February 22, 2012

Ornament and memory (with many applications)

People don't prefer ornamentation because they want to show off, signal social status or genetic fitness, etc. Showing the inadequacies of that line of thinking would be a post in itself. Suffice it to say that the only human case of ornamentation, whether genetic or cultural, that looks like the peacock's tail is head hair.

So then why do some people prefer more ornamentation than others? I mean that as it applies in any domain, since the preference for it cuts across all of them. If you like Art Deco buildings, you probably also like New Wave music, nicknames (particularly non-standard ones), Metaphysical poetry conceits, etc.

It is because people differ in their desire for things to be memorable. I think this stems from their social-emotional attachment styles, where the secure and anxious-preoccupied people want to hold on to memories, as they help to cement the social bonds that these people crave. The dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant people want to block them out, minimize their importance, smudge out the defining features into generic stereotypes, etc., in order to keep their connections to others sufficiently loose. That does come across in interviews where they are asked to recall earlier parts of their life.

Ornaments serve as landmarks as your unconscious mind navigates its way through all of the information it keeps on file. Once you hear the opening riff of "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, you effortlessly retrieve it and everything associated with it from memory. It doesn't really contribute to the melody -- it's there to make sure the song has something unique to it, keeping it from being just another pop song interchangeable with all others.

The riff is also repeated over and over to make sure it sticks in your mind, in just the same way that most ornamental flourishes on buildings or pottery are repeated in chains or grids, groupings of the same theme in different sizes, and so on. The fact that ornamentation and repetition are employed so closely together tells us that they're almost surely for the same purpose, which for repetition is obviously to aid memory. Poetry that abhors ornament also tends to shun alliteration, rhyme, and parallel grammatical structures.

Needless to say, I don't consider things encrusted with detail to be "ornamental," as the information overload hinders rather than helps you to remember it. You may not even recognize what the basic thing is underneath. Think of a singer's embellishments that obscure the underlying melody, decorative sculpture done in such high relief that the surface of the building gets lost, or a metaphor so overwrought that you forget what the point of the poem or passage was.

With this view in mind, we can gain insight into at least four areas where ornamentation levels differ, aside from the case of people of different attachment styles mentioned earlier.

First, why is the culture made in rising-crime times more ornamental? Because when primed with thoughts about their own mortality, people are more desiring of symbolic immortality. On the creators' side, writing a catchy riff or designing catchy details for a building give them a shot at outliving their earthly existence. On the audience's side, they feel like the more ornamental nature of the culture they've identified with will make it more likely to endure after their own death. They've become part of something larger and longer-lasting than their individual bodies.

Second, related to that, why do falling-crime times produce both more minimalist and more overblown culture? The Palladian and more Baroque or Rococo ideals for architecture co-existed in time, the mid-1930s through the '50s saw the rise of both drowsier pop music alongside the cacophonous Big Band swing music, and the Victorian era was home to less sublime poets like Robert Browning as well as the emo Symbolists. Both are ways of making and identifying with less memorable culture, whether through underwhelming or overwhelming means.

Third, why do societies differ in ornamentation preferences? It's a combination of needing to remember individuals, plus a large social scale, so that ornaments beyond the range of basic human body plans will be necessary to keep track of everyone.

- Hunter-gatherers live in very small groups, so they can probably get by with faces, names, and voices. Their visual culture is always drab -- plain clothing and fairly undecorated technology.

- Agriculturalists don't interact face-to-face with many people, outside their family. Just go out to the same plot of crop land, dig up weeds, sow seeds, cut down plants, ad nauseam, day in and day out. They also look pretty drab and minimalist, East Asians being the extreme case. Only the very wealthy in a rich, stratified agrarian society prefer ornament, but then they don't work the fields in isolation, but rather live a highly social life at court, where they need to keep track of who's favoring and who's slighting who else.

- Horticulturalists are highly decorated, but usually more at a group level than an individual level. Their ornaments look more like ethnic markers than an embellishment to make an individual uniquely memorable. Most of their need to remember who's benefited and who's harmed who else is across groups. The yellow-feathered tribe gave us a feast last month, so us red-feathered people will have to feast them this month. Some bunch of yellow-feathered guys raided us and ran off with some women, so us red-feathered guys will have to raid them in return. So ornament will only need to distinguish the large groups that interact, i.e. become ethnic markers.

