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March 26, 2014

Intelligent Design

The Editorial Staff apologize for the dearth of posts this week. Work has been so busy that we haven't been able to find two coherent thoughts to rub together. Last week, though, we did see two interesting items that fired up the old brain housing group. The first is a study of how men and women respond to stress or danger. What struck us first was the annoying way so many of these articles subtly (and sometimes, not so subtly) frame the female response as good, unselfish, and healthy, while the male response is described as "egocentric" or "selfish":

In times of stress, women turn to their friends, while men turn inward. A cliché? Perhaps, but newly published research finds it’s absolutely true.

A research team led by University of Vienna psychologist Claus Lamm reports males and female respond to stressful situations in virtually opposite ways. Men become more egocentric, while women heighten their ability to understand the perspective of others.

“Social interaction skills improve in women under stress,” the researchers write in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. They specifically found stress spurred women to override normal levels of self-centeredness and respond to others with heightened empathy. The opposite appears to be true of men.

Men respond to stress in a fight-or-flight manner, conserving their energy for the confrontation they fear is coming by turning inward. Women, on the other hand, take a “tend-and-befriend” approach.
As the researchers note, there are two basic responses to taxing situations. Stressed individuals may default to a self-centered state; being less demanding than taking into account the thoughts and emotions of others—this conserves mental and emotional resources. Alternatively, they might be motivated to turn open-heartedly to others, “using social support as a stress-coping strategy.”

But aren't both strategies - preparing for conflict by closing off one's empathetic side, and preparing for difficult times by reaching out to others and seeking cooperation - essentially useful adaptive responses? They can both be helpful, though in certain situations one can also imagine that one might be more effective than the other.

If your neighbor won't stop his dogs from relieving themselves in your yard, it probably makes sense to try the empathetic response first. Confronting people angrily - even when you have a legitimate right to be angry - doesn't tend to make them receptive to compromise. The best outcome here is that your neighbor understands that he's being inconsiderate and voluntarily controls his dogs. If the nice approach doesn't work, you can always get the police or the neighborhood association involved but that's probably not the first resort. If your neighbor is trying to kill you, though, the "tend and befriend" response becomes less useful. Certainly, you might reach out to other neighbors and form an alliance of mutual defense. But if he's serious about killing you, you need to be prepared to defend yourself and your family. In this worst case scenario, empathizing with your neighbor's beautiful and natural desire to be a murdering jackwagon won't help you summon the resolve to kill another human being in self defense.

Both responses are useful in different situations. Living as we do in times of unprecedented peace and prosperity, we value the fight response less and the empathetic response more. But that's more a response to present circumstances than an immutable value judgment. Change the circumstances and public perception of each response is likely to change too.

The second article framed political differences in similarly evolutionary terms: what if the inclination to liberal or conservative policies is a healthy, natural adaptation?

Several research groups have shown that compared with liberals, conservatives have a greater focus on negative stimuli or a “negativity bias”: they pay more attention to the alarming, the threatening, and the disgusting in life. In one experiment that captured this, Hibbing and his colleagues showed liberals and conservatives a series of collages, each comprised of a mixture of positive images (cute bunnies, smiling children) and negative ones (wounds, a person eating worms). Test subjects were fitted with eye-tracker devices that measured where they looked, and for how long. The results were stark: conservatives fixed their eyes on the negative images much more rapidly, and dwelled on them much longer, than did the liberals.

Liberals and conservatives, conclude Hibbing et al., “experience and process different worlds.” No wonder, then, that they often cannot agree. These experiments suggest that conservatives actually do live in a world that is more scary and threatening, at least as they perceive it. Trying to argue them out of it is pointless and naive. It’s like trying to argue them out of their skin.

Perhaps the main reason that scientists don’t think these psychological and attentional differences simply reflect learned behaviors—or the influence of cultural assumptions—is the genetic research. As Hibbing et al. explain, the evidence suggests that around 40 percent of the variation in political beliefs is ultimately rooted in DNA. The studies that form the basis for this conclusion use a simple but powerful paradigm: they examine the differences between pairs of monozygotic (“identical”) twins and pairs of dizygotic (“fraternal”) twins when it comes to political views. Again and again, the identical twins, who share 100 percent of their DNA, also share much more of their politics.

