“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
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
When I think over the filmic media I tend to consume, I can’t help but notice an unfortunate trend: friendship, particularly male friendship, is hard to find. If Walter White has a friend in Breaking Bad, it would be Elliot Schwartz – and the last vestiges of the friendly part of their relationship is twenty years in the past and buried underneath the relational rubble of professional and romantic rivalry. In Mad Men, Don Draper’s only friend is Roger Sterling, but it might be more accurate to regard them as drinking buddies or companions of circumstance. In The Walking Dead, Rick’s friendship with Shane turns to attempted murder within four episodes. Movies and shows that portray male friendship tend to be comedies where the relationship is both strange and borderline homoerotic (think JD and Turk in Scrubs, Troy and Abed in Community, or Peter and Sydney in I Love You, Man) or adapted from non-contemporary literature, the most obvious examples being Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or Sam and Frodo.
That is what troubles me about the Twitter campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend: it redefines the rare portrayal of a loving male friendship as one of latent homosexual desire. This thought process is summarized well by Jen Yamato: “Give the Marvel superhero a man to love,” she says in The Daily Caller, “because he pretty much already has one.” Many in the Marvel audience, and indeed, audiences at large, seem to have trouble conceptualizing such a relationship between two men as anything other than erotic in nature. But C.S. Lewis obliterated this fallacy in The Four Loves: “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”
Having positive examples of loving, healthy friendship is both necessary and beautiful – and increasingly so for the target demographic of superhero movies, namely teenaged and young-adult males. The notion that one can care passionately about another human being without the desire or possibility of sex with that person has gone missing from pop culture narratives. So by all means, give Captain America a boyfriend – the superhero genre has been a powerful genre for themes of gay rights and equality. But it shouldn’t be Bucky. Instead, let’s preserve the idea that friendship and romantic love are different things, both rare and valuable, both with the ability to inspire courage and self-sacrifice.
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.
It occurred to me last night that there is not enough sex in The Walking Dead.
Let me explain.
I’m not saying that I think AMC’s hit show should have more nudity or titillation – though this wouldn’t offend me, I also don’t think it would add any substance to the series. I’m not looking for depictions of sex, per se, but rather an acknowledgement that the characters in the series would be having sex regularly. Through six seasons, we’ve had roughly half a dozen implied sex acts, and these have involved only a handful of the cast: Rick and Lori, Lori and Shane, Glenn and Maggie, Andrea and the Governor, Rosita and Abraham, and Rick and Michonne. (Perhaps there are examples that have escaped my recollection, these are just the examples that spring to mind like a Catholic rab…. never mind. But the fact that the show has only given us a couple more romantic pairings just underscores how chaste those romances have been.)
In season five, Daryl and Beth fled from the attack on the prison together, believing all their friends and family were likely dead. They proceed to survive a number of close encounters with the undead, including a span where they hide together in the trunk of a car, open up to each other emotionally, and eventually get drunk on moonshine near the warmth of a fire. A virginal hug is the extent of their physical intimacy.
Give me a break.
Never mind the fact that a heightened state of fear severely amplifies sexual attraction, this is just one of the show’s many missed opportunities for character building. The characters in The Walking Dead occupy a world where virtually all government and social institutions have broken down, but by and large the deviations from Judeo-Christian values have been relegated to the show’s antagonists. Sure, Rick gets more and more willing to kill people he perceives to be a threat to his community, but that’s the extent of it. That the show never bothers to ask the question of each of its characters, now that the only constraints on their behavior are life and death, “How have you changed?” is one of its most glaring failures.
Let me give a concrete example. In season two, Lori discovers that she’s pregnant. Uncertain whether the father is Rick, her husband, or Shane, the man she slept with when she believed Rick to be dead, she considered inducing an abortion. Maggie confronts her on this dilemma, and the whole scenario plays out in a single episode.
