“The mind is not designed to grasp the laws of probability, even though the laws rule the universe.” ― Steven Pinker 1. There is a famous experiment in statistics where a professor divides his class into two groups. In the … Continue reading
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.
When Facebook asked me for my political affiliation, however many years ago, I put “moderate.” Though I hold a lot of conservative values, and the philosophy that undergirds conservative ideology makes intuitive sense to me, a lot of Republican positions run contrary to those values and I’ve had trouble finding politicians that consistently embrace similar views to my own. The landmark essay “A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” was penned by gay conservative Andrew Sullivan in 1989 and went largely ignored until it was dusted off last summer to help Republicans cope with the Obergefell decision. I’d made my own (conservative) case for gay marriage while in college. All that to say, the philosophical foundations were there, but the marriage between conservative philosophy and Republican ideology has long struck me as a loveless one.
It’s not as though I found liberal ideology fit me better. As I learned more about Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, I was better able to put into words the discomfort I had with liberalism. According to Haidt, there are five key moral foundations: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. “In this analogy,” he says in his book “The Righteous Mind, “the moral matrix of a culture is something like its cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on grass and tree bark, or even one based primarily on bitter tastes. Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same … social receptors.” (For the record: comparing something to food is one quick way to get me to take an idea seriously.)
Haidt’s key observation was that while conservatives hold each of these moral foundations in roughly equal importance, liberals emphasize care and fairness far above the other three. The Black Lives Matter movement is almost a perfect case study for this theory: those who embrace it use “fairness” language; those who critique the movement almost invariably make an appeal to the importance of authority. This should not, in itself, be read as a critique of Black Lives Matter. Sometimes sweet and sour, combined in precarious balance, form a transcendental flavor. But just as I don’t want to only eat sweet and sour foods the rest of my life, I can’t completely eschew the values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
This has all been prelude to the main idea, which is the baffling disagreement about the bathroom ordinances currently in contention, most notably North Carolina’s HB2. Outrage over the signing of the law has been swift and loud, of course, with businesses and governments staging boycotts of the state of North Carolina. And while I agree with Governor Pat McCrory when he says that there has been a “vicious” smear campaign miscategorizing components of the law, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good law. In fact, I can think of no compelling case to restrict transgender men and women from using the bathroom they feel is most appropriate to use.
But – yet again – this does provide a fantastic case study for Haidt’s moral foundations theory. Proponents of such restrictive bathroom laws such as HB2 are reacting to encroachment of their “care” and “sanctity” foundations, while opponents are responding to the “care” and “fairness” modules:
a) The mainline argument in support of HB2-type laws argues that when we rely on the subjective standard of personal gender identity, there will be nothing stopping rapists and other sexual predators from insincerely using personal gender identity to gain access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. At that point, it is argued, they will have better access to victims. To phrase it in care language, someone might reasonably say, “I care about the women and children in my life, and without these laws they are at greater risk to sexual predators.”
(I also suspect that many people perceive transgenderism as a threat to the sanctity of the “male” and “female,” at least in a more traditional formulation of gender. But until people are free to discuss those ideas openly and without being labeled bigots, the principle of charity dictates we should restrict ourselves to considering the strongest form of the arguments actually being set forth.)
b) In a similar way, opponents of HB2-type laws are simply saying, “I care about the transgender men and women of the world, and it is unfair that they should have to face the “othering” and discrimination that comes with having to use the wrong bathroom. They face enough challenges as it is.” I find it prohibitively difficult to brush aside that argument.
Tim Keller said in “The Reason for God” that if you can’t formulate your opponent’s argument in a way that he or she would agree with, you can’t actually claim that you disagree with them. Similarly, Daniel Dennett has said, “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’” I hope either position would accept my characterization of their position. If not, that’s what the comments section is for.
I suppose it should not be surprising that this controversy has made hypocrites of us all.
