Soap, Sex and the Dirty Liberal

Do you find Rush Limbaugh more palatable after vs. before taking a bath? Might you be more inclined to linger on the Bill O’Reilly Show while channel flipping in a recently-mopped and cleaned room compared to a dirty and disheveled one?

Perhaps you just might. At least, that’s what recent research from Cornell’s Erik Helzer and David Pizarro suggests. Their just published study showed that reminding people of physical cleanliness made them report being more politically conservative and also led them to make harsher moral judgments when considering mildly perverted sex acts.

The study builds upon work showing links between moral judgment and the subjective experiences of bodily purity and visceral disgust. Recent studies have shown that individuals who experienced disgust in response to foul odors or by sitting at a dirty desk, judged the moral transgressions of others far more harshly compared to controls. The general idea behind these and other studies is that moral judgments are in part based on emotional responses which originally evolved for other purposes. For example, visceral disgust — say, the kind one might experience when smelling rotten meat — likely evolved as a means of detecting and avoiding harmful pathogens. The argument, as it goes, suggests that self-reported moral disgust responses to, for example, a visible display of homosexual affection (two men kissing) could be subserved by the same system from which “visceral disgust” responses emerge. The current study builds on this work with a crafty two-part experiment.

In the first study, participants were approached in the hallway of a campus building and asked to complete a questionnaire, which asked three questions about political orientation. Participants were instructed to stand either near a hand sanitizing station (the experimental condition) or step over to a wall where there was no hand sanitizer nearby (the control condition) to complete the questionnaire. Those who stood near the hand sanitizing station rated themselves as being more conservative than the control group.

In the second study a wall sign commanding researchers to “use hand wipes” before typing at a computer served as a reminder of cleanliness. Additionally, while the moral judgement task was introduced, participants were asked to use a hand wipe before starting. In the control condition, there was no sign and subjects weren’t asked to wipe their hands. First, participants filled out the political orientation questionnaire from experiment 1. As in the first study, participants in the cleanliness condition rated themselves as more conservative. Then participants engaged in the moral judgment task in which they were asked to rate their moral approval of sex-related items, such as:

“A woman enjoys masturbating while cuddling with her favorite teddy bear”
“After a late-term miscarriage, a woman asks her doctors to take a picture of her cradling the miscarried fetus.” (phew!)

Participants who received the cleanliness reminder issued harsher moral judgments of sexual acts than the control group. As a within-group control, both groups were also asked to rate their level of approval of non-sexual but purity related items such as “As a practical joke, a man unwraps his office mate’s lunch and places it in a sterilized bed pan” and non-sexual, non-purity related items that described people lying on their taxes, or forging a reference letter. For these latter two groups of items, there was no difference between control and experimental groups. Only the sexual items were rated more harshly by those in the “cleanliness” condition. In sum, reminders to maintain cleanliness led to increased conservativeness and harsher moral judgments for sexual violations of purity but not for non-sexual and/or non-purity related violations.

The paper adds to the growing body of work supporting the idea that moral condemnation may have evolved by piggybacking onto evolutionarily older systems originally dedicated mainly to survival via “literal” pathogen avoidance and concern with personal cleanliness and only later being adapted for a more uniquely human purpose. One big question that emerges from this work is: what comes first? The cognitive disposition or the ideology? The author’s suggest that the evidence supports a bidirectional explanation. Beyond that it’s mostly speculation.

Also unclear is the question of the relationship between moral condemnation and moral behavior. Does one predict the other? Conservatives often describe themselves as adhering to higher moral standards when it comes to sex than liberals. And they tend not to be supportive of “alternative” lifestyles, especially romantic relationships between homosexuals. Conversely, most liberals take pride in their embrace of a wider range of lifestyle choices and more progressive sexual attitudes. But, this is not to suggest that either conservatives’ or liberals’ attitudes necessarily maps directly on to their behavior. People sometimes say the wrong thing and do the right thing. Or, conversely, say the right thing and do the wrong thing.