In season six, Maggie becomes pregnant. The show greets this development with a shrug. It raises the stakes some, I suppose, but it’s not interesting. But hat if the writers had Maggie struggle with the realities of rearing and raising a child in such a world? Never mind the fact that there is such limited medical care, the fact that a crying baby would be a dinner bell to any zombie in the area would means that any child poses a major safety hazard to every character in the community. Most Americans agree that risk to the mother’s life is a legitimate reason to at least consider terminating a pregnancy. What if the child is a risk to the life of literally every person you know?
Letting Maggie wrestle with that question – and showing her tempted by an idea she found disgusting under different circumstances – would add depth to her character. We would have a better understanding of the strength of her beliefs. We would know whether or not her repulsion to abortion was an intense personal belief or just a reflection of living in her father’s Southern Christian household. And we would gain empathy for her character as she learned about herself. William Faulkner famously said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” How much more conflict could one ask for? Maggie would be split between belief and practicality, safety and danger, love for an unborn child against the love for your friends. What a fierce battle we never got to witness.
When I say there’s not enough sex in The Walking Dead, I guess what I’m really saying is that this show ignores the storytelling possibilities given by the obliteration of the concept of a normal human life. The total breakdown of civilization would change everything about human interactions. The imminence of death would make all forms of intimacy that much more valuable. And common. The showrunners can afford to pass on such narrative low-hanging fruit about as much as our favorite survivors could pass on literal low-hanging fruit.
Picture a flock of hungry penguins gathered at the edge of an ice floe. Despite the urgency of their hunger, each individual penguin is hesitant to dive into the water: where there are small fish, bigger fish are likely nearby. And while the prospect of a meal is tantalizing, the possibility of a killer whale or Great White shark lurking beneath the surface is too much of a risk to ignore. On the other hand, if they all stay out of the water, the rookery will starve. “In such circumstances,” writes Thomas Eisenmann, “individual rationality may lead a group to forfeit attractive opportunities, for example, a predator-free meal.” Eventually, some intrepid penguin makes like Squints Palledorous and hurls himself into the water.
In mathematical game theory, situations such as these are known as first-mover dilemmas. Being the first to act often confers an advantage while also increasing risks. Being first to offer terms in a negotiation, for example, allows you control the set point. Ask for too little, however, and you could leave money on the table, whereas if you ask for too much and you might alienate the other negotiator. Betting first in a hand of poker can convey a strong hand, letting you win an uncontested pot. On the other –ahem – hand, you might be betting into someone with a made hand and losing more money than necessary. The first mover has to balance the high probability of a good result with the low probability risk of a catastrophic one.
Around Thanksgiving, I took a friend of mine out for drinks at Marvel Bar – as a University of Minnesota student from Sioux Falls, she’d never been to our flagship speakeasy. (Whenever I take someone to Marvel for their first experience, I suggest that they order the Oliveto. “Suggest” is putting it too gently: I order it for them and tell them they can trade for my drink if they don’t like it. I’ve never been asked to surrender my drink.) As we sat in a candlelit booth and sipped our drinks, she told me something that surprised me: in her entire time in college, she’d been asked out in person a single time.
“It was always through texts or Facebook messages,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “When someone finally asked me to my face, I was so surprised I didn’t even know how to respond.” My friend is pre-med, with a sneaky, dry sense of humor and a striking resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence, if Jennifer Lawrence had mahogany brown hair and a likeable personality. If I would expect any of my friends to have no shortage of fawning male attention, it’d be this one.
There’s no doubt that mobile technology, social media, and dating apps have changed the game in a major way. We have immediate access to myriad potential romantic or sexual partners at our fingertips at all times. And since apps like Tinder or Bumble reduce dating to a simple binary (swipe right or swipe left), some people have started to employ the strategy of simply liking (swiping right) every profile they encounter in order to maximize their dating pool.
At the same time, technology helps serve as a barrier to risk. The people who only swipe right take for granted that if they match with enough people, sooner or later they’ll encounter someone who is willing to put in more effort than they will. And while you only get one shot to ask someone out in person – when so very much could go wrong, from shaking hands to cracking voices to wimping out entirely – you can endlessly edit and workshop a text message until it says exactly what you want it to say. And if the answer is no, the rejection can be suffered in private dignity.