- My favorite group the pastoralists are of course the most fascinated with individual ornamentation. See this picture of Maasai boys being initiated into manhood, and notice how individual the decoration is. (Compare to this picture of the horticulturalist Huli from highland New Guinea, whose ornamentation as mentioned above is much more uniform.) The profusion of ornamental motifs from the northwestern part of India through the Middle East and up into agro-pastoralist Europe is also well known. So is the penchant for musical ornamentation.

Pastoralists live in largish populations, so unlike hunter-gatherers they need cultural ways to distinguish individuals. Like hunter-gatherers, though, they are nomadic and interact face-to-face with others in the area. Not being sedentary, they lack the strong culture of law that comes with agriculture and even horticulture somewhat. Rewards and punishments are given out by the affected parties themselves, so they are obsessed with reciprocity, and that requires a good memory for who's who. Who was a gracious host to me last year? I'd better make sure to host them well this year. Who tried to rustle my cattle the other month? I'd better make sure to raid him back.

And fourth, this may even help explain why some groups have more ornaments genetically, such as lighter eye and hair color. No hunter-gatherers do, whether they're in tropical, highland, or Cape parts of Africa, Alaska, etc. Neither do agriculturalists, whether from Africa, East Asia or the descendants of the Aztecs and Incas. Horticulturalists don't either, again whether from Southeastern Asia and the South Pacific, the Americas, or Africa.

The prevalence of light eyes and hair across the world is just about the same as the ability to digest lactose in adulthood, suggesting a link to pastoralism somehow. There are exceptions: East Africans and Mongolians (and maybe Tibetans?) can drink milk but don't have light eyes and hair. Maybe the genes for lighter eyes and hair haven't had the thousands of years to become common like they have elsewhere in older animal-herding societies. Perhaps in 3000 years the Ethiopians will have green eyes and dark blond hair too. (And you thought they produced a lot of supermodels now...)

The idea is that lighter hair and eyes would make a person more memorable when darker colors are more common. So having light hair and/or eyes is a way of signaling your good faith to the rest of the group, like you won't be able to exploit them and disappear into the crowd like a Chinese person could in China. In a group that is hyper-sensitive about reciprocity and keeping track of individuals, that sign of good faith might get you a slight fitness advantage, i.e. by being more easily welcomed into the group and enjoying the benefits of membership. Individuals with less distinctive features would be kept more at a distance: they're harder to track down if they harm you, and they can more easily lie about having benefited you in the past -- "Don't you remember me? I was that dark-eyed, dark-haired guy who..."

Sure, this last one is a real stretch, but then it's no crazier than the other theories for why pastoralists are genetically programmed to vary more in color.

23 comments:

  1. There was an interesting paper recently about how ornamentation confounded expression in monkey faces - i.e. species of monkeys with less ornamented faces tended to have more expressive faces, because the ornamentation confounded the ability to use it as a neutral form of communication.

    Put another way, pastoralists, in the West Asian vein at least, certainly seem like Comic Sans kind of people.

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  2. Poetry that doesn't rhyme shouldn't even be considered poetry, just faulty prose in my book. And it should also include a man from Nantucket.

    That's an interesting idea about contrast, but then once the equilibrium shifts toward light skin as in europe, shouldn't selection then favor darker skin as being more memorable?

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  3. "species of monkeys with less ornamented faces tended to have more expressive faces, because the ornamentation confounded the ability to use it as a neutral form of communication."

    That's not what's going on here since the pastoralists are more expressive themselves and better at reading others' expressions. (Ever talked to a Syrian and a Chinese?)

    There were two articles last year, maybe the year before, showing that Asians make fundamental mistakes in reading emotions from faces because they just stare at the center of the face, whereas Caucasians look at entire triangle of the eyes down through the mouth. Asians ignore the mouth and only look at the eyes.

    Asians easily confuse fear and surprise, and disgust and anger, because the eyes look similar and are distinguished by mouth-area differences.

    Pastoralists tend to have more of the white part of the eye visible (no degree of epicanthic fold), which allows a wider range of eye size. And their more prominent noses can take on a greater range of expressions. So if anything they're the ones built for higher expressivity.

