Expert Excerpts: Sociology & Psychology

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Ashley Mears — Models and Bottles: How Beautiful Women are Used to Boost Male Status



Ashley Mears Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Hi, our next guest is Ashley Mears. The topic will be Models and Bottles: How Beautiful Women are Used to Boost Male Status. Ashley is an associate professor of sociology at Boston University, and she recently wrote a book called Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit.

Ashley Mears:
Thank you. I’m a sociology professor and I followed an unusual path into academia. Like a lot of young girls, modeling was my teenage dream, much like boy’s dream of becoming professional athletes. When I was in Atlanta, where I grew up, I started modeling as a teenager, which meant shooting catalogs for the local department store. I noticed even then how hard it was to fit into extremely narrow standards of beauty. Most of the models were white, all of them were very thin and quite young. I noticed there was a very high turnover because of the quest for novelty. Fashion is, by definition, change and models have short careers, especially women, because they’re perceived value on the market is tied to youth. So much so that when I turned 19, my agency advised me to actually lie about my age when I went to New York, to claim in auditions that I was 18. That’s when I thought maybe this isn’t a good career path in the long-term.

I went to graduate school to study sociology in New York because I wanted to understand the market dynamics of the fashion world. In my first year of graduate study, I got scouted to join another model agency. This time I signed up with the goal of being an analyst, to keep track of how the money worked. I interviewed models, agents and clients, just to understand the market from their perspective. I also was sent out on modeling assignments. Now, again, from day one, the agents in New York advised me to lie about my age. By now I was 23, and they told me to say that I was 18.

In sociological terms, people that study labor would see modeling as a bad job. It’s structurally unstable, there’s high turnover, there’s high risk, but indeed, there’s also high rewards. The cultural imagery of fashion models is that they’re very successful, that it’s very glamorous, that they’re very well paid, but what I found in my first book, Pricing Beauty, is that actually models, for the most part, are pretty poorly compensated, but they do get a lot of perks, such as the treatment of being a VIP in bottle-service nightclubs.

This brings me to my second book, Very Important People. When I was researching the modeling industry back in New York around 2006, I met several men that work in nightclubs and they are called promoters. Their job is to promote the night for a club. They get paid by nightclubs anywhere between $200 to $1,000 dollars a night to bring the right crowd. Now, for the highest end of nightlife in New York, these kinds of clubs offer what’s called bottle service. Bottle service is when expensive bottles are brought to someone’s table, at prices that are starting at a markup of a thousand percent on up. Rather than standing at the bar to order drinks, those bottles are brought to people at their tables.

Promoters are expected to bring the right crowd, and in bottle service nightclubs, the right crowd of very important people: It’s men with money who are paying for the expensive bottles of alcohol and it’s the women who are, or look like, fashion models. They are ubiquitously called girls, regardless of their age.

Around 2010, 2011, I started going out with promoters who are paid in particular to bring beautiful women or fashion models, to these clubs. I followed promoters beginning in 2011 for 18 months, I interviewed 44 of them. What I found is that while promoters can make a pretty good living and the clubs make a quite a big profit in the nightlife industry, a huge multi-billion-dollar industry, what I found is that the girls don’t get paid. They add huge value to a space.

This raises a very interesting question. Why do people work for free? What I found is that there’s four different reasons to explain why the girls would participate in this structurally unfair arrangement.

First, it’s the free meal, because as I had learned earlier, most models don’t get paid very much so being able to go out and afford an expensive meal in a luxury restaurant is something most of them can’t access.
Two, they have strong relationships with the promoters who spend a lot of time cultivating relationships with girls and building friendships.
Three, promoters open up access to this exclusive world, which is also connected to a fourth ego stroke of belonging to the elite. By definition, these are very exclusive spaces, and so even though promoters are gaining financially and the girls are not, promoters are opening up an opportunity for them to afford a lifestyle that they otherwise can’t.


Ashley Mears QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
What is the allure of that encourages beautiful young women to choose that role?

Ashley Mears:
I think that there traditionally has been a split along gender of the importance of beauty and the importance of looks, capturing attention, has been something that women have been encouraged to do. Even at a young age, girls have the princess fantasy and that involves a very certain body, a very certain kind of decorative role. Whereas boys are socialized early on to be more active, to be the agents, to be the ones that are looking and not the ones that are looked at. The male heterosexual gaze, in which men are the ones that look and women are the ones who decorate themselves to be looked at.

Larry Bernstein:
Two weeks ago, we had Terry Williams, the sociologist from The New School, on our program. He talked about his new book, Le Boogie Woogie, which is about an after-hours cocaine club, it’s where men and women went to do drugs. There was also substantial sexual energy in the place and there was a lot of hooking up going on. What I found incredibly surprising about the clubs that you describe was two things. One, that there were very little drugs and it was discouraged by the promoters, and second, that even though there were all these beautiful women next to these very elite men, sex and interaction was not common. What’s going on? Why is Le Boogie Woogie different than your bottle service clubs?

Ashley Mears:
Nightlife has all kinds of different niches and specific clubs, specific crowds, on specific nights as well. Promoters that have been doing this for a long part of the reason that they’re so successful and they have that longevity is because they’re sober and they take this very seriously as a business. It’s not to say that drugs aren’t in the clubs. I mean, certainly, it’s a club. There’s lots of loud music and, people are taking MDMA and cocaine, but it’s not the main point. It’s certainly not that the promoters are going to be using because that comes with all kinds of liabilities.

