December 31, 2011

Nudity and MPAA ratings of top 10 movies at box office, 1969 - 2011

This is an update to a similar post that went up through 2009, now including the past two years.

Among the 10 highest-grossing movies released in a given year, here is the number of them that show at least partial nudity, according to the parental advisory section of their IMDb entries:

The last two years continue the trend since 1989 of showing hardly anything. The median and mode for this period are still 1, and the average 0.9, compared to 1969-1988 when the median and mode were 4 and the average 3.7. What jumps out most when watching movies from the good ol' days is how much T&A there was.

Even fans of those movies may call the nudity level "superfluous," i.e. they didn't need to show so much for the movie to work. But that is one of those "all else equal" situations that does not happen in reality. There aren't two independent dials, one for nudity and another for all the other good stuff. There's a general dial for seizing the audience's attention rather than putting them to sleep. When you dial down nudity, you must do it by dialing down that general knob, so the other good stuff disappears along with it.

Showing some flesh is just one piece that contributes to the audience's physiological state of arousal, helping to ease them out of their self-consciousness so they can get fully absorbed in the movie. It turns on your sympathetic nervous system, the one for "fight, flight, fright, and fucking." So they tended to use it when the movie tapped into those other feelings, such as action and horror movies, as well as anarchic and screwball comedies, but not so much for romantic comedies.

Moving on to ratings:

Again the past two years are just more of the same: most are PG-13, then PG, 1 or 2 are G, and there may or may not be an R. For a long time lots of commentators said that Hollywood was making too many R-rated movies, leaving money on the table that people would've paid to see movies with less sex, violence, and profanity. Along with the rest of the culture, that all turned around during the '90s and through today. So there probably was not a lot of unmet demand in the good ol' days, but rather that the society's tastes underwent a drastic change, opening up a vast new market for boring, inoffensive kiddie movies.

As with "superfluous" nudity, be careful what you wish for. People warned about how common R-rated movies used to be, but what has been the real-world alternative? -- grown-ups flocking to movies that even a 7 year-old would have found immature back in the day, and often eagerly! How pathetic is it that college students get dressed up for a new Harry Potter movie? At any age past 11 or 12, that would have invited merciless shaming, although most people would never have had the inclination in the first place. Now we have people 10 years past puberty who get excited over toddler stuff. It's better to grow up a little too fast than a little to slow.

December 30, 2011

When did New Year's get so competitive?

My hunch is that it was sometime in the early-mid 1990s, during the shift in the entire zeitgeist.

Halloween changed from a carnival holiday for children, testing and proving the strength of guest-host relations within the community, to a one-upsmanship contest among grown-ups to see whose costume is the most ironic, clever, and effortful, or which female can whore for the most attention while giving away the least interaction to get it.

The Fourth of July used to be a display of patriotism, at least of neighborhood unity (e.g., block parties), but now is Nuclear Family BBQ Day. Trust has collapsed so low that only the closest blood relatives are allowed into the circle.

Christmas used to focus on the supernatural and gift-giving. Now the focus has shifted from Christmas to Black Friday, a purely materialistic orgy of self-indulgence -- buying stuff for yourself at deals that only come once a year.

New Year's I don't remember being a big holiday in the '80s. I was too young to go out nightclubbing or anything, but I still would have noticed my parents and others getting psychotic about it, if that had been common. It seemed like a lower-key version of Halloween, for grown-ups, where the point was just to get out and join the revelry of the crowd. Also, to make a New Year's Resolution, which was for the benefit of others -- being kinder, losing weight (which most do out of shame, not for personal health benefits), spending more time with friends and family, etc.

Now New Year's has become It's All About Me Day. My brothers and I were trying to figure out what we're going to do for it, and it's nuts how status-conscious all of the options are, how expensive, and inevitably how boring. Pay $175 for an evening of tapas, wine, and competing against the other customers to see who can use the most authentic Castilian accent when ordering. Or $90 for some lame DJ in a yuppie / hipster part of town. No matter what it is and how much it costs, it's now very important that people know What You're Doing for New Year's. It broadcasts a signal about who you are, one that everyone else just has to know, just like your clever Halloween costume.

Things have been heading in this direction for awhile, although the heights they've reached by now are still perplexing. What ever happened to rounding up some friends in a car, getting drunk in public -- a park, a city street, or wherever -- and singing and carousing with whoever else happened to also be there? Not like it's vanished, but it's moved toward a self-congratulating holiday. And not only for SWPLs as I may have suggested above, but including folks who will enjoy bragging about "poppin' bottles," etc.

People don't seem to take their New Year's resolutions seriously anymore either. Maybe they don't make them at all, or give little thought, or from the outset don't intend to give them much effort during the new year. It would ruin the feel of "look at how unique and exclusive my plans are" surrounding this Self-Esteem / Statement of My Identity Day.

The charitable mob

I might write this up in broader terms later with pointers to some social psychology studies, but I just got back from a long series of family gatherings and don't have the state of mind to focus too much.

The standard story in psychology about "deindividuation" -- losing yourself in the crowd-feeling, no longer very aware of yourself as a cut-off individual -- is that it leads to all kinds of harmful activities. When the mob gets together, accountability is diffused over the entire group, so no one feels so responsible themselves, they're in a state of physiological arousal and thus pumped up to do something big, plus they're so group-minded that they are less able to monitor themselves internally and regulate their individual behavior within acceptable norms. Hence all of the spur-of-the-moment violence that mobs are capable of.

