Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

31 JANUARY, 2013

Love in the Age of Data: How One Woman Hacked Her Way to Happily Ever After

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Reverse-engineering the algorithms of romance, one picky data point at a time.

The question of how love works has bedeviled writers and scientists for centuries. But how do the dynamics of romance differ in the age of online dating? In Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match (public library; UK), digital strategist and journalist Amy Webb — one of the smartest people I know — takes us on her unexpected journey to true love, in which she sets out to “game the system, using math, data, and loopholes” to find the man of her dreams. If it sounds predictable and contrived, rest assured it’s anything but.

Amy writes in the introduction:

I realized that we’ve all been going about finding our matches the wrong way. Whether we’re dating in the real world or online, we’re relying too much now on hope and happenstance. And these days, algorithms, too. We don’t allow ourselves to think about what we really want in a partner, an then we don’t sell ourselves in order to get it.

After a series of bad dates following a major heartbreak, mathematically-driven Amy decided to take a quantitative approach to the playing field and started systematically recording various data points about her dates, revealing some important correlations. After one particularly bad date, she decided to formalize the exercise and wrote down everything that was important to her in a mate — from intellectual overlap to acceptable amount of body hair — eventually coming up with 72 attributes that she was going to demand in any future date. She then broke down these attributes into two tiers and developed a scoring system, assigning specific points to each. For 700 out of a maximum possible 1800, she’d agree to have an email exchange; for 900, she’d go on a date; for 1,500, she’d consider a long-term relationship.

But this, she soon realized, was only half the equation — it only illuminated what she was looking for in a mate. So Amy took the obvious data-driven next step: She set up 10 fake dating profiles, posing as 10 men with high scores on her rating system, and set about using the site as each of these different archetypes. She interacted with a total of 96 women, systematically noting their behaviors and responses, from the way they constructed their profiles to the language they used in interactions to how long they took in responding to messages, reverse-engineering what makes a successful, popular female profile that attracts the very kind of man Amy was looking for.

This allowed her to create a “super profile,” her very own custom “algorithm” of love. Once she looked at her data and set up a real profile for herself, it was a matter of time until she met Brian, fell in love, got married, and started a family — your ordinary happily-ever-after fairy tale ending, with an extraordinary side of quantitative and qualitative magic.

Amy writes:

Think about the way you’ve set up your Facebook profile. And if you don’t use Facebook, instead think about how you’ve described yourself to new people you’ve met recently. You list your favorite foods, bands, books. You talk about cities you want to visit. These aren’t meaningful data points; they’re stylized nuggets of information meant to personify ourselves in a formulaic way to others. A Facebook profile is in many ways an outfit we wear and the accessories and cologne we put with it: we’re hoping to project a particular image in order to socialize with (or avoid, in some cases) a particular group of people.

Dating sites and the algorithms they advertise purport to sort through our personalities, wants, and desires in order to connect us with our best possible matches. Which means that we’ve outsourced not just an introduction , but the consideration of whether or not that man or woman is really our ideal. We’re putting our blind trust in a system that’s meant to do the heavy lifting or figuring out what it is that we really want out of a mate, and what will truly make us happy. This job is being processed using information that we, ourselves, have entered into a computer system. Bad data in equals bad data out. Algorithms that dating sites have spent millions of dollars to refine aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just not as good as we want them to be, because they’re computing our half-truths and aspirational wishes.

One of the possible reasons for this imperfection, Amy points out, is a misalignment of motives. Dating sites make their money either through advertising or through subscriptions, and in either case they benefit from your coming back to the site again and again, spending as much time as possible looking for — but not finding — a mate. (If this sounds cynical, it isn’t any more so than the fundamental reality of the internet itself — it’s the same misalignment of publishers’ financial motives and the audience’s best interest that’s responsible for the web’s infestation of slideshows, pagination, and other vacant content aimed at maximizing pageviews while minimizing your reading experience and enjoyment of the content.)

Though some of the findings are dishearteningly prehistoric, reinforcing gender stereotypes and sexual archetypes — men prefer blondes and are turned off by powerful women, curly women are better off straightening their hair, and using light language bordering on the inane helps women attract more dates — the overall experiment offers some fascinating, and often counterintuitive, modern-day anthropological insights.

