Trickle-Down Humanity from Amy Alkon

When looking for advice you may reach out to a friend or loved one. If you are particularly lonely you could seek counsel from a psychologist, a televangelist, or even a bottle of drugs. Pretty lame options considering you could always email a real-life goddess known for her red hair and deep fascination with evolutionary psychology. Though it never occurred to me to ask her for advice, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with…

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What was your first published work?

I wrote a column for my high school newspaper. I won an award, and I thought, “That’s cool.” I wanted to do it some more because when you do something well and people give you some props, you keep doing it to keep getting those props.

What were some prime motivators at that stage in your life?

I grew up in suburban Detroit, in the whitest neighborhood. Even the Puerto Rican people and the black people seemed kinda white. It was very character-free, so my great ambition was to get out of there and go to New York City. That was my prime motivator: You have to do well so you can go places and get out of Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Have you been to New York recently?

I was there a few years ago. I lived there for a long time in various slum apartments. I paid $937 for a 10×12 room and I was dating a guy who had an eight-room, pre-war apartment on the Upper West Side on Weston Avenue for $400. That’s rent control in New York. I could never manage to get that rent-controlled apartment. In my last apartment the landlords were in the Mafia, and you pay your rent on time when the Mafia are your landlords. They were great landlords. They always fixed things and were really nice. I saw my landlord being hauled away on garbage-piling violations on one of those newer “Nightline” shows. All of these places were herbal-dumpy-slum apartments. Living in Venice, I live in a little house and it’s so fantastic. If you’re having a miserable day, you look out the window and there are palm trees and hummingbirds and you think, “Oh, I won’t kill myself today because it’s so pretty out.”

What was your favorite part about living in New York City?

I give advice for a living, science-based advice, and my house right now looks like a giant fire hazard with a bed and an oven because I have these books and papers and scientific journals all over the place. But one of the pranks that my friends and I did in New York was to give free advice on the street corner. We called ourselves The Advice Ladies. We were only going to do this once because we liked to make people laugh and make ourselves laugh.

We had a servant for a while but he fired us–it was a BDSM thing and we weren’t really into that. We just wanted to have him come to our friend’s apartment and have us throw a ball across the floor so he could catch it in his teeth and crawl back to us. Then he said, “My former mistress peed on me.” And I’m like, I’m from Michigan! I’m sure there are people who do that in Michigan, but I wasn’t one of them.

We would have these adventures, and with the Advice Ladies it was so much fun. Our sign said “free advice.” We thought about doing it like Lucy from “Peanuts,” but we thought, “Who’s even going to pay a nickel?” People lined up! It was amazing–New York, free, they lined up around the block! It was fun and interesting and we really helped people, the miracle of miracles. People started asking us serious questions. We had examples on our sign like “wigs and beards, directions and nail biting,” but people would ask us serious questions. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I didn’t even take psychology in college.” So I started reading through all of psychology. I would read through Freud and realize, “Holy shit! He just made stuff up!” I became a fan of Albert Ellis who started cognitive behavioral therapy. He and Aaron Beck created it both separately and together. It was based in reason, and he became a fan of my work. I told him I didn’t even have a PhD and he told me, “To know what you need to know, it would be a waste of time.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky researches happiness. But I look at her work and all this other work, anthropology and psychology, and I bring it in when I’m answering questions, since I do this science-based advice column that’s also funny. I translate it to normal-person language from professor-ese and try to give people some direction on the stuff they’re doing outside of the perspective of, “Hi, I’m a girl and I publish out of my house because someone gave me an advice column because they didn’t have anybody else to write it at the newspaper.” I just don’t know how other columnist can do that–give their opinion based on nothing.

What advice do people tend to seek from you the most?

It’s generally dating and relationship advice and occasionally manners, because I wrote the book Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say Fuck. People write me saying, “My neighbor’s doing this horrible thing. What should I do?” A lot of stuff people ask me I don’t put in the column because their questions are boring, but I print the interesting ones. The big problem is that people think the world should be a certain way and it should work the way they think it should, but it doesn’t work that way. There are ways things work and they may be counter to people’s intuitions, so I lay out what the science says why, especially evolutionary psychology. It’s explaining that in ways that makes sense and giving practical advice–that’s basically what I do every week.