The hookups. Yes, of course it’s a nightclub, there’s a sexual aspect to it and that kind of energy is arguably one of the reasons that nightlife exists, the possibility of sexual chance and flirtation and innuendo, and all of that is very much there. People hook up, they kiss, they dance close, they touch. There’s a lot of touching actually, the people who don’t know each other very well. The question about is there a lot of hooking up and people going home, particularly in this match between beautiful women and the rich men who are ostensibly paying for the company of beautiful women, not directly, they pay for it with the price-inflated bottles of champagne that they’re buying, they’re buying the experience of a luxurious setting and they’re also buying the feeling of being high status.

Clubs are using beautiful women’s bodies in order to help communicate that, in order to help stroke a man’s ego so he can look around and say he partied in the company of a Victoria Secrets model. Whether or not he goes home with them, it’s enough that they’re present. That’s one of the underlying purposes of this kind of VIP space.

Larry Bernstein:
In the book you say that one client describes the girls as furniture women, because they would be making us look good, like furnishing the house.

Are women like furniture? And then you further go on and you say, “Businessmen barely talk with the girls. Girls break the ice and help everyone to get comfortable in a homosocial world of business where most of the power holders are men.” It’s just helping men talk to other men, and they rarely have an interest in even speaking with these girls.

Ashley Mears:
I’m laughing at furniture women. Of course, it’s not funny, but just the expression. I remember too, also being like, “Wow, that’s such a way to put it. I hadn’t thought of it.” I’m also reminded, when I interviewed this person who books the fashion shows for Prada, he was explaining to me how he chooses the models, because he sees hundreds of them and he has to choose 10 for the show. And he was explaining it, “How can one account for taste?” He said, “How did I choose this sofa that we’re sitting on? I don’t know. For me, it ticks the box. It’s just taste.” And I remember thinking like, “Oh, he just compared women to the sofa.” But in that context, these are ways that people are speaking about young women as commodities, as objects.

I don’t think that it’s the sex that girls are offering. It’s sexiness. It’s the visual feeling: here’s a lot of really beautiful women.

When I interviewed the wealthy men who are paying in these clubs, I asked them if the women that they met out in clubs, these girls that were so valuable, I asked if this was the pool of romantic partners, if they were looking for a girlfriend or a future wife among these women. And their answer was very stern, no. They would say. Models are great decoration, like furniture, but this is not the pool of future marriage material.

Larry Bernstein:
In the book, you mentioned that some women can use this modeling experience to jump up in social class, you were quoting a French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, that there are traditional social classes and that beautiful women can sometimes jump from one class to a higher class because of their beauty. I’m just surprised that high status men aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid to take in lower status, beautiful women into their social circles. Why do you suppose that is? And is that shaming by high status women, when they’re around beautiful, less socially status women?

Ashley Mears:
So going back to the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu, he observed that one way that elites and the upper classes are able to maintain power amongst themselves is by carefully controlling marriage, in and marriage out. And we do see this in demography of the family, that people who are upper-class tend to partner with similarly high-status partners. So rich men will marry women who come from rich families, or the same kind of educational credentials. Actually, it is quite rare to see, or the anomaly is like Melania and Donald Trump. And they met at a party that was organized by somebody who hangs out very much in this club world.

Larry Bernstein:
So much for Cinderella. Moving on to the promoter. What makes a good promoter? Are they incredibly extroverted? Are they good businessmen?

Ashley Mears:. They’re really good at making girls feel comfortable, making girls feel valuable and making girls want to come out and work for free.

Larry Bernstein:
One of the discussions in the book related to one of the promoters hanging on Grand and West Broadway, in his car. And he sees an attractive girl walking down the street. He jumps out of his car, leaves his car with the keys and runs over to talk with this girl, gets her number and encourages her to go out that night and join him at the party. Is that a perfect example of what these guys do for a living? They’re constantly on the lookout for beautiful women and encouraging them to come out for free to some party?

Ashley Mears:
So, there’re different strategies to do that, but that’s the key thing about their job. One of them told me, there can be no night without the day. So, what they’re doing during the day is identifying girls, recruiting them, building a relationship with them, and then trying to mobilize them to come out and so street scouting, this scene that you just described, that’s one way to do it.

Larry Bernstein:
I want to talk a little bit about the elite businessmen. I don’t know many people that go to these clubs. But who are these people? And what is special about these particular sets of businessmen, that they want to hang out in these clubs, and who’s going to do real business in these clubs?

Ashley Mears:
The men are quite a mix. They come from a range of backgrounds. Some of them are occasional participants in this scene. They drop in once a year or twice a year. If some of them are regulars, they’re not spending huge sums, they might go out with a couple of friends and share the bill.

There are people who are affluent from Wall Street, from tech.

it’s really a mix. The elite: They’re hypermobile, they’re global. Old money, new money, different industries, and so on.

One thing that most of these rich men had in common is relative youth. They’re not as young as the girls, but it would be men who are not typically much older than their 50s, but not 60s. You can certainly see a silver fox in the crowd, and that wouldn’t be unusual. It would be to see a 60-year-old woman in this space, would be very unusual.

So it’s more young money, or men who are starting out and making a lot of money, the working rich, people who didn’t inherit.

Even within a nightclub, it’s not all men who have lots of money. If you think about how big a nightclub is, 500-person capacity. They have to get filled somehow. The doorperson will make these distinctions of people who have money and have evidence that they’re going to lay down their credit card and pay for renting a table. And then women who are beautiful, and they get in for free. But then there’s lots of other people that are valuable to the club because they keep the place from looking empty. And these are people that are sometimes called fillers. They might not have thousands of dollars to spend on a night, but they could pay for $50, for their drinks at the bar. And they’ll fill the space. And they look well-dressed enough that the club values those people as well.

Larry Bernstein:
You mentioned good civilians. These are women who are very attractive, but aren’t model-like. What is the role of the good civilian for the club?

