned tournament (½ out of 4 in the last four games), I still performed at ~1900 FIDE, which is far higher than the playing strength I had assumed based on my online games/rating. There may be multiple explanations for this, for one thing ‘over-the-board chess is different’. But another aspect may play a role as well: What I realized when I started ‘checking out’ my opponents was that a lot of strong players have online ratings not that different from my own (I defeated all these players in online games during the last month or so). Of course lots of opponents didn’t have fide ratings, and lots of players don’t add their true names to their profiles, but this little exercise did make me realize that I may not actually be doing that badly on the site.

I recently found out how to share games I’ve played on playchess, making the game sharing process significantly easier than it used to be. I may share more games in the future than I have in the past. Here are two games I played in January: 1, 2. On a related matter, here’s one reason why I’ll probably never become an IM. Despite the fact that I’m most of the time on the top 100 tactics list on playchess, I feel pretty confident I’ll never find a mate like that in one minute.

v. Am I the only one thinking this is way too much work to be worth the effort? Also: 88 dates? A mathematician like him should be familiar with the literature on optimal stopping rules (see e.g. this), and from my reading of the article it doesn’t seem as if he even considered implemented a stopping rule.

January 30, 2014 Posted by | Chess, history, Lectures, mathematics, medicine, Open Thread | Leave a comment

Invisible cities

While reading this book yesterday evening I was once again reminded of how many different types of books are out there. I’ve often spent more time on a chapter of a technical book than I spent on this book altogether; when I started out I certainly didn’t mean to finish it in one sitting, I just picked it up after having spent 10 hours or so during the day reading technical stuff because I figured I wanted a bit of light reading to finish off the day. I read for a bit and then suddenly realized I was half way through the book even though I hadn’t spent a lot of time on it, and I figured I might as well finish it before I went to bed. So I did.

I liked If on a Winter’s Night… better, but that one is really hard to surpass. I’ll probably read this book again at some point, it seems like the kind of book you’ll want to read more than once. I gave it four stars on goodreads – the average rating is 4.22.

People who occasionally recommend books to me in the comments should take note that I had not read this book if not for the fact that readers recommended it to me a while back (see the link above). It’s not like I’m ignoring all your recommendations…

Some quotes from the book below:

“if you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines […], a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-flutter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.”

“the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.”

“Ancient observers, whom there is no reason not to presume truthful, attributed to Aglaura its enduring assortment of qualities, surely comparing them to those of the other cities of their times. Perhaps neither the Aglaura that is reported nor the Aglaura that is visible has greatly changed since then, but what was bizarre has become usual, what seemed normal is now an oddity, and virtues and faults have lost merit or dishonor in a code of virtues and faults differently distributed. In this sense, nothing said of Aglaura is true, and yet these accounts create a solid and compact image of a city, whereas the haphazard opinions which might be inferred from living there have less substance. This is the result: the city that they speak of has much of what is needed to exist, whereas the city that exists on its site, exists less. […] everything previously said of Aglaura imprisons your words and obliges you to repeat rather than say.”

“Melania’s population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another. When one changes role or abandons the square forever or makes his first entrance into it, there is a series of changes, until all the roles have been reassigned; but meanwhile the angry old man goes on replying to the witty maidservant, the usurer never ceases following the disinherited youth, the nurse consoles the stepdaughter, even if none of them keeps the same eyes and voice he had in the previous scene.  […] As time passes the roles, too, are no longer exactly the same as before […] If you look into the square in successive moments, you hear how from act to act the dialogue changes, even if the lives of Melania’s inhabitants are too short for them to realize it.”

“The day came when my travels took me to Pyrrha. As soon as I set foot there, everything I had imagined was forgotten; Pyrrha had become what is Pyrrha; and I thought I had always known that the sea is invisible from the city, hidden behind a due of the low, rolling coast; that the streets are long and straight; that the houses are clumped at intervals, not high, and they are separated by open lots with stacks of lumber and with sawmills; that the wind stirs the vanes of the water pumps. From that moment on the name Pyrrha has brought to my mind this view, this light, this buzzing, this air in which a yellowish dust flies: obviously the name means this and could mean nothing but this.”

“No city is more inclined than Eusapia to enjoy life and flee care. And to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground. All corpses, dried in such a way that the skeleton remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down there, to continue their former activities. And, of these activities, it is their carefree moments that take first place: most of the corpses are seated around laden tables, or placed in dancing positions, or made to play little trumpets. But all the trades and professions of the living Eusapia are also at work below ground, or at least those that the living performed with more contentment than irritation […] To be sure, many of the living want a fate after death different from their lot in life: the necropolis is crowded with big-game hunters, mezzosopranos, bankers, violinists, duchesses, courtesans, generals – more than the living city ever contained.”

“Those who look down from the heights conjecture about what is happening in the city; they wonder if it would be pleasant or unpleasant to be in Irene that evening. Not that they have any intention of going there (in any case the roads winding down to the valley are bad), but Irene is a magnet for the eyes and thoughts of those who stay up above.
At this point Kublai Khan expects Marco to speak of Irene as it is seen from within. But Marco cannot do this: he has not succeeded in discovering which is the city that those of the plateau call Irene. For that matter, it is of slight importance: if you saw it, standing in its midst, it would be a different city; Irene is a name for the city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes.”

“Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave.
“You can resume your flight whenever you like,” they said to me, “but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.””

“”I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. […] It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

“The living of Laudomia frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them: footsteps echo beneath the hollow domes; the questions are asked in silence; and it is always about themselves that the living ask, not about those who are to come. One man is concerned with leaving behind him an illustrious reputation, another wants his shame to be forgotten; all would like to follow the thread of their own actions’ consequences; but the more they sharpen their eyes, the less they can discern a continuous line; the future inhabitants of Laudomia seem like dots, grains of dust, detached from any before or after.”

“at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.”

January 29, 2014 Posted by | books | Leave a comment

Evolution of Island Mammals: Adaption and Extinction of Placental Mammals on Islands

I was spending time with family this weekend, and as the environment was somewhat noisier than usual I had difficulties reading the Handbook. So I decided to engage in some lighter reading, which is where this Wiley-Blackwell publication enters the picture. Along the way I realized it wasn’t actually much lighter reading, but I enjoyed it and so decided to keep going…

I was very uncertain if I should give the book three stars or four on goodreads, and when I finished it yesterday I gave it three stars. I have now changed that rating to four stars. It is a fascinating book, but it is a bit dry at times. It probably deserves two posts, but I couldn’t be bothered to write more than one. I watched this Gresham College lecture a while back, and that lecture provided part of the motivation for reading the book. Wilson touched upon some of the themes covered in the book as well – his name does come up, naturally. Still, it should be emphasized that there was a lot of stuff covered in this book which I’d never really thought about and about which I knew nothing, and reading books which deal with such things is always nice.

Say you have an island formed in the middle of the ocean. There’s water all around it, perhaps lots of water, and it’s always been far away from continents and other islands. Which kinds of animals turn up there, how many different kinds, and how do they get there? Does the size of the island matter, and how does it matter? What usually happens after a new visitor has become established on an island?

Animals don’t just pop up and start hanging around – we are used to there being so many species around us that it would be easy to forget that it’s not necessarily the natural state of affairs that there are hundreds of species of animals all around you. On an isolated island which literally rose from the ocean animals have to somehow establish themselves before they can start a life there, and until they get there and find mates and enough food to survive, the island will be rather boring from the biased perspective of living organisms such as ourselves. Some animals are better colonizers than others, and that goes for some species/genera/families of mammals as well. Not all islands incidentally rise from the ocean; some get separated from the continent from which they originated, perhaps due to a combination of plate tectonics and/or eustatic sea level rise. In biology islands in a more general sense, understood as habitats where some types of organisms are isolated from their conspecifics, play an important role in speciation processes, so there are many reasons why one might be interested to learn more about such things – though it should be pointed out here that this book only deals with ‘proper’ islands, i.e. the kinds with water around them and so on.

Some islands display a great deal of species diversity, whereas a lot of others have a very unbalanced and impoverished fauna. By impoverished, I mean really impoverished – it’s amazing how few types of mammals sometimes made it to a specific island and got themselves established before humans started messing around with stuff. Or perhaps the amazing thing is rather that any of them did at all? I don’t know. To take an example of an impoverished island fauna, Cyprus is a good illustrative example. The only mammals on Cyprus (that we know about) during the Pleistocene were pygmy hippopotami, dwarf elephants, and perhaps bats. No cats, no dogs, no mice or rats, no goats, no pigs, no bovids, no deer, no nothing. When I set out reading this book I had in my mind some not-particularly-well-thought-out ideas about which sorts of animals normally hang around in the environment, and sometimes reading books can really mess with such ‘ideas you were not even aware that you had’; the fact of the matter is that in the case of some specific islands every single mammal species you’ll encounter on that isolated island (which incidentally today may not actually seem particularly isolated on account of technology, human transport methods etc.) will have some unique and probably quite fascinating story, explaining how it got there – and members of species which don’t have such a story to tell simply aren’t/weren’t around at all. Of course many of the island species mentioned can’t tell their story either anymore because they’ve gone extinct – again Cyprus provides an example. We talked about Pleistocene – well, at the onset of the Holocene a few more species were added (a genet, a mouse, and some fruitbats). They did okay and nothing much changed. But then later on the island stasis was interrupted, presumably because of human agency, and all the mammals that had established themselves before that time went extinct. A wonderful story that makes you proud to be a human.

As mentioned rather than being isolated species-poor places, some island groups have large species diversity; the West Indies is an example of that type. The book deals with a lot of different islands, and although there are some common patterns and trends there is also a lot of variation – and the variation seems to be reasonably well understood in most cases, although lack of evidence sometimes make things a bit harder to figure out than one would like them to be. A thing I feel compelled to note and emphasize is that an impoverished fauna does not an uninteresting fauna make: Some awesome animals have inhabited various islands around the world, and I’ve occasionally been saddened to read a chapter because of the realization of what has been lost (after having been first greatly fascinated by what was actually there). I’ve probably have had in the past a tendency to think of mammals as the bad guys in the story of islands because of how anthropogenically introduced invasive species such as rats and rabbits have wreaked havoc around the world, but birds aren’t the only types of animals that colonize islands and lots of mammal species around the world have been natural elements of island ecosystems for millions of years. To get back to the awesome animals and our example of Cyprus from above, the pygmy hippopotamus which used to live there is estimated to have been about 125 cm long, with a shoulder height of about 70 cm. The dwarf elephant that lived there was a bit larger; it’s estimated to have had a shoulder height of 1.40 metres. These animals were actually much larger than the pygmy elephants which inhabited nearby Sicily roughly 450.000 years ago, which had female shoulder heights of about 0.9 metres and male shoulder heights of about 1,3 metres, and an estimated body weight of around 100 kg. Yep. You’re probably used to think of mammoths as huge creatures (I was), and in that case you may be interested to know that an estimate of the size of the Cretan pygmy mammoth (…yes, there were mammoths living on Crete! I know! I had no idea either!) is 1.5 meters. Proboscideans were incidentally quite successful island colonizers, showing up all over the world:

“Endemic proboscideans have been reported from islands all over the world. Apparently, proboscideans were the most successful lineage of large-sized island colonizers, ranging from stegodons and mastodons to mammoths and elephants. Everywhere they developed a smaller size, eventually reaching dwarf or even pygmy proportions compared with their mainland ancestors. It is hard to think of an island with a rich fossil record lacking any proboscidean remains. Exceptions are the Balearics, Gargano, the central Ryukyu Islands, and the West Indies.”

Again, I had no clue! Mammoths used to live as far apart as Crete and Japan… Lions and hyenas used to live on Sicily, and tigers used to inhabit Japan. Incidentally proboscideans got smaller on islands, but many small mammals have tended to grow in size instead once they established themselves on isolated islands. On Minorca there used to live giant hares weighing 14 kg, and giant rats still inhabit the island of Flores; these guys are up to 45 centimeters long, with tails up to 70 centimeters. Body size is not the only thing that tends to change on islands; a stockier build (shorter limbs, stiffer joints), and changes in dentition also often happens, but body size changes are certainly noteworthy. Note that size changes don’t just mean that animals will get smaller or larger; greater size variation on islands is common due to adaptive radiation. You’ll have both small and large animals of a similar species, at least to start with – if the process is allowed to continue for millions of years you may easily end up with multiple different species derived from the same ancestor. Lemurs are a good example of where you may end up. Life is different on islands. Generally intraspecific competition tend to increase and interspecific competition tend to decrease (as a general rule carnivores are much less likely to become established on islands than are herbivores), but interspecific competition is still very important; the existence or absence of competing taxa can have major effects on the course of evolution. For example the Sicilian pygmy elephants developed during a time period where there were no deer present on the island; during the time where there were deer on Sicily, proboscideans reached dwarf proportions but never went smaller than that (in the book they apply the pygmy label to species half the ancestral size or less, and the term dwarf for forms which are 80–60% of the ancestral body size).

The book has three parts. The first part is called ‘Beyond the mainland’, and aside from a few introductory remarks it briefly talks about the history of island studies and then moves on to talk about ‘how islands are different’ from the mainland and how this affects the fauna. Part two is the main part of the book, and it deals with how mammal species have lived, died, evolved etc. on many different islands around the world; each island is to some extent unique, so each chapter deals with one island. The islands included in the coverage are: Cyprus, Crete, Gargano, Sicily, Malta, Sardinia and Corsica, The Balearic Islands, Madagascar, Java, Flores, Sulawesi, The Philippines, Japan, the Southern and Central Ryukyu Islands (the northern islands are included in the coverage of Japan), the Californian Channel Islands, and the West Indies. So the book does give a reasonably global view of island mammal life, although there are many chapters dealing with the Mediterranean. The book deals with evolutionary biology, but in order to tackle this topic you also need to deal with other areas such as geology. For example the Mediterranean looked very different 5-6 million years ago, and such changes have had huge consequences for how species adapted and evolved to their local environments. Some of the most fascinating stuff in this book in my mind related to how different the world used to look like, even if you don’t go back all that far. Japan used to be part of the mainland, Crete was a submerged mountain chain at the bottom of the ocean a while back, and the island of Flores emerged above the sea during the Early Miocene. Roughly 2 million years ago much of the current island of Java was at the bottom of the ocean, but on the other hand 800.000 years ago the island, as well as Sumatra and Borneo, may well have been connected with the mainland due to changes in global sea levels. Madagascar and India stuck together when they left Africa a long time ago, but they picked different routes and ended up different places, with different fauna. The chapters in this part of the book also provides some history of how we came to know what we know, who were some of the key people involved in figuring these things out, and so on, which is often rather interesting. In a way you sort of have to deal with such matters to some extent e.g. because the taxonomy is sometimes a bit messy when analyzing island data. Lumpers and splitters will disagree violently about the number of species, and understanding how the people who first looked at the bones arrived at the conclusions they did is often interesting.

