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The year is 2045, and you just watched a marathon of Black Mirror. Feeling that the end is near but that you still have much to accomplish, you decide to upload your consciousness to the cloud, so that a virtual you can finish what you couldn’t. Or would it be actually you living on the cloud after all if your whole consciousness is transferred? That Star-Trek homage episode, USS Callister, left you full of philosophical questions!
“All it takes is a DNA sample,” the receptionist says, handing you a small plastic tube, then taking a short sip of her pumpkin spice latte. “There’s an initial fee of $29.95 plus a monthly fee of $5 for maintenance. If you pay $2 more, I can add a doctoral degree in astrophysics.”
“Make that two doctoral degrees! The second one in Medieval Studies, please” you say. You spit, you pay, with an iris-scan of course, (it’s 2045), and that same afternoon you’re playing Fortnite with your virtual ego…
Wouldn’t it be cool to live forever if only online? Live in a virtual world, climb the highest mountains, swim the deepest oceans, and do all the things our mortal bodies cannot. The question would be now what to do with the obsolete you, the one in that primitive carbon-based body…
The task of transferring “consciousness” to the cloud is currently just a dream, of course. Could it be a reality one day? Science has achieved what once was thought as utterly and entirely not possible so rather than discard the idea as nonsense, let’s review what makes it difficult.
To begin with, the USS Callister episode was wrong—but you knew that, didn’t you? DNA contains only your genetic information. Your consciousness resides in the brain. A clone of you would be genetically identical to you but inherently different due to epigenetic causes, the effect of experience and the environment on genetic expression, for instance, darker or lighter skin if your clon moves to a different latitude, and would lack all your memories. Then, transferring just your consciousness would be useless. You must be thinking of the entire contents of your brain. While there is no scientific consensus of what consciousness is, most psychologists agree that consciousness is only that portion of the mind that is aware and awake. Consciousness is quite limited in size. Its storage capacity is that of working memory, about 7 plus or minus two items. Imagine consciousness as the current contents of your web browser. You have access to the whole Internet, and thus your web browser can potentially display the contents of the whole Internet, but at any given moment, it can only display as much information as it fits on the application window. Consciousness capacity is limited because its function is to integrate multiple sources of information coming from the unconscious to make sensible predictions of the future, make sense of what’s going on around and inside you so that you can make the right decision, the one that will maximize rewards and minimize risks. Because taking too much time making those decisions can be a matter of life and death, nature made sure that only the most relevant information enters consciousness. If all our memories could fit within consciousness, choosing what socks to wear every morning would take years.
Anyway, potayto, potatto, let’s not argue about semantics. What you want is to transfer the entire contents of your brain online and recreate a virtual consciousness, right? The problem to solve now is how to copy the information contained within hundreds of billions of neuron cells to a machine. It will take more than inserting a plug inside the brain. Unlike computers that were designed to connect with peripherals, the brain uses the body to express the self. The brain’s primary function is actually not to think or to communicate with others, but to allow for fast movement because fast movement maximizes the chances of survival. Plants don’t need brains because fast movement is not part of their strategy survival. Plants just grow. When you are a plant, and a cow comes and eats you, well—at least you tried!
To copy the contents of the brain, one must either rely on its natural peripherals, that is, physical movement, including movement which produces voice, or has to figure out a way to translate the self-organized activity of the hundred billion neurons that create the mind into computer language.
For that, you would need first to understand how the brain stores information. Nobody knows for sure how information is stored inside the brain. It could be encoded in the form of proteins residing within the neuron cells, which would require dissecting each one, maybe by injecting an army of nanobots inside your brain, which won’t hurt too much because the brain feels no pain, but it may kill you on the process. Another proposed hypothesis is that memories result from how patterns of interconnected neurons “fire” together. Neurons are like trees, with branches, called dendrites, a central body containing the nucleus, called the soma, a very long trunk, called the axon, and roots coming off the axon, forming synaptic terminals. The dendrites get the information in, the information reaches the soma, runs along the axon, and then the synaptic terminals which connect with other neurons’ dendrites. It’s a little like an electronic circuit, with axons being the wiring between cells, but a zillion times more complicated. One neuron can connect with up to ten thousand other neurons, and the process is electrochemical rather than just electrical. What does electrochemical mean? The synaptic terminals of one neuron almost but don’t really touch the dendrites of other neurons, so communication is not direct. Neurons release neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft, the space in between a terminal “button,” the way out, and a dendritic “spine,” the way in. Neurotransmitters are small chemical compounds that act like keys which, by attaching to binding sites, open ionic channels in the dendritic spines, so that sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium ions (depending on the channel) can get inside a neuron’s membrane and change its voltage. Then, the firing of one neuron alone cannot change the activity of an adjacent neuron. Many adjacent neurons have to fire at once so that many ion channels open and the multiplying effect of all those ions getting inside a neuron is sufficient to provoke an “action potential” a continuous change in voltage that translates into an electrical current running along the neuron’s axon. The point is, if the memories are stored as patterns of neuronal activity, say the interconnectedness of a few thousand neurons for the letter “A,” (I’m making up the number) a non-invasive device that could “photograph” these patterns could also reproduce them, right? Functional magnetic resonance, fMRI, can produce 3D images of active areas of the brain based on their consumption of oxygenated blood (neurons need to breathe too), and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) can map nerve fibers by detecting the directional movement of water molecules. Both methods are non-invasive, but neither has the sufficient temporal or spatial resolution to detect activity at the cellular level as it occurs. However, technology progresses, resolution may increase to the point that you could actually “photograph” neurons communicating with each other without having to open anyone’s skull.
Say that that could happen. The challenge now is that to photograph every possible pattern of neuronal activity, every possible pattern of neuronal activity must become active first, that is, you would have to think of your every possible thought for the ultra-high-definition fMRI and DTI to do their magic trick. It would be like asking your ideas to pose. How long would that take? Additionally, memories are not stable. As you rehearse a concept, your memory of that concept changes because neuronal connections change constantly, they weaken or strengthen following not the laws of reason but of physics. Learning occurs by association. Intelligence is a product of integrated neuronal activity not a characteristic of every neuron. Neurons create new connections with adjacent neurons pretty much at random, but only those connections that are strong enough, with multiple ion channels to maximize the likelihood of an action potential, survive. What this means is that the process of rehearsing every memory so that every memory could be photographed will not only take forever, maybe just as much as dictating your memories to a scribe, but may change those memories as the brain creates new associations in the rehearsing process.
Furthermore, because the function of memory is not to allow you to reminisce but to provide relevant information to plan for the future, your memories are actually quite incomplete. Only the most pertinent information gets stored. Every time you bring a memory into consciousness, you recreate that memory from bits and pieces stored in different places of your brain. For instance, you may not remember your first year’s birthday party, but you know you had one because your mother showed you once a photograph of you blowing the candles of the cake. From the memory of that photograph you create a false memory of your first birthday and somehow you “know” that you had a chocolate cake, probably because you like chocolate now not because you have an accurate recollection that there was one. The next time your mother shows you the picture, you realize you had no real cake and no real party! The day of your first-birthday your family was on a beach vacation, and they made you a sand-cake. What this means is that if you photograph each memory as you rehearse it, you may end up with a virtual brain full of contradictory information.
But let’s say that you can take a large 3D photograph of the brain at once, one that uses a super-sophisticated method that combines all existing brain imaging technologies and does not require neuronal patterns to be active to recognize their connections, and thus, you manage to get a structural copy of your brain. That copy must be translated into information a computer can understand so that your brain can live on the cloud; otherwise it would be like taking a photocopy of a Chinese book: useless unless you know how to read Chinese. How do you recognize what each pattern means? Although humans brains share a similar structure and area functionality, brains are not identical. For most people, the left hemisphere is the language-dominant area, especially if they are right-handed, but for many left-handed people the language-dominant hemisphere is the right one, or language functionality may be spread through both hemispheres. And then memories rely on actual physical structure. My concept of Marilyn Monroe may be similar to your concept of Marilyn Monroe, but the neuronal patterns that represent the concept of Marilyn Monroe in my brain are probably very different from those in yours because, by the time our respective brains learned about Marilyn Monroe, their structure had already been modified by experience. Add to that that our knowledge of Marilyn Monroe may be different, you may have read a biography that I did not, or I may have watched a movie that you didn’t. How to identify where exactly Marilyn lives within your brain? The super sophisticated imaging method would necessarily need an active neuronal pattern baseline to provide at least a few letters of the mysterious alphabet within your brain, something like a Rosetta Stone which by presenting the same text in three different languages Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic script, and Greek, gave archeologists a key to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Because each brain is different, each brain would require its own Rosetta Stone… Oy, oy, uploading that brain of yours may cost a little more than $29.95!
But say that you take that massive 3D photograph your whole brain, then wear this portable helmet for about a week which learns the basics of your neuronal patterns as you move around the world and that information can be deciphered by an algorithm created by a 14-year-old dropout genius and this is enough to translate the rest of your brain. Would that be enough to create a virtual copy of you? I am afraid not. That virtual copy of you will need to mimic not only how neurons connect but how chemical substances affect the brain.
Neurotransmitters don’t swim straight to the binding sites on postsynaptic receptors to open the ion channels. They diffuse through the extracellular fluid in the synaptic cleft, and it’s only by chance, because of their quantity and the quantity and quality of the receptors that they manage to open ion channels. Anxiety, for instance, can be reduced with drugs that mimic the work of neurotransmitters and either prevent the work of excitatory cells or promote the work of inhibitory cells on the amygdala, which, in short, is the part of your brain responsible for freaking out. Depending on a person’s genetics and experience, the number of neurotransmitters will vary and so the functioning of your brain and behavior. Add to that that some neurotransmitters may escape the synaptic cleft and linger in the cerebrospinal fluid, and some may be hormones released by glands outside your brain, like cortisol, or oxytocin, and reach the brain through the vagus nerve, provoking random and delayed effects. Moreover, many hormones and neurotransmitters are released in response to an emotional episode or trying to bring homeostasis—equilibrium to your body. That adds complexity to the virtual-you model because being eternal, emotions become useless.
Emotions are the mechanisms through which our genes make sure we survive and reproduce. After appraising a stimulus (an object or situation) as good or bad, and relevant or not toward your goals, they provoke somatic responses that translate into behavioral responses. In simple words, emotions make your unconscious react and push thoughts into your consciousness so that you both think and move, not necessarily in that order. Your boss says there will be no Christmas bonus, so you get a pang of wrath, that’s an emotion telling you that the news you received is bad, but before you punch that tyrant, another emotion, fear of losing your job, makes you control yourself, and the wrath gets replaced by sadness. Because the role of emotions is ultimately to direct your behavior toward those things that will maximize your chances of survival and away of those that represent a risk, when you have nothing to lose or to win because you live online, emotions lose purpose. A huge spider or a million dollars become equally irrelevant because neither can hurt you nor help you. Think of a fake plastic spider or a fake one hundred dollar bill. The first time you see them you may get scared or excited. Once you learn they’re both false, they stop provoking any reaction, and you just ignore them. Transferring the contents of your brain online becomes then the equivalent of reaching Nirvana: all external stimuli become equally irrelevant, you stop having desires, and when you stop having desires, you lose all motivation. You become immobile. What for would you move if you have everything you need? You’re in the cloud. Disconnecting one server causes nothing, there are many copies of your brain scattered throughout multiple servers, so you don’t even fear a blackout.
If you are old enough to remember the movie Awakenings, you may recall that the patients couldn’t move. They suffered from encephalitis lethargica, a disease that leaves them in a permanent catatonic state because they are unable to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation. When they get L-Dopa, a precursor of dopamine, they start moving again. It was as if what was wrong with their brains was that they lacked the “motivation” to move that dopamine brought to the cortex. A virtual brain model would have to come for a replacement for emotions.
Furthermore, you would need a virtual body too, because emotions have a weird way of communicating with your brain. They provoke arousal (no I didn’t say penis, arousal is the technical word) which translates into movement and new thoughts entering consciousness, but the apparent goodness of those thoughts seems determined by what your gut, not your brain, has to say. When you are sad, scared or angry, your brain does not get a memo “that which just happened was sick, bro,” you feel the repercussions of an emotional episode in your body, and so you make sense of those feelings to understand your emotions. Studies with paraplegics and people that have used facial botox show that these people report less intense feelings because bodily responses are numbed.
In summary, if technology figures out a way to photograph the three-dimensional structure of the brain at the cellular level, interpret the workings of billions of billions of potential connections at the individual level, mimic the work of hormones and neurotransmitters, and the role of emotions in regulating behavior, maybe your brain could live on the cloud. Still, it wouldn’t be you, but a copy of you, a clon that may inherit all your traits and memories but could not transfer any feelings back to you. Genes gave us emotions to trick us into doing what they wanted us to do: survive and reproduce, because only through reproduction could genetic variability occur. Now we artificially provoke those emotions by socializing, exploring, playing, tasting food, and consuming media with no intention of reproducing, but to feel the feelings emotions stir. Why would you want a mind that cannot feel?
The priest seemed to have aged a decade.
“She deserved twenty. She remained in that cage until she grew too big to fit in it and she merely broke the crate from the inside.”
“But—” The priest stole another quick look at the young girl. She had brought a plate of soup for the witch and patiently held it by her side waiting for the woman to finish. “How did she—?”
“She could still perform some ordinary chores, sticking her limbs out through the bars and walking on all fours, like a spider,” the witch responded, between slurps. “She didn’t become totally useless. She could still mop the floor with a rag, or feed the chickens. Not that her industry would bring her forgiveness, but at least it guaranteed that she wouldn’t be left to starve in a house that may have been evil, but still praised diligence and condemned inaction.”
The priest placed a hand to his throat. It hurt to swallow.
“Needless to say,” the woman continued, “after the incident with the wafer, the contract between my daughter and the sixty-something demons from Hell was rendered invalid. The next day, I received a letter informing us that she had been banned for life from all ensuing infernal meetings and asking us not to attend any ball until further notice. Two months later, at the next one we were allowed to attend, a Bailiff sent by the prisoner of Rome stripped me of all my hard-earned medals. Rosa and Victoria were forced to return their familiars, the toad and the swarm of flies, and the three of us were lowered in rank to legionarii.”
“What does that mean?”
“We lost all of our privileges. I was devastated. I had lost most of my teeth repaying favors to my familiar. It had been worthwhile, I thought; I was among the Little Master’s Favorites. But now he wouldn’t look at me. He wouldn’t visit. He had stopped loving me. How could I not be angry?”
The priest opened his mouth to reply but could think of nothing.
“Rosa and Victoria were so young,” the witch continued, “they took the whole thing with humor.
‘Maybe if you finished your chores in time, and if you found a nice dress…’ they teased their sister.
‘—and shoes to go with that cage.’
‘—and if Mami ever forgives you…’
‘—which she may, or may never do…’
‘—you could come to the infernal dance with us this Friday.’
“For all the disdain and cruelty in their tone, however, they never forgot to fill with fresh water the bowl that their sister shared with the dog, and every so often, they came back from the ball with souvenirs or leftovers.
‘This is a piece of rag shat by the Devil.’
‘And this,’ Rosa opened her reticule, ‘is a poisoned acorn, to kill one of your enemies.’”
“What did you tell your husband?” the priest asked, after a short silence.
“That old sot? He was never sober enough to care. ‘Why is she inside a crate?’ he asked, once, intrigued at her efforts to carry a bucket, crawling on one hand and two feet. He did not wait for a response, however. He wasn’t so curious as to pay attention to what I had to say about the matter, and he cared little about his children. I should have known better. He was busy, having breakfast with the men in my family every morning, going to Santa Monica to consult with our parish priest for advice, taking the train every couple weeks to the city, revising paperwork and meeting with lawyers to talk about property limits. What business did he have in hand? I wondered, but I didn’t dare to ask, for fear of receiving a black eye.
“A few months later, he announced what he and my siblings had been brewing. They had decided to sell the rest of our land, the land we had inherited from my parents, and that they had inherited from my grandparents, to the man that built the casino in Ocean Park—Mr. Abbot Kinney… I couldn’t say no. My parents had already lost most of it to the bankers. All of my relatives wanted to sell. This is the Twentieth Century, they said. You cannot stop progress. Had I only known. Altogether we received nine thousand, three hundred and sixty-five dollars from the transaction—I remember the exact amount—of which one seventh belonged to us. That was just about as much money as my husband could have made in five years, Father, had he had a steady job in the city.
“We lost the house, and we were forced to sell all the animals, but, as part of the transaction, we received a small lot and blueprints to build this one, the like of which ‘white folk live in,’ the drunk bastard explained me—a home with a beautiful garden, an extra room for the girls, a slate roof, and wood paneling. For the first time in my life I felt proud of him. So proud, that I forgot to spit in his coffee.”
The witch made a pause to swallow.
“Well, that’s a good ending,” the priest ventured.
The woman glared at him. She hadn’t finished.
“The next day, we went to Santa Monica and took the train to Los Angeles to have lunch with Victoria’s godparents and go out shopping.”
“With the werewolf?” the priest asked.
“Yes. He and his wife, Magnolia, live in a small apartment on the top floor of a Victorian house in Bunker Hill. The last time we had met was at their wedding, a few years before. I’ve always considered Harris my relative. He’s always been kind to me, but that shrew, Magnolia—She felt terribly uncomfortable receiving me and my daughters at her place. She did not know what to think of the little ape inside the crate. She kept recommending that I let her out. That stupid, barren woman. It was one thing to marry a poor man and have his impoverished friends attend their wedding, but to have them visit her dainty home? She had the nerve to ask me if I wanted her to inspect the girl’s heads for lice.
“‘My daughters have no lice,’ I told her. They did, Father, but I refused to let her touch them. What for? So she and her rich friends could laugh about me?
“After lunch, the two men went out for a drink. We hired a cart and Magnolia took us to the shops on Broadway. I must admit I was impressed, Father. Broadway is such an elegant thoroughfare, don’t you think? Have you been to Los Angeles? Of course you have. I hadn’t been there since I was a child. It’s changed so much! All those tall buildings—banks and theaters and those beautiful boutiques, none of the tacky, ramshackle businesses you see on Third Street in Santa Monica. And we had money. For the first time in my life we had money. Lots of money.
“We bought a new suit and a tie for my husband. That bastard. We bought new shoes and a couple of new dresses for Rosa and Victoria, and a new frock for myself, of red silk, a hat with an ostrich feather, a bottle of perfume, and fifteen yards of Parisian fabric to make curtains. Did you see my curtains on your way in, Father? They were expensive. The man I bought the fabric from said it came from Paris. We also bought furniture: a second bed, a chest of drawers, and a couch. Even this little chimp got something: She waited patiently inside her crate in the back of the cart, fascinated by the height of the buildings and the gleaming store-front windows, grinning at the people stopping by, who took her for an exotic monkey, while we were inside the boutiques trying on garments. I let her smell my perfume—didn’t I? And Magnolia gave her a toffee.
“The bills that day were for almost a hundred and fifty-six dollars. A hundred and fifty-six dollars. I bet that shrew Magnolia felt embarrassed for having thought of her husband’s friends as poor people. Her family is well-off, but I bet she had never spent that much on herself in one day.
“We left the old house and for the next couple months, we slept under a canvas tarp, until the new house was finished. The rain ruined most of the furniture. I didn’t care; we were too excited about having a new house. This place isn’t a mansion, as you can see, but it is quite comfortable, much better than the old house. The view from the porch is lovely. Rosa and Victoria like to sit there, to wave at the gondolas full of tourists. I thought that, at last, I had found happiness. No hay mal que por bien no venga, I kept repeating to myself. Yes, I had lost all my titles, but I was happy those first weeks in the new house. My home had doubled in size, my husband hadn’t beat me once, not since we had gotten the money, and my daughters were growing healthy—at least the two elder were. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel angry, or jealous, nor did I wish that I had died at birth as I had for as long as I could remember.
