What Mass Shootings Tell Us About Gun Control

Yesterday morning, an Illinois man named James Hodgkinson approached a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, and opened fire on members of the Republican Congressional baseball team. Hodgkinson, said “to be distraught over President Trump’s election,” indiscriminately shot between fifty and sixty rounds but — miraculously — only managed to injure four people before being shot and killed by Capitol Police.

To no one’s surprise, this incident has reignited the gridlocked debate about gun control. The Washington Post, relying on data from the Gun Violence Archive, reported that this shooting was the 154th mass shooting in America so far this year. Per WaPo:

The archive considers an incident a mass shooting if four or more people are shot, not including the shooter. Some definitions are broader: If the shooter is included in the tally, the number of mass shootings rises to 195. Some, however, are much more narrow: If a mass shooting is defined as four or more victims killed in a public location, excluding robberies and gang violence, the number falls to four.

I am not personally interested in debating how we should define the term “mass shooting.” I am, however, inexplicably drawn to analyzing large datasets, so I spent the morning digging into the Gun Violence Archive’s mass shooting database.

A few notes: the GVA archive is downloadable as an Excel file, but not all of the pertinent information comes with the spreadsheet. I spent the better part of the morning investigating and categorizing each individual incident. In fifty cases, or about a third of the dataset, there was either no suspect in custody, police were not releasing details about the suspect’s motives, or no motive information was available. I removed these incidents from parts of my analysis. Further, some might dispute how I categorized certain shootings. An example: when a shooting was described as a drive-by shooting with two or more shooters, I categorized it as a gang shooting. Someone else might call that terrorism. With respect to the broader implications, I don’t think the distinction matters much.

Of the 104 shooting events I could categorize, I used eight broad categories (listed from most deaths to least): Gang-related, Domestic Violence, Interpersonal Disputes, Robberies/Home Invasions, Workplace Violence, Terrorism, Shootouts (where two or more people exchange fire), and Hate Crimes. Here is a chart of those incidents:

This is where the debate often goes off course. Republicans and Second Amendment advocates tend to point to gang shootings, acts of terrorism, and other crimes as evidence that criminals, by definition, are people who are willing to break the law, and as such are willing to acquire guns illegally. And this point is duly noted: of the incidents where a gun was illegally acquired — or an illegal gun was used — the vast majority were gang-related shootings. One the other hand, in the incidents involving interpersonal disputes, workplace violence, and domestic violence, Democrats and Gun Control advocates have an equally compelling point: most of these crimes would not have happened if the perpetrator, temper running high, did not have immediate access to a gun.

With this idea in mind, I compared the locations of the shootings with the local gun control laws. To do this, I borrowed from Gun Law Scorecard who, through a somewhat opaque process, rates each state by the gun control legislation they’ve enacted. Cross referencing each shooting by the state’s Gun Law Score, I put together this table:

States that received an “F” grade likewise had the most mass shootings, the most deaths, and the most injuries. The Gun Law Scorecard appears to be vindicated, at least in terms of the states they fail. (On the other hand, the states with the fewest mass shootings and least deaths had B, C, and D grades, so the rest of the grading system might require some tweaking.)

But not all gun control measures are created equal. There is plenty of academic debate over the efficacy of allowing or prohibiting concealed carry. However, one measure that seems to be generally effective is universal background checks. In states where universal background checks are required, impulse or “hot temper” mass shootings make up less than a quarter of the overall incidents, compared 58% of such shootings in states that do not require universal background checks. Moreover, mass shootings are more common and lethal in non-background check states.

The single most effective gun control measure appears to be universal background checks. Though Republicans are right that there are a number of situations where a person intent on committing a felony act of violence will acquire a gun by any means necessary, there are many incidents where the mere presence of a gun fatally escalates an situation that would otherwise only result in bruised fists and egos. The evidence also shows that mass shootings are more rare in states that require a background check, the shootings are less lethal in those states, and there are fewer injuries per shooting. Although I generally support the Second Amendment right to gun ownership, a nationwide universal background check on all public and private gun purchases seems to be a clear and effective strategy for reducing, though not eliminating, mass shootings.

Wonder Woman and the Noble Savage

In the wake of the unmitigated box office success of Wonder Woman, much of the critical focus has centered on the feminist aspects of the film. Zoe Williams argues that the movie is a “masterpiece of subversive feminism,” while Christina Cauterucci criticizes it for not being “as feminist as it thinks it is.” There’s also this critique:

In my view, apart from addressing issues of representation in film (a theme awkwardly underscored in the film itself), the feminist talking points about Wonder Woman are among the least interesting aspects of the movie. What stood out to me instead was the film’s deconstruction of Enlightenment philosophy, specifically the espousal and subversion of the myth of the noble savage.

According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists’ discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization.” Pinker identifies this viewpoint as a subset of tabula rasa or Blank Slatism. (Far from being some form of obscure or minority viewpoint, recent polling suggests that around three quarters of Americans adhere to Blank Slatism in some form.) This idea is the legacy of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man…. The example of the savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species.

This idea (or variants where “savages” are whatever group that stands in contrast to conventional depictions of Western Civilization) shows up in dozens of films and novels, such as The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, and Dances With Wolves in Space. The plot typically plays out according to a basic formula: our war-weary protagonist, reeling from some psychic or physical injury, encounters a native people group and begins to heal as he adopts their lifestyle.

Wonder Woman is set in the waning days of World War I, “the war to end all wars,” and follows Diana Prince as she tries to locate and kill the Greek god Ares. While political powers work desperately to negotiate an armistice and call an end to the conflict, Diana (played with the perfect mix of physicality and enthusiastic naïveté by Gal Gadot) is convinced the war will not end until Ares’ destructive influence is brought to heel. As long as Ares is alive, Diana thinks, he will continue poisoning hearts and minds and men will continue to kill each other. The film’s preoccupation with mustard gas as a weapon of war serves to underscore the idea of the corruptive, corrosive effect that Ares has on mankind.

Diana’s view of human nature — that mankind is inherently righteous and noble but is corrupted by society — is played up as an innocent sincerity, untainted by contact with the outside world. Diana was raised on the mythical island of Themyscira in a decidedly pre-modern society occupied by the Amazonians and hidden from the outside world. Life on Themyscira seems continuously set at 300 BC, and it is implied that the Amazonians have lived there without external disruption since shortly after the creation of man.

This sets up the inversion of the noble savage trope. Rather than being told from the perspective of a soldier, Wonder Woman has us tag along with someone pure and primitive as she encounters both war and the West for the first time. She reacts with horror to the injustice of war, and adopts what seems a rallying cry for political activism: “You can do nothing or you can do something.”