Let me start with liberals. Do you not see the baffling contradiction in the fact that you’ve been yammering on and on about rape culture, that you’ve been parroting statistics about the threat that women face daily and in accumulation over the course of their lives, but when it comes to public bathrooms and locker rooms, you’re suggesting that the threat of rape is no longer real? Do public bathrooms have a magical property about them that prevents sexual assault? I’ve heard women complain about being ogled at the gym, or at bars, or in restaurants. Acknowledging that there are men who don’t respect your agency and privacy enough to leave you alone when you’re on the treadmill, what makes you think they won’t likewise ignore the spirit of transgender-inclusive spaces? From a sheer, raw numbers perspective, do you honestly believe there are more rapists in American or more transgender men and women? The fear of increased risk of rape is real.
Or maybe you’re just trying to say you don’t like anti-rape measures when they unfairly hurt innocent people. Please, tell me more.
Conservatives aren’t exactly paragons of self-consistency on this issue, either. In fact, I think they’ve got it worse.
Conservatives, isn’t one of the big arguments in support of gun rights the idea that criminals, by definition, don’t care about breaking gun laws? What makes you think that sexual predators have cared about violating the sanctity of public restrooms? Since we have a plethora of examples of such men doing just that, why would we expect to see a flood of new cases? If you weren’t seeing a statistically significant risk of being assaulted in a public restroom before, there is little reason to expect that to change.
With respect to your children, were you really sending your six-year old to the bathroom by his- or herself? According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), four fifths of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and 70% of rapes take place within a mile of the victim’s home, in the victim’s school, or at the residence of a friend or family member. The increased risk of bathroom rape is overblown (1). When RAINN says, “The perpetrator is not hiding in the bush,” they might as well be saying, “The perpetrator is not hiding in the bathroom.”
Besides, aren’t you guys the ones typically complaining about the expanse of the “nanny state”? And now you’re saying it’s the government’s job to mitigate the risk of rape of your children via bathroom regulations? That doesn’t really add up, either.
I suspect businesses will be intelligent about how they manage this situation – and it seems to me there is ample room for compromise. Target stores, for example, have gender-neutral family bathrooms. The Gap and Banana Republic stores have gender-neutral changing rooms, typically in a single row. Perhaps larger stores can implement a panic button (or such buttons in each stall) that will alert security of particular threats. I think an innovative solution will eventually win out. That is, if we can find a way to give each other the benefit of the doubt and offer some understanding for the real concerns of both sides.
(1) You may have noticed that I claimed both that the fear of more rapes is both real and overblown. And yes, on the surface, this is a paradoxical statement. But it’s like shark attacks: the odds of being attacked by a shark are incredibly low, and not a significant-enough risk that they should deter would-be swimmers. But attacks do still happen, and they are gruesome to witness. That is, the fear of shark attacks is real, but the risk is overblown. Especially when you’ve just been watching Jaws.
After last winter’s Sony e-mail hack, it came to light Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars for her performance in the film American Hustle. Today, in Lena Dunham’s newsletter Letters to Lenny, Lawrence shared her perspective about the incident, first blaming herself for failing as a negotiator: “I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need.” Beyond that, Lawrence suggests that wanting to be seen as likable informed her negotiating tactics. “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’”
“‘Are we socially conditioned to behave this way?” Lawrence wonders. “Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t “offend” or “scare” men?”
Myself, I wonder why Lawrence is negotiating her salary instead of having an experienced agent or attorney do so on her behalf. But I am ignorant about the pricing model of such services.
I’m not writing this to defend Hollywood, nor to condemn Lawrence’s perspective on her own experience. Her misgivings seem grounded, though perhaps a little too self-aware. (“I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable!” she says, and my irony radar records not a blip.) Rather, this reminds me of some psych research that shows that in negotiations over car sales and repair prices, white men are given lower quotes than women or black shoppers. This trend wasn’t absolutely consistent, however: women were only quoted higher prices when they didn’t mention a price on their own. When the callers suggested their own price – whether fair or high – both genders got the same offer. In fact, women were more likely than men to receive a discount on services when they asked for one.
The pricing, then, depends primarily on the mechanic’s conclusion of how well-informed his clients were. Mechanics apparently assume, consciously or unconsciously, that white men know more about car repairs than women or minorities. When there was more available evidence (a price suggested by the customer), gender bias ceased to be a relevant indicator. (I’d personally be interested to see this study repeated in an area involving things that typify white male ignorance, such as wedding dress prices or such, to see if the situation is reversed in those contexts).