“Yet, I almost died when, a couple of months later, I learned that what used to be our land was going to be re-parceled and sold as individual residential lots for six hundred dollars. Six hundred dollars! If only that stupid ass had sold at a decent price. A few days later, we woke up to the voices of a hundred men digging a trench almost a mile long in our front yard, and we saw the full scope of what Mr. Kinney had in mind: not just a casino, but a completely new resort town, bigger than the one in Ocean Park. One full of arcaded palaces and a grid of water canals in the style of the city of Venice, in Italy.
“You know the rest. In less than one year, an entire city grew around us. They built the pier, the canals, and all of these houses. They transformed the old path to the beach into a business street lined with boutiques and restaurants. Mr. Kinney’s estate lies where we used to keep our pigs. They expanded the small pool of water in front of our old house into the lagoon.”
“But you still had the money,” the priest interrupted.
The witch shook her head. “It took my husband even less time to drink it. It came to the women in this family to find ways to provide for the family. Victoria found a job at a grab joint on the boardwalk, selling herring. Rosa found a job selling tickets at a freak show theatre, where the youngest, thanks to her learned ability to fit into small spaces, became the main attraction. ‘Come one, come all,’ Rosa hollered from the entrance. ‘Come see the spider woman! Cursed by her parents for being rebellious, she lives in a cage and feeds off flies and mosquitoes.’
“As for me, I got myself a cart of tamales. If there is room in your heart, Father, to feel pity for a woman that sold her soul to the Devil and lost, feel sorry for me, waking up before dawn to prepare the dough, wheeling my cart through the boardwalk, singing the virtues of my cooking. I always longed to live in a nice place, and, indeed, this new town is a delight to the senses: the tall buildings, the towers with onion-shaped domes and turrets painted in bright colors; the flowers and palm trees—I had never seen palm trees before! Lights, music bands, and gondolas. But you’ll understand that it was painful for me to see others getting rich for what had belonged to my family for generations, and remain dirt poor as always.
“My heart filled up with hatred. I cast spells trying to destroy the pier and the new city, not once but several times—with a blaze, with a squall, even poisoning the hearts of the Board of Trustees when the new city tried to unincorporate from the municipality, but I failed each and every time. I had lost the Little Master’s favor. The blaze was put out before it could cause great damage. The pier resisted the waves, and eventually the people chose to disincorporate and change the name of their city officially to Venice. Everything I tried against that man was useless.”
“What man?” the priest asked.
“Mr. Abbot Kinney,” the witch responded. “He is revered like a God by the residents of this city. He transformed this worthless marshy land into a paradise. But this was our land. The land of my parents. I wanted his ruin, to see him down on his knees begging for forgiveness… All the attempts to cause woe and despair had taken an adverse effect on my health. And every time I had to give a payment in flesh to my familiar. He’s got most of my teeth. He wants more blood now than before. He wants to suck me dry, Father. It is as if he doesn’t want me to last a day longer.
“Last week was my latest attempt to destroy Mr. Kinney. For years I thought that the most precious thing to him was this city. Then I realized that the most precious thing to a man is his family—If I wanted to hurt him, I had to hurt his children. I thought of a powerful curse. One that would last for generations. One that would make cripples or imbeciles of all his descendants.
“My familiar asked for a full pint of blood in exchange for the recipe. I complied happily. It had to be done on the eve of the anniversary of his firstborn, he said. And I had to perform the incantation over the grave of one of my own descendants. The remains of my firstborn lay in the bottom of Mr. Kinney’s swim lagoon, across from his estate, across from where our old house used to be.
“I couldn’t row myself to the center of the lagoon, so I asked my youngest daughter to take me. I would have asked Rosa or Victoria, but the two had been invited to the opening of the Dance Pavilion at Mr. Fraser’s million dollar pier in Ocean Park, and I had no heart to say no. Mr. Fraser is Kinney’s competitor, I thought. And they were so excited! What’s the worse that could happen?”
“That was the night of the fire,” the priest said.
The witch nodded. “We waited until it got dark before we got into the boat. My daughter rowed in silence. She never has much to say and since the night she was expelled from the Little Master’s ball I don’t have much to say to her, either. We reached the center of the lagoon and I started the incantation… I’ll spare you with details, Father, I know you find this kind of things offensive. I said the words I had to say and started mixing the ingredients in a small cauldron that I had brought with me. My daughter waited with her eyes closed and her hands against her ears; she is forbidden to learn any magic. The last ingredient was dust from a bezoar stone. I put the stone into a mortar and tried to crush it with the pestle. The stone was too hard, however, and in my second attempt if flew off the mortar and into the water.
‘The bezoar!’ I yelled.
“My daughter opened her eyes and saw me reaching over the boat trying to catch the stone.
‘Go get it,’ I said.
“She hesitated, but I must have had a horrible expression in my face because before I could ask her a second time, she jumped into the water. The lagoon isn’t very deep. If you’re a good swimmer you can easily reach the bottom. But it was dark and the water was murky. She couldn’t find anything. Every time she came out she had a different object in her hand. None was the bezoar. By then I was desperate. I was cursing and crying. And with this damn cough that doesn’t go away my throat was on fire. I had given my familiar my blood, and I felt so weak. Then I remembered that Victoria had another bezoar.
‘She keeps it in her jewelry box,’ I told my daughter. ‘It is bigger than the one I had, and it is white; it looks like a seashell.’
“I thought at first that her hesitation was because the water was too cold. Her teeth were chattering. But then she confessed that Victoria had asked her to use the stone to make buttons for her gloves a month before. And that she was wearing those gloves that night at the pavilion.
‘Go then to the pavilion, you stupid swine!’ I yelled. ‘And get me those gloves!’
“I tried to hit her with the pestle, I was so mad, but she was already swimming towards the shore.
“By the time she reached the Pavilion the dance had already started. She tried to get in through the front door, but of course, dressed in her old rags, wet, full of mud, and without an invitation, they wouldn’t let her in. And she’s so stupid. She’s not only as ugly as a pig, Father, but so incredibly stupid, she lost precious time wandering around waiting to see if any of her sisters or her acquaintances came out, while I had to wait in the cold on that boat, the sleeves of my sweater soaking wet, wishing life had given me a tumor instead of such a stupid ass for a daughter. Who in his right mind would have come out of that Palace when the party had just started? Did you get to see it, Father, Mr. Fraser’s pier, before the fire destroyed it? The facade was all iron and glass, and it had turrets at both ends like an Indian palace. My two little kittens were inside, all dolled up, confident that their beauty and natural refinement would call the attention of a fine gentleman and they would be asked to dance. Alas, as beautiful as Rosa and Victoria are, they couldn’t compete with most of the women there, boasting their silks and ostrich feathers. Not for the best suitors. Not with their plain cotton dresses and their mended stockings. They had no pearls. No other adornment on their heads than their old satin ribbons. The two of them were sitting on a row of chairs set against the wall, shooing away the occasional poor man that approached them, waiting for a couple of rich gentlemen with kind hearts to notice their beauty.
‘Do you think we’ll get to dance tonight, Rosa?’
‘I don’t know. Keep on smiling.’
‘I am thirsty. I wish I could have some punch.’
‘We don’t have any money.’
“At the Sabbath you don’t have to wait for any man, Father. You stand up and dance. You don’t have to be chosen. You feel like shaking your feet, you stand up and begin dancing. Same with having a drink. You’re thirsty, you go on and demand it. You don’t need any money… After almost an hour roaming outside the building, my ugly daughter figured out a way to break into the Pavilion through the kitchen. They must have thought she was there to pick up the garbage. Then, she slipped into the main hall and wandered around, avoiding the staff, looking for my daughters. At last she saw Victoria and then Rosa. What an unpleasant surprise it must have been to my kittens to see their horrible little sister approach them. I completely understood their reaction. They stood up and walked away. But she followed them. She followed them through the room, until they couldn’t avoid her anymore.
‘What are you doing here?’
“She reach for Victoria’s gloves, but Rosa pulled her by one arm and forced her to hide under a small table.
‘What are you doing here?’ they asked.
“That swine said that she needed Victoria’s gloves.
‘My gloves? Are you crazy?’
‘Shut up,’ Rosa interrupted. ‘O’Leary just saw us,’
“Indeed, their sworn enemy Patricia O’Leary, who had also managed to get invited to the ball, had just seen my girls arguing with their little sister, and what else would a snake like that girl do but to start gossiping? She thinks she is better than my kittens because we are poor, but her father is just an electric car driver. And her friend, I’ve seen that girl, Eloise Triggs, she sells postcards in the Pier. A scrawny bird with eyes popping out of her head. She looks like she’s full of parasites… God didn’t give any brains to this stupid retarded chimp I conceived from a dog. She should not have gone out to the hall. She should have asked somebody in the kitchens to pass a note to her sisters and explain the predicament I was in. Or she should have been more discreet, gotten in without calling too much attention, say what she needed to say and leave fast with the gloves—don’t you think, Father?
“Victoria’s eyes filled up with tears. She had such high hopes for that dance, she had dreamed she met her future husband by the ice sculptures, and their insensitive sister was ruining it all. I know that, Father, because when I asked the two of them for their help taking me to the middle of the lagoon that morning they got all sad and started crying, explaining how long they had been dreaming to go the ball and the extremes to which they had gone to get an invitation.
‘I had to sleep with a mechanic!’ Victoria said.
“My poor Piesdepato was so upset that she left her two sisters. O’Leary and her friend were still talking. If anyone found out she was related to the hideous creature that had broken into the ball they would kick her out too, she thought.
“My youngest daughter tried to get out from under the table and follow her, but Rosa forced her to stay down. God gave her a mouth. Why didn’t she explain to Rosa what she was doing there and where I was? Then Rosa would have known how to help her. She’s so stupid. She hunches down and scurries out of one’s view without saying a word, trying to make herself invisible. Victoria had crossed the hall trying to get away of them and Rosa kept walking around the table, kicking her sister to keep her from coming out. She noticed that O’Leary and her friend were now pointing at them, laughing. The tablecloth wasn’t long enough. They could see the toad I was given for a daughter squatted beneath, and they mocked Rosa’s desperate attempts to hide her. Rosa did what anyone else would have done in her place; you cannot blame her: She pulled the tablecloth lower. Unfortunately, there was this big oil lamp with a paper screen on that table. The lamp fell over and the screen caught fire. Rosa tried to put the fire out, she used her own shawl, but the shawl also caught fire, and upon smelling the smoke and seeing her sister step on her shawl, the chimp hiding underneath came out from under the table, turning it over. The lamp fell to the floor and broke, spilling combustible fluid over the floor. The fire extended to another table. Rosa didn’t know what to do. She ran away before anyone could blame her. People started to panic. The waiters rushed to put out the fire, but with everyone trying to get out of the hall at the same time, they couldn’t reach the table before the fire extended to the curtains. Everyone started to run at the same time.”
“The whole pier burnt down,” interrupted the priest.
“If she was going to burn down a pier she should have burned the one of Mr. Kinney’s, Father, not the one of his competitor! I could see the light and the smoke from where I was. I didn’t know what was happening. I was too weak to row myself back and I was still hoping my daughter would come back with the bezoar. And it had gotten so cold, Father. I was left alone, all night, drifting in the middle of the lagoon. It wasn’t until the sun came out that she came back for me. My throat had gotten so sore, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t tell her how much pain I was in. I couldn’t even swallow. I had developed a fever… I wished I could have made it to Halloween, Father. I had a small list of evil deeds I’d committed. I thought the Devil would be so happy. But now I am afraid. I realize that the end is near and that I must repay my debt with The Little Master.
“An eternity in hell is not worth his gifts, I realize now. I caused so much pain throughout the years and what did I accomplish? Nothing. I’m old, I’m sick, I’m about to die and I have nothing else but this house to leave to my daughters. My enemies are still alive. Can I still be forgiven? I am terribly afraid, Father. I will spend all eternity burning in hell unless I obtain God’s pardon. I want to die in contrition. Please, Father, give me your absolution before it is too late, before he comes to get me!”
The priest tried but couldn’t utter one word. He needed a glass of water, something, a candy to help him pass the bitter lump that had formed in his throat. He turned to the young girl. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. Still he couldn’t force himself to enunciate one word. He reached for the cross in his rosary, more for self-protection against the witch than to give her absolution.
“There he is!” the witch yelled suddenly, pointing towards the window.
Her scream made the priest scream as well. He pulled his feet up and covered his face with his Bible. A black buck, the witch’s old familiar, had appeared outside the window, standing tall on two feet, like a man, his forelegs reclined on the sill, happier than he had ever been, ready to take the mother’s soul to the abyss.
The witch raised herself on her bed, pulling strength out of nowhere. “Hurry up, Father. Give me your absolution!”
But the priest couldn’t move a muscle. He was paralyzed. Frozen in terror.
The goat showed his teeth in a horrendous grin. They no longer were the flat choppers of caprine cattle, but the sharp, long teeth of a canine—a wolf’s denture! And his eyes no longer bore the doleful complacency of a servant, but the murdering shine of a beast craving for human blood.
“He’s coming for me!” cried the witch.
Rosa and Victoria screamed too, as if it was they who the goat intended to take, and ran to hide under the dining table. The third was more sapient. She climbed over her mother’s bed and pulled the curtains closed.
That was of little help, however, for now the goat appeared under the mother’s bed. He showed his teeth again, stuck his tongue out like a wretched child, and winked to the terrified priest.
“He’s going to take me!”
The young girl fetched one of the mother’s slippers and hit the goat repeatedly on his head until it retreated under the bed.
But now a pair of long hairy arms appeared from the other side of the bed and reached to the mother’s shoulders.
One hand slowly pulled the sheets off the woman’s body, while the other caressed her face gently.
The young girl threw herself over and bit one of the hands.
The goat’s head appeared now behind the headboard. The girl pushed the bars with all her strength to squeeze the monster against the wall. But now a second head and a second pair of arms appeared by the footboard and grabbed the witch by her ankles. The girl pulled back, trying to stop these new menaces. The head behind the baseboard bit her shoulder. The mother clasped both hands to the bars. Now there were three different pairs of hairy arms pulling her from every direction.
“Father, please! Give me your absolution!”
“I—I—I…” was the only thing that the terrified priest could utter.
The young girl kept fighting the goat, but the fiend was far too strong. He grabbed the girl by her neck and flung her against the wall. Then, pushing the bed over on its side, he came from underneath, grabbed the witch by one leg and pulled her body towards the entrance.
“¡Mami!” cried the two elder daughters when they saw the beast come out of the bedroom.
The demon had only one head now, but still three pairs of arms and four hands clung to the woman’s body.
“D-d… D… do you… do y-you be-be-believe—?” asked the clergyman from within the witch’s bedroom.
“Yes!” cried the witch.
The goat had reached the main door. He turned the knob with his mouth and pushed the door open.
“I believe in God and in the Holy Trinity,” the witch yelled, her hands clenched to the doorway. The goat pulled harder. “I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the purity of Mary—I repent! Hurry up, Father, give me your absolution!”
The goat stepped out through the doorway. The city lights dimmed, turning the moonless night even darker. A black whirlpool had formed in the middle of the canal and from the bottom of it came a mixture of black fumes and sparks, revealing an entrance to a subterranean forge.
The goat gave a stronger pull, yanking the woman free of the door frame. Just then, the young girl, who still refused to surrender, caught her mother’s arm with one hand as she held to the door molding with the other.
“¡Mamá!” Victoria cried from under the table. “Please don’t leave us!”
“Pull harder!” Rosa yelled to her little sister. “Don’t let her go!’
The goat was the one that pulled harder, though. The young girl felt her fingers slip from the door, one by one. She locked her feet to the doorway and grabbed for whatever thing she could reach, which unfortunately happened to be the witch’s finest piece of drapery.
“No!” cried Victoria. “Mamá’s curtains from Paris!”
“My very expensive curtains from Paris,” the witch raised her head. “You’re going to ruin them!”
The curtains started to rip.
“Let go!” cried the mother.
But the girl held on.
Truth be told, the fabric wasn’t exactly from Paris; but it had been just as expensive as if truly imported from France, and touted as legitimately French by the clerk who had sold them to the mother.
The priest found the strength to step out of the witch’s room and pull himself to the entrance. “Do you repent of your sins?”
“Yes!” cried the witch. “I repent with all my heart, Father—Let go of my curtains, you stupid child!”
“Do you renounce Satan and accept our Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?” the priest continued.
“Yes! I do repent, I accept Jesus with all my heart!”
“God, the Father of all mercies…” started the priest.
“I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!” the witch hollered to her daughter.
“… through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins…”
“MY CURTAINS FROM PARIS…!”
The witch bit her daughter’s hand, but no matter how fierce she sounded, or how much her teeth hurt, the young girl refused to let her go.
“You’re running Mami’s curtains!” Rosa kicked the young girl.
Victoria joined the fight too, giving her little sister a couple of knocks on her head.
The goat kept pulling. Eventually, the pressure was too much and the curtains tore. The young girl fell to the floor and hit her jaw, chopping off the tip of her tongue in the process. The pain was too much. She let her mother’s hand go.
The cry was like the barking of the Trojan queen, threatening the Greeks for her enslavement and the death of her children.
“A CURSE ON YOU!” the witch continued as the goat dragged her across the yard towards the crack in the middle of the canal. “A CURSE ON YOU AND ALL YOUR DESCENDANTS! YOU’RE NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU’RE A BEAST! The plague on you! May you age unloved and alone, and may you rot in hell, forever! Father, don’t forget the oil!” the witch howled, remembering she hadn’t yet obtained her absolution.
The whirlpool grew to the shape of a beast’s muzzle. A few demons poked their heads up out of the hole and gestured obscenely at the priest.
“Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace.” The priest reached for the vial of consecrated oil inside his jacket. “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
And just before the goat gave one last pull to jump inside the infernal mouth with his bounty, the priest splashed a few drops of consecrated oil on the penitent woman’s head. The moment the oil touched her skin, the demon let go. He looked back, terrified by the power vested in the Father, and jumped alone into the canal. The waters closed behind him. Just as fast as the mouth disappeared, the little demons left behind vanished in clouds of dust and sparkles.
Rosa and Victoria ran to the moribund woman.
“My beautiful daughters,” the woman said, in a much calmer voice. “My two angels. My kittens. I thank the Lord for letting me say goodbye to you. Victoria, let me kiss your hand. Let me see your beautiful eyes. You were always my favorite… I die now, in peace.”
And she perished.
“Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi, merita Beatae Mariae Virginis et omnium sanctorum, quidquid boni feceris vel mali sustinueris sint tibi in remissionem peccatorum, augmentum gratiae et praemium vitae aeternae. Amen,” the priest concluded.
All of a sudden, the clouds above opened up revealing a starry firmament. Everything acquired a flushed tonality and a soft breeze caressed the faces of the two girls as the ghost of their mother raised from her dead body straight to heaven.
“I’ll be watching you, my daughters,” the spirit murmured.
She looked as young and pure as she must have looked on the day of her marriage. She had obtained God’s forgiveness.
“We repent too, Father,” cried the two sisters. “We don’t want to burn in hell. Give us your blessing!”
