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Why Opposites Attract in Fiction But Not Reality
Decades of research suggest that we are not only initially attracted to likeminded people but that familiarity is essential for healthy marriage.
One of the most robust findings in psychological science is our tendency to gravitate towards likeminded people. Psychologists call this homophily - literally “love of the same” – and it exist in nearly every culture. Despite where we grow up or how we grow up, familiarity is comfortable; we like people who reinforce rather than test our beliefs. This is true for a wide number of characteristics: sex, gender, religion, age, education and social class. As the idiom goes: Birds of a feather flock together.
Homophily is most apparent in marriage. Decades of research suggest that we are not only initially attracted to likeminded people but that familiarity is essential for healthy marriage. Consider the Chicago Sex Survey, one of the first comprehensive studies conducted on sex in the United States. One finding was that “the great majority of marriages exhibit homogamy on virtually all measured traits, ranging from age to education to ethnicity.” Likewise, a landmark study conducted by Miller McPherson found that personality traits are a good predictor of marital stability and happiness.
The paradox is why romantic fiction is obsessed with opposites. If data shows that we are drawn towards people like us – there is virtually no evidence that opposites attract – then why Romeo and Juliet, Harry and Sally, and WALL•E and EVE?
The key ingredient of any story is conflict. Will Odysseus return to Ithaca safely? Will Moby Dick get the best of Captain Ahab? Will Walt and Skyler in Breaking Bad, or Don and Betty in Mad Men end up together? Darwinists point out that two things ultimately motivate all organisms: survival and reproduction. Literary Darwinists argue that it’s not a coincidence that these two goals are the most prominent themes in fiction from Homer’s The Odyssey to Kathleen Woodiwess’ 1970s pulp fiction romantic novel The Flame and the Flower to Woody Allen’s Love and Death, a satire on Russian literature. If the conflict is essential to fiction, then chances are it revolves around sex and violence.
One reason there is intrigue in conflict is fiction gives us a mental catalogue of strategies to deploy in order to resolve potential conundrums. What are my options if my lover’s parents despise me? What if I fall in love with a person who does not love me? How do I cope if my lover moves away? What if my family is at war with my lover’s family? What happens if my husband or wife dies? Perhaps opposites attract so much in fiction because the conflict it generates helps us navigate reality. As Steven Pinker points out, the cliché that life imitates art is true because the function of some kinds of art is for life to imitate it.
I pointed out in my last post that the goal of some postmodern writers is to scrap clichés in favor of more accurate accounts of everyday life. The problem with this so-called hyperrealist fiction is that it’s incredibly boring. As Jonathan Gottschall explains, “hyperrealism is interesting as an experiment, but like most fiction that breaks with the primordial conventions of storytelling, almost no one can actually stand to read it.” If we are naturally drawn to sex and violence in fiction, it’s conditional on the sex and violence being clouded by conflict and sensational. The brain evolved to tune out what’s ordinary and pay special attention to what’s extraordinary.
But it’s not conflict and sensationalism per se that draws us in. What we really love are resolutions; it just happens that conflict is the necessary ingredient. Charles Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities with the famous predicament, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and continued with a few more dualities such as "It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness." If the story ended there it wouldn’t be memorable. Readers needed to see how the lives of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton unfolded.
Framing the world in terms of contradictions isn’t just a literary technique. It’s a natural function of the brain; a cognitive shortcut meant to simplify the world. The Chinese divided the world into Yin and Yang, Hinduism contrasts Shiva the destroyer with Vishnu the preserver, and virtually every belief system juxtaposes good against evil. Our propensity to dichotomize the world probably contributes to the widespread theme of opposite romantic partners in fiction and feeds into our craving for resolution in fiction. The irony that while resolution satisfies, permanent resolution is dull: we always crave a little bit of tension in story.
Just think about Jim and Pam in The Office. Their delicate courtship was marked by moments of extreme tension because Pam was engaged to another man. A provocative kiss at the end of season two provided temporary relief, but Jim’s decision to date his other co-worker Karen Filippelli in season three returned him and Pam to square one. The conflict didn’t resolve until season five when Pam said yes to Jim’s roadside proposal. Since then, Jim and Pam became the most boring characters on the show despite periodic moments of humor. They are too ordinary without the natural tension of courtship.
Or consider the mediocre 2010 action comedy Date Night starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Phil and Claire Foster (Carell and Fey) are a couple from New Jersey bored with their marriage. After watching their best friends divorce in order to live more thrilling lives, Phil takes Claire to an expensive restaurant in Manhattan to renew excitement in their own marriage. One thing leads to another and they are caught up in a scandal involving the DA and the police. The thrill of car chases and gun fights reignites their marriage and the movie ends on a happy note. But what if there wasn’t a scandal? What if Phil and Claire had dinner and went home? What if there were no car chases and gun fights? Like Jim and Pam post-marriage, Date Night would be boring hyperrealism.
I presented the gap between real life and romance in fiction as a paradox at the onset. But evolutionary psychology resolves the inconsistencies: the brain is not only focused on reproduction, it pays special attention to extraordinary instances of reproduction. This includes everything from Pixar characters to Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. Let’s hope writers of The Office remember this.
Image via shuttershock/Rich Lindle
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.