Part three of the book deals with ‘Species and Processes’. After dealing with all the various islands an attempt is made here to sum up what we’ve learned from the coverage; first by taking a closer look at the species we’ve encountered along the way, then towards the end of the book by adding some general remarks and observations. The species covered in this section are naturally the species which have engaged in most island colonization activities. I was a little frustrated along the way while reading the book that few general principles were formulated, and that the coverage focused a great deal on ‘the specifics’ of the island in question, but this part sort of partly makes up for it and some people would surely argue that the method applied is perfectly justified. The species covered in the chapters in this part of the book are: ‘Elephants, Mammoths, Stegodons and Mastodons’, ‘Rabbits, Hares and Pikas’, ‘Rats, Dormice, Hamsters, Caviomorphs and other Rodents’, ‘Insectivores and Bats’, ‘Cervids and Bovids’, ‘Hippopotamuses and Pigs’, and ‘Carnivores’. The last two chapters of the book deal with some general ‘Patterns and Trends’ as well as ‘Evolutionary Processes in Island Environments’; I’ve covered some of that stuff above already.

Overall I really liked the book. Aside from the small problems such as ‘too specific, a few too many remarks about Cuvier‘, the only problem I had with the book was that there was very little focus on mammalian interactions with non-mammals on the islands. But given the focus of the book this was perhaps only to be expected. It’s a nice book and I enjoyed reading it.

January 27, 2014 Posted by | biology, books, evolution, Geography | Leave a comment

Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behaviour (II)

Here’s my first post about the book.

The book is taking a little longer to read than I’d expected, but I am making progress and I’m roughly two-thirds through now. The book is of the ‘required reading for this university course is this textbook’-type, so I don’t have major trouble justifying spending a week or more on it. When I wrote the first post, I’d read the introductory chapters as well as the chapters on interpersonal dispositions (part 2) and the first four chapters on emotional dispositions (part 3). At this point I’ve now read the last four chapters on emotional dispositions – covering ‘proneness to shame and proneness to guilt’, ‘hostility and proneness to anger’, ‘loneliness’, and ‘affect intensity’ – as well as part 4, which covers cognitive dispositions: ‘Openness to experience’, ‘locus of control and attribution style’, ‘belief in a just world’, ‘authoritarianism and dogmatism’, ‘the need for cognition’ (I’d never heard about that one and that chapter was very interesting! – I decided not to include stuff on that one in this post because the post was already very long, but I’ll certainly cover that stuff later on…), ‘optimism’, ‘the need for cognitive closure’, and ‘integrative complexity’. One thing you most certainly will realize while reading a book like this is that humans actually vary across a lot of dimensions; there are a huge number of ways to perceive the world, think about social interaction, handle problems life throws at you etc. I believe people tend to underestimate this complexity to some extent in part because you’ll always tend to be biased by your own emotional and social experiences to some extent; if you for example very rarely get angry at other people, you may well not think of anger and hostility, or perhaps related variables such as impulsivity, as being particularly important ‘in the big picture’; and this despite the fact that it may well be that the only reason why you don’t think much about these matters is actually that you’re implicitly and without knowing it applying near-optimized anger management strategies, which some other people may have a very hard time applying in a social setting for various reasons. This is not a point made in the book, incidentally, but I guess that’s also part of the point – a book such as this one can easily make you start thinking along such lines. Another reason people underestimate such complexity is of course that most people don’t read books like this one. Anyway, humans don’t just vary in the way they think and behave, they even vary in the way they think about thinking and in the way they think about their behaviours (and in the way they think other people think about thinking, and think about their behaviours…), and you can say something meaningful about many of these differences and their behavioral correlates.

In terms of underestimating complexity, another point perhaps worth emphasizing is that people have significant scope for self-selection in terms of who they spend their time with, and if, like most people, you interact mostly with people who are conceptually like you in many ways, it may be very easy for you to overlook a lot of the total trait- and behavioral variation out there – a book like this will give you a greater appreciation of how many different kinds of people are out there. A related point is that you’re probably at this point to some extent engaging in self-selection based on variables you’re unaware of, because of your cognitive setup.

Some of the most recent chapters were not that great, but others were very interesting indeed and overall I’m liking the book – I think I’ll most likely give it three or four stars.

In my first post I mostly left out the references from the quotes (many references were instead replaced by a ‘[…]’); I did this in order to make the post easier to read and to be able to include more observations without having the post blow up in my face, but in this post I decided to occasionally include some of the references, so that readers can observe that the authors are not just making up many of the claims/observations I include in my posts. Studies may be somewhat heterogenous in terms of quality and validity, but there are often a lot of them and it’s not like none of the authors have heard about longitudinal studies or panel data models. I have occasionally been a bit surprised at how much stuff has actually been looked at in some detail. As one of the authors note,

“there is a vast interdisciplinary literature on locus of control and attribution style in clinical, social, educational, health, and organizational psychology that attests to the importance of these variables in understanding individual differences. By the end of 2007, there were nearly 2,500 citations to Rotter (1966) and more than 750 citations to Rotter (1975); seminal articles on locus of control.”

The guy was given roughly 10 pages to tell you all about that literature, so, well…

Given that I’ve now read another roughly 200 pages in a textbook a large chunk of which consists of reviews of studies, I of course can’t cover this material in anywhere near the amount of detail I’d like to, but I hope you find some of the stuff I decided to include in the post below interesting anyway. I did not think it made sense to keep adding to the post in order to cover all the stuff from this part of the book which I’d like to cover, so the last chapters mentioned above I decided to postpone coverage of – as already noted. I will cover ‘the need for cognition’ and ‘the need for cognitive closure’ later on, as I find these variables and the coverage quite interesting. Maybe a few of the other neglected topics will get a word or two in another post later on as well, we’ll see.

Below’s some stuff from the second third of the book, as well as a few observations from chapter 12 (‘Social Anxiousness, Shyness, and Embarrassability’) which I decided against including in the first post because of the time I’d already spent on that post and the length of that post.

“Social anxiousness makes social interactions seem more costly and dangerous than they would appear to be were one less anxious […] People with high social anxiousness also judge themselves more harshly. They underestimate their physical attractiveness, tend to blame themselves for disappointing outcomes, and tend to doubt the accuracy of the praise they receive […] Burdened with excessive self-focus and a pessimistic outlook, people with high social anxiousness approach social life more cautiously than do those who are less anxious. Arguably, they do not seek approval from others so much as they defensively strive to avoid disapproval (Shepperd & Arkin, 1990). This leads them to interact with others in a manner that is self-protective rather than acquisitive, and their interpersonal behavior is intentionally innocuous: They sit on the sides or in the back of classrooms, they express neutral opinions, and they conform readily […] There is only a modest negative correlation (r = -.3 0 ) between shyness and sociability, so people with high social anxiousness do not necessarily wish to be left alone; indeed, some shy people are quite sociable […] They generally do not much like to interact with anyone they do not already know, however, because they are averse to social risk (Brown, Silvia, Myin-Germeys, & Kwapil, 2007).”

“it is clear that shy people generally interact with others in an impoverished manner that makes a relatively poor impression on their partners (Leary & Buckley, 2000). They tend to be reserved and tentative rather than enthusiastic and animated. […] they make fewer gestures […] lean away more, and nod and smile less (Heerey & Kring, 2007) than do those who are less shy. Men who are shy frequently look at women to whom they are talking, but they avert their gazes if the women look back; thus lower levels of eye contact occur (Garcia, Stinson, Ickes, Bissonnette, & Briggs, 1991). Their speech is less fluent […] They tend not to reciprocate others’ self-disclosures […], and what they do say about themselves tends to be short and superficial […] so more long, awkward silences occur […] They also tend to suppress their emotions and to be unassertive […] They also interact more contentedly when they are online rather than face-to-face with new acquaintances (Stritzke, Nguyen, 8c Durkin, 2004); they are more self-disclosing and they form new relationships more easily online […] on average, people who are high in shyness also possess poorer social skills than those who are less inhibited […] The reticence of shy people can make them seem detached and unfriendly, and they make poorer impressions on conversation partners than do those who are less shy (Heerey & Kring, 2007). This is regrettably ironic: Concern about others’ judgments leads shy people to behave in a timid, cautious, and clumsy manner that engenders the disregard they hoped to avoid […]; this confirms their fears, conceivably leading to stronger shyness and further withdrawal. […] They develop attachment styles that tend to be characterized by anxiety over abandonment, and they are relatively unlikely to enjoy secure attachments […] When they go to college, shy people make friends more slowly than others do, and they are less likely to start a new romance […] They have fewer sex partners […] and the sex they have is of poorer quality […] Shyness is probably associated with these outcomes not only because it makes one’s interactions less rewarding but also because it reduces one’s opportunities to make new friends and to find new loves […] This all sounds rather grim, but shyness is not all bad. The intimate partners of shy people describe them as modest, sensitive, and tactful (Gough & Thorne, 1986), so shy diffidence may play well in close quarters once a partner’s love is won.”

“In a longitudinal study, shame and guilt proneness in the fifth grade predicted alcohol and drug use as reported at 18 years of age (Tangney, Stuewig, Kendall, Reinsmith, & Dearing, 2006).”

“Anger-regulation styles can have implications for social relations and one’s own physiology. For example, openly expressing one’s anger in an aggressive manner often elicits reciprocal aggressive behavior and acrimony, escalating conflicts, impeding successful problem resolution, and eroding important relationships […] On the other hand, researchers have also noted deleterious social and physiological effects of the failure to express emotion. Accurately communicating emotional states is important to interpersonal functioning, and suppression of emotion can impair communication, making it more difficult to form and maintain close relationships […] One of the strongest consistent demographic differences is the tendency for women to have lower scores on measures of cynicism and aggression. […] However, women do not consistently have lower scores on measures of anger or anger expression, indicating that they acknowledge anger experiences but tend to employ less aggressive modes of expression (Stoney & Engebretson, 1994).”

“Research in the social skills area has shown that loneliness is associated with more self-focus, poorer partner attention skills, a lack of self-disclosure to friends, especially among females, and less participation in organized groups, especially among males […] Personality research has shown that loneliness is associated with depressive symptoms, shyness, and neuroticism and low self-esteem, optimism, conscientiousness, and agreeableness […] Temporal stability of loneliness scores is relatively high, with test-retest reliabilities of .69, .57, and .51 across 2, 3, and 5 years, respectively, in children between 7 and 12 years of age […] and from .73 to .84 across 1-2 years in middle-aged and older adults (Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2006; Russell, 1996). […] nonmarried men are lonelier than nonmarried women […] Marriage is well known to protect against loneliness, and loneliness is greater among those who are divorced or never married […] In general, marital relationships have been shown to play a larger role in the physical health and psychological well-being of men […] Contact with friends is more important than contact with adult children and other family members in preventing loneliness […] Social relationship quality is a more potent predictor of loneliness than quantity of social contacts […] although marriage is generally protective, only marriages that are close and satisfy a need for a confidant serve to reduce loneliness (Olson & Wong, 2001).”

“Loneliness is sometimes confused with depressed affect and poor social support, a confusion that exists despite theoretical and empirical distinctions among these related constructs […] For instance, empirical work has shown that companionship is a stronger predictor of loneliness than social support […] The lonely not only react more intensely to the negatives but also experience less of a soothing uplift from the positives […] The lonely are aware that their social needs are not being met, but they perceive that they do not have a great deal of control over their ability to fulfill those needs […] Tending to be more anxious, pessimistic, and fearful of negative evaluation than people who feel good about their social lives, lonely people are more likely to act and relate to others in ways that are anxious, negative, and self-protective, which leads paradoxically to self-defeating behaviors […] Not only do the lonely contribute to their own negative reality, but others also begin to view them more negatively and begin to act accordingly […] lonely individuals are less accurate at decoding facial and postural expressions of emotion […] One might expect that a lonely person, hungry to fulfill unmet social needs, would be very accepting of a new acquaintance […] However, when confronted with an opportunity to form a social connection, studies show that the lonely are actually far less accepting of potential new friends than are the nonlonely […] In sum, lonely individuals are more likely to construe their world as threatening, to hold more negative expectations, and to interpret and respond to ambiguous social behavior in a more negative, off-putting fashion, thereby confirming their construal of the world as threatening and beyond their control. These cognitions, in turn, activate neurobiological mechanisms that, with time, take a toll on health.”

“Lonely individuals […] are far less likely than nonlonely individuals to see any given stressor as an invigorating challenge. Instead of responding with optimism and active engagement, they tend to respond with pessimism and avoidance, a passive coping strategy that carries its own costs. Among young adults, the greater the degree of loneliness, the more the individual withdrew when faced with stressors. Similarly, the greater the loneliness, the less the individual sought out emotional support, as well as instrumental (practical) support (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Crawford, et al., 2002). Behavioral withdrawal and failure to seek emotional support are common among lonely older adults, as well […] Blood pressure is a function of cardiac output (CO) and total peripheral resistance (TPR). In young adults, we found that loneliness was related to differential regulation of systolic blood pressure (SBP). Although lonely and nonlonely individuals did not differ in blood pressure levels, maintenance of blood pressure was attributable to higher vascular resistance and lower cardiac output among lonely relative to nonlonely individuals […] Results from the Framingham Heart Study indicate that changes in TPR play a dominant role in determining SBP from age 30 until approximately age 50 […] Given the temporal stability of loneliness and its substantial heritable component, it is plausible that loneliness-related elevations in TPR in early to middle adulthood may lead to higher blood pressure in middle and older age. Consistent with this hypothesis, loneliness was associated with elevated SBP in a population-based sample of older adults in the CHASRS. Moreover, the association between loneliness and elevated SBP was exaggerated in older relative to younger lonely adults in this sample […] consistent with our hypothesis of accelerated physiological decline in lonely relative to nonlonely individuals. […] Social isolation […] is associated with increased risk of inflammation-mediated diseases.” [I covered some of the literature they talk about in that chapter here on the blog a while back – go there for more, or read the book…]

“From observing as little as 5 seconds of a getting-to-know-you conversation, perceivers can make attributions about Openness. Although accuracy ratings are generally lower for Openness than for the other traits in this context, accuracy does not vary as a function of slice length—it takes a very narrow sliver of time for a perceiver to form a judgment of Openness (Carney, Colvin, & Hall, 2007). And once this impression is formed, it is not easily changed. Openness is a low-maintenance trait […] That is, initial impressions can be resistant to reevaluation. In contrast to traits such as Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, which require frequent confirmatory evidence to maintain the judgment, impressions of Openness are relatively impervious to disconfirming evidence; information that contradicts the initial Openness impression tends to be disregarded. Once an individual is tagged as being open (or closed), regardless of the amount of evidence to the contrary, the impression sticks. […] When contemplating the ideal mate, single individuals prefer partners who strongly resemble them on Openness, with Agreeableness and Extraversion coming in a distant second and third, respectively […] A similar pattern holds for both dating couples and newlyweds […] regardless of their own personalities, women in particular value mates who are open and dominant (Botwin et al., 1997).”

“Overall, the results clearly and consistently show that attribution style is one of the vulnerability factors for depression. The tendency to make internal, stable, and global attributions for negative events predisposes people to experience the symptoms associated with depression, such as passivity, negative affect, psychosomatic problems associated with sleep and eating, and low self-esteem. […] Other studies have pointed to the instability of attribution style. Indeed, Ball, McGuffin, and Farmer (2008) suggested that attribution style is really little more than a mood state that does not reflect a risk factor for depression. They noted that “the way in which individuals attribute their experiences may be less of a risk factor and more of a symptom of depression than previously thought. Past episodes of depression may produce long-lasting negative attributions relating to the self, in addition to other pessimistic attributions that are linked to both observed and self reported current depression.”