I wonder if something similar is at play at Sony. Perhaps the studio executive sitting across from Jennifer Lawrence used her gender as a heuristic for how knowledgeable she was about the nuances of back-end points. Perhaps the bias showed up just as much due to her age – gender is not the only obvious difference between Lawrence and Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, and Bradley Cooper. That is not to say that this was a less insidious form of bias, just a different one. Perhaps even a more subtle one. Fortunately, the research available to us has an explicit remedy: know a fair offer ahead of time and be prepared to vocalize it.
Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow
– Sufjan Stevens, “The Only Thing”
It may seem strange, but it is instructive to think of depression as being like a friend. “Dee,” let’s say, is like an old college buddy who’s a great dude but has rather poor hygiene, so you’re reluctant to admit you’ve been hanging out with him. Dee’s the guy who will say, “Hey, man, let’s focus on you tonight. I’ll bring beer and pizza rolls,” and then just sits quietly and stinks up the place while you watch Netflix. Whenever he comes around, he’s making a timely, almost heroic, entrance: everything’s falling apart around you, but here’s Dee, a friend indeed. He’s blunt and brutally honest – he tells it like it is – but he really, really wants you to understand that even though he likes you as a person, he doesn’t think you have what it takes. So you stare at your feet as you say, “Yeah, you’re probably right. Let me get some of those pizza rolls.”
There’s something poetic to the fact that soil erodes most quickly when there’s nothing planted in it. Common sense then dictates that your heart should be a well-tended garden, with healthy diversity like zucchini and a raspberry patch to go along with a row of lilies and sunflowers and three different types of mint. A lucky few have plots that edge up against some old-growth, with some beech or cedar just barely on the other side of the forest edge. When my grandma died seven years ago, I felt the ground shake as that blessed oak was pulled out, roots and all. Now that my grandpa and his brother Elmer have followed, the whole landscape has changed. My secluded garden is now strip-mall adjacent, a little more of that nitrogen-rich soil flowing down the storm drain with each rainfall.
Reflecting on the loss of his mother, Sufjan Stevens was struck by how the trajectory of his grief seemed so unconventional. “It felt really sporadic and convoluted,” he told Pitchfork. “I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane, like a dead pigeon on the subway track. Or my niece would point out polka-dotted tights at the playground, and I would suffer some kind of cosmic anguish in public.”
Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. My phone buzzes. Dee wants to know if I’ve ever tried Fireball.
“You are an individual in full possession of your life,” says Stevens. “You don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering.”
It’s jarring to realize that it’s as likely as not that I will someday consider suicide again. Dee reminds me that my retirement savings are meager anyway.
“The Only Thing” refers to what kept Sufjan alive as he was contemplating suicide: “The only thing that keeps me from driving this car half-light, jackknife into the canyon at night….” Signs and wonders. The Northern constellation of Perseus cradling the head of Medusa. A random pattern of moisture on a bathroom wall, conjuring an image of the biblical Daniel. The sea lion caves of the Oregon coast giving sight to a blind faith. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing else but intense awe.
To Him alone who does great wonders
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who made the great lights
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who struck down great Kings
For His steadfast love endures forever
– Psalm 136
The exam room was maybe eight feet by ten feet, with the requisite medical posters adorning the walls and the obligatory forest-green bed spanning most of the far side of the room. The nurse sat across the desk from me, clicking through the patient database, hunched forward with fatigue at just ten in the morning. She was lanky, almost six feet tall, and wore a lab coat over her blue scrubs. I wondered if it was common for nurses to wear lab coats, though I didn’t think to ask. After a protracted silence she said, “You remind me of Keanu Reeves.”
“Thanks?” I offered with a slight chuckle, imagining for a moment myself in place of the most inexplicable movie star in film history. That was a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever received one.
“Why is that funny?” she asked, tilting her head forward so her eyes bobbed above her ruby rimmed glasses.
“Oh, it’s funny because I was just reading an academic paper on the neutral mask, which helps explain why Keanu Reeves was such a successful action star.”
“Are you a professor or something?”
“No, I’m just constantly curious.”