Helzer EG, & Pizarro DA (2011). Dirty Liberals!: Reminders of Physical Cleanliness Influence Moral and Political Attitudes. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 21421934

There, but for the grace of providence and probability theory, go I

Note: This post veers away from what I normally write about here. It’s long. It’s personal. It’s not rigorously scientific (although it does touch on a couple of psychological theories and employs some rudimentary statistical analysis). It involves speculation, opinion and a little bit of preaching and teaching. But it does touch on how one might take an empirical approach to thinking about how to fulfill a creative, artistic life through optimal decision making. And although the ideas contained herein are framed in terms of my former mistress, the goddess of music, the ideas are essentially “domain general” and could be applied in any number of different creative arenas.

The Setup
In 1990 I got a call from keyboardist John Medeski to come up to his retreat in upstate New York and play some music. He wanted to explore some musical ideas, he said, looking to put together a little unit for a weekend of jamming, perhaps have some BBQ, and see what happened. It sounded like fun. John, although not yet nationally known, was an outstanding musician. But I didn’t do it, because I had gigs booked. Nothing amazing – just a couple of little bullshit corporate gigs – but they paid cash and I’d just moved to NYC and was broke all of the time. I couldn’t afford to turn down paying work, so I declined.

Medeski is the founder and leader of the group Medeski, Martin and Wood, a mostly instrumental band who’ve released 15 or so albums, earning a loyal fan base and strong critical acclaim. Did John’s call and proposed session represent the early stages of MMW? I’m not sure but it certainly seems within in the realm of possibility. For the sake of argument let’s assume that’s the case. Seventeen years later, that band is still going strong, seemingly having provided some modicum of fame and fortune for all involved.

Of course, the only thing that makes the story of interest is that MMW went on to become such a success. Of course, I remember the Medeski call well. But I used to get calls like that quite a bit from musicians in the early stages of putting a project together. And as Medeski’s call is memorable precisely because of his later success, other such calls have since disappeared into the ether. It wouldn’t be uncommon for someone in such a situation to experience a sense of regret – “I should have gone up for that weekend, eh?” But, is such regret really the appropriate response?

Probably not. Not appropriate, but perfectly natural, which begs a couple of questions:

Q1. How does one know to make the right decision when faced with a decision between two different musical/ artistic situations?

Q2. How does one deal with the sense of regret that often accompanies the kind of missed opportunity described above?

The remainder of the piece will attempt to provide some answers.

The Representativeness Bias

Have you ever had the experience of thinking about someone, let’s say your mom, only to have her call you at that exact moment? You’re not alone. Although one might be inclined to see these two events as being either causally related (your thinking about her caused her to call) or a sign of psychic ability, either of those explanations requires a belief in the supernatural. A simpler (and therefore more likely) explanation would be that you think about your mom frequently and she calls regularly, thus making favorable odds for a thought about and a call from her occurring simultaneously.

What do those odds look like? Perhaps it would be helpful to break it out statistically (I will henceforth be putting my math-statistics-probability theory nerd hat on; if that’s not your cup of tea, you can skip this section and go to the next paragraph below without really missing too much):

Category: Thoughts about mom (C)

Memorable examples: Thoughts about mom followed by a phone call from her (M)
Nonmemorable examples: Thoughts about mom not followed by a phone call from her (N)

There isn’t much solid data on how often we have passing thoughts about close others over the course of an average day (largely because this is very difficult to measure), so we’ll have to estimate, and I will proceed to do so (wildly). Lets say that you have 15 thoughts about your mom a day, or one every 64 minutes (based on a 16 hour waking day). If your mother calls you every day (ouch!), that puts the odds of her calling you within 5 minutes of a thought about her on any given day at about .08 or 8%. In other words, this should only happen 8 times every 100 days, or approximately 2 or 3 times per month. Finally, we’ll estimate that we might only remember 20% of the thoughts we have about her (again, there is no solid data out there regarding how many passing thoughts people actually remember having, so this is just a wild but intuitive-feeling estimate.)

In reality, over a 100 day period, you’re experiencing 1500 thoughts about her, with 8 coincidental thought/call combos. The actual thought-to-call ratio is .005 (In other words, The chance of any given thought being followed within 5 minutes by a call, is half of 1%.). But since we’re only consciously aware of 20% of the thoughts, or 3 thoughts a day, it will feel like this happens rather more frequently: the subjective thought to call ratio is FIVE TIMES GREATER, approximately 2.5% (In other words, we actually experience 187.5 thoughts to every 1 thought/call combo but it feels like 37 to 1, certainly a small enough ratio to create the sense there is something psychic going on.)