Ashley Mears:
So, good civilian was my role in this space. A good civilian is somebody who is not a model, because the fashion modeling industry has very exacting and very narrow standards of beauty, of height, and thinness, and youth. But a good civilian is somebody who is maybe off a little bit in one or more of those categories, but when the lights are low, she will still look close enough to a model. So pretty enough, but not quite a model.

When I was doing the field work, I was already 31, which is way past retirement age for fashion models. But the reason that they tolerated me was because I was a good civilian. If I was a little bit shorter, or a little bit older, like I am now, or a bit heavier, I would not have been able to get that access that I did.

Larry Bernstein:
In your modeling book, you mentioned that look changes all the time, and that even the people who are in the booking agency business are constantly surprised at what works and what doesn’t. How has it changed in the time that you’ve been in the industry?

Ashley Mears:
So that distinction between the editorial market and the commercial market, I think you see this in a lot of arts fields, where the editorial fashion doesn’t appeal to a mass market. It’s really communicating taste to a rarefied audience that has been trained, so other fashion insiders or photographers and designers can see beauty in something that your average consumer in middle America … I’m just going to use my mom as an example … that my mom just wouldn’t get because she’s not in high fashion. She doesn’t read the magazines; she doesn’t look at all of the Instagrams. And I’m always fascinated assessing the value of any cultural good, a work of art or beauty and so on.

I will say your question was about the content of the look and how are those looks at the editorial end changing. I think that they’ve opened up enormously, and that’s because the visibility of people and the assertion of people to proclaim loudly and in public, and to be heard that they have a right to be visible in the beauty industry, that has been transformed with social media. There’ve been very large women who wear a size 20 who have become top models because the platform of Instagram has allowed them to contest these hegemonic standards of the fashion modeling industry.

Larry Bernstein:
In the book, you also discuss the role of race for models, that at the clubs, they would allow a few African-Americans, but not too many. And you also mentioned in your modeling book something similar to that as well, that there would be a few black models in a magazine. Recently, I think since the Black Lives Matter movement, fashion magazines are full of African-American women. How do you think about that?

Ashley Mears:
The distinction between editorial and commercial modeling is actually really important here. So, in the commercial end of the market, where catalogs are being marketed to everyday middle American consumers, those kinds of bodies tend to be much more ethnically racially diverse. You’ll see just a lot more black bodies in the commercial end of the market. Also, you’ll see more “full-figured”, large sized, plus size bodies in commercial catalogs than you would see on a high-end catwalk. So, a commercial catalog that I worked for, for instance, they were conscientious that they needed to have a black woman, an Asian woman, a red head, and a blonde.

They needed to have everybody that will look at their ad and say, “This appeals to me.” It’s still aspirational. At the editorial end of the market, because editorial fashion production is insiders speaking the language of high-end fashion to one another, they’re not beholden to what their consumers want, necessarily. They’re just beholden to their own sense of taste and what they think is fashionable. And in my interviews, I found in interviewing people that are booking the shows for the catwalks and so on, their default aesthetic was a thin, young, white woman, and everything else outside of that was noticeably different.

And in the editorial end of the market, they took pains to try to when they’re casting the shows for a fashion show, they would take pains to try to get at least one black model that could be on the catwalks, because they want to avoid the accusation of a racist vision of beauty. “We have to get one, but there’s only one that’s really good this season. Everybody’s getting that one good black model.”

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Paul Embery — the British Working Class

Paul Embery Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Let’s begin with Paul Embery:

Paul Embery:
Thank you, Larry. My book: Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, focuses on the serious disconnect that has emerged between on the one hand, the Labor Party and the wider left in Britain and on the other, the working class. And it explains why that disconnect has occurred. It looks at how the values of the modern left are out of sync with the values of millions of ordinary working-class voters in Britain. I’ve written from my vantage point as somebody who’s been involved in the labor movement in Britain for around 26 years. I’ve been a member of the British Labor Party for most of that time and an active trade unionist. And the disconnect was a phenomenon that I and some others saw coming and I had written about. And in fact, four days before the British general election in December 2019, an election at which the British Labor Party was annihilated in many of its heartlands, I tweeted my prediction that Labor’s Red Wall as it is called would crumble. And that’s exactly what happened.

Because the truth is that the British Labor Party is now a party largely of social activists and student radicals and middle-class liberals living in our fashionable cities and no longer looks very much or sounds very much like millions of working-class people living in post-industrial and provincial Britain. When labor started to embrace a toxic brew of radical social and economic liberalism resulted in a new kind of Labor Party. It was a Labor Party that was much more middle class. It was very metropolitan in their outlook. It was particularly London-centric. It was very globalist and it was a party that would become to embrace quite militantly the precepts of cosmopolitan liberalism. And all of this represented quite a serious departure from the Labor Party’s roots, because the party was founded at the beginning of the 20th century in Britain expressly as a party for working class people, to give workers a voice in parliament.
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And the party has always attracted to support of more middle-class liberal folk. And that is undoubtedly a good thing, but its main space support was always it’s blue-collar industrial working-class base. Now for example, 77% of the Labor Party members today fall into what we call the ABC1 grade, which is the occupational middle-class and 57% of members are college graduates. And that shows a party that’s moving away from its traditional base, and as the party and the left’s demographic has changed over the past two or three decades in Britain, so have their priorities. Labor and the wider left in Britain now focus less on less on what we call bread and butter class base issues, such as socioeconomic injustices and more and more on more middle-class activists’ kind of pursuit. For example, the party on the wider left is immersed in what I think is a very destructive creative identity politics and they place issues such as gender identity and Palestine and migrant rights, et cetera, much higher up the agenda than most working-class people do.