In other words, politics runs in families and is passed on to offspring. Hibbing and his coauthors suspect that what is ultimately being inherited is a set of core dispositions about how societies should resolve recurring problems: how to distribute resources (should we be individualistic or collectivist?); how to deal with outsiders and out-groups (are they threatening or enticing?); how to structure power relationships (should we be hierarchical or egalitarian?); and so on. These are, of course, problems that all human societies have had to grapple with; they are ancient. And inheriting a core disposition on how to resolve them would naturally predispose one to a variety of specific issue stances in a given political context.

Once again, the authors clearly can't help describing conservatives in somewhat derisory terms: we're fearful and risk averse (and our fears may all be imaginary) while liberals are open and willing to try new things.

And broadly speaking, these characterizations may even be true in certain circumstances. A fairly frequent progressive mantra is, "Why not try public policies that have never been tried, or that have been tried before and failed?" And the frequent conservative rejoinder is, "If it never worked before, why risk it now?" On the other hand, liberals - ostensibly accepting of risk - consider not providing women (but not men - even gay men) with free contraceptives and not guaranteeing subsidized health insurance to everyone to be unacceptably risky. And conservatives - ostensibly hierarchical and risk averse - fight the welfare state and bitterly resent the corrosive attempts of big government to trump individual liberty.

Men and women, liberals and conservatives: when we clash, the all too human temptation to describe our perceived opponents as dysfunctional or selfish while seeing ourselves as the "correct" model is hard to overcome. But for all our differences, the overlap between us is larger than we like to admit. If only 40% of political differences can be attributed to our DNA, that means 60% cannot. And everywhere we look, if we choose not to discount them, are examples of people who don't fit the mold or conform to the stereotypes we so often embrace to make a complex world seem simpler or more predictable.

The other day, something prompted us to Google girls who have been suspended from school or punished for talking about guns. We were surprised at how many stories we found. We conducted a similar exercise years ago, looking for stories about acts of heroism from women: women risking their lives to save men, women risking their lives to save children, etc. Does the existence of so many of these stories - largely ignored on conservative blogs, prove that men and women are equally likely to be heroic?

We doubt it. To embrace that theory would require actual evidence. But it certainly provides support for a theory we've often pondered: that the things we pay attention to (and which shape our opinions and world views) are very much affected by who we are: our biological makeups and hormone levels, our experiences, our upbringings, our dispositions, our intelligence, and even that elusive thing we call free will.

Since we work with software in meatspace, software analogies occur to us fairly often. When a particular behavior in a software system becomes problematic to some person or in some circumstance, the first question asked is usually, "Is this the intended behavior? Is it 'by design' or is it a bug - a problem that needs to be fixed?" And if the behavior is determined to be by design, is the design flawed? Or have we simply encountered an unexpected or edge case where the normal (desirable and beneficial) behavior produces unintended consequences?

Too often, we view those who are unlike us as dysfunctional - problems that need to be fixed rather than products of a rational and intelligent design that produces deliberate variations on a theme that each have value in the right circumstances. We often wonder whether the road back to a vibrant democracy might not be as simple as the willingness to respect and value our differences while conceding that there is no single tactic or model that works equally well in all circumstances?

This is not an admission that every ideology is equally valid, equally moral, equally desirable. But we can't help wondering if things wouldn't work more smoothly if we didn't begin by viewing people who disagree with or are unlike us as broken or inferior? Would we understand each other better if we were genuinely able to recognize the value in some of our differences, even if we conclude that our own approach better fits the times and circumstances?

Yeah. Kumbaya and all that.

Still, if our political beliefs are truly a function of our genetic makeup, doesn't that make it Geneti-cist of progressives to describe conservatism as a mental illness? Oh, the humanity!

Posted by Cassandra at March 26, 2014 08:28 AM

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But we can't help wondering if things wouldn't work more smoothly if we didn't begin by viewing people who disagree with or are unlike us as broken or inferior?

I am always hammering people in my social circles on this. And most of the time, they deny they're doing this very thing in the middle of doing it. People who disagree with you politically are not doing so because they are evil, stupid, or insane. They do so because they are coming at the situation from a completely different perspective. That does NOT mean they are right, just that they're not evil in intent.