This is a highly-convoluted example of a cognitive bias known to psychologists as the “representativeness bias,” whereby we overestimate the prevalence of memorable examples of a given category and underestimate the less memorable examples when making decisions and judgments, or estimating the probabilities of certain events occurring.

Now, how might we apply this well documented bias to the way we think about the gigs we do and don’t take?

First, let’s define the categories:

Main Category: No- or low-pay projects declined in favor of paying gigs (“jam” sessions or get togethers, low paying gigs or tours with unsigned, or recently signed, bands or singer-songwriters)

Memorable examples: no-pay/low-pay projects, declined, which have gone on to be wildly successful
Nonmemorable examples: (a) no pay/low-play projects — — declined or accepted — which haven’t gone on to be successful

So, let’s imagine a musician named Rob, a professional session guitarist who earns a decent living. Over the course of a year, Rob gets about one call a week from someone asking him to participate in some kind of no- or low-paying project. Rob turns down most of those (40 to be exact) in favor of paying gigs, but he does accept 10 of the offers. None of the projects he participates in lead to any substantial success, but one of the projects he turned down led to a record deal/tour involving a decent amount of remuneration for all involved (too bad, buddy!). The question is: Does missing out on that opportunity cause Rob to start overweighting the probability of the future success of speculative projects? How much so?

Remember, what we’re interested in is the actual (real) vs. subjective (felt) odds of success. The actual odds of success are a simple calculation: 1 out of 50 or 2%. The subjective odds are slightly more complicated. First we need to add up all of the “opportunities” Rob actually recalls: 10 (accepted) + 1 (the one success) + 8 (the 20% of offers he rejected that are recalled) = 19. So, the odds of success feel like about 1 out of 19 or a little over 5%. Although it doesn’t seem like a huge difference – 2% vs. 5% – it does suggest that success will seem twice as more likely than it actually may be based on the actual data.

The take away message here is two fold: (1) most speculative projects are likely to fail and (2) missing out on a success will make future successes seem more likely than they actually are.

But this is crazy, right? One can’t apply statistical formulas to decisions about music or art? Can one? Intuitively, this may feel wrong to some people. Music is an organic and spiritual thing, not something that we can subject to dry probability formulas, some might say. The problem is that we often don’t know why we make the decisions we make. But we are intuitively computational creatures who create implicit statistical models of the world in order to help us successfully navigate it. Increasing our awareness as to how we make decisions might help us correct for certain errors. But, now I’m going to turn around and agree with the naysayers, and concur: the above data and formulas, although interesting, may not work so well in the context of musical/artistic decisions.


Because even the probability of success I’ve outlined above, even when biased, is only 5%! Most people are going to fail! Why would anyone pursue such a speculative undertaking? One has to be extremely committed and more than a little delusional to do so. I’ve merely suggested that probabilistic errors can make us slightly more delusional. But its really just a drop in the bucket when one considers the difficulty of become a working artist of any stripe. But, hey, if you wanted stability and a steady paycheck you would have become an accountant rather than a musician, right? So, given failure is the most likely outcome anyway, what’s the best approach?

I’m going to recommend making an important decision up front; that is, to decide whether you are going to be a musical artist or a musical artisan.

The Artisan
The rule for decision making for the musical artisan is simple: Paid gigs always prevail over non-paid gigs. My personal goal was to be a professional musician, to support myself entirely as a musician and to be doing so as quickly as possible. What this meant in reality was that I often favored paying gigs with low artistic value over those with high artistic value but no pay. And, although I paid my bills for many years through working as a musician, I led myself systematically, decision by decision, down a specific path. That is, the path of a skilled manual worker whose contributions to the world of music were generally functional or decorative in nature.

Our friend Rob, the guitarist described above, is a model of one form of contemporary working musician or “musical artisan.” He makes a comfortable living doing recording sessions, teaching, going on the road with various acts, performing the occasional corporate gig, subbing on Broadway, and cranking some industrial music out of his home studio. He also takes occasional club gigs with friends for the fun of it and is involved in a couple of speculative projects that may or may not yield some fruit. It took many years of hard work for him to get to this position and he should be rightly proud. His only regret is that he doesn’t have enough time to work on his own music. Rob writes and records his original compositions, and has gotten some good feedback from colleagues and people in the industry, but he just doesn’t have the time to focus on it, so his own music sits mostly on the back burner, as something he does on the side when time permits.

