Thursday, February 28, 2008

Are you a throwback? Check your ear.

When I was a kid I was totally fascinated by this little bump on my right ear. If I feel the outside of my ear, along the edge, I can still feel that little bump. Maybe you have a little cartilage there too. Do you?

It's called Darwin's point and is a relic of our mammalian past.

The heritable trait runs dominant, which means if either of your parents gave you a gene for the point, you'll express the trait and have a little bump on your ear too.

According to the article "On the Pithecoid Type of Ear in Man" published in 1899 by the Zoological Bulletin, half of men and one-third of women have one. Several decades before, when the pseudoscience of phrenology was all the rage, people thought the trait was associated with criminality. It's tied to criminal propensity as much as it is to the appendix, which is to say — not at all.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The psychology of product pricing

Recently I was posed the question: Given the same item, would people be more inclined to buy it if it cost:
  • Option A: $13.50 with $2.00 shipping
  • Option B: $14.50 with $1.00 shipping
In both cases, the item ends up costing $15.50. While this may seem like a dumb question because it still costs the same in the end, it is emphatically not a dumb question. You see, although economists argue that people are rational, psychologists know this is not so. Psychologists observe what people do — and the more we observe human behavior, the more we see of it that is completely irrational — like preferring option A over B even though they are effectively the same.

Thanks to the work of two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, we have a lot more insight now on how people make exactly these kinds of decisions.

Kahneman, in fact, is the only psychologist to ever win a Nobel Prize. He won it in 2002 "for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty," according to Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences who hand out the awards.

A number of experiments have been conducted on framing, which all support the conclusion that how choices are presented matters. A classic example is the much greater proportion of people who will buy a package of beef labeled "80% lean" as opposed to "20% fat." Ahem, what do you think is in the other 20% of that beef package labeled 80% lean?

It's obvious to me why people would rather buy 80% lean than 20% fat, but it's not so obvious to me which pricing scheme is better - a higher initial price and lower shipping, or the reverse.

After doing some research on it, I located a paper that investigated exactly this sort of thing. It's called price partitioning - meaning the practice online retailers adopt of creating a separate price for the item and its shipping or other surcharges, such as the extra fees and taxes associated with cell phone use.

The researchers found that those partitioning schemes that are most effective for sales are those that are the norm for the type of product and retailer and is expected by the customer.

If the lower shipping charge is expected and is the norm, then offering option B is best. If you instead offer option A, this will have little or even a negative effect according to the study.

Unfortunately, the study didn't address the issue of free shipping. I'd guess that it's always going to better to offer free shipping and ratchet up the initial cost of the item to offset it — only if other retailers selling similar products are doing that. Otherwise, it is better to stick with the smaller initial price point so long as the shipping charge is fair.

If I were an retailer who really wanted to know the answer to this pricing question, I'd list the same item two different ways and see which one takes longer to sell. If a large enough number of etsy sellers do this, we could determine which pricing scheme (if any) is best.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The psychology behind the $17 billion shoe obsession


That is the amount American women spent on shoes in one recent year (2004-2005) according to the retail and consumer- information firm NPD Group.

That's the amount of many an Eastern European country's foreign debt.

There's no denying the shoe's place in popular culture. They inspired the title of a recent film, In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette. They figured prominently in the television show "Sex and the City" whereby millions of women suddenly became aware — and desirous — of Manolo Blahniks, shoes that could easily cost more than my monthly mortgage. And who could forget when Imelda Marcos' collection of thousands of pairs of shoes came to symbolize the cruel and backwards rule of her husband over the Philippines, a country of people more accustomed to overwhelming poverty than luxury footwear.

So, what belies this shoe obsession?

While it might be tempting to turn toward a Freudian view of shoes — seeing the particularly pointy stiletto-style pumps as some sort of phallic symbol, whereby donning them, woman can reduce the inevitable "penis envy" that so consumes them according to the theory — this would be far-fetched.

Actually, I don't think it is that far off. Shoes can signal power, and they certainly have something to do with sexuality.

Consider the power that comes with wearing high heels. They add inches of height — as much 2 or 3 inches. Chimps and other animals' hair stands up when they are in the throws of a dominance show. Humans have largely lost this ability to instantly look more bad ass when the situation calls for it. Instead, we women can use high heals. Afterall, people still ascribe higher status, dominance, and even income to people who are bigger — specifically taller. If men gain power and influence with their height (41 of the past 42 winners of the U. S. Presidential race have been the taller of the two candidates*) who's to say women don't gain power when they elevate their height with high heels? They also make noise - a ton of noise. Primates, like other animals, make a raucous display when they compete for power. Shoes do this for women.