    They're also the ones who gesture more.

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  4. "That's an interesting idea about contrast, but then once the equilibrium shifts toward light skin as in europe, shouldn't selection then favor darker skin as being more memorable?"

    I'm thinking more just light eye and hair color, which generally aren't the norm. But yes frequency-dependent selection will keep them from fixing, if this idea is right.

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  5. "There were two articles last year, maybe the year before, showing that Asians make fundamental mistakes in reading emotions from faces because they just stare at the center of the face, whereas Caucasians look at entire triangle of the eyes down through the mouth. Asians ignore the mouth and only look at the eyes."

    Yep.

    http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2008/08/20-03.html

    "The eye-tracker confirmed that Westerners tend to dart from the eyes to the mouth and back again. Conversely, the East Asian students fixated on central points in the face
    ....
    Both groups scored about the same on the recognition and categorization tasks, showing their methods were equally effective in identifying faces"

    It doesn't seem like Asian faces are harder to read from the above (although they are stereotyped as inscrutable, so maybe something actually would shake out).

    The Asian strategy does seem to have a genetic basis - http://www.frontiersin.org/cultural_psychology/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00095/abstract

    "In the current study, we assessed the relative contribution of genetic and cultural factors by testing face processing in a population of British Born Chinese adults using face recognition and expression classification tasks. Contrary to predictions made by the cultural differences framework, the majority of British Born Chinese adults deployed “Eastern” eye movement strategies, while approximately 25% of participants displayed “Western” strategies."

    The Asian strategy seems to have advantages and disadvantages:

    http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2011/05/accurate-fake-smile-detecting.html

    "Accurate fake smile detecting collectivist Chinese

    How do people interpret the meaning of a smile? Previous studies with Westerners have found that both the eyes and the mouth are crucial in identifying and interpreting smiles, yet less is known about Easterners.

    Here we reported that when asking the Chinese to judge the Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles as either real or fake, their accuracy and sensitivity were negatively correlated with their individualism scores but positively correlated with their collectivism scores.

    However, such correlations were found only for participants who stated the eyes to be the most useful references, but not for those who favored the mouth.

    Moreover, participants who favored the eyes were more accurate and sensitive than those who favored the mouth. Our results thus indicate that Chinese who follow the typical Eastern decoding process of using the eyes as diagnostic cues to identify and interpret others' facial expressions and social intentions, are particularly accurate and sensitive, the more they self-report greater collectivistic and lower individualistic values."

    and on the other hand the research you cited,

    http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2009/08/east-vs-west-differences-in-facial.html
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8199951.stm

    "Eastern observers use a culture-specific decoding strategy that is inadequate to reliably distinguish universal facial expressions of fear and disgust. Rather than distributing their fixations evenly across the face as Westerners do, Eastern observers persistently fixate the eye region."

    "East Asians were more likely than Westerners to read the expression for "fear" as "surprise", and "disgust" as "anger"."

    Seems to be more about finding fake positive emotion at the expense of determining genuine negative emotion. This might support your notion that Asians (agriculturalists?) tend to try to put a brave "face" on it (for themselves or others - ganbatte and all that Japanese persistant "Keep your chin up!" and almost English-esque "Stiff upper lip" forced cheerfulness) or try to preserve face more. While genuine emotional expressiveness (or at least self deluded to the point it is not actually consciously faked) is more common amongst pastoralists.

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  6. Pastoralists tend to have more of the white part of the eye visible (no degree of epicanthic fold), which allows a wider range of eye size. And their more prominent noses can take on a greater range of expressions.

    Apologies if I'm misreading you, but to clarify you're not suggesting that Mongoloid characteristics and Caucasoid characteristics actually evolved under the conditions of agriculture and pastoralism, right? Obviously no one thinks that. Just that there are small tweaks to Mongoloid and Caucasoids (eye size, mouth size) that have been under pastoralism and agriculture? (Although maybe Mongoloids and Caucasoids evolved under conditions requiring different expressiveness as HGs).

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  7. somewhat off-topic, but have you ever read the works of Ernst Kretschmer? He talked about fundamental differences in the personalities between those racial types which developed in pastoralist, agriculturalist, and hunter-gatherer societies.