Based on empirical evidence that suggests that failing to recognize a stimulus as emotionally relevant results in hypoactivity of the orexinergic cells in the hypothalamus, this article proposes a physiological model of boredom that makes depression a consequence of a chronic reduction of monoamines in the brain combined with increased levels of norepinephrine and cortisol. The studies proposed here look to find supportive evidence for two assumptions of this model: 1. That the negative affect associated with boredom results from a conscious assessment of the situation; 2. That activity of the orexinergic neurons can increase both positive and negative affect, depending on the assessed valence of a stimulus.
A Physiological Model of Boredom and its Relationship with Depression
A recent longitudinal study that followed a group of Spaniards through eight-and-a-half years (Sánchez-Villegas, Ruíz-Canela, Gea, Lahortiga, & Martínez-González, 2016) proposes that adherence to a Mediterranean lifestylereduces the likelihood of depression, as far as fifty percent for the most committed individuals. Per this study, the most prominent benefits from following a Mediterranean lifestyle, defined as high in adherence to a Mediterranean diet, as well as to high in physical and social activities, come mostly from increased physical and social activity (Sánchez-Villegas et al., 2016). I speculate that the particular circumstances of Spanish societies, with high urban density, which promotes pedestrian traffic, rich in culture, and high in social activities, leaves little time for the typical Spaniard to get bored and therefore, depressed.
Empirical research suggests that boredom has indeed a positive, strong association with depression (German & Latkin, 2012; Goldberg, Danckert, 2013; Isacescu, Struk, Danckert, 2016; Mercer-Lynn, Hunter, & Eastwood, 2013; Spaeth, Weichold, & Silbereisen, 2015; Tilburg & Igou, 2017). Boredom also correlates with a number of negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, hostility, (Isacescu et al., 2016; Tilburg & Igou, 2017), anxiety (Fahlman, Mercer, Gaskovski, Eastwood, & Eastwood, 2009), and aversive states such as motor impulsiveness (Mercer-Lynn, Flora, Fahlman, & Eastwood, 2011), life dissatisfaction, and lack of life meaning (Fahlman et al., 2009; Mercer-Lynn et al., 2011).
Here, I present a physiological model of boredom that explains its link with depression and propose two studies which could provide supporting evidence for the model.
Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek’s (2012) define boredom as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity” (p. 482) and make it a consequence of an individual’s realization of her failure to focus her attention on a present activity.
Coming from a functional perspective that makes emotions indicators of progress toward a goal, Bench and Lench (2013) propose that boredom is a discrete emotion that results from “a diminishing emotional response to the [current] situation” (p. 461). Thus, for Bench and Lench (2013) boredom becomes a cause for, rather than a consequence of, reduced attention. Bench and Lench (2013) argue that boredom’s function is to serve as a signal that it is time to pursue a different goal. Accordingly, attention to one’s present situation will depend on one’s subjective measure of its relevance to one’s particular goals, as well as one’s mood, disposition, and cognitive skills. Congruent with this, Spaeth et al. (2015) speculate that the neural changes throughout puberty make children less able to cope with inadequate stimulation and thus more prone to experience boredom and with the negative affect associated with boredom. Goldberg and Danckert (2013) ran a study that offers support to this hypothesis. They found a positive relation between boredom proneness and depression which was stronger in those patients with moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injuries. Their findings suggest that failure to recognize the stimuli in the external environment as relevant and, therefore, worthy of one’s attention, is what causes boredom. Hence, what a child finds boring an adult may not and vice-versa. Then again, if boredom arises as other emotions fade, as Bench and Lench (2013) propose, boredom cannot be an emotion, but the lack of emotion. Likewise, rather than a signal for a need to change one’s present activity, boredom should be the absenceof a signal to continue being engaged—the signal being the recognition of a stimulus as either an impending threat or a potential reward, both of which circumstances would demand increased attention.
If boredom originates from an individual’s realization of her inability to sustain her attention on the task at hand as Eastwood et al. (2012) propose, boredom cannot be a discrete emotion either, but a mixture of cognitive considerations and feelings born from an individual’s assessment of her present situation as unrewarding. Since mind-wandering follows a loss in attention and does not necessarily entails negative affect (Eastwood et al., 2012), a state of mind-wandering cannot be part of a state of boredom, either, because boredom necessarily entails negative affect. I propose, then, that boredom, as an aversive state, will only occur when to an emotionally “neutral” state, follows the conscious desire to engage in a more rewarding activity combined with one’s perceived inability to abandon the present task—the “wanting, but being unable” from Eastwood et al.’s (2012) definition. Accordingly, the negative affect associated with boredom will be a consequence of an individual’s assessment of her present situation as meaningless. Consequently, under circumstances in which attention can be readily shifted from irrelevant (or no longer relevant) stimuli to stimuli that will provoke an emotional response—as when, for instance, one browses through a series of photographs and as the interest for one fades another one captures our attention—boredom will likely not occur. Similarly, should an individual’s goal be to reduce her emotional response to the environment, as when she tries to rest or willingly engages in mind wandering, a state of boredom should not occur either.
For this to be true, an experience of boredom should be preceded by reduced physiological responses: low arousal, decreased neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, mind wandering, and an initial reduction on the production of the monoamines associated with arousal, followed by high arousal, as the individual assesses one’s present circumstances as “boring” and thus as a stressor, increasing the release of norepinephrine and the activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. Recent empirical evidence suggests that this is the case.
The Physiology of Boredom
Merrifield and Danckert (2013) ran an experiment attempting to describe the psychophysiological signature of boredom as a state of low or high arousal by measuring changes in heart rate, skin conductance, and cortisol levels, and comparing these changes to changes reported during induced states of increased interest or sadness. Merrifield and Danckert (2013) found that experiencing boredom led to lower skin conductance than when experiencing increased interest or sadness, which they associated with a decrease in attention, and thus low arousal. Boredom also led to higher heart rate and cortisol levels than when experiencing sadness, however. Merrifield and Danckert (2013) interpreted this as a higher response from the autonomic system to stress and thus high arousal. Furthermore, Merrifield and Danckert (2013) found that individuals with a higher proneness to boredom showed higher changes in heart rate, suggesting that these individuals were more distressed by a boring experience.
Likewise, studies that use measures of brain activity through EEG and fMRI as proxies for attention found that inducing a state of boredom leads to decreased neural activity. Tabatabaie et al. (2014) ran an experiment that exposed the participants to various pieces of music and compared the participants’ self-reports of boredom assessment with EGG readings of their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity. They found that the measured Beta 2 power activity (16-20 Hz) was significantly lower for those participants that assessed the music pieces as boring, a finding that implies lower cognitive processing.
The association between arousal and attention suggests that the hypothalamus, which indirectly regulates sleep, must be involved in recognizing stimuli as emotionally relevant.
Because of its extensive connections throughout the brain, specifically with the amygdalae, the cerebral cortex, the preoptic area, as well as the ventral tegmental area, and the areas that produce monoamines in the brain stem and forebrain (Mileykovskiy, Kiyashchenko, & Siegel, 2005), the hypothalamus plays an essential role in regulating motivational processes by producing orexin, a peptide that works as a neurotransmitter increasing appetite, arousal, and wakefulness (Calipari & España, 2012; Mahler, Moorman, Smith, James, Aston-Jones, 2014; Numan & Woodside, 2010), as well as in regulating responses to stress by producing corticotropin releasing hormone, which indirectly promotes the production of corticoids (Numan & Woodside, 2010).
Using antidromic and orthodromic electrical stimulation of the axonal connections of the hypothalamus with the ventral tegmental area and the locus coeruleus, Mileykovskiy et al. (2005) identified the location of several hundred orexinergic neurons in the perifornical and lateral areas of the hypothalami in rats. Then, using micro-wire insertions on nine of these orexinergic cells, they measured their electrical activity and found a negative correlation between the firing of these neurons and EEG spectral power in the Delta (under 3 Hz), Theta (4-8 Hz), Alpha (8-12 Hz), and Beta (13-30 Hz) frequency waves as measured in the prefrontal cortices of the rats, as well as a positive correlation between the firing of the orexinergic neurons with EEG measures produced by arousal (i.e., exploratory behavior) that increased desynchronization and the power of the Gamma (30-75 Hz) frequency waves. That is, they found that the activity of the orexinergic neurons correlated with increased cortical activity. Mileykovskiy et al. (2005) hypothesized that the firing of orexinergic neurons in the hypothalamus occurs in response to emotionally arousing conditions and to promote attention.
The findings from another experiment that measured the activity of the hypothalami through fMRI reached similar conclusions. Karlsson et al. (2010) exposed participants to funny and sad images and found that the regions corresponding to orexinergic neurons in the hypothalami activated in response to the valence of the funny or sad stimuli but not in response to the neutral stimuli. Karlsson et al. (2010) also found that this activation corresponded to ipsilateral activation of the amygdalae.
If orexin indirectly regulates sleep by inhibiting the activity of sleep producing neurons in the ventrolateral preoptic area, which in turn inhibit the activity of the arousal system (Carlson, 2013), could the negative affect associated with boredom be a consequence of the impossibility to fall asleep? After all, boredom leads to lethargy. Mahler et al. (2014) propose that the role of orexin in regulating behavior extends beyond promoting wakefulness and so, they link the secretion of orexin to reward-seeking and adaptive activities in addition to circadian rhythms. Mahler et al.’s (2014) model proposes that orexinergic neurons, because of the heterogeneity of their efferent and afferent axonal projections, serve an integrative role in regulating behavior by increasing their rate of firing whenever a stimulus is recognized as a sign for action, correspondingly affecting the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the amygdala, the medial prefrontal cortex, the ventral tegmental area, as well as the brain stem and the forebrain to provoke a series of behavioral and physiological responses appropriate to the situation. Here may lie the relationship between boredom and depression. Upon recognition of a stimulus as emotionally irrelevant, orexinergic hypoactivity will reduce the secretion of monoamines, including those whose shortage in the extracellular fluid has been associated with lack of motivation and depression: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine (Calipari & España, 2012; Walling, Nutt, Lalies, & Harley, 2004; Wingen, Kuypers, Ven, Formisano, & Ramaekers, 2008), as well as acetylcholine (Villano et al., 2017) resulting in a loss of attention and potentially inducing a state of mind-wandering. Upon becoming aware of this loss of attention and unable to engage in a more rewarding activity, the individual may assess the previously irrelevant stimulus as a stressor. As a result, the orexinergic neurons will stimulate the secretion of norepinephrine by the locus coeruleus as well as the secretion of corticotropin-releasing-hormone by the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus into the pituitary gland, which in turn will secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone, ultimately elevating the levels in the blood of cortisol as well as of epinephrine, through indirect activation of the adrenal medulla. High levels of cortisol as well as low levels of monoamines, but especially serotonin, have been associated with depression (Herbert, 2013; Wingen et al., 2008).
There is extensive empirical evidence of the effect that orexin has on the production of acetylcholine and monoamines as well as the effect of these on attention. Liu, Van den Pol, and Aghajanian, (2002) electrically stimulated orexinergic neurons in rat brain slices causing postsynaptic responses in the serotonergic neurons in the raphe nuclei. In a review on the effect of orexin-producing neurons on the basal forebrain cholinergic system, Villano et al. (2017) mention that orexin secretion reaches a maximum at wake but also in response to stimuli that increases positive affect, while socializing, and during episodes of anger, fomenting the release of acetylcholine by the basal forebrain in the cortex. Similarly, in a series of experiments that measured the development of substance dependence in mice and rats, Calipari and España (2012) found that injecting orexin directly into the rats’ ventral tegmental area, made the release of dopamine caused by the consumption of cocaine rise dramatically in comparison to the levels of dopamine observed in rats treated with an orexin inhibitor, SB-334867. Calipari and España (2012) also found that increased levels of orexin increased a rat’s willingness to work for drugs, while orexin knock-out mice developed less dependence to addictive substances, further supporting the integrative role of orexin in regulating reward-seeking behavior. Walling et al. (2004) found that infusing orexin into the locus coeruleus promoted the secretion of norepinephrine in the hippocampus, causing long-lasting potentiation in the dentate gyrus. Recently Unsworth and Robison (2017) found that variabilities in the production of norepinephrine in the locus coeruleus correlated with variabilities in working memory and that low working memory individuals had more attentional failures and episodes of mind-wandering during activities that required a high attentional effort.
In summary, and to reconcile Eastwood et al.’s (2012) definition of boredom with its argued functionality, as proposed by Bench and Lench (2013), and with Mileykovskiy et al. (2005) and Mahler et al. (2014) hypotheses of orexin function, I propose that:
- The inability to recognize one’s present activity as emotionally relevant (i.e., as a threat or a reward) lowers the activity of the orexinergic cells in the lateral hypothalamus, which causes a reduction in the amount of the monoamines secreted in the brain, resulting in a loss of attention and reduced motivation.
- This loss of attention leads the brain to a temporary state of mind wandering.
- As the individual becomes aware of this attentional failure but also of her inability to re-engage, she will now recognize the present situation as toxic, leading to a rise in the levels of stress hormones.
Boredom could be defined then, as either the cause and the consequence of the loss of attention, and thus as a mental process that involves reduction of affect, mind wandering, then an increase in negative affect, or as the consequence of a loss of attention, and thus, as a mental state purely associated with negative affect. Either way, in the long run, chronic boredom, as it may result from a life poor in rewarding stimuli, may cause depression-like symptoms.
Orexinergic cells hypoactivity would explain as well why a bored individual will show not only demotivation but also increased hostility and impulsivity since these behaviors have been associated with a reduction in serotonin and its interaction with dopamine (Seo, Patrick, Kennealy, 2008). This supports the idea that boredom can lead to risky behavior such as drug and alcohol addiction, gambling (Eastwood et al., 2012), delinquency, and promiscuity. For instance, in an experiment with mink, Meagher and Mason (2012) found that mink kept in impoverished environments made faster contact with aversive, rewarding or ambiguous stimuli (e.g., a predator silhouette, a moving toothbrush, or a candle) than mink kept in rich environments, and that mink kept in an impoverished cage also spent more time exploring ambiguous stimuli. Although experiments like this support the hypothesis that boredom leads to impulsivity as well as preference for novel stimuli, including those involving potential risk, recent empirical evidence suggests that the association of boredom with increased risk is mild at best (German & Latkin, 2012; Mercer & Eastwood, 2010; Mercer-Lynn et al., 2013; Spaeth et al., 2015), and that this association is modulated by gender, age, temperament (Spaeth et al., 2015), and sensibility to reward (Mercer & Eastwood, 2010), or, in the case of sexually risky behavior, by the concurrence with depression (German & Latkin, 2012) or lack of social connectedness (Chaney & Chang, 2005). Furthermore, a recent study by Tilburg and Igou (2016) found that individuals in an induced state of high boredom were more willing to engage in prosocial activities than individuals in a state of low boredom. Tilburg and Igou (2016) findings suggest that while bored individuals may become more impulsive, they actively discriminate among alternative activities rather than simply wishing to engage in any new activity as Bench and Lench (2013) had suggested.
The Studies Proposed
A physiological model of boredom based on the activity of the orexinergic neurons makes two assumptions: 1. That the negative affect associated with a state of boredom results from a subjective measure of the experience, and thus that boredom is a conscious mental state; 2. That the activity of the orexinergic neurons causes a change in the valence of affect reliant on an individual’s assessment of a stimulus—as either a threat or a reward—and, therefore that there must be two (or more) corresponding pathways for affect.
Study 1: Boredom as a Conscious State
As proposed above, boredom cannot be a discrete emotion but a conscious state which results from assessing the present situation as toxic. Thus,
Hypothesis 1.1: Individuals exposed to an emotionally irrelevant stimulus will show lower activation of the prefrontal cortex as indicated by a predominance of lower frequency bands in EEG readings
Hypothesis 1.2: Individuals exposed to an emotionally irrelevant stimulus yet allowed to engage into mind wandering freely will present lower levels of stress hormones (i.e., salivary cortisol) than those individuals who are also exposed to an emotionally irrelevant stimulus but dissuaded from engaging into mind-wandering.
Methods, participants, and design.
The participants will be chosen among individuals with similar demographics and no hearing impairments, then divided into a treatment and a control group at random.
Both groups will listen for twenty minutes to a piece of text as it is read by a computer. This could be done by using the text-to-speech capabilities of a smartphone and headphones. The text will be previously chosen as boredom inducing, for instance, by choosing an academic article beyond the participants’ competence. Their levels of salivary cortisol will be measured before and after the experiment takes place, and their cortical brain activity recorded through an EEG cap. Their heart rate will be measured as well, throughout the reading. Since wearing an EEG cap could make the participants nervous, the experiment should not begin until their heart rate is normal.
Participants in the control group will be told that the study intends to measure the efficacy of artificial speech on transmitting a message and thus that they should pay careful attention to the text. While they listen, these participants will sit on a chair that does not allow them to be too comfortable and allowed to take control the flow of the text as it is read, in case they miss something important. The researcher will remain in the room with the participants to monitor their experience but will not make verbal contact with them or allow them to talk among themselves.
Participants in the treatment group will be told that the study intends to see whether artificial speech can “fool” their brains into thinking that the text is being read by a real person and that the researchers will be able to interpret this from the EEG readings, so that the participants should not feel pressured to pay attention. The participants will be invited to lie down on a couch and be left alone while the experiment lasts so that they do not feel intimidated by the presence of the researcher.
After finishing the experiment, the participants will be debriefed and dismissed.
Results and discussion
The EEG readings of the participants of both groups will be compared. I expect to find frequent periods of low activation of the prefrontal cortex indicated by a predominance of Alpha (8-12 Hz), and Beta 1 power (12.5-16 Hz) frequency waves over higher frequency waves in both the treatment and control groups. However, I expect the periods of low-frequency waves to be much more frequent in the treatment group, those who would be allowed to engage in mind-wandering.
The measures of salivary cortisol will also be compared. I expect to find that the levels of salivary cortisol will be significantly lower in the treatment group.
Should the results be as predicted, the findings of this study will offer support to the idea that the aversive experience of boredom is a mental state reliant on a conscious assessment of the situation.
Study 2: Distinct Pathways of Affect.
In a study that attempted to map the neural pathways of affect, Mathiak, Klasen, Zvyagintsev, Weber, & Mathiak (2013) subjected the participants to alternate episodes of flow and boredom while playing a video game and analyzed the participant’s brain activity through fMRI. Mathiak et al. (2013) found two distinct networks which they associated with positive and negative affect. Increased positive affect correlated negatively with activation of the amygdala and the insula, while negative affect correlated positively with increased activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and negatively with increased activity of the hippocampus. Unfortunately, their study did not explore activation of the lateral hypothalamus. What role do orexinergic neurons play in defining the valence of affect?
To date, researchers have discovered two types of Orexin: A and B, as well two types of receptors, OX1and OX2. Orexin-A has an almost equal binding affinity with both receptors (Gotter, Webber, Coleman, Renger, & Winrow, 2012), while Orexin-B has a high affinity with OX2receptors but between 10 to 100 times less affinity with the OX1receptors (Ammoun et al., 2003). That is, OX1receptors will bind mostly with Orexin-A but not with Orexin-B, while OX2receptors will bind with either type of orexin. The tuberomammillary nucleus, which produces histamine, has mostly OX2receptors, and thus responds to either type of orexin. The laterodorsal and pedunculopontine tegmental nuclei in the brainstem, which produce acetylcholine, have both kinds of receptors, and so does the ventral tegmental area, which produces dopamine, as well as the raphe nuclei, which produces serotonin; hence, all these areas respond to either type of Orexin as well. The locus coeruleus, which produces norepinephrine, has mostly OX1receptors (Gotter et al., 2012), and so does the cortex. What this suggests is that secretion of Orexin-A will excite cholinergic, noradrenergic, serotonergic, and histaminic neurons, but the secretion of Orexin-B will mostly fail to excite noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus, which chiefly expresses OX1receptors, and will produce lower excitation of the ventral tegmental area and the raphe nuclei as well. Some researchers propose that, rather than positive and negative affect pathways, the axonal projections of the orexinergic neurons may involve arousal, via the OX2 receptors, and reward-seeking, via the OX1receptors, pathways (Baimel et al., 2014; Gotter et al., 2012).
