November 26, 2007

Nominate a female role model?

Apropos of the post below, maybe it's worth devoting a whole post / comment section to this topic, since it must get boring to hear guys talk about how wonderful 20 year-olds are -- what are females supposed to do when they reach their mid-late 20s? Off the top of my head, I suggested fashion editor Giovanna Battaglia, just because she looks like she has her stuff together, is elegant, and seems amiable. Danica McKellar, who you know as Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years, turns out to be a math nerd, and she also looks put together and confident. There is also human geneticist Pardis Sabeti, who you can watch speak about recent human evolution here -- again, poised, elegant, pretty humble, and plays in a rock band. Blogger / commenter Thursday will surely nominate Gwen Stefani.

There must be many others I don't know about, as well as some I'm blanking on this moment, so in the comments, can readers nominate more role models for females who (like most of us) aren't exposed to many examples of women who age gracefully? The basic criteria are simply these:

- Is at least 27 years old, preferably not one of the few who still look 20.

- Has accomplished something in their field, no matter how seemingly trivial (she could be a professor with no publications, for example!). Just to show that she's set her mind to something difficult and achieved it.

- Is not flaky -- no committed believers of astrology or psychoanalysis.

- Treats strangers with a pleasant, agreeable temper.

- Puts sufficient effort into her personal appearance, whether traditional or more contemporary, but something feminine that younger women would want to emulate.

- Tends toward modesty and humility rather than bragging and attention-whoring.

You get the idea. I want to have lots of names I can suggest, since the need to do so arises all the time. The NYT ran a story not long ago showing that high school girls know that most of the celebrities they see are drugged-up skanks, and though that awareness is encouraging, we still need a positive alternative to provide them with. Ditto for college-aged and early 20-something girls. One or two of the readers fall into this demographic -- last time this topic came up, we kicked around general qualities that any civilized guy would prize, but since then have you found concrete examples of women who others should know about?

November 25, 2007

Not even legal Miss World girls

For a post on what makes tall women desirable, I looked up some data on Miss World contestants (see their pictures here). The chart in the Wikipedia article lets you order the columns, so just click that little gray box on "age" and you can see that there are 5 contestants who are just 17 -- and upon further investigation, Miss New Zealand is still 16 and will only turn 17 in December. If the winner is crowned on Dec. 1, that sounds as if she'd still be 16 if she won. My impression is that countries set their own age limits, although no one younger than 16 or older than 25 shows up (the median age is 21, and the distribution looks pretty symmetrical, maybe a bit more bunched around the younger end).

On the one hand, it might seem in poor taste to send a 17 year-old to an international beauty pageant, but younger girls have a lot to recommend them, mostly in their demeanor, which is more warm and giggly. I had been tutoring girls that age before I started school, but I forced myself to not even start thinking along those lines. But now that I'm surrounded (besieged) by 18 year-old coeds most of the day, none of whom I tutor, I can allow myself to study what makes them so appealing to guys of all ages.

Sure, the skin is much tighter, especially on the thigh, but they tend not to have fully developed breasts and posteriors, which many men are interested in, so I don't think they have a higher net level of physical attractiveness compared to females in their mid or late 20s (30+ is a different matter). But their personalities do tend to differ: researchers of the Big Five personality traits have found that, although changes after 30 are weak, from about 20 to 30 there is a decrease in Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Openness, and an increase in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. In brief, during your mid-20s, rough, you become more well-behaved and disciplined, and less outgoing, emotionally unstable and open to new things. *

I think Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are more relevant to potential employers; some would say it pays to have a more Agreeable partner, but I prefer someone who's a bit stubborn and mock-confrontational. Higher Openness means that far more silly ideas will fill their heads -- as they did mine too when I was that age, of course -- but that's easy to overlook, since you know it's just a phase they're going through. The committed vegan activist who's over 30, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly likely to be a sourpuss. At the same time, youthful curiosity is pretty attractive. I also prefer someone who's above-average in Neuroticism, since otherwise they won't empathize when I get set off by little things, and since a certain degree of emotional vulnerability makes you more careful about how you treat her.

Higher Extraversion means they're better flirts, are more chatty, show greater warmth, and experience positive emotions more frequently. This is probably the key personality difference that men pick up on when they become entranced by a 20 year-old. Females seem to smile less as they age, and giggle even much less. Now, giggling is one of those things that you can't mention without invoking the slanderous image put out there by non-gigglers that this activity consists of acting retarded and ditzy. But it's not that at all: they're not laughing at something they think is funny, but rather signaling that they enjoy interacting with you, as when a cat or a guinea pig purrs when you pet it the right way. It is just adorable. **

Younger girls are also less guarded and calculating when they're trying to get your attention, largely because their actions are not as under rational control as they are at older ages. Just to provide a few examples: they toss and tousle their hair more conspicuously (fidgeting with hair is always a sign of interest). They put more of a bounce in their step when they walk by, often lightly caressing the table you're sitting at, or gently tapping the chair that's opposite you. If they're leaving a room, they'll caress, tap, or cup the jamb of the door as they leave. And if there happens to be a male acquaintance of theirs nearby, they'll laugh and bounce around as hard as they can while his speech goes in one ear and out the other. All of these involuntary tics are clearly designed to grab your attention, and again the ingenuousness is so refreshing.