The great irony here is that although high-heels make a woman feel more bad ass, they would be a huge handicap if she ever had to defend herself. They throw balance off. Each step requires the utmost concentration until heel-wearing becomes so well-practiced it's like riding a bike. The fact that women can walk perfectly adroitly in stilettos and their relatives may indicate a certain kind of superiority. In the biological world, functioning well with a handicap signals greater health — and fitness — in a Darwinian sense. It's called Zahavi's handicap principle. You can read more about it here. It's fascinating and explains some species characteristics that baffled even Darwin.

Shoes are not simply linked with power, influence, and status — which of course the rarity and price tag add to — they are also wrapped up with sexuality. High heels shift posture - forcing the chest and derrière out, making each more prominent. They increase the definition of muscles in the thighs and calves. And, they make the wearers feel sexier.

While all of this explains the obsession behind high-heeled shoes, it does little to explain why some women must have so many of them. For that, I blame the conspicuous consumption that pervades our country and leaves us falsely believing our possessions indicate our self-worth.

* Al Gore was the only one who was taller and did not win, though he did win more of the popular vote.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Love, desire and "romantic alternatives"

Researchers from UCLA and the online dating service eHarmony asked 120 UCLA students to look at photographs of very attractive people of the opposite sex, and choose the one they thought was most attractive. All 120 reported that they were in “committed” relationships. After viewing the photographs, the students were divided into three groups:
  • One wrote an essay about a situation where they felt the most love for their partner.
  • The second group wrote about a time they felt the most sexual desire for their partner.
  • The third group wrote about a subject of their own choice.
While writing, the students were instructed to put a check mark in the margin of their essay every time they thought about the attractive person they chose.

Compared to the control group (who wrote about their own topic), people writing about love were 6 times less likely to think about the attractive person, and people writing about sexual desire for their partner were 4 times less likely.

The researchers also asked the students to describe the photo “hottie” after writing their essays. The love essay writers remembered only about 2/3 the number of attractive features as the other groups.

The researchers concluded that reflecting on the love you have for one person effectively filters out temptation for another.

Gonzaga, G., Haselton, M. G., Smurda, J., Davies, M. S., & Poore, J. C. (2008). Love, desire, and the suppression of thoughts of romantic alternatives. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Newfoundland and Her New Pet Rock

A few days ago Katy discovered a fabulous toy in the backyard — a rock about the size of a walnut. She has been playing with it nearly non-stop for 3 days now. Yesterday after lunch she played with it for TWO HOURS while I worked. Two straight hours! Batting it around, pouncing on it, and snooting it. The toys I have made and purchased for her were cast aside like yesterday's news. She carries it around and sleeps next to it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Evolutionary Explanation for the Link Between Mental Illness & Creativity

Is it true that mental illness is associated with creativity -
or is that just a myth?

There is a bit of an evolutionary puzzle surrounding the persistence of mental illness, particularly debilitating conditions like schizophrenia. Many forms of mental illness are heritable and also associated with dramatically reduced ability to cope effectively with day-to-day life. If such conditions interfere so dramatically with life, wouldn't they impede reproduction too? Of so, then why do genes linked with schizophrenia persist?

The authors of the research article Schizotypy, creativity and mating success in humans provide some intriguing answers to this paradox. Their article was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, a well-respected journal, in 2005.

Schizotypy refers to a personality type that shares many of the same traits as schizophrenia, but not to the same extreme. The traits are:
  • magical thinking, unusual experiences
  • attention & concentration difficulties
  • impulsive non-conformity (rash, reckless behavior that is eccentric)
  • introverted anhedonia (social withdrawal, lack of enjoyment)
Several studies have found that artists and others active in the creative arts have elevated levels of some of these schizotypal traits. Specifically, the first and third.

In fact, artists and poets score as high on those two traits as schizophrenia patients do.

These are also traits that should theoretically lead to having more sexual partners, and hence, greater mating success. That final part is an important piece of evidence the authors use to explain why these traits persist in the general population. I should point out that the number of children schizotypal people have is a more valid measure of reproductive success than their number of sexual partners.

The authors of the study looked at correlations between the personality traits, creativity, and sexual activity. They used a sophisticated type of statistical analysis to guess at the causal relationships. Correlational data can never be used to determine whether one thing causes another, such whether being schizotypal causes one to produce more art. For that you need an experiment that manipulates one to see the effect on the other. However, path analysis can hint at causal relationships.

Using path analysis, the authors found that having a lot of unusual experiences ( I wish they had given some examples, but they didn't - boo) affects artistic output, which in turn affects sexual activity. What this means is that more prolific artists have more sexual partners.