Without thinking about it too much, this is natural path many talented musicians will follow.

Personally, I was driven to claim myself as a professional, and motivated to do so because I’d been challenged on that front by family and by adults who spoke of how difficult it would be to “make it.” Plus, it carried some cultural cache to have earned one’s professional stripes and to become a full-fledged member of the “tribe.” Neither did I have any real appreciable skills in any other field. If you want to make a decent living, you’re more likely to do so as a musical artisan. Don’t waste your time playing for free or for little money on original projects that offer nothing but the promise of future success. Rather, focus on setting a decent price for your services and go after solid gigs with the realization that your contributions to the world of music will ultimately be more utilitarian than original. Of course, this doesn’t mean you won’t consider the artistic value of a given situation, it just means that you would be willing to lower your artistic standards if the price was right.

The Artist
On the other hand, you could decide to be an artist (putting aside for the moment the argument that artists don’t choose to be so, but, rather are themselves chosen). In this case, artistic value would prevail over money; you choose the $20 jazz gig over the $300 club date. The obvious challenge, of course, is making a living. An artist has a vision and stays true to it, knowing full well that he/she may not ultimately achieve monetary success (she might even ultimately abandon the artistic quest to become an artisan). The true artist attempts to “keep it pure,” and doesn’t strap the instrument on without a full commitment to expressing their singular artistic vision.

Why can’t one do both?

The question of what makes an artist is a difficult one. I hope I haven’t created the impressions of putting down the musical artisan. It’s worthy and important work. Some of my favorite drummers aren’t artists per se, but rather high-level artisans. The reason I’m harping on the commitment to the artist lifestyle is that I fear that some true artists, real visionaries, might be slipping through the cracks. By not defining themselves early on, making a definitive stand for their vision as it were, and also because of their desire to enter the working ranks, many who should be on the artistic path are reduced to being mere functionaries. I’ve seen it happen more than once to friends and colleagues, seen their unique voices silenced by success, by the siren’s call or by the need to buy diapers for their kid.

Legendary modernist classical composer Charles Ives famously made dual livings both as a composer and as an insurance executive (in fact, he was one of the originators of group insurance). I once heard a quote attributed to him to the effect, “One should never try to make a living from one’s art, lest their art be compromised.” ( I couldn’t find the original source so this is a bit of guess work). To me, this is the essence of what it meant to be a true artiste. Granted, not everyone can pull off high level artistic achievement while simultaneously working as an insurance exec. Nor would many musicians I know want to, many of whom take great pride in the fact that they keep the electric on, the rent paid and food in the fridge, solely from their earnings in the music biz. I was one of those. But I would argue that true artists would be less concerned with this accomplishment and more concerned with never compromising artistic integrity for money. The true artist NEVER chooses the money over the art. This is a level of commitment that most people can’t, and perhaps rightly shouldn’t, make. But it is a decision one can make BEFORE embarking on their careers.

What I’ve described may sound a bit unrealistic. Most musicians I know would say that they employ some consideration of both factors when making decisions about what projects to take on, some balance between artistic expression and compensation, such that the lower the artistic value, the more money is required and vice versa. I would agree that this is the approach most working musicians, including myself, have taken. But that artistic value is part of the concession process, does not mean that one is living as a true artist. What I’m suggesting is that the artist doesn’t compromise. Ever. Once money becomes a consideration, one is no longer functioning purely from an artistic vantage point. One cannot make a commitment like this in a casual way. This is why its important to determine early on what are the defining principles by which one is going to live one’s creative life.

Crying over spilled milk – The random walk
In the example I used to begin, the “missed opportunity” was the result of a conscious decision. Some sense of regret is to be expected. But what about opportunities missed purely by chance? Consider this story, told by Howard Grimes, the original drummer for the Stax record label. “[Stax] gave Booker T. an opportunity to record one day. I don’t know where I was, usually I was at home, but that day I left home. When I got back, my mother told me [Stax] had called. I was the staff drummer, but I called them back, and they said they had got someone else. I found out it was Al Jackson. Steve Cropper had recommended him. He called [Jackson] in that day for ‘Green Onions,’ and the rest is history. That was my shot and I missed it.”
Although Grimes’ miss was accidental, it was, nonetheless, clearly a source of regret.