“The just-world hypothesis states that people need to believe in a just world in which everyone gets what they deserve and deserves what they get. This belief enables them to deal with their social environment as though it were stable and orderly and thus serves important adaptive functions. […] When individuals with a strong just-world belief experience an injustice that they do not believe can be resolved in reality, they try to assimilate the experience to their just-world belief. This can be done, for example, by justifying the experienced unfairness as being at least partly self-inflicted […], by playing down the unfairness […], by avoiding self-focused rumination […], or by forgiving […] when people are confronted with the victim of an unjust fate, blaming the victim seems to be a crucial element in the defense of their belief in a just world. […] There is ample evidence of a positive relationship between just-world beliefs and subjective well-being. […] In adolescence and young adulthood […] the just-world belief’s main function seems to be to provide trust in the fairness of the world, thus enabling people to master challenges in school and at the workplace and to invest in their personal goals. In old age, when the remaining lifetime is shorter, the just-world belief’s primary function seems to be to provide a framework to help people interpret the events of their lives in a meaningful way. A strong just-world belief allows older adults to see themselves as having been less discriminated against during the course of their lives, prevents them from ruminating about the negative aspects of their lives, and instead enables them to find meaning in them.”

January 23, 2014 Posted by | books, Psychology | Leave a comment

Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behaviour (I)

“Historically, psychologists and other scientists who study human behavior have tended to fall into one of two camps that are characterized by the kind of psychological variability in which they are most interested. Some researchers are predominantly interested in how people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors vary across situations. […] Other behavioral researchers are more interested in understanding how thoughts, emotions, and behaviors vary across people. […] a full understanding of psychological
processes requires devoting attention to both. […] Our goal in editing the Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior was to provide a relatively comprehensive examination of nearly 40 personality variables that have been studied by behavioral researchers. Dozens, if not hundreds, of personality attributes have been studied, and, by necessity, we had to be selective. But we hope that the Handbook includes the personality variables that researchers currently find to be the most interesting, important, and useful.”

I’ve read the first 12 chapters of this book at this point, which corresponds to roughly a third of the book. Aside from a couple of introductory chapters dealing with some methodology, the chapters so far have covered the topics of: Extraversion, agreeableness, attachment styles, interpersonal dependency, Machiavellianism, gender identity, neuroticism, happiness, depression, and ‘social anxiousness, shyness, and embarrassability’. In my opinion some of the chapters are much better than others; there’s a lot of variance here. A few of the chapters are in my opinion really weak. But the good stuff is good stuff. A couple of chapters would in my opinion deserve 5 stars on goodreads; others I’d be tempted to give 1 – so it will probably be hard for me to figure out how to rate this book when that time comes.

The authors generally cover a lot of ground in the chapters, and given this it’s probably not reasonable to expect them to go into the amount of detail one might normally want to go into when evaluating to which extent the results of a specific study hold; there are often way too many studies for this to make sense. As is so often the case in reviews, however, in a way the number of studies and the findings described actually on their own implicitly serve as ‘validity-indicators’, in that ‘many studies telling similar stories’ will tend to make some stories appear more plausible than others. The authors focus on what they consider to be important aspects and limitations of the studies in terms of the big picture; so rather than going into a debate about whether the implicit linearity assumption imposed in that X & Y study from 19XX holds, they cover some common problems in the literature in terms of how to interpret the results, and they talk about critical common assumptions. But aside from that they mostly just report the results – there are a lot of those. I should note that despite this far from uncritical coverage some of the (potential or actual) methodological problems which might apply are not covered at all, which is also part of the reason why I touch upon this aspect. The words ‘publication bias’ have not been uttered during the first 200 pages, and a word search for those words in the document made me aware that I should also not expect to see those words pop up in the remaining 420 pages. You can write an entire book where most chapters include reviews of the literature on specific topics without a single author mentioning publication bias anywhere in the coverage. This is interesting, I think. Another one of the elephants in the room, sample size/power problems, is certainly not dealt with in the amount of detail I believe it deserves. These people’s standards of evidence is way higher than the one Meston and Buss applied in their book, and it’s not like they’re trying to hide the sample size of the studies included, but I think it’s fair to say that some authors don’t give this problem enough attention. When the sample size most often occuring in a major review of studies published in the field one year came out at n=8(!), you sure as hell need to mention this problem often and repeatedly, and you need to convey that you’ve tried to get around this – the entire field is pretty suspect and you have a lot of explaining to do even if this problem does not apply to your subfield. Some authors handle this better than others, and in fairness it should be noted that in some chapters the authors did to a significant extent manage to alleviate my fears that these results were all pretty much useless and untrustworthy, because of the large numbers of reviews included and the existence of multiple types of analyses yielding similar (and theoretically plausible) results. Of course unlike what some people seem to think, adding a large number of bad studies (with similar methodological problems) together into a review article doesn’t make those studies any better or their conclusions more trustworthy (just as increasing n will not help you the least if the model is misspecified), but it’s a start anyway – when you’ve come that far we can start talking about other reasons why these studies ‘may not show what you think they show’. The evidence bases available to the various authors were obviously highly heterogenous, which is probably another reason why I think some chapters are weaker than others (you can’t do a lot of different types of reviews and compare the performance of various different models if only, say, 4 studies have ever been published on the topic, and if no major longitudinal studies have been published you can’t make one magically appear. Having said this I should perhaps note so that people don’t misunderstand me that all chapters in the book include in the coverage an at least reasonably large number of studies – as in, much higher than four (they don’t number the references, but a brief overview and count told me that it’s likely the first couple of chapters dealing with introductory stuff are the only ones with less than ~75-100 references) – but specific questions that really need answering may not always have been analyzed in much depth, if at all).

Empirical results they cover, but there’s naturally other stuff in there as well. All chapters cover some theoretical stuff pertaining to the topic of interest, and they will often include historical aspects pertaining to how research into this subject has developed over time, how unsatisfactory empirical results have sometimes (though not always, it seems…) lead to a greater appreciation of ‘what’s actually going on’ by the identification of new areas of research requiring attention, etc. Most chapters talk in some detail about how the constructs we’re talking about (e.g. agreeableness, neuroticism, happiness…) are defined, how they’re actually measured, etc. Is it for example better to ask someone if he’s happy or to ask his wife – or is it perhaps even better to ask a doctor who’s interviewed him? In the specific case it turns out that just asking people is actually a pretty good way to get at what we’re trying to measure, but construct validity is a potential issue all authors deal with to some extent (and this dimension adds a lot of problems in some areas of research). Even when the evidence feels a bit shaky the theory is occasionally at least somewhat interesting, because of the ‘I had not thought about the fact that you could think about this problem that way’-experiences. New dimensions you had perhaps not thought relevant pop up occasionally, and just like you’ll probably realize when reading a medical textbook for the first time that the heart and the lungs are more interconnected than you thought, you’ll probably realize along the way that some identity parameters and life outcomes are clustered in a way you perhaps had not considered.

Below some general remarks from the introductory chapters:

“a single measure of behavior is not a reliable indicator of a person’s general behavioral tendencies. […] When behaviors are aggregated across situations (just as self-report responses are aggregated across the items on a personality questionnaire), behavioral measures are more reliable, correlations are notably larger, and personality does a better job of predicting behavior. […] personality relates more strongly to behavior in some situations than in others. […] the effects of a particular situation may vary across levels of a trait or the effects of a trait may vary across situations. […] a particular trait may relate to behavior in only some situations, and a particular situation may influence the reactions of only people with a certain personality characteristic (Bern & Funder, 1978). Thus many studies in social and personality psychology test for person-situation (or trait-by-state) interactions. […] although interactions between situations and dispositions are often interesting and informative, they are also notoriously difficult to obtain, and, when they occur, they tend to be quite small relative to main effects […] interactions between situations and personality are relatively rare relative to main effects, and those that do occur generally account for relatively little variance.”

“Individual differences can be measured at varying levels of specificity, from very general (e.g., trait anxiety) to highly specific (e.g., trait anxiety regarding interactions with people of the other sex). Typically, the specificity of the measure used should fall at a point along this continuum that corresponds to the level of specificity at which other variables in the study are measured. […] relationships between attitudes and behaviors are strongest when the context and specificity of the measures are compatible […] one solution to the problem of low observed correlations between personality and behavior (Mischel, 1968) is to aggregate behaviors to produce a variable at a level of generality that is similar to standard measures of personality traits […] Unlike the development of state-level counterparts to trait measures, the development of specific measures from general measures […] is not straightforward. A fundamental concern involves determining the appropriate dimensions that should be used to parse the general construct to produce more specific variants. […] Moving in the other direction—from specific to general—is more straightforward. Measures of particular behaviors or of domain-specific self-reports can be aggregated (i.e., typically summed or averaged) to produce measures of general tendencies that are comparable in level of specificity with general measures of personality.”

“No single measure fully captures the construct that it operationally defines—a frequent but misguided assumption known as definitional operationism (Campbell, 1969). For example, no measure of extraversion truly, accurately, and completely assesses extraversion. Moreover, all measures are influenced to some degree by extraneous factors such as social desirability or biases in how particular respondents use the response scales. For this reason, it is unwise for research findings to be based on only one measure of key constructs. Ideally, multiple measures should be used across (or within) studies in a research literature or program, measures that differ not only in content but also in modality of administration, reporters (e.g., self, peer, parent, teacher), and means of responding. Findings that obtain across measures (particularly if the measures differ in response format or mode of administration) are presumably more robust and replicable than those based on a single measure.”

Below some more specific observations from the chapters on extroversion, attachment theory, and happiness:

“extraverts experience more positive affect than introverts; this finding has been one of the most robust in all of personality psychology (Lucas, Diener, Grob, Suh, & Shao, 2000). […] Not only do measures of trait extraversion predict trait positive affect, but trait extraversion also predicts aggregated momentary positive affect (Costa & McCrae, 1992a; Spain, Eaton, & Funder, 2000), as well as single ratings of current positive affect (Lucas & Baird, 2004; Uziel, 2006). This means that extraverts are happier than introverts in general, over short time frames, and even in the moment.”

“Across a wide range of tasks, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analysis revealed that extraversion as measured with the NEO-PI-R was associated with greater activation in numerous areas of the brain (amygdala, caudate, mediofrontal gyrus, right fusiform gyrus) when positive stimuli, but not negative stimuli, were presented. One important implication of these studies, noted by Canli, is that personality factors such as extraversion are likely to be widely distributed in the brain.”

Attachment theory […] was initially proposed as a way of understanding why close relationships in the family and the loss of such relationships are among the most important determinants of later social adjustment and mental health. […] The key components of the theory are few, and they are relatively easy to describe:
1. Humans and other primates evolved behavioral and motivational systems that allow them to survive and reproduce, despite vulnerabilities associated with being born prematurely, taking a long time to develop to maturity, and needing the protection, assistance, and cooperation of other species members across the lifespan.
2. One of these behavioral systems, the attachment system, is responsible for establishing primary social connections and calling on them in times of stress or difficulty.
3. The history of a person’s close relationships shapes the parameters of his or her attachment system, leaving an important residue in the form of “internal working models” of self, partners, and relationships. This developmental process results in each person having a measurable “attachment style” (Hazan & Shaver, 1987) that influences the nature and outcomes of subsequent relationships, including those with romantic/sexual partners, close friends, offspring, and even coworkers and subordinates in social organizations (e.g., Davidovitz, Mikulincer, Shaver, Ijzak, & Popper, 2007).”

“Today, adult attachment researchers working from a personality-social perspective largely agree that attachment styles are best conceptualized as regions in a twodimensional (anxiety-by-avoidance) space. The two dimensions are consistently obtained in factor analyses of attachment measures (e.g., Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998) […] The first dimension, attachment-related anxiety, is concerned with a strong desire for closeness and protection, intense worries about partner availability and one’s own value to the partner, and the use of hyperactivating strategies for dealing with insecurity and distress. The second dimension, attachment-related avoidance, is concerned with discomfort with closeness and dependence on relationship partners, preference for emotional distance and self-reliance, and the use of deactivating strategies to deal with insecurity and distress.”

“Hundreds of studies using self-report measures of adult attachment style […] have found theoretically coherent attachment-style variations in relationship quality, interpersonal behavior, self-esteem, social cognitions, emotion regulation, ways of coping with stress, and mental health. […] anxiously attached individuals are less confident than their more secure counterparts about being able to establish successful relationships […] and more likely to emphasize potential losses when thinking about relationships […] There is good evidence that secure individuals tend to maintain more stable romantic relationships than insecure people (either anxious or avoidant) and report higher levels of relationship satisfaction and adjustment […] This pattern has been consistently obtained in studies of both dating and married couples and cannot be explained by other personality factors, such as the “Big Five” personality traits or self-esteem […] Attachment security is associated with sexual satisfaction and is conducive to genuine intimacy in sexual situations, including sensitivity and responsiveness to a partner’s wishes and openness to mutual sexual exploration. In contrast, avoidant individuals tend to remain emotionally detached during sexual activities, and anxiously attached individuals tend to hyperactivate sex-related worries and engage in sex primarily to placate a partner, feel accepted, and avoid abandonment […] There is extensive evidence that anxiously attached individuals are prone to jealousy and tend to be overwhelmed by jealous feelings […] Furthermore, they tend to report high levels of suspicion and to cope with them by engaging in intensive partner surveillance […] extensive evidence documents attachment-style differences in the ways people react to others’ offenses and hurtful behaviors. These studies have consistently linked attachment security with functional, constructive expressions of anger (nonhostile protests) and attachment insecurity with less functional forms of anger, such as animosity, hostility, vengeful criticism, or vicious retaliation […] In addition, more avoidant people tend to be less inclined to forgive a hurtful partner and more likely to withdraw or seek revenge (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Slav, 2006).”

And on and on it goes (“doubts about other people’s trustworthiness”, “lack of respect for relationship partners”, “emotional problems and poor adjustment”)… ‘Don’t become romantically involved with one of those people,’ the data seem to yell out to anyone who wants to listen… The attachment styles chapter was one in my opinion one of the best I’ve read so far; I’m actually considering reading a textbook on this topic. As they pointed out towards the end of the chapter, “Anyone wishing to gain
a reasonably complete picture of the field has a great deal of reading to do.” Lastly, a little stuff on happiness:

“A general model specifying the major sources of variation in happiness can be useful at the outset. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) have proposed that a person’s chronic happiness level is determined by three major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, circumstantial factors (e.g., gender, education, culture), and the activities and practices that the person engages in. This model is remarkably similar to Seligman’s happiness formula, according to which one’s enduring level of happiness is the sum of (1) one’s set range for happiness, (2) life circumstances, and (3) factors under one’s voluntary control (Seligman, 2002). A survey of the literature suggests that whereas the genetically determined set point accounts for about 50% of variation in happiness, life circumstances account for only 10%, and intentional activities are responsible for the remaining 40% (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).”

“Among different facets of personality, extraversion and neuroticism are the ones most consistently and strongly related to happiness […] As expected, both of these traits are highly heritable, rooted in neurobiology, and exhibit little change over the lifespan […] A host of studies show that extraversion predicts positive affect moderately to strongly […], whereas neuroticism is an exceptionally strong predictor of negative affect […] Research has consistently revealed moderate to high correlations between self-esteem and happiness […] the direction of causality between the two constructs is not entirely understood […] When sex differences are observed in studies, it is typically women who report higher happiness levels, yet these differences tend to disappear when other demographic variables are controlled for […] women experience both negative and positive emotions more frequently and more intensely than men.”

