Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Attractiveness and Beauty

Affluenza by Oliver James explores the idea that "there is a correlation between the increasing nature of affluenza and the resulting increase in material inequality: the more unequal a society, the greater the unhappiness of its citizens" (my lazy literal quoting from Wikipedia).

After reading some reviews, the book is not without its critics. But there is one particular point he makes which I find interesting enough that I want to extend on it: the distinction between attractiveness and beauty. His definition is simply a perspective and is by no means objective, but the one he provides is useful to distinguish between superficial attraction (obvious, immediate, instinctive indicators and cues of sexual and physical attractiveness, such as waist-to-hip ratio, long hair, big boobs, a typically slim frame, skimpy clothing, etc) and beauty (a quality and attractiveness that transcends physique and enamates from within, by virtue of one's character, personality and how one carries himself/herself).

There is, for example, little doubt that a bombshell is attractive. Men are instinctively wired to be drawn to such cues of physical attractiveness. Beauty, conversely, has greater subjectivity to it, and is often in the eye of the beholder in the sense that if one is drawn to it, one just is, but at the same time, appreciating Oliver James's notion of beauty requires going one step further than just visually appreciating a person. It involves studying a person in the context of her behaviour and what she says, and then realizing that there's something more to her than simply meets the eye.

What is interesting about Oliver James's distinction is that very often, when it comes to attractiveness, there is often some societal or cultural standard that is in place, and everyone who wants to be attractive will be compelled to emulate it (and he argues that in affluenza-stricken cultures, there is greater incidence of such obsessions to emulate, such as South Koreans all aspiring to look a certain way through cosmetic and plastic means). On the other hand, what is beautiful has nothing to do with aspiring to look or behave in any particular way that is defined or demanded by society. A beautiful girl shines because of who she is, for who she is.

So, in that sense, seeking to be attractive deindividualizes, while being beautiful brings out one's individual beauty and never comes about through conformity to a societal standard. There can be many people who look the same, attractively, while there can never be two or more people who are beautiful in the same way.

I don't want to make this an issue of sex differences, but for simplicity's sake, a relevant example for men could also be in terms of their jobs. What appears to be an "attractive" occupation in Singapore, quite clearly, is to be a banker. This is perhaps the sort of job that a man would often hide behind in order to conceal his lack of individuality or personal choice in carving out a career path that he can call his own. I'm not trying to criticize the industry or its employees, but from personal anecdotal experience, I don't really know of many bankers who actually love their job. It's just something that is worth pursuing because it has high social prestige and pays well. In that sense, it is an attractive job, and it is a job that certainly deindividualizes. It is a big industry where nobody is really his own man. Conversely, having an interesting, "beautiful" occupation would be one where an individual has carved out and determined his own career path and whose job he will shape, rather than have the job shape him. I'm leaving this one at that, because this isn't my main point, but rather simply to explore what other forms this attractiveness/beauty divide can take.

My main insight is that it is quite clear, in which case, a person may feel more or less secure. A person who has a societal standard to live up to will certainly feel less secure than another person who has only his or her own personal standards to live up to. A woman who is compelled to look attractive according to a certain way will be afflicted with the insecurity either that one day, she will no longer look as attractive as what her culture deems "young and hot", or that her value pitted against thousands of other women vying to look just like that attractive exemplar defined by society will only be miniscule. Ugly competition is likely to be rife in this scenario. Contrast this to the woman of beauty whose attractive power comes from the beat of her heart, the thrill of her soul and the strength of her character, and this lady is her own woman - she cannot be bogged down by needless comparison.

It is silly to believe that any of us can be free of this affliction to conform and disregard the pressure that society and others put on us. Even I'm not spared, as I'm pelted quite regularly with social pressure by countless people who are curious, cynical or disdainful about the PhD route I'm taking. But I believe in my path. With every small step we take to actively switch from believing beauty lies in some exemplary ideal and striving to be like that (just like everyone else), to believing that beauty lies in being comfortable with who you are and bringing out the best in yourself for what you believe in, I think we can start to observe a positive shift in our collective self-esteem.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An Encounter with Xiao Li

I met a Chinese national, presumably a foreign worker because of his adornments, today at my bus stop while I was headed to SMU. He approached me to ask if the buses were going to the Serangoon MRT station. I replied in the affirmative, and as my bus arrived I told him that I was headed to Serangoon MRT too so we could head down together. I might be getting ahead of myself here, but I thought I caught a glimpse of surprise in his eyes as he enthusiastically said, "好(great)!" and we got up the bus and took a seat together.

