Archive for the ‘experiments’ Category

Cultural Para-stimuli

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

The phenomenon named in the title of this post does not exist.  As I pointed out in my last post, it is a theme in Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.

A similar phenomenon does exist, but it’s name isn’t so sexy.  It’s called Observational Learning and it’s one of the main ways we humans pass our culture from one generation to the next.  I said before that I thought B. F. Skinner had discovered the effect.  I was wrong.  At this point I’m not entirely sure who first demonstrated observational learning in pigeons, but I do know who proved it exists in cats.  That distinction goes to E. Roy John, Phyllis Chesler, Frank Bartlett, Ira Victor who, in 1968, demonstrated that observer cats who watched a student cat learn to hop over a barrier when cued by a buzzer developed the same behavior more quickly when placed in the experimental apparatus than cats who didn’t watch other cats learning the behavior.  In fact, some of the observer cats demonstrated their mastery of the barrier hop from the first time they were cued to perform it.  [“Observation Learning in Cats,” Science, New Series, Vol. 159, No. 3822 (Mar. 29, 1968), pp. 1489-1491]

Similarly, I think we who watch media aggrandizement of arguably maladaptive behaviors learn to adopt the abnormal behavior precisely because our society heaps praise upon disruptive individuals.  For more on that subject, see Ann Coulter’s Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America.  I know humans pick up behaviors this way because of another experiment in which participants’ consumption choices (of either animal crackers or goldfish crackers) were influenced by watching other participants’ cracker choices on a CCTV monitor [Robin J. Tanner, Rosellina Ferraro, Tanya L. Chartrand, James R. Bettman, Rick Van Baaren, “Of Chameleons and Consumption: The Impact of Mimicry on Choice and Preferences,” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 34, No. 6  (April 2008), pp.754-766].  The abstract of this paper follows:

This article investigates the effect of mimicry on consumer product consumption and appraisal. We propose and test two paths via which mimicry may influence product preferences. In the mimicking consumer path, we suggest that individuals automatically mimic the consumption behaviors of other people and that such mimicry then affects preferences toward the product(s) consumed. In the mimicked consumer path, we argue that being mimicked leads to increased prosociality, which affects preferences for products presented in dyadic interactions. Three studies confirm the two paths and suggest that mimicry can indeed influence product preferences.

To summarize the results, people who watch other people naively performing  behaviors – such as eating animal crackers instead of goldfish – that demonstrate a preference for one option over another tend to choos the same option as the person they’re watching.  This effect is present even when the person watching has previously expressed a preference for the other choice.

I veer, here, into opinion land.

I think Obama’s campaign ended in his election because he ran it for so long that the passive social demonstrations of preference for him (among other factors, of course) pushed observer voters to learn that liking Obama was a beneficial behavior.  After all, knowing you and a few dozen of your new closest friends can get a huge dopamine rush whenever you chant, “Yes We Can,” is a huge draw.  The Chameleon paper pertains to increasing the number of brand-based decisions consumers make by getting consumers to repeatedly associate their choices with an unconscious sense of social belonging.  I’d say the authors got scooped by about a year.

Whatever.  I serve my country.

Why I like Ann Coulter

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Because she’s funny.  If you like any comedian who bitches about conservative beliefs, say Bill Maher or that Daily Show guy, you have an inkling already of what I see in Coulter.  Here’s an article in Intellectual Conservative that expresses my sentiment in 5,000 words.  When she makes me laugh so hard that I wonder if her story can possibly be true, she’s thoughtfully provided a citation at which I can laugh in outrage all over again.

Except today.