“As to the effect of intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) on happiness, it seems to be very weak, if it exists at all. […] All in all, research suggests that money has a positive, yet diminishing, effect on happiness. […] Whereas having money is associated with a positive, albeit diminishing, effect on happiness, wanting money too much has repeatedly been shown to prove toxic to happiness. People who place a lot of importance on money and on material possessions, particularly to the expense of family and social relationships, tend to feel less satisfied with their lives and experience less positive affect and more negative affect […] A number of studies point to a positive yet modest effect of religion on happiness […] It is believed that the beneficial effects of religion on happiness stem largely from the sense of meaning and purpose that religious beliefs provide to the individual, as well as from the social support networks associated with organized religion (e.g., churches). […] people in individualistic cultures tend to base their life satisfaction judgments on personal emotional experiences, whereas people from collectivistic cultures emphasize the appraisals of others […] Whereas associations between objective health and happiness are often weak, research documents that associations between happiness and subjective health—as it is reported by the individual— are consistently strong (Okun, Stock, Haring, & Witter, 1984).”

“Having close friends and a network of social support has a distinct positive effect on happiness, to such a degree that some scholars have suggested that this could be the single most important source of happiness […] those who enjoy close relationships are better at coping with major life stresses such as bereavement, rape, unemployment, and illness (Myers, 1999), and perceived loneliness is robustly linked to depression (Anderson & Arnoult, 1985). It is not to be forgotten, though, that happiness itself may lead to better relationships. […] happy people tend to be more outgoing, empathic, and trusting than unhappy people, presumably resulting in enhanced quantity and quality of social relationships […] Research findings unambiguously illustrate that striving for and making progress toward meaningful, enjoyable, moderately challenging goals is an important source of happiness […] Individuals who have goals that they deem important tend to be more energetic, experience more positive affect, and feel that life is meaningful […] Interestingly, positive affect in itself has been found to predispose people to feel that life is meaningful […] Empirical research regarding the relationship between happiness and marriage in the last few decades has yielded the robust finding that married individuals tend to be happier than unmarried or divorced ones […] We should again be cautioned that the arrow of causality may point both ways: A number of studies have revealed that individuals who are likely to get married and to stay married are happier long before the marriage compared with individuals who remain single (Lucas et al., 2003).”

January 20, 2014 Posted by | books, Psychology | Leave a comment

Promoting the unknown, a continuing series

In the posts in this series which I’ve posted so far, I have never once deliberately ‘recycled’ a piece – I may have slipped once or twice, but I have actually gone to extreme lengths to avoid just that. I mention this because I have come to realize along the way that this is perhaps just a tiny bit silly. The most wonderful pieces deserve to be heard occasionally – they certainly do not deserve to be banned from the blog on account of having been shared here before. On a related note, many readers of this blog encountering these posts have not been reading along for years and have no idea if I’ve posted specific pieces here before or not because they do not explore my archives. On a more practical note, it’s also getting harder and harder for me to figure out if I’ve posted a given piece here before or not, because I have not in the past used the categories as optimally as I could have done wrt. handling this specific issue (and this is sadly way too late to rectify now, in the sense that any sort of reasonable cost-benefit analysis would tell me it would not be worth the effort..) and because wordpress do not allow you to search embedded content the same way you search other content.

So unless I hear numerous protests in the comments to this post (ha!), I’ll start caring a great deal less from now on about whether I happen to have already posted a given piece in another one of these posts years ago. I’ll try to keep adding new stuff in these posts but if I love a piece and listen to it occasionally (and want other people to know about it) I really don’t see why I would care all that much about whether or not I’ve shared it here before a long time ago. I rarely post these posts anyway – it’s been almost two months since the last one – and if you’re using a feed it’s not like these posts are hard to avoid (it’s also not that hard if you’re not, but…).

Anyway, I feel reasonably certain there are not any pieces included in this post that I’ve blogged before – I haven’t added any I’ve posted before deliberately in this post, but I have also not checked carefully as I usually do if a specific piece also featured in a previous post from 2 years ago.

Oh yes, the music:

January 19, 2014 Posted by | music | Leave a comment

Chronic Pain and Addiction

I spent most of yesterday reading this book. Back when I blogged Jesse Hall’s Handbook of Critical Care, I (joked? remarked?) that, “I think reading a book like this may cause your viewing experience associated with watching medical dramas to change at least marginally”. This book is less universally ‘useful’ (?) in that respect, but if you or someone you know have seen House, well…

As might be inferred from the book title, most chapters in the book deal with the intersection of chronic pain and substance abuse. I say ‘mostly’ because the last two chapters actually don’t talk a lot about the substance abuse part, focusing mostly on the pain treatment part instead (and they don’t even limit the coverage there to chronic pain, although they talk about this as well). It’s the first book published by Karger Publishers that I’ve read, and to people unfamiliar with these publications I should perhaps note that this book is structured and reads pretty much like a standard Springer publication (of which I’ve read more than a few at this point) – if there’d been no publisher information provided I could easily have mistaken this for a Springer publication. This is not a criticism – I like this book format a lot, although it does often mean that there’ll occasionally be some coverage overlap across chapters.

Some chapters are not that technical but a few of the others are, and this book is a scientific publication obviously written mainly for doctors working with this kind of stuff on a daily basis (“We sincerely hope the readers of this volume will find it valuable for their understanding of these patients and for their own work on helping their patients back to functional and healthy lives.”). I found most of the book quite readable, and I liked it although it’s not quite up there in the ‘super great’ category either. It’s much closer to 4 stars than 2. Maybe I’m too hard on the book on account of just having read Meston & Buss – I don’t know.

If you’ve read along for a while, you’ll know that I’m one of those (/…would like to be one of those? /…would like to think of myself as one of those people wanting to be one of those?) annoying ‘take personal responsibility for your actions and don’t blame everybody and everything else for your own problems’-kind of guy. I’ve known for a while that when analyzing addictive behaviours there are some factors complicating matters and making application of what might be termed the ‘standard’ approach to how to evaluate implicit decision making protocols and their derived consequences turn out to be a bit more troublesome than it usually is; impaired decision making processes is implicitly part of the pathology here, and the extent to which that impairment, and behavioural responses derived from it, is purely biological has not been perfectly clear to me. It’s more clear now, but this stuff is not simple. The book has not changed my views on some things related to such matters that much; I still believe there’s substantial scope for an afflicted individual to be able to make good decisions which counter addictive behaviours and minimize risk of relapse, and I still believe an individual has substantial influence on which risk factors he or she exposes him/herself to, translating into substantial influence on which addictions are likely to become established, if any (‘if you never start smoking because you know smoking is addictive, you’ll never become addicted to nicotine’). But on the other hand it’s clear that some individuals are far more likely to establish addictive behaviours. I knew this, but one thing I had not given much thought is that many of these individuals may not actually be aware they are at high risk at the point in time where the unfortunate decisions starting the process are made (this is not an observation they make in the book, but rather something I realized while reading it); some people will participate in the normal youth alcohol culture and get drunk often at parties, and ten years later they’ll be fine and have no problems managing alcohol – whereas others may at that point face a substantial risk of ending up dying from liver failure because of a much higher inherent vulnerability combined with later behaviours derived from that inherent vulnerability. You may argue that even despite this inherent uncertainty there’s still substantial scope for an individual to rationally estimate and minimize individual risk, e.g. by taking things like family history or race (‘if you’re a Native American, stay the hell away from alcohol!’) into account when making decisions about which addictive compounds to expose oneself to, or by avoiding classical triggers. It should be noted that increased baseline risk will most often increase vulnerability to more than one addictive substance; faulty brain wiring is probably part of the problem, and avoiding heroin will not stop the brain from being wired the wrong way. They go into a lot of details about how the brain wiring looks like and how specific drugs may affect it, but you don’t need to know all the details about that stuff in order to get that basic point. It should be noted that different addictive compounds act on different receptors in the brain and so have different effects on brain chemistry (and behaviour); which probably means that this kind of strategy may not always work…

While on the one hand it makes sense to tell people who for one reason or another may be at high risk of developing addiction to minimize exposure to specific potentially addictive compounds which may ruin their lives, a different point is also made more than once in the book. That point is that exposure to compounds which some susceptible individuals are at some risk of becoming addicted to will often not lead to addiction in people who are not highly susceptible. This is a potentially important observation in the context of long-term treatment of chronic pain using opioids. Here’s a relevant quote from chapter 3:

“Far too many physicians and other health care professionals have uncritically accepted the false allegation that opiate addiction can be induced by medically appropriate long- term treatment of pain with opiates [186]. This leads to medical malpractice and the ethically unacceptable undertreatment of pain in millions of suffering patients. […]
The truth of the matter is that although some chronic pain patients are at risk for addiction, they are a very small percentage of the total number of chronic pain patients. Reliable evidence exists to support the contention that appropriate medical treatment of pain with opiates does not incur a risk of addiction in the vast majority of pain patients. […]
[The data] has prompted the World Health Organization to issue the following guideline on the treatment of chronic pain: ‘When opioids are used – even at heroic doses – in the appropriate medical control of chronic pain, addiction and drug abuse are not a major concern’ [191].”

Other co-authors agree and also emphasize this point – in chapter 5 the authors note that, “The prevailing literature suggests that the rate of addiction in chronic noncancer pain patients exposed to opioid therapy is relatively low, especially in those patients without significant concomitant psychiatric disorders and personal and family history of addiction.”

However having noted that it should also be observed that, “The topic of chronic pain and addiction is divisive, with proponents of aggressive opiate use arguing that addiction in patients with chronic pain syndromes is relatively rare, while those who push for more conservative use argue that opiates cause disorder in many patients and are relatively ineffective against chronic pain over time. There is some discord among the authors in this volume, in part driven by the focus of their work”.

From my reading of the material presented in the book, I think the ‘it may not work particularly well in the long run, and there are a lot of side-effects’ is a better argument against COT (chronic opioid treatment) than the potential for addiction, certainly if doctors are aware of the risk and take steps (urine drug screening, other screening tools, monitoring) to counter it and use proper risk stratification measures. Much of the discussion in the book incidentally centers around opioid treatment of chronic pain, and in this context another key point is emphasized repeatedly:

“It is very important to realize that addiction and physical dependence are different phenomena with different underlying brain substrates [3]. Physical dependence results from the development of pharmacological tolerance, and manifests itself upon abrupt discontinuation of drug administration (or administration of an antagonist drug). Addiction is a chronic, progressively deteriorating disease characterized by compulsive drug use in the presence of harm to the addict and to the addict’s life. Addiction is commonly described as the ‘disease of the 5 Cs’: continued compulsive drug use despite injurious consequences, coupled with loss of control and persistent drug craving [3].”

In another chapter there are only four C’s: “It is these four ‘Cs’ (adverse consequences, [loss of] control, craving and compulsivity) that are hallmarks in differentiating patients legitimately using their opioids from those who are addicted. In this definition, physical dependence and tolerance are not necessary for making the diagnosis of addiction. Moreover, tolerance and physical dependence are normal responses to prescribed opioids and are not counted as a symptom of addiction.”

Whether or not you actually need five C’s, or you can perhaps do with just four, the main point stands that dependence is not the same thing as addiction. As one author put it elsewhere, “the real clinical problem in addiction is persistent drug craving and relapse. […] it is extremely difficult to overcome the persistent drug cravings that the abstinent addict is left with after having achieved (often with great difficulty) abstinence. This is why acute ‘detoxification’ programs are almost invariably clinical failures in treating drug addiction. Indeed, the failure rate is so high that physicians running such programs may be reasonably said to be engaging in medical malpractice.” (on a related point, see this post by Scott Alexander (section II) – he also covers in that post other points covered in the book).

Dependence aspects relate to one part of the brain, addiction aspects to another; they are separate phenomena and should be kept separate when thinking about these matters: “addiction and physical dependence are different phenomena, the first referable to the forebrain mesolimbic and mesostriatal reward-related and habit-related circuitry, the second referable to neural loci in the vicinity of the midbrain dorsal raphe nucleus and the dorsal mesencephalon. Some drugs are addictive without producing physical dependence; other drugs produce physical dependence without being addictive.”

Here’s a bit more from that part of the book:

“Many drugs (including, but not limited to, antihypertensives, cardiac medications and asthma medications) produce pronounced physical dependence but are not addictive. Some drugs (e.g. cocaine) are highly addicting but produce little or no physical dependence. Furthermore, laboratory animals will avidly self-administer addictive drugs in the absence of tolerance, physical dependence or withdrawal discomfort [1, 3]. Indeed, laboratory animals will avidly self-administer addictive drugs in the absence of any prior drug exposure whatsoever, rendering the issue of self-administration due to physical dependence moot. The importance of this fact can hardly be overstated as it unambiguously shows that drug- taking behavior cannot simply be explained by the ability of addictive drugs to ameliorate the withdrawal discomfort associated with abstinence from prior administration of such drugs [1, 3]. Critically, the brain sites mediating volitional drug self- administration are different from those mediating the development and expression of physical dependence.” […]

The quote brings up an interesting point: When exposed to addictive substances, many other species behave just the same way humans do – and in point of fact “it is relatively easy to selectively breed laboratory animals for the behavioral phenotype of drug- seeking behavior (the behavioral phenotype breeds true after about 15 generations in laboratory rodents).” A bit more on that aspect:

“All addictive drugs are subjectively rewarding, reinforcing and pleasurable [1]. Laboratory animals volitionally self- administer them [2], just as humans do. Furthermore, the rank order of appetitiveness in animals parallels the rank order of appetitiveness in humans [2, 3]. Most tellingly, perhaps, all addictive drugs (with the exception of the LSD- like and mescaline-like hallucinogens) activate the reward circuitry of the brain [1, 4, 5], thereby producing the subjective ‘high’ that the drug abuser seeks. Furthermore, the degree of such activation of the brain’s reward circuitry correlates well with the degree of subjective high.”

One way to think about addictive drugs is to think about them partly as substitutes individuals with faulty neurological wiring make use of in order to experience the same joys and pleasures as ‘normal people’ derive from other things such as e.g. sex:

“In 1996, Blum et al. [66, 67] proposed that many aspects of addiction are driven by a chronic basal deficiency in brain reward which mechanistically underlies a chronic basal deficiency in subjective hedonic tone. This hypothesis has been amplified and expanded, both by its original proponents and by others [68–71]. The fundamental notion is a simple one: that drug addicts are either born with or acquire a deficiency state in the dopaminergic brain substrates of reward and positive hedonic tone, and turn to addictive drug use to remedy this chronic reward deficiency. Thus, the reward deficiency hypothesis seeks to explain drug addiction as a type of self-medication, ultimately damaging and self-destructive though it may be. […]

Based upon an extensive review of the literature regarding brain reward mechanisms, Wise [96] suggested more than 30 years ago that ‘the dopamine junction [in the nucleus accumbens] represents a synaptic way station for messages signaling the rewarding impact of a variety of normally powerful rewarding events. It seems likely that this synapse lies at a critical junction between the branches of the sensory pathways which carry signals of the intensity, duration, and quality of the stimulus, and the motivational pathways where these sensory inputs are translated into the hedonic messages we experience as pleasure, euphoria, or “yumminess”’ [96]. While this remains an appropriate description of the role of the reward circuitry in encoding hedonic tone, an extraordinary amount of electrophysiological, neurochemical and behavioral neuroscience research over the last 20 years has made it apparent that the crucial nucleus accumbens reward neurons do more than encode receipt of reward, although encoding receipt of reward is certainly one of their functions [97]. They also appear (1) to encode expectancy of reward [98, 99], amount of reward [98], delay of reward [100], reward delay discounting [101] and errors in reward prediction [102]; (2) to regulate motivation for drug- seeking behavior [103], and (3) to contribute to the synaptic neuroplasticity that underlies the acquisition of addictive behavior patterns [104].”