In the appendix, Amy shares some of the findings she arrived at in analyzing what makes a successful profile:

  • Use aspirational language; keep it positive and optimistic.
  • Sounding “writerly” doesn’t work in your favor.
  • Don’t recycle your resume on your dating profile.
  • Lead with your hobbies and activities.
  • Stay away from foreign words.
  • Keep your profile pithy, between 90 and 100 words — or about three sentences.
  • Use humor, but beware that sarcasm doesn’t translate well online and tends to come off as anger or aloofness.
  • Don’t talk about your job, especially if what you do is difficult to explain.

Sample Data, A Love Story with Amy’s entertaining, enlightening, infinitely heartening TEDx talk:

Ultimately, the point of Data, A Love Story isn’t to colonize romance by validating the rites of a Universal System where, in order to attain some regressive ideal of love, women dumb themselves down; rather, it is to demonstrate that it’s possible, with the right amount of intelligence, both technical, in reverse-engineering the system’s inner workings, and emotional, in being unafraid to want what one wants, to hack the system — any system — to serve one’s own ideal of love.

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29 JANUARY, 2013

Anton Chekhov on the 8 Qualities of Cultured People

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“In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent.”

What does it mean to be “cultured”? Is it about being a good reader, or knowing how to talk about books you haven’t read, or having a general disposition of intellectual elegance? That’s precisely the question beloved Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) considers in a letter to his older brother Nikolai, an artist. The missive, written when Anton was 26 and Nikolai 28 and found in Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends (public domain; public library), dispenses a hearty dose of tough love and outlines the eight qualities of cultured people — including honesty, altruism, and good habits:

MOSCOW, 1886.

… You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.

You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

  1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
  2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…., to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
  3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
  4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
  5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
  6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator's Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
  7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
  8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.
It is time!
I expect you…. We all expect you.

A. P. Chekhov (left) with Nikolai Chekhov (right), 1882; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

For more epistolary notes on the building of character, complement with history’s finest letters of fatherly advice.

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28 JANUARY, 2013

The Science of Love: How Positivity Resonance Shapes the Way We Connect

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The neurobiology of how the warmest emotion blurs the boundaries by you and not-you.

We kick-started the year with some of history’s most beautiful definitions of love. But timeless as their words might be, the poets and the philosophers have a way of escaping into the comfortable detachment of the abstract and the metaphysical, leaving open the question of what love really is on an unglamorously physical, bodily, neurobiological level — and how that might shape our experience of those lofty abstractions. That’s precisely what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who has been studying positive emotions for decades, explores in the unfortunately titled but otherwise excellent Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (UK; public library). Using both data from her own lab and ample citations of other studies, Fredrickson dissects the mechanisms of love to reveal both its mythologies and its practical mechanics.

She begins with a definition that parallels Dorion Sagan’s scientific meditation on sex:

First and foremost, love is an emotion, a momentary state that arises to infuse your mind and body alike. Love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force. As for all positive emotions, the inner feeling love brings you is inherently and exquisitely pleasant — it feels extraordinarily good, the way a long, cool drink of water feels when you’re parched on a hot day. Yet far beyond feeling good, a micro-moment of love, like other positive emotions, literally changes your mind. It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self. The boundaries between you and not-you — what lies beyond your skin — relax and become more permeable. While infused with love you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others — really see them, wholeheartedly — springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.

[…]

Perhaps counterintuitively, love is far more ubiquitous than you ever thought possible for the simple fact that love is connection. It’s that poignant stretching of your heart that you feel when you gaze into a newborn’s eyes for the first time or share a farewell hug with a dear friend. It’s even the fondness and sense of shared purpose you might unexpectedly feel with a group of strangers who’ve come together to marvel at a hatching of sea turtles or cheer at a football game. The new take on love that I want to share with you is this: Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.

Fredrickson zooms in on three key neurobiological players in the game of love — your brain, your levels of the hormone oxytocin, and your vagus nerve, which connects your brain to the rest of your body — and examines their interplay as the core mechanism of love, summing up:

Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.