She sat up straight. “What is the neutral mask?” I explained to her that, in theory anyway, one of the keys to blockbuster movie success is having a character who doesn’t emote much, if at all. The idea is that the more subtlety and emotion a character expresses, the more cognitive strain we feel in processing why he or she is having that reaction, and the harder it becomes for us to psychically substitute our personalities for theirs. This is why Neo is so bland in the Matrix, why Bella Swan is expressionless in Twilight, and one of the components that makes superhero films so popular: we can insert ourselves into their character and see the world of the movie through their eyes. (It’s interesting to me that the neutral mask concept was introduced by the French actor Jacques Lecoq, a mime who taught his students to use the neutral mask in order to develop their ability to convey feeling with the rest of their bodies.) We project our own feelings onto them, and that’s what allows us to feel immersed in an implausible story.
A conversation of my favorite films and directors ensued (The Lives of Others, Shaun of the Dead, and No Country For Old Men all came up). Although I inquired about hers, but she seemed reluctant, almost embarrassed to share, like finding yourself confessing to a wine snob your love of three buck Chuck. She eventually admitted to her love for Fight Club and, to her relief, I returned the sentiment.
“That’s interesting,” she said as she played with her silver and gold spiky hair. “You’re so interesting.”
Recently, and to my surprise, I’ve been told by a half a dozen different people that I am a good conversationalist. Given that at least one of these people studied communications, I found it difficult to disagree. While it’s not as though I had any particular evidence to support such a dissent, I had always taken for granted that the opposite was true. Considering the ease at which we can selectively recall certain events but not those that contradict it, I’d managed to ignore the myriad pleasant, deep conversations I’d ever had in favor of those occasions where someone I’d tried to talk to was either reluctant or shut me down entirely. (Self-scouting notes: I am quick to assume that any social unpleasantness I experience is my fault and my fault alone).
But this revelation, as welcome as it was, cast new light on some of those joyous and fulfilling conversational highlights I look back upon, a relational proxy for athletic glory days or the like. The three hours at Nina’s with my friend Katie, for example, perched upon our thrones at the top of the stairs, is a memory clear and warm to me that the paint still seems moist in my mental portrait. Or that lonely January night saved by an impromptu chat with Jasmim, spanning topics from wall art to empathy to the religious influence of our parents, her brown Disney eyes welling up with tears as she opened up to a man who was a stranger mere minutes prior. Whereas before I’d thought these times were moments of developing rapport or an emotional connection, now I have to wonder instead if they were as equally-matched tennis players sharing a long volley.
My friend was waiting for me at Five Watt when I arrived. “Just got here,” she’d texted a few minutes earlier. It’s poppin!” I’m almost always the first to show up when I’m meeting up with someone for coffee, or drinks, or what have you. Perpetually early. Saturday reminded me of a scene from 30 Rock, when Liz is introducing her new boyfriend Floyd to her boss, Jack Donaghy. “I hope this isn’t too boring for you,” Liz offers apologetically as they walk into the restaurant.
“Are you kidding? Jack Donaghy’s a legend. I’ve read his book like twenty times!”
“Jack wrote a book?”
“Yeah, ‘Jack Attack: The Art of Aggression in Business.’” Floyd spots Jack waiting for them at their table, sipping Scotch. “Oh no, he got here before us. You’re not supposed to let that happen. That’s chapter two in the book.”
When we sat down, she told me she wasn’t thirsty. I came back with a Busy Beaver in hand (one of Five Watt’s signature drinks, made with maple syrup, Blackstrap bitters, cinnamon, molasses, black pepper, and espresso, and it is absolutely delightful) and offered her a sip. “I don’t actually drink coffee.”
She explained that she didn’t like the way it made her feel, and that listening to what her body was telling her was something she was learning how to do. More people should learn that lesson. She then sat graciously sipping water in a temple of caffeine as we enjoyed a conversation.
Kevin and I had been waiting at Lyon’s for almost an hour. His friend Mike, we had been assured and reassured, was on his way and would be with us shortly. Jon would be bringing his girlfriend: “I think she’s the one,” or some variant, he’d texted to Kevin, with the not-so-subtle subtext that we should help make him look good. I’d been warned that Jon was something of a meathead. A former pro football player, and retaining the physique of a current one, he had no patience for people he didn’t care for, and no use for pretense or drivel. Not everyone was going to like him, and he could in no way care less.