However, losing your self-consciousness lets you step outside of your normal boundaries not only in the anti-social but also the pro-social direction. Normally we might be penny-pinchers when it comes to charity, when suddenly we become absorbed in the crowd at church services and give much more liberally to the collection plate than we would in our normal state of mind. Especially if someone else has already gotten the ball rolling, and we're just going with the flow of the group.

It's no surprise, then, that fund-raisers try to create a carnivalesque kind of atmosphere: dim or dark lighting, seating people near each other and facing each other in groups, working them into arousal with catchy music and humor, and encouraging them to dress similarly rather than compete against each other in dress styles. Getting them drunk helps too.

The other place I found it easy to donate -- as in, no one needed to ask or pressure me (as they do at the supermarket check-out, or at Wikipedia) -- was at a diner after we'd eaten and went up to the cashier to pay the bill. Get the customers worked up into that self-unaware state of mind as they shoot the shit and laugh it up during their meal, and place a collection jar near the cashier.

Are the donors being exploited by fund-raisers, or at least "nudged" paternalistically by the collectors? Here and there maybe, but on the whole they must realize that in those situations they tend to give more than they normally would -- they may even express surprise to themselves after leaving the crowd and coming back down to normal life. Purposefully or not, they must be seeking out opportunities to donate more, or donate at all, where they won't have to self-consciously reflect on whether or not to give, what the consequences would be, and so on.

They want to shut up their inner Scrooge for awhile, and only losing themselves in the crowd can do that. If this loss of self-monitoring and self-regulation lasted forever, they'd "splurge" on charity all day every day and ruin themselves, but we're only talking occasionally here.

The crowdophobes only focus on the harm that impulsive mobs can carry out, neglecting the far more frequent and substantial altruism that comes from such an atmosphere. In the real world, outside of lab experiments, for every mob that torches a car, there are dozens that gather in church and provide mutual aid of one form or another. We just have to get used to taking the bad with the good in encouraging more activities where people lose themselves in the crowd. The alternative is to a high level of self-consciousness, which will keep us from getting whipped up into a violent mob, but will also keep us from working ourselves up into a hand-lending mob too.

December 16, 2011

Other recent rising-crime societies, and their sociability

When people see their world getting more dangerous, they feel a stronger impulse to seek out and provide mutual aid, specifically in a face-to-face way rather than by relying on distant, abstract institutions. In the middle of a crime wave, such institutions don't seem to be very good at their most basic job of ensuring physical security, so people withdraw their faith in technocracy.

By pursuing a more face-to-face solution to the problem of community security, such as getting to know your neighbors, they must shift their mindset from one of "leave me alone and I'll leave you alone" to "approach others and be open to others approaching you." So they are not only more gregarious and affable but also more inviting and socially open.

The Western world used to be like that in the '60s through the '80s, but since the peak of the violent crime rate in the early-mid 1990s has returned to cocooning behavior and a "look but don't touch" mindset. It sure would be nice for people who miss the old social world to have some place they could turn to. We already saw that South Korea has had a rising crime rate for at least 15 years, and sure enough they seem to be more outgoing and chill than their Northeast Asian neighbors. Still I find them too culturally dissimilar to join up with them, although others may feel at home with them.

Looking back at my college years, when you crave more social interaction, and when at the time America had been in social decline for about 10 years, certain groups of foreign students stand out as being much easier to make friends with, and seeking out more interactions. Not surprisingly it turns out they all came from countries whose crime rate had not peaked in the early '90s, and in some cases kept soaring even after we graduated. And again their neighboring countries that saw a crime decline during the '90s and 2000s like we did, were not as remarkably social.

The interactions that I wanted most in college were with girls, so that's what stands out in memory. I'm sure males would have shown a similar pattern, but my mind was elsewhere back then.

The first country was Turkey, whose homicide rate didn't peak until 2000 (the two lines are from different sources, but both show that it didn't peak in the early '90s):

Everyone agreed how beautiful Turkish girls were, but then they also said the same thing about the Greek girls. And yet it was the Turkish babes who drove everyone crazy. I probably speak for the other guys in pointing to the Turkish girls' more sociable personalities and behavior. They smiled, giggled, and laughed a lot more than the Greeks, who seemed more aloof and sometimes even stuck-up -- perhaps no more so than American girls at the time, but still in contrast to their southern neighbors. And Greece's crime rate was falling through the '90s like ours was.

Turkish girls also stood or sat closer to you, and in general were more touchy-feely. A Turkish friend from work was into the goth scene, but she was really more of a reincarnation of the '80s goth who smiled, went out dancing, and had a Romantic rather than nihilistic streak.

Unfortunately the graph above suggests that college-aged Turks today are less outgoing than they used to be 10 years ago, however they may compare to other Western places today. So they may not be the best place to look to anymore. They did seem very similar to other European groups culturally, although most of them were secular educated elites from Istanbul, with a handful from Ankara and Izmir (if I remember correctly).

The other places whose people stand out in more recent times are all in South America (all below are murder rates per 100K):

Brazil's crime rate has been increasing for longer than shown, I think since the '60s or even the '50s, after being flat or falling sometime before. We tend to think of Brazilian culture as being inherently, well, carnivalesque, but I wonder whether that view only arose when Brazil's crime rate was soaring. I don't think we noticed Brazil that much before the '60s, when Astrud Gilberto's voice became familiar. There was a vogue in American pop music of the 1940s to refer to the Caribbean or maybe Mexico, but Brazil didn't seem to fascinate them back then. Probably their crime rate was flat or falling, making them more Apollonian -- by Brazilian standards anyway.