Kill Myself

What qualities do you look for in the people you surround yourself with?

People who are curious. If they’re not curious, they’re boring. People who are thinkers, and it makes me smarter and think of more things. We’re in this age of people squashing speech, but I like people who are different than I am, people who can debate something and not act all wounded because people think something different than they do.

I posted something, and my friend Nancy counter-posted on Facebook. She said I hadn’t investigated it fully, and I love that. I don’t want those friends who are all yes people. Then you’re never any better and nobody tells you when you’re being an asshole. The best de-assholizers are this horrible feeling when I’ve blogged something and I haven’t looked into it all the way and the first few comments are like, “Hey, idiot!” That makes me more meticulous about what I post. If I’m tired at night I do that thing where you switch the words you write like d-u-e instead of d-o, but I look up the stuff even though my mind is switching the words. I’m careful in the important ways.  

That thing you said about having people who aren’t intimidated by having conflicting opinions, who can have a conversation with you and differ, that’s so important. That’s what leads to growth and expanding.

People who care about you can tease you, and I love that. For me, it’s a sign of being loved. Amy Dresner who is an incredible woman who works for me. She teases me all day, and I love it. She calls me names, but I know it’s just loving name-calling. My boyfriend teases me. I have ADD, which you probably figured out from how fast I talk. He’ll say things like, “Do I have your divided attention?” which I think is hilarious.

All these people on campus who are butt-hurt about everything, I want no part of that. I want people who give me a hard time in fun ways and tease me, but not in a hateful way. If you’re toxic you’re out of my life. I don’t care if you’re a relative, my acquaintance, my neighbor– you’re toxic, you’re gone. But these people who lovingly call you names and tease you, that’s fun. It’s play; I’m big on play. I’m not very grown-up.

It’s like when wolves play-bite each other.

Exactly! Play-biting, but it’s not like, “Hi, I’m going to slit your throat with my big fangs.”

You mentioned that if there’s family members who have something nasty about them you won’t have them in your life. I wrote this question down and I think it might relate: Do you think it’s wrong to attempt to sway the beliefs of an old relative? Even if their beliefs are inherently prejudiced and monstrously incorrect?

It often doesn’t work. People try to do this at family dinners. They’re going to lecture the uncle with racial hatred about how he should really see things. This is somebody who’s 65 or 75, and he’s thought this all his life. You’re not going to be the golden lightning bolt that comes down and splits his head open and makes him say, “My God! I’ve been a terrible person with a black heart and now I’m going to love my fellow man, whatever race or creed.” That’s not going to happen. What I think it realistic is to have family dinners where you avoid conversation on those issues where people are never going to change.

You can talk to people one-on-one where you could maybe bring them around, I have a line Good Manners, which is “criticizing people doesn’t make them change, it makes them want to clobber you.” When you make people defensive it kicks in our fight-or-flight mechanism. You feel like you’re being attacked because our minds aren’t that modern, and you respond as if you’re being physically attacked so you bite back. There’s no chance that you’re mind is going to be changed. But, for example, if you can introduce somebody to a person that is whatever ilk that they’re having a hard time with and they see that person as a person, that might persuade them. But you can’t go at it like, “Okay, we’re all liquored up at Thanksgiving and now we’re going to discuss why your politics are wrong.” You might persuade someone to shoot you or chase you around the table with a turkey knife, but there’s not going to be a lot of progress happening.

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If a person like Donald Trump becomes president and that incites violence across the United States so much that it becomes the norm–

Wait, why would Trump–I’m not a Trump supporter, but why would Donald Trump becoming president incite violence across the United States?

I don’t know that he would incite violence persay by individually calling for the maltreatment of minorities, but there are plenty of people who see him as an icon for allowing a certain type of behavior–

But we have a Constitution and rules and laws and our system is set up so one person–even the President, who is very powerful and has done a lot of a lot of damage through signing statements, that [George W.] Bush and [Barack] Obama and others have used where they do what they want by signing something into law–we have a system that protects against one person having so much power. I don’t like Hillary [Clinton] either. I think we have terrible choices. I can’t believe who’s running. I hate the Libertarians and I’m a Libertarian, and I hate them for not running someone who’s charismatic. Obama and Sarah Palin, whatever you think of those two people, they are both highly charismatic people. Libertarians, this would be the time to get the rock star candidate in there. Let’s get the one who people want to get behind. We have Gary Johnson, fine. Whatever. He’s not a “Mr. Charisma.”