    Some of his work has been validated by some of the stuff you've posted here, especially the stuff about which countries are introverted(pastoralist) vs. agriculturalist(extroverted) France, Germany, and Eastern Europe tend to be agriculturalist. The peripheral areas(Spain/Portugal, British Isles, and Scandinavia) are more pastoralist.

    Word of warning: Kretschmer was associated with the Nazis, but then again, all German intellectuals of the time were. And much of what he said disagreed with Hitler's crazy theories(for instance, most Germans aren't descended from the "Aryan" Indo-European pastoralists).

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  8. Here's some more info, if you care to read it:
    (I don't agree with the aims of the messageboard its on)

    http://forums.skadi.net/showthread.php?t=8778&highlight=schizothyme

    Zyklothym = Agriculturalist/Extroverted

    Schizothym = Pastoralist/Introverted

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  9. ugh, I hate to double post yet again, but I found a better link for "Herders vs. Farmers"

    http://forums.skadi.net/showthread.php?t=43007&highlight=courage

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  10. I guess what you call "ornamentation" is how Western gays historically have identified themselves--ranging from flaymboyant clothing to just a bit more garish clothing than the ave. straight guy.

    Today they use muscles to advertise?

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  11. Off topic:

    Anonymous commenter delivers brutal truth below this article):

    http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2012/02/pedophilia_is_normal_because_o.htm

    The fact that men are infatuated with youth also explains why much older women dye their hair lighter colors and starve themselves. Thinness implies lack of having completed puberty, and it implies nulligravida status (progesterone packs on body fat; the longer a female is past puberty and the more children she has had typically the more body fat she has: this is why men are infatuated with thinness). Blonde hair also implies youth as hair darkens with age. And of course, cosmetics alter the features to augment (or mimic) youth, such as making the skin smooth and full and fair, making the eyes and lips larger and the cheeks ruddy all signs of youth.

    Regarding body weight, it's become a popular myth to say that preference for thin women among men is a reflection of social status, because obesity is associated with poverty and low status in our culture but in opposite cultures there is a preference for obesity. To a point this is true, that status affects body weight preferences, but there is clearly an innate preference of men to seek small waists, which are really only found in thinness.

    As females age, have children, the waist expands due to progressive accumulation of body fat from reproductive hormones and pregnancies. This is why a 35 year old woman doesn't have the same figure she did at 21. A female with a high body fat level looks older specifically because our primitive brain associates body fat accumulation with prior pregnancies and age.

    Now, women intuitively know all of this is true, that this appearance is ideal, and so they do everything they can to manipulate their appearance to conform to this standard of mimicking a barely pubertal 14 year old. Thus the diet and cosmetics industry. It benefits female reproduction to choose the fittest partner, so women are driven to improve their reproductive value. This is why you have females freaking out about who is hotter among any group of females, but men don't give a fuck who is hotter. Men are not driven to quality, they are driven to quantity, and the only choosiness a man exhibits is that he will first have sex with the most attractive female (typically the youngest) and then only later with the less attractive ones (typically the oldest).

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  12. "... and the only choosiness a man exhibits is that he will first have sex with the most attractive female (typically the youngest) and then only later with the less attractive ones (typically the oldest)."

    Uh huh, but you need a qualifier: only "hot" men since those nearing 40 are often balding and gathering their own tub of fats. Actually, several decades ago, a 40 year old man who worked a job that required some muscle, looked pretty good. Today's office worker 40 year old man is not, come to think of it, hot. His body is doughboy-ish or downright obese, he is losing or has lost most of his hair (there are exceptions, of course) and I'd have to say in order for the ave. American woman to see a guy who is hot, he'd most likely be late 20s, early 30s. After that, down hill for most.

    If you've ever been to a 10 year or 15 year high school reunion, I think you'll agree the women look much younger (naturally so) than the men.

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  13. "you're not suggesting that Mongoloid characteristics and Caucasoid characteristics actually evolved under the conditions of agriculture and pastoralism, right?"

    I don't think the Asians evolved an epicanthic fold to make their faces less expressive, but I don't see why even gross features couldn't be the result of selection.

    Pastoralists all seem to have a higher nose bridge, narrow width at the bottom of the nose, and greater angle of protrusion. Shows up even in East Africa, where the Tutsi have those kinds of noses.