Of course, any worldview advocated in a film invites a counterpoint. This function normally falls to the villlain; in Wonder Woman it is co-lead Steven Trevor who embodies the Hobbesian philosophy that humans are violent and combative by nature. Trevor is driven by a sense of pragmatic realism. Knowing the German General Ludendorff and the cartoonishly evil Dr. Maru are developing a form of mustard gas against which gas masks are useless, Trevor believes the Germans won’t enter into the armistice unless the new poison is destroyed: why sue for peace when you have an unstoppable superweapon at your disposal?

Diana’s crisis of confidence occurs when, having killed Ludendorff (who she believed to be Ares), the German soldiers do not immediately stop fighting and return to their righteous, noble nature. Everything she has believed about the nature of mankind is contradicted in an instant and she is devastated to realize that mankind may be beyond salvation. This hiccup is brief, and the ending plays out as a sort of Marxist fairy tale. (I’d elaborate on this, but I don’t want to give away an spoilers.)

Wonder Woman is far from a perfect film. Any superhero that is essentially a god or demigod will suffer the same drawbacks as Superman: without a fatal flaw, no opposition presents a real challenge to their superior might. There were many opportunities for Diana’s naïveté to have painful consequences for her, for her companions, or for the Allied war effort in general, but at every turn her blind, confident stride into action always plays to perfection. She has no character arc to speak of. And there is a scene of mass murder accompanied by extravagant evil laughter that would have fit much better in an Austin Powers movie. And, ultimately, the film could have done more to explore how our different worldviews impact how perceive and treat each other. But Wonder Woman deserves credit for its subtle examination of Enlightenment philosophies. As in the movie itself, sometimes it is indeed better to do anything rather than nothing at all.

Present Concerns and the band Joseph

In an interview with Noisetrade, Natalie Closner Schepman, who together with her sisters Allison and Meegan Closner compose the band Joseph, remarked on how our culture tries to motivate us through fear. “We live in a culture that makes money by scaring us. We are constantly being reminded of what peril lies ahead if we don’t buy this thing or move to this place or choose this particular news source as our primary doomsayer.” “White Flag,” Joseph’s first single off their sophomore album “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” is a song about optimistic defiance to this kind of fear:

I’ll be an army, no you’re
Not gonna stop me gettin’
I’ll sing a marching song and
Stomp through the halls louder than

I could surrender but I’d
Just be pretending, no I’d
Rather be dead than live a lie
Burn the white flag

Elaborating on the theme of the song, Schepman offered an excerpt from On Living in an Atomic Age — CS Lewis’ essay about how to deal with the sudden, ever-present threat that nuclear war could at any moment wipe all life from the earth. “This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”

In writing On Living in an Atomic Age, Lewis might as well have had Donald Trump in mind. Like the atomic bomb, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of the president has fomented a collective existential crisis in both the body politic and the public at large. Donald Trump is “a unique threat to American democracy,” according to the Washington Post. “(Trump’s) contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.” Even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan have described President Trump as, “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order … an extinction-level event.”

Whether such analysis is reasonable or exaggerated remains to be seen, but the paralyzing enticements of fear and despair are in no way new. “In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb,” Lewis argued. “‘How are we to live in an atomic age?'” I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might have cut your throat any night.” That death put on an unfamiliar mask did not give it new power; instead, it shattered our cherished illusion that we are immortal. Lewis continued, “Do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. …you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”

By echoing the sage wisdom Lewis offered in the face of that more immediate threat, Joseph position themselves as the perfect salve for the persistent chafing of our current cultural moment. “There is plenty to be concerned about!” Schepman adds. “We are a polarized country and there is more division than ever right now, so I have marveled at how much I need ‘White Flag’ more and more.” Joseph meets us in our division and discouragement and offers a joyful antidote.

I’m Alone, No You’re Not” has been well-received since its release last August. While critics have waxed on — rightly — about Joseph’s transcendent harmonies and sharp melodic instincts, I find myself equally captivated by their consistently positive message, an unfolding ideological landscape at least as beautiful as their voices. Take “I Don’t Mind,”* for example, a song about internalizing the belief that you are worthy of love. “I was saying for a while,” recalled Meegan during Joseph’s Tiny Desk Concert, “that it was what I wanted someone to say to me about my own sadness, and it just hit me that I would have to say it to myself first before I could receive it from anyone else.”

I will love you anyway
With all your demons in the way
Nothing can keep us apart
I walk through walls into your heart

*(A simple diagnostic test: if the harmonies at 2:13 don’t give you chills, there is likely something wrong with your central nervous system — consult a doctor immediately. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Closners can sing).

Whirlwind” may be the only musical meditation on the book of Job ever written that isn’t absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know if the members of Joseph identify as Christians — Schepman attended Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school — but they find themselves in excellent company with great musicians like Sufjan Stevens and mewithoutYou as they give fresh life to Christian themes without presenting themselves as Christian musicians per se.

Have you held the mallets drumming thunder
Or filled the clouds with rain?
Have you opened up the skies above you
And seen a desert wake?
Have you given orders to the morning
Or shown the dawn its place?
Can you grab hold of the earth’s four corners
And shake shake shake out the darkness

In “Planets,” Joseph conjures Eisley at their fanciful best without flirting with the adolescent imagery that made Eisley feel, at times, unapproachable. “Planets” is also the best example of free form poetry on “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” the line “The stars are a blanket, I’ll wrap them round these shoulders/Arms spread out wide, turn falling into flight” calling to mind Beryl Smeeton’s autobiography “The Stars My Blanket.”

Themes of care, intimacy, and the resolve to embrace life and love over fear and despair make “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” at once timeless and timely. On Living in an Atomic Age ends with Lewis’ observation that “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.” By setting their minds on higher things, Joseph created a poetic experience that will take on new meaning and persistent relevance as our present concerns shift. “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” is a great record to enjoy with a glass of whiskey and my favorite album of 2016.


For Christians, the Trump Presidency Must Be a Call to Arms


In the beginning of the book of Daniel, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and taken several noble Jewish children as hostages. Those children were given new names, often ones that implied loyalty to pagan gods – for instance, Daniel (Hebrew for “God is my judge”) was renamed Belteshazzar, which means “May Our Goddess Protect the King.” If you can imagine having a new name forced upon you, and having that name be an insult to your religious heritage, you now have a glimpse of how that might have felt. Likewise, they were forced to embrace a new language and a new culture, and there is even some evidence to suggest that these Jews were castrated. These boys were taken from their families, made to live in a new city, had every aspect of their lives transformed, and may even have had their gender erased.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump winning the presidential election, I have to imagine that many Americans can strongly relate to Daniel and his cohort.