To my conservative friends:  I’ve said for a long, long time that if we hear the same memes often enough we’ll being to believe them in spite of our better judgement.  Supposedly that’s a known phenomenon called cultural para-stimuli discovered by Victor Ransome Starling, a Nobel Laureate by virtue of discovering the syndrom in cats.  Read all about it in the forward to Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Wait, what?  This seems wrong doesn’t it?  I checked the Nobel Prize Nomination Database for the names Starling, Victor Starling, Ransome Starling, Ransome.  The guy doesn’t exist, or at least he was never nominated for a Nobel Prize.  You can verify that he wasn’t awarded a Nobel Prize even more easily at  In fact, the only authoritative-ish place I found informaiton about him was in a book review in the Washington Post.  Why have I even heard of this guy?  Because Rush Limbaugh made a big deal about him a couple of days ago and now the meme has spread around the blogosphere.  The idea rings true to people because we do observe the effects of a similar process.  The spread of theVictor Starling meme is a limited example.  The spread of the Bush Air National Guard meme is a similarly trivial example perpetrated with considerably more pomp and bluster.

I discovered the meme via a link on  The link is to an article on the BigHollywood blog.  While I agree with the grist of the article, the reliance upon this fictional scientific result discomforts me.  The spread of memes is a better model on which to base the author’s conclusions.  To be sure, I can’t cite scientific studies of the meme phenomenon, but I’ll assert that no citation is better than citing bogus science.  My dear, conservative brethren: please stop spreading the cultural para-stimuli meme.

Shelly smells like griddle-browned sausage and flapjacks smothered in maple syrup.  Ciaran smells like deep woods soil just before the first frost.


Sunday, April 20th, 2008

It was finally warm enough this weekend to begin cultivating a sourdough starter.  I put two cups of filtered water – at 120° F – and two cups of bread flour, by volume – because it doesn’t matter, in a Pyrex bowl.  That went on a dinner tray on my balcony covered with a paper plate punched full of holes.  It sat out there for six hours – after which time it was bubbling just a little, then came inside and sat in the sink overnight.  Now it’s rising like crazy and bubbling and fermenting.  I can definitely smell the yeast and attendant bacteria; the thing smells like sourdough and pretty good sourdough at that.

It’ll be a day or too before I know whether I picked up any nasty bugs that’ll make the sponge inedible. So far it looks like a success.  My house kind of stinks, now, though.  That’s a typical, temporary side effect of growing a starter; it’ll stop stinking in a day or two.  That’s pretty much the same time that I either throw the stuff away or pour it into jars and tuck it in the fridge.

Good times!

Find me a Wii

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Wii availability situation. It’s like diamonds and oxygen. Atmospheric oxygen isn’t concentrated enough to interact with the supply of carbon in a diamond. Put the diamond in liquid oxygen, though, and the crystal evaporates.

I need to look in a rarified consumer environment. More to the point, I need my friends around the country who already have their own Wiis to find one for me. Anyone out there want to find a Wii and send it to me? I’m certain we can find a way to get you paid back hastily.


Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

I started doing morning and night ab sets about two weeks ago. Added running intervals on the third day. I can see the muscle tone developing in my belly. I grow sexier every day.

Caroline Reah

Friday, February 9th, 2007

is not as fat as i was afraid she’d be. Just saw her show at the Birchmere in Alexandria. She’s pretty funny. Much funnier than Gorge Lopez. She disses on men a great deal, but at least she doesn’t pantomime all white people as gay flamingoes. Also, I’ll never be able to watch The Sound of Music again. Would I rather have stayed home and played WoW? Maybe, but only because dinner was overpriced.

The Birchmere operates on a Dinner Theater model which means that you have to arrive two hours in advance to get a good seat for the show. I had insufficient reading material with me so I decided to play body language games. I attempted to take up as much space as possible at my table and surrounding tables without actually filling that space – or alternatively, I imposed a massive amount of personal space on my neighbors. It was pretty simple: I assumed an upright posture and didn’t express interest in conversation. My table was at a corner of the stage, so not directly in front but still pretty good and yet I was alone in the middle of a twelve foot bubble until there really wasn’t anywhere else to sit in the hall. I was very friendly when people engaged me, but I didn’t start conversations and I didn’t look interested in conversation. Folks seemed intimidated. Twice a couple approached and the women asked if they might join me. Their men both glanced around nervously and said they saw a better spot – which ended up being the far corner of the hall out of sight of me. I was amused. I’m also still pondering whether that was a reaction to my posture or to their ladies’ demeanor with me.

Anywho, I’m feeling full of myself tonight and I’m going to take it out on Horde.