They finally arrived. Jon shook my hand and quickly turned his attention to Kevin. Laura asked all of us if we wanted anything to drink. It was 1 a.m. at this point. “Nah, we’re trying to sober up.” She smiled and headed up to the bar. “Isn’t she perfect?” Jon asked. “I mean, aside from the fact that she needs to lose like forty pounds, but I’ve told her that.”
Laura came back with a shot and a beer for each of them. Jon and Kevin were already lost in conversation about life in Colorado, a discussion to which Laura and I had been denied entry and would have had nothing to add. I decided to play dumb, one of my favorite conversational tactics. “I hear you’re a financial analyst,” I offered. “What’s the difference between that and the guy who drags me out to coffee and tries to look at my bills?”
She laughed. “That’s a financial advisor. A financial analyst gives guidance to institutions, helps them make investment decisions and things like that.”
I asked her if she liked her job. She said she loved it: it paid well, it afforded her the ability to travel to more countries she could list, and they had even paid for her to be tutored in French. “There’s been a trade-off, though,” she admitted. “My social life has suffered.”
“I have a friend who recently confided in me that she was worried the same thing would happen to her. You can’t have it all, or at least you can’t have it all at once. You have to prioritize.”
She agreed. “And I’m glad I put my career first. I’m on a CFO track. I can have a family at any point, but it’d be almost impossible to break back into where I’m at if I’d picked that first.”
Around this point, Jon started to notice that his girlfriend and I were not waiting patiently for him to drop conversational crumbs for us to lap up. Some men, when they want to assert dominance in a non-threatening way will offer a compliment. This is a subtle way to express that he is the source of affirmation, and that therefore everyone else should consider themselves lower in the hierarchy. “Hey bro, I like your coat. Maybe I should borrow it for my interview.”
I laughed to myself. I’m not sure if he noticed. “There are plenty of Banana Republics around.” I turned my attention back to Laura. She lowered her voice. “Can I tell you something I haven’t told anybody yet?”
“I’ve been offered a teaching position at Columbia.”
“Come on, you’re probably boring him,” interrupted Jon.
“I’m passionate about my job! When you’re passionate, people find that interesting!” Was I interested? Did we, over the course of a half an hour or so of polite conversation, develop rapport enough that justified making me the first person to share in her news? I don’t know. Perhaps that Keanu comparison was more apt than I’d thought.
In January, the Supreme Court agreed to review the 6th Circuit court’s decision to uphold gay marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Last month, after a federal court order required the state to begin recognizing same-sex marriages, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore forbade probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. In response, the Supreme Court declined to stay the order, allowing gay couples to marry in Alabama wherever they could find a judge sympathetic enough to provide a license. Justice Clarence Thomas (dissenting from the seven-justice majority) wrote that the Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the court order “may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution” of the constitutionality of gay marriage bans. That is, spoiler warning, Thomas expects that the Supreme Court will strike down gay marriage bans across the country.
I thought the anticipation of this decision would be a good time to further discuss my thoughts on gay marriage, and my views on gay marriage are, in effect, a specific instance of a more general idea: I don’t think the government should be involving itself in marriages. Christians view marriage as a sacred oath between one man and one woman. Different denominations see this idea differently. But one way or another, the understanding of what it means for a Christian to be married depends on their specific form of worship. Churches (and other religious communities, as they see fit) should be governing marriages, not Uncle Sam. Marriage as a continual act of worship is a private endeavor.
That leaves unanswered broader legal questions of inheritance, property rights, hospital visitation, and more, completely unanswered. While the language of civil unions was never popular, I believe that is the answer. If a couple, married religiously or not, wants certain legal rights, that is an arrangement that should be made with the government. Additionally, that arrangement need to reflect a sexual or romantic relationship at all. It just most often would.
This idea, I’ll admit, is a bit contrived and it will never take hold in America. It is just the way I think things out to be: if you think of marriage as a religious act, then let it be practiced within your religious body. If you think of marriage as a legal concern, subject it to the government. Apply new terms as you see fit.