And I certainly don’t say that those issues are not important and most working-class people wouldn’t say that those issues are not important, but they are not front and center in the everyday lives of ordinary voters. Because usually when you speak to working class people on the doorstep, they want to talk about things that matter to them in their everyday lives. They want to talk about economic insecurity, the lack of housing. They want to talk about law and order. They want to talk about immigration and national security and so on, the things that really concern them. But these are issues that cause left wing activists in Britain to look down at the ground and shuffle their feet in embarrassment whenever they are raised. And what I’ve tried to do in the book is also explain how much of today’s left in Britain has become very authoritarian in nature and largely responsible for an ongoing culture war and the suffocating atmosphere which seeks to silence or cancel or marginalize anyone who doesn’t subscribe to its ideology.

And it’s what some people have called a soft totalitarianism. And it’s growing in Britain. There’s increasingly a risk that your reputation or your career may be destroyed if you are argue an unfashionable political or moral view. And the book is written from a very personal perspective. I grew up in a very working-class place in East London called the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. And Barking and Dagenham was caught very much in the eye of the storm at the early part of this century, the first decade really of this century, over the whole impacts of globalization and how the deepening global market was resulting in deindustrialization and the loss of thousands of blue-collar jobs in constituencies in places Barking and Dagenham was often accompanied by rapid demographic change. And that caused a whole load of the wilderness and disorientation in these communities.

I tried to tell the story from the inside looking out rather than from the outside looking in. And my argument, and I’ll sum up on this, is that unless the British Labor Party and the wider left in Britain return to a much more communitarian-based politics, the politics of belonging as some people have called it, and begin again to understand the importance of social solidarity, they will not win back the minds of the millions of abandoned them over recent years.

Paul Embery QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Let me start out with a question about Brexit. Brexit didn’t appear to follow normal political patterns. It wasn’t a conservative issue, it wasn’t a labor issue, and it had a wide appeal across party lines. And we don’t often see that in the United States where a good chunk of the population in both parties will disagree with the elites that run the Democratic and Republican parties. How does your thesis, which you describe as cosmopolitanism and globalism perspective of the new Labor Party relate to Brexit?

Paul Embery:
Well, Brexit was a fascinating phenomenon in many respects, because it was what I’ve called a genuine democratic revolt, particularly by the working class and more particularly by the English working class. And many people actually voted for the first time in that Brexit referendum in 2016. People who hadn’t voted in general elections because they just didn’t think that general elections were a way of influencing the elites who had moved away from them and just continued to ignore them. But in a referendum, it’s different. And they felt that actually they’d been handed this weapon and they it may be the only opportunity they would ever get in their lifetimes to really fire a missile through the political system and force their political masters to sit up and pay attention.

And actually when you consider that the whole ranks really of the establishment or the majority of the establishment were pro remain and were very much opposed to Brexit. And when ordinary working-class people who felt let down by that establishment saw that same establishment lining up and pleading for their vote and pleading for their support, they weren’t inclined to give it. And it was really the working class fighting back and the working class saying, “You forgot about us. You are alienated us. You took us for granted. Now take that and deal with that.” And I think that explains the Brexit phenomenon in Britain.

Larry Bernstein:
Your book was written before COVID. Do you think that COVID in any way has changed this phenomenon? Has it made it worse? Has it highlighted the difference between the elites and the non-elites or has it brought the UK back together, because they’re all fighting the same common enemy, which is a virus?

Paul Embery:
I certainly think there’s an element of unity around fighting the virus. And there’s a kind of spirit that you do sometimes see in wartime where people come together and people want to help their neighbors and do what they can to get through it. But I think it would be mistaken to assume that all of the old tensions and the polarization that led to the divisions in Britain over the recent years have gone away. They haven’t. They are still there. And when you look at how it’s been handled in Britain, it’s very much the working class that are bearing the brunt of it. First of all, most working-class people, particularly if they’re involved in manual labor, blue collar industries, don’t get the luxury of working from home during periods of COVID lock downs, whereas more affluent middle-class people in the professional industries do get that opportunity. So those kinds of divisions have been highlighted as well.

And I think there’s going to be a real debate over the future of the economy. We’ve had for the last 10 or 11 years in Britain, since the global financial crash, we’ve had austerity in terms of the economy, and that’s had a real impact on working class people. It’s hit them in the pockets, it’s hit their public services. It’s been very difficult financially for people to get by, particularly working-class people. So, the choice for the government now is as we come out of COVID and we have to deal with the economic crisis, if they think that they can get away with another decade of imposing crippling, economic austerity on working class communities, I think they’re going to be very mistaken. I think that working class communities are going to say we’ve had that. We’re not prepared to put up with that again. We want some kind of different approach to how we deal with this economic crisis. So those divisions are there, and I think they’re about to be played out in the economic debate.

Larry Bernstein:
In the United States, we had an election just before the beginning of the vaccination program. If there had been an election in the second week of November of last year or even today, what would happen in the UK? Would the conservatives get pummeled? Would labor do better? Will that near term failure associated with not doing well with the COVID start to become a secondary issue over time when everyone has already been vaccinated and hopefully back to work?

Paul Embery:
I think that had there been an election in November, I suspect the Conservatives would still have held onto power. Labor simply hasn’t got its act together. Labor is still licking its wounds from the very serious battering that it took in the December, 2019 general election. And at the moment is nowhere near a party of government again. So, the Conservatives would have held on despite the fact that there were many, many criticisms over their handling of the COVID outbreak and the number of deaths that we saw are in Britain. And that’s been offset recently by the vaccination program. And what has been, there’s no question, what has been a successful vaccination roll out. In fact, the government has plaudits from across the political spectrum really in the way that it’s managed to get so many people vaccinated so quickly. And Britain is one of the world leaders in terms of number of vaccinations. And that has boosted the government support.