As a reminder, others have speculated that these honest signals of lack-of-control serve to convince the observer that the sender can be trusted. After all, if you can't help the way you feel, you aren't apt to leave once someone slightly better strolls by. Giggling, getting butterflies in the stomach, showing anxiety and possessiveness over your boyfriend -- these hallmarks of feminine charm begin to flower around age 15 (at the risk of sounding like a dirty old man), and noticeably wane by age 25, having peaked somewhere in the middle of this range, on average.

To be sure, females in their mid or late 20s have their own charms, especially when they resist the urge to plant their feet, in vain, as the river of time washes them steadily forward. For example, wearing sweat-suits ("track-suits") that look appropriate only on high-school girls, or behaving like a spoiled brat, which would scarcely be cute even were she a teenybopper. I keep trying to think of positive role models in this regard, but the US doesn't supply this urgent demand very well, does it? Fortunately, I happened upon a picture of lovely Giovanna Battaglia, a 27 year-old fashion editor who works for L'Uomo Vogue, and whose work can be seen at her website. *** In the comments section of a fashion blog, which you expect to be plagued by pointless bickering and posturing, everyone at The Sartorialist -- male and female -- agreed that Ms. Battaglia sets a fine example for young women out there.

* See the following: one, two, three.

** Never trust an animal that doesn't purr, like dogs.

*** More pictures and info here.

November 4, 2007

Brainy models

I'm going to regret not bringing a TV with me out here, not because I watch much, but the new season of Project Runway begins in a few weeks. I took a look at the models and something jumped out at me: of the 15 models, 3 are pretty bright -- one went to NYU and later got a masters degree in psychology, and two others went to Tufts, one for psych and art history, and another for econ. Given the schools' average SAT scores, I'd say these girls are at least 2 SD above the population mean for IQ.What's the probability of this happening?

If we assume that looks and IQ are sorting independently, we can figure this out as follows. There are about 13 million American females aged 18-25, of whom 130,000 are in the top 1% of the attractiveness distribution for their age group. Assume that the 15 models on the show are random draws from this pool of 130,000, at least with respect to IQ (no SAT scores needed to get on the show). Of the hot girls this age, 2600 will also be in the top 2% of the IQ distribution. (That's what you find at the level of Tufts, NYU, etc.)

Using the hypergeometric distribution, we have a sample of 15 hot girls from a population of 130,000 hot girls. Of them, 2600 will also be brainy, and we draw 3 of these in our sample of 15. The contingency table looks like this:


Plugging these numbers in, we find the probability of this event occuring is about 0.002584. To really round out a Fisher's Exact Test, we'd have to calculate the probability of all of the more extreme cases -- e.g., where there are 4 smarties, 5 smarties, up to all 15 smarties -- but it's clear that these will be small compared to probability we've already got. And since they're a pain to calculate, I won't do it. So let's say p is less than 0.003.

That's pretty rare. One explanation is that this is just a fluke -- unfortunately, the biographies for the models of the previous three seasons just mention their hometown, so I can't tell. However, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this pattern is fairly representative. The reason is that looks and IQ are not independent: smart, successful guys marry good-looking women, who may also be smart.

Here I suggested that there is greater assortative mating among hot-and-smart people "back East" compared to the Mountain Time Zone. This region is at least several generations behind the "rest of" the country, meaning the parts where power is concentrated, so it's only a matter of time before it happens here too. And sure enough, the three brainy models are from upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia, and western Massachusetts (where she went to the elite Deerfield Academy boarding school).

The econ degree is something of a red flag, but the other two studied psychology and art history -- very little chance that they're the get-outta-my-way girls who use their big brains to work on Wall Street or for Manhattan law firms. So what's not to love?

Update: A commenter raises the issue of affirmative action and whether these girls are really in the top 1%. As to the latter, think of a small liberal arts school with 5000 undergrads -- the top 1% is 50, and if they're uniform across classes, that makes about 12 or 13 per class. Wouldn't these girls make that cut? I think so, but I've re-done the calculation assuming they're only in the top 5% -- I don't think that's really debateable. It says you expect to have to sample 20 people at random to find a girl who's that attractive.

As for affirmative action, I don't think it's enough to make a difference. Both Blacks went to Tufts, which has an average SAT score of 1390, and so the average person there is between 2 and 3 SD above the pop mean. I used 2 as a lower-bound, but the average White student there is probably 135 or a bit more. Schools like Tufts get to snatch up the limited pool of high-IQ Blacks; once you get into U-Mich territory, where the average score is somewhere in the low 1300s, that's when the pool has been dried up by Harvard et al, and AA plays a larger role.

Let's assume, however, that the average Black student at Tufts has an IQ of 125, and ditto for the White girl who went to NYU. That's in the top 5% of IQ. To really get our priors straight, though, one of the Black girls is Jamaican, and they (and Caribbeans in general) tend to do much better academically than other African-Americans, so she may be on an equal footing with her White peers. The other girl majored in econ -- that's not something a dope can do, since it involves a lot of math and abstraction, so she too could be on par with her White peers.

But just to buffer against these criticisms, conservatively assume all three girls are just in the top 5% for both looks and IQ. Using the same procedure as before, we find that the probability of exactly this pattern showing up is about 0.03073, and adding in the other even smaller probabilities to fill out Fisher's Exact Test likely won't raise that above 0.05, the conventional cut-off for "unlikely." So the result stands as before.