I think it’s safe to say that “impaired decision making processes is” indeed “part of the pathology”.

The post is already too long, but you can’t really cover all this stuff without bringing up the concept of pseudoaddiction. Not all people who ‘behave as if they’re addicted’ are actually addicted:

“Pseudoaddiction […] describes patient behaviors that occur when pain is inadequately treated, including ‘clock watching’ and ‘drug seeking’. Behaviors such as illicit drug use or deception to obtain opioids could occur in legitimate patients seeking pain relief [76]. Pseudoaddiction can be distinguished from true addiction in that the observed ADRB [Aberrant Drug-Related Behaviors] resolves if pain is adequately treated.”

January 17, 2014 Posted by | books, medicine, Psychology | 2 Comments

Why Women Have Sex (II) (NSFW?)

Here’s the first post I wrote about the book, here’s goodreads. I didn’t know I’d finish it this soon or I’d probably only have written one post about the book. Anyway – things didn’t change much along the way and I ended up giving it 2 stars on goodreads. Some of the stuff was really weak and I think I’m closer to one star than three. There’s quite a bit of speculation, and there are quite a few anecdotes. Many of the findings which are covered are not dealt with in nearly enough detail for them to be really all that trustworthy. The authors often use cautious language, but they don’t talk that much about why such cautious language is necessary, certainly not in any great detail; some readers will know, others won’t.

It should be noted that the book was easy to read, and so I never really seriously contemplated not finishing it. The theoretical frameworks presented in the book I think tend to constitute useful ways to frame specific problems or useful ways to think about behavioural patterns, but I didn’t feel like they actually added much new knowledge; lots of theoretical stuff covered in the book was already known to me, and one main motivation for reading the book was to get some data as well in order to figure out the extent to which given behavioural patterns matched expectations. I don’t really think they delivered in that respect. I should note that you can’t really fault the authors for the fact that not a lot of good science exists in some of these specific areas (you can blame them to the extent that they’re the ones conducting bad research of course, but let’s not go there…), but you can fault them for not being more open about how uncertain many of the observations and conclusions drawn in the book really are. As mentioned above they do use cautious language with a lot of qualifications and so on (a brief word search told me that they used the word ‘perhaps’ 10 times during the first 100 pages of the book; ‘may be’ is incidentally also used 10 times during the first 100 pages, and ‘maybe’ and ‘it seems’ are used 3 times each as well.), but unless you’re familiar with how scientific research works and know a little bit of statistics it’ll not be perfectly obvious to you why such cautious language is even necessary; they spend very little time discussing the sometimes blatantly obvious and huge limitations of the studies they cover. I consider this to be a problem in that I believe a lot of people who don’t know a lot about how science works will read this book – it’s easy to read and filled with anecdotes, and while reading the book I certainly didn’t get the impression that the intended readership consists of mechanical engineering graduate students from MIT. You can try to go from ‘how 55 mostly-white female college students from one specific study conducted in American town X near Florida (or wherever…) think about X’ to ‘how women think about X’, but the conclusions you draw from that one study probably need some additional support to be taken all that seriously. Don’t take this to mean that e.g. cross-cultural differences, to take an example, are not covered in the book; they are. The problem is that studies covered are most of the time not put into any sort of ‘proper context’. They’ll often jump from, say, ’55 women in study X’ to ‘women’ without any comments, and I’m sure some people will miss the fact that those women are actually the same. The ‘from ’55 women’ to ‘women” transition is not even the worst type; it’s far better than the transitions that involve an unknown number of women, because the authors can’t even be bothered to tell us how many people participated in the study behind the finding they happen to talk about now. As might be inferred, the authors will often only spend a few lines – perhaps a whole paragraph if things are going well – on a study, mostly just summarizing the conclusions from the paper, and then quickly move on to another couple of studies dealing with another matter. It gets really funny when a reported conclusion from a study sparks that familiar thought, ‘There’s just no way in hell a study that small had the power to actually show what they just claimed that it showed with any degree of confidence!‘ It often feels to me as if they’re rushing while covering the studies, and I can’t shake off the impression that part of the reason is that at least some of those studies really wouldn’t stand up to any close scrutiny.

Adding a few remarks about how this stuff (whatever ‘this stuff’ may be) matches up with, say, what we know about how romance novels are written, may be useful to some people, and you may gain a better understanding of the theoretical principles by reading a few remarks about how the sexual experiences of male bass players in bands can help enlighten us here; but these are not the methods usually applied in order to elucidate matters in the books I read. In more than a few sections there’ll be no studies at all, just some theoretical remarks interspersed within the mountains of illustrative anecdotes. “As anyone who has experienced junior high school knows…” Don’t get me wrong, there’s a reason I kept reading – there’s some interesting stuff in there. But this is a very different kind of book from the ones I usually read, and I mostly don’t consider it to be different in a good way.

All in all: Too much talk, too little substance.

Some quotes and observations from the second half of the book:

“As a highly social species, we are constantly threatened by potential mate poachers who try to lure our partners, be it for brief sexual encounters or for a more permanent relationship. We also face the risk that our partners might be tempted to leave the relationship in hopes of “trading up” to a more desirable partner. Among both dating and married couples, the Buss Lab’s research has revealed findings similar to those in our study: Women often use sex in many different ways to protect their relationships. They give in to their partners’ sexual requests in an attempt to keep them happy, they act “sexy” to take their partners’ mind off potential competitors, and they perform sexual favors or succumb to sexual pressures to entice their partners into staying. […] Women are motivated to have sex to mate guard because the costs of not doing so can be catastrophic. […] Having sex, even though it does not always work as planned, is partly designed to prevent infidelity and keep a couple from breaking up.”

“One study found that 79 percent of women who had affairs became emotionally involved with, or fell in love with, their affair partners. Although this finding may seem obvious, it is in stark contrast to the experiences of men, of whom only about a third become emotionally enmeshed. According to one study, most men’s motivations for sex outside their primary relationship are more a matter of desire for sexual variety.”

“Studies consistently show that men report higher levels of sex drive than women. This holds true for college students, middle-aged people, and even eighty- and ninety-year-olds. Men are also much more likely than women to say they want more sex than they are currently getting, whether measured among married persons or couples in the early stages of dating. In a study of 1,410 American men and 1,749 American women, 32 percent of women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine reported a lack of sexual interest in the previous year, compared to 14 percent of men in the same age group.”

I love my husband, but when you’ve been married for awhile, let’s face it—sex just isn’t that exciting anymore. It’s all so predictable. Even when we try to be “spontaneous” it’s almost comical because I can predict his every move. I have sex because I feel I “owe” it to him as his wife, and also because I love him and want to keep him happy. The truth is, though, most of the time I just lie there and make lists in my head. I grunt once in awhile so he knows I’m awake, and then I tell him how great it was when it’s over. It seems to be working. We’re happily married.
—heterosexual woman, age 48″
[One of many quotes of this kind from the book – often interview snippets like these are used to illustrate a point/problem. Quite a few of these quotes are incidentally thoroughly depressing to read. ‘We’re happily married’… But then again, what do I know?]

“Research indicates that women agree to unwanted sex more often than men do—but not by as great a margin as one might predict. One study of married couples found that 84 percent of wives and 64 percent of husbands “usually” or “always” complied with having sex when their spouse wanted to and they did not. […] What determines whether a woman will feel happy or remorseful after engaging in consensual unwanted sex? Probably the best predictor is whether the behavior occurred because of what psychologists refer to as approach versus avoidance motives. Approach-motivated behaviors refer to acts done in an effort to achieve a positive or pleasurable experience. In the sexual arena, this would mean, for example, that a woman agrees to have unwanted sex because she wants to make her partner happy and to feel that she is a good mate. That motivation would likely result in her feeling good about her decision. Avoidance-motivated behaviors, on the other hand, refer to behaviors undertaken to avoid negative or painful outcomes. This could mean agreeing to have sex out of fear of losing one’s partner or making the partner angry or disappointed. Consenting to sex to avoid negative outcomes more often than not leads to feelings of shame and remorse. […]
There is often a fine line between unwanted sex and rape. This is especially true when rape occurs in a long-term relationship, where the couple has engaged in consensual sexual intercourse in the past. Women who are sexually abused in marital relationships frequently define it as rape only if physical force or harm is involved. And research shows that when a woman is sexually abused in a committed relationship she is more likely to make excuses for her partner such as “He’s only like that when he’s drunk” or “I should know better than to provoke him.” They also tend to minimize the situation by claiming things like “It’s only happened a couple of times.” […] According to the National Violence Against Women Survey of eight thousand women, approximately 15 percent of the women had been raped and 3 percent had experienced attempted rape. Sixty-two percent of the assaults were by a past or current partner, and the likelihood of physical injury was higher with intimate partners than with strangers.”

“The value of women’s virginity shifted dramatically with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1961. […] In the landmark 1953 Kinsey report surveying nearly six thousand American women, 40 percent reported being nonvirgins before marriage. In a 1994 survey of more than 1,600 American women, approximately 80 percent of the women who were born between 1953 and 1974 reported having had premarital sex. […] The average age for a woman to lose her virginity also radically changed during this time period. In 1950, the average age for a woman to first engage in sexual intercourse—or at least admit to it—was twenty. In 2000, the average age was sixteen.” […] A study conducted in the Meston Sexual Psychophysiology Lab of more than four hundred Canadian university women showed that 72 percent of women of European ancestry had engaged in premarital sex compared with a much lower 43 percent of Southeast Asian women, most of whom were ethnic Chinese.”

“According to one study, approximately 25 percent of women in their thirties have had sex with five to ten different partners since age eighteen, and just over 10 percent have had sex with more than twenty-one different partners. By contrast, only about 15 percent of women in their late teens and early twenties have had between five and ten sexual partners, and approximately one-third have had sexual intercourse with only one person.” [here’s a post – unfortunately in Danish – with some Danish numbers.]

“Men possess [a] psychological tic, the sexual overperception bias, which is the tendency to overinfer women’s sexual interest based on ambiguous information. […] when a woman smiles at a man, men often infer sexual interest, when in many cases the woman is simply being friendly or polite. Other ambiguous cues—a touch on the arm, standing close, or even holding eye contact for a split second longer than usual—trigger men’s sexual overperception bias. As a consequence, women can exploit men’s overperception bias for economic gain, in what has been called a “bait and switch” tactic, a strategy that involves persuading men to expend resources as part of courtship, but then failing to follow through on an implied “promise” of sex.
Research has also found that most men find most women at least somewhat sexually attractive, whereas most women do not find most men sexually attractive at all.”

“Not all friends-with-benefits relationships result in unmitigated, mutually beneficial sexual bliss. Women who have these relationships also report some disadvantages. These include developing romantic feelings for the friend (65 percent), harming the friendship (35 percent), causing negative emotions (24 percent), and risking negative sexual side effects such as sexually transmitted diseases (10 percent). Interestingly, the vast majority of women, 73 percent, never explicitly discuss the ground rules or expectations for these relationships.”

[I have sex] to get my way or to persuade my husband into something I really want and he might be opposed to.
—heterosexual woman, age 31

I will often use sex as leverage in my relationship to get what I want.
—heterosexual woman, age 27 […]

In modern Western cultures, […] direct exchanges tend to be far less common, or at least less explicit. Nonetheless, sexual economics sometimes continues to influence why women have sex within marriage. The exchange of sex may not be for economic resources per se, but rather for reciprocal favors. […] Sexual economics play out across cultures in many forms. On the mating market, women accrue significant power as a result of men’s sexual psychology—their desire for sexual variety, their sex drive, their sexual overperception bias, their persistent sexual fantasies, and a brain wired to respond to visual stimulation. As the valuable resource over which men compete, women can, and some often do, exercise that power to exchange their sexual resources for benefits, including food, gifts, special favors, grades, career advancement, or entrée into the movie business. In some of these exchanges, there is no sharp line demarcating honest courtship, seduction, and prostitution.”

“many women, when asked what motivated them to have sex, […] respond by saying they were deceived by a man, verbally coerced, plied with drugs or alcohol, or physically forced. These are not ways in which women want to have sex. But they are nonetheless some of the reasons women end up having sex. […] A recent study of online dating ads explored the extent to which men and women provide deceptive information about themselves. The researchers compared men’s and women’s advertised height, weight, age, and other characteristics with actual measured height and weight and independently verified age.
Fifty-five percent of the men, compared with 41 percent of women, lied about their height. Women were somewhat more likely than men to shade the truth about their weight. Overall, an astonishing 81 percent of the sample engaged in some form of deception, be it about physical characteristics, income, habits such as smoking or drinking, or political beliefs.”

“According to a survey of over 1,400 women aged eighteen to fifty-nine years, American women have sex about 6.3 times per month. The average is somewhat higher among twenty-to thirty-year-olds (7.5 times per month) and somewhat lower among fifty-to sixty-year-olds (four times per month).”

January 15, 2014 Posted by | books, data, Psychology | Leave a comment

Why Women Have Sex (I) [NSFW?]


Go ahead – judge me…

I guess covering a book like this here is a great way to stop potential readers from being able to read my blog at work ever again… Oh well. I’m not sure the post is actually NSFW; it’ll probably depend upon where you work. Anyway, the book is written by Cindy Meston and David Buss, the latter of which I have quoted before here on this blog in various contexts. I decided to have a go at the book after I’d decided that the Duncombe et al book was crap. There’s some overlap, but fortunately not too much (or I’d also have thrown away this book).

I consider the book to be light reading and that’s part of why I’m reading it now; Mas-Colell is not light reading. I’m not too impressed and I’m only at a 2-star evaluation at this point, having read roughly half of the book. Much of the research presented is of questionable validity due to reliance on self-reported data [here’s a relevant link] and small n studies, and the book is less data-driven than I’d expected. Often they’ll neglect to even tell you about the n’s and only talk about the percentages, so you have no clue if those 36 percent they’re talking about are actually just 9 college educated women out of 25. You could look up the studies yourself, true, but if you need to do that in order to figure out if the authors’ inferences can be trusted or not how much value does the book really add? There are some interesting notes and observations, but it subtracts a lot that you can’t always tell if they can really be trusted or not.

Some stuff from the first half of the book below:

“Back in the 1930s, a study examined five thousand marriages performed in a single year, 1931, to determine where the bride and groom lived before their wedding. One-third lived within five blocks of each other and more than one-half lived within a twenty-block radius.” [Things have changed since then, but probably less than you’d think.]

“DNA fingerprinting studies reveal that roughly 12 percent of women get pregnant by men other than their long-term mates” [Yeah, well… I know I’ve touched upon this one before, but people seem to keep writing books in which they make claims about these things which are probably not true, and as long as they do that I’ll keep repeating that those estimates are most likely wrong.]