Paul Embery:
So I suspect in the long run, I don’t think COVID is going to make a huge difference to the broader political and electoral landscape in Britain. I think what is going to be much more important is whether or not the conservatives between now and the next election show whether they have understood the lessons of Brexit, whether they’ve understood why working class communities were so alienated, and if they can reconnect the political system with those
communities, as well as tangibly improving their lives materially through investment and decent levels of employment, et cetera, then they will have a good chance of winning again, I think.

Larry Bernstein:
Changing topics to immigration, in the United States, immigration has been a very topical issue. Our House of Representatives, I think this past week, passed a sweeping immigration bill that would allow a substantial number of American undocumented workers to become citizens. But migration and immigrant rights and the role of immigration was one of the reasons that Brexit happened and doesn’t sit well I think with British working-class voters. How do you think about immigration as a topic in British politics?

Paul Embery:
It has very sadly become a pointed issue in British politics over the recent years. And I say that’s sad because we were getting to a point, I think in Britain where immigration was largely becoming a non-issue. It was an issue in the 1970s and the 1980s when the far right were on the march in Britain and they had big reservoirs of support, but then it faded away out of the political debate. And unfortunately, because of things like EU free movement laws, and because of the impacts of globalization and the rapid movements of labor that we’ve seen as a result of that, it has become a running sore again in British politics and in British society. And the truth is that most people, I think in this country just lost faith in the system. They saw very acute impacts in their local communities when there was large scale immigration, and these were often people and communities who were tolerant and who were welcoming, but they just saw that there was no proper regulation of the system. There was no proper management of numbers.

And as a result of that, it caused a huge amount of social and economic disruption in some places. I’m on the left, I’m a Democratic Socialist. I actually believe that immigration and the labor supply is a market dynamic and like all market dynamics, I believe it should be regulated. And interestingly, once upon a time that was a mainstream position on the left, that wasn’t a controversial position on the left at all. But nowadays it’s a position that’s seen as a fringe position on the left. And many people on the left are simply in favor of a position of open borders, which until fairly recently, it was only a position that was held by anarchists and Troskyists and radical liberals.

So that whole axis has shifted on the left and more broadly. And until and unless the government in this country gets a grip of the issue and understands that most people are pro-immigration, and most people do welcome it, but the system needs to be managed properly, then it’s going to continue to be a running sore.

Larry Bernstein:
Britain went its own direction from the EU on vaccinations. Does either side take anything away from that in terms of whether more generally Britain could be okay going its own direction?

Paul Embery:
It’s an interesting question because of course the EU has been having a nightmare, frankly, in terms of its own vaccination rollout program. And it’s had a whole range of problems and has fallen well behind Britain in terms of the number of people is its. And that has actually created something of a debate in Britain, because we had these Doomsday warnings from people before we left the European Union. We had experts and we had the political and cultural and media elites telling us that you just wait and see, when we’re out of the European Union, we won’t be able to cope. We won’t be able to survive. And even when COVID started, people were making that same point.

But I think actually it shifted the debate because what people have seen is that as a nation state, we’ve probably been able to act much more quickly and in a much more coordinated and decisive way than a supranational institution that’s trying to keep 27 member States happy`. Now I’m a realist. I was in favor of Brexit. And of course, there will be some things that will work to our benefit being outside of the EU. That will be some things that won’t. We have to be realistic about that, but certainly in terms of COVID and particularly the vaccination program, it has undoubtedly been for the better for Britain that we’re outside the EU. And I think even most of the EU supporters probably understand that.

Larry Bernstein:
What issues have Labor been using recently to try to coax the working class back to the party?

Paul Embery:
Well, the new leader of the Labor Party’s is Sir Keir Starmer. I say the new leader, he’s been the leader for a year now. He’s very interesting, really because when he won the election, after Labor got hammered in the December, 2019 election, Sir Keir Starmer won the election for the leadership of the party just a couple of months after that. And he was in many respects everything that Labor didn’t need. He was somebody who very much opposed Brexit. He comes from North London, a very kind of trendy metropolitan cosmopolitan area. He comes from the professional and managerial classes. He’s a lawyer by trade and probably the last person you would expect to be able to reconnect with those blue-collar constituencies where Labor had lost so much support.

Actually I think some people have been quite pleasantly surprised by what he’s tried to do. He has moved away from the whole Brexit, passionately against Brexit, but he’s barely mentioned that since he’s been the leader of the Labor Party and he’s concentrated very much on the themes the working-class people like talking about. He started talking about the importance of family. He started talking about the importance of community, of the nation state, et cetera, of national security. So, he started to press those buttons. I think the difficulty for him is that he’s trying to take a party with him that doesn’t really want to go there. The vast majority of the party are still wedded to that hyper liberalism. There’s an element of the far left that are quite strong within the party as well, and have very little time for that more communitarian politics built around belonging and social solidarity. So, there’s a real mountain to be climbed. Sir Keir Starmer is the leader of the Labor Party and I don’t envy him because it’s a mammoth task. He’s made small steps, but it’s still a very long way to go.

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Angela Duckworth — Does GRIT Improve Success with COVID-19?

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Michael Kahana — How We Will Remember the Pandemic in the Future?

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Jonathan Haidt — Positive Psychology and Why The Pandemic Might Be the Best Thing to Happen to Gen Z

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Jonathan Haidt — Why Conservatives Want to Open up the Economy and Liberals Want to Keep it Closed

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Lisa Damour — Mental Health and Social Isolation

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

James Danckert — Boredom

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Paul Rozin — People Can Get Used to Anything

                                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Simon Baron Cohen — Pattern Seekers

Simon Baron Cohen Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Let’s begin with Simon Baron Cohen from Cambridge to discuss autism.