It has been proposed, as well, that recognition of a stimulus as aversive or not depends on the integration of the hypothalamus with the amygdala. Kim and Han (2016) found that subjecting mice to a condition of high stress by restraining them for 2 hours every day for 14 days reduced their levels of sociability and increased their immobility in tail suspensions and forced swim tests compared to controls, suggesting that the restrained mice developed depressive symptoms. Upon analysis of the mice brain’s, Kim and Han (2016) found that the basolateral amygdalae of the stressed mice had increased the number of OX1receptors. Kim and Han (2016) also found that injecting either orexin or melanin-concentrating hormone (also produced in the lateral hypothalamus) in the amygdalae replicated the symptoms induced by stress. In similar experiments, Arendt et al. (2014) found that inducing chronic defeat in mice increased the number of OX1receptors and decreased the number of OX2receptors in the basolateral amygdalae of susceptible animals. Arendt et al. (2014) concluded that OX2receptors in the basolateral amygdala could help in alleviating anxiety and panic symptoms while OX1receptors have the opposite effect. Since OX2receptors bind with either type of orexin while OX1receptors bind mostly with Orexin-A, these findings suggest that emotional valence may depend on the proportion in which the orexinergic neurons secrete Orexin-A and -B peptides. Thus,
Hypothesis 2.1: Administering an Orexin-B agonist to individuals before exposing them to stimuli that increases the reactivity of their hypothalamus will significantly improve their mood compared to controls.
Methods, participants, and design.
My knowledge of psychopharmacology is quite limited. Thus, this proposed study works under the assumption that administering an Orexin-B agonist such as 7,8-Dihydroxyflavone (DHF) to humans is safe. I propose the use of this agonist based on the findings of Feng, Akladious, Hu, Raslan, Feng, and Smith (2015), which showed that administering DHF to mice resulted in an increase of Orexin-B and a decrease of Orexin-A in their hypothalamic tissue.
Participants will be chosen among individuals with similar demographics and divided at random into two groups. Before treatment, the mood of the participants in both groups will be assessed via a mood assessment test such as the Mood Self-Assessment Quiz from the NHS which can be found online at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mood-self-assessment/. Their levels of salivary cortisol will be measured as well.
Individuals in the treatment group will receive safe doses of DHF one hour before the experiment begins. Individuals in the control group will be administered a placebo. Then, individuals from both groups will watch a movie chosen by its capacity to arouse both positive and negative affect, for instance, Life is Beautiful(Benigni, 1997). After ending the movie, the participants’ moods will be measured again as well as their salivary cortisol levels. They will be then debriefed and dismissed.
Results and discussion.
The mood scores and the levels of salivary cortisol of both groups will be compared. I expect to find a more significant improvement in the mood of the participants in the treatment group as well as lower levels of salivary cortisol. This would suggest that increased binding of Orexin-B with OX2receptors combined with stimulating activities can help decrease depression-like symptoms.
While no one factor can explain the occurrence of mood disorders, empirical evidence suggests that depression has a positive association with boredom. Modern western societies put a higher value on privacy than communality, opting for urban designs that foment isolation and thus, more frequent episodes of boredom. Similarly, education practices are frequently monotonous, demotivating students. The model presented here suggests that boredom acts as a stressor on the central nervous system, and, consequently, that the lack of stimulating events can increase an individual’s likelihood of suffering depression. For certain individuals, increasing the number of social activities or choosing a media diet that by its rich emotional content will cause hyperactivity of the orexinergic system may reduce the need to resort to anxiolytic drugs for the treatment of depression.
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Berscheid (2010) argues that love is difficult to define because of all the instances of love that exist: romantic love, fraternal love, friendship, which vary in much more than a degree of liking. Love is easy to recognize, nevertheless, so a functional definition should part of what different paradigms of love have in common rather than what makes them different. The comic series Love is… showing a loving couple in everyday circumstances captures the essence of love—mostly romantic and companionate instances, but also familial love and friendship: “Love is… someone who makes you laugh and worry less… a safe pair of hands… what gets you through a bad day… picking out the seeds from her watermelon…” (Casali, 2018). Love implies joy, attachment, bonds of affiliation, and the willingness to put up with unrewarding circumstances in the expectancy that one’s actions will strengthen a social relationship. This expectancy is for the most part unconscious. A lover receives no immediate reward for her actions than a pleasant feeling of satisfaction, the sensation of happiness when we see, touch, or think of a loved one. Perhaps, then, the somatic sensations into which love translates are what defines it: “Love is that tug at your heartstrings” (Casali, 2018). Whatever the form in which love manifests, what all cases of love seem to share is a pleasant feeling, butterflies flying inside one’s stomach, an electric shock running down our spine, a cocktail of chemicals released within our brains and through the bloodstream in our bodies that impels us to behave in a manner that will intensify that pleasant feeling, namely by approaching the other. As a pleasant feeling, love is nature’s way to reinforce behavior conducive to the establishment and strengthening of long-term relationships (Keltner, Oatley, & Jenkins, 2014). Sharing resources, protecting the weak, and cooperating to achieve a common goal are all behaviors that will increase our chances of survival in the long run but in the short run signify a sacrifice of valuable resources. Love is a reward that we cash immediately and becomes addictive so that the expense seems worthy.
Comparing love to a drug may not be therefore an exaggeration. Drugs can alter the function of neuronal cells by serving as agonists to neurotransmitters (Carlson, 2013) and love does essentially the same, it gets us high with happiness relying upon the same neuronal processes that result in addiction. In a study that compared the effects of drug addiction to the effects of creating affective bonds, Burkett and Young (2012) go as far as to propose that “social attachment may be understood as a behavioral addiction, whereby the subject becomes addicted to another individual and the cues that predict social reward” (p. 1).
Klein (2015) argues that memories are experiences which originate in past experiences stored as knowledge recreated in autonoetic awareness and thus evoke the feeling of reliving one’s past. Since by the time sensory information reaches consciousness the events from which this information originated are already in the past, feelings of love become an experience of reliving of the past too. The difference relies upon the specificity of behavior love inspires, and the autonoetic awareness. Under Klein’s (2015) definition, memories of love situate us in the past or a different location but immediate experiences of love do not change our time or location, neither do they call for thought examination for possibilities of action, as autonoetic awareness does, but call for immediate action mostly from responses born unconsciously. Thus, love feelings do not qualify for Klein’s (2015) definition of memory unless elicited by the recall of events in the distant past but then become a consequence rather than a memory.
It is more straightforward, however, to think of love as a feeling with a specific meaning attached to it, attraction to the other, and of memories as stored knowledge that can be recalled and reinterpreted in awareness or used unconsciously to follow a procedure (Baars & Gage, 2010; Eynsenck & Keane, 2010; Gazzaniga, Ivry, & Mangun, 2013; Kolb & Whishaw, 2015; Matlin & Farmer, 2016) and thus have the meaning of whatever concept they are associated with. Both feelings and memories become information that helps us make judgments and take decisions, but the meaning of feelings must be interpreted from somatic sensations that originate in the interpretation of stimuli based on its relevance to our current or ultimate goals, survival (Brosch, Pourtois, & Sander, 2010), while memories originate in knowledge already stored in our minds whose semantic meaning remains stable (although memories can also fade with time and their essence can change upon reinterpretation; Keltner et al., 2014) yet their emotional significance relies on their interpretation. For instance, a woman with Capgras syndrome may take her husband for an impostor and reject him despite being able to match his physical appearance to that stored in her long-term memory because the emotional responses he used to inspire on her, also stored in the woman’s long-term memory, no longer match the emotional responses he inspires now on her. The feelings that love precipitate, in this sense, work as information that must be matched with that stored in memory to identify the loved object (Gazzaniga et al., 2013).
In the absence of the pleasant feeling love provides, the urge to establish a bond with the other disappears because such bonds can be costly. Berscheid (2010) mentions a study that asked men and women whether they would marry a person that had all the qualities they looked for in a partner if they did not love that person. At least 80 percent of the respondents said no. What this suggests is that love is hedonistic despite its seemingly altruistic function. What we crave is not so much the long-term benefits of the social bonds love helps establish but the feelings that love triggers.
The “tug at your heartstrings” love provokes is the way nature compensates us in the present for establishing bonds that will benefit us in the future, the way that our genes trick us into raising our children, helping a friend in need, and coupling for a period that extends beyond mating to increase our chances of survival and thus of spreading our genetic information (Keltner et al., 2014). Loving our friends and family to the point of incurring risks is thus similar to our urge to consume fats and sugars. Both result in pleasant sensations now and obey emotional impulses which are but survival mechanisms established through the course of evolution (Ledoux, 1996). Whether loving a thug or eating cake results in the best course of action is beyond the mechanisms that control emotional appraisal as the original interpretation of the meaning of the stimuli—the handsomeness of the thug and the triple layered chocolate cake promising physical pleasures. Optimal decision making demands the integration of memory and affect in higher cognition to judge the likelihood of an outcome, discount risks and reason plausible inferences (Blanchette & Richards, 2010).
Some will argue that love also hurts, that “love wounds and marks any heart not tough or strong enough to take a lot of pain” (O’Connor, 2003) which would give the emotion causing the feeling a negative valence. Those painful instances refer, however, to the downs of an affect-based relationship not to feelings of love in specific. Feelings of sadness, hate, fear, and pain are separate from actual feelings of love because they arise from separate appraisals of different situations all of which may involve the same object of affect and relate to the same goals—reproduction, and survival—but engage different emotional responses deemed more appropriate by evolution to the specific circumstances so as to increase the chances of survival and wellbeing (Brosch et al., 2010). As Moors (2010) summarizes it, “emotions differ when the content of their judgements differs” (p. 26). In other words, if the ultimate goal is gene survival, love is not always the answer. The anger that Othello felt resulted from judging Desdemona unworthy of his love, a judgment that responded to survival mechanisms that signaled that his efforts establishing a long-term relationship with her had been in vain, for she may have been carrying the offspring of another man. Killing her equated to infanticide, an exceedingly cruel act that is nevertheless common in nature and which some propose is the origin of monogamy in primates: couples in monogamous relationships can protect their offspring from male infanticides (Opie, Atkinson, Dunbar, & Shultz, 2013). Othello’s sadness after realizing his error comes from the realization that the source of his feelings of love was forever lost. A sad state not only communicates to others of our need for comfort but as an aversive state serves as a punishing reinforcer creating avoidance to similar situations in the future (Levine & Edelstein, 2010). Othello’s tragedy teaches us about the risks of poor emotion regulation. The point is, positive affect should not be measured under the same scale as negative affect because they are not opposites within the same spectrum but different emotions that may manifest simultaneously but ultimately are the result of separate mechanisms (Berscheid, 2010). Compassion alleviates sadness and contentment alleviates apprehension, but they are only opposites in the way they mark our distance to a goal, not as expressions of the same emotion.
As a feeling, love is an emotion, but only in the colloquial sense that makes both synonyms. In the theoretical sense, and as the cognitive interpretation of somatic responses, feelings are the last component of an emotional episode by most approaches (Moors, 2010). Love is, therefore, the subjective interpretation of somatic responses to a significant stimulus. Using a discrete emotion approach like that of Plutchik’s (see Ledoux, 1996), Ekman or Izard (see Moors, 2010) demands love to be matched to a specific emotion, leading us to as many different definitions of love as one can produce of emotions. Using a theoretical approach that defines emotions in terms of survival mechanisms without attempting to match it to a discrete emotion or a combination of emotions, such as that which Ledoux (1996) proposes, allows defining love as the interpretation of feelings of positive affect without having to match it to a basic emotion, which would require labeling consensus.
However, definitions of different kinds of love based on their nature cannot be measured in terms of arousal and approach/avoidance behaviors, because these will vary according to the circumstances as well as the kind of association desired. Genes programmed us with emotions to prolong theirs rather than our existence (Keltner et al., 2014). Thus the love for our immediate family will tend to be more intense than the love we may feel for our friends or neighbors. However, love not always manifests with the same intensity. Seeing an old friend after a long separation may result in larger approach responses and increase arousal higher than seeing our romantic partner that the same evening. That does not necessarily mean that one loves that friend more than one loves his partner, just that, as a stimulus within the specific context at that specific moment in time, the long-gone-friend has a greater emotional significance and therefore provokes a greater emotional response than seeing the partner we have been living with for over a decade.
For a more objective measurement of love, one would need to measure love for different subjects under similar circumstances, and perhaps use an indirect measure such as the fear of loss as an operational variable. Preferring to lose a friend over a child would not define the nature of a love relationship, however, but merely its intensity. To differentiate between different kinds of love, one should pay attention to their specific function. Attachment to one’s parents provide security; attachment to a group provides security and cooperation; attachment to a romantic partner provides companionship, cooperation, and increases our chances of reproduction; attachment to a child increases the chances of continuing our lineage. Romantic love does not always represent a stronger form of attraction than friendship but a bond created with a different purpose, that of satisfying reproductive urges. Companionate love, therefore, does not have to represent a lower kind of affect than romantic love but a social bond in which reproduction no longer is the primary objective.
Additionally, defining love in terms of feelings that promote approach does not take into account that those feelings are not always present. One does not stop loving when mad or sad or when the object of our affection is absent, and therefore the emotional responses it triggers are also absent. Moreover, using the word “loving” implies an action. A definition of love that matches what we commonly understand as love should then include instances in which the word is used as a verb, implying attraction toward a stimulus evaluated as inherently rewarding, and when the word reflects an attitude that does not cease to exist when the object that it evaluates is out of our attention. Love is, therefore, also a set of beliefs that predispose us to evaluate an association with the other as beneficial to our wellbeing because the feelings that this association inspires are pleasant to the point of causing dependency, as Burkett and Young (2012) propose. The addictive factor is what distinguishes love from an ordinary social transaction or mere liking. We like acquaintances but love our closest friends because losing a dear friend is more painful than losing a mere acquaintance. The addictive factor of love is also a mechanism through which our genes ensure that costly social associations such as parenthood and monogamy are long-lasting.
As a survival mechanism, the capacity to love and be loved is an innate mechanism for species with a developed limbic system which benefit from close associations (Keltner et al., 2014). Being one among many survival mechanisms, developing bonds of affect becomes an optimal response only under favorable circumstances, however. That is, only when love is reciprocated and co-dependency brings up the expected benefits to an individuals wellbeing, loving the other becomes the preferred course of action. Love, as a survival strategy, must be then, if not learned, fomented, so that our capacity to love does not diminish due to structural changes in the brain, as the “use it or lose it” motto suggests (Gazzaniga et al. 2013)
Bowlby proposed that the mechanism through which infants become attached to their caregivers be NIL similar to that of imprinting observed in birds (Keltner et al., 2014). Because infants are unable to provide for themselves, developing a preference for one’s main caregiver and, from the caregiver’s side, finding pleasure in satisfying an infant’s emotional and biological needs, increases the chances of genetic survival (Easterbrooks, Bartlett, Beeghly, & Thompson, 2012).
Per attachment theory, a child will create a mental schema of the rules that direct her association with her main caregiver so that she can predict how that caregiver will respond to her needs. This mental schema not only will guide the child’s behavior toward her caregiver but serve as a basis to build future relationships as her world expands beyond the familial boundaries. Thus, security of attachment may be the strongest predictor of proper socio-emotional and cognitive development, and therefore of an individual’s ability to understand her emotions and develop empathy, as well as of her capacity to establish positive relationships in the future (Easterbrooks et al., 2012; Leblanc, Dégeilh, Daneault, Beauchamp, & Bernier, 2017).
A child will develop a secure attachment when she feels safe in the hands of their caregivers and seeks their protection under conditions of stress. A child with insecure attachment will either doubt of the protection her caregivers provide, and thus develop ambivalent attachment, which manifest in behaviors such as excessive crying that exaggerate her distress so that she ensures her caregivers attention, or, in the case of avoidant attachment, avoid her caregivers altogether since their company does not provide the required soothing (Keltner et al., 2014; Sherman, Rice, & Cassidy, 2015).
Attachment can be affected by genetic and epigenetic factors, which determine temperament, the set of personality traits inherent to a person (Keltner et al., 2014), but mostly by experience, which affects the creation of neuronal connections and therefore judgment. The classic example of a genetic predisposition that will affect attachment are individuals with a short allele of the serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region, 5-HTTLPR, who are more reactive to negative stimuli and thus more susceptible to be affected by stress (Keltner et al., 2014). Children with a short version of the allele are more irritable and consequently more difficult to sooth and may have a higher predisposition to develop insecure attachment for their caregivers. Prenatal or early childhood exposure to high levels of cortisol due to continuous stress is an example of how epigenetic factors can affect attachment. Children with high levels of cortisol do not thrive normally because excessive cortisol suppresses gene expression required for normal regulation of stress (Keltner et al., 2014). After being stimulated by the amygdala upon the presence of a threatening stimulus, the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing-hormone, which eventually promotes the production of cortisol by the adrenal glands (Hostinar & Gunnar, 2012). In children exposed to abnormal levels of stress, this process continues longer than necessary because the receptors to detect cortisol in the brain and stop the production corticotrophin-releasing-hormone are faulty (Keltner et al., 2014). Thus, children exposed to abnormal levels of stress are also more reactive to negative stimuli, and present lower weight, cognitive impairments, and because their immune system is depressed they may be more vulnerable to illnesses, making them less able to regulate their emotions and thus more difficult to sooth too (Easterbrooks et al., 2012).
As said, however, experience can have a more significant effect on how a child develops attachment for her caregivers by shaping how neuronal connections establish in the brain (Hostinar & Gunnar, 2012; Leblanc et al., 2017; Stiles & Jernigan, 2010). Although neurogenesis stops shortly after birth, a child’s brain is not fully developed. The brain not only continues growing in size throughout early adulthood with the addition of glial cells, which does not stop till death, but it continues creating new synaptic connections, strengthening existent ones via myelination, and pruning redundant connections (Stiles & Jernigan, 2010). Thus, parents that are responsive to their child’s discomfort and responsive to her emotional expressions, which are the way in which the child communicates, may be able to override the deleterious effects of bad temperament in the ability to develop secure attachment (Rothbart, Ahadi, & Evans, 2000). In this sense, loving parents promote adequate emotional regulation by causing the strengthening of synaptic connections that favor social bonding in the child’s brain. However, a child’s ill temperament can also have an aversive effect on the caregivers’ behavior, increasing her level of stress, affecting her mood and making her less responsive than to a child with a mild temperament, which may derive on the child developing an insecure form of attachment.
The ability to better regulate one’s emotions that come with developing secure attachment translate directly in behavior. Children with insecure attachment have lower self-esteem and may respond more aggressively or anxiously than secure children. Moreover, the lack of positive experiences leads to poor cognitive development. For instance, Rutter and O’Connor (2004) made a longitudinal study that followed Romanian children adopted by British families and compared their development with British children also adopted. They found a negative relationship between the time that the Romanian children spent in an orphanage and their capacity to develop secure attachment for their adopted parents, as well as with head circumference (as a proxy for brain growth), and their cognitive index at a later age, even when the Romanian orphans were able to catch-up in weight with their British counterparts. Rutter and O’Conner (2004) argue that the cognitive and behavioral deficits are not only long-lasting effects of malnutrition but of being deprived of positive experiences. Keltner et al. (2014) mention another study that followed up on some of those Romanian orphans at 15-years-old and found symptoms of “quasi-autism, disinhibited or disorganized attachment, cognitive impairment, and inattention-overactivity” (p. 313) in those that presented insecure attachment as children.