And the closer we are to having missed an opportunity, the deeper the pain of the loss. Imagine the following scenario: two men are rushing to airport to catch a plane. Both arrive 30 minutes late. The first man’s flight left on time so he’s missed his flight by 30 minutes. But the second man’s slight is delayed 25 minutes and he only misses it by 5 minutes. Who feels the deeper the sense of regret? Intuition and experiment seem to suggest the second man will feel worse for having missed it by a narrower margin.

Missed opportunities hurt. And the narrower the margin by which they were missed, the greater the pain.
I offer the following example from my own experience (from the mid ’90s):

“I had booked a weekend of work out of town with a saxophone player, Mark Johnson, who had a record coming out on a pretty good sized label. This was to be his record release party and would be a big deal: the label was going to be there, radio promotion, etc…We did a fair amount of rehearsing for said gig, as it was an important one for him. Around the same time, I got a call to audition for another smooth jazz sax player, Warren Hill, who was a bit more established. He was looking for a new drummer and had three months of solid, and well paying, work booked. The only problem was his tour started the same weekend as the first sax players’ gigs in Chicago. I figured I’d just do the audition so I could meet the guy at least and get a relationship going. Hopefully I wouldn’t get the gig and won’t have to make a difficult decision. I went down and played, said thanks and went home with the mindset that I was still working that weekend. Next morning, I get a call from Warren’s keyboard player that Warren can’t decide between me and one other guy and he’s going to take a couple days to think about it. I know if he calls me for the gig, I’ll probably have to take it. I can’t turn down the money. Oh shit. Later that same day, I get another call, this one from the manager of a famous bebop trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard, one of my heroes, seeing if I was available for two dates for the upcoming weekend; one in Bermuda and one in the US. Now I’m really confused. I know that Freddie’s gig is just a one shot situation; I would just be subbing and probably wouldn’t do the gig again but it would be an amazing experience. I would have to cancel Mark’s gig and risk losing it entirely and if I got Warren’s gig I would have to turn it down and lose out on three months steady work. I seemed to have one bird in the pocket and one in the bush. I decided I couldn’t take the gig with Freddie so I turned it down. At this point my head was swimming so I decided to get out of the house, take a walk and get some air. I arrived home about a half hour later to the perfect storm. I check the machine and hear the following; “Beeeep. Hey D, this is M.; I’m really sorry man, but those gigs in Chicago were canceled.” Oh shit…”Beeeep. Hey D, This is [Warren’s keyboard player], Warren decided to go with the other guy. Thanks for coming down though. You sounded great and he said he could have gone either way.”
I’d lost two birds but it freed me up to take Freddie’s gig so I immediately got on the phone to his manager only too find out it was too late, he had already taken care of it. The gig was no longer available. I had gone from three potentially great situations that weekend to none. I think I did end up booking a bar mitzvah for that Saturday and as I was getting into my monkey suit that Saturday afternoon, I remember seriously questioning whether or not I was really cut out for this business.”

Things clearly didn’t work out very well in that case.
But consider what happened a couple of years later:

“One Saturday night, during a late club gig, I received a call from a good friend of mine that he was able to hook me up an audition with Lenny Kravitz. The one catch was that the audition was to be the next morning and I would need to learn about 7 or 8 songs cold. Getting off the gig at 4 am and forgoing my usual visit to the Italian after hours club I often visited, I sped home to learn tunes, passing out sometime around 7 am. I was scheduled to go out to Jersey around 10 in the morning or so to play with the band. But it wasn’t to be. Also auditioning was a guy from LA, a drummer who had worked with Fishbone. He came in early Sunday morning, sounded good, and Lenny hired him on the spot. I was disappointed but such is life. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Two days later, I got called to audition with Bo Diddley for an upcoming European tour and possible regular position in his touring band. I went down to a session at the Lone Star, sat in with his rhythm section and was hired for the gig that night. Four days later, the guy who had been hired by Lenny was un-hired when Lenny decided not to replace his drummer. Had I come in and got the gig with Lenny, I probably wouldn’t have auditioned for Bo and by midweek would have been gigless! And likely back in a monkey suit by Saturday. What a valuable lesson to have learned.”

The music business is one beautifully cruel bitch, aint she?

