Thursday, June 13, 2013

M&Ms, bonobos, octopuses and shit tests

I am not a big fan of evolutionary psychology.  In large part, this is because I object to the fucking puke hose rate of junk science that pours out of it.  Evo pysch is a playground for latter-day Foucauldians who can't be bothered with the misery of rigor and methodology.  On the other hand, I am a serious fan of just treating human psychology as yet another branch of primatology.

One of the big, clear boundaries between primatology and human psychology occurs where humans and apes are challenged to delay gratification.  The dumbest, most violent, most mentally retarded human being around outclasses the smartest, most with-it ape around when it comes to delayed gratification.  From the stand point of delaying gratification, apes are a total mess.  An ape has to be thoroughly coached to get to a level that the average four year old human develops intuitively.  In psych circles, this can be boiled down to the M&M or jelly bean test. 

M&Ms and jelly beans

The test is a classic psych experiment.  You take a group of kids.  You offer them a chance a chance to win a candy prize (M&Ms, jelly beans, etc).  The kid is presented with two bowls.  One has plenty of jelly beans.  The other has one jelly bean.  The researcher tells the kid if he can hold out long enough, he wins the bowl with tons of jelly beans.  But, at any time the kid can wimp out and just take the single jelly bean.  The researcher then leaves the room, taking the bowl with the big prize, leaving behind only the bowl with the single jelly bean.

When the researchers did follow-up with the kids years later, they discovered something important.  The kids who had held out the longest -- the ones who could delay gratification and win the bigger bowl -- went on to be the teenagers who had the highest SAT scores.  A 210 point difference, in fact!  So, there's definitely no fucking around about the statistical relevance.  People pay good money to gain marginal advantages on the SAT tests.

These kids also went on to be wealthier and skinnier.  The kids who couldn't delay gratification were more likely to do drugs and end up in jail.

There's a more advanced version of the experiment where they also fuck with the kids.  Sometimes, they never get the jelly beans.  Sometimes they do.  The kids who received the rewards were subsequently able to hold out even longer.  So, success reinforced the behavior that drives success.  Likewise, kids who weren't rewarded long-term went to an impulsive "fuck it" approach.  This accurately simulates the effects of poverty and failure on the human mind.


Similar testing has been done with bonobos and other great apes.  Not surprisingly, apes really, really suck at handle impulse control.  In fact, they tend to act like complete apes!

Only with extremely rigorous coaching could the apes be brought up to par with the abilities of human children.  The apes had to be taught basic math and symbolic logic.  And even then, only the best subjects eventually learned the art of doing anything other than grabbing for their own immediate benefit.

With laboring the point, it's safe to say there is a big divide between humans and other apes in this department.


The octopus is an amazing creature.  It is the only cephalopod capable of problem solving.  Among all the cold blooded animals, it towers absurdly high above the rest in intelligence and self-awareness.  In fact, the octopus outclasses all birds in problem solving.

The thing is, the octopus isn't just a good problem solver.  He's an astonishingly adaptive problem solver.  Octopuses are known to pick locks, traverse through laboratories by going from water source to water source, and a variety of other nifty tricks. 

They're notoriously difficult research subjects in large part because they flat-out don't fuck around.  They have excellent memories.  They hold grudges.  And they escape at the first chance they get.  They will run a maze, but they will also wreck the maze and cheat at the first chance they get.

In short, the octopus just doesn't give a fuck.  He'll play your game.  But, after finding the first crack in the facade, the octopus will say "fuck this shit" and resume being an octopus ASAP.

The intriguing thing is that the octopus lacks a lot of higher-order functions that we typify as being signs of intelligence.  He's not great at formulating novel plans.  He's unsocial to the point of being outright cannibalistic.  He can't learn symbolic logic.  The octopus is a serious curmudgeon.

So, what does the octopus have going for him?  One, he has a good memory.  Two, he's persistent as a motherfucker.

There is a human model for the octopus.  It's called autism.


Autistic people have a largely undeserved reputation for being intelligent.  In fact, most autistic intelligence is simply roteness applied to a level of madness.  Autistics have good memories and they are persistent as fuck.  They tend to suck at a lot of stuff.  But, things that require persistence to do tend to work better for them.  They can stick with a problem long after a normal person has surrendered.  Autistics are the octopuses of the human spectrum. 

Of course, if you are lucky enough to fall into the right part of the autistic spectrum, life is good.  Enough persistence to stick with a problem.  Not so much autism as to be severely socially impaired.  No significant reductions in mental faculties.  Maybe even a little sociopathy, because, fuck it, it worked for Steve Jobs, right?

The downside, of course, is that for most people autism is going to really, really suck.

Shit tests

In the online PUA subculture, one of the big innovations is the concept of the shit test.  A shit test is essentially an all-in-one credibility check that human beings run on each other when we're challenged.  The shit test combines probing for humor, social skills, delayed gratification, intelligence and . . . well, pretty much everything that goes into be human.  All in a single, nasty test.

The great challenge of modern human life is balancing delayed gratification with opportunistic aggression.  To be truly successful, a human being needs to be able to build wealthy, while also occasionally doing unthinkable opportunistic shit.

Think back to my reference to Steve Jobs.  Jobs was the model of the modern high function sociopath.  He exploited the fuck out of a clearly autistic friend, Steve Wosniak.  Woz did a lot of the grunt work that built Apple Computers.  And, in fact, it seems Woz openly let Jobs fuck him over on more than one occasion.  (Look up the story on Jobs taking Woz's money from the manufacture of the Breakout cartridges for Atari.)  Woz and Jobs is the ultimate love story.  An autistic guy hitches his star to a high function sociopath, and they ride each other the whole way to billions of dollars.

Success in human societies requires a delicate balance of intelligence, delayed gratification, exploitation and crass opportunism.  The shit test is the ultimate tool for testing how good a person's balance of these traits is.  FTR, I believe both genders shit test.  In fact, I think the shit test is one of the most truly identifying features of human social intelligence.  I think the shit test helps to separate us from the apes.

How, you ask, does this work?

Shit testing, by definition, means delaying gratification.  To withstand a shit test at all, you cannot be the ape who grabs right for what you want.  If a woman shit tests a guy and he goes full grabby from the word go, he's going to lose.  In fact, he's probably going to jail.

The intriguing thing about the shit test, though, is that he has error checking to weed out people who just keep delaying gratification.  Remember, opportunism and exploitation are winning traits, so long as you know when to strike.  So, if a guy gets shit tested and he just just keeps delaying the advance into flirtation, instead seeking to delay and delay forever, he still loses.

At one end, you lose for being too grabby.  At the other end, you lose for not manning up and taking what you want.  The shit test is pure genius.  It achieves rapid discovery of just the right balance of aggression and delayed gratification.

The social intelligence of flirtation then further screens out pure persistence.  Remember, the octopus isn't very bright.  Those autistic kids can be persistent motherfuckers.  And some of them will learn to fake their way into talking to a woman.  Eventually, though, the nuance of social interaction is going to break the autistic kid.  At some point, his octopus brain is going to get caught trying to persist its way through a problem instead of just playing nice.  When the autistic kid makes his mistake, he gets disqualified.  Thanks for playing, Rain Man.  Now back to jacking off to porn for you!

Human sexual flirtation is simply a brilliant system.  It tests for everything imaginable.  You need to be smart, but not autistic.  You need to be aggressive, but not a dumb fucking ape.  You need to delay gratification without being a complete pussy.  You have to confident without being a complete asshat.  You have to display status while still showing a a sense of nuance.

It's simply unreal how great a system it is.

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