As we traveled along by bus and then later by train, I learnt that his name is Xiao Li and he had lost his way while trying to get supplies from Serangoon Gardens. Having just moved here from Henan six months ago and living at Yishun now, much of Singapore is still alien to him and he knows not a word of English. My mandarin is terrible, but we got along well enough. Sometimes, the great thing about such encounters that involve language barriers is that you end up trying to transcend the limits imposed by things like language, ethnicity, nationality or creed, and as a result connect more as fellow humans. As trivial as it was knowing that he had recently bought a computer from Little India and that the heat in Singapore takes some getting used to (Henan is predominantly cold), it was good company, and I felt happy knowing that he's getting by with some friends he made while on the job. It must not be easy traveling thousands of kilometres away from home to work in a country that is quite obviously xenophobic and elitist against such individuals.

In one TV programme that interviewed foreign workers in Singapore, one Bangladeshi worker was asked what he thought about Singapore. He said, as his voice cracked, that Singapore is a beautiful country, but when it comes to Singaporean people, sometimes he feels that Singaporeans respect and care for dogs and cats more than people like him. We virtually dehumanise these people and relegate them to a level lower than animals.

That sentiment really hits me hard. It is compounded by the fact that right now, in order to facilitate a study that my professor is trying to run, I need to recruit people who work low social status jobs as participants. However, more specifically, we need low social status workers who fit this demographic: Singaporean Chinese males aged 20-24, and Singaporean Chinese females aged 17-21. After two weeks, recruitment has yielded almost nothing, and I've come to realize that, insofar as a job can be considered "low social status" in Singapore, Singaporean Chinese aged 17-24 are very unlikely to be found there. As a Singaporean Chinese man myself, it is quite clear that we are the privileged lot in society.

I think more tribute should be paid to the people working the jobs we do not want to do. We may not like the policies that lead to such a crazy influx of foreign immigrants (I personally think these policies are problematic and do not solve more deeply-rooted economic problems), but we do not have to blame and shame the people who have arrived on our shores as a result of bad policy. When we utilize the things that constitute our high standard of living, such as clean public toilets and beautifully architectured buildings, a less privileged person dirtied his hands so that we are able to. A less privileged person took up that "low social status" job so that we didn't even have to entertain the possibility that such jobs are on the market for us to consider. I know that for most of my educated Singaporean Chinese counterparts, it is highly discomforting to imagine taking up one of these "low social status" jobs; I've been there. I've worked as a temp labourer to shift things before, but I'll bet I did so only because I know that few people know about this (it's different to say that I used to be a shifter - that can even be something to brag about - compared to if I am now and telling people about it). When I helped out at the SMU gown collection as an usher, ushering my fellow school mates who were from my year to the gown collection point, there were many instances where I had to endure questions that revolved around the idea of: "Why are you doing this kind of job?" Regardless of your own self-confidence, such questions still test your resolve. Jobs are low social status not ultimately because of how much they pay (although that is often partly the case), but simply because there is a stigma associated with them (just imagine comparing between working as a McDonald's waiter versus working at a yoghurt stall - both may pay the same and both involve the same job scope, but many people will find working at the yoghurt stall more trendy and palatable).

As a people, we can be more gracious, and sometimes by just taking that one step to put aside our prejudices, we can be a lot happier too. It's a choice and one that, I believe, many Singaporeans are capable of making.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Let's Hear it for EP

The last three evolutionary psychology-themed books that I had read are:
Demonic Males by Richard Wrangham
The Murderer Next Door by David Buss
Naturally Selected by Mark van Vugt & Anjana Ahuja

Evolutionary psychology has often been dominantly been associated with the mating stuff, and while that is an important aspect of evolutionary psychology (one hugely important layer of the foundational bedrock, in fact, because reproduction is vital to the spreading of genes), it has taken a form of its own and its less credible and less cautious adherents may take it to extremes and give the entire field of evolutionary psychology a bad name. To quote what a rather vocal school mate of mine once remarked on Facebook when he heard that evolutionary psychology was finally being offered as a module in SMU, he said, "Serious? But what is evolutionary psychology besides the American pick up artist crap?"

But evolutionary psychology's scope, once we extend beyond the basic tenets of sexual selection and mate preferences (i.e. due to the different value bestowed upon males and females' resources and the amount of parental investment in offspring), delves into why the human mind accomodates the capacity for aggression, coalitions, cooperation, reciprocity, morality, fairness, guilt, sadness, friendships, food taste preferences, loss aversion, attachment styles, jealousy, insecurity, fear, maternal feelings, love, hypocrisy, leadership, dominance, hierarchies, in-group/out-group bias and - I should stop here because the list will continue for quite a bit more - murder.