So, in closing:

Statistically speaking, the odds are that most speculative projects will fail. Quality is not an accurate barometer of success. Don’t fall for the hype (those bonafides from managers, record company people, or the artists themselves, about how you’ll be going “straight to the top!”) Think hard before giving up a solid situation for an unknown one. There may be occasions when it is more wise to forgo immediate financial remuneration and choose the gig that might offer better long term benefits – players that you would like to meet, opportunities for more and better work in the future, the quality of the music (lest we forget that crucial aspect of the equation!) Choose these projects, however, only because your artistic instincts tell you to.

If you’ve missed out on opportunity to be part of something great because you went with the bird in hand (rather than in the bush), don’t despair. And don’t start overweighing the possibility of success for subsequent speculative projects. Don’t kill yourself engaging in woulda, shoulda, coulda kind of thinking. There isn’t much benefit to second guessing yourself after the fact. Randomness does play a significant role in how one’s career transpires. But if you stay in the game long enough, and keep working hard, eventually the luck might break your way.

Finally, decide what your artistic goals are before you even embark on your journey and then commit to them with the tenacity of a rabid bulldog. Whichever life you choose, that of the artisan or the artist, or some hybrid thereof, every subsequent decision you make will be so much easier by virtue of this decision.

I’d be interested to hear others’ idea/thoughts/comments. Please don’t hesitate!

worthy links

Nice piece from the Boston Globe on the positive benefits of solitude. (My friend Adam Waytz, from the Harvard psychology department, gets a mention.)

Congenitally blind people use visual cortex to do language processing

An essay by June Carbone regards the role of neuroscience in determining punishment for adolescents who commit crimes such as murder. Focused on a recent US Supreme Court decision on the juvenile death penalty, the piece points out some of the limitations of applying neuroscientific findings to issues of jurisprudence.

A new study from researchers at Northeastern University says day traders make more money when they stay with the herd.

The Seductive Allure of Uncertainty

Amongst the forests of trees cut down in support of self-help books on dating, some not inconsequential percentage of lumber has probably been exclusively dedicated to variants on the theme that one must “play hard to get” to find love. If you never heard this expression, I would be curious to know what solar system you’ve just arrived from. And for you, my alien friend, I say welcome to our planet, and please allow me to explain. As it’s been passed down through the ages, the story goes that If a person wants to attract the interest of another toward whom they have romantic inclinations, they should be aloof and slightly stand-offish, so as to gain the attention and interest of their betrothed. Popular self-help manifestos such as “Why men love bitches,” are based on the idea of making oneself more attractive by decreasing one’s availability (to put it mildly). Going back several hundred years, even Juliet, from Shakespeare’s most famous play, knew as much when she told Romeo that “…if you think it’s too easy and quick to win my heart, I’ll frown and play hard-to-get, as long as that will make you try to win me.” I remember hearing some variant on this theme (“Don’t be too eager”) from older boys when I was a scrawny young fellow just becoming interested in girls for the first time.

Erin Whitchurch and colleagues from Harvard University were interested in how this seeming truism (the Uncertainty Principle), conflicted with another observation from the social psychological literature, which is that people tend to like those who like them back (known as the Reciprocity Principle). Interested in testing this principles against each other, they designed a study whereby 47 women viewed Facebook profiles of a set of men who, they were told, had previously viewed their profiles and rated how much “they would get along with each woman if they got to know her better.” A subject knew that a given man either liked her a lot, liked her about average or they were uncertain as to whether the man liked her or not. Then she would rate each man on a number of different dimensions including how much they might like him as “a potential boyfriend” and how much they would be interested in “hooking up” with him.

The results showed that women liked men who liked them a lot more than men who liked them a little, supporting the Reciprocity Principle; that is, we like those who like us back. But the study also supported the Uncertainty Principle (that we like those who we are uncertain about) by showing that women liked men about whose feelings they were uncertain more than men who said they liked them a lot. They also reported thinking a lot more about these men. The authors mention that although this advice has often appeared in the popular press, social psychological research has never confirmed it. The authors also point out important constraints and limitations that bear on the ecological validity of the effect. Among these are the fact that participants didn’t know anything about the men and it’s not clear that this effect would hold after meeting someone and/or beginning a relationship. Perhaps, as they suggest, this finding would be most applicable in the context of online dating, in which people don’t know very much about the other person initially. Also, only females participated and there may be gender differences.