The most significant impact of developing insecure attachment is, however, on an individual’s ability to regulate his emotions and establish adequate social relationships (Hostinar and Gunnar, 2012). While a maltreated child will still develop some attachment for his parents, because attachment responds to emotional urges arising from an infants vulnerability, he will develop mental schemas of himself and others that do not favor establishing affective bonds with others. Keltner et al. (2014) mention research that suggests that “children reared in risky environments develop insecure attachment relationships, opportunistic ways of interacting with others, and rapid sexual development as ways of succeeding in the risky contexts that they will likely encounter (p. 298). For insecurely attached individuals, love becomes the wrong adaptive response to life challenges. When associating with the other does not translate in feelings of pleasantness, social bonds become either meaningless or stressful, leading to an increased risk for psychopathology (Cummings, Braungart-Rieker, & Du Rocher Schudlich, 2012).
Researchers agree that the best predictor of the competence and resilience necessaries to cope with adversity is having a caring figure in childhood that provides positive affect and structure and thus a sense of security (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998; Keltner et al., 2014). Parental attachment, of course, is not the only factor that will determine socio-emotional regulation. Siblings, peers, and the environment play a role too on how a person creates a model of the self and a theory of mind of how others behave, yet the quality of parental attachment plays a primordial role in affective development because experience has a stronger effect on how the brain wires itself during early rather than later stages of development, and parental care determines the valence of an individual’s first experiences . Unlike a computer’s programming, which can be easily altered by typing a few lines of code, the brain’s programming cannot be changed by merely asking the individual to change her behavior no matter how strong our arguments for doing so. Learning new patterns of behavior requires actual physical changes in the brain, the creation of new synaptic connections or the strengthening of weak ones which demands repetition and reinforcement. Therapy can improve a person’s capability for self-regulation of emotions (Keltner et al., 2014). However, just like an adult cannot learn a new language with the same ease that a child can because the capacity to distinguish language phonemes diminishes with the pruning of redundant connections that occurs in infancy (Kolb & Whishaw, 2015), an adult that grew up unloved may never be able to develop the capacity to care for others and acquire the same level of affective fluency than a person that grew up surrounded by love because the required neuronal wiring may have been pruned out as well. While the brain is plastic, it is only so to a certain point.
Baars, B. J., & Gage, N. M. (2010). Cognition, brain, and consciousness, 2nd ed.: Introduction to cognitive neuroscience. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Blanchette, I., & Richards, A. (2010). The influence of affect on higher level cognition: A review of research on interpretation, judgment, decision making and reasoning. In J. De Hower & D. Hermans (Eds.), Cognition & Emotion: Reviews of Current Research and Theories (pp. 276-324). New York, NY: Psychology Press. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Berscheid, E. (2010). Love in the Fourth Dimension. Annual Review of Psychology,61(1), 1-25. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100318
Brosch, T., Pourtois, G., & Sander, D. (2010) The perception and categorisation of emotional stimuli: A review. In J. De Hower & D. Hermans (Eds.), Cognition & Emotion: Reviews of Current Research and Theories (pp. 66-98). New York, NY: Psychology Press. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Carlson, N. R. (2013). Physiology of behavior (11th ed.). Harlow: Pearson.
Casali, S. (2018). Love is…. Retrieved from https://loveiscomix.com/archive/
Cummings, E. M., Braungart-Rieker, J. M., & Du Rocher Schudlich, T. D. (2012) Emotion and Personality Development. In Weiner, I. B., Lerner, R. M., Easterbrooks, M. A., & Weiner, I. (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, developmental psychology (pp. 91-120). Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.fgul.idm.oclc.org
Easterbrooks, M. A., Bartlett, J. D., Beeghly, M. & Thompson, R. A. (2012) Social and Emotional Development in Infancy. In Weiner, I. B., Lerner, R. M., Easterbrooks, M. A., & Weiner, I. (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, developmental psychology (pp. 91-120). Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.fgul.idm.oclc.org
Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2010). Cognitive psychology: a student’s handbook (6th ed.). Hove and New York: Psychology Press.
Gazzaniga, M. S., Ivry, R. B., & Mangun, G. R. (2013). Cognitive neuroscience: The biology of the mind. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Hostinar, C. & Gunnar, M. R. (2012) The developmental psychobiology of stress and emotion in childhood. In Weiner, I. B., Lerner, R. M., Easterbrooks, M. A., & Weiner, I. (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, developmental psychology (pp. 122-141). Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.fgul.idm.oclc.org
Keltner, D., Oatley, K., & Jenkins, J. M. (2014). Understanding emotions (3rd ed.; Kindle ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Klein, S. B. (2015). What memory is. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science,6(1), 1-38. doi:10.1002/wcs.1333
Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. Q. (2015). Fundamentals of human neuropsychology (7th ed., Kindle). New York: Worth Publishers.
Leblanc, É, Dégeilh, F., Daneault, V., Beauchamp, M. H., & Bernier, A. (2017). Attachment security in infancy: A preliminary study of prospective links to brain morphometry in late childhood. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02141
Ledoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life (Kindle ed.). London: Simon & Schuster.
Levine, L., & Edelstein, R. (2010). Emotion and memory narrowing: A review and goal-relevance approach. In J. De Hower & D. Hermans (Eds.), Cognition & Emotion: Reviews of Current Research and Theories (pp. 168-209). New York, NY: Psychology Press. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Matlin, M. W., & Farmer, T. A. (2016). Cognition (9th ed., Kindle). Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.
Masten, A. S., & Coatsworth, J. D. (1998). The development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments: Lessons from research on successful children. American Psychologist,53(2), 205-220. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.53.2.205
Moors, A. (2010). Theories of emotion causation: A review. In J. De Hower & D. Hermans (Eds.), Cognition & Emotion: Reviews of Current Research and Theories (pp. 1-36). New York, NY: Psychology Press. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
O’Connor (singer) (2013) Love hurts. She who dwells in the secret place of the most high shall abide under the shadow of the almighty (Album). Independent Records.
Opie, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Dunbar, R. I., & Shultz, S. (2013). Male infanticide leads to social monogamy in primates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(33), 13328-13332. doi:10.1073/pnas.1307903110
Rothbart, M. K., Ahadi, S. A., & Evans, D. E. (2000). Temperament and personality: Origins and outcomes. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 78(1), 122-135. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
Sherman, L. J., Rice, K., & Cassidy, J. (2015). Infant capacities related to building internal working models of attachment figures: A theoretical and empirical review. Developmental Review, 37, 109-141. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2015.06.001
Stiles, J., & Jernigan, T. L. (2010). The basics of brain development. Neuropsychology Review, 20(4), 327-348. doi:10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4
I will be reading tomorrow, Thursday, June 28 2018 an excerpt from:
the first chapter of my novel in progress
Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love
Thursday, 6/28 8-10pm
Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is an unconventional love story that covers all your favorite subjects: xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, money laundering, the opioid crisis, suffering a mid-life crisis, and growing up with disorganized attachment, which translates into anger, jealousy, envy, narcissism, low self-esteem, porn addiction, social media addiction, a penchant for designer furniture and expensive clothes, and, of course, murder. Several murders. Set in Los Angeles, California, during the Obama era. Inspired by true events. Bring your mom and dad!
Here’s the chapter I will be reading from, in case you need a taste of the material.
I’m looking at Charlie’s texts, still labeled as unread on my iPhone. How’s your Sunday going, Jignesh? Any plans? Our date was last Monday, for God’s sake. If I haven’t responded to your texts in six days, I think, taking a rather pugnacious slurp from my Frappuccino, it must be pretty clear that my Sunday plans don’t include you, Charlie
Here comes another one. Let’s meet again soon…
I’m tempted to reply with a PLEASE STOP! but I’m afraid that will only make him text more… He knows I’m alive. I made the mistake of accepting his Facebook friend request a minute before meeting him in person, and now he can track all my movements. I’m tracking his at this very moment… Good God. The things he posts… A video of Geena Davis’s Oscar acceptance speech for The Accidental Tourist. He’s obsessed with the eighties… A meme mocking Romney’s attacks on PBS—I’ll share that, we cannot lose the 2012 election—then another one of praise to Malala… I mean, I’m a homosexual and, therefore, a confirmed feminist. And I’m Indian. I know what women and members of minorities go through. I know about the abuse, the rage, and the injustice. I know what it is like to be judged and ignored, but just look at those fucking eyebrows…
Charlie’s selling a freezer too. Almost new. Six hundred and fifty dollars. That’s not a bad price but I have no use for a freezer that size. I haven’t killed anyone yet, I giggle, taking another big slurp from my Frappuccino.
I thought I had fallen in love with the little white boy from Kentucky, I sigh, looking out the window. I honestly did. Charlie had a nice little ass framed in a miniature swimmer’s body. Blue eyes, a turned-up nose. I thought of putting him in my pocket, that cute he was—but his voice, dear Jesus! An ultra feminine southern drawl with an insufferable nasal timbre. Is Fran Drescher here? I turned around looking for the hidden camera. He starts really slow, but then gains speed and applies to his discourse a rather unsettling crescendo, with sudden highs and lows and gasping and cries and snorting that make him sound as if he were a drunken harpy. He’s aware of how bad he sounds and apologized a few times. As a matter of fact, he apologized every time he lifted his fork.
Anyway, that’s all in the past, I finish my Frappucino and toss the cup into the trash bin. Artists as sensible as I am have no time to lose online. I have decided to delete my profile from Grindr and remove myself indefinitely from the dating pool. Let’s be honest. Middle-age fatties such as me don’t attract the best examples of the male species. Therefore Charlie. Even he couldn’t hide a grimace of surprise when he saw me enter the restaurant instead of the 1996 airbrushed and much slimmer version of me I sent him… Now, winsome Celt women with a wispy mane of red hair like Princess Salmonella McFallog do. She’s the heroine of my latest fantasy novel: Catacombs of Shining Fear. I wrote the prolog last night and decided to come to the office this morning where I could write in peace the first chapter. Typical of every Sunday, my brother brought his horrible family home to visit my parents. One cannot write in a house full of gaudy Indians, especially a Highlands epic like Princess Salmonella’s… I’m so in love with her already. I reach for the cup I just tossed so I can chew the ice. Who wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t love Salmonella? She smells of moss and wild berries. She rides horses, has awesome archery skills, a golden pistol that she received from a visitor from the future, and—
“What are you doing here?”
I turn around, instinctively taking a hand to my chest. Nina’s standing by the front door, downstairs, carrying an oversized backpack that makes her twig-like figure seem about to fracture, and she’s looking at me, sitting at my desk, on the mezzanine, as if she had just discovered a turd floating in a public toilet.
“What are you doing here?” I ask back. It is Sunday, for God’s sake. Nina’s internship ended on Friday. “I thought you had already left the city of Los Angeles. Forever.”
She had a farewell luncheon and all, the little bitch. Everyone brought her a present. Everyone including Mike,our stupid boss. Everyone commented how sad it was that our “best intern” was leaving. She said she would be going down to Baja for a couple of weeks before going back to Germany and everyone rushed to give her advice and warn her about how dangerous is Tijuana. Friday marked my eighth anniversary here as well. I am the Chief Financial Officer at this shitty property management and vacation rental company, for God’s sake. Well, more of a glorified bookkeeper and assistant to whatever fuckery Mike devises. Still, no one remembered.
“I came to print my train ticket,” Nina replies, dropping her bag on the floor.
“Don’t you have a printer at home?” I ask.
She shakes her head.
“Well, you are no longer an intern here,” I continue. “I’m afraid you cannot just come and use the company’s resources. Go to a Kinkos.”
She gives me the middle finger and walks under the mezzanine towards the end of the office.
The nerve. So much changed in four months. From attentive little helper to aggressive cunty witch.
“Print if you must,” I say, raising my voice, “but mind that I have important work to do too. Don’t interrupt me.”
Nina doesn’t answer. I hear her start a computer… So fucking distracting. I heave a sigh, then return to my writing.
Princess Salmonella looked at the Roman mercenary feeling a vivid rage run through her flawlessly boned spine all the way to her head crowned with the wavy red curls. She hated that man. That Roman soldier with thick and toned arms and incredibly dark eyebrows was the reason her father had lost his kingdom—
Now she turns on the printer… My God, it’s so vexing… Okay. Relax, Jignesh. Be divine. Don’t forget you’re a Jedi. She’ll be gone soon. You’re an artist.
‘I thought you were dead, Princess,’ said Claudius Julius taking a string of Salmonella’s hair. Salmonella pulled back, defiantly. Her eyes shone with the intensity of fire coming from a volcano…
A sudden snort interrupts me. What is that twat downstairs laughing about? Deep sigh. Keep on, Jignesh. Just ignore her.
‘You Roman pig,’ Salmonella spat on Claudius Julius face.
Oy. Is it too early to start with bodily fluids?
Another snort, from Nina.
“What’s so funny?” I ask, raising my voice.
No answer. What is she doing now? Ok, relax, Jignesh. Don’t let that German witch twitch your creativity… Every straight man in this office lost his head over Nina. I never thought she was that pretty. She’s only young, and who isn’t beautiful at that age? Here you may have been a young Claudia Schiffer, Frau Nina, but I bet you’ll be just another malnourished girl back in Des Deutschen Vaterland…
‘I’d rather die than let a Roman pig touch me!’ Salmonella pulled a silver dagger encrusted with blue emeralds that she kept hidden inside her tunic.
My, this is good! This is incredibly well written. I may need to raise the age group of my readers, however, because it is turning into fine erotica… Poor Salmonella! How can one hate and want a man at the same time so badly? For she’s falling in love with Claudius Julius, I can tell. I am, already. I’m clenching my legs. Oh, those Roman soldiers, smelling of yeast and olives and mozzarella, wearing miniskirts in the British Isles. In the middle of winter!
“I know what you’re doing.”
I turn around. Nina has come up to the mezzanine and is standing next to me with a sheaf of papers.
I cover the screen with my hands. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’ve been stealing company resources.”
“Pardon me?” I manage to turn off the monitor.
“I’m going to show this to Mike,” she holds up the sheaf of papers.
Oh, shit. What is she holding? What does she know? I must have left something in the printer. Something incriminating… Miguel Hildago’s receipts! Is that what she’s holding? He’s my little Mexican hero. An expensive handyman, but worth every penny. He fixes problems before they’re even reported. He fixes problems that never existed at all! Our homeowners love him. I love him too. He sends his invoices via email and gets paid whenever I have the time. If he existed, I’d marry him. He doesn’t. Therefore, it is me who has to cash all his checks…
Nina must have found the receipts. I must have left them in the printer’s queue, and they must have come up when she turned it on. I need a glass of water… I need air! Oh, fucketty-fuck. She knows I’ve been stealing!
“I don’t know what you mean,” I manage to calm myself and laugh, defiantly.
I’ve always been a wonderful actor. Living in Tinseltown, I suppose.
“You know what I mean, you Fatso. I’m showing this to Mike, and he’s not going to like it.”
It cannot be that much. Can it? Those receipts weren’t even a hundred dollars. But if Mike learns they’re fake, he may want to check all of the others… What do I worry? Mike doesn’t even know how to turn on a computer. Then again, he may ask the accountant to check… How much has it been this month? Six hundred? More like sixteen hundred. About eight thousand for the year so far. I got a little greedy…
“Gimme that!” I leap out of my chair and try to snatch the sheaf of papers.
“Nein!” Nina laughs, pulling back.
“Gimme that, you stupid twat! Gimme those fucking papers!”
Oh, she’s laughing now. She’s enjoying it. How can she be so beautiful and so heartless? I’ll go straight to jail if I get audited!
“Nina, give me those papers.”
She’s at the edge of the stairs. I could just push her… It wouldn’t be the worst thing I did to her in the last four months…
“Nina, I know we’ve had our differences, but let’s be civilized. Give those papers to me, please. They’re important.”
I throw my pencil cup at her. She acts all surprised. What did she expect? I won’t let her ruin me.
“Give me those fucking papers!” I roar in anger.
Nina runs downstairs. I sprint behind her. She trips in the last two steps and falls. I reach for the papers. She resists, but I’m at least a hundred pounds heavier than her and finally snatch them… They’re not receipts! They’re the first pages of Catacombs of Shining Fear. I forgot I had tried to print them earlier. I feel so silly.
“Princess Salmonella?” Nina asks from the floor. “Really?”
Did she read the first pages of my novel? I’m flattered… A reader! At last!
“Don’t you know that Salmonella is a disease?” She laughs.
“It’s a name too,” I reply.
It is, isn’t it? Why else if not would I have chosen it?
Nina tries to stand up, but she can’t. Her wrist hurts. Crap. I pushed the intern down the stairs… No, I didn’t push her. She fell… While I chased her. And she’s not an intern anymore. Can she sue us?
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I hurt my wrist, you asshole.”
“I’m terribly sorry this happened.”
“You’re a paranoid idiot.”
“You threatened to show it to Mike.”
“So he learns that you’re wasting company’s paper.”
“You came to print personal stuff, too,” I remind her about her train ticket. “And besides, you shouldn’t have read what was obviously not meant for you.” I try to be nonchalant. “It’s a first draft. It must have a few typos.”
“A few typos?” She laughs. “This is Scheiße. Worse than Scheiße. It’s an abomination.”
“What do you know about first-class literature?”
“More than you do,” she laughs. “Justin lent me one of your books—”
Now I’m confused. Justin knows that I write? Justin, as in my worst enemy? Justin, the guy that refers to me as a “she,” the guy that photoshopped my face in a bukkake and posted it in the laundry room so that the cleaners could see it?
“—and it’s embarrassing.” Nina continues.
“What do you mean?”
“Your book was so bad, I almost felt sorry for you.”
“Justin bought one of my books?”
Three of my self-published novels are for sale on Amazon. Princess of a Lesser Kind, has sold seven copies in total.
“He bought all of them.”
All of them, she said? Including The Sky Beyond Tomorrow? My heart starts beating fast. I’m baffled. Justin? As in Justin Fuck-that-shit Kettler? I thought he hated me. He’s so arrogant and unpleasant… Could he be secretly in love with me? Oh, had I only known… Justin smells of that lemon cologne I like and looks as if the Marlboro Man had used moisturizer. Tall. White. Twenty-nine. He looks twenty-seven. Maybe he’s reconsidering the way he’s treated me. I must confess that Justin’s brown curls and his intriguing blue eyes inspired Julius Claudius. He inspired me to create Al’Kzum too, the rogue and sexy criminal from planet Argentaria in The Sky Beyond Tomorrow, Book 1 in the Beyond Tomorrow series… Justin inspired all the sexy and terribly mean villains in my books. Oh, and I am princess Salmonella!
“He never told me he liked my books.” I finally say, with a gasp. “I could have signed his copies.”
Nina starts laughing again. “He bought them as a joke!”
“What? Liar! He couldn’t have disliked them.”
“Mein Gott, Jignesh. How can you be so arrogant and so stupid? What you write is shit. Scheiße. Nobody in his right mind would like your writing. It’s fucking crap. You’re nothing but a pretentious elephant dreaming of becoming a princess. You’re a loser, Jignesh, that’s what you are. A morbidly obese and pretentious fucking loser.”