None of that discusses my opinion on gay marriage as it currently stands, so here goes. I think gay marriage should be legal, and I believe my foundations for saying so are conservative in nature. (This means, of course, that I will find myself in a substantial minority on this issue. Many conservatives will disagree with my reasoning – despite the fact that one of the earliest arguments for gay marriage was conservative in nature – and many liberals will think I don’t take things far enough. Such is life for the centrist view.) When discussing whether or not it should be difficult for non-Christians to get divorced, C.S. Lewis had this to say:
Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question—how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.
I think the very same logic applies to this circumstance. We should not employ the government to impose a specific religious morality on the American people at large – especially where it’s easy to imagine a differing point of view making a similar imposition on us. (Lewis goes on to make a similar religious marriage/secular marriage distinction as mine: “There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.” This is probably where I got the idea.)
There is still an elephant in the room: children and childrearing. One can reasonably make the claim that the best-case scenario for a child is to be raised by his or her biological parents, when those parents are married into a committed, loving, and stable relationship. Fair enough: I think that is probably true as well. Now imagine the spectrum of possibilities, with this hypothetical best case on one end and something like a malnourished, impoverished, abusive, neglect-filled upbringing on the other. Where do you think the health and well-being of a child raised by a gay couple actually lands on that spectrum? If they are also committed, loving, and stable, I would bet it’s far, far closer to the best-case end. And if they are not committed, loving, or stable, then those factors probably have far more to do with any parental shortcomings than does homosexuality.
If you were to poll a dozen of cooking experts on the question, “What is the best way to roast a chicken?” you would get no fewer than twelve different answers. For example, Thomas Keller, America’s godfather of haute cuisine, insists on trussing the bird (tying it together with kitchen twine into a tight, compact parcel) and cooking with high heat. Gordon Ramsay advises pushing hot stuffing into the cavity to help produce even cooking. The gastrowizard Heston Blumenthal almost seems to take Keller’s approach as a guide for what not to do: Blumenthal teaches cooking with low heat for hours, and spreading out the wings and legs from the bird rather than trussing them into the chicken. And that’s just for starters.
But which technique is best? There’s not a simple answer to that question. It’d be ridiculous – and arrogant – to dismiss any of those approaches as bad. They are the tested-and-perfected techniques of three of the world’s foremost cooking experts. Each of them, executed as intended, will produce an excellent roast chicken. Cooking is about trying to strike a balance between several competing goals – efficiency, cost, nutrition, flavor, and mouthfeel to name a few. Keller’s method sacrifices juiciness in order to save time – his recipe takes less than an hour from start to finish, whereas Blumenthal’s takes approximately four hours. Ramsay’s bird is both quick and juicy, but the moist cooking environment sacrifices the crispy skin the other two produce. The best technique, then, is the one that best accomplishes the goals one has at the outset.
Dating in general – and Christian dating in particular – depends on the same balancing act as cooking. For every goal we set, we craft (consciously or unconsciously) a strategy to accomplish that goal. Every strategy involves a tradeoff. Taking things slow, for instance, might delay attachments or create the sense that long-term commitment isn’t in the near future. Conversely, going too fast can create interpersonal fatigue, killing all mystery and romance. Hoisting arbitrary rules onto our interactions (“No texting after 9:00 at night!”) might help prevent embarrassing mishaps, but it could also unwittingly prevent delightful exchanges. (On a personal note, my own rule about not texting three times in a row without a reply cost me a date not too long ago.)
Last week, I asked my Facebook friends to define the word “date.” They offered a lot of good ideas, a spectrum of opinions, and multiple iterations of the same weak joke. But the conversation also devolved into a question of at what point a man should introduce the word into his pursuit. Several people insisted that men should be up-front from the very beginning. If he has romantic intentions, he should say so (under the presumption, of course, that he is pursuing them). If he does not, he should be equally clear about that point. Ambiguity in this area, it is assumed, is inherently bad.