One important point to reiterate is that participants mentioned thinking about the men in the “uncertain” condition much more than in the other conditions. Although I’m not overly familiar with research on dating, romantic attraction, relationships, etc., the reason I was inspired to write about this study is because I’m quite interested in the effect of uncertainty on cognitive and attentional processes and decision making, topics that a handful of recent studies have addressed. One 2010 study from researchers at Cornell found that people were more distracted by hearing one person on a cell phone nearby vs. two people having a conversation, the suggestion being that it was the unpredictable nature of the one-sided conversation that led to participants’ increased distraction. Zachary Tormala at Stanford has performed studies in which he has found that expert advice expressed with low certainty can be more persuasive than that expressed with high certainty. Tormala says that when an expert, say a restaurant critic, is unsure of themselves in a review of a restaurant, this is surprising to people. And “…surprise increases readers’ interest in and involvement with the review, which is essentially a persuasive message, and this promotes persuasion,” says Tormala. “Experts … get more attention and can have more impact when they express uncertainty.” In standard human fear conditioning experiments, the strongest fear conditioning is generally achieved when you shock participants only about a third of the time. That is, the strongest fear responses are generated when participants are maximally uncertain as to when they’re going to be shocked. That’s when you’ve really got their attention.

So, over a variety of different domains and outcomes, uncertainty is the variable common to all of the above situations. From an adaptive perspective it makes sense that we would direct extra attention to unsolved vs. solved problems. As organisms whose very survival is dependent upon our ability to learn about the world around us, we often have no choice but to devote an inordinate amount of attentional energy to the unknown. But from a mechanistic point of view, what motivates this orientation?

There is a rather large scientific literature discussing the role of reward signals in learning and uncertainty. And while its well-established that learning is largely dependent on reward systems, primarily the dopamine system, it’s also been shown that uncertainty alone is subserved by the same system. Going back to the study at hand, it doesn’t seem outrageous to imagine that participants had conflated the reward signal associated with uncertainty about being liked with the reward signal associated with liking someone.
This wouldn’t be surprising as the same dopamine neurons that preferentially report subjectively pleasant events also seem to signal attention-inducing ones. Dopamine neurons fire much more strongly to unexpected rewards and they may also fire strongly when presented even with the prospect of such a possibility, a kind of second-order reward effect. So, the effect could be framed as a kind of neural parlor trick, a technique whereby one can hijack the reward system of another person, causing that person to experience feelings that they then misinterpret.

I’m concerned with how science is presented to the public and how misunderstood scientific findings often become cultural “memes” that permeate the culture and plant incorrect ideas about human nature inside of people’s heads. Whitchurch’s study has already generated just these kind of sensationalistic and over-simplified headlines:


Men should play hard to get, find psychologists

It’s important to keep in mind that the more rewarding your dream girl or guy finds uncertainty, the more likely it is that this “technique” will work on them. And there is evidence that individuals vary in how sensitive they are to uncertainty, so this may not work on everyone. Furthermore, if their attraction to you is driven largely by uncertainty, then what’s going to happen once the uncertainty is no longer there?

(a page from an imagined self-help book):

“You shouldn’t play hard to get. Why? Because, as Harvard researchers have pointed out, it will attract (wo)men to you, but it’s an illusion. They might not be attracted to you because they like you, but because you’ve increased their attention to you through manipulating uncertainty as to how you feel about them! While this might work for as long as you maintain that uncertainty, remember this is not the same thing as someone liking or loving you. While human beings might be wired to pursue certain situations and people because of this, if you’re a healthy, well-adjusted person, you don’t want that kind of person in your life, because they’ll always be interested in chasing the unknown and once they’ve “figured you out,” they’ll be on to the next mystery.”

Love in the time of oxytocin research

Often referred to as the “love drug” or “love hormone”, oxytocin has attracted increasing interest from researchers in recent years. It was originally shown to modulate aspects of social attachment and pair bonding in animals such as the female prairie vole, whose monogamous nature is dependent on oxytocin. Recent research in humans has shown that oxytocin increases trust behavior in economic exchanges and increases perception of trustworthiness in human faces, as well as promoting emotion recognition and altruism. This evidence inspired hopes among some, particularly in the mainstream media, that science might have found a possible pharmacological target for humans who show deficits in prosocial behavior.