Okay. I may have been making Nina’s life miserable for the last four months, constantly breaking the coffee pot and forcing her to go buy coffees for everyone; never reimbursing her on time; messing up with the files she had been working on, and I may have led my beautiful Clara and that shoddy corn girl, Gabrielle, to believe that Nina had caught an STD that one time she called in sick. “Nothing too serious,” I said, “but she’s on antibiotics.” And probably it wasn’t too nice when I asked Nina to trim a ream of legal paper that I had bought “by mistake,” into letter size, and she had to use scissors because I hid the paper cutter, either. Still, she doesn’t need to be this cruel. I know I’m fat. I’ve been fat all of my life. How could I not know it, when I’m reminded every day by the continuous look of disapproval from random strangers; by the kind words of advice from baristas that recommend taking a fruit cup instead of a scone; by the men I dare to contact online, who aren’t kind at all, and by my parents and siblings, who think they’re doing me a favor when they say that no woman in her right mind will want to marry a man my size. As if. And I know I’m not popular. I’ve never been and I never will. Nina doesn’t need to call me names. I’ve got my fair share of shaming all through my childhood to remind me.
I know, however, that I’m a terrific writer. She cannot take that from me.
“You’re jealous,” I say, turning away to hide my tears. “You’re jealous because I write, and you don’t. You’re jealous because I have talent and imagination. You’re jealous because you’re a skinny German witch with no tits and bad taste, and I am a true artist. Justin must have liked my books. I’m sure he adored them.”
For a second silence. Then Nina starts laughing again. Not a forced, bitter laugh, not the one you would expect from a villain lying on the floor, defeated, but actual crystalline, girlie laughter, the innocent laughter of someone who’s still a child—and a goddess. Even I find this despicable German witch charming. Her eyes are so blue, the skin is so even. Nina could be a model for a Pre-Raphaelite painting. And I’m a fraud. I’m not an artist. I’m not a princess.
Nina is Queen Salmonella.
I sit on her face.
She beats me. I press harder. She kicks with her knees. She pinches my butt. She tries to bite me. I push harder. I stay on top of her, with my two-hundred and forty-five pounds of queer Indian fat, until she stops breathing.
I see people constantly shaming other peoples’ identities on social media about racial issues (i.e. if you voted for Trump you’re racist) and I think: that ain’t going to help. So I wrote this, an explanation of why shaming doesn’t reduce prejudice, where prejudice comes from, the effect of media on reinforcing stereotypes, and how a curated media diet can induce feelings of empathy and compassion and, thus, reduce prejudice.
How to deal with your racist uncle:
Considering Group Identity and the Effect of Media when Crafting Persuasive Messages to Reduce Prejudice.
A common response to instances of perceived prejudice are messages that induce shame, for instance, by describing an entire social group as racist. In terms of Theory of Reasoned Action, shaming messages could reduce prejudiced behavior by acting as subjective norms that, reliant on an individual’s personal motivation to comply with those norms, thwart behavioral intention (O’Keefe, 2015). Shaming will not produce real attitudinal change, however, but merely inhibit behavior that could lead to censure. If shame can be avoided, the reprehensible behavior continues. For instance, in a study that used changes on levels of self-esteem caused by racial identification as a proxy to measure instances of aversive racism, Mastro et al. (2008) found that exposing white students to Latino characters in fiction resulted in higher levels of self-esteem for the students only when the narratives presented the Latino characters under an ambiguous condition that neither confirmed nor rejected common stereotypes of Latinos as lacking intelligence—that is, when shame could be avoided. When the narratives presented the Latino characters under a stereotypical condition (i.e., lacking intelligence), the white students did not report higher levels of self-esteem; on the contrary, they showed higher levels of identification with the Latino character. Mastro et al. (2008) argue that this suggests that, on instances when biases can be taken as an indication of racial prejudice, individuals overcompensate by showing more favorable evaluations of the outgroup, and that biases become relevant as behavioral guides only when they could be justified as not related to race. In another study, Choi, Crandall, and La (2014) found that non-Black subjects who evaluated favorably a high-quality ad showing a black model were subsequently more critical of a low-quality ad also showing a black model than those subjects who did not see the high-quality ad showing a black model first. This suggests that those given the opportunity to evaluate favorably a person of the outgroup granted themselves “permission” to be prejudiced next. Similarly, in what anthropologists call the “myth of racial democracy” nationals of Latin American countries tend to justify prejudice against dark-skinned individuals as an aesthetic preference since, because of our multiracial nature, we “cannot” be racist and thus be subject to shame (Uhlmann et al., 2002).
Thus, while overt instances of racial prejudice have declined (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008), racial antipathy persists, either as discriminatory responses that individuals justify as coming from causes other than race and thus allow them to “safely” sustain a non-biased image (Mastro, Behm-Morawitz & Kopacz, 2008), or as implicit biases, the unconscious negative feelings toward an outgroup considered by Aversive Racism Theory.
A study that assessed the effect that race representation in video games has on prejudice (Burgess, Dill, Stermer, Burgess, & Brown, 2011) suggests how prevalent these implicit biases still are, even among people who do not show overtly racist tendencies. After watching short video game clips that presented either a black or a white character, then an image that the participants had to identify as either violent or not, the participants in the study identified violent images faster when the clip preceding the images showed a black character than when the clip presented a white character, suggesting an unconscious association of black people with violence.
The problem with shaming messages is not so much their emotional charge or the lack of strong evidence to support the claims they may contain. Since behavior is ultimately controlled by emotions (Amodio, Devine, & Hamon-Jones, 2007; Bench & Lench, 2013; Westen, 2008), emotionally charged rhetoric often proves to be more persuasive than rational arguments, especially in cases where there is little motivation to elaborate (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981). The problem is that shame promotes avoidance of potential punishments rather than approach to potential rewards (Schmader & Lickel, 2006). Unlike guilt, which promotes reflection of one’s transgressions and, therefore, dissonance reduction through reparatory behavior, shame produces fear and “the desire to escape social scrutiny” (Amodio et al., p. 529). Baek and Yoon (2017) findings support this hypothesis. In a 2×2 study that compared compliance with messages that warned about potential loses compared to messages that promoted potential gains after priming the participants with feelings of either guilt or shame, they found that inducing shame increased compliance with messages that warned about potential loses, while inducing guilt increased compliance with messages that promoted potential gains. Amodio et al. (2007) found that inducing guilt, but not shame, elicited the desire to read prejudice-reduction articles.
Because shame involves a negative evaluation of the self, while guilt implies a negative valuation of one’s transgressions (Baek & Yoon, 2017), receivers often perceive shaming messages as an attack on their identity. Hence, instead of an invitation to change, the dissonance that shame produces becomes an invitation to differ to avoid lowering one’s self-esteem. This would be especially the case for individuals with strong group identity, since as the Social Identity Model of De-Individuation predicts, “when social identity becomes salient…conformity to internalized groups will be strong” (Trepte, 2006, p. 266). For instance, a study that assessed the effect of group identification on prejudice and emotion (Johns, Schmader, & Lickel, 2005) found that individuals highly identified as American felt a strong desire to distance themselves from their ingroup after witnessing very negative instances of prejudice (e.g., physical assault or death), yet, compared to individuals with low American identification, the desire to distance themselves from the ingroup was much lower after witnessing mild instances of anti-Arab prejudice (e.g., racial slurs). These findings suggest that for a shaming message to induce compliance, the wrongdoing must be recognized as such to the point that only avoidance would reduce dissonance. Otherwise, individuals will opt to reduce dissonance by justifying or dismissing the prejudiced behavior. In this case, the function of a prejudiced individual’s attitude, which may have been one of knowledge, coming from a partial view of the world that distinguishes between “us” and “them,” and which could have been ameliorated by rendering existing stereotypes less effective as behavioral guides (Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011), becomes one of ego-defense as in “whites are under attack,” a belief which may prove much more difficult to overcome.
Here, my proposal to reduce prejudice is to craft persuasive messages in a manner that instead of creating dissonance by inducing feelings of shame, creates dissonance by inducing positive affect for the outgroup (e.g., compassion or sympathy). For this, the message must include a proposition that, as of Social Judgment Theory proposes, not only will fall within the recipient’s latitude of acceptance, the range of propositions a receiver assesses as reasonable and not threatening to his concept of self (O’Keefe, 2015), but also, as Theory of Reasoned Action proposes, will cause a change in attitude by adding beliefs that will change the perception of the outgroup rather than simply affecting subjective norms that affect behavioral intention. This requires an understanding of the causes of prejudice and the function it serves.
Racism, understood as conscious or unconscious prejudice toward members of a different racial group, may have an innate component in our tendency for ingroup favoritism, a trait that, empirical evidence on conspecific preference suggests, humans share with many other primates (Kelly et al., 2009). Pinker (2011) proposes that ingroup favoritism “must be unlearned, not learned” and mentions the findings of developmental psychologists who found that “preschoolers profess racist attitudes that would appall their liberal parents” (p. 523). Kelly et al. (2009) propose that from an evolutionary perspective, the ability to distinguish the ingroup from the outgroup may serve as a way to reduce potential risks and increase the likelihood of reproduction. Notwithstanding this, if race is a social rather than a biological construct (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016), racial prejudice must also hinge on our perception of what constitutes the outgroup rather than solely natural causes.
Stating that race is a social construct may sound like a politically correct statement, especially when racial differences seem evident to the naked eye, yet the distinction is important not only because from an antiessentialist point of view, boundaries that traditionally define race membership are inaccurate and arbitrary, since “race groupings do not correspond to patterns of human biological variation” (Morning, 2007, p. 445), but because race as a social construct implies that behavior toward the outgroup can change if our perception of what constitutes the outgroup also changes. For instance, in an experiment that presented a group of white children with the opportunity to interact with either a white or a black person, Kinzler and Spelke (2011) found that children under two-and-half-years-old showed no preference for either individual while among children older than five, eleven out of twelve did, for the white person. These findings suggest that while racial preference comes early in life and as a consequence of our tendency to favor the ingroup, as Pinker (2011) proposes, it is, nevertheless, an acquired stance, reliant on recognition of shared attributes to define the outgroup. Kelly et al.’s (2009) research with Han Chinese babies also suggests the universality of ingroup preference and that the ability to recognize and differentiate individuals within our ethnic group develops early in life, yet that this preference is contingent on continuous direct interaction. In Kelly et al.’s (2009) study, three-month-old Chinese babies spent about the same time looking at Chinese and other-race novelty faces presented in photographs, but infants three to six months older spent significantly longer time observing Chinese faces than observing other-race faces.
Race categorization, just as every other type of categorization, may derive from our natural tendency to find patterns in our surroundings, reduce the world into small categories, and rely on generalizations as a strategy to maximize rewards and minimize risks (Sheerer, 2008). Racial categorization accentuates salient traits, such as skin color (Trepte, 2006), and homogenize perceived characteristics, such as warmth or competence, to facilitate understanding (Brown 2000; Cuddy, Fiske & Glick’s, 2007). Take two persons of European ancestry, one of Finish and one of Italian descent. Their shared whiteness becomes a salient trait when compared to a dark-skinned person of Sub-Saharan African descent. Categorized under the same group and in the absence of other cues, we may expect them to behave similarly. However, their skin tone stops being a point of resemblance when we compare them only to each other, and thus a reason to believe that they will behave similarly as well since now skin tone becomes a trait that further distinguishes them. Are they still members of the same rice? Take Hispanics. For practical purposes we are often considered as one ethnic group, yet what race are we? When Hispanics compare ourselves to members of our own group, phenotypic differences such as skin color become salient, but when we compare ourselves to an outgroup, we tend to identify as multiracial and with a superordinate Hispanic identity that is based more on cultural than physical traits (Uhlmann, Dasgupta, Elgueta, Greenwald, & Swanson, 2002).
Stereotypes that homogenize traits within the outgroup may be but a consequence of our attempts to reduce the world into categories to facilitate decision making (Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011; Saleem, Yang & Ramasubramanian, 2016). Ingroup homogeneity, on the other hand, may serve as a way to protect one’s identity, since it is often seen in groups with a minority status and more “frequently seen on identity relevant attributes” (Brown, 2000, p. 751).
As it relies on memory and interpretation, perception is fallible (Eysenck & Keane, 2010). Hence, stereotypes can be wrong. Brown (2000) proposes, however, that it is not useful to think of stereotypes as distortions one must fight because one cannot fight the way the mind works. Brown (2000) suggests that stereotypes should be regarded as guides for action, which can be faulty but are often reliable and that we follow primarily because they demand little processing power and to save time (Eysenck & Keane, 2010; Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011).
Social Identity Theory explains prejudice in terms of group members’ tendency for ingroup favoritism (Brown, 2000) and as a consequence of defining the self in relation to our membership to a group, which we do so that we can acquire the value of that group’s identity (Trepte, 2006). The better our group compares to others, the higher our self-concept. Hence, Social Identity Theory predicts that we will constantly compare to members of an outgroup to either improve our self-esteem or reconsider the advantages of membership to our current group (Trepte, 2006).
Citing empirical research that illustrates examples of xenophobia as the result of perceived conflict with an outgroup, Brown (2000) highlights ingroup identification as the best predictor of intergroup behavior, especially hostile behaviors. Per Social Identity Theory, ingroup favoritism predisposes us not only to believe that our group is better than other groups—be that our ethnic group, gender, political party, or any group to which we claim membership—but also to mistreat the outgroup, even in the absence of objective causes to such favoritism, as a way to enhance our self-esteem (Brown, 2000; Trepte, 2006). Zimbardo’s (n.d.) Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he arbitrarily divided participants into two groups to play the roles of prisoners and guards, showed how strong this innate desire to favor the ingroup can be and how much it obeys to preconceived schemas of behavior. Zimbardo’s (n.d.) experiment had to be stopped because the “guards” ended putting the lives of the “prisoners” in peril.
Notwithstanding this, Brown (2000) also proposes that the self-esteem enhancement hypothesis from Social Identity Theory as an explanation for prejudice does not apply to all instances of group categorization, pointing to empirical evidence that shows a weak correlation between self-esteem and racial bias. Similarly, System Justification Theory poses that under certain circumstances “people who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it” (Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003, p. 32). Jost et al. (2003) findings support this: in a study that included 788 respondents, 81 percent of them white and 19 percent black, not only they found a negative relationship between socio-economic status and conformity to economic inequality, but also that this negative relationship was stronger for black respondents.
The Stereotype Content Model (Cuddy et al., 2007) resolves the self-esteem enhancement paradox by making behavior toward the outgroup dependent on social desirability factors, specifically cognitive and affective considerations derived from the perceived competence and warmth of the outgroup. Per this model, we actively attempt to hurt groups we perceive as cold and try to benefit those we perceive as warm, and we associate with groups we perceive as competent while we avoid those we perceive as less competent. The Stereotype Content Model also predicts that emotions will mediate behavior more strongly than stereotypes and thus, for groups we consider hostile, we will react with anger if we consider them less competent than ourselves, and with fear when we consider them more competent. Based on the Stereotype Content Model, Cuddy et al. (2007) created a graphic model, the BIAS map, that attempted to predict behavior based on the dimensions of active facilitation/harm and passive facilitation/harm, and ran a series of studies that supported the hypotheses of a positive correlation between held stereotypes and behavior, and that emotions have a greater effect than stereotypes on behavior.
Racial prejudice, therefore, may derive from a strong identification with one’s racial group, an inherent desire to favor the ingroup, and biases that result from recognizing a member of the outgroup “as friend or foe and as capable of helping or harming one’s own group” (Cuddy et al., 2007, p. 645). Racial prejudice’s function would be then to either increase one’s self-esteem by enhancing the value of membership to one’s group or to serve as a behavioral guide to protect us from apparent threats and increase the benefits of intergroup interaction. Consequently, racism could be thwarted by either rendering existing stereotypes that lead to prejudice ineffective as behavioral guides or by redefining the self in terms of a larger group that includes members of the outgroup (Brown 2000). That is, by changing a prejudiced individual’s attitude or his attitude function by changing his beliefs. For that, we must then understand where from these beliefs come.
Because of the negative connotations of racism, accepting membership to an overtly racist group signifies lowering one’s concept of the elf, negating one of the benefits of group identity. Hence, most Americans will not only avoid behavior that ostensibly reveals prejudiced attitudes but will also avoid association with overtly prejudiced groups. For instance, a survey from Public Policy Polling made after the Charlottesville attack (Jensen, 2017) shows that 90 percent of white registered voters have an unfavorable view of White Supremacist groups. Members of the alt-right would be the exception, of course, for they ostensibly boast about intergroup biases, but this may be because, for them, the perceived advantages of group protection surpass the disadvantages of shame (Forscher & Kteily, 2017). Nevertheless, and as said before, racial prejudice persists, either because individuals only avoid discriminatory behavior when it could be ascribed to racial motives (Mastro et al., 2008), or because prejudice remains as an unconscious bias (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016; Cuddy et al., 2007).
If most Americans hold a genuine desire for equality, where from do these unconscious biases come from? In the Public Policy Polling survey aforementioned (Jensen, 2017), the similarities between Trump and Clinton voters’ responses to questions that would reveal overt prejudice and the marked differences in their responses to questions related to ingroup identity suggest the important role that an individual’s claimed membership plays on defining attitudes. Both Trump and Clinton voters expressed to have an unfavorable view of white supremacist groups, 84 and 93 percent respectively, yet 45 percent of Trump voters believe that white people face the most discrimination of all races while only 5 percent of Clinton voters do (Jensen, 2017). Similarly, 61 percent of Trump voters are favorable to the figure of Robert E. Lee, and 47 percent oppose to relocate Confederate monuments, while only 17 of Clinton voters are favorable to the figure of Robert E. Lee and only 10 percent oppose to relocate Confederate monuments (Jensen, 2017). That Trump and Clinton voters concentrate in different areas of the country (PoliticalMaps.org, 2016) hints that political sympathy may be linked to geographical location. So too may be racial biases.
For those living in the diverse environment of a multicultural metropolis, such as the city of Los Angeles, appreciating the benefits of diversity may come as a given. Because they have the opportunity to establish various meaningful relationships with members of other racial groups, as either friends, colleagues or simply as fellow city dwellers, they can become “color blind,” claiming membership to superordinate groups defined by characteristics other than race without having to reject their subgroup identity. They may still use mental schemas to categorize new people they encounter, but the continuous interaction allows them to base affective responses more on individual rather than group attributes (Sanders, 2010). However, not everyone lives in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, and even here, the illusion of diversity is lost when one traverses its many neighborhoods. Many remain highly segregated, a consequence of the decades of restrictive covenants enforcing race separation (Sanchez, 2007).
The Racial Dot Map, published electronically by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service (2013), shows how non-diverse American cities still are. Each dot on the map represents an American resident categorized by ethnicity. At the national level, the eastern half of the map is mostly blue, representing the white population, with tinges of green in the southern states and the largest urban areas, representing the black population. The western half of the map is mostly empty, yet blue dots are still the majority. Hispanics, represented by orange dots, concentrate mostly in California and Texas.
At 61.3 percent, non-Hispanic whites are still the majority of the US population (Quickfacts, 2016). Thus, it is not surprising how living in a small town such as Leitchfield Kentucky, where the population is 94.4 percent white, offers little opportunity to interact with people from other races. The revealing part comes when one zooms the Racial Dot Map at the city level in places such as Cleveland, Ohio, where the white population is only 37.3 percent of the total (DADS, 2010), yet lives clearly separated from other groups, hindering contact.
Many cities in America remain highly segregated, with splotches of green, red, and orange surrounded by a sea of blue (University of Virginia, 2013). As a consequence, opportunities to establish meaningful relationships with members of the outgroup are rare, and so are the opportunities to form impressions based on personal attributes rather than categorization that obeys to held schemas (Sanders, 2010).