But I disagree. Ambiguity can be a helpful tool in the relational tool belt. Experimentation in social psychology has indicated that, all else being equal, women are most attracted to a man when they are uncertain whether or not he is attracted to them. This is called the uncertainty principle. As Scott Kaufmann describes it, “When interest is uncertain, a person can think of little else; they are constantly in search of an explanation…. Every petal peeled off the rose while saying, ‘He loves me, he loves me not…’ is a step closer to attraction.”
Banking on uncertainty, however, is a risky move. There is always the chance that the intended woman never finds herself wondering whether a man has feelings for her. Some women are inclined to take for granted that he does, while others would never dream of making such an assumption. The more subtle your signal, the less likely it is to be received the way you intend it to be. And as far as I know, there’s no effective way to directly say, “I like you ….or do I?!” (I should also be clear: there is a difference between ambiguity and dishonesty. Dishonesty is never an acceptable dating strategy. Ambiguity, though temporarily frustrating, is a fertile soil for love to grow. I refuse to reject it out of hand.)
This is why I resist “One size fits all!” dating advice. There are dozens of ways to cook a whole chicken. Imagine picking one and then applying it to all cuts of meats. You’ll be left with insipid, overcooked food in the vast majority of cases. Only once or twice – and probably only when you’re cooking chicken – will you find it to be an effective technique. In my eyes, the best approach is to know what results you want, and then carefully consider the ways your approach will help or hurt you in pursuit of those goals. Adherence to a specific method is secondary. The first question you should ask in any social endeavor must be, “Is this loving? Is it respectful?” Assuming the answer is yes, you come to the second: “Is it effective in accomplishing my goals?” That’s a more difficult question to answer, but it’s unlikely to always rely on the same technique.
Most of us are adept at recognizing when the person in front of us is feeling an emotion. Their faces crinkles and contorts in a familiar – or unfamiliar – fashion. Their posture goes stiff and strong like a two by four, or slumps over like a dehydrated flower. Vocal pitch changes, as does rate of speech. When we witness any of these changes, we interpret it as emotion and intuitively watch for further cues. (Side note that has little bearing on the rest of these ideas: while we are good at spotting such emotional leaking, we are very, very bad at identifying false positives. Though we may know academically that one can fake an emotional expression, too often we see something – a smile, say – and interpret that as indicative of felt emotion. This is why cashiers who smile are many times more likely to be asked on dates than those who do not.)
Although we can generally recognize when an emotion is felt, we are less able to accurately identify which emotion we’ve seen. It is easy to confuse anger for joy, for example, or surprise for sorrow. When we have context and expectation, those errors are less frequent. But divorced from the build up and an instigating event, it is surprisingly difficult to identify an emotion with any measure of accuracy. If you are skeptical, see how you fare on the picture below.
What we are worst at, of course, is identifying why a person has felt what they feel. Even if we can successfully navigate past false positives and correctly pick out what someone is feeling, the why remains elusive. And again, though we may know academically that this is true, many of us secretly believe we are experts at reading minds. Ever had a conversation that included a line like, “I know you’re mad at me, and I know it’s because of this”? How often was that correct?
One thing I’m known for are my bus stories, quick anecdotes of something funny, unusual, or even upsetting I witness while riding public transportation in the Twin Cities. Anyone who uses MetroTransit with any frequency at all probably has at least one such story; I have dozens. (I have so many, in fact, that some people have accused me of making them up. If they’d read my short stories, they would know that accusation is absurd.) People naturally want to know why. Am I more observant than others? Do I live in a particularly literary neighborhood?
It’s true that certain routes are more likely to be eventful than others, and I suspect this is because they pass through neighborhoods with vast ethnic and socioeconomic differences. People a group of such people in tight quarters under stress, and conflict arises. There are more stories to be found on a half-full bus running late than a jam-packed bus running on time.
It may be true that I am more observant than most people. What I think is more accurate, though, is I have stumbled upon better predictors of drama. Since almost everyone is focused on their phones or books and their faces are relaxed in a “neutral mask,” the slightest hint of anger, fear, worry, distress, or agitation stands out like a hipster at a cancer ward. From there, one must attempt to figure out why.