Like the Turks, the Brazilian girls in college were universally certified as hot stuff, no doubt about it. Still, there were other places that produced similarly good-looking Latin Mediterranean beauties, like Mexico. (As foreign students they got no financial aid, so all were rich, and hence of European stock if they were from Latin America.) But Mexico's crime rate has been falling since the early '90s, so they were unlikely to produce people with magnetic personalities.

Brazilian girls were just the opposite, almost entirely lacking in self-consciousness. I remember how they always looked like they were in a dream-like state. (If their folk religion is any guide, Brazilians must find it easier to enter a trance.) As with the Turkish chicks, even the best-looking Brazilians didn't think they were above socializing with normal people. Not just tolerating them, but actively seeking out interactions with just about anybody, because you never know who you'll need to count on to have your back in dangerous times. (And also people are more promiscuous in rising-crime times.)

Unfortunately again, it looks like Brazil's carnivalesque heyday is over. Their crime rate has been falling (a lot) since the mid-2000s. Just wait, in 20 years we'll be saying that we remember back when Brazil used to be famous for its wild culture, social connectedness, and intense patriotism.

Probably the most out-of-my-league date I've ever been on was with a Spanish-descended Ecuadorean who looked and carried herself like Audrey Hepburn would have at age 20. God, I'm ashamed to admit that before I knew any better, I actually wrote her a poem when I asked her out. I doubt she counted that as a plus, but she was forgiving enough to overlook it -- like, why let that get in the way of meeting a new boy? You never know.

As far as first dates go, I've never felt more emotionally absorbed before or since. (I mean social emotions, not the rush you feel if a first date whirlwinds into the bedroom.) I don't even remember what we talked about for those 2 or 3 hours. For most of it our sense of self-awareness had been shut off, allowing the flow of conversation to meander wherever. And having zoned out into a sub-trance state of possession, we didn't even notice all the times we kept reaching out to touch each other, play footsie under the table, and so on. The only thing that woke us up from the dream-vibe was when a worker at the coffee house politely notified us that they'd been closed for 15 minutes, and could we please leave now.

After that I thought dating her would be a fairly safe bet, but she must have wanted an even closer click on the first date. What seemed intense by the standards of America in the early 2000s must have seemed only above-average for Ecuador in that time. I dwell on this example because even landing the date never should have happened. I wasn't chopped liver, but I didn't get lots of attention from girls until senior year of college and later. But in this case it was with a girl who came from the right place and the right time.

There was another Ecuadorean girl who I worked with, and she too was a free spirit overflowing with smiles. Not like a neo-hippie, whose free-spiritedness is a self-conscious affectation, and also not like the more bouncy and super-extraverted Brazilian free spirits. More like nonchalant. The crime graph says that you might still be able to find girls like that there.

I never ran into any Colombians in college, but I include that graph since it's another major exception, with murder rates only turning steadily downward by the mid-2000s. It's probably no accident that the pop sensation throughout Latin America in the 1990s, who then crossed over to North America and beyond by 2000, was the product of a rising-crime period. Shakira's persona would have been a sight for sore eyes, had Americans known about her in the '90s -- vulnerable but not weepy, tender but not sappy, assertive without being bitchy, fun-loving but not slutty or attention-whoring, and so on.

If she had been in California in the '80s, she would've fit right in as a new member of The Bangles or The Go-Go's. But the music backing up Shakira's voice was run-of-the-mill '90s pop and alternative, so even her earlier songs don't reach pop music greatness.

As a result of the civil war in Colombia, and overall crime rate, many have poured into America, including a good number of the white elite. Even the first-generation ones raised in America, if they still have some regular contact with their homeland, seem far more Gothic-Romantic in temperament than, say, Mexicans, who are more complacent and inert. The wife of a friend of my brother's came straight from Colombia a few years ago, and she seemed almost Brazilian in that trancey, flirty way. There were several first-generation Colombian girls at the tutoring center I worked at (all of whom were white), and they seemed about halfway between Brazilians and today's Americans. Kind of like '80s chicks in America. Very boy-crazy!

But I was around them last in 2007, and the graph says that Colombian girls are probably moving away from where they were as late as 2002 or 2003. Fans blame Shakira's decline in musical quality on her leaving Colombia and crossing over in America, but that was also about the same time that they entered a falling-crime period, which halts or reverses the trends in music from the rising-crime period before.

To wrap up, Turkey is clearly in a falling-crime period, and so is probably not churning out hyper-social babes like they were 10 years ago. Brazil and Colombia have somewhat recently entered falling-crime periods, although I don't think the societies have completely switched into complacent/cocooning mode just yet -- give it a few decades. So there's still probably a good number of approach-driven and approachable girls there. My best bet, though, for where to find a girl who's care-free and charming is white Ecuadoreans. Given how infrequently you'll meet them, though, you might as well seek out Brazilians and Colombians, bearing in mind that they're slowly moving away from the (true) stereotype that we've held about them.

December 14, 2011

Do males or females have more intense relationships?

In a recent podcast on sex differences, psychologist Roy Baumeister mentions that men and women feel lonely for different reasons. Men feel a greater desire to belong to large, broad groups, and they therefore feel less socially satisfied when community life starts to evaporate. Women are not as alienated because they prefer fewer but closer friends, and you don't need a rich, extensive community environment to meet those goals.

This is one example of the pattern where males are thought to prefer more social relationships that are shallower in depth, while females are thought to prefer fewer but deeper connections. Baumeister reviews some of this in a talk on sex differences in sociality.