I guess that is very important for most voters–they want to see a character who they can remember or relate to.

It’s reality TV these days. That’s why Trump is winning. I saw him do this thing about Marco Rubio while throwing water bottles across the stage. He is a showman. Does he even want to be President? He sure doesn’t act like it. He’s not careful like politicians are, and I think that’s part of what people like about him. Either way, win or lose–oh my God, win is so horrifying, even though I don’t like Hillary either and don’t want her to be president. Could a magical fairy come down?

I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I’m a “neither” because I think both parties are corrupt and awful in different ways. But I said that I would crawl on broken glass through a gauntlet of alligators to vote for Mitt Romney, seriously. Why? Because he’s a grown-up! Hillary’s a grown-up but she’s corrupt. Trump is like this weird child-prince, and he’s also corrupt: “Let’s roll back the first amendment whenever they say anything bad about me,” and he believes in eminent domain. I don’t remember the case, but he basically said, “Let’s have the government take over your little piece of property because I want to build there.” Property rights are the foundation to a democracy. You can’t do that! Instead of constitutional rights, [it’s] what’s-good-for-Donald rights.

This is a quite change in topic, but are romantic relationships bound to have certain underlying characteristics across all cultures or do they tend to be influenced cultural/societal norms?

There are culturally invariant things about the way things work across cultures. Meaning that it is the same across cultures. One of these things is the way men prioritize looks in a woman. Men are more physical, and women prioritize status and earning power in a man. This is our evolutionary psychology. People think, “Oh my God, but this is modern times! It’s 2016!” but your genes don’t know that. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby say that we’re living in modern times with Stone Age minds, and it’s very true. All minds are perfectly acclimated to solve mating problems and survival problems that would have come up in hunter-gatherer times millions of years ago.

They are mismatched, in many cases, for the times in which we’re living. People think our minds should be different, and it just doesn’t work that way. Men still care about women’s looks, and the perfect example–I put this at the end of a column I wrote this week–is flashers. If woman gets flashed by a guy, it’s “You pervert! You should be ashamed of yourself! I’m calling the cops!” If a guy gets flashed by a woman, she takes off her top and shows her boobs, it’s “Wait, come back! What’s your name?! Bend over, do you do yoga?” It’s an incredible difference, and women get very angry at the notion that they have to look good to keep a man. Men, on the other hand, have to earn a living in a way that they can’t sit on a couch in their parent’s basement doing bong hits, even if they are very attractive. Women want attractive guys, but it’s not a priority. If it’s short-term, casual sex they’re more likely to go for that, but for a relationship they really prioritize status and a man’s earning power, even if they don’t know that.

There’s a study by Michael Dunn at the University of Wales where they showed the same guys face in two different cars: a Bentley and a Ford Fiesta. Women thought he was hotter in a Bentley. For men, they showed the same woman in two cars, and they found her equally attractive. That shows the subconscious noticing of status in men that women do, whether or not they think they do.

There’s another study about this done by my friend John Townsend, an anthropologist a Syracuse, and Gary Levy, where they had a guy dressed as a hot fast-food worker and another in business attire. Women overwhelmingly ditched the hot hamburger helper for the hot business dude. Men didn’t do that. If she’s hot, men are there. Men, more so than ever, want women who are hot. Highly educated men want highly educated women, but they still care that they’re hot. It used to be more of an asymmetry between men and women in terms of their careers–the man would be higher up. Now these highly educated men want women who are on par with them but still want the hotties.

Alkon Portrait - KC

Is there anything you’d like people to know about your book?

This is a science-based book on why we’re experiencing so much rudeness and how to change things. I used anthropology to figure out why we’re rude, and it’s basically because we’re living in a society too big for our brains. We evolved in these hunter-gatherer bands, everybody knew each other and there were no strangers. When you’re around strangers like we are all the time, you can do anything to them. I figured this out based on the work of a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar. He figured [that] out by looking at the neocortex size of the brain’s reasoning and communications department.