The “Why?” is the story. What caused that look of disgust on the skinny blonde wearing the target badge? (The morbidly obese man in the Santa Clause costume smelled of alcohol and feces – he sat in front of me.) Why is that Hispanic man leaning into the aisle, his lower lip looking like hooks are pulling it downward? (The clean-cut college kid next to him was about to vomit, and barely made it off the train before doing so.)
There is a sportswriter named Zach Hample. He is slender and handsome, with thick eyebrows and a wide smile. He is most famous for catching more than 7000 baseballs at major league games. Most baseball fans have never caught any. So it’s both surprising and a little disappointing that his tips are little more than common sense: sit on an aisle so you can move around if you need to; sit in an area that sees a lot of foul balls; bring hats for both teams so they are more likely to toss one to you; be polite. Likewise, I know there is nothing revolutionary about the idea “Spot emotions and then figure out why people are feeling them.” But most people don’t try doing that. If you do, you might have some better stories to tell.
Have you ever been asked to embrace a vague idea only to be told that doing so dictates you must likewise adhere to an entirely different set of immutable principles? Okay, that in itself was a vague idea. Think of the simplistic mindset surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Aren’t you a patriot?” some certainly asked, implying that anyone uncomfortable with war must likewise hate America. The comedian Mike Birbiglia plays on this idea in his stand-up special, “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing.” Birbiglia remarked on how frustrating he found the idea that if he “supported the troops” then he had to support the war. “I just think that’s a little manipulative because I love the troops. Because if they weren’t the troops, I would be the troops, and I would be the worst troops. I’d be like, ‘You expect me to carry a gun this heavy and run away screaming? That is too many things!’”
I think this is what’s going on with the word “feminism” these days. The psychologist Barry Kuhle asked a wide array of people two different questions. 1) Do you consider yourself to be a feminist, or not? And 2) A feminist is someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Do you think of yourself as a feminist or not? “If you’re like many people,” Kuhle wrote, “your answer to question one bore little resemblance to your answer to question two.” According to Kuhle, 65% of women and 58% of men identified as feminist when the definition was provided. Conversely, only 24% of women and 14% of men called themselves feminist in the absence of a clarifying definition.
In his book, The Blank Slate, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker makes a useful distinction between different types of feminism.
Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.
Kuhle agrees. “Equity feminism has no a priori stance on the origin or existence of differences between the sexes; it is solely a sociopolitical desire for men’s and women’s legal and social equality” whereas gender feminism “is the dominant voice in academia and online…. (Gender feminists) ardently argue that psychological differences between the sexes …are largely or solely socially constructed.”
I’m not writing this as an attempt to rebut or refute gender feminism (Pinker takes a whack at that: read his book and decide for yourself how effective he was, or see what else Kuhle has to say). Rather, I am writing because of a question Emma Watson posed in her largely excellent speech on equality to the UN. “Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, ‘too aggressive,’ isolating and anti-men, unattractive, even. Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one?” I can’t decide if this is an honest question or a disingenuous one. You can disagree with people who are anti-man, and you can disagree with those who believe that gender differences have nothing at all to do with biology, but please don’t pretend those people don’t exist. And don’t compound the problem by further pretending they don’t often call themselves feminists.
Feminism is an uncomfortable word because people mean it to use different – and at times contradictory – things. The group of people who lay claim to the label are diverse, and many of them have different definitions in mind when they use the word. When a person lays bare the tenets of their philosophy, we can choose to embrace or reject those claims. If a person says patriotism means being willing to be self-sacrificial in order to benefit the nation as a whole, we are able to agree or disagree with that claim on its own merits; when “patriotism” comes to mean blind, unchallenging acceptance of policies that we would otherwise detest, the people who are on board with the former might well be turned off by the latter. The term feminism is no different.
I want to reiterate that I agree with Watson in the spirit of what she said. Gender inequality is a worldwide problem, and no nation has achieved equality. (The question of whether or not that’s actually possible is another story entirely.) Watson also pointed out, “Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either,” a sharp insight that I wish had occurred to me. “I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help, for fear it would make them less of a men—or less of a man,” she said. “I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.” And as far as we’d like to think we’ve come, “15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children and at current rates, it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.” Inequality is still an issue. Maybe the way forward is to focus less on labels and more about finding ways to create equality.