    All other major subsistence groups seem to have flatter bridges and wider nose bottoms, so that seems to be the ancestral type. Something in pastoralism must have selected for a personality / behavior trait that has a pleiotropic effect on nose shape...

    Or maybe in the kind of individual defense of self and livestock, having a more prominent nose means you can take a punch better? I don't know.

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  14. "somewhat off-topic, but have you ever read the works of Ernst Kretschmer? "

    Doesn't ring a bell. But pastoralists are not introverted, that's the agriculturalists. The French and Russians are not as gregarious and garrulous as the Irish and Italians.

    He might have been using the term in a different way, though. That's common in trying to talk about national character. Just look at how wishy-washy the term "collectivist" is.

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  15. "I guess what you call "ornamentation" is how Western gays historically have identified themselves--ranging from flaymboyant clothing to just a bit more garish clothing than the ave. straight guy."

    Gays haven't historically identified themselves, unless you mean back to around 1970.

    The most likely historically to ornament themselves are soldiers / warriors, and political and religious leaders. Lower-status people too if they have pastoralist or horticulturalist roots.

    Drab males are either hunter-gatherers, agricultural peasants, or very recent industrialized people (and even then only during falling-crime times).

    Margaret Mead made the same error when she thought that a tribe of vicious head-hunters had effeminate males because they spent so much time putting make-up on each other. Turns out it was war paint.

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  16. "Gays haven't historically identified themselves, unless you mean back to around 1970."

    Sure they have, for a long time. You can look at pics of Walt Whitman and see the hat placed at a rakish angle, the scarf tied around the neck. Walt was a dandy and many gays have, in their clothing, adopted what women call accessories to adorn themselves.

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  17. house always wins2/24/12, 3:47 AM

    People don't prefer ornamentation because they want to show off, signal social status or genetic fitness, etc.

    Bull. Shit.

    Look at the Middle-East. Burka-clad women bling up their fabric prisons with all manner of trinkets and ornaments. They use this to achieve the eternal female goal of standing out in the only way that's available to them.

    The west isn't as extreme, but women still use these things as status markers.

    The idea is that lighter hair and eyes would make a person more memorable when darker colors are more common. So having light hair and/or eyes is a way of signaling your good faith to the rest of the group, like you won't be able to exploit them and disappear into the crowd like a Chinese person could in China. In a group that is hyper-sensitive about reciprocity and keeping track of individuals, that sign of good faith might get you a slight fitness advantage, i.e. by being more easily welcomed into the group and enjoying the benefits of membership. Individuals with less distinctive features would be kept more at a distance: they're harder to track down if they harm you, and they can more easily lie about having benefited you in the past


    Are you kidding me with this?

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  18. About Kretschmer, you can read is main work ("Phsyque and Character") here:

    http://www.archive.org/details/physiqueandchara031966mbp

    About pastoralist/agriculturalists and the introvert/extrovert thing - I think that the Kreschmer typology (cyclotimia vs schyzotimia) it is not exactly identical to the extroversion vs. introversion thing.

    Explaining better, he identified 2 types (cyclotimic and schizotimic) and four subtypes:

    - maniac ciclotimic: happy, talkative, expansive, etc.

    - depressive ciclotimic: depressive (of course...), peaceful, quite, trustable, slow, wanting peace and safety, etc.

    - cold schizotymic: cold (of course...), unflexible, rigid,abstract, sometimes autoritarian, etc.

    - warm schizotimic: shy, nervous, idealist, daydreamer...

    [Their theory was that most ciclotimic were a mix of depressive and maniac, oscilating between the two poles; and that most schizotimics were a mix of cold and warm, showing one of the side for the exterior and hidding the other side in their internal life]

    Why I think that the cyclotimic/schizotimic does not match perfectly the extrovertion/introvertion axis? specially because of the "depressive cyclotimic", who, in is pure form, is more and introvert than an extrovert type. And, the agnostic theopry about the personality of farmers seems indeed more similar to the "depressive cyclotimic" subtype thant to the sichotimic subtypes.

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  19. "They use this to achieve the eternal female goal of standing out in the only way that's available to them.

    The west isn't as extreme, but women still use these things as status markers."