I used to believe that too, but changed my mind when I took a longer-term view of community life. The current idea is that a person has a fixed amount of time, energy, emotion, etc. to invest in social relationships. They can spread that out broadly across a lot of individuals (the supposedly shallow male connections), or concentrate it into a few (the supposedly intimate female connections). Within a given day, that does seem true: females don't interact with as many other people, but they spend a lot more time, and invest more emotionally, per individual that they do interact with.

But this view only looks at how diffuse or concentrated our social investment is across individuals. We could just as well look at how diffuse or concentrated the investment is over time. Sure, on a typical day a guy has fairly shallow connections to the people in his network -- but then look at how intensely they get each other pumped up on the weekend, for seasonal celebrations, annual rituals, undergoing rites of passage in groups rather than as individuals, going off to war (literally or figuratively), and so on.

So, men also concentrate their social investment into really intense relationships, but they concentrate it into fewer time periods rather than into fewer individuals like women do. And women also have a shallow aspect to their relationships -- they are shallow across time, rarely involving a short intense burst of team-work or working each other up into a frenzy that bonds them together for weeks, months, or years afterward. Their bonding activities are lower in intensity, like discussing how their day went, giving each other complements, making each other look prettier, helping each other solve their mundane problems, and so on.

Are these just two equal-valued points on a trade-off? That is, perhaps you could concentrate your social investment into a few intense time periods (males) or into a few close daily friends (females), but over the long term you would feel equally socially connected?

I don't think so. The male pattern produces bonds that can last a lifetime -- if you're a guy, you can contact any of your old friends or team-mates at any later point, and assuming you didn't have a disastrous falling-out, you can pick up almost right where you left off, and still feel like you've got each other's back. Girls tend not to stay close with even their supposedly more intimate friends for more than a few years. They have a very high turnover rate for friendships, and over the long term wind up more burned-out than satisfied socially. You only see this if you zoom out to the year or decade, beyond the day or week.

So when two best friends from high school meet up again 20 years later, they don't immediately get right back on the same intense wavelength, like when they were gossip buddies as teenagers. Not that they hate each other (though that too is more likely than among males), just that their spirits have come unglued, and they interact with each other like they would any other acquaintance. The guys 20 years later are still patting each other on the back, bumping chests, giving their secret handshakes, and splitting their sides laughing about their wild times together. Although it wouldn't be exactly as intense as it used to be, they could still go out to a bar or some other old haunt and have fun with a group they still felt they belonged to.

This is probably why men control just about any society whose scale is above that of hunter-gatherers, where the sexes are about equally powerful. The idea that they could accomplish that by relying on shallow relationships seems counter-intuitive at best, even silly if you stop and think about it. There must be some other way in which our relationships are more intense, and it is that they are more concentrated with respect to time rather than individuals.

These sporadic rituals are more saturated with the feeling of collective effervescence, communitas, or whatever you want to call it, compared to the daily private conversations of two BFFs. No pair or group of girls ever came away from a conversation feeling like guys do after playing a team sport, performing in a band, returning from the battlefield, or even being part of the audience of these performances. And far from being passive spectators, the mob in a sports stadium, the crowd at a concert or dance club, and the cheerleaders of war work themselves up into almost as great of a frenzy as those performing.

The key point here is to take a longer time horizon when looking at how deep or shallow people's social relationships are. When you pick a random time at a random day and see guys sitting around on the couch barely talking to each other, communicating more through a repertoire of grunts, you might be fooled into thinking that they had "many but shallow" relationships. To see their greater sociality, you'd have to hang around long enough to see them march off to the football stadium once a month to contribute to and feel nourished by the total heartbeat of the crowd.

Long vs. short shorts and low vs. high trust

It remains an unsolved mystery what possessed men to wear such short shorts during the '60s through the '80s, so let's take a crack at it. I'm focusing on men because it was a much more extreme departure from the norm, and because it didn't have to do with trying to look sexy. So it requires a more thoughtful answer.

From the timing of its rise and fall, it looks like it's tied to the trend in the violent crime rate and all the other things that are associated with it as well. But which ones? I think it's trust, but let's look at the pattern of its rise and fall first.

Unfortunately the climate was much colder during earlier major waves of violence, so we can't go back that far to examine the possible link. Men didn't wear any kind of shorts in the Elizabethan-Jacobean or Romantic-Gothic waves because they were still in the Little Ice Age. So we'll look just at the 1950s through today.

Men's shorts were knee-length in the '50s:

Even though that was a time of falling crime, the first hint of short shorts began around 1956, and a year or so later there had been several pop songs referring to them. ("Who wears short shorts? We wear short shorts!") Although they were talking about girls wearing them, there's usually a close fit between male and female fashions for how much skin is shown. So men were probably wearing somewhat shorter shorts by the mid-late 1950s as well. Because the crime rate doesn't start rising until 1959, it looks like shorter shorts slightly precede the crime wave. I don't mean they existed at all, but that they were widespread, unlike say the Beatniks who also prefigured some of the '60s culture but were totally marginal in the '50s.

Of course short shorts only exploded in popularity during the '60s, '70s, and '80s:

When did they vanish? I looked at a class picture from spring 1990, and both boys and girls are still wearing fairly short shorts, though not quite as bare as dolphin shorts. However, the class picture from 1992 shows almost everyone with shorts that hit the top of the knee, boys and girls both. That was elementary school, but here are what the teenagers were wearing in the early '90s:

Because the crime rate peaks in 1992, it looks like they had already been in sharp decline for several years before falling-crime times began to set in.