(It seems to me, though, that this is the equivalent of penguins throwing rocks in the water in the hopes that a fish will splash onto their ice floe: if you try it a thousand times, it might work once or twice. And while there’s no risk of getting torn apart by a shark, you might have to wait a while for that strategy to work out – that is, if those little splashes haven’t scared all the fish away.)
All of this information points us in the same direction: In spite of the risk, it’s in your best interest to take that risk head on. As more and more people select a risk-averse approach to dating, those willing to dive in head first differentiate themselves even further than they already would and the first-mover advantage becomes all the more significant. In game theory, this is known as the “dominant strategy.” Barry Schwartz, in The Pardox of Choice, says, “When asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.” Besides, getting torn to shreds by an orca seems a far radder way to die than slowly starving to death.
The earliest memory I have is of my older brother’s third birthday party, when he got a battery-powered police car that would drive itself in a circle while its siren wailed. I wanted that car so badly I burst into tears on the steps from the kitchen to the porch, hurling myself on the faded flower-patterned tile. Someone – my mother, most likely – retrieved a small wooden recorder and thrust it in my hands, a substitute satisfying enough for a toddler. Apparently all I really wanted was to contribute to the piercing cacophony.
The next coherent memory I can recall is of a dream I had when I was maybe four years old. Everyone I knew – which, considering I was four, consisted of my grandparents, my mom, my brother and my two sisters – had gathered in the sunny living room of my grandparents’ white one-story postwar rambler, seating me in the middle of the pale yellow davenport. The angled ash tree in the front yard loomed large behind my grandfather, though the sunflowers and petunias of my grandma’s front garden had also crept into view. The room felt warm with love.
I don’t remember who spoke, but I remember the message: we are all from a different place, a world inside a painting in fact, and we all have to go home. And you, Steve, cannot come with. Then I watched in horror as everyone I knew in the world walked to the wall and were swallowed whole by canvas, smudging the watercolors as they passed through. And then I was alone in a suddenly darkened room.
I feel lucky to recall waking up, to remember the relief I felt hearing the sound of bacon crackling in a skillet. Maple syrup still smells like comfort to me.
At a movie night not long ago, for some reason my friends and I started talking about gifts. This was a group of friends in which I feel comfortable enough to admit the more awkward aspects of my personality, so I told them that I keep lists about them. “Sooner or later, everyone will tell you what they want,” I said. One of them, for example, had mentioned a handful of records he’d hoped to find on vinyl. Another had, once upon a time, expressed a desire for a particular graphic tee. Shortly after the next movie started, one guest, who’d come after the gifts conversation, blurted out in excitement, “I want that jacket!”
“Exhibit A!” I said in triumph, but everybody else had already moved on from that idea so my self-satisfaction was met with confusion.
Gifts are the most tangible form of love, at least if we categorize our affections by the love languages philosophy. If one were so inclined, it would make sense to ask why I keep notes about ways to match giving to a person but don’t, say, try to keep track of the ways those same friends could be served well, or what forms of verbal affirmation make them feel especially honored, or what kinds of touch are especially comforting to them – or if they are comfortable with any touch at all. Perhaps that’s an area where mental notes are best.
One time I told a friend that my love language, or at least the tongue that speaks loudest and most clearly, is quality time. Just enjoying someone’s company, knowing that they are enjoying mine, no matter what we are doing, swells me up like a balloon. (The next time I saw her, she told me she thought we should spend less time together. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more hurt by such a simple sentence.) Is it any surprise? I’ve had dreams of abandonment since I was four years old.
In A Grief Observed, CS Lewis’ panicked, scribbling attempt to navigate himself through the death of his wife, Lewis noticed that his need to feel comforted by God was preventing him from feeling any comfort at all.