This is consistent with psychologist Geoffrey Miller's theory that artistic creativity functions as courtship display - something akin to a peacock strutting its feathers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On the difficult art of SYNTHESIS

Plants fascinate me — that's no surprise to anyone who knows me. The fact that they can make their own 'food' out of light amazes me. Photosynthesis is really, really neat. But that's not what I'm going to talk about.

I am more interested in the ability, or rather lack of, ability to piece together disparate bits of sometimes conflicting information to create a coherent whole.

On our walk to work this morning, Mr. Field Notes and I fell into an engaging conversation about critical thinking skills. We agreed that people can readily describe how seemingly different things or ideas are actually different, but they have a much more difficult time seeing how two apparently different things or concepts are similar.

I pointed out that Bloom's taxonomy of thinking places "synthesis" at the top of a hierarchy of critical thinking skills students should develop. He pointed out integration is much more challenging for calculus students than finding derivatives.

There is just something different a brain has to do to integrate and synthesize.

I mused aloud maybe this is a symptom of the way our brains have evolved. Perhaps the evolutionary pressures were such that it was much more important to recognize differences than be able to synthesize, think 'outside the box' and be creative.

Most people are not all that create when solving problems. We rely on previously successful solutions, going with what worked in the past. This is so common that psychologists have a name to describe it - mental set. Psychologists have also determined that when people are accustomed to using an object a certain way, say a light bulb to light a room, they often cannot see any other way to use it - for instance as a heater. Psychologists call this functional fixedness. I can't tell you how many times I've seen students struggle because they can't break their habitual ways of solving problems.

From an evolutionary perspective, this sort of makes sense: If it ain't broken, don't fix it.

When it comes to solving problems, people also rely on short-cuts that psychologists have identified called heuristics. These rules-of-thumb are what many consider to be "common sense" and do oftentimes, but not always, lead to correct conclusions and solutions. The important thing to recognize is that there are times when these heuristic lead to faulty conclusions.

One of the most well-known and used heuristics is the availability heuristic. When asked to estimate the likelihood of something happening, people appear to have a bias toward saying memorable events or things that are more easily recalled occur more often.

I think this is because people don't really like to think. Thinking is taxing. It's much more comfortable to be on auto-pilot and cruise through life without trying to make sense of anything. People don't like contradictions. They like things, including other people, to be predictable, to fit a formula.

What do you think — do people really have an easier time pointing out differences than seeing similarities? Why?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

William Wallace the Sock Monkey has arrived!

Remember when I showed you some amazing sock monkeys and wondered if the artist who makes them could make a William Wallace sock monkey inspired by the movie Braveheart?

She did and he arrived today! He's Mr. Field Notes' present for Valentine's Day. He had no idea I had the monkey custom made for him. He was so surprised!!

Observation: Gorillas Mate Face-To-Face

One of the pieces of evidence some religionists like to toss around to "prove" that humans are not mere animals is that we humans are the only species on the planet that mates face-to-face. What they don't realize is that many other animals mate face-to-face, including woolly spider monkeys, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), and orangutans.

Primatologists working at Mbeli Bai forest clearing in the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo have captured for the first time evidence that wild gorillas copulate in the ventral-ventral position.

Copulation and ventral-ventral are the preferred scientific terms. I always correct my primatology students to use the term ventral-dorsal when they refer to the more usual animal mating position: doggy style. There are always a handful of students who have a difficult time making the switch. Those students also have a tendency to say animals "have sex." They don't. Animals mate or copulate. If they're going to learn how to approach the subject from a scientific perspective, they have to talk like scientists do.

But back to the story - of what significance is this gorilla observation? The primatologist who made the observation, Thomas Breuer, is hesitant to draw any conclusions, which is wise, given that this is a one time observation between one pair of gorillas — not a widespread pattern typical of adults.

Psychologists speculate that ventral-ventral copulation might engender a deeper relationship between a mating pair. It affords prolonged eye contact, something that has been scientifically linked to greater pleasure, liking, and even love (among humans). Perhaps this happens with other primates as well.

Breuer observed the gorilla pair mate for about 2 mins., after which the silverback briefly held the female's hand. Even the world's largest primates, of King Kong fame, enjoy affection. "Maybe there's a way the act forms a kind of bond between the silverback and the female," Breuer says. "But we just don't know."

Documenting internal feelings of love is challenging, whatever the species.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Webbed Animal Cards

Finally I found time to photograph this card I made from my handmade paper and scraps from Mr. Field Notes' weaving.

The green metallic yarn scintillates and the giraffe casts neat shadows in the sunlight.

When the sun shines in the afternoon, which has been rare this month, light hits a spot on my office desk where I can take good photos of my cards.