Add to this the fact that we spend practically most of our free time consuming media (Dill, 2009). We end up forming our perceptions of race from content designed to engage our attention rather than to present an objective view of the world.
The power of how strongly media can mold our assumptions about the world is evident in experiments such as one by Shevy (2008) who compared the mental associations among participants primed with cognitive schemas of country or hip-hop music. Having just heard a few seconds of instrumental-only music, the participants in Shevy’s (2008) study associated country music with conservative, older, white people living in rural areas and hip-hop music with liberal, young, black people living in urban areas. If, as Shevy’s (2008) results suggest, music can communicate such “a large amount of information almost instantaneously and often without conscious effort from audiences… [and] with minimal burden to working memory” (p. 495) other types of media can too. And indeed they do: Unflattering depictions of minorities and women in media and overrepresentation of straight white males (Smith, Choueiti, Pieper, Case & Marsden, 2016) lead to a false sense of normalcy and a conceptualization of race and ethnicity tied to beliefs that we may not be able to verify empirically but still accept not because we are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality but simply because they make sense (Dill, 2009; Saleem et al., 2016).
As humans, we possess the ability to dismiss information that we can readily verify as untrue by comparing it to reality and concepts held within our semantic memory: cats do not talk. However, we may still process as true information that we can only verify vicariously because it does not contradict other semantic concepts within our memory (Bandura, 2001), the “true-if-it-fits” as a learning strategy Strange (2002) refers to, by which we incorporate fictitious assertions from narratives as facts, even when we are aware of its fictional nature. Strange (2002) ran an experiment that exposed participants first to a historical narrative, then to a fictitious narrative that began with the statement that all assertions within the text that did not match the historical narrative were the fruit of the author’s imagination. Strange (2002) then asked the participants to classify a list of statements based on the readings as true or fictitious. Readers not only misattributed half of the assertions to the historical narrative but also rated as probably true a majority of the assertions that came from the fictitious narrative.
The more transported we are by the stories we consume, the more receptive we become to the persuasive content embedded within. During a state of narrative transportation, our mind becomes so busy interpreting the events of a story into a particular narrative that our capacity to counterargue diminishes (Green & Brock, 2002; Laer et al., 2014; Slater, 1999; Slater & Rouner, 2002; Strange, 2002). Not only we end up processing assertions that may be false as true, but we generalize from particular situations portrayed in media to whole social groups (Mastro, 2015) because when interpreting information, our brain distinguishes between perceived facts and events but stores them separately as either semantic or episodic memories (Baars & Gage, 2010, p.38). Moreover, as time passes by, we may forget the source of the information, but the credence we give to it may actually increase in a phenomenon that researchers call “the sleeper effect” (Dill, 2009). Thus, from scenes such as the one where Bette Davis invites the house slaves to “raise a ruckus” in Jezebel (Wyler, 1938), or from the familiarity with which Mammy argues with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (Selznick, 1939), we may wrongly conclude that slaves did not have it that bad, even when we are consciously aware that the scenes are fictitious.
The effect is a reduced sense of agency for those portrayed negatively in media and an enhanced one for the dominant majority resulting in biases that aggravate racial tension and prolong economic and social inequality (Mastro, 2015), even in the absence of legal norms of oppression, and even when discrimination is only perceived rather than made manifest. London and Rosenthal (2013) mention that for African-American students high in rejection sensitivity “success in college may be threatened by perceptions of bias, increased feelings of alienation, and avoidance of support seeking from those in the predominantly white academic institutions that are deemed threatening” (p. 10). Furthermore, racism may lead to poor health. Dill-Shackleford et al. (2016) mention that “invasive police encounters have been associated with increased symptoms of anxiety, posttraumatic stress, reduced disease resistance, depression, hypertension, obesity and chronic illnesses among African Americans” (p. 4). Giscombé and Lobel (2005) propose that increased levels of cortisol during pregnancy due to stress can cause very low birth weight and may be the cause for higher indices of mortality among black infants in America. Additionally, negative stereotypes may turn in a self-fulfilled prophecy when, predisposed to act on held stereotypes and blind to their own privilege as the dominant group, prejudiced individuals have a negative encounter with the outgroup (Saleem et al., 2016).
How then should we craft a persuasive message? A recent article on the Atlantic (O’Brien, 2017) can help us understand the function of prejudiced attitudes. The article tells the story of Andrew Anglin and his failed attempts to define his identity through membership to various groups. Anglin went from vegan to leftist, then to conspiracy theorist and anti-zionist, to hating Western culture and becoming a fan of the lost Muslim tribes of the Philippines, to becoming the publisher of The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist commentary site involved in internet trolling (O’Brien, 2017). Anglin’s mind may be too troubled to be helped, since, as research suggests, internet trolls present abnormally high levels of psychopathy and sadism, and lack the sufficient affective empathy to “internalise the emotional experience of their victims” (Sest & March, 2017, p.71), but his story may serve as an example of the extremes to which some persons would go to satisfy the need to belong. In terms of Katz’s functional approaches to attitude, Anglin’s shifting attitude may be serving a value-expressive function, granting him satisfaction from reflecting the values of the many groups to which he claimed membership (O’Keefe, 2015), groups that, as the Atlantic article suggests, changed as he confronted rejection from one after the other and kept looking for alternative options.
Say that a prejudiced individual possesses the ability to develop sufficient affective empathy for others but refuses to put down the Confederate flag that adorns the front of his porch. He will reject any message that calls the flag a symbol of treason and oppression because, to him, the Confederate flag does not represent that. To him, the flag may not represent the Southern history he claims it does either, because, chances are, he may not even know that history. That does not mean that the flag cannot represent his particular vision of Southern heritage: the city in which he grew up, his childhood memories, his family, and his close friends. In other words, the group to which he belongs. Hence, as with Anglin, his attitude may probably serve a value-expressive function too. The flag may inspire feelings of racial pride as well, but since the concept of race as a group is subjective, his attitude may come as an attempt to enhance his own self-esteem and defend the ingroup from perceived oppression. Some will mock this perception, how can the oppressors feel oppressed? nevertheless, as the Public Policy Polling survey reveals, it exists: 41 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Trump voters believe that whites, among all races, face the most discrimination, versus 8 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Hilary Clinton voters (Jensen, 2017). That the belief seems linked to party sympathy suggests that the presumption of discrimination comes not from being rejected in housing or job applications, but perhaps from an educational system that for decades promoted the myths of northern aggression and slaves as happy servants (Duby, 2005), from narratives that promote an image of the South as “trapped by poverty and disease, illiteracy, political corruption and deep want of ambition” (Cox, 2011, p. 1) or as “a tobacco-spittin’, Bible-thumpin’, gun-totin’ (and worse) backwater” (Leopold, 2012) and perhaps too from the memes we love to share that equate a (non-liberal) white identity with ignorance and hypocrisy. That is, from an imposed sense of humiliation and inferiority that combined with the inability to abandon the social group—and thus to avoid shame—lead to hostility (Sen, 2007).
Recognizing the cause and the function of prejudice does not look to justify it, but to indicate what road to follow to induce change: not a discussion about the meaning of the Confederate symbols that may lead to further disengagement, but one that makes salient the relationship with those for whom these symbols inspire feelings of hopelessness, resentment, and disenchantment, and thus, will lead him to recognize the uselessness of a symbol to express his values if these values are to include everyone he cares for. That is, a message that induces guilt, perhaps, but also empathy, approach, and compassion. Unless the recipients of a persuasive message are motivated enough to scrutinize the merits of its arguments, most attempts to convince them of the offensive nature of the Confederate flag with historical facts will fail, anyway. As The Onion (2017) artfully satirizes, no one will suddenly feel “Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages Of Queer Feminist Theory.” On the other hand, a message that engages the receiver through a peripheral route (Petty, Wheeler, & Tormala, 2012), matching feelings with feelings (Dill-Shackleford et al., 2016), using positive affect to shape behavior that would otherwise obey to stereotypes, as the Stereotype Content Model recommends (Cuddy et al., 2007) and that the receiver does not recognize as a threat to his identity (O’Keefe, 2015) may change his attitude.
Dill-Shackleford et al. (2016) mention several specific examples in which dialogue born from direct and continuous interaction led to prejudice reduction. An inspiring example comes too from the story of Daryl Davis, a black man who for the past 30 years has befriended over 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan, inspiring them to give up their robes (Brown, 2017). In his words, “as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves” (Brown 2017).
The task can be daunting. Depending on the receiver’s level of ego-involvement with the matter (the size of the flag could serve as a proxy) reliable attitude change may require a great length of time and patience (O’Keefe, 2015). Nevertheless, proposing a different media diet, a curated one, that allows prejudiced individuals to establish parasocial relationships with the outgroup through media characters can help too.
When a message takes the form of a narrative, it allows the receiver to develop cognitive and emotional empathy with the characters (Green & Brock, 2002; Slater & Rouner, 2002). Dill-Shackleford, Vinney, and Hopper-Losenicky (2016) mention that news presented as narratives can result in “greater empathy, compassion, positive thoughts, and behavioral intentions towards the people described in the stories” (p. 6). Since narratives allow to observe characters in vulnerable situations and follow a script intended to provoke a specific perception, they often allow for a clearer understanding of a character’s undertake than casual real-life interaction (Sanders, 2010). Moreover, the persuasive power of narrative transportation is such that it can weaken entrenched positions. In an experiment that measured the effect of narrative transportation in reducing counterarguing, Igartua and Berrios (2012) found that, after watching the film Camino, which conveys negative beliefs about the Opus Dei, a group of Spanish students presented a small yet significant change of attitudes toward the religious group and religion, being more likely to agree with statements such as “religion is an obstacle to living a full life” (p. 525) than those in the treatment group, who watched a different movie. The persuasive effect of transportation was greater for those students in the control group who identified as being “on the left” yet still significant for those who identified as being “on the right” (Igartua & Berrios, 2012). Thus, a nicely wrapped copy of Hidden Figures (Melfi, 2016) or recommending a show like Chewing Gum (Coel, 2015) could lead a prejudiced individual to rethink his attitude and achieve what confrontation could not.
Research suggests how the positive use of exemplars and prototypes in media can reduce prejudice (Mastro, 2015; Ramasubramanian, 2015). For instance, in a study that assessed the effect that exposure to gay characters on TV had on the endorsement of gay equality, Bond and Compton (2015) found not only a positive relationship between both but also that, even in the absence of interpersonal relationships with gay persons in real life, those that had developed parasocial relationships with gay characters on TV presented as strong an association with the endorsement of gay equality as those who did have meaningful interactions with gay persons. The effect may be stronger when the portrayals adhere to some preexisting cognitions. Mastro and Tukachinsky (2011) ran a study that assigned 74 white participants to one of either three conditions: groups one and two read fictitious news stories, either about a sitcom similar to Everybody Loves Raymond with an all-Latino cast, or about a sitcom similar to Friends also with an all-Latino cast, while the third group did not read a story. Mastro and Tukachinsky (2011) found that participants who read the news story about the sitcom similar to Everybody Loves Raymond, which aligned to a common stereotypes of Latinos as being close to their families, showed an improved assessment of Latinos than those who read the news story about the other sitcom or those in the control group.
Research also suggests that a higher sensation of presence can help reduce prejudice by increasing empathy for the other. Peck, Seinfeld, Aglioti, and Slater’s (2013) measured the implicit racial biases in a group of white Spanish students before and after having a virtual reality experience using either a light, dark or purple skin avatar. The students under the dark-skin avatar condition presented higher differences between the pre and post tests than the others participants, suggesting that the virtual reality experience helped reduce their implicit biases.
Additionally, the use of prototypes in narratives can allow receivers to embrace a superordinate identity shared with the characters with which they identify while retaining a subgroup identity. For instance, a study that tested the effect of different models of extended contact on reducing British children’s prejudice toward refugees (Cameron, Rutland, Brown & Douch, 2006) found that making salient in a story both a superordinate identity—attending the same school as the participants—and membership to different subgroups—as British or refugees—significantly improved outgroup attitude, and more so than decategorization or common identity interventions.
In summary, I propose that to bring real attitudinal change we should stop equating group membership to prejudice because these propositions may backfire. Instead, I propose crafting messages aiming to strengthen relationships with members of the outgroup through increased exposure and the use of narratives, and in a manner that does not conflict with an individual’s concept of group identity. This will allow for the development of positive affect that with time (and patience) may render existing behavioral schemas ineffective and lead to identification with a larger ingroup. As the story of Daryl Davis suggests, change is possible, but it requires a willingness to change one’s entrenched attitude first.
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I got this crazy idea about how to include men in the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and so I wrote a paper about it, below.
On October 6, 2017, the Trump administration rolled back the mandatory provision of the cost-free birth control coverage included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) allowing all employers, not only the religious organizations initially exempted by the Obama administration, to negate birth control coverage to women based on their particular religious beliefs (Ehley, 2017). Supporters of women’s reproductive rights are understandably outraged. They have been outraged for a very long time at what the Democratic party labeled as the War on Women, the series of Republican policies aimed to curtail women’s reproductive rights (Zengerle, 2012). Their outrage was not sufficient to prevent the GOP from winning the presidency and a majority in both chambers of the Congress last year, however. Can it be sufficient now to win this new battle against women’s rights?
While the fight to grant women full reproductive rights and access to affordable birth control has many male supporters, the movement is far from being gender balanced. Since males represent not only half of the US voters, but about 70 percent of all elected officials (Catalyst. Quick Take, 2017), unless male support for the movement increases, the fight is doomed to be a long and difficult one. My recommendation is to create emotionally charged messages aimed directly at males to help them understand how the women’s reproductive rights movement benefits them. Specifically, I propose that the Democratic party should rebrand the War on Women as the War on Love to imply that the issue is also relevant to men and to make pregnancy-free consensual sex the primary benefit of birth control.
Currently, the #WarOnWomen Twitter feed is full of posts calling women to unite and resist, and videos like this one, from Sophia Bush (2017) lecture viewers on why women need prescribed contraceptives, especially for circumstances other than sex. Watching Bush’s video (2017) from a male perspective, one can easily understand why the rhetoric needs to change. While Bush’s arguments are valid, her tone is angry and condescending; she prioritizes reasons particular to women, and overall, rather than inviting men to appreciate the advantages that birth control bring to their lives—which she does, but gesturing her hands as if she was talking to simpleton—her video invites men to distance from the matter even further. It is as if Bush’s objective had been to antagonize and ridicule men rather than to educate them on the matter. Social Judgement Theory predicts that whenever the recipient of a message assesses the position advocated in a message as contrary to his own, he will reject the message, regardless of the value of the arguments it may contain (O’Keefe, 2015). Not surprisingly, one of the first comments to Bush’s video reads: “Fuck off with your condescending tone. If insurance providers want to cover birth control, fine. But the government should not have to support it, and neither should the tax payer [sic]. Fuck off” (Bush, 2017).
The abundance of messages like Bush’s on social media, and the way many men respond to them, leads one to believe that many men do not support the women’s reproductive rights movement not only because they fail to see how they benefit from birth control (per a recent survey by PerryUndem  only 37 percent of male US voters believe that they have benefitted directly from women’s affordable access to birth control) but also because they perceive their identity as men attacked by the movement’s rhetoric. As the Social Identity Model of de-Individualization predicts “when a social identity becomes salient… conformity to an internalized group norm will be strong” (Trepte, 2006, p. 266). Men who feel attacked prefer to take sides with their gender than to learn about the benefits that birth control brings to women.
By making birth control primarily about sex, instead of women, one could give men the opportunity to keep their identity as men “free of harm” while allowing them to also self-categorize among those who benefit from women’s regular use of contraceptives—because women who take contraceptives would be more likely to want to have sex with them. Changing the rhetoric will also help men identify the GOP, and not women, as the true adversary since it is the Republicans’ restrictive policies and not women’s position on the matter what threatens the quality and the quantity of men’s future sexual encounters. In terms of Social Judgment Theory, what I suggest then is to create messages that would allow men to assess the position advocated by the women’s reproductive rights movement as fully compatible with their own as men.
Renaming the War on Women as the War on Love would create new network associations that, as Westen (2008) recommends, would make the women’s reproductive rights movement more attractive for the unengaged. The term War on Love would also imply that Republican’s restrictive policies are an aberration and would link the GOP’s position to prudish, old-fashioned attitudes with which most American men, considering the levels of pornography consumed in this country will not sympathize: Per a report released earlier this year by Pornhub (2017), the site had about 9.2 billion visits in 2016 from the United States. Moreover, research suggests that consuming pornography leads to “an increase in positive attitudes toward premarital sex” (Wright, 2014, p. 93).
Of course, making birth control primarily about sex will infuriate those who claim that increased access to contraceptives promotes promiscuity, but trying to take the sexual aspect out of birth control is frankly naïve and acquiesces to a retrograde mentality. Hormonal birth control’s primary function is to prevent pregnancies. Their use for treating menstruation-related disorders and preventing ovarian cancer is secondary (ACOG, 2009), not as relevant to men, and, therefore, less likely to engage them on an emotional level. The women’s reproductive rights movement does not need more arguments to validate their claims, in any case; the existing ones are sufficient to satisfy an invested audience. What the movement needs is to enlarge the size of that invested audience, and that can only occur when more men engage at an emotional level.
The Elaboration Likelihood Model predicts (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981) that attitude change can only occur when there is sufficient motivation to elaborate on the merit of the arguments presented.
For men that find women’s rights of little relevance, the motivation will have to come then from a peripheral route, from messages that remind them that women who do not take contraceptives are less likely to want to have sex; that condoms can be unpleasant, expensive, and should be unnecessary for a committed couple; and that remind them of the negative consequences of unwanted pregnancies. From there, the conversation can evolve to show how women’s emancipation has improved everyone’s quality of life by reducing violence and poverty (Pinker, Location 242).
How can the Democratic party and supporters of women’s rights deliver these messages? By incorporating them in their rhetoric, of course, but also through social media with messages designed to go “viral” by making them brief, highly relevant to straight male audiences, easy to understand, and easy to spread (Jenkins & Ford, 2013) as would be the case with humorous memes and videos. Humor is important because sex and humor often go hand by hand and humorous content is more likely to gain approval (Cialdini, 2001) and be spread because it allows those who share it to easily gain social capital through other’s interaction (Ellison, Lampe, Steinfeld, & Vitak, 2011). Messages directed to young men with overtly emotional content such as “The GOP’s War on Love is cock-blocking me!” could be quite attention callers to how Republican policies undermines men’s rights. Since narratives that successfully induce a state of transportation can change attitudes and behavior better than rhetoric (Green & Brock, 2002), narratives focused on the male experience could more successfully engage men through identification (Slater & Rouner, 2002), and could help them understand how males benefit from women’s affordable access to birth control through modeling (Bandura, 2004). Democrats and supporters of women’s reproductive rights could tell sentimental stories with males as the protagonists having to decide whether to pay for food or an emergency contraceptive for their wives or showing how a father helped his college-age daughter and his boyfriend with the difficult decision of having an abortion, etcetera.
In summary, what I recommend is to create emotionally charged messages explicitly directed at motivating men to elaborate on the benefits of guaranteeing women safe and affordable access to birth control and that identify the GOP’s restrictive policies as contrary to their particular well-being. The point is not to change the narrative to men, but to help women win the support they need to win this battle.
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2009, December 21). Women’s Health Care Physicians. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from https://www.acog.org/About_ACOG/News_Room/News_Releases/2009/Hormonal_Contraceptives_Offer_Benefits_Beyond_Pregnancy_Prevention
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Bush, S. (2017, October 12). [HEALTH] Sophia Bush about birth control. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7d-6MK7CTg
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I watched this video today, and I think there’s something important to learn from it.