I have to imagine that many minorities racial, ethnic, religious and sexual must feel as though they are on the precipice of seeing their value evaporate and their identities snuffed out.

Donald Trump rode a wave of hateful rhetoric to the most powerful office on the planet, allying himself with white supremacists and neo-Nazis along the way. And while it’s certainly true that not all or even most of Trump’s supporters fit that description, the many that do will now feel emboldened to spread their anti-gospel of wickedness and hate as far as they can.

Ultimately, the book of Daniel has a single underlying theme: that despite present appearances, God is in control. If we believe that God was in control when He put Jerusalem in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, how much more must He be in control over so much less a man?

In Romans five, Paul reminds us that while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly; that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Too much can be made of terms like “sinners” and “ungodly.” Paul’s point was not so much to point out the moral shortcomings of His audience, but rather to help us feel the overwhelming torrent of the love of God. Instead of thinking of those words with their moral meaning, replace them with their relational significance: when we were still strangers to Him, Christ died for us. When God owed us nothing, He gave us everything.

It goes without saying that with a majority in the House, the Senate, and a “Republican” as President, Republicans and conservatives may feel emboldened to impose a legislative and judicial will on America that will turn American citizens into refugees at home, “an America for me but not for thee.” I hope they resist that urge. I hope the principled members of Congress, regardless of party, resist that urge at every turn. I am optimistic, but not naïve.

Christians need to remember what happened to the heroes of our faith when they fell into the hands of a tyrant. Christians need to remember the astounding grace we received when we were still strangers to God.  Will we extend our love to those who now feel powerless? Will we sacrifice ourselves for those who find themselves pushed to the fringes? Will we affirm and reaffirm the infinite value of every person created in the image of God, which is just a redundant way to say “all of humanity”?

Or will we make those who seem somewhat unlike us feel even less like us, to pursue power as though we think this is “a Gospel for me, but not for thee”?

The Righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go and visit you?”

If Abraham Lincoln was correct, if the real test of a person’s character is how they handle power, these next four years will shine a spotlight on the character of Christians in America. I hope we rise to the challenge. I hope our affiliation with Christ dominates our affiliation with politics. In 2011, Egyptian Muslims formed a human shield around Coptic Christians who wanted to celebrate Christmas, producing one of the most touching photographs I can remember – and the clearest example of Christ-likeness I can think of. I hope American Christians follow their example, and – hand-in-hand – stand between our brothers and sisters and those who mean to hurt them.


Donald Trump Jr. and Very Big Numbers

Recently, Donald Trump, Jr. – son of the Republican nominee/possible lizard person – tweeted out this graphic:


The insinuation, of course, is that any Syrian refugee could possibly be an ISIS sleeper agent trying to gain access to the United States. The comparison was quickly denounced in some circles, roundly praised in others, and given a stern rebuke by the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., the maker of the fruity candy, who said, “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectively refrain from further commentary, as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

Perhaps the most interesting response came from Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. Nowrasteh argued that the Skittles meme is an appropriate metaphor, but only if utilized properly. It is, after all, a very different story if our bowl holds fifty Skittles or if it holds a million. Per Nowrasteh:

Imagine a bowl full of 3.25 million Skittles that has been accumulated from 1975 to the end of 2015.  We know that 20 of the Skittles in that bowl intended to do harm but only three of those 20 are actually fatal.  That means that one in 1.08 million of them is deadly.  It gets even better though.  There are over three hundred million Americans and not everyone can get a Skittle.  This means that the chance of any American actually eating the fatal Skittle and perishing is about one in 3.64 billion a year during the 41-year time period. Do you eat from the bowl without quaking in your boots?  I would.

The odds of an American being killed by a refugee in any given year are one in 3.64 billion. That is an absurdly small number. But is it correct?

Nowrasteh arrived at his estimate by finding the number of refugees admitted to the United States who were either convicted of planning a terrorist attack or actually carried one out. There were twenty such individuals. “Refugees were not very successful at killing Americans in terrorist attacks,” Nowrasteh writes. “Of the 20, only three were successful in their attacks, killing a total of three people.”

Nowrasteh then comes to his yearly average by dividing three by the sum total of the American population from 1975-2015 (roughly 10.9 billion) to arrive at his one in 3.64 billion figure. (The most dangerous form of immigrant is the one here on a tourist Visa: the odds of dying to such a person in any given year are one in 3.6 million. The second most dangerous? Students.)

“The three refugee terrorists were Cubans who committed their attacks in the 1970s,” Nowrasteh adds. “(They) were admitted before the Refugee Act of 1980 created the modern rigorous refugee-screening procedures currently in place.” According to Nowrasteh, there have been no such murders committed by foreign-born refugees since that act passed.

There are a couple things to consider here. The first is that translating a yearly probability into an absolute probability is a fairly tricky process. The absolute probability over the span from 1975-2015 is roughly 1 per 166 million people. (The sum of Americans who are alive today plus the number who have died since 1975 gives the total number of Americans alive at any point since 1975. That number is approximately 500 million. If three died in refugee-related terrorist activities over that span, that gives us approximately one in 166 million.) But 41 years does not cover the average American life-span. If we can expect to live to 75, on average, and we can expect this rate to remain constant at 1 in 3.64 billion, then the odds of being killed by a refugee-terrorist are now one in 49 million, or roughly the odds of winning the Powerball if you buy four tickets.

Second, if we use the number of refugee-terrorists (whether or not they were successful in their attacks) as our numerator, the odds get a little worse. The number of victims in any given terrorist attack is highly variable. Sometimes these attackers are victims of their own incompetence and there are no victims except for an amateur bomb-maker and the application of common sense. Future attacks, if they are ever indeed carried out, might be more effective at producing casualties. According to John Mueller, professor at Ohio State University, there have been approximately 3.2 million refugees admitted to the United States since 1975. Of those, 20 have attempted acts of terror, or about one for every 162,000 refugees. That’s almost identical to our current rate of mass shooters, which begs an uncomfortable question: are comfortable with the current level of mass shooters in our country?

That leads us to the final, most important factor: is there any reason to expect that the current rate of one in 3.64 billion should stay constant? This is the question at the heart of the debate. “Perhaps future Skittles added into the bowl will be deadlier than previous Skittles but the difference would have to be great before the risks become worrisome,” says Nowrestah. Total refugees from ISIS-controlled territories have increased steadily. According to the State Department, there were 31 total Syrian refugees admitted into the United States. In 2015, that number was 1,682. Refugees from high-percentage Muslim countries have increased a small amount since 2008 (30,934 last year compared to 23,490 in 2008).