He looked at the neocortex size in various animals and he thought it seemed to correspond to the group size they could be in without chaos or violence breaking out. He estimated that humans would have a maximum group size of 150. He tested the prediction and found it everywhere: the number of Facebook friends people have, military regiments, the number of Christmas cards sent out. It was incredible, and it seems to hold up. That’s where my theory came from.

What I show in the book is all the ways we trip ourselves up through our evolved psychology. We have an antique psychology and if you can understand that, maybe you can not act like such an ass. One example is when we go through a stop sign and someone cuts in front of us, they may be doing that because no one knows how to do four-way stops. It drives me crazy–we then want to kill that person and smash their window with a golf club. If you think about it, what happened? Did they make you two seconds later to work? It’s about this fight or flight thing within us. We have a fairness detection system, and they’ve been unfair to us and we need to look for that to have this inner accountant. If we didn’t get our fair share of things, that was serious in ancestral times. That meant you were the one who never got dinner. You were likely to die. But if you take a moment to think, “Okay, it’s 2016 and I am going pre-plan to not get enraged when some does this.” That [anger] has a cost: You poison yourself with all this, it’s horrible, you get to work, you’re upset and angry, and why? Because you’re two seconds late. We want to react when someone does something to us. You feel like you got reamed and didn’t do anything about it; you can react, but what you can do is do something nice. Your “retaliation” can be to let two people in. You’re going to choose to react in a good way, not letting someone else create the person you are because they acted like an asshole.

I say that we change the world from being such a rude place in three ways:

  1. By not being rude ourselves, which is a big one. We all act like assholes, and I’m included in that, but what I try to do is not act like an asshole again. It’s to not act like assholes ourselves.
  2. To punish the rude, and I give ways of doing that, but not disproportionate ways. You don’t get to blow up someone’s dog because they were loud on a cell phone.
  3. The other thing is because we’re around strangers all the time–we’re living in vast stranger-hoods–we need to treat strangers like neighbors. We don’t do this naturally because we didn’t always have strangers, except when it was like, “There he is, kill him! He’s from the other band!”

This is based off the research of social psychologists David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo. They did a study where they put different wristbands on people, and if you were wearing yellow and somebody else was, you were more like to have compassion for them and take action on their behalf. What this says is that you just have to look at a stranger and say, “I bet he has a dog, too” or “I bet he likes that coffee place I like” or “I bet he lives in my neighborhood.” Associate yourself with the person and do some form of kindness for them–it’s the most powerful form of kindness. It is the coolest thing: If you do nice things for strangers, the smallest things, they will treat you like you rained gold out of the sky. You’re not going to see them again, they’re not going to see you again, you’re not trying to get anything from them. You just saw that they had a need and you filled it.

An example: I was running late and guy was across the street where you’re not supposed to park, so I thought he must be lost. I went over and asked if he was okay and he said he was lost. I told him how to get to the freeway, but I talk fast and he was Irish so I said, “Hold on, I’m going to write this down for you.” I just wrote him directions. It’s not a big deal, probably took a minute and a half. I was late but that’s not a big deal. He was so ecstatic that someone had cared for him this way, [a] totally minor thing. Same as when you leave a parking space and you see someone driving around and wave them in.

There’s research by Sonja Lyubomirsky–I don’t know if it’s published yet, but I put it in a Los Angeles Times op-ed; she let me use it. It was from an office in Spain where people did kind acts for one another, and the people who had these kind acts done for them were 260 times more likely to pay it forward. You’re really making the world a better place by doing these little things for somebody. It makes big, big difference, and that’s what I call trickle-down humanity. There should be a cover charge for living in the world and it would be one kind act per day, preferably for a stranger.

It’s actually in our self-interest to be kind. If you do this thinking, “I’ll do things for me by doing stuff for you,” it probably won’t have the same effect. But you are actually happier when you extend yourself for others. It gives your life meaning in a way that chasing happiness by getting new shoes or a new house doesn’t. It’s called the sardonic treadmill–we quickly become acclimated to things that come into our lives, positive or negative. Doing kind acts makes the world a better place, and it makes you happier and your immediate world better.

Amy maintains a column, daily blog, and a weekly radio show, all of which can be found through www.advicegoddess.com.

Her book Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck can be found where ever books are sold. 

If you’re looking advice you can reach her directly at adviceamy@aol.com.

Interview conducted by David Luna

Artwork by David Luna and Kevin Cole

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