LOOOOOOOL HE JUMPED OUT OF HIS SUPREMACIST UNIFORM TO AVOID A WHOPPING LIKE THIS WAS SCOOBY DOO pic.twitter.com/qd5XHrS4GC
— Plantainbae™ (@justcallmeBABA) August 16, 2017
The poor idiot claims he’s doing it for fun. I’m inclined to believe him—which is not a justification; I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for him but trying to understand the reason behind his behavior. Later he says that he’s been in jail and that he enjoys offending people. I’m speculating here, but if he told the truth and he was once in jail at such young age, probably he’s poor and uneducated. In other words: powerless. And if he gets his kicks from being offensive it is because that may be the only way he feels in control. He finds meaning on causing a reaction, even a negative reaction.
Where did he learn to behave like that? There’s a part of violence that is innate, of course, but we live in a society where violence has become increasingly costly. Violent individuals risk punishment, condemnation, and ostracism—not to mention the wrath from Twitter. This guy barely escaped a beating. Why then does he behave like a jackass? My guess is, as he swiftly confesses, because he’s bored. Yes, he may be an idiot too, but being an idiot doesn’t make him engage in reckless behavior, being an idiot simply prevents him from foreseeing the consequences of engaging in reckless behavior. Boredom is what forces him to find his kicks in violence. Boredom signals the brain to look for a different goal because the current one is not rewarding enough or even toxic. Any goal! Even destructive behavior like consuming drugs, skipping school or attending a Neo-Nazi rally.
Combine boredom with the way we acquire most of our knowledge: by consuming mass media. Is media doing a good job educating us? The problem will only get worse with automation when millions find themselves with nothing to do but consume more media.
When I was eight years old, I was called to see the school psychologist. He asked me to make a drawing. Guessing I shouldn’t draw a My Little Pony and expose myself as a sissy I draw the manliest thing I could think of: the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard. I put particular attention on the Confederate Flag on the roof. I didn’t mention that I found the Duke Boys sexy, I just let the man wearing glasses think I was as manly as any other boy my age, and fascinated by cars and adventure. That’s what the General Lee meant to me: manliness. I rated manliness positively, so you could say I had a positive attitude toward the Confederate Flag too. It didn’t mean oppression and slavery to me — I was eight, I had no idea!
My attitude had a function: liking the General Lee made me appear manly in front of others, which was necessary for my survival. Back then, I would have rejected anyone’s arguments trying to convince me that the General Lee was a bad influence, but maybe I would have been opened to hear that liking My Little Pony was okay for a boy.
We should ask ourselves: What function does a Neo-Nazi attitude serve? Telling them they’re dead wrong isn’t enough. They probably know they’re wrong, but they stick to their wrong ideas for a reason. Why?
And then, where are they getting those ideas from? Could it be from media that tends to underrepresented minorities and glorify aggression? I’m not talking only about Fox News. Take this year’s Atomic Blonde, a beautifully shot, superbly directed all praise for violence. The film has a twist at the end trying to convince us that Charlize Theron’s character is not only incredibly beautiful and resilient but incredibly smart and cunning too. Well, if she were that smart she wouldn’t have risked her own life just to kill all those people. Yet we are too engrossed in the narrative to question her motives. Narratives reduce counter-arguing, that’s why they’re so persuasive. We get too busy interpreting the events in a narrative that there’s little cognitive power left behind to judge its meaning.
Take “irresponsible” Prissy, from Gone With the Wind, to go back to a classic example. In one scene, Prissy gets slapped for lying to Scarlett O’Hara about knowing how to deliver babies. Because we are transported by the story and are seeing it through the eyes of Scarlett, who’s alone and dead worried about Melanie, we agree with the slapping. However, as a commenter says on YouTube, Prissy has no reason to “give a damn about either of those two white bitches.” Why should she? Prissy is only a teenager and a domestic slave. She’s a fictional character of course, but slaves like her were probably beaten often, starved, separated from their family, and received no compensation for their work. Why should she feel sympathy for her oppressors? Nevertheless, because it is Scarlett’s and not Prissy’s story the one we follow, and because we’re too busy worrying what will happen next—will Melanie survive?—we don’t stop to ponder over Prissy’s motives.
The point is, we are bored, we are powerless, and we acquire most of our knowledge from narratives that may be distorting reality but at the same time are so engaging that they limit our capability for critical thinking. Punching nazis may temporarily improve our mood but won’t solve the problem. The obvious answer is education, but education tends to be incredibly boring too. What we need is our education system to learn from the entertainment industry on how to become more engaging so that destructive behavior doesn’t become a way to escape boredom. And we need entertainers to become more educated too, so they can create better content.
Storytellers want their stories to be addictive so that the readers keep turning pages and viewers keep asking for more. How does one achieve that? What does engagement entail? My proposal here is to turn stories into a game for the readers—or listeners, or viewers, anyone that consumes a story—to play.
No, I’m not proposing to write interactive stories in which readers decide with a click what is going to happen next, but for storytellers to use gamification principles when crafting a story to increase engagement. Basically, to reconcile the transportation-imagery model (Green & Brock, 2002; Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, Wetzels, 2014) with self-determination theory (Ryan,& Deci, 2000) and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (Green & Brock, 2002). Don’t worry; I’ll try to lay my arguments in plain English.
Let us begin by defining terms. What is engagement? That which keeps you interested and willing to continue performing an activity, such as reading a book or watching a movie until interrupted by boredom. In other words, something is engaging when it is not boring. Lame definition, I know, but this is our first aha! moment: the first step to increase engagement is to avoid boredom.
We could blame boredom on the readers’ ignorance or lack of discipline, but the truth is that even the most compelling stories can become boring if told the wrong way. Likewise, the simplest adventures can be a rollercoaster of fun if spiced up. Is that what you should do, then, add more salt and pepper to your story? Yes, but, as the cliché says, one must also learn when to kill his darlings—those that are boring, that is.
Boredom is an emotion, and as every emotion, its function is to direct behavior (Bench & Lench, 2013). Boredom is related to disgust (Toohey, 2011), and as disgust, it convinces you to stop, plain and simple. Boredom signals the brain that the current goal is no longer attractive, even toxic (Willis, 2014), and that a different goal must be pursued (Bench & Lench, 2013). Therefore the feelings of discomfort one suffers when bored and still forced to continue. Not only that, boredom cuts the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of your brain, impeding the formation of long-term memories (Willis, 2014).
Yes, boredom can prevent you from acquiring valuable knowledge. It is an evolutionary advantage to increase the chances of survival: Just like disgust prevents us from getting sick by not eating what we find repulsive, boredom prevents us from devoting our undivided attention to a single, unrewarding activity for too long. The world is a scary place, and if we wonder for too long why the sky is blue or how many angels can dance on a pin head, we may get eaten, killed, or left behind. The risk may not be as high in this modern world, but your brain doesn’t care. No matter how much time you have on your hands, your subconscious still decides whether a current task deserves your whole attention or not. That is, perhaps, why you keep checking your social media accounts every ten minutes, because you’re not sufficiently engaged at work.
So far this may sound like redundant advice: to be interesting one must not be boring, but the temptation to write long, insipid, unrewarding back stories or fill up pages with exposition exists. If it is boring, cut it, regardless of how beautiful the prose. Your readers’ brains will reject it anyway.
So how not to be boring? If boredom is an indication to stop and pursue a different goal, you need the opposite, to motivate your readers to continue by leading them into a state of flow, one that demands intense focus but is also meaningful, challenging, and rewarding by itself (Green & Brock, 2002) as when you read an amazing story or play an interesting game, and you simply don’t get bored. Applied to narratives, we say that an engaged reader has been transported to the world of the story to the point that they ignore their physical surroundings and instead “see the action of the story unfolding before them” (Green & Brock, 202, p. 317).
When fully transported, the decision to continue is automatic. If you get bored, the decision to proceed or not becomes conscious and will depend on an external reward rather than intrinsic enjoyment derived from the activity, as in “I better finish reading this BORING article if I want to pass the finals,” or “I better stop here, this article is BORING, and I have much better things to do.” That is the tenet of self-determination theory, which explains motivation. Concerning consuming stories, we can say that readers are intrinsically motivated to read a story when the story is rewarding by itself, and extrinsically motivated when reading depends on an external reward, like obtaining a good grade.
What this means is that to craft an interesting story, you must reward your readers because rewards keep them engaged.
Does that mean stories should be a sugary road to happiness? All the contrary. Rewards bring you joy, of course, but joy, like all emotions, fades with time and has a diminishing marginal utility (Bench & Lench, 2013). One pony is fantastic, two ponies better, why not, but the sixth pony is just meh! By pony number fourteen you are probably so sick of those tiny horses, you can’t care less if all die. Transportation is off, and you return to the real world. For stories to be rewarding they need to be painful too; otherwise, the rewards become meaningless. Conflict brings some of that pain. Pain is what makes rewards delicious. Too much pain, however, and the activity becomes harrowing. How much is too much? Conflict arouses your readers’ interest but only when there is hope this conflict will get resolved, and in the measure of the emotions it arouses. As directives of behavior emotions serve also as indicators of progress toward a goal (Bench & Lench, 2013), so what truly keeps readers engaged are the little steps toward a distant yet attainable goal. Here we get closer to what makes a story engaging: goal setting.
A reader’s goal is to be entertained as she relives how characters suffer and rejoice toward achieving their goals. To be engaged then, or transported—we should prefer this term since we are talking about being engaged in a story—means to emotionally identify with the characters’ predicament, empathize with their plight, and wish for them to achieve their goals, regardless of what these are. Goal setting is not the only determinant of transportation but an essential one because without goals there cannot be an emotional investment in the characters and we get bored!
Therefore the success of the hero’s journey, a classic map to create engaging stories. You have a hero, one with a clear goal and a journey that is but a rollercoaster of emotions as he rejects the quest first, then accepts it, then succeeds, then fails, then gets help from a supernatural power, then fails again, then succeeds. The problem I see with the Hero’s Journey is that it becomes a recipe that storytellers follow to achieve success rather than an example. Works with children, who are easy to please, but as you mature and have watched or read your fair share of stories, you gain the ability to anticipate any new development. When the rewards start coming at a predictable pace, the story becomes less engaging (Eyal, 2012).
How does this relate to gamification? Gamification refers to the application of game elements to non-gaming activities to increase motivation (Conaway & Garay, 2014; Crowley, Breslin, Corcoran, & Young, 2012; Landers & Callan, 2011). Understanding what causes a state of flow, and Self-Determination Theory explains how games keep you motivated.
Let us use a game we all know to explain it: Candy Crush Saga. Solving puzzles is basically a waste of your time, and as we said before boredom protects us from wasting time. Why then is the game so addictive? Because we derive satisfaction from solving puzzles, it makes us feel smart. What Candy Crush Saga does is to allow the player to reach a state of flow, one that demands her full attention and is rewarding by itself (Morris, Croker, Zimmerman, Gill, & Romig, 2013). Then, the game keeps the player motivated by satisfying her needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which per Self-Determination Theory are key to motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need for autonomy by allowing you to play at your own pace and devote only as much time—or money, if one decides to buy the boosters—as you want. You can play the game anywhere, anytime, as long as you have a device with an internet connection.
Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need to feel competent, with puzzles that are easy to solve at the beginning but get increasingly challenging as you progress. Instead of boring us, the increasing challenge keeps us going, and we only quit when the game becomes too easy or too difficult—or reality calls. Additionally, the game continually rewards you for your good decisions with catchy sounds, power ups, explosions of color, and words like “divine” and “tasty.” By the time you complete level 252 with over two million points you feel nothing less than the Queen or the King of the world, especially because completing a level is yes, product of your own effort but also occurs relatively at random, which keep you even more hooked: uncertainty increases our willingness to continue, because our dopamine levels increase with anticipation (Rose, 2012; Eyal, 2012). In other words, we are happier when we are about to attain what we want than when we attain it. Lastly, if you fail, no big deal, you can try again, and then again, and again, until you complete the level. Candy Crush Saga won’t judge you. It celebrates you the same whether it took you ten minutes or a year to complete a level.
It doesn’t stop there: The game also makes you feel part of a community, satisfying your need for relatedness by allowing to brag about your success on social media, see your friends’ progress, help them or ask for their help, and gives meaning to your apparently purposeless efforts by interjecting the story of how Tiffi lends a hand to the residents of Candy Kingdom. These may be only fictional characters, but they sure are grateful.
To summarize, the elements of gamification are: 1. progress path, through the use of challenges; 2. constant feedback, on what you do right and what you do wrong, and instant gratification to keep the user motivated and make forward movement obvious; 3. social connection, with both real and fictional characters, providing competition and support, and 4. interface and user experience, which refers to the aesthetics of the game (Conaway and Garay,2014).
How can you apply this to increase transportation?
Let’s recapitulate. To increase transportation, a reader must willingly join the characters’ on an emotionally bumpy quest to achieve their goals. Bumpy, because if it isn’t challenging enough, the journey becomes boring. To remain engaged, the reader must constantly be rewarded, but these rewards must come after solving the challenges along the trip. If the trip is too easy, the reader may get bored; if it is too difficult, the reader will get frustrated, and bored and frustrated readers quit. Because seeing the characters’ attain their goals is the ultimate reward—in addition to those smaller rewards collected along the way—these goals must be set as early as possible. The reader must know what the purpose of immersing into a story is. Otherwise, boredom will signal the reader’s brains to occupy herself with something else.
In essence, transportation results from leading readers into a state of flow, but not any state of flow, but one that leads to the creation of mental imagery and developing empathy for others. Solving a simple puzzle involves no characters. Narrative transportation occurs only when the task at hand involves interpreting a story, a sequence of events with identifiable characters. Interpreting is the key word. One must differentiate then between a story, as one that is told, and a narrative, as one that is interpreted by the reader (Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, & Wetzels, 2014). The difference is important because interpreting is what makes consuming a story an active and progressively challenging task that can lead to a state of flow. Therefore, all the writing advice clichés: Show; don’t tell. Less is more. Make the reader read between the lines, and kill your darlings. In other words, provide just enough information so that the reader is forced to solve a puzzle. Exposition should set the rules not drive the story. Too many rules and nobody will want to play. Too little rules and players will get confused. Start easy and acknowledge the reader’s abilities and familiarity with the subject, the characters or the genre. Do not waste time explaining how a submarine operates, unless the reader needs the information to solve a future puzzle. If she does, bring the information closer to that puzzle; if she doesn’t, delete it. That not only makes a story engaging but also satisfies the readers’ need for autonomy, for they become the ones building the story with you. Give them control over the little details; let them decide the make and color of the heroes’ automobiles; the clothes they wear, etc. It is not a matter of losing control but of staying in control by constantly teasing, by leading the path with crumbs, create anticipation, and not losing their attention. An increased sense of presence should result not only from the creation of mental imagery suggested by the story but also by speculative thoughts.
For instance, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson, 2017), the origins of the city are suggested with a series of images of the International Space Station accompanied by a well known song, Space Oddity. The Bowie song puts you in a good mood and because we all know it (and love it) and because the International Space Station is also a concept we are all familiar with, as viewers we easily reach a state of transportation and do not question what comes next: the City of a Thousand Planets, Alpha, growing from all sorts of interplanetary species joining the station. The details of how the different technologies and politics were reconciled are irrelevant. We are too busy interpreting and enjoying the story. Had Besson chosen to explain the origin of Alpha with exposition, say by listing the circumstances under which each civilization joined the station, the result may not have been as transporting. What he did was to exploit the knowledge that most viewers already possessed: a catchy song that suggests the magic of space exploration and the existence of a real international enterprise, and then lead the viewers to connect the dots.
Is the experience rewarding? Absolutely. Not only is aesthetically beautiful, but it inspires a sense of hope in the future of humanity. Then it becomes valuable knowledge for what is coming next, the most exotic world you could ever imagine, compressed in a relatively small space, the size of a “city.” By the time we return to Alpha, we do not question its existence, or how it became such a chaotic place, but it remains an intriguing place, we want to know ans see more, and thus we continue engaged.
The Alpha sequence does not introduce us to the main characters or their goals; nonetheless, it sets a clear goal in the reader’s mind: to learn more about this world. It prepares us for wanting more.
Cinema as a medium has the advantage of being more immersive than print narratives because a film can provide in one frame much more detailed information than text could in one line and without disrupting the pace of the narrative (Biocca, 2002). Immersion, however, does not guarantee continuous engagement. All the contrary, ambiguity does, because ambiguity leads to the creation of mental imagery and speculative thoughts. Take the opening scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
‘But it is,’ returned she; ‘for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.’
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
‘Do you not want to know who has taken it?’ cried his wife impatiently.
‘YOU want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” (Austen, 2009, Kindle Location 21659)
Austen takes advantage of our familiarity with similar characters and circumstances to let us deduce that Mrs. Bennet talks a lot, but her husband doesn’t. From the text we also infer that the new resident of Netherfield Park is rich and single, that the Bennets have daughters of an appropriate age to be married, and that Mrs. Bennet wants to marry one of them with him. Nothing of this is stated, though, merely suggested. The reader becomes acquainted with the characters, and that without being told what they look like, how they’re dressed, where exactly the action takes place, or any other information irrelevant to the story. I imagine the Bennets in a small drawing room, one similar to the many drawing rooms I’ve seen in British movies, Mr. Bennet busy with a book, Mrs. Bennet pretending to be examining the curtains. Austen presents us with a challenge, that of interpreting the story, but she gives us the absolute liberty to recreate the scene in whichever manner we want. In a game, we have the autonomy to move and explore with liberty as long as we follow certain rules. In Austen’s novels, we have the autonomy to imagine what the Bennets look like, where they are, as we discover what they want. Our reward? Elegant yet easy to follow prose, which plays the role of hyper realistic graphics, and the comedic situation. Impossible not to smile at Mrs. Bennet’s attempt to call her husband’s attention! By the time we meet the Bennet daughters, we have already sided with their mother’s intentions whether we approve of them or not. Alas, when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy first meet, they dislike each other intensely… And how fortunate that is! It would have been a waste of our time if the story ended without any obstacles. Finally, not every reader will be enthused about the limited options for the Bennet daughters, but as the story progresses, it becomes impossible not to relate and dream about living too in that world, England’s countryside at the turn of the nineteen century, despite the lack of comfort, the threat of war, the poor hygiene, and other circumstances from which the narrative distracts us.
Laer et al. (2014) list identifiable characters, imaginable plot, and verisimilitude as antecedents dependent on the storyteller, and familiarity, attention, transportability, and demographics such as gender and age, as antecedents dependent on the story receiver that influence transportation. My proposal is not to change these ingredients, but the way they are cooked: as a series of puzzles following a progress path, providing feedback, social connection, and a pleasurable user experience. A storyteller must not limit to introduce characters and their goals but invite readers to recreate these characters and infer their goals based on the rules that the storyteller sets upon consideration of the readers’ abilities, that is by taking advantage of the readers’ experience and their willingness to confront a challenge, because this will satisfy the readers’ need for autonomy and competence. The storyteller must also reward readers with beautiful images, witty lines, and by allowing progress to be evident to keep the readers’ attention, and be careful to provide these rewards only when they are deserved, after some good tormenting, and not as often or in a pattern that makes them predictable, to satisfy the readers’ need for competence. And a storyteller must invite his readers to bond with his characters and feel part of their world, and their circumstances. Who wouldn’t change places with Harry Potter, orphaned as a baby, raised without love, surrounded by enemies, and in constant peril, for a chance of attending courses at Hogwarts and Christmas at the Weasley’s? A story needs to satisfy our need for relatedness to be complete.
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