Of the twenty refugee-terrorists on Nowrasteh’s list, nine of them entered the US after 9/11. Four of them – Yassin Aref, Najibullah Zazi & Zarein Ahmedzay, and Abdullatif Aldosary – came from regions affiliated with terror groups. Given the high numbers of refugees from these areas, the relative risk for such refugees is one in 44,000 – four times higher than the average rate for refugees. (None of these men were successful in carrying out their crimes).

Depending on how you frame the question, you have between a one in 49 million and a one in 166 million chance of being killed by a refugee-terrorist on American soil. Somewhere between one and 44,000 and one in 162,000 refugees will attempt such an act. Those numbers may seem high, maybe even intolerably high. But stop to consider the fact that you are 7300 times more likely to die in a car accident than at the hands of a refugee-terrorist. Have you stopped driving yet?

The refugee vetting process starts with the UNHCR, which is the U.N.’s refugee agency. The U.N. performs interviews, biological screenings, and attempts to do background checks to weed out criminals and military combatants. After the U.N. refers candidates to the U.S., the Resettlement Support Center initiates an interagency background check, sending the relevant information through the FBI, NCC/IC, the State Department, and Homeland Security. (Syrian refugees receive an even more thorough screening than the average refugee.) Basic biometrics are collected and a medical screening is done. Less than half of referrals are accepted. Finally, an NGO determines where refugees will be settled.

Refugees are subject to the highest level of scrutiny and security checks of any traveler to the United States. The process takes 18-24 months to complete. Refugees have little influence on where and when they will be resettled. As a recipe for spreading terror across an ocean, this method has serious drawbacks. It’s no wonder why the most deadly terrorists came here on student and travel visas. Though we may squabble about particular numbers, the current risk posed by refugees is absurdly low.

Mike Zimmer and Strategic Deception

A couple of years ago, during a famous hand at the London event of the European Poker Tour, an amateur player named Shlomi Angel looked down at his cards to see two kings staring back at him. In Texas Hold ‘Em, the default variant at these events, each player is dealt two cards face down. These are known as the “hole cards,” and pocket kings are the second-best set of hole cards a player can be dealt – only pocket aces are better. Shlomi peered stoically at his opponents before throwing out his bet. Two players called. The first was an Iranian pro named Farzad Banyani. The second was a Canadian player named Daniel Negreanu.

In 1998, Daniel Negreanu became the youngest player ever to win a World Series of Poker bracelet, earning him the moniker “Kid Poker.” Since then, Negreanu has made tens of millions of dollars in tournament winnings to go along with countless endorsement deals and a Netflix documentary about his life. Kid Poker might be the closest thing to a celebrity that the poker world has produced since Wild Bill Hickok.

After the flop – the first three community cards that are dealt face up on the table – Shlomi bet again, and he continued to bet big. Banyani folded. Negreanu paused and studied Shlomi carefully. “He looked at me and I could see he was nervous,” said Negreanu, recalling the hand. “But it was a different kind of nervous. He didn’t look like he wondered if he had the best hand or like he was bluffing. He looked nervous like he was thinking, ‘Please fold.’” So Negreanu called. When a queen hit on the turn, the fourth community card, Shlomi bet again, and again Negreanu called. After the river – the fifth and final community card – was dealt, Shlomi bet somewhat meekly, about a third of the pot.

Daniel seized the opportunity.  He raised big, pushing out a bet four times the size of Shlomi’s. “I figure you have aces or kings,” he said, calm as a millpond.

But if he knows I have aces or kings, Shlomi may have thought, he must have me beat. Looking equal parts awed and humbled, Shlomi quietly pushed his cards to the middle of the table and folded.

Robert Greene, writing on misperception strategies in warfare, notes that “People’s perceptions are filtered through their emotions; they tend to interpret the world according to what they want to see.” Shlomi Angel filtered Daniel Negreanu’s perfect read through fear: fear of losing his chips, fear of getting knocked out of the tournament, perhaps even fear of looking silly on television. If he could have steeled his nerves for a moment, perhaps he would have been able to ask himself an extremely important question: If Daniel’s hand is better than mine, why is he encouraging me to fold?

In poker, these kinds of mind games are known as levels. A rank beginner might bet big only when dealt a strong hand while immediately folding his bad hands, and in doing so is essentially playing his hole cards face up for his opponents to see. A slightly more sophisticated player will take the opposite tack. As the film Rounders put it, “If a fish acts strong, he’s bluffing. If he acts meek, he’s got a hand. It’s that simple.” An even more sophisticated player, realizing this, will reverse his strategies again, on and on and on until it reaches a sort of parity: any size bet a player might make with the top of her range should be the same sort of bet she would make at least occasionally with the bottom of her range.

Compare this to a short, blink-and-you-miss-it anecdote from Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ relentlessly entertaining account of Billy Beane’s efforts to build a functional major league roster on a small-market budget. About halfway through the book, Lewis introduces us to Scott Hatteberg as Hatteberg is trying to prepare to hit against a particularly difficult pitcher named Jamie Moyer. “Moyer was one of the few pitchers in baseball who would think about Scott Hatteberg,” writes Lewis. “Moyer would know that Hatteberg never swung at the first pitch – except to keep a pitcher honest – and so Moyer might just throw a first-pitch strike. But Moyer would also know that Hatteberg knew that Moyer knew. Which brought Hatteberg back to square one.” If these evolutions sound at all like the Battle of Wits from The Princess Bride, it’s because it is exactly the same process.

But in poker, as with pitching or The Princess Bride, high stakes and a time constraint lead people to make bad decisions they might have avoided under more relaxed circumstances.

“Feed (your opponent’s) expectations, manufacture a reality to match their desires, and they will fool themselves,” continues Robert Greene. “The best deceptions are based on ambiguity, mixing fact and fiction so that the one cannot be disentangled from the other.” Put another way, the best deceptions tell a plausible story. This is as true in poker as it is in warfare or spycraft. For the top players, a hand of poker is akin to a highly specific genre of interactive storytelling that uses a combination of bet sizes and emotional cues, in lieu of words, to imply certain climaxes. A player whose stories “make sense” – that is, the player with enough sophistication convince her opponents she is strong when she is weak and weak when she is strong – is a player who is poised to cash in.