“Research reveals that women find certain body movements to be more attractive than others. […] Nonreciprocal same-sex touching—when a man touches another man’s back, for example—is a well-documented signal of dominance. Women see “touchers” as having more status, a key component of a man’s mate value. Space maximization movements, as when a man stretches his arms or extends his legs, are another dominance signal. Those who display open body positioning—for example, by not having their arms folded across the chest—are judged to be more potent and persuasive.
Evolutionary psychologist Karl Grammer and his colleagues conducted a study in three singles bars in Pennsylvania. They coded men’s nonverbal behaviors and then examined which ones were linked with making “successful contact” with a woman in the bar—defined as achieving at least one minute of continuous conversation with her. They found five classes of men’s movements linked with successul contact: more frequent short, direct glances at women; more space maximization movements; more location changes; more nonreciprocated touches; and a smaller number of closed-body movements.”

“Why a sense of humor is so important in sexual attraction has been the subject of much scientific debate. One critical distinction is between humor production (making others laugh) and humor appreciation (laughing at others’ jokes). There’s a sex difference—men define a woman with a good sense of humor as someone who laughs at their jokes! Men especially like women who are receptive to their humor in sexual relationships. Women, in contrast, are attracted to men who produce humor, and that’s true for all types of relationships, from one-night stands to lifelong matings.”

“A person’s mood at the time of an initial encounter is an important factor in determining attraction—positive feelings lead to positive evaluations of others and negative feelings lead to negative evaluations. In fact, anyone or anything simply present when positive or negative feelings are aroused also tends to be liked or disliked as a consequence.”

“when it comes to actually choosing a long-term sexual partner, it is more the rule than the exception that “similars” attract. Several studies have shown substantial similarity between husbands and wives in their attitudes about faith, war, and politics, as well as similarities in their physical health, family background, age, ethnicity, religion, and level of education. Dating and married couples are similar in physical attractiveness, and young married couples even tend to be matched in weight. The “matching hypothesis”—as named by social psychologists—is so strong that observers react negatively when they perceive couples who are mismatched on levels of attractiveness. There is one notable exception—a beautiful woman and a less-attractive man. In this scenario, consistent with evolutionary logic, people judging the mismatched pairs ascribe wealth, intelligence, or success to the man.”

“All of the nerve endings in the vagina lie in the outer portion of the vagina, near the opening. This means that women are sensitive to light touch or stimulation of their vaginas only when it is applied to this outer region. Further inside the vagina there are sensory receptors that respond to more intense pressure. Vaginas probably evolved this way because having highly sensitive nerve endings threaded throughout the vagina would have made the extended penetration of sex painful.
Because of the way the vagina is designed, some women find stimulation of the vaginal opening the most pleasurable aspect of penetration. And because the nerve endings become less sensitive after repeated stimulation, some women say that penetration feels most enjoyable at first entry. Taking short breaks during sexual activity to focus on other erogenous zones allows the nerve endings in the vagina time to regain their sensitivity. Breaks allow women to reexperience the initial entry pleasure.” [Wondering why stuff like this was not covered during sex ed…]

“By 2001, there were no fewer than twenty-six distinct definitions of women’s orgasm in the research literature.”

“In a survey of over 1,600 American women ages eighteen to fifty-nine, only 29 percent of the women overall said they were able to have an orgasm with a partner. Sixty-one percent—more than twice as many—said they were able to have an orgasm when they masturbated.” [I found these numbers depressing.]

“research shows that men are actually more likely than women to “fall in love at first sight,” which may be the result of an evolutionary adaptation. Men generally are more quickly swayed by physical appearance when choosing a partner than are women, who tend to rely on a wider range of signals, including scent and personality, for the initial spark of attraction. […]  The qualities women seek, particularly in a long-term mate, take a longer period of time to evaluate. “Love at first sight” is just more straightforward for men.
Beyond that first rush of emotion, men also appear to stay in love longer: A study that assessed 231 college dating couples from 1972 through 1974 refuted the stereotype that women are the lovers and men are the leavers. The study found that women were more likely than men to break up a relationship [this part should be old news to ‘regular readers’ – see e.g. this post (“The 2004 survey found that 93% of divorce cases were petitioned by wives”)], and they were also more likely to see the breakup coming well in advance. […] There is also some evidence to suggest that breaking up a relationship is more traumatic for men than for women. Obviously it depends on the circumstances of both the relationship and the breakup, but in general, after a breakup, men tend to report more loneliness and depression.”

“Whereas 53 percent of men in one study said that they would have sex without kissing, only 15 percent of women said they would consider sex with someone without first kissing them. […] “Bad” kissing is definitely a sexual turnoff for most women. One study found that 66 percent of women (as compared with 58 percent of men) admitted that sexual attraction evaporated after a bad kiss.”

“Within the United States, Americans purchase some 2,136,960 tubes of lipstick and 2,959,200 jars of skin care products every day. Roughly three hundred thousand American women undergo breast augmentation surgical procedures each year.” [I was curious about the latter number because that sounded high to me, but it seems to check out; see this link] […] “women spend nearly ten times as much on appearance-enhancement products as men do.”

“Studies conducted in Germany [used] digital photography to capture what women wore to singles bars and interview[ed] them afterward. Using a computer program that calculated the percentage of skin revealed by women’s clothing choices, they discovered that women in the most fertile phase of their ovulation cycles wore more revealing clothing and showed more skin than women in the nonfertile phase. Ovulating women dress for sexual success. Another group of researchers, led by UCLA evolutionary psychologist Martie G. Haselton, found that women in the fertile phase of their cycles wore nicer and more fashionable clothes and showed more upper and lower body skin than the same women in the low-fertility phase of their cycles.”

“Why would women intentionally evoke jealousy, given that it is a dangerous emotion, known to be linked to physical violence and even murder? One clue comes from the circumstances in which women use the tactic. Although many couples are equally committed to each other, a substantial minority—39 percent according to one study—exhibit an involvement imbalance in which one partner is more committed to the relationship than the other. Within this group, when the man is the more committed partner, only 26 percent of women report intentionally evoking jealousy. In sharp contrast, when the woman is more committed to the relationship, 50 percent of the women resort to jealousy evocation.
Women’s strategic provocation of a partner’s jealousy serves three functions. First, it increases her partner’s perception of her desirability. The sexual interest of others is a gauge of a partner’s overall mate value. Second, a partner’s response to a jealousy-triggering situation provides a litmus test of the level of his or her commitment. For example, if a man is indifferent when his partner sits seductively in another man’s lap, it may signal a lack of allegiance, and the level of his jealousy can be a signal of the depth of his emotional dedication to the relationship. Perhaps most important is the third function—to increase a partner’s commitment. This is especially true among men, who are much more likely to commit to a woman whom they perceive to be highly desired by other men. A jealous man becomes more smitten, comes to believe that he is lucky to be with his partner, and so doubles his dedication.”

January 15, 2014 Posted by | biology, books, data, Psychology | Leave a comment

The Fifth Elephant

The book is (…yet) a(/nother) Terry Pratchett novel. I started the book yesterday evening and finished it this afternoon. I enjoyed it and gave it 5 stars on goodreads (average rating: 4.16) – it’s a funny book.

Some samples from the book below (I should note that I could easily have given this book 3 or 4 posts similar to this one – there’s a lot of funny stuff in there…):

“[‘]I see that the new traffic division is having the desired effect.’ He indicated a large pile of paper. ‘I am getting any amount of complaints from the Carters’ and Drovers’ Guild. Well done. Do pass on my thanks to Sergeant Colon and his team.’
‘I will, sir.’
‘I see in one day they clamped seventeen carts, ten horses, eighteen oxen and one duck.’
‘It was parked illegally, sir.’
‘Indeed. However, a strange pattern seems to emerge.’
‘Many of the carters say that they were not in fact parked but had merely halted while an extremely old and extremely ugly lady crossed the road extremely slowly.’
‘That’s their story, sir.’
‘They know she was an old lady by her constant litany on the lines of “Oh deary me, my poor old feet,” and similar expressions.’
‘Certainly sounds like an old lady to me, sir,’ said Vimes, his face wooden.
‘Quite so. What is rather strange is that several of them report seeing the old lady subsequently legging it away along an alley rather fast. I’d discount this, of course, were it not for the fact that the lady has apparently been seen crossing another street, very slowly, some distance away shortly afterwards. Something of a mystery, Vimes.'”

“Vimes nodded dourly. That made sense, too. You did something because it had always been done, and the explanation was ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’ A million dead people can’t have been wrong, can they?”

“I think you can assume, sir, that any dwarf who rises sufficiently in dwarf society to even be considered as a candidate for the kingship did not get there by singing the hi-ho song and bandaging wounded animals in the forest.”

Sam Vimes could parallel-process. Most husbands can. They learn to follow their own line of thought while at the same time listening to what their wives say. And the listening is important, because at any time they could be challenged and must be ready to quote the last sentence in full. A vital additional skill is being able to scan the dialogue [technically ‘monologue’, but…] for telltale phrases, such as ‘and they can deliver it tomorrow’ or ‘so I’ve invited them for dinner’ or ‘they can do it in blue, really quite cheaply.’
Lady Sybil was aware of this. Sam could coherently carry an entire conversation while thinking about something completely different. […] Sybil was impressed. Ears operating entirely on automatic had nevertheless triggered the mouth into making a small but pertinent contribution.
She said, ‘Do you think we should take the alligator with us?’
‘Yes, that might be advisable.’
She watched his face. Small furrows formed on Vimes’s brow as the ears nudged the brain. He blinked. ‘What alligator?'”

“‘And you went around the back and saw the broken window and you …?’
‘I called out, “Is there anyone there?” sir.’
‘Really? And what would you have done if a voice had said “No”? No, don’t answer that.”

“What would be the point of cyphering messages that very clever enemies couldn’t break? You’d end up not knowing what they thought you thought they were thinking…”

“‘Can you think of any reason why someone would kill him?’
The troll scratched his head. ‘Well, ‘cos dey wanted him dead, I reckon. Dat’s a good reason.’ […and ‘dat’s a good answer…’] […]
‘Right. I suppose no one saw the murder, did they?’
Once again the troll screwed up its enormous face in thought.
‘Der murderer, yeah, an’ prob’ly Mister Sonky.’ [Mister Sonky was the murder victim..]
‘Was there a third party?’
‘I dunno, I never get invited to dem fings.'”

“Places to buy food were getting scarce. However carefully Carrot knocked at the door of some isolated farmstead, he’d end up having to talk to people who were hiding under the bed. People here were not used to the idea of muscular men with swords who were actually anxious to buy things.
In the end it generally worked out quicker to walk in, go through the contents of the pantry and leave some money on the table for when the people came up out of the cellar.”

‘What a fine figure of a man,’ said Sybil weakly, as they stepped inside. [talking about an Igor’]
‘More than one man, by the look of him.’
‘Sorry. I’m sure his heart’s in the right place.’
‘Or someone’s heart, anyway.’
‘Sam, really!’
‘All right, all right, but you must admit he does look a bit … odd.’
‘None of us can help the way we’re made, Sam.’
‘It looks as if he tried—‘”

“‘I thought you were Igor.’
‘Oh, you mean my couthin Igor,’ said Igor. ‘He workth down at the embathy. How’th he getting on?’
‘Er, he’s looking … well,’ said Vimes. ‘Pretty … well. Yes.’
‘Did he mention how Igor’th getting on, thur?’ said Igor […] [‘]none of uth have heard from him, not even Igor, who’th alwayth been very clothe.’
‘I’m sorry? Is your whole family called Igor?’
‘Oh, yeth, thur. It avoidth confuthion.’ […]
‘Igor and Igor send their regards, Igor.’
‘Thank you, your exthellenthy. Thinthe you mention it, could I put a parthel on your coach for Igor?’
‘You mean the Igor at the embassy?’
‘That’th who I thaid, thur,’ said Igor patiently. ‘He athked me if I could lend him a hand.’
‘Yes, no problem there.’
‘Good. It’th well wrapped up and the ithe will keep it nithe and freth.'”

“[‘]I believe you ver an alcoholic, Sir Samuel.’
”’No,’ said Vimes, completely taken aback. ‘I was a drunk. You have to be richer than I was to be an alcoholic.'”

“‘My husband is a little unwell at the moment,’ said Serafine, in the special wife voice which Vimes recognized as meaning ‘He thinks he’s fine right now, but just you wait until I get him alone.'”

“What was the simple solution? Best to start with the first rule of policing: suspect the victim. Vimes wasn’t quite sure who the victim was here, though. So suspect the witness. That was another good rule.”

January 14, 2014 Posted by | books, Terry Pratchett | Leave a comment

Open Thread

Exam’s getting close – expect no further updates until Monday or Tuesday. Some random stuff of interest from the bookmarks:

i. First a very neat link: The Cost-Effectiveness Analysis Registry. It’s exactly what it says on the tin; a registry with information about cost-effectiveness stuff.

I really like the utility weight feature. And of course I was curious about my own disease so I looked up T1DM. According to the search I did, a utility weight estimate for ‘Diabetes with no complications’ is reported to be 0.757. One way to think about this is to say that that person’s life is about three-quarters as good as a healthy person’s life. Another way to think about it is that if person X gets type 1 diabetes during, say, the first year of life (pretty close to my situation), the lifetime utility loss that individual will incur from that diagnosis corresponds to losing two decades of his/her life (i.e. ‘die at the age of 56 instead of at the age of 75’, assuming ‘equivalent’ age-related (and other) utility variation in the two populations). With complications the utility weights of course drop further; diabetes + retinopathy yields a weight of 0.61, and nephropathy + heart disease equals 0.516 (‘his life is only half as good as that of a healthy person’). Of course one should have in mind that the utility contribution from complications impact fewer years of life because people with heart disease or kidney failure have a tendency to die at faster rates than people who do not suffer from these complications (certainly part of why the utility weights are lower…), and some people live many years without complications.

I’d say that if one wants a brief overview of how ‘severe’ a disease is thought to be the utility weight estimates provided at the site are actually really nice tools, but do have in mind that a lot of assumptions go into making such estimates, and there are lots of differences in treatment regimes and/or differences in disease impacts e.g. when you make cross-country comparisons (most estimates are not ‘globally valid’, it’s safe to say). ‘Proper’ utility weights are/ought to be highly heterogenous across subgroups, and will in many cases (not just when it comes to diabetes) be time-dependent, among other things. Individual variation is huge. In a way this is all a bit ‘quick and dirty’, but it’s better than nothing; either way it’s probably a good idea to check out the actual studies if you want more than just a quick estimate. Of course the site has as already mentioned stuff other than utility weight estimates – if you want to know if a given health intervention is likely to be cost-effective this also seems like a great place to start. (And on a related note, if you know nothing about cost-effectiveness analysis a good place to start would be to read this book, or at least the first half of it.)

ii. Being right or being happy: pilot study; a ‘study’ from the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal. I’m sure some of you have already read this, but others may not have. Here’s the introduction (I should note that it’s not a very long ‘article’):

“Three of the authors are general practitioners who see many patients and couples who lead unnecessarily stressful lives by wanting to be right rather than happy. Mathieu encourages her psychotherapy clients “to try to live in the gray. There are a million shades of gray” (although a recent erotic novel suggests there are only 50) “on the spectrum of white to black, and each provides a much richer telling of a story that is hardly ever as clear as this or that. So, when we looked a bit more closely, we saw that ‘right versus happy’ was not so much about getting crowned the winner or loser, a genius or fool; it was more about flawed thinking and a desire to want to feel being in control.”1 This might be the first study to systematically assess whether it is better to be right than happy; a Medline search in May 2013 found no similar articles. Our null hypothesis was that it is better to be right than happy.”