Although many suggest constructing a light box, natural light is better in my experience — afternoon especially.

This was the first time I used a black background.
What is it? Nothing more than a leather portfolio I used all throughout grad school and — ha ha ha — my diploma!

I have cut out some other charismatically shaped animals to make some more of these.

The first one I made became Mr. Field Notes' 29th birthday card (that was some number of years ago). I wrote the message on the other side of the front panel, that way the words don't interfere with the view.

The distinctive "webbed" designs of Genie the Weaver inspired my creation of the card.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Scientist: All Blue-Eyed People Are Related

.. from My commentary follows.

If you've got blue eyes, shake the hand of the nearest person who shares your azure irises: He or she may be a distant cousin.

Danish researchers have concluded that all blue-eyed people share a common ancestor, presumably someone who lived 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

"Originally, we all had brown eyes," Professor Hans Eiberg of the University of Copenhagen said in a press release. "But a genetic mutation affecting the OCA2 gene in our chromosomes resulted in the creation of a 'switch,' which literally 'turned off' the ability to produce brown eyes."

That "switch" — a simple change from "A," or adenine, to "G," or guanine, in the DNA — actually sits next to the OCA2 gene, which regulates the pigmentation of our eyes, hair and skin, and hence has only a limiting effect on it.

If the mutation had completely deactivated OCA2, all blue-eyed people would be albinos.

Eiberg and his team analyzed 155 individuals in a large Danish family, plus several blue-eyed people born in Turkey and Jordan.

All blue-eyed subjects had the mutation, and there was very little variation on the genes neighboring it on the chromosome, indicating that the mutation first arose relatively recently.

In contrast, most mammals share the "normal" form of the gene. The six-letter sequence is exactly the same among mice, horses, cows, rats, dogs, cats, monkeys, chimpanzees and humans with brown eyes. (No word on what gives Siberian huskies and Siamese cats blue eyes.)

Eiberg figures the mutation took place on the northern of the Black Sea, but that's an educated guess, assuming the first blue-eyed humans were among the proto-Indo-Europeans who subsequently spread agriculture into western Europe and later rode horses into Iran and India.

Ironically, neither the first person to have the mutation, nor his or her children, would have had blue eyes themselves.

Blue eyes are a recessive trait, and the gene must be inherited from both parents. (Green eyes involve a related but different gene, one that is recessive to brown but dominant to blue.)

It wasn't until the original mutant's grandchildren or great-grandchildren hooked up — cousin marriage is the norm through most of human history — that the first blue-eyed person appeared. He or she must have looked pretty odd for the Neolithic era.

Eiberg stresses that the genetic variation, as the press release puts it, is "neither a positive nor a negative mutation."

That's a bit disingenuous, as the mutation also produces greater instance of blond hair (sexually selected for even today) and fair skin, which confers a survival advantage by stimulating greater production of vitamin D in sun-starved northern European countries — exactly where blue eyes are still most prevalent.

• Click here for the full journal article.


If the author stressed that the blue eyed mutation is "neither a positive nor a negative mutation," then why did the journalist then contradict the scientist?

Grr. If I had been the editor I would have corrected the author. The mutation does NOT produce blonde hair and pale skin. Correlation is not causation. It just so happens that those traits co-occur.

What else is interesting about blue eyes is that they arouse suspicion in some parts of the world — Turkey and Jordan included. Cultures across the Mid East and North Africa believe blue eyes are the source of the evil eye. They have the power to dry up a mother's milk. When I was in Tunisia I saw one blue-eyed person the entire time. He was so remarkably different that I actually blurted out loud to him "Vous avez les yeux bleu!" He responded "Yes! Yes! Blue eyes" and pointed out mine. It was cool, and memorable.

I could imagine that blue eyes are indeed a sexually selected trait like some evolutionary scientists think blonde hair is. Perhaps there is some truth to the "What is exotic is erotic" idea. Who knows.

But, I definitely want to read the original article!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I Broke My Glasses in A Spectacular Accident

They split in half. There was no resurrecting them. I had no backup. It was late in the day. I live in a small town. I can't see a foot in front of my face clearly without them.

What to do? After considering the options in town, Mr. Field Notes and I decided to drive to the nearest city rather than having me wear old contacts from 6am to 10 pm every night for the next two weeks while the local vision outfitters did their thing. Every place in town, and there were only three, said it would take 10-14 days for them to produce new glasses for me as they mail them all out to be cut somewhere else.

Fortunately the Lens Crafters 100 miles away was open until nine.

We ate mall food for dinner. It was bad, but I can see again.