Stories of this genre, filtered through the fear or anxiety of their specific (often, but not always, one-person) audience are also a fixture of competitive spots. Football writer Matt Waldman has made this observation explicit. “I’ve arrived at the conclusion that good route running is like telling a suspenseful story,” he observed as he described the subtle factors that help a smaller, less-physically gifted player like Wes Welker break away from his coverage with astonishing regularity. In football, as in poker, this becomes more and more true at the highest levels of the game, as abilities converge and the so-inclined can put more time into studying their opponents.

The football analyst Brett Kollman underscored this theme in a video about the matchup between Oakland receiver Amari Cooper and Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters. His analysis invokes the tension between what Cooper is trying to make Peters believe he’s seeing, and what he’s actually trying to accomplish. “About four to five yards into his route he stutters just a little bit as if he’s running a hitch,” Kollman describes. “Now, that in itself isn’t really special, but keep in mind what that little stutter means to a corner like Peters. He knows he’s not as fast as Cooper, and he knows that the Raiders are eventually going to try to exploit that difference of speed with a route like a stutter go.” A stutter go is, as it sounds, a play where a wide receiver chops his feet quickly (the stutter), trying to make it seem like he’s going to turn back and look for the ball, but instead just accelerates and runs as deep as he can. What Kollman is saying is that Cooper is trying to take advantage of what Peters expects will come after that stutter. “That’s the fear that Peters is working with here,” continues Kollman. “He’s thinking ‘Stutter go!’ because that’s a great route to get rid of his cushion immediately, and that goes double because Peters isn’t really that fast to begin with. So as soon as he sees Cooper come out of that stutter, look at Peters’ hips.” Here, Peters’ hips turn counterclockwise, rotating his body towards the sideline. “He’s starting to flip and run immediately, because in his mind, he’s thinking, ‘Shit, it’s the stutter go. I need to get over the top of this thing right now or I’m going to get burned.’”

But on this particular play, Cooper wasn’t running a stutter go. He was running what is called a dig: he turns at a 90 degree angle and cuts straight across the field. At the exact moment Peters’ hips are facing the sideline, Cooper snaps his own to the inside of the field, and in an instant Peters has his back turned to his opponent. Cooper is as wide open as you’re likely to see a wide receiver be in the NFL – but despite the fact that he won his matchup, the ball wasn’t thrown his way. His quarterback, Derek Carr, threw it underneath for a three-yard loss. “Carr ignores him, for whatever reason,” Kollman adds with an air of disappointment. “Literally the next play after that, one play later, I’m sure Cooper told Carr in the huddle, ‘Hey, I’m beating the shit out of this guy over here, please throw me the ball.’ And Carr does exactly that for a 23-yard gain. Again, he gets Peters with a double move – a post corner this time – and Peters can’t do anything about it, because when you’re that far off, and you’re giving that much runway to a wide receiver, you really have no shot of getting your hands on them.”

The combination of high stakes, a time constraint, and a narrative built on exploiting fear can create a powerful competitive advantage. But fear is not the only state of mind that can be exploited in this manner. When the Twenty Committee, the World War II British espionage service, launched Operation Mincemeat, it was a direct attempt to exploit Hitler’s belief that the Allied Forces would invade Europe through Greece and the Balkans. The Twenty Committee showed Hitler what he thought he wanted to see. The intelligence they fed to Hitler simply convinced him he was right to believe what he knew all along.

In a film study session with the NFL Network, Richard Sherman, the brash and brilliant Seahawks cornerback, describes how he brings the same elements of deception to his game. “People are like, ‘Ah man, the best corners, man, nobody throws to their side,’” he says. “You’re not a ‘best corner’ if nobody’s throwing to your side. Because the best corners get picks. And they get picks because they bait quarterbacks into throwing to their side, showing them exactly what they want to see. They want to see a picture of me closer to the number one receiver than the number two receiver? I will give them that at the snap. But by the time the ball comes out, I will be where I intended to be. I’ll give him what he wants, what he thinks he’s seeing, and he’ll throw it and he’ll be like, ‘You sneaky sneaky!’”

Next, Sherman describes intercepting Rams quarterback Sam Bradford on a play that effectively knocked the Rams out of the playoffs. “To tell you the truth, he hadn’t really tried me all day. I was kind of pissed.” Sherman is referring to the fact that he was second in the league in interceptions to Chicago’s Tim Jennings. Sherman is legendary for his competitive nature. He once gave an interview with the ESPN personality Skip Bayless where the two argued viciously over which was more accomplished in their respective fields. To Richard Sherman, finishing second is unacceptable: this is, after all, a man who says you cannot be the best cornerback if you cannot lure quarterbacks into your traps. “Tim Jennings had just gotten another pick, I just watched him before we played. So he was at nine, and I was like, ‘You’re not going to give me the chance to get to eight?’”

“For quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, who are just off of rhythm, like ‘Bam bam bam bam bam BALL,’” – here, Sherman pantomimes a quarterback working through his progression in quick, percussive movements – “you have to be a little more sneaky. You have to let them get the picture they want. I’m showing them what they want to see. I’m giving them an illusion of sorts.” The Seahawks’ bread-and-butter coverage is called Cover-3, which in its simplest form means they have three defenders playing deep, each responsible for a third of the field. A common counter-tactic to Cover-3 is a play called Four Verticals – if you send four players deep against their three defenders, more often than not one of them should be undefended. That was exactly what the Rams tried to do on the play in question. “They were in trips, they ran three verticals (to the near side of the field,” Sherman explains. “The inside vertical is simply to pull the safety out of it, and (isolate) me against two receivers.” To play a deep zone against two receivers, the defender has to split the difference. “You have to play it more 80-20. 80% to the outside, 20% to the inside receiver. I was watching the quarterback’s eyes and reading, and the way I played it was more 60-40 than 80-20. I thought his shoulders were aimed at number 2. He got past the point of no return, and there was a play to be made.” As Bradford released the ball, Sherman cut under the inside receiver and intercepted the ball.

Whether or not they were consciously aware of doing so, Richard Sherman and the spies of the Twenty Committee were actively exploiting cognitive biases, in this case confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe or what we expect to see. The Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman put it like this: “Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advice testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.” Robert Greene said that feeding your opponent a story that matches their desires will often cause them to fool themselves. What desire is more powerful than the desire to be right?

In September, 2016, during the weak leading up to their home contest against the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer refused to report whether his starting quarterback for the game would be the aging Shaun Hill or the newly-acquired Sam Bradford. “I try to keep my cards close to the vest,” Zimmer explained. It was reasonable, of course, to have not yet decided. Hill had just completed a solid, if unspectacular, performance against a middling Tennessee Titans squad, while Bradford was busy learning his third offensive playbook in four years. (If you’re tempted to think that sounds easy, University of Minnesota neuroscientist David Redish has compared this process to trying to master “a musical instrument that’s scheming against you.”) All other things being equal, however, Bradford is a better quarterback than Hill. Adamant that his public secrecy would earn him a competitive advantage, if only a slight one, against the Packers, Zimmer would not budge. “You’ll have to wait ’til Sunday.”