She shorthands this trio “positivity resonance” — a concept similar to limbic revision — and likens the process to a mirror in which you and your partner’s emotions come into sync, reflecting and reinforcing one another:

This is no ordinary moment. Within this mirrored reflection and extension of your own state, you see far more. A powerful back-and-forth union of energy springs up between the two of you, like an electric charge.

What makes “positivity resonance” so compelling a concept and so arguably richer than traditional formulations of “love” is precisely this back-and-forthness and the inclusiveness implicit to it. Fredrickson cautions against our solipsistic view of love, common in the individualistic cultures of the West:

Odds are, if you were raised in a Western culture, you think of emotions as largely private events. you locate them within a person’s boundaries, confined within their mind and skin. When conversing about emotions, your use of singular possessive adjectives betrays this point of view. You refer to ‘my anxiety,’ ‘his anger,’ or ‘her interest.’ Following this logic, love would seem to belong to the person who feels it. Defining love as positivity resonance challenges this view. Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections.

Citing various research, Fredrickson puts science behind what Anaïs Nin poetically and intuitively cautioned against more than half a century ago:

People who suffer from anxiety, depression, or even loneliness or low self-esteem perceive threats far more often than circumstances warrant. Sadly, this overalert state thwarts both positivity and positivity resonance. Feeling unsafe, then, is the first obstacle to love.

But perhaps the insight hardest to digest in the age of artificial semi-connectedness — something Nin also cautioned against a prescient few decades before the internet — has to do with the necessary physicality of love:

Love’s second precondition is connection, true sensory and temporal connection with another living being. You no doubt try to ‘stay connected’ when physical distance keeps you and your loved ones apart. You use the phone, e-mail, and increasingly texts or Facebook, and it’s important to do so. Yet your body, sculpted by the forces of natural selection over millennia, was not designed for the abstractions of long-distance love, the XOXs and LOLs. Your body hungers for more.

[…]

True connection is one of love’s bedrock prerequisites, a prime reason that love is not unconditional, but instead requires a particular stance. Neither abstract nor mediated, true connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires sensory and temporal copresence of bodies .The main mode of sensory connection, scientists contend, is eye contact. Other forms of real-time sensory contact — through touch, voice, or mirrored body postures and gestures — no doubt connect people as well and at times can substitute for eye contact. Nevertheless, eye contact may well be the most potent trigger for connection and oneness.

[…]

Physical presence is key to love, to positivity resonance.

While Fredrickson argues for positivity resonance as a phenomenon that can blossom between any set of people, not just lovers, she takes care to emphasize the essential factor that separates intimate love from other love: time.

Love is a many-splendored thing. This classic saying is apt, not only because love can emerge from the shoots of any other positive emotion you experience, be it amusement, serenity, or gratitude, but also because of your many viable collaborators in love, ranging from our sister to your soul mate, your newborn to your neighbor, even someone you’ve never met before.

[…]

At the level of positivity resonance, micro-moments of love are virtually identical regardless of whether they bloom between you and a stranger or you and a soul mate; between you and an infant or you and your lifelong best friend. The clearest difference between the love you feel with intimates and the love you feel with anyone with whom you share a connection is its sheer frequency. Spending more total moments together increases your chances to feast on micro-moments of positivity resonance. These micro-moments change you.

[…]

Whereas the biological synchrony that emerges between connected brains and bodies may be comparable no matter who the other person may be, the triggers for your micro-moments of love can be wholly different with intimates. The hallmark feature of intimacy is mutual responsiveness, that reassuring sense that you and your soul mate — or you and your best friend — really ‘get’ each other. This means that you come to your interactions with a well-developed understanding of each other’s inner workings, and you use that privileged knowledge thoughtfully, for each other’s benefit. Intimacy is that safe and comforting feeling you get when you can bask in the knowledge that this other person truly understands and appreciates you. You can relax in this person’s presence and let your guard down. Your mutual sense of trust, perhaps reinforced by your commitments of loyalty to each other, allows each of you to be more open with each other than either of you would be elsewhere.

(As the silent half of Penn & Teller once poignantly remarked, “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”)

Complement Love 2.0, a fine addition to these essential books on the psychology of love, with the indispensable A General Theory of Love.

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