After four years of undergraduate studies in psychology, I'm personally certain that an evolutionary perspective holds the promise for the ultimate question of "why". We may know everything we know so far in disparate fields ranging from cognitive psychology to cultural psychology to neuroscience, but without understanding the adaptive nature of how our mind is designed, nothing really makes sense. It's like knowing that the human body is made up of stuff like kidneys and brains and hearts but not knowing what any of these things have got to do with each other and how a human being works. This is not to say that other psychological disciplines are unimportant. We need other specific psychological perspectives to give us greater texture on the mental adaptations that evolutionary psychology seeks to uncover. Every field is now increasingly working together to push the boundaries of understanding our mind. But I feel that it is important to clarify the promise that evolutionary psychology holds for the entire field of psychology as a whole.

The more I read too, the more I'm convinced that discovering our evolutionary and ancestral heritage holds the key to nipping our monkey instincts in the bud. The more adaptive and instinctive behaviours we can uncover, the more we can come up with creative solutions to deal with the undesirable ones. As a reknown analyst on terrorism once wonderfully put it, when posed with the question of how to deal with terrorists, he said, "don't hate the enemy." Because as long as you hate the enemy, you will never seek to understand it, and if you don't seek to understand it, you will never get the better of it. For much of the past century, many scholars have tried to deal with human evils by condemning them to the academic hallows of being aberrations, figments of violent western culture, or psychopathy (to name a few notorious red herrings). Refusing to believe that humans have adaptations for atrocities like violence and war just won't cut it anymore.

I'd acknowledge the ape in me, because that takes me out of the dark.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

I'm just ab-sal-lutely cooked right now. I've been wanting to blog about my grad trip for the longest time - officially 3 weeks, unofficially months - but it's hard to pen the perfect journal when you don't have time. It's now half done, sitting in the drafts of blogger.

Here's a typical outline of my day. Today, I headed out at 0830 to start early so that I could recruit fast food restaurant staff for a study that SMU is doing (details are P&C). It's a pain to talk to fast food restaurant staff (or any eatery staff for that matter) later in the day because there are always going to be customers you're standing in the way of. It's lunch time, it's impossible to talk to fast food restaurant staff anymore, so I make my way down to my office at SMU's School of Social Sciences. I get some coding work done for a professor who's researching the creativity of chocolate design, and intermittently I try and work on my publication. It's 2.45pm. I decide to give the recruitment task another go, and manage to pique the interest of some staff to participate. No word of commitment though, so I'm left to "okay, just drop an email to the address on the paper when you've decided," so I'll just have to wait for their email later. It's 3.15pm, so I rush down to School of Business for the negotiation class I'm doing teaching assistantship for. I try doing research assistantship work while being a teaching assistant. Class ends at 1845. I head back to my office at School of Social Sciences. Time to take a break from work - so I spend two and a half hours crafting out emails to prospective mentors (prospective grad students like me need to send these emails out to acquire the interest of professors who will then look out a little more for your graduate school application). I give myself a crash course on their work and research interests, eventually sending out three emails. Two of them reply, so I reply to their replies. It is about ten o' clock at night. Spurred by hunger, I head home, but decide to take the long 147 bus ride (50 minutes) instead of the train (30-35 minutes), so that I can get some video coding work done on the bus. I reach my home bus stop at 2315, and make a stop at my favourite prata shop to packet nasi goreng ikan bilis home. I finish dinner while checking my email, take a shower and now here I am at midnight wondering if I should continue working or head to bed, since I'm heading out early tomorrow morning again to repeat the recruitment process.

Of course, this isn't literally typical - the details change. But for about a month now, the work has been quite crazy, so I'm really looking forward to my Behavioural Sciences Institute (BSI) employment come October. For legal purposes, I'll have to wean myself off all these disparate (and very numerous) RAships and TAships so that I'm clean for full time work as a researcher for BSI. While the per hour pay that I'm getting now for all that RA work has been good so far, it's just not sustainable because the work is really random and both too little (won't add up to a substantially liveable amount) and too much (really) at the same time.

On the other hand, the email sending so far has been pretty good I think. I have been getting very positive and welcoming replies. Of course, one could really argue that these professors are returning templated emails to me; even I suspect that sometimes, especially when they do not bother starting with any address to me, such as "Dear Jose". But at least they aren't just instant-deleting my mail or sending back negative templated emails, so I'll take that as a good start. I sent my first email out on the 7th of September and, 9 days on, I've sent out a total of 8 emails. It gets easier and easier each time.

I think I'll call it a day here. Once October comes the proper blogging catch up can begin.