Simon Baron-Cohen:
Thanks Larry. So as you mentioned, my new book, The Pattern Seekers, it looks at a big question, which is whether there’s a link between autism, the disability, and the capacity for invention. And in the book, I lay out the evidence that shows that there are links. But today I’m going to start with the question of when did invention begin? Because it’s very clear that our ancestors, even two million years ago could invent simple stone tools like axes and hammers. But for millions of years, there was very little evidence for what I call generative invention. That is the ability to invent in multiple ways, not just as a one-off.

But then about 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens were on the scene, the rate of invention suddenly took off. Suddenly we see the capacity for generative invention. And I argue that’s because a cognitive revolution had occurred in the human brain. In particular, there was a new circuit in the human brain that I call the systemizing mechanism. And what this allowed was for human to look at special patterns in the world. I call them if, and, then patterns. That if I take something, and I do something to it, then I get a particular outcome. So what the systemizing mechanism allowed us to do was to find the pattern. And then we could vary the pattern by experimenting with the if or the and. And when we produce a new pattern, basically that’s an invention. And this was the kind of algorithm in the brain that allowed invention to be generative or unstoppable.

We know that there’s systemizing mechanism within the human brain 70,000 years ago, because if we look in the archeological record, we see artifacts like the first bow and arrow. So our ancestor who made the bow and arrow was using this if, and, then algorithm. If I attach an arrow to a stretchy fiber and release the tension in the fiber, then the arrow will fly. But if I attach the arrow and pull the fiber back further, then the arrow will fly further. So humans were experimenting and inventing.

And just to take one out the example. 40,000 years ago, we see the earliest musical instrument that’s ever been found, which was a flute made from a hollow bone from a bird. And this ancestor who made it, again, was using if, and, then logic. If I blow down the hollow bone and cover one hole, then it makes a specific sound. But if I blow down the bone and cover two holes, then it makes a different sound. So again, we can see humans were experimenting and inventing.

But back to the big question, is there a link between autism and this capacity for invention? Well, in our research, we’ve looked at over half a million people in the general population and found that those people who work in STEM, science, technology, engineering, or math, have on average more autistic traits than those who do not work in STEM. So this shows the clear link between our aptitude and understanding systems and a higher level of autistic traits.

We’ve also looked at 36,000 autistic people, again, it’s a very large online study, and found that they score higher on systemizing. That they are, what I call, hyper-systemizers, strongly attracted to understand how systems work. And then we’ve gone on to ask the question, is the link between autism and systemizing genetic? So we asked 56,000 people to give us a DNA sample. And we found that the genetic variants associated with being a strong systemizer overlap with the genetic variants associated with autism. So what this is telling us is that some of the genes that cause autism also cause talent in systemizing or pattern recognition.

So this led us to a prediction that autism might be more common in places like Silicon Valley. Well, as you can hear from my accent, I live a long way away from the Silicon Valley. So we went to test this in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, which is the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands. What we found was that autism rates were twice as high in Eindhoven compared to two other Dutch cities that were not IT hubs. So again, this is consistent with a genetic link between autism in the child and a talent in pattern seeking in their parents. So I think I’ve shown you, we’ve got lots of evidence that the genes for autism have been driving human invention for at least 70,000 to 100,000 years.

Simon Baron Cohen QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Let me open with a question about why is it, do you think, that autistic people are good at systematizing?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
So what we’re discovering is that this is for genetic reasons. That their minds are wired differently. That they don’t necessarily understand people as well as other people. But they understand patterns in the world to a higher level. That they have very good attention to detail. And they look for rules in the world. And we think this is partly genetic reasons, changing the way their brain is developing.

Larry Bernstein:
In your book, you mentioned that men and women’s brains, as it relates to systematizing and empathy, are different. That there’s more systemization in males and more empathy among females.

Simon Baron-Cohen:
Yeah.

Larry Bernstein:
What does that distribution look like? And did that follow then, that you would see more autistic children who are male than female, given that maybe autism or hyper systemization is just closer to the center of the male distribution?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
So this is obviously an area that’s quite sensitive because anytime you look for sex differences or gender differences in the mind, it very quickly becomes a political issue. But if we just look at the science, that big study we did of over half a million people, we did look at both systemizing and empathy. And on average males score higher on systemizing and females score higher on empathy. So we’re just talking about on average. It doesn’t apply to all males or all females. So we shouldn’t prejudge the kind of minds that they have based on their gender. Because an individual of course, could be atypical for their sex.

And to your other point, this may have relevance for why autism is more common in males. Which it is. I mean, if you look at clinics, about three times as many boys are diagnosed as girls. And again, one view is that autism is an extreme of the typical male mind.

Larry Bernstein:
You mentioned in the book that you were considering doing a study among MIT graduates to see if they had significantly higher autistic rates. But you got pushback from the head of MIT. The president of MIT denied your study. Why do you need permission from MIT to do an analysis of MIT grads? Is the first question. And the second question is, you mentioned that MIT went co-ed, and that therefore, after it went co-ed, there’s a greater likelihood that you would marry someone from your own school who is strong in engineering, and that would significantly increase the rate of autism due to similar genetics. Can you comment on that as well?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
So on the first question, why did we need the permission of MIT? Well, what we wanted to do was contact the alumni of MIT. So we would go through their alumni association. So that’s why we needed permission from the university. And we had to go through their IRB, their ethics committee. The reason why we wanted to do this was that informally, anecdotally members of the alumni were saying that autism rates were much higher amongst their kids than in the general population. So autism is about 1% or 2% of the general population. But anecdotally, MIT parents who were both at MIT, so both with aptitude in understanding systems, working in STEM subjects, they’re reporting higher rates. And this could be, again, reflecting a genetic link between aptitude in understanding systems and the likelihood of having a child with autism. That study I just described an Eindhoven, in a way, gave us another opportunity to test the same question. It wasn’t about MIT. It was about the scientific question.