    There is no eternal female goal of standing out. Check any hunter-gatherer group -- males are drab, and so are females. Anyone who tries to stand out is immediately and forever viciously shunned. Just one aspect of how strong their egalitarianism is.

    Or again look at agricultural (non-pastoralist) peasants. It's not very expensive to decorate -- bowerbirds do it without much trouble. There just isn't that drive in the first place. Compare to Gypsies or ghetto blacks.

    Arms races lead to more and more exaggerated traits, like the peacock's tail. Human head hair looks like that -- it just keeps growing, and there looks like a contest to see who can pack hairs most densely, aside from how long it grows, to produce an even greater volume of it.

    But ornamentation doesn't get steadily more exaggerated, perhaps plateau-ing once some structural limit is reached. It's usually kept far below what it could be, and there are cycles back and forth in how ornamental people are. You don't see that in peacock's tails.

    And a lot of people's liking of ornamentation has to do with other people being decorated or providing ornamental stimulation. Again if you like Duran Duran or Art Deco reliefs, you're not showing off anything you did.

    Worse -- by praising the genetic competition, which those masters will never return to you, you could be making potential mates less satisfied with you.

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  20. "you're not suggesting that Mongoloid characteristics and Caucasoid characteristics actually evolved under the conditions of agriculture and pastoralism, right?"

    According to Von Eickstedt, Chinese from northern China are more pastoralist/schizothymic, those from Southern China more agriculturalist/cyclothymic.

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  21. "Doesn't ring a bell. But pastoralists are not introverted, that's the agriculturalists. The French and Russians are not as gregarious and garrulous as the Irish and Italians."

    Perhaps it has more to do with being right-brained and creative, vs. left-brained and conformist.

    According to the Big Five, pastoralists would probably lack conscienstiouss, and agriculturalists would be high in it.

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  22. This article on internal and external (mostly Han Chinese) characterizations of Tibetan masculinity may prove interesting to you. A lot of what it says about assertiveness and expressiveness, pettiness and generosity, male companionship, and ideals of physicality meshes with your earlier speculations.

    Some highlights:

    We did not encounter images of Tibetan men as learned scholars or wise sages despite the sophisticated literary and religious heritage of the Tibetan Plateau, and despite the prevalence of such imagery in the West (Lopez, 1998).

    [...]

    Han Chinese [male tourists to Tibet] emphasized Tibetan men's physical abilities, and most noted that Tibetan men are skilled at horsemanship. They described Tibetan men as very tough, brave, wild, and free-spirited. Most noted that Tibetan men had a reputation as good drinkers, were prone to fighting, and always carried a large knife.

    Female Han Chinese respondents also emphasized physicality in their descriptions of Tibetan men, whom they described as having strong bodies and as being very manly, handsome, and brave. The women viewed the Tibetans as bigger, taller, stronger, darker-skinned, rougher, more masculine, and more loyal than other men. Other expressions they applied to Tibetan men included "open-minded," "generous," "unpretentious," and "decisive." Some Han women admitted to being excited but also afraid of Tibetan male sexuality. One female respondent told us of a Han friend who had an affair with a Tibetan man in Beijing. According to the woman, the man was extremely "forward" on their first date, and while her friend did not welcome the man's advances, she was excited by his "brutish masculinity." Another woman said that she had dreamed of having a Tibetan boyfriend but thought that it probably would not work because he would have "too many other girlfriends." Of the 18 female Han respondents, 16 thought that Tibetan men were more masculine than all other men, including other ethnic groups in China and foreign nationals.

    [...]

    We were not surprised to find clear parallels between the way Tibetan men described their masculinity and the majority Han representations of Tibetan ethnicity and masculinity that we had encountered. But unexpectedly, instead of describing the masculine in reference to the feminine, Tibetan men repeatedly contrasted their masculinity with that of Han Chinese men.


    Standards of scholarship in the contemporary "soft sciences" are really something (lol at N=18), but the overall impressions are pretty typical.

    E-mail me if you don't have access to the full text.

    On a related note, here's a funny condensation of Mongol perceptions of the Chinese:

    Mongolooroo goyodog, by Hurd

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  23. So what does the theory predict for Scandinavians? Janteloven sounds like hunter-gatherer culture.

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