But recent evidence has complicated the narrative a bit.

Research has shown that oxytocin plays a role in increased emotional reactivity to both positive and negative social cues. For example, one study from 2009 (Shamay-Tsoory et al) had participants engage in a game of chance with another player (the actor). In one condition, the actor was made to win more than the participant, evoking feelings of envy in the participant. In another condition, the actor was made to lose more than the participant, evoking feelings of “schaudenfrude” or gloating. Participants who were administered oxytocin before playing showed increases in both envy and schaudenfrude (if oxytocin was involved only in enhancing prosocial behavior, we would expect to see the opposite result.) Other research has shown oxytocin increased approach behavior or affiliative drive rather than regulating positive or negative responding per se. And one recent study showed that oxycotin led humans to self-sacrifice for their own group while showing increased aggression toward out-group members. The gist of this set of findings is that oxytocin doesn’t seem to bias individuals toward the positive, but rather can magnify whatever “stimuli” happens to be in someone’s attentional spotlight, be it bad or good, thereby generating an increase in corresponding positive or negative emotional responses.

Jennifer Bartz and colleagues (2010) were curious to explore whether oxytocin could “correct” deficits in pro-social behavior in individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a population famous for emotional instability, extreme impulsive behavior and identity confusion. People with BPD tend to be involved in intense, emotionally volatile relationships characterized by frequent arguing, repeated breakups and extreme aggression. This behavior often extends beyond their romantic relationships, as BPD individuals have also been shown to have difficulty cooperating with strangers. The existing body of research, Bartz et al suggested, offers up contrary predictions. On the one hand, oxytocin could be helpful in reducing the negative behaviors normally associated with BPD in favor of kinder, gentler behavior towards others. Alternatively, oxytocin might have increasingly negative effects for people with BPD, who are chronically concerned with (lack of) trust and abandonment and have difficulty cooperating with others. They’re essentially fixed in a constitutively negative state when it comes to social interactions and increased oxytocin could decrease prosocial behavior even further. Additionally (or alternatively), the oxytocin system might be dysregulated in BPD and could produce different responses (vs. control) to oxytocin as a result.

Bartz and company designed an experiment in which the participant was paired with a partner (in reality, a virtual “computer” partner) to engage in an economic game. In this game, the participant was to make one of two choices that involved financial rewards. The catch was that the amount of the reward was also dependent upon the choice that their “partner” made.

Both players clearly make the most money if they both choose strategy A. But because the player has to make the choice before the partner, the decision involves an element of trust (if your partner defects, you get nothing. If your partner trusts you and you defect, you get $4 and she gets nothing.)

So, what did they find?

Results showed the following:

1. BPD people trusted their partners in an economic game less after they received oxycotin than when they received a placebo.
2. Additionally, when asked if they would be more likely to make a hypothetical decision that would punish their partner, even when they knew their partner had extended trust toward them, they were more likely to punish after Oxytocin than placebo.

Administration of oxytocin to BPD individuals actually decreased pro-social behavior (and increased antisocial behavior). As the experimenters suggest, increasing the salience of a social cue that makes trust issues salient may have caused BPD participants to rely on their normal strategy for trust-dependent social interactions; that is, defect and punish the partner. Or it might have motivated approach/affiliative behaviors which triggered memory of past experiences gone awry and set off chronic and ever-present concerns about trust and rejection (e.g. “reject and punish them before they can do the same to me.”). Finally, the experimenters suggest the possibility that the oxytocin system itself may be dysregulated.

In short, the evidence doesn’t offer overwhelming support for the notion that exogenously-administered oxytocin will be a useful clinical treatment for people with pro-social deficits, such as those with BPD. Additionally, it’s difficult to imagine long-term benefits of oxytocin given that it’s half life when administered intranasally is only about three minutes. It’s been said that the most of the real action with regards to oxytocin is on the receptor end.

Bartz, J., Simeon, D., Hamilton, H., Kim, S. Crystal, S., Braun, A., Vincens, V., & Hollander, E. Oxytocin can hinder trust and cooperation in borderline personality disorder. (2010). Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience

Shamay-Tsoory SG, Fischer M, Dvash J, Harari H, Perach-Bloom N, Levkovitz Y (November 2009). “Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases envy and schadenfreude (gloating)”. Biological Psychiatry 66 (9): 864–70.