Larry Bernstein:
Have you thought about doing a study, let’s say pick a university, like the University of Illinois. I’m from Illinois originally. It has an engineering school. It has a business school and a liberal arts school. Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a study where you compare the graduates of the engineering program versus the liberal arts school to see if there was a radical difference in autism among their progeny as a way of ascertaining if STEM interest and competence is the relevant characteristic?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
So again, this relates to your previous point that these studies could be conducted in other universities. Here in Cambridge, where I am in the UK, we’ve looked at students in the math department versus students in the humanities and found that students in the math department have a higher number of autistic traits. So again, a link between a talent in mathematics, which is an example of systemizing, and the number of autistic traits you have. But also the math students had a higher number of siblings who were autistic. So again, pointing at the link between mathematical ability and autism being a genetic one.

Larry Bernstein:
We had a discussion a few weeks ago on What Happens Next with Professor Ernie Freeberg from the University of Tennessee. And he had written a book on Thomas Edison. And the question was, why was Edison so successful? How much was really related to him? How much was due to his good laboratory? How good was he at taking someone else’s invention and then taking it to the next level? The example Freeberg gave was that there were five guys working on the electric bulb, but Edison also worked on the grid. And so he was able to create a power system and then run away with it, if you will.

In your book, you discuss Thomas Edison a great deal. But you came in from almost a completely different perspective, not so much working on lab work, as on his systematizing and aggressive approach to learning, and Edison’s desire for repeating different experiments. Can you comment a little bit about why you think Thomas Edison is a perfect example of both invented behavior and his autistic traits?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
So Edison is famous for having invented the first electric light bulb. But as you point out, he was inventing all the time. He had over 100 patents, I think, to his name. He never stopped experimenting. But what was interesting for me, and this is how I describe him in my book, is that as a child, he was experimenting. So right from the earliest time, he was experimenting. He had a real appetite for learning. He would go to the library and read every book in the order that they were on the shelf. So quite a rigid approach to learning. He was always conducting experiments in chemistry in the basement of his house. He became obsessed with Morse Code, which is a system of pattern. And his mother took him out of school because he really didn’t fit into mainstream education.

And by the time we see him as a young adult, he called his own kids Dot and Dash because of his love of Morse Code. And his wife moved his mattress into his workshop so he could continue experimenting all day and all night. This doesn’t mean that he was autistic. It just means he was very, very focused on patterns and experiments. So these are anecdotes. But to really test the question, is there a link between autism and invention, you need these big population studies. Which I described.
Dan Willingham: This is Dan Willingham. Yeah. Simon, I was thinking about your description of the if, and, then as a description of the evolution of creativity. And it sounded like it maybe had something in common with another cognitive process that I’ve heard as being important in the evolution of creativity, which is the ability to simulate another world. Look at the world as it is, and then imagine the world as it isn’t. Which some comparative psychologists have suggested that may be uniquely human. I wonder if you could comment on that?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
So if we look at those three little words, if, and, then, if is sometimes seen as the input to any system. That’s the way engineers would see it. But if it’s also a hypothetical, what if the world was different? So if allows you to imagine possibilities beyond what currently exists. The and is then usually an operation that you perform on the input. So it’s often a causal operation. If I take the number three and I cube it, then I get the number 27. So the then is usually the output from the system. But you’re right. That this kind of logic does allow for creativity. It does allow for imagining things that don’t yet exist. And the inventions are sometimes just playing with patterns. But sometimes playing with imaginary world, imaginary patterns.

Larry Bernstein:
One of the key elements of the book is that something radical happened 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. And you think this was the key variable that changed. But a lot of things changed too. Why do you have such confidence that this autistic genetic trait was probably the key, versus something else?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
Yeah.

Larry Bernstein:
For example, if looked at a history book of the period, they talk about moving to agriculture or something else like that.

Simon Baron-Cohen: Well, agriculture came much later. So the agricultural revolution was more like 12,000 years ago. So my argument is that the big change in the human brain 70,000 years ago, 70,000 to 100,000, if you look at the archeology, was the evolution of two new circuits. One is the systemizing mechanism. We’ve been talking about that. And you can see that in the artifacts. I mentioned the bow and arrow, the first musical instrument, the first jewelry, cave paintings, sculptures. We just see an incredible blossoming of invention. And the systemizing mechanism can explain how we were making these things.

But a second circuit that I argue evolved is the empathy circuit. Because when we look at something like the first musical instrument, or the first jewelry, it gives us an indication that our ancestors back then could not only make things in a new way, but they could imagine how other people would see them. They were able to think about other people’s thoughts and feelings. When you wear jewelry it’s because you can imagine that other people might find you attractive or might find you have high status. Or if you make jewelry and give it as a gift, it may be because you want to make another person happy.

So this is evidence that 70,000 to 100,000 years ago our ancestors could also empathize. And of course, empathy opened up a whole new complexity to social interaction, including deception and new ways of communication, particularly referential communication. So it wasn’t just one thing that happened. You’re absolutely right. I think there’s at least two big changes that happened.

And when we talk about the agricultural revolution, I think you can see the systemizing mechanism at play there. If I take a feed and I planted in the soil, then I got a plant. So it’s the if, and, then logic that enabled the agricultural revolution. Which is itself an invention.