But isn’t this just one more example of that same leveling war we see in poker games, or between Scott Hatteberg and Jamie Moyer, or with Westley and Vizzini in their Battle of Wits? Is there any reason to think that Mike McCarthy, the coach of the Packers, would be paralyzed with indecision about how to prepare for such similar players?

Shlomi Angel folded to Daniel Negreanu because Negreanu told a story that was consonant with his fears. Marcus Peters flipped his hips to run deep because he expected Amari Cooper to run a stutter-go sooner or later. Sam Bradford threw an interception to Richard Sherman because Sherman painted a picture of an open receiver in the gap of the Cover-3. All three took what their opponents either expected or feared and combined that with the added pressures of high stakes and a time constraint. A suspenseful story combined with high stakes and no time to analyze will, more often than not, lead a person to make a bad decision. It should be no surprise that many of the spies of the Twenty Committee became novelists after the war. After all, storytelling is the heart of deception .

If there were a real strategic advantage to be gained here, Mike Zimmer could have taken a lesson from Negreanu, Cooper, or Sherman, or any of the geniuses from the Twenty Committee. He could have said the team was doing everything possible to bring Bradford up to speed, but perhaps add that he wasn’t making as much progress as they would like. He could have had a player leak to the media that Shaun Hill was taking most of the first-team reps in practice. He could imply since that Shaun Hill led the Vikings to a win and he deserved another shot to start. After all, inviting Packers coaches to be prepared to deal with both quarterbacks would be less helpful than convincing them they need only worry about the wrong one. In short, he could have tried to tell a story.

But that was never going to happen. On September 18th, Sam Bradford took the field as the Vikings’ starting quarterback, and promptly led his new team to a hard-earned victory against their division rival on the strength of what was possibly his best game as a professional football player. It is unclear whether Zimmer’s attempted subterfuge had any impact on the result.


A Threshold Model for Campus Rape

Imagine a middle-school gymnasium dressed and decorated for a dance, with a battery of 7th and 8th graders lining the walls. The lights are dimmed, an ancient disco ball is spinning, and the chem-teacher-qua-DJ has hit shuffle on a playlist of stale tunes from his own youth, and a song like “Mambo Number 5” is blaring through an ad hoc PA system. Inevitably, some intrepid student will make his or her way onto the dance floor and bust a move. Whether this child does so in a quest for attention or a moment of bravery is unclear—and unimportant, because a second joins shortly after, and then a third, and a fourth. Before long, the dance floor is crowded and only the shyest kids remain along the wall.

This is one of many phenomena that can be described in terms of what sociologists call thresholds. For any particular person, their threshold is the number of other people they would have to see participating in an activity before he or she becomes willing to join in. That first kid on the dance floor has a threshold of zero—he or she does not require implicit social permission to start dancing publicly. The next one out has a threshold of one, and so on, and so on. Threshold models have been used to explain how rumors spread, why riots break out, the progression of Kickstarter campaigns, and even how the Arab spring gained traction.

In the middle school dance scenario, there is more or less a uniform distribution of thresholds: there is one student with threshold 0 (the instigator), and then someone who will start dancing but only if someone else goes first—this person has threshold 1. Up next is the person with threshold 2, someone who needs to be convinced the party is starting before he’ll leave the sidelines, and so on up to the last person who joins in. In scenarios like these, the outcome is more or less inevitable once the instigator acts: there is a domino or “bandwaggoning” effect and participates. It should be noted, however, that the more extreme the scenario, the fewer zero-threshold actors exist. Plenty of people might be the person willing to be the second one to jump out of an airplane with a parachute strapped to their backs. Vanishingly few people would do so without seeing someone else do it first.

Now consider a situation where we’ve replaced the person with threshold one with an otherwise-identical person who has a threshold of two. Even if the instigator acts, no one else will follow suit. Mark Granovetter, the pioneer of this concept, described this scenario with respect to riots: “By all of our usual ways of describing groups of people, the two crowds are essentially identical. But the outcome in the second case is quite different—the instigator riots, but there is now no one with threshold 1, and so the riot ends at that point, with one rioter.” In such perturbations, the result is a single person standing next to a shattered pane of glass as a crowd looks on, or a lone middle schooler krumping on the dance floor. Or you get this incredibly awkward scene from Jerry Maguire:

In March of 1918, an army cook named Albert Gitchell reported sick at Fort Riley in Kansas. Within a week, over a hundred soldiers in his cohort had been hospitalized with a particularly virulent strain of influenza. By the middle of the month, the disease had spread from Kansas to New York; by April, it had spread to most cities in America and had even reached Europe, as Malcolm Gladwell says, “following the trail of the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who crossed the Atlantic that spring for the closing offensives of the First World War.”

That initial wave of the Spanish Flu was bad enough to be noteworthy – 237 men at Fort Riley contracted pneumonia from the influenza, and of those 237, 38 died—but it was not considerably out of the ordinary. According to Jeffery Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, “Illness rates were high, but death rates in most locales were not appreciably above normal.” This changed over the summer, when a second wave of influenza began in Brest, in northwestern France, and quickly found itself carried to Boston by returning American soldiers and to Sierre Leone in steerage on the British navy ship the H.M.S. Mantua. The second wave spread globally between September to November of 1918. It was highly fatal. By the time the Spanish Flu subsided, it had killed more than fifty million people.

It’s hard to conceptualize numbers of that magnitude. Likewise, it’s had to really come to terms with the level of panic and terror the Spanish Flu brought with it. Consider historian Alfred Crosby’s account of the pandemic reaching Alaska:

On or about November 1 the virus reached the finest medium for its propagation in Nome and vicinity, the city’s Eskimo village. Few Eskimos escaped infection. In a single eight-day period 162 of them died. Some Eskimos, hounded by superstitious horror, fled from cabin to cabin, infecting increasing numbers with disease and panic. The temperature fell below freezing, and when rescuers broke into cabins from whose chimney came no sign of smoke, they found many, sometimes whole families, who had been too sick to renew their fires and who had frozen to death. When a number of Eskimos were rounded up from their separate cabins and placed in a single large building so they could be cared for efficiently, several of them responded to what they apparently perceived as incarceration in a death house by hanging themselves.

In “Epidemic and Peace, 1918,” Crosby shares the harrowing account of a Philadelphia nurse who came upon “a husband dead in the same room where his wife lay with newborn twins. It had been twenty-four hours since the death and the births, and the wife had had no food but an apple which happened to lie within reach.”

