How Far is Tehran From Your Door? Your Estimate May Depend on How Scared You Are
Feeling threatened changes people's perceptions of other people. Before World War II, for example, American university students described the Japanese as artistic and progressive, while the Chinese were supposedly treacherous and deceitful. By 1943, those stereotypes were reversed—just as American descriptions of brave, hardworking Russians in 1942 gave way to images of cruel, conceited Russkies in 1948. Now this study, in the current Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that fear also alters people's perceptions of geography. For example, the authors found that Americans who fear Mexican immigration estimate Mexico City to be closer than it is (and closer than less-concerned Americans think). And die-hard Yankees fans think the Red Sox's Fenway Park is closer to New York than do people who don't care about that rivalry.
It's the Yankees-Red Sox result that got all the press this week, but the whole paper, by Y. Jenny Xiao and Jay J. Van Bavel, is well worth reading. (A pdf is here.) The baseball experiment—giving candy to 46 Yankees fans and 27 non-fans at a game in 2010 in exchange for their answers to a few questions—was just the first of three interesting tests. People whose responses indicated that they really cared about the Yankees put Fenway Park slightly closer to New York than it actually is—and slightly closer than Camden Yards, stadium of the (then completely unthreatening) Baltimore Orioles. In fact, the Baltimore stadium is slightly closer than Boston's, as the non-fans correctly guessed.
But of course most of life isn't lived at war or in baseball arenas. In regular life, the identities that matter to us rise and fall from awareness in accordance with what is happening at the moment. You might be a Yankees fan, but in the context of a political argument, that identity might never come to mind, so caught up will you be with being a Tea Partier or Occupier or Third Way Democrat. And what goes for identity also goes for relationships between groups. Boston can be the home of the enemy Red Sox (bad!) in one conversation but the site of the great original patriotic Tea Party (good!) in another. So for their second experiment Xiao and Van Bavel looked to see if they map the effects of this kind of difference: They wanted to see if the same place felt closer to people it spooked than it did to people who saw that place in a different, non-threatening context.
They had NYU students and staff read about New York City's other great university, Columbia. Some read an article that made Columbia out to be entirely superior to NYU (ouch!) while others got a version that even-handedly compared the two schools. Asked afterward to estimate the distance from NYU to Columbia, people rated Columbia as closer than it actually is—if they were strongly identified with NYU. People with no particular feeling for NYU, on the other hand, guessed that Columbia was further than it is. Xiao and Van Bavel think this is the default for uninvolved people: any discussion of a difference between two groups will make them seem more different. That will make them feel more literally distant to people who don't have the personal stake in the comparison.
Now, you might have noticed that in both these experiments, the notion that people feel threatened (Yankees fans by the Red Sox, NYU folk by Columbia) was presumed rather than measured. So the authors did a third test, where they asked directly how people felt. They asked 329 NYU undergraduates some questions about their identity as Americans, and their views on immigration from Mexico. Then they asked them to estimate the distance as the crow flies from New York to Mexico City (and, for comparison) to Vancouver (part of that big, friendly country Americans aren't afraid of) and Los Angeles. Results: people who felt threatened by immigration thought Mexico City was closer.
Interestingly, though, this result only appeared among people who were strongly wrapped up in their American identity and who were worried about the cultural and psychological effects of immigration. That is, these were people who strongly agreed with statements like "I am proud to be an American" and statements like "Immigration from Mexico is undermining American culture." However, people whose fears were more practical and economic (sample statement: "Mexican immigration has increased tax burden on Americans") did not imagine that Mexico is closer than it is. It seems fear of dilution and disappearance—not rational dollars-and-cents concerns—is what makes it feel like the Other is too close for comfort.
Xiao YJ, & Van Bavel JJ (2012). See your friends close and your enemies closer: social identity and identity threat shape the representation of physical distance. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 38 (7), 959-72 PMID: 22510363
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
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