I think this may be an easier leap for me, as I grew up with a pretty conservative father and a pretty liberal mother. Neither one of them is the caricature that the other side would describe. And indeed, when I ask friends not to demonize the other political side, I point out that by doing so, they're saying (one of) my parents are like that. What is really funny is when they back track and make excuses like "well, your father is probably an old style Republican, not one of these whacko modern conservatives". And I just have to shake my head. And it's the same reason I dislike people throwing around the "liberalism is a mental disease" garbage. It's not helpful, it's not true, and I'd certainly prefer people to not describe my mother as mentally ill. I disagree with her politics frequently, but that doesn't make her evil.

Case in point... gun control. My mother does not want to take away any guns from law abiding people. Hell, my dad owns several. And they don't trouble her because she's scared of them. But she honestly feels that too many innocent people get hurt because of guns, and doesn't understand why most "reasonable" (and I use that term as she thinks of it) gun control laws are objected to. Like a seven day waiting period. Or background checks for all gun purchases (public or private), or bans on semi-automatic weapons (!!!). On the last one, I talked her out of that, because she actually did not even understand what the term meant, and pointed out that her own husband owned several. Once she understood what semi-automatic meant, she agreed that those didn't need to be banned. But consider, she is by NO MEANS alone in not understanding guns. And mind you, she took a shooting class in college (can you imagine if a college tried to have a pistol/rifle marksmanship class today?). But she does not believe the slippery slope arguments that those of us on the other side do. "No one would do that!" She would decry, and then I'd point out cases where "that" very thing was being done now (like a total ban on handgun ownership in Chicago). "Well, but something needs to be done!"

Again, she's not evil or stupid (or most of the time, even uninformed). She just has different primary concerns than I do. And it helps me articulate the other position to her, specifically because I don't discard her arguments as stupid or evil, and because I CAN understand her concerns. It's not a Kumbaya thing, it's an understand their side to make your side stronger thing.

Posted by: MikeD at March 26, 2014 11:01 AM

The post’s title says it all. Intelligent design presupposes production for purpose, and success. Humans monolithic in nature would by now have been counted among the likes of the species dodo – extinct. Equilibrium in the individual we acclaim as being the measure of sanity – an admixture of reason and sense. That it should be so also for society somehow stupefies the theorists. But probably not. It’s more likely willful obtuseness, a necessary condition for reveries of utopian new orders. It’s not useful adaptive responses that are questioned, it’s what they are, or are not likely to respond to that consternates. Doubters are not welcome – nor are the squeamish – in the event of metaphorical omelets.

The genetically disposed conservative exists to stay us from the oblivion of lemmings.
The genetically disposed liberal exists to stay us from goose-stepping to perdition.

Posted by: George Pal at March 26, 2014 11:13 AM

You know, comments like both of yours are all the recompense anyone could desire for setting aside the time to crank out a post before work. When I get stressed, the temptation to whittle down my to-do list is hard to resist. But then I would miss mornings like this.

I am continually amazed (and humbled, riffing on spd's earlier joke :p) by you guys.

Thank you.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 26, 2014 11:43 AM

So freeze is neuter, fight or flight is masculine, and fawn or hide is feminine?

Bzzzt. Thank you for playing. What's a synonym for "hide" that starts with "f"?

Mom was a conservative, Dad is a liberal. She was Navy, he was Army, then Air Corps. Even five years ago she was a better shot with her officer's .45 than he was with his, and when they'd trade she was still a better shot. He taught me that "gun control" was putting your second shot through the hole your first shot made in your target. She taught me to walk away from a fight I didn't need.

Differences are important, they should be noticed. They shouldn't control your choices just because they exist. They indicate five paths -- before the left path, the left path, the path between, the right path, and the path after. Spice is a liberal D. We agree that more garlic is usually better. She wants more salt, I want more hot pepper. She wants diet lemon ice tea tonight, I'm taking that for her, and ginger beer for myself. We both like IZZE Grapefruit.

Choose to conform, or choose to choose.

Posted by: htom at March 26, 2014 01:33 PM

I figure that Woman's tendency towards "tend-and-befriend" developed because Man's tendency to "rend-and-behead" left messes that Woman would then have/want to clean up. (Of course, I could have that backwards, but it was a long time ago.) I have to admit, though, the arrangement seems to work out fairly well. Nature is funny that way.