Larry Bernstein:
I guess what I didn’t pick up from your book was that it was the combination of both empathy and systematizing. In some ways I thought they were yin and yang. It was like a seesaw. If one went up the other one down.

Simon Baron-Cohen:
Yeah. Exactly.

Larry Bernstein:
Because if you came up with hyper-systematizers, the autistic person has very low empathy. Doesn’t seem to understand other people. And those that were very high in empathy seem to be very low in systematizing. Do we find many people who are hyper-systematizers and hyper-empathetic? Or for the same, do we see people who have extremely low empathy and very low systematizing? And how strong is that negative correlation?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
So in our big population study, we had half a million people. We were able to divide everybody into five different brain types based on whether they lean more towards systemizing or lean more towards empathy. Going back to the earlier points about gender, more women lean more towards the empathy end, and more men lean more towards systemizing. And as you mentioned, autistic people are hyper-systemizers, but they struggle with aspects of empathy, what’s called cognitive empathy, or imagining someone else’s thoughts and feelings. And there is a tradeoff. So the higher you score on one, on systemizing for example, the lower you score on the other. So it’s a small, but statistically significant negative correlation between the two. They’re not independent. And that’s made us look for biological factors that they may share. And in our own research, we’ve been looking at hormones, particularly testosterone prenatally, which changes brain development.

Larry Bernstein:
Where do you see this research taking us? What’s next from it? What are we going to learn from it?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
Well, one of the reasons I write the book is that autism has, for the longest time, we’ve just focused on the challenges that autistic people have, particularly around social relationships and communication. And we’ve missed, I think, many of the strengths that autistic people have, particularly around pattern recognition, attention to detail, logic, and thinking differently. And at the end of the book, it’s a call to action because I look at how is our society treating autistic people. And it turns out that the majority of autistic adults are unemployed and have very poor mental health, probably because they haven’t received the right support. And there’s a kind of paradox. On the one hand, the book celebrates the fact that the genes for autism have driven human progress. On the other hand, we’re leaving autistic people outside of society. Which is in a way, they don’t have full human rights, the rights to employment, the right to education, the right to participation in society.

So the book is really asking us to rethink how we see autistic people. Sure they have disabilities, but they also have strengths. Some of these strengths are even talents. And that we need to rethink our schools and our work places to make sure that they’re autism friendly, so that they can participate fully. And that might mean a whole change in the way we think. And much of this is encompassed by the concept of neurodiversity. Autism is just one kind of neurodiversity. And neurodiversity simply means that we don’t all have the same kind of brain. We’re very familiar with other kinds of diversity, like gender diversity or ethnic diversity, but we really need to embrace neurodiversity because otherwise we could be discriminating against a whole group of people.

Larry Bernstein:
You start your book with a discussion of a particular autistic child, who during school recess would play with leaves and separate them into different categories.

Simon Baron-Cohen:
Yeah.

Larry Bernstein:
And he’s bullied by other students who don’t understand him, or I guess, maybe view his actions as weird and outside the norm. And that child struggles for the rest of his life in terms of employment but is very clever as it relates to his own education. Going back to your main point, which relates to how we educate and utilize autistic people. I remember growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, we would separate autistic children and put them in a special education program where they never seemed to come out of it and rejoin the rest of the general population. Do you think that autistic children should rejoin the general population? Or instead should we restructure the way that we educate autistic children? What I learned from your book was that there’s enormous variance among the autistic community between those who are helpless to those that who are highly functional like Thomas Edison and can change the world. There’s a huge variance in that population. And by putting them all together, is that a mistake?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
So I think that, where possible, we should be making our institutions and our workplaces accommodate autistic people. We don’t want to create a separate society for autistic people. They’re part of our society and they should be integrated within it. And it’s our responsibility, it’s a moral responsibility, to make sure that nobody is left out. Of course it is true that some autistic people have additional needs like learning difficulties and they may need a different environment, much smaller classes, maybe even learning in a one-to-one situation. But nevertheless, the principle still holds that they should be included. The word inclusion is really important.

Larry Bernstein:
And are you aware of any programs that are being done anywhere in the world that have been successful in this regard?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
I think in the workplace we’re seeing more and more examples. I’ll just give you one example, which is the Israeli army has a special unit which only employs autistic soldiers. And so despite their social difficulties, they’re asked to look at aerial photographs and just look at the photographs for any suspicious activity. And so essentially they’re using their good pattern recognition skills to detect potential terrorist activity. So Israel is a country where every individual is also a soldier and autistic people are being given the opportunity to participate fully. That’s just one example. Obviously, that’s a military example. But you can imagine in any workplace there should be a scope to employ autistic people, to use their strengths so that they can feel valued and that they can earn a salary and feel that they belong.

Larry Bernstein:
You also mentioned that the rate of autism has been rising. And you suspect that the reason may be is that marriages are much more common these days between STEM men and STEM women. Do you think that is your best guess for why we’ve seen an increase in autism? And to what extent do you think it reflects better understanding of it and better figuring out who has autism?

Simon Baron-Cohen:
I think that probably the largest reason why autism has been increasing in prevalence is just better awareness, better recognition and more services. When I started in this field, which is now almost 40 years ago, we thought that autism was very rare. The textbooks all said it was 4 in 10,000 children. And I mentioned earlier that now we recognize autism as very common, about 1% or 2%. You’ll find autistic kids in every high school and every primary school. But it may be that over and above just better awareness better recognition. And there might be clusters of autism that reflect genetic combinations from the parents. And I mentioned Einthoven was one such cluster. Silicon Valley in California may have other clusters. It’s yet to be studied systematically. But where are you find people who are good at systemizing, those genes overlap with the genes for autism. That’s the new discovery.