“If you autopsied some of the worst cases, you’d find the lungs very red and very firm,” says Taubenberger. “The lungs are normally filled with air, so they are compressible. These would be very heavy and very dense. It’s the difference between a dry sponge and a wet sponge. A normal piece of lung would float in water because it was basically filled with air. These would sink. Microscopically, you would see that the alveoli would be filled with fluid, which made it impossible to breathe. These people were drowning. There was so much liquid in the air spaces of their lungs that patients would have bloody fluid coming out of their noses. When they died, it would often drench the bedsheets.”

In a typical outbreak of the flu, the very young and the very old are the most likely to die from the disease or its complications—put another way, influenza has a U-shaped mortality curve. “The curve of influenza deaths by age at death has historically, for at least 150 years, been U-shaped,” says Taubenberger. Mortality “peaks in the very young and the very old, with a comparatively low frequency of deaths at all ages in between.” The Spanish Flu was different. Rather than being U-shaped, the mortality curve of the Spanish Flue was W-shaped: similar to the U-shaped curve but with the addition of a third distinct peak of deaths in young adults between twenty and forty years of age. Says Taubenberger, “Age-specific death rates in the 1918 pandemic exhibited a distinct pattern that has not been documented before or since.”

W-shaped curve

U- and W- shaped combined influenza and pneumonia mortality, by age at death, per 100,000 persons in each age group, United States, 1911-1918. From Taubenberger.

“This wasn’t just a deadly infectious disease,” says Gladwell. “It was a deadly infectious disease with the singular and terrifying quality of being better at killing the young and healthy than the old and the infirm.”

There are numerous factors that contribute to the proclivity of rape. An important one, for example, is the acceptance of what are known as rape myths. Rape myths are defined as prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists. Examples of rape myths include fallacies like “Only bad women get raped,” or “Husbands cannot rape their wives,” or even, “Rapists are sex-starved, insane, or both.” According to Neil Malamuth, a psychologist at UCLA and one of the foremost experts on sexual aggression, “beliefs in rape myths are more likely to be held by rapists than by males in the general population.”

Is this relationship causal or merely correlative? Martha Burt of the Urban Institute, and the academic who pioneered the rape myth acceptance scale, believes that rape myth acceptance play an important role in causing rape. Such beliefs justify a rapist’s behavior, she says, and they act as “psychological releasers or neutralizers, allowing potential rapists to turn off social prohibitions against injuring or using others when they want to commit an assault.” Similar beliefs held by the social circle of an assailant may likewise contribute indirectly to such assaults, Burt argues, since they effectively create excuses for the assailant’s actions. It is easier for young men to internalize a message like, “Women get drunk when they want to have sex” when it is reinforced by their confidants.

Rape myth acceptance, however, is far from the only risk factor for proclivity to rape. Malamuth realized that a certain subset of high-risk men never see those risks turn into action. A key difference, he found, between men likely to rape who do and men likely to rape who do not is sensitivity, that is, whether the man is “self-centered” or “nurturant.” “When a high-risk individual is self-centered,” says Malamuth, “he is more likely to actually be sexually aggressive. In contrast, the high-risk individual who is sensitive to others’ feelings is not likely to actually aggress sexually.” Empathy, then, has a moderating effect on sexual aggression—like British author Ian McEwan says, imaging what it is like to be someone other than yourself is the essence of compassion and the core of our humanity. It keeps us from doing horrible things.

Alcohol also has a scaling effect on sexual aggression. “Half of all sexual assault perpetrators are under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault,” says Antonia Abbey, a psychologist at Wayne State University. According to Abbey, the causal relationship here is well-understood: “There are two primary mechanisms through which alcohol can increase the likelihood of sexual violence in a given situation: pharmacological effects of alcohol and psychological beliefs about alcohol.” Under the influence of alcohol, people have a reduced capacity to “integrate multiple sources of information and make complex decisions.” Or, as Malcolm Gladwell put it, “Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That’s why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check.” That is, inebriation creates a narrowed focus—myopia—and a reduction of impulse control. “Alcohol facilitates aggression not by ‘stepping on the gas’ but by paralyzing the brakes,” says Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State who has written about the effects of alcohol on aggressive behavior. According to Bushman, alcohol consumption is particularly effective at facilitating aggression, affecting it as much or more than other social and nonsocial behaviors.

But some of the effects of alcohol are caused by our cultural beliefs about alcohol. Widely held beliefs induce placebo effects. “American culture glamorizes alcohol consumption,” says Abbey, “and links it to sexual desire, sexual performance, aggression, and other types of disinhibited behavior.” To the people who wanted to act aggressively, alcohol gives them implicit permission to do so. At the same time, the intoxicated are more likely to interpret the behavior of others in the light of these cultural expectations. To the drunk, says Abbey, “a smile is more likely to be viewed as a sign of sexual attraction and a mildly negative comment is more likely to be interpreted as grounds for an aggressive response.” Each culture, including our own, has created a particular set of codes for what it means to be drunk, and many of ours facilitate sexually aggressive behaviors. “Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings,” the anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton say in their book, Drunken Comportment. “Since societies, like individuals, get the sorts of drunken comportment that they allow, they deserve what they get.”

This is not to say that alcohol creates sexual aggression where it didn’t exist previously, nor does it excuse the violent of their violent acts. Some studies have shown that men at high risk for sexual aggression are those most affected by alcohol consumption. Abbey underscores this point. “Alcohol increases sexual violence only when perpetrators are near their violence threshold. Most men are expected to have a high threshold for using violence to obtain sex, thus even when intoxicated, they are unlikely to cross that line. Other men … have such a low threshold for violence that alcohol is not needed for them to become sexually violent. And for a subgroup of men who are near their violence threshold, intoxication may push them over that line.” Context causes shifts in our threshold for many activities, and alcohol consumption plays into that. “Alcohol is one of many factors that increase the likelihood that a man will feel comfortable forcing sex on an unwilling woman. For some men, on some occasions, it can be the ‘final straw’ that produces sexual violence, but its effects cannot be understood in isolation.”

In the normal course of a flu season, the milder strains of the virus tend to prevail. Those infected with more severe, nasty strains of the diseases tend to get more severe, nasty symptoms, and as a result, they tend to isolate themselves at home as they convalesce. Those who contract milder strains are less likely to disrupt their vocational and social commitments, so they continue to go into work, they continue to shop, and they continue to be out and about in public, increasing the odds that they’ll pass their illness onto someone else.