Shorts only got longer and baggier throughout the '90s, and by the 2000s every guy was wearing some version of cargo shorts, baggy jean shorts, or even the occasional closeted faggot who wore capri pants. (These were re-named "man-pri" pants in yet another case of emasculated behavior being labeled "man ___" in a poor attempt to conceal its blatant homosexuality.)

The only thing I've seen that overlaps the crime rate trends, but beginning to move up or down slightly before the crime rate does, is trust levels. That would seem to be what guys' wearing short shorts is about then. It's not about their more promiscuous mating strategy during rising-crime times, because that would've gotten started only in the '60s and lasted through the early '90s. Plus girls don't care what your legs look like anyway; to the extent that they do look you over, it's your face, upper body, and butt.

Trust levels go hand-in-hand with cocooning: low trust is just the description at the psychological level, while cocooning describes the actual behavior. So I see wearing short shorts as part of the larger trend toward leaving your own isolated cell in the hive, putting yourself out there, letting your guard down, and trusting others not to put you down or take advantage of you. You've already left your house, but why not also remove some of the remaining physical barriers between you and the outside world -- like clothing? I don't think it's a "return to nature" thing, or a generalized "lose your inhibitions" thing, since those were not underway by the mid-late '50s.

When trust levels peaked in the late '80s, that's about when shorts started getting longer, probably because people had already begun to retreat from public exposure and into their own little worlds again. From the '90s through today, we've come to trust others so little that we don't feel comfortable putting ourselves out there, even in admittedly trivial ways like wearing shorter shorts.

There's something related going on with clothes that are closer to the body vs. more tent-like, again just another aspect of wanting to hide yourself and keep people farther away in public vs. being more carefree because you trust them. I'll write that up another time, but women's dresses became more column-like and less poofy during the Early Modern and Romantic-Gothic waves of violence, also during the Jazz Age, and then skin-tight during the New Wave Age. They bloated out, hiding any hint of her actual figure, during the mid-1500s, the Age of Reason, and the Victorian era, all periods of falling crime. During the mid-20th C and the past 20 years, they haven't returned to quite that degree of circus tent concealment, but they still weren't as clingy as they were in the Jazz Age or New Wave Age.

There are two main camps regarding how fashion responds to larger social trends: one says they aren't related to anything else, and the other that they're related to material subsistence or economic health. Both are wrong. Some fashion trends really do look unconnected to other trends, but a good deal is tracking the trend in the violence rate. I've got more quantitative data going back to the late 1700s, but for now it's probably better to stick with some case studies that are richer in detail so you get a good sense of just how cyclical fashions can be, and in particular matching the cycles in the violence rate.

December 12, 2011

With rising social isolation, why don't people feel more lonely?

Loneliness is a subjective feeling that your actual level of social interaction isn't meeting your desired level. So, you feel more lonely when you raise your desired level higher, or when your actual level falls. And conversely, you feel less lonely when you desire less interaction in the first place, or when your actual level rises.

The trend in people's actual level of social interaction, over the past 20 years, has been steadily downward. I've documented too many case studies to provide links for them all, but let's look at a new case anyway, and one that gets directly to how socially integrated people are.

The General Social Survey asks a question about how many people the respondent has discussed important matters with over the last six months. * This means it's not a superficial relationship, like water cooler chat with your office-mates or conversations with family that are still impersonal. Here is the percent of people who had 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 others who they were close enough to discuss important matters with, in 1985, 1987, and 2004:

The red bar at the bottom of each year shows people with 0 confidants. It was 8.3% in '85, fell a bit to 4.3 in '87, and shot up to 22.6% by 2004. The median American in '85 and '87 had 3 confidants, while their counterpart in 2004 only had 2. In '87 there were also fewer hyper-connected people compared to '85, and that seems to fit with the more carnivalesque zeitgeist of the new wave era earlier in the decade, which had calmed down a bit by the late '80s. Still, the main difference is between the two years from the '80s vs. 2004.

These contrasts between years show up in both sexes, all races, age groups, social classes, and regions of the country. It's not a result of changing racial demographics, which would have stricken the regions with more blacks and Hispanics and left the rest of the country alone. It's not due to there being more elderly people in recent years than when the country was over-run with young people, since it shows up even among 18-29 year-olds. There has instead been a society-wide shift toward much lower levels of actual social interaction.

Isn't it strange, then, that we don't see popular movies that treat the theme of loneliness, such as Taxi Driver or L.A. Story? And what happened to all those hit songs about yearning for more and deeper connections, from Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely" through Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone", Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" and Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)"?

In fact, when people's actual level of interaction and support was highest in the mid-late '80s, it seemed like every other song was about lonely hearts. Sometimes it was directed toward the supernatural -- "Where's that higher love I keep thinking of?" More likely, though, it was about romantic connection -- "You can't start a fire without a spark / This gun's for hire, even if we're just dancing in the dark".

Given how powerfully these songs resonated with people, and also considering how high their actual level of connectedness was, their desired level must have been to encompass the entire nation. And indeed we were much more patriotic back then; it's funny to think that it took until the 1984 Olympics for us to invent the chant "U-S-A! U-S-A!" which has since fallen out of use and not been replaced.

This underscores the importance of looking at both components of loneliness, the desired and the actual level of interaction, since someone who didn't know better about how incredibly social people were in the '80s might wrongly assume from all those songs about loneliness that they were socially deprived.