Posted by: spd rdr at March 26, 2014 07:04 PM

My wife's expressed opinion is that 'tend and befriend' works a lot better once I've posted a few heads on stakes around the lawn. Somewhat like the ancient liaison between the military and diplomacy, it turns out that it's a lot easier to come to a friendly consensus once the consequences of failure are made clear.

Posted by: Grim at March 26, 2014 09:28 PM

Sometimes you just gotta motivate people!

Cass, you're on light duty. Hope you're doing well.

Posted by: htom at March 26, 2014 10:50 PM

I'm about ready for them to retire the "stress" thing, too. What is it that men and women are supposed to be reacting to? Danger, or just a mismatch in goals? I'd hate to think that women seriously respond to armed intruders with "tend and befriend" strategies. On the other hand, if they're talking about controversy over dog poop-scoop laws, I hardly think men are locking and loading as an initial strategy. "Stress" has become a trendy but vague word for everything in life that isn't valium heaven.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 27, 2014 12:31 AM

Sorry guys. This has been the Week to end all weeks at work. Hair is stupidly on fire.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2014 01:38 PM


Posted by: MikeD at March 27, 2014 03:25 PM

Hair is stupidly on fire.
Boy, that must smart!

Let me tell you about my vacation plans, beginning April 3rd:
1. Florida
2. Boat
3. Bahamas
4. Sun
5. Snorkling
6. Cuban Cigars
7. Exumas
8. Fishing
9. Cuban Cigars
10. Sunburn
11. Cuban Cigars
12. Bond Girls (Oops. too late)

Hate me, and make my day complete!

Posted by: spd rdr at March 27, 2014 04:40 PM


Let's compare the blog princess's plans for roughly the same time period:

1. Knee surgery.
2. Ice machine.
3. CPM machine.
4. Physical therapy.
5. Hobbling about, various versions of.

Wethinks we prefer spd's vacation :p

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2014 05:38 PM

Thanks for the link, Mike! Hadn't heard that song but I may have to adopt it as my theme song :)

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2014 05:39 PM

[working backwards...]

My wife's expressed opinion is that 'tend and befriend' works a lot better once I've posted a few heads on stakes around the lawn. Somewhat like the ancient liaison between the military and diplomacy, it turns out that it's a lot easier to come to a friendly consensus once the consequences of failure are made clear.

Your wife is one smart lady. And not just because she married you!

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2014 05:40 PM

1. Knee surgery.
2. Ice machine.
3. CPM machine.
4. Physical therapy.
5. Hobbling about, various versions of.

6. Cuban Cigars


Posted by: spd rdr at March 27, 2014 05:45 PM

You'll notice I've remainded studiously quiet about this thread.
There's a reason for that.

1. Knee surgery.
2. Ice machine.
3. CPM machine.
4. Physical therapy.
5. Hobbling about, various versions of.


There, now it's fixed.

Posted by: DL Sly at March 27, 2014 09:31 PM

Knee Surgery. Ooof.

I had to have hip surgery recently, once too often off a bad horse. Forget the man/woman are different thing, it's the recovery phase when you find your spouse really meant that vow (sickness or health.)

Can't walk, can't ride, can't drive, get me out of this house! I understand now why dogs hang their heads out of the truck window. Freedom!

Bon Chance.

Posted by: Allen at March 28, 2014 02:37 AM

Thanks for the link, Mike! Hadn't heard that song but I may have to adopt it as my theme song :)

I live to serve, Lady.

But to be honest, all I really know of the song is the chorus.

Posted by: MikeD at March 28, 2014 09:03 AM


I'm so sorry to hear that - you must be going stir crazy! My Dad had hip surgery last year (two actually, in 7 months with a minor surgery in between). That's really tough.

Hope you are back on your feet soon. The physical therapy takes a while, and then all of a sudden you sort of leap forward (usually when you've about decided you're not going anywhere fast).

If this doesn't offend you, I'll keep you in my prayers.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 28, 2014 09:25 AM

spd and sly:

Pppppppphhhhhhhttttttthhhhhh :)

Posted by: Cassandra at March 28, 2014 09:25 AM

Gotta say, beeer before the surgery might also be a good idea. The anesthesia will give you a hangover anyway, so it's a freebie!

Posted by: CAPT Mike at March 29, 2014 09:52 PM

Hi Spd,
Made several trips to Bahamas for Navy.
The local beer is no great shakes; I'd recommend the Rum.

Very Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at March 29, 2014 09:53 PM