In the case of the Spanish Flu, the First World War turned this pattern on its head. Soldiers were packed tightly into barracks during basic training and then into ocean liners transporting them across the Atlantic. Some 30,000 American soldiers died en route to France. Once they arrived at the battlefield, the epidemiological profile only made matters worse. “As soldiers in the trenches became sick,” says Carol Byerly, “the military evacuated them from the front lines and replaced them with healthy men. This process continuously brought the virus into contact with new hosts—young, healthy soldiers in which it could adapt, reproduce, and become extremely virulent without danger of burning out.” Meanwhile, the evacuated ill would end up in field hospitals, spreading their illness to the injured, some of whom were returning home. This cycle spread waves of infected and infectious men across the world. Socio-political reality reversed the standard progression of influenza. From the trenches of France, as Byerly put it, the Spanish Flu would “travel the highways of war, circling the globe.”

Obviously, war is not the only thing that creates such unusual social arrangements. Any community built around a particular trait—that is to say, any group of people displaying either an artificial or intentional selection bias—will have unique susceptibilities to various outcomes. If someone throws a rock through a window at a state fair, a riot is unlikely to break out. But a group gathered together in their outrage over a police shooting is composed almost entirely of people who are furious, exasperated, and impatient about persistent injustice. A shattered window, in that context, invites a very different reaction. Likewise, if you try to create a spontaneous dance party in the middle of a school lunch hour, it will be comparatively more difficult to get kids to start dancing than it is when they are intentionally attending a dance. Economists trying to explain why immigrants in certain cohorts earn more than American citizens working similar jobs have leaned on self-selection as the explanation: the sort of person motivated to go through the immigration process are more likely to also have traits that favor excellent job performance.

The college social environment compounds the self-selection process. Students admitted to various colleges tend to have other traits in common, things like race, relative age and home location. Consider, for instance, the fact that 65% of students enrolled at the University of Minnesota come from Minnesota, and an additional 15% hail from the Upper Midwest. 70% are white. In comparison, 80% of students at the University of St. Thomas, a private Catholic liberal arts college in St. Paul, are white and 95% of them are culled from the Midwest. Nationwide, more than 85% of full-time college students on traditional campuses are under 25. Not all colleges conform to these profiles, but the ones that don’t have peculiarities of their own. Many Ivy League schools favor the children of alumni: Harvard’s legacy admission rate is around 30%, four times the rate for non-legacy students. Intentional or not, Harvard selects for Harvardness, and the University of Minnesota selects for Midwesternness. The self-selection process hardly stops at admissions. Any subgroup—clubs, intramural sports teams, academic concentrations—results in further self-selection.

This is not inherently a bad thing: there is nothing wrong with creating groups that can be categorized with increasing specificity. I know I enjoyed my time with Upper Midwestern, academic, Christian, athletic, relaxed Frisbee players. The net effect, however, is that the more narrowly-tailored the selection process, the more we also select for correlated traits. This is the basic premise behind statistical sampling procedures: when we rely on demonstrably non-random samples to measure something, we may be measuring something correlated with the sample instead. If we want to establish drug use rates among teenagers, taking a sample of high school students may overrepresent the problem by ignoring the home schooled.

Studies have shown that men who join fraternities are more likely to commit rape than men in the general student population, with one showing they are three times more likely to commit rape than other men on campus. John Foubert, one of the authors of the latter study, offered an important insight on this result. “Before they got to college, fraternity men were no different from other male students. They committed the same number of incidents of sexual assaults before college. But here’s the difference. Guys who joined a fraternity then committed three times as many sexual assaults as those who didn’t join. It is reasonable to conclude that fraternities turn men into guys more likely to rape.” There is something about frat life that cultivates sexual violence.

Perhaps there is an element of self-selection bias at play. That is, perhaps when selecting for frat-worthiness, those groups are also accidentally selecting for men with a low rape threshold. Theoretically, this plays out well: fraternities select for 1) men typically between the ages of 18-20, 2) who are willing to engage in high-risk drinking (at a rate of roughly 80% among frat members), and 3) are drawn to a cultural presumption of frat life, i.e., a lifestyle with rampant partying and hook-ups. Is it hard to believe that this population correlates heavily with high self-centeredness/low empathy and an espousal of rape myths? Foubert argues that frat members receive “male peer support” to commit acts of sexual violence. In such an environment, all the risk factors for sexual violence coalesce in terrifying synergy, and a group of high-risk/low-threshold men need only the feather-light provocation of a zero-threshold actor to give them contextual permission for their own acts of sexual aggression. A individual act of sexual aggression in isolation is horrific enough as it is. A torrent of such acts committed with the perceived approval of the people nearby is a breeding ground for tragedy.

There is a caveat to this idea. Fraternity membership is comparatively low. Even though members commit rape at three times the rate of the general student population, in a typical school non-fraternity members outnumber fraternity members by an average rate of eight to one. Due to the size difference in populations, non-fraternity members commit nearly three times as many rapes as frat members. And that’s at a typical college. In schools with lower fraternity enrollment, like the University of Minnesota, the general population aggregates fourteen times the number of rapes.† As much as people may find it convenient to push the blame onto frat culture, it cannot directly explain the majority of campus rapes.

But what if the same self-selection factors are at play in other aspects of campus life? Perhaps other sub-cultures attract high-risk/low-threshold actors. Perhaps the culture of binge-drinking and the archetypal conception of the collegiate experience create a selection bias in general and influences how certain types of men congregate at certain types of parties. We should expect many of those high-risk/low-threshold actors to flock to fraternities, but not all of them (and, conversely, it should be noted that not all frat members are at high-risk for rape). This is the crux of the issue: when angry, frustrated people get together, it is more likely to result in a riot than having isolated malcontents isolated in otherwise happy crowds. But a riot describes group behavior. Those isolated few may still smash some windows.

Imagine a house party at a college campus. “Blurred Lines” is blaring through stereo speakers. There is a keg on the back porch and a kid with a sideways hat and curly blonde hair is operating the tap. People are dancing in the living room, talking animatedly through plumes of cigarette smoke in the kitchen, and discarding red Solo cups on every visible surface. Scattered through the crowd, there are people making out. At some point, with an audible laugh and a shit-eating grin, some kid gropes a girl in spite of her wobbly gait and the disgusted look on her face. His friends laugh. It’s not hard to imagine what happens next.


It should be noted that this is a mathematical calculation based on the population sizes compared to the presumed rate of rape in both populations. Foubert’s 3:1 rate was assumed for these calculations.

Old School

Perceptions of party life are shaped by culture and therefore act as self-fulfilling prophecies.