As the violence rate fell after 1992, causing people to feel less of a need to connect with others for mutual support, their actual level of interaction plummeted as shown in the chart. So you might think people since then would have identified even more strongly with songs or movies about loneliness than during the gregarious rising-crime period before. Instead people are content with their existing level of interaction, often bordering on smug and glib.

And it has never been more popular to drip derision and scorn on the call to connect with more people, and at a deeper level. You can just hear Jon Stewart's simpering sarcastic voice: "Oh look at meee, I'm.. going to... reach out to... other... people... [grin]" If anything people subjectively feel the opposite of lonely -- too connected, frazzled, and over-loaded. How can that be, when they barely interact with anyone beyond a superficial level?

It is because their desired level of interaction has fallen off a cliff. Having even one confidant is already grating on their nerves, two is pushing it, and three is asking too much. We see this desire for minimal interaction in their other cocooning behavior as well, like avoiding public spaces, eating dinner in separate rooms or at separate times, and not touching each other with their hands when they pose for pictures or go dancing.

Obviously we do not have survey data on people's actual level of social interaction from the mid-century or other periods of falling crime, but the qualitative picture looks like they were less broadly socially engaged. And like the past 20 years, in other falling-crime periods people looked down their nose at the desire to belong to a broader community. In the eras of Renaissance humanism and the Age of Reason, the cool thing was to espouse cosmopolitanism -- i.e., to bond with no other soul at all.

As the Anglo empires neared their peak, cosmopolitanism was no longer the right way to wall yourself off from your countrymen. In the Victorian era and the mid-20th century, the focus moved more toward locking yourself up in the domestic sphere, not just women who had no life outside the house, but also men who restricted the domain of manliness to the nuclear household -- being the patriarch or good dad, not a pillar of the broader community or a leader / conqueror of some kind.

Now that the Anglo empires have declined from their peak influence, the "leave me alone" strategy is moving back toward cosmopolitanism again, though still mostly about the cult of domesticity, again for males and females alike.

In contrast, it looks like most periods of rising crime had people who were more tightly integrated into a large community, while still burning to belong to an even richer network, whether mundane or supernatural. Shakespeare's sonnets and John Donne's poetry show that from the Elizabethan-Jacobean wave of violence, and the explosion of mystical nationalism across Europe from the Romantic-Gothic wave of violence.

The mechanism seems pretty clear: rising violence causes people to value mutual aid more, so they desire more and deeper social connections. The rise in their actual level follows from that greater desired level, but that's not enough because the violence rate is still going up. During a wave of violence, every year blows a colder wind than the last year, so you always need more people than last year to huddle around with to keep warm.

I don't think people back then always felt lonely, though. It was probably a transient phase for just part of the year. First, raise your desired level of interaction, then feel lonelier as a result, and finally go out and develop those deeper connections you want, alleviating your loneliness. My guess is that people raised their desired level in the late spring or early summer, so that they'd be out and about during summer, when the weather is more conducive for making new friends. Plus if the connection is romantic, you want to raise your goals in time for the start of mating season. I couldn't find out during what month "Dancing with Myself" caught on, but all the other songs I mentioned above were released as singles between May and July.

* The question is called NUMGIVEN.

December 10, 2011

Hover hands, mid-century and today

One of the more striking signs of how disconnected people are today, especially in the boy-girl context, is the hover hand (click for endless hilarious examples):

In a situation where hand-on-body contact should be fine, even called for, the guy wimps out and doesn't touch her. There are degrees of hover-handedness: he might drape his hand over her shoulder, leaving it dangling in the air, or stretch his arm out behind her while not turning his hand in to grip her arm or shoulder at all.

It clearly shows how neutered the average young male is today, but let's not forget the boy-phobia among young females either. If they wanted to be touched, few boys would go against those wishes. But as cocooners, girls get weirded out when touched, particularly by a boy. You see this in the context of dancing too: even if she's giving a guy a standing lapdance, he usually can't touch her with his hands. If he does, she'll either scurry away, or stay but pick his hands off her.

Letting someone touch your body with their hands shows that you trust them enough to make yourself vulnerable around them, and let them into your personal space bubble. Only letting the other person go as far as hover-handing is still keeping your guard up and treating them with suspicion. The commonness of the hover hand therefore tells us how little friendliness there is among people these days, even between boyfriend and girlfriend. It may not be confrontational hostility, but it is still keeping everyone else literally at a distance.

I remember when girls wanted their boyfriends to grab their ass, no matter if it was in public, and when the average person (young or middle-aged) was easy-going enough to put their arm around someone else without worrying whether or not they'd set off an alarm. That was the norm in the '80s (I was too young to have a girlfriend but still saw it among the teenagers), and died off gradually during the '90s. By the 2000s we had a full-blown epidemic of hover hands.

Poking around Google Images for prom pictures from the '70s and '80s, I could only find one or maybe two showing hover hands. And the one case was with the geekiest guy in his school. So back then, it affected maybe the nerdiest 1% of guys, whereas now it's more like 40% who would pussy out if given the opportunity.

Since this seems like just another cocooning behavior, we'd expect to find it during the falling-crime era of the mid-'30s through the late '50s. I didn't do an exhaustive search of the earlier part, when the culture would be in transition, plus they didn't have very frequent or popular proms that far back. But they did in the 1950s. I didn't even search specifically for "hover hand vintage" or "hover hand 50s" -- just "prom 195_" for each year in the decade. As now, it was not exactly the norm, but still I was amazed by how easy it was to find examples.

And remember that these people have no excuse -- they're prom dates. If the guy or girl isn't comfortable with him holding her shoulder, it isn't because it would be inappropriate. It's because they are just plain weirded out by normal physical contact.