I’m skeptical about the results…

iii.  Who did whom? A field guide to Pleistocene hookups, by John Hawks.

iv. At this point I’m roughly one-third of the way towards reaching the level of ‘walking dictionary’ on (give it another month or two…). Many of the roughly 1700 words I’ve supposedly mastered on the site I already knew – considering how little I’ve focused on this stuff over the years, I’m actually quite surprised now how many words I ‘sort of know, but didn’t know that I knew’. On the other hand there have also been quite a few words I’ve never seen before, and some words I didn’t know as well as I thought I did. A funny thing about language, which I haven’t really thought about, is that like in the case of other areas of knowledge you’ll often not ever actually be made aware of the fact that your vocabulary (/knowledge) is limited unless you make an effort of actively seeking out words (facts) you don’t know; if you don’t know that there’s a word for X, you’ll often never be made aware that you didn’t know – especially if other people don’t know that word either. The ‘hey, I’m familiar with this concept but I didn’t know it actually had a name…’-experience a site like this will occasionally provide is really nice. Anyway, below a few words I’ve picked up along the way:

Eleemosynary (of, relating to, or supported by charity; charitable).
Martinet (a person who is very strict and demands obedience from others; a strict disciplinarian; a person who stresses a rigid adherence to the details of forms and methods).
Ratiocination (the process of exact thinking: reasoning; a reasoned train of thought).
Sagaciousness (the ability to understand inner qualities or relationships; having or showing acute mental discernment and keen practical sense; shrewd).
Sententious (having or expessing strong opinions about what people should and should not do; given to or abounding in aphoristic expression/excessive moralizing; terse, aphoristic, or moralistic in expression).
Solecism (an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence; something deviating from the proper, normal, or accepted order; a breach of etiquette or decorum).
Echolalia ((psychiatry) mechanical and meaningless repetition of the words of another person; an infant’s repetition of sounds uttered by others).
Ingenuous (lacking in sophistication or worldliness; innocent and unsuspecting).
Ineluctable (not to be avoided, changed, or resisted; inevitable).
Supererogatory (more than is needed, desired, or required; superfluous).

Note that even if you’re an incorrigible reprobate who hates other people and don’t really want to learn new stuff, a larger vocabulary will be something you can make good use of; a larger vocabulary makes it a lot easier to surreptiously insult people. Rather than calling the overweight woman in front of you fat, you can just call her embonpoint. And instead of calling the moron next to you in the bar an alcoholic, you can just say that he’s bibulous…


This is awesome! (And actually that hypothesis probably sounds more plausible than at least some of the ‘evolutionary theories’ I’ve seen presented (in earnest) in the past…)

Your turn – what have you been doing? Comments to the stuff above? Any new readers out there who’d like to tell us a bit about themselves? Any good books or links I should read (after my exam)?

January 11, 2014 Posted by | anthropology, diabetes, medicine, Open Thread | Leave a comment


i. “The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively, not by the false appearance things present and which mislead into error, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.” (Schopenhauer)

ii. “In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.” (-ll-)

iii. “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” (-ll-)

iv. “To free a man from error is to give, not to take away. Knowledge that a thing is false is a truth. Error always does harm; sooner or later it will bring mischief to the man who harbors it.” (-ll-. Actually the wording of the quote is a bit too strong for my taste – I don’t think error always does harm, sometimes accurate beliefs are the maladaptive ones.)

v. “A remarkable, glorious achievement is just what a long series of unremarkable, unglorious tasks looks like from far away.” (unknown source)

vi. “The future will soon be a thing of the past.” (George Carlin – the quote reminded me of the wonderful Calvin and Hobbes quote which I believe I’ve posted before: “The problem with the future is that it keeps turning into the present”…)

vii. “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” (Isaac Asimov)

viii. “There is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.” (-ll-)

ix. “There are many aspects of the universe that still cannot be explained satisfactorily by science; but ignorance only implies ignorance that may someday be conquered. To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.” (-ll-)

x. “The most hopelessly stupid man is he who is not aware that he is wise.” (-ll-)

xi. “The only safety for the conquered is to expect no safety.” (Virgil)

xii. “Hunger is a bad adviser.” (-ll-)

xiii. “I make it a practice to avoid hating anyone. If someone’s been guilty of despicable actions, especially toward me, I try to forget him. I used to follow a practice—somewhat contrived, I admit—to write the man’s name on a piece of scrap paper, drop it into the lowest drawer of my desk, and say to myself: “That finishes the incident, and so far as I’m concerned, that fellow.” The drawer became over the years a sort of private wastebasket for crumbled-up spite and discarded personalities.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

xiv. “An unsanctified temper is a fruitful source of error, and a mighty impediment to truth.” (Elias Lyman Magoon)

xv. “Being human, most scientists conform to the psychological Principle of Certainty, which says that when there is evidence both for and against a belief, the result is not a lessening but a heightening of conviction on both sides.” (Edward Wilson)

xvi. “If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.” (Rochefoucauld)

xvii. “To establish ourselves in this world we do everything to appear as if we were established.” (-ll-)

xviii. “A man is perhaps ungrateful, but often less chargeable with ingratitude than his benefactor is.” (-ll-)

xix. “It is far easier to be wise for others than to be so for oneself.” (-ll-)

xx. “Few are sufficiently wise to prefer censure which is useful to praise which is treacherous.” (-ll-)

January 7, 2014 Posted by | quotes | Leave a comment

A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages

I read the book during Christmas, but I didn’t blog it back then. So here we are…

I gave it 2 stars on goodreads, mostly because of unclear sourcing. When I’m reading a history book I don’t want there to be a single sentence anywhere in the book where I’m not pretty much perfectly clear on where the information provided is coming from – and unfortunately there are a lot of those kinds of sentences in the book. Aside from this issue it’s a good and interesting read, and some will consider this to be much less of a drawback than I do; the book has a 4.3 average rating on amazon, and the average goodreads rating is 3.44.

The book covers the history of England from about 900 to 1553 – the former marking the beginning of the West-Saxon reconquest of the Danelaw following the first great phase of Viking invasions, the latter marking the year of the death of Edward VI; it was under his reign that Protestantism in England took off. It starts out with a characterization of late Anglo-Saxon England, and then there’s some discussion of the changes following the Norman Conquest, with an emphasis on how the rise of manorialism affected the English countryside (where most people lived – “evidence from taxation returns from the 1520s suggests an urban population of about 18 per cent of the national population. This is similar to the proportion in the 1370s.” – a quote from the book). After this stuff is covered there’s a chapter on religious beliefs and how they changed during the period, followed by a discussion about matters relating to among other things diet and health, as well as population trends and distributional changes. An interesting chapter on ‘women and the family’ comes next, followed by a chapter on ‘law and order’. There’s also a chapter on ‘language, culture and entertainment’, and one about the yearly religious cycle, among other things; I don’t care much for religious stuff, but there’s really no way around the fact that religion played a much greater role in the lives of ordinary people then than it does now, so it makes a lot of sense in a book like this to go into this kind of stuff in some detail. As you might have been able to infer from these comments, each chapter deals with a few specific topics and talks about how things changed (or didn’t change) during the period; this is not a book that starts out at the year 900 and then systematically covers each decade in detail until we reach the Reformation. I think the approach Whittock applies works rather well.

In general Whittock is much more interested in answering the question of how ‘ordinary English people’ lived (and died) during this historical period than he is in telling you what the dictator of the day had for breakfast or what was the name of that dictator in, say, the year 1268 (the answer is Henry III, but who cares?). Wars waged in foreign lands, which some historical works would spend a lot of time on, does not get a lot of attention in this book, and they’re mostly covered here in relation to the extent to which they actually impacted the lives of people living in the English manors or towns (e.g. by causing taxes to go up to pay for the bloodshed). Although there’s perhaps a bit too much religious stuff for my taste I generally like Whittock’s approach when it comes to which questions to ask, and I should note that if not for the sourcing issue I’d probably have given the book something like four stars. The book is full of interesting observations, and it’s not hard to read. Actually after having written this post I’m seriously reconsidering if I should reevaluate and give the book 3 stars.

I should perhaps also note before I go any further that wikipedia seems to have a lot of stuff about many of the topics covered in the book; if the post makes you want to learn more about these things, you can start out by following some of the links provided above and below. With all that out of the way, some quotes and observations from the book:

“By 1066 about one-sixth of the land in England was in Church ownership. […] By the 1060s about 30 per cent of the landscape was employed in arable farming and about 15 per cent as managed woodland; the remaining 55 per cent supported pastoral farming, or was too poor to be used (with a small but unspecified area in urban use). By comparison, early twenty-first-century figures for England are: arable 40 per cent, woodland 9 per cent, pastoral 25 per cent. The remaining 26 per cent of the modern landscape is mostly within urban areas. […] If the vast majority of people lived in the countryside in the year 1000, a very important minority (about 10 per cent) lived in towns. This proportion was comparable with Roman Britain at its peak. During the eight century, after a period in which there had been no true urban settlements in England, places began to appear which had features resembling towns. [relevant link][…] By the ninth century these early semi-urban sites had developed into what are recognizably towns. […] towns were not a Norman intervention. They were a Europe-wide phenomenon and in England their roots lay in the Anglo-Saxon period after 750. […] Towns would have increased in number and importance whether the Conquest had happened or not.”

“The population of England by the mid-eleventh century was about 2.5 million. To put this into context, the English population in 1541 was probably about the same size (estimated at about 2.7 million) after all the ups and downs of the Middle Ages. […] in 1300 the English population was comparable with 1750 [~5.5 million], but it took 450 years to reach this level again following the great fall in numbers in the 150 years after 1300.”

“Anglo-Saxon women had the power to own property in their own right. […] over 25 per cent of surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are by women bequeathing their own property. (In contrast, after the Norman Conquest no woman could make a valid will without the consent of her husband). As well as having the right to sell and exchange land, women had free access to the courts to enforce their rights or to settle disputes. […] Overall the evidence suggests that the average Anglo-Saxon wife was valued and respected and had her economic rights safeguarded. Wills show many men leaving property to female relations. […]

The position of women in society suffered a setback in 1066. […] when a woman married, her property automatically belonged to her husband for as long as he lived. Furthermore, Canon Law permitted a man to beat his wife if he considered her lazy or disobedient. […] women should be quiet and docile […] women could not normally hold responsible roles within government or in law courts and they could not attend university. […] Divorce was not an option for medieval people unless they could prove that the marriage should not have occurred in the first place. In such cases it was necessary to prove that the original ‘marriage’ had involved people whose family ties were such that they broke Church rules on consanguinity, affinity or spiritual affinity. This was often not a straightforward matter […] for ordinary people […] marriage was for life. […] Impotence was also a ground for separation but it had to be proven, and examples exist of authorities testing the husband’s ability to get an erection by exposing him to other women. […] Women could inherit if there was no male heir, and as long as she remained single a woman could hold property like a man. But this right was lost on marriage. Remaining single was a virtual impossibility for a woman who inherited substantial property. […] the king had the right to sell off widowed noble women to the highest bidder […] Lower-class unfree women could similarly be forced to marry by their lord. […] The Common Law decreed that any items which a woman owned on marriage became the outright property of her husband. This was even more severe than a husband’s guardianship of his wife’s landed property. As a result, some fathers without sons disinherited their daughters in order to keep their lands within their family. […] during the fifteenth century there occurred a hardening of male attitudes towards women and what we would now call gender roles, and […] some economic and social freedoms, which had been increasing before this, were reduced. […] In short, there was far more regulation in the later Middle Ages than in the earlier period.”

“manorial estates, which dominate the nature of medieval rural life, were generally divided between so-called demesne land, which was farmed directly for the profit of the lord of the manor, and land either rented for cash or held by villeins in return for unpaid labour on the lord’s demesne land. This was not a new system […] In reality many in the Late Anglo-Saxon countryside were semi-free or unfree, and what the Norman Conquest brought was an intensification of this system rather than its introduction. In this sense the abolition of slavery in England in 1102, by the Statute of Westminster [I’m not sure that’s what it was actually called, and this sentence caused me some trouble due to the poor sourcing. It was certainly part of why I was annoyed by the sourcing problem – however I found this eventually], was largely due to the fact that the bottom end of the English rural population was being so effectively exploited there was little need for this institution. […] Being forced to provide unpaid labour service was not the only way that villeins were made to pay ‘rent’ for the land they worked. Another way was for some to have to pay a proportion of their crops and animals – known as champart payments. Yet another was to pay money rents. Some peasants had to pay all three types. […] On top of labour service there were a whole range of ways in which villeins were targeted to pay cash to the lord of the manor: merchets, a payment to allow a daughter to marry; heriot, a death duty; leyrwite, a fine paid (most often by women) for forbidden sexual activity;[5] chevages, permission to leave the manor; faldagium, permission to graze animals outside the lord’s fold; entry fines, when taking on a new piece of land; tallages, a land tax; and suit of mill, which forced villeins to use the lord’s mill at his prices. This last demand was very profitable for lords and, around 1300, the Bishop of Durham took 10 per cent of his annual income from this alone.”

“London’s continuing growth [throughout the period] (with a population of about 120,000 by 1558) was not representative of many English towns. Indeed, its increasing monopoly of export trade meant that its growth was at the expense of other towns such as Boston and Hull […] For many towns their development was marked by contrasting periods of ‘boom and bust’. There certainly was no clear upward trajectory of growth.”

“For the medieval Church virtually all people in England were members of its community; England was a Christian country. The only religious minority after 1066 was the Jews, and they were expelled in 1290. […] The local unit – the parish – played a huge part in the lives of ordinary people. […] Everyone living within the parish was expected to attend parish Mass on Sundays and the main festivals of the year […] All those living within the parish paid a tithe of their income to the parish church. […] there were a very large number of clerics; perhaps 33,150 in 9,500 parishes in 1250. To this should be added 7,600 monks, 3,900 regular canons and 5,300 friars. These may have made up as much as 5.6 per cent of the adult male population in 1200.[2] In addition, there were about 1,500 men and women working in hospitals as part of a religious order and perhaps as many as 7,000 nuns (though some estimates are as low as 3,000). […] in the later Middle Ages at least 20 per cent of land was owned by the Church.”

“Despite the changing nature of the medieval justice system, one surprising aspect is how little it relied on prisons. Prison as a major form of punishment is largely a modern invention, dating from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It was not until 1576 that JPs were required to build houses of correction in which rogues and vagabonds could be detained. These were apprehended by village constables, who were unpaid members of their local parish and were conscripted for service annually [see also this]. Prior to this, punishment relied far more heavily on execution, other forms of physical violence, outlawry and fining. Medieval prisons were primarily holding places for those avaiting trial, rather than the place of punishment itself.”