Today I am seeing through new lenses and looking out onto the new dining room table that was delivered today. Mr. Field Notes and I had been scoping new ones out and finally pulled the trigger on Monday. It's dark and a modern, but still rustic blend of Pottery Barn / Pier 1 style.

I also picked up a new jasmine plant, fully budded and ready to bloom. I re-potted it yesterday and can't wait for spring to see if the one I transplanted outside made it through the winter. The new plant smells heavenly – if there were such a place, jasmine is what it would smell like.

Monday, February 04, 2008

On adoption: Does it matter that kids look like their parents?

The big thought provoking thing going on for the past week in the Field Notes household is whether to adopt. My regular readers may remember that about a year ago at this time I had to have surgery to remove several huge ovarian cysts. All medical experts agree that my chances of raising a child of my own DNA is pretty near nil, and I have for the most part come to accept that.

But, I still think it would be nice to be a mother. I'd be an amazing mother, I am confident of that. But, the big question facing us around here is what to adopt. A newfoundland or a human?

I love my canine babies, but they will always be D.O.G.S. and unfortunately they are not valued or accepted the same as human babies by all members of my family. My sister will never let my fur kids inside her house and that means we won't ever really visit her for any amount of time. Nor will they come visit us for the same. That is unfortunate and not my choice. We will also never be able to travel around the world with our kids, introducing them to other cultures and the rich fabric of human life. We will never grow old with our kids, nor will they ever be able to care for us when we are aging – not that I would expect them to. We won't be able to see how they grow to resemble us as and adopt our mannerisms as they mature. But we will also have a minimal impact on the planet and won't go through the enormous expense and emotional burden that children bring.

When I think about whether to adopt another newfie, which as a breed is about as human as you can get in the dog world – friendly, forgiving, emotional intelligent, loyal, affectionate, smart, obedient – or whether to take the plunge and adopt a human, I can't but help to think that the reason I most want to adopt a human child instead is just plain selfish: To see whether they turn out like Mr. and Ms. Field Notes.

Isn't that selfish? Well, I think it's an awfully shallow reason to adopt a human child.

My thoughts turned to that today when I received an email from the breeder of Her Royal Highness the Newfoundland. The photos of my newfie's "birth parents" confirm that she is the spitting image of her mom and dad. It is downright uncanny. (The black and white landseer newfoundland above is her dad; the rest are her mom).

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Observations on Barack Obama & Hillary Clinton's PDA

The recent PDA displayed between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton hasn't escaped anyone's attention in the national media, and being an enthusiastic observer of primates and their patterns of touch – it struck me too.

I think it's natural to make assumptions about the status of the relationship between two people seen touching. It's what we do as human beings, as primates. We observe others for signs of who is related, allied. The most obvious give away is touch. Primates don't touch just anyone, and neither do people. So when CNN started musing about whether they were going to be running mates, it didn't surprise me.

BUT – What you may not have picked up on is the dominance aspect of their touch.

Touch for humans as well as other primates, is as much a display of affection as it is a display of dominance. Here, it is significant that he initiated the touch and also stood over her while he pulled out her chair. While it was a nice gesture, to touch her shoulder and pull out her chair, by doing so he signaled that he is in control. The more powerful person in a dyad is the one who has the license to touch. That's why observational studies have found over and over again that men initiate touch far more often than women do. Like it or not, we still live in a male-dominated society.

It's important to not read into that one interaction too much; I am sure she has touched him first plenty of times. I just think it's interesting that the same interaction that has sparked so much talk about their running "mateship" is also one that contains unambiguous cues to dominance.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Pretty In Pink

In lieu of an academic post, I bring you something pretty in pink. Do you remember that movie? For me it always triggers this memory of something a substitute teacher said to me once. She, in passing, told me I look like Molly Ringwald. Isn't it amazing how you remember things people say for decades?

In other stream of consciousness news – I have just tied Mr. Field Notes' record for the most socks collected from the Newfoundland's mouth. She has this thing for socks. She fishes them out of the clothes basket and brings them to us. She coyly stands there in front of us, mouth stuffed with a sock, waiting to run off when we reach for it. She gets this really sheepish grin too. It's all a game for attention. If I ignore her she gets close enough that I can take it away, and she willingly parts with it. She knows exactly where she can find more. So off she goes... I always tell her to get the other one and she does. Always the sock's partner. She seems to need to bring pairs and never mixes them up. Enough Newf News!

Here's the pretty in pink part. I made these cards awhile back and love how they turned out. The leaves left a gorgeous stain on the paper when I made it. I also put a little bit of hot pink yarn in the pulp from Mr. Field Notes' weaving. They are a new favorite. I would love to have time to make more.