Busted! I cannot believe how eerily contemporary that pose looks. along with the frigid and impatient expression on the brunette's face, during what is supposed to be a fun night out.

It's a little hard to see this one, but he's clearly holding his hand away from her skin. His ring and pinky fingers may not be touching at all.

Along with the drive-in culture, the non-trivial level of hover-handing should make us revise our picture of the mid-century. Obviously the people pictured in that post and this one are not at each other's throats, but that's a low standard to set. When you go out to eat, you should be near (even if not right next to) other people. And when you head off to the prom, you should just relax and get close. These hover hand pictures provide further detail of the isolation, unspoken suspicion, and self-consciousness of a period that our revisionist mythology portrays as community-minded and carefree.

December 8, 2011

Uplifting or weepy songs in memory of the dead

After John Lennon was shot, the other former Beatles released two memorial songs, "All Those Years Ago" and "Here Today". Given how close they were to him, how widely worshiped he was across Western societies, and how abruptly and senselessly his life was cut short, you might expect to hear something somber or even grief-stricken. Yet they don't go there. The emotional coloring is mellow, cooling down rather than stoking the fires of their grief, and cheery enough for a celebration of their shared experiences.

By 1997 that approach had evaporated. The rapper Puff Daddy made "I'll Be Missing You" in memory of the Notorious B.I.G., whose murder, along with that of Tupac Shakur, had come to symbolize the west coast / east coast rap feud. The tone has turned toward the morose and nihilistic. Although there are references to heaven and life after death, he doesn't sound convinced at all, and this lack of comforting beliefs probably only amplified his depression. In 2005, Eminem made a similar song called "Like Toy Soldiers" with a similar brooding and fatalistic message.

Lying on separate sides of the rising vs. falling-crime divide, these examples show how effectively people cope with death, even senseless murder. When violence is more familiar, our coping strategies get more practice. That may sound callous -- yay death, for giving our moral fiber more exercise. But we must always ask what the alternative is. Here it is getting little or no such practice during falling-crime times, so that when we ultimately are confronted with the death of a loved one -- which may happen less frequently, but still will happen -- we are blown apart and have trouble moving on with life.

The tendency away from supernatural thinking in falling-crime times only compounds this weakening of our ability to cope. One of the most basic and universal functions of religion is to help us deal with death, both materially (what to do with the body?) and supernaturally (what should we do for the deceased person's spirit?). If we come to not even believe in the persistence of a person's spirit after death, we clearly cannot be comforted with the belief that they're in a better place, and that by doing the right things we can even help them get there and stay happy when they arrive.

In the limbo period of 1991-'92, right as the crime rate is peaking, Eric Clapton composed "Tears In Heaven" in memory of his son who had fallen out of a window. Lying right on the divide between the two eras, it feels a bit like both. It sounds like he really believes in spirits meeting in heaven, although he also sounds drowned in melancholy.

Just after the crime wave began circa 1960, the song "Last Kiss" dealt with the (fictional) pointless death of the singer's girlfriend in a car wreck. As with the songs about John Lennon, the mood is almost upbeat, and the singer pulls himself together so that he can meet up with her again: "She's gone to heaven, so I've got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world." Tellingly, the 1999 cover version by Pearl Jam sounds more tortured, as though he might not be able to get things together to prepare for their would-be reunion.

Probably the greatest memorial song is "Nightshift" by The Commodores (from 1985), about the legendary singers Jackie Wilson, who had died after nine years in a coma, and Marvin Gaye, who had been shot by his own father. Unless they are paying close attention to the lyrics, most people would not even suspect it was a song about two deaths. The tone is not mournful at all, but cool, cheerful, and celebratory. They're certain that Marvin and Jackie are enjoying themselves up in the spirit world, and that by making the song in their honor, they can sustain the bonds of friendship even after one of them has died.

I reject the view that by emphasizing the value or importance of the afterlife, we cheapen the lives of others here and now, like "Well as long as they wind up in a better place, we don't have to worry so much about what happens to them in this world." When during falling-crime times people lose touch with a supernatural worldview, they are also cocooning themselves away from their neighbors, heaping scorn on the rituals that bind a community together (a brainless mob, in their view), and outsourcing the care of people in their social circle to private enterprise or a state bureaucracy, rather than attend to them first-hand (inefficient!). That's the rough picture of the past 20 years, during the mid-20th century, the Victorian era (the world of Ebenezer Scrooge), and the Age of Reason.

In contrast, when during rising-crime times people's minds are moved toward a more supernatural worldview, they are also socializing more with their friends and neighbors, yearning for a brotherhood of folks-like-us, and reaching out to take care of others on their own (e.g., by giving rides to hitch-hikers, passing out candy on Halloween, having schoolchildren visit the elderly at the senior center, and so on).

If anything a world of rising violence teaches people how precious life is, and to get straight to living it while it lasts. The ever safer environment of a falling-crime world tells people to put off living their life because it'll still all be here tomorrow, and just as orderly as it is today. It is they who come to devalue present life compared to some distant future life, albeit not a supernatural one, since a steadily safer world leads them to not discount the future so steeply. We need only look at the brain-in-a-vat Millennials who would rather wither away playing video games than be out around their fellow man, or the Silent Generation who wasted much their youth indoors listening to radio programs, and whose mild misanthropy led to the explosion of drive-in businesses where they wouldn't have to interact with other people.