January 5, 2014 Posted by | books, history | 2 Comments

A few lectures

I think I liked Carolin Crawford’s lectures better, but anyway here are a few of Ian Morison’s lectures from Gresham College:

January 3, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, Lectures, Physics | Leave a comment

Robinson Crusoe

“Reading Robinson Crusoe is like reading a grocery list scribbled in the margins of a postcard from Fiji”

“The reason I did not enjoy Robinson Crusoe is that nothing in this novel made me care for or invest in any element of it. The main character is psychologically flat and completely lacking in complexity, seeming to suffer absolutely no ill effects from being completely alone for 25 years or so. The drama is contrived and not suspenseful. As I don’t really care for the main character, I don’t really care if he were to be eaten by pagan cannibals.”*

“I’ve read some awful books this year (and wonderful as well!), and this is definitely on the shortlist of Worst Books Ever Read.”

“If I could have given this book a zero I would have. It was truly boring, and not really worth anyone’s time to read. I stopped reading it when it became apparent that the air in front of my face was more interesting. The entire novel reads like someone’s grocery list.”

“This is the tale of an English sociopath who travels the world blaming everyone else for all his misfortunes, and generally making peoples lives worse.”

“I wrote Robinson a hate letter (in the inside of my book’s cover). I did.”

[*I felt somewhat differently; I did care – I was most of the time rooting for the cannibals…]

The quotes above are from various reviews on goodreads. I read most of the book on Monday and finished it yesterday. I don’t think I would have finished the book if not for the fact that I was keeping score of the number of books I’d read during the year and yesterday was the last day of 2013 – I gave the book one star on goodreads, and it’s one of very few books (actually I’m not completely sure if there are any others) which I’ve actually finished which got that score. I have been thinking about whether to blog it at all or not, in part because when you don’t have a lot of nice things to say it’s best not to say anything – but I decided to have a go at it anyway because I feel entitled to criticize this book to hell and beyond given that I’ve actually finished it.

The short version is this:

The book is a shitty book. It’s boring, silly and foolish. Some of the parts which are not so boring as to make you want to beat up the author even though he’s been dead for centuries are so wildly implausible that they reach the point of ‘you gotta be kidding me’-ridiculousness. The protagonist is a religious nutbag, a slaver, a murderer, and an asshole.

Part of my dislike is of course just values dissonance taking its toll, but that’s far from the only problem here. The author does not seem overly familiar with periods, and some sentences in this book make Proust look like he’d been in a hurry to complete his sentences while he was writing Swann’s Way… One should always include examples, so here’s one:

“A little after noon I found the sea very calm, and the tyde ebb’d so far out, that I could come within a quarter of a mile of the ship; and here I found a fresh renewing of my grief, for I saw evidently, that if we had kept on board, we had been all safe, that is to say, we had all got safe on shore, and I had not been so miserable as to be left entirely destitute of all comfort and company, as I now was; this forced tears from my eyes again, but as there was little relief in that, I resolv’d, if possible, to get to the ship, so I pull’d off my clothes, for the weather was hot to extremity, and took the water, but when I came to the ship, my difficulty was still greater to know how to get on board, for as she lay a ground, and high out of the water, there was nothing within my reach to lay hold of, I swam round her twice, and the second time I spy’d a small piece of a rope, which I wonder’d I did not see at first, hang down by the fore-chains so low, as that with great difficulty I got hold of it, and by the help of that rope, got up into the fore-castle of the ship, here I found that the ship was bulg’d, and had a great deal of water in her hold, but that she lay so on the side of a bank of hard sand, or rather earth, that her stern lay lifted up upon the bank, and her head low almost to the water; by this means all her quarter was free, and all that was in that part was dry; for you may be sure my first work was to search and to see what was spoil’d and what was free; and first I found that all the ship’s provisions were dry and untouch’d by the water, and being very well dispos’d to eat, I went to the bread-room and fill’d my pockets with bisket, and eat it as I went about other things, for I had no time to lose; I also found some rum in the great cabin, of which I took a large dram, and which I had indeed need enough of to spirit me for what was before me: Now I wanted nothing but a boat to furnish my self with many things which I foresaw would be very necessary to me.”

That one is far from one of a kind – as a matter of fact there’s an approximately equally long passage on the very next page of the book.

As pointed out in the introduction of the version I was reading, “Psychologically and ideologically, Crusoe necessarily belongs to his time and place rather than ours, and not everyone will find Crusoe’s struggles with his faith in God’s Providence compelling or even convincing.” And that is indeed one way to put it. I increased my reading speed significantly when I came across the words ‘Providence’ or ‘God’, because those words usually indicated that the author was about to waste yet another half page (like above, without periods) on crap I did not want to read. As for the ridiculous elements, here’s an example from the last part of the book (I don’t worry about spoilers because I couldn’t possibly spoil this book, as it’s already so horrible as to be almost unreadable): Let’s start out with the story about 300 wolves (“I verily believe there were three hundred of them”) attacking one small group of people (including Crusoe) travelling through Southern France, pretty much all at the same time (they attack in multiple waves, but the relevant timeframe is minutes or hours). The group that got attacked killed 60 wolves during the attack (“We had, first and last, kill’d about three score of them”). That’s not even the fun part – no, here’s the really neat quote:

“when we told our story at Tholouse, they told us it was nothing but what was ordinary in the great forest at the foot of the mountains, especially when the snow lay on the ground”.

This guy is so full of shit it’s not even funny… (here’s a relevant link.)

There are a few quote-worthy passages in the book and I’ve included a few below, but I really can’t emphasize enough that this book is not worth your time. The simple truth of the matter is that that whole novel-writing thing has come a long way in the last 300 years. Maybe the quotes below will make you start thinking it’s worth reading in order to gain a better appreciation of how unreasonable people think and how they come to think that their unreasonable ideas are reasonable, but trust me – you can do much better than this if you look elsewhere. Note that many of these quotes are cut off to some extent, because if I had to quote whole ‘sentences’ these quotes would be almost as long as the awful passage I quoted in full above.

“who wou’d ha’ suppos’d we were sail’d on to the southward to the truly barbarian coast, where whole nations of Negroes were sure to surround us with their canoes, and destroy us; where we could ne’er once go on shore but we should be devour’d by savage beasts, or more merciless savages of human kind. […] to have fallen into the hands of any of the savages, had been as bad as to have fallen into the hands of lyons and tygers; at least we were equally apprehensive of the danger of it.”

“he offer’d me also 60 Pieces of Eight more for my boy Xury, which I was loath to take, not that I was not willing to let the Captain have him, but I was very loath to sell the poor boy’s liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own. However when I let him know my reason, he own’d it to be just, and offer’d me this medium, that he would give the boy an obligation to set him free in ten years, if he turn’d Christian; upon this, and Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the Captain have him. [Long before his trip to the desert island, Crusoe was enslaved by pirates. The boy Xury had helped him escape from the pirates. How did he repay the boy? He sold him into slavery as soon as he met a Westerner from the ‘civilized lands’. When they started out their escape, incidentally, Crusoe promised the poor boy that, “if you’ll be faithful to me I’ll make you a great man” (this is 8 pages before he sells him into slavery). As to the boy’s consent, consider what you would have done if you were a young slave on the run from your former Master in unknown lands on the Barbary Coast roughly 300 years ago..]

“I had more than four times the value of my first cargo, and was now infinitely beyond my poor neighbour, I mean in the advancement of my plantation; for the first thing I did, I bought me a Negro slave, and an European servant also; I mean, besides that which the Captain brought me from Lisbon.”

“after enjoining my secrecy, they told me, they had a mind to fit out a ship to go to Guinea, that they all had plantations as well as I, and were straiten’d for nothing so much as servants; that as it was a trade that could not be carried on, because they could not publickly sell the Negroes when they came home, so they desired to make but one voyage, to bring the Negroes on shore privately, and divide them among their own plantations; and in a word, the question was, whether I would go their super-cargo in the ship to manage the trading part upon the coast of Guinea? And they offer’d me that I should have my equal share of the Negroes without providing any part of the stock.
This was a fair proposal it must be confess’d […] I told them I would go with all my heart, if they would undertake to look after my plantation in my absence” [this was the trip that lead to him being shipwrecked]

“I consider’d, that if this land was the Spanish coast, I should certainly, one time or other, see some vessel pass or re-pass one way or other; but if not, then it was the savage coast between the Spanish country and Brasils, which are indeed the worst of savages; for they are cannibals, or men-eaters, and fail not to murther and devour all the human bodies that fall into their hands.”

“I daily read the word of God […] I began to conclude in my mind, that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken solitary condition, than it was probable that I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world; and with this thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to this place. […] I work’d my mind up, not only to resignation to the will of God in the present disposition of my circumstances; but even to a sincere thankfulness for my condition, and that I who was yet a living man, ought not to complain, seeing I had not the due punishment of my sins”

“he kneel’d down again, kiss’d the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever […] At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he has done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how, he would serve me as long as he liv’d; I understood him in many things, and let him know, I was very well pleas’d with him […] I made him know his name should be Friday […] I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know that was to be my name […] never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me”

“I began to instruct him in the knowledge of the true God […] When he came again to me, I entred into a long discourse with him upon the subject of the redemption of man by the Saviour of the world, and of the doctrine of the Gospel preach’d from Heaven, viz. of repentance towards God, and faith in our blessed lord Jesus. […] The savage was now a good Christian […] After Friday and I became more intimately acquainted, and that he could understand almost all I said to him, and speak fluently, tho’ in broken English to me; I acquainted him with my own story, or at least so much of it as related to my coming into the place, how I had liv’d there, and how long.” [Yep, Crusoe went for the religious indoctrination long before he figured it was necessary to tell the other guy how he’d happened to end up on that desert island on which they happened to be the only two inhabitants. He’d not spoken to another human being for more than 25 years, but it was still more important to Crusoe to teach the savage about Jesus than it was to tell him his own life story.. Makes sense..]

“there were one and twenty savages, three prisoners, and three canoes […] their whole business seem’d to be the triumphant banquet upon these three human bodies (a barbarous feast indeed) but nothing more than as I had observ’d was usual with them. […] I came down again to Friday, and told him, I was resolv’d to go down to them, and kill them all”

January 1, 2014 Posted by | books | Leave a comment

Books – 2013

Below is a list of the 71 books I read to completion last year. Here’s a goodreads overview with covers and ratings.

As pointed out in the preliminary post on the topic I posted in October, there’s a small overlap with last year’s reading in that I started a few of the books on the list below last year. However in terms of whole-year-book-equivalents I think it sort of evens out, as I did not get to finish all the books I started this year either. In terms of time expenditure there’s no doubt that I ‘gained’ less from last year’s reading than I ‘lost’ from unfinished books this year which will spill over to next year’s list; I’m certain I put in more than 50 hours in McPhee et al. alone (see also this, this, and this), and I get no ‘credit’ for that on the list below (or, for that matter, anywhere else…) as I didn’t finish the book in 2013. Anyway.

Each link below links to a post I’ve written about the book, except in the case of books I finished after I stopped blogging in December – ‘fortunately’ there are few such books as I did not read much (..stuff I should not be reading) in December compared to what I normally do. A brief count gave me 30 fiction books and 41 non-fiction books – I’ve felt like I’ve been reading way too much fiction this year, but actually it’s not as bad as I’d thought. Incidentally fiction books usually don’t get more than one post, but I have written more than one (usually much longer) post about many non-fiction books; on a related note I should make clear that I tend not to write very much about fiction books I read, whereas my coverage of non-fiction books generally is much more detailed. If a second link to another post about a specific (non-fiction) book which you’re interested in is not present in the post to which I link below, you may try to look for additional posts about the book here on the blog by using the search bar and search for the title of the book. I posted 216 posts last year, and considering that I’ve posted multiple posts about quite a few books and have not failed to cover even mediocre- or bad books (viz, I have not failed to cover those I’ve actually finished…), I think it’s quite likely that something like half of my posts last year were book-related; so do have a look around if you’re looking for stuff to read. You’re welcome to ask questions about the books and so on in the comments, but if I read the book in May you should not expect me to necessarily remember a great deal about what was in it or what I thought about it. I write book posts in part so that I don’t have to walk around remembering all that stuff..

I. Unseen Academicals.

II. Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!

III. Adult development and aging: Biopsychosocial Perspectives, 4th edition.

IV. Close Relationships.

V. The Great Sea – A Human History of the Mediterranean.

VI. Making Choices in Health: WHO Guide to Cost-Effectiveness Analysis.

VII. Causal Models – How People Think about the World and Its Alternatives.

VIII. Thud!

IX. The Cardiovascular System.

X. A practical manual of diabetic foot care

XI. A summary of scientific method.

XII. Advances in Personality Science.

XIII. A Christmas Carol.

XIV. Patient Compliance – Sweetening the pill.

XV. Being Logical – A guide to good thinking.

XVI. Completely Unexpected Tales…

XVII. Ten days in a mad-house.

XVIII. The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

XIX. A Game of Thrones.

XX. Chromosomal abnormalities.

XXI. Carpe Jugulum.

XXII. Daily Negations.

XXIII. A Clash of Kings.

XXIV. European Societies in the Bronze Age.

XXV. A Storm of Swords.

XXVI. Flatland.

XXVII. A Feast for Crows.

XXVIII. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

XXIX. Men at arms.

XXX. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

XXXI. The Devotion of Suspect X.

XXXII. Influence: The psychology of persuasion.

XXXIII. The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

XXXIV. The Murder on the Links.

XXXV. Lord Edgware Dies.

XXXVI. Calculated Risks: Understanding the Toxicity of Chemicals in our Environment.

XXXVII. Three Act Tragedy.

XXXVIII. Gender, Physical Activity, and Aging.

XXXIX. The ABC murders.

XL. The Ancestor’s Tale.

XLI. The Knowledgeable Patient: Communication and Participation in Health (A Cochrane Handbook).

XLII. Mechanism and Causality in Biology and Economics.

XLIII. A Dance With Dragons.

XLIV. Handbook of critical care.

XLV. Evil Under the Sun.

XLVI. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.

XLVII. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature.

XLVIII. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty.

XLIX. The Incas and their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru.

L. The Double Helix.

LI. Dumb Witness.

LII. Dinosaurs past and present.

LIII. Five Little Pigs.

LIV. Adipose Tissue and Cancer.

LV. Why sex matters.

LVI. Clinical epidemiology: The Essentials.

LVII. Murder on the Orient Express.

LVIII. At Home: A short history of private life.

LIX. Life of Pi.

LX. The Roman Invasion of Britain.

LXI. The Causes and Behavioral Consequences of Disasters: Models informed by the global experience 1950-2005.

LXII. The Ethics of Screening in Health Care and Medicine.

LXIII. A Geography of Russia and Its Neighbors.

LXIV. Suicide risk management: A manual for health professionals.

LXV. The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle.

LXVI. Antibiotic Policies: Controlling Hospital Acquired Infection.

LXVII. The Red Queen.

LXVIII. Type 1 Diabetes: Etiology and Treatment (the link is to my second post about the book, which as it turned out also became my last post about the book – due to my blogging pause I never got around to writing a final post).

LXIX. A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages (goodreads link – I never blogged this book).

LXX. The Diversity of Life (-ll-).

LXXI. Robinson Crusoe (-ll-).

January 1, 2014 Posted by | books | Leave a comment


It’s 2014 and I’m still alive. Thought you should know.

I’ve decided not to stop blogging, but I’ll probably blog less in the time to come than I have in the past.

Consider this the first Open Thread of the new year. I’ll probably post a few posts soon with some actual content.

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Open Thread | 7 Comments