You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst…. And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
My pleading mantra, uttered in rhythm to every heartbeat – even before I could understand the concept – has been, “Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” What a fool I’ve been. I’ve had a clutching vice grip around nothingness and all the while the Eternal One has been waiting patiently to sweep me into His loving arms.
It’s already difficult to picture, standing near its shore, where Lake Superior could possibly end, but when the sky’s a dripping, drizzling gray it becomes practically impossible. The horizon seems to extend above the tree line, as though the lake is curling up over itself and dumping the excess back into its basin. I can’t help but wonder at the first people to encounter it, whether they thought they could find something on the other side or if they believed it to be the edge of the world. Was there an intrepid skeptic who dared put it to the test, walking north only to return from the south several months later?
These were the questions on my mind as I sat at the bar at Castle Danger, sipping a George Hunter Stout – “an American version of the style with aromas of molasses, licorice, maple, coffee and cream that are also echoed in the flavor.” I also wondered if there were more beers on tap than daydrinkers sporting identical trucker-hat-and-camo ensembles. The tap list boasted eight beers. “Did I already charge you?” asked the bartender, a squat middle-aged woman with silver-gold hair and a ready smile, as I tipped back the last dregs. “I can never remember when someone’s paid or if I’ve just given away beer for free. It’s a nightmare.”
“Your nightmare is someone else’s dream,” I replied as I pulled out my wallet.
“Don’t you want another one? The cream ale is really nice after the stout.”
I declined. “It’d be bad manners to show up to a wedding drunk. Besides, I have to drive back to Duluth for it.”
When she asked if I was excited to go, I smiled and said, “Sure, who doesn’t like an open bar?” But in truth I was dreading it. I tried dodging the invitation once it became clear it was coming, but the bride tracked me down like a blood hound. Didn’t she know you’re not supposed to bring prior romantic baggage to your wedding?
It would have been easy enough to simply decline the invitation. The wedding was in Duluth, after all, and that’s a difficult trip without a car. Scheduling it for 5 p.m. on a Friday meant I’d have to take time off work, another reasonable excuse. And even though there’s no lingering attachment, a betting man would think it’d be, at the very least, an uncomfortable experience. But in the end, I couldn’t convince myself that I wasn’t just trying to hurt her in the most passive way possible. Could I say with total, unshakeable confidence that there wasn’t any part of me that wanted her to notice my absence, that wanted that absence to sting and linger, no part of me that wanted that slight to fester and damage? What would it say about me as a person if I hid behind a reasonable excuse in even the most miniscule attempt to inflict pain on someone I have claimed to love?
It was convenient, to say the least, that my ability to feel, to commune with my emotional self, has been so eroded these last couple months. I don’t like to think of it as a numbness; rather, it’s as though that emotional self is unconscious, passed out in a drunken stupor. He’ll come to just long enough to yell something angry – and probably offensive – before slipping again into restless slumber. It hardly matters which emotions have come for a visit when he’s snoring loudly and mumbling about Vietnam. They’ll have to come back later if they want an audience.
This enabled me, at first, to watch the ceremony with a detached fascination. There were fewer groomsmen than bridesmaids. The pastor had brought a football as a prop, despite the fact that neither bride nor groom cared for the sport. (I’m still not totally clear about the point of that. Something to do with Chris Berman’s “He. Could. Go. All. The. Way.” catchphrase?) But when I saw her eyes well up with tears of joy, and I watched his gentle thumb dry her cheek, I became self-conscious of tears in my own eyes. Was I feeling something, or were my mirror neurons just firing blindly like a caricature of an old prospector? Moving my hands towards my face felt too conspicuous. I let the dampness linger.
It’s fair to ask whether some achievements are worth the effort. In her journal, Sylvia Plath wrote, “The danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.” For the fur traders of the North West Company, it was essential to know how far the lake would stretch. For those early few who were driven only by curiosity, one has to think the satisfaction of attaining that knowledge would be tempered by the realization that they’d only ended up back where they started, but with salt water running down their faces.