December 6, 2011

The culture experience -- getting absorbed vs. finding out information

The Western world has become obsessed with NO SPOILERS since sometime in the 1990s.

When exactly? Hard to tell, but there was a 1991 episode of the Simpsons where, in a flashback to 1980, Homer is leaving the theater after seeing The Empire Strikes Back and blabs that Darth Vader is Luke's father, angering the people in line who haven't seen it yet. I'm almost certain that was projecting the mindset of 1991 back onto 1980, since you didn't see any comedy sketches, movies, TV shows, etc., from the 1980s that assumed a NO SPOILERS attitude among the audience.

Then in 1992, The Crying Game derived its popularity from its spoiler-able ending, where a chick is revealed to be a dude. Again you didn't see that in the '80s. In the slasher movie Sleepaway Camp, the killer is a female character who turns out to be a boy. A more popular thriller, Dressed to Kill, also had a transvestite slasher whose identity is revealed in a shocker style ending.

Yet as far as I know, people who liked horror and thriller movies -- basically everyone back then -- didn't throw a temper-tantrum if somehow the ending were leaked to them before seeing or finishing the movie. If that mindset existed at all, it was so uncommon that no one else in the culture referred to it, as The Simpsons did in 1991.

Even video games have become infected by NO SPOILERS. I only rarely play them anymore, but I do keep up roughly on the state of the video game world, and it amazes me how psychotic people are about not learning any plot details.

This is a radical change from even 20 years ago. In Metroid, an incredibly popular game from the late 1980s, you controlled a space hero character hidden under a suit of armor. If you beat the game, the armor came off to reveal a woman, unlike what you'd expected. Most kids did not beat the game, so when they found out, it should have triggered their NO SPOILERS alarm. But back then people were not as autistic as now, so none of the millions of kids who played Metroid curled their toes when they learned what the shocker ending was before finishing the game for themselves.

What is the best way to view this shift? Before, consuming a work of culture was about getting absorbed in some other world -- connecting emotionally with the doomed crew of Alien, feeling transported out of your body at a New Wave dance club, or visually exploring the sublime far-off worlds of Star Wars. Because it was a personal, visceral, and emotional reaction to watching the movie or hearing the song, only the movie or the song itself could give you this desired experience. Others could try to tell you what it felt like, but it never came close to the real thing. Emotional responses cannot be spoiled.

Unlike emotions, communication through language is not an intensely personal experience. Indeed its impersonality and abstractness is what allows us to convey ideas so easily to scores of other people far removed from the topic of conversation. "Kimberly went out on a date with Joey" is not one of those you-had-to-be-there kind of things. It's not perfect, since the "game of telephone" effect will eventually distort the original information. Still, the signal degrades very slowly, unlike with an emotional reaction to a movie, which cannot be shared to even one other person -- they have to see it for themselves.

These days the point of consuming culture is to find out information, the "who did what to whom?" stuff that a journalist would write up for newspaper readers. Is some female character really a male? Does one character betray another? Or maybe sacrifice themselves for another? This propositional information can be effortlessly conveyed from one person to another through language, and so is very easily spoiled.

This shift toward an impersonal and logical relationship with cultural works reminds me of the abstract and conceptual art of the mid-century. That was not art that you had to see for yourself; someone else could tell you the punchline and save you the trouble. I don't mean that you could content yourself with seeing a color print, or a black-and-white copy in a book, vs. seeing the original. I mean you didn't have to see it in any form at all -- "there's a series of stainless steel rectangles sticking out of the wall" or "there's an entirely black canvas" or "there's three American flags stacked on each other".

That was a sharp break with figurative and expressive art from the first several decades of the 20th century, and unlike the return to such styles during the '70s and '80s. Staring at a stainless steel cube offers the spectator no potential to leave this world for some other; it was made instead so that people, whether they saw it or not, could convey propositions about it through language. I wonder then if there was a NO SPOILERS attitude about it.

"You just have to see the new exhibit of Davidovich's work! It's so avant-garde, he's taken these stainless steel cubes and -- "

"No! Don't tell me! I'm going to the Whitney tomorrow, so don't ruin it for me!"

These shifts look like another example of our mindsets moving more in the autistic direction during falling-crime periods, and more empathetic in rising-crime times. The impersonal relaying of propositions appeals more to the systematizers, whereas the direct emotional absorption into the world and lives of others needs a more empathizing brain.

This psychological change is also linked to a behavioral change, namely cocooning during falling-crime times and being out-and-about in rising-crime times. The biggest misconception about the Romantic movement is that they were inwardly focused because of their concern with personal emotion. In reality they were more concerned with experiencing life from another person's perspective, hence their obsession with the exotic and primitive.

Emphasizing the emotional while walling yourself off from the rest of the world is pulling your mind in two different directions, since the emotional lobes of the brain are designed for social interaction. So we generally do not see culture-makers taking that stance. But where it does occur, it is always in a falling-crime period, such as the emo and goth sub-cultures of the past 20 years -- not '80s goth, whose fans got out of the house, and whose bands reached out to and found success among normal people too. Or the way too self-conscious Symbolist literature of the Victorian era, such as Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil from 1857.

It's good that they're at least trying to pull the culture away from the nerdy extreme of the people-vs-things spectrum of interests, but their hermit-like behavior cripples their ability to create works that will resonate with others. Instead it comes off as self-indulgent navel-gazing. One more reason to look forward to the end of the current period of falling crime. It won't get very high on an absolute level (at least an order of magnitude safer than Early Modern England), but the fact that it's going up will switch our minds back into the other-oriented, "people person" direction.