Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

IamA (psychologist who studies irrational decisions)

Ask me (almost) anything!

Until 2 weeks ago, I had never heard of “Reddit,” and had no idea what an “IamA” was. I have since learned that this hole in my cultural awareness labels me as someone very out of date. You know, an old codger who thinks that Rock ‘n Roll went downhill after Elvis Presley stopped recording with the Jordanaires, or even that society went down the tubes when Elvis and Chuck Berry replaced Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra on the music scene. Hell, even E.O. Wilson, who was born in 1929, long before Frank Sinatra had recorded his first song, has done a Reddit IamA  It starts: “I'm E.O. Wilson, biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist, and author, most recently, of Letters to a Young Scientist. AMA!”  Don’t even ask what AMA stands for, unless you want to date yourself, man. 

For those who, like me up till a few weeks ago, had never heard of a Reddit IamA, it is an internet question and answer forum, where anyone who has done something "uncommon" or "truly interesting" will answer questions from anyone else who is interested.  Besides E.O. Wilson, I also found interesting interchanges with Steven Pinker, Philip Zimbardo, and Michael Pollan.  There are also a number of entries from entertaining figures, in the last couple of days, Tony Bennett, Joan Jett, and the directors of "Cloudy with a chance of meatballs II" have all been on.  I found a funny one with Robin Williams as well. And a lot of colorful others, such as an astronaut, Ben Cohen (cofounder of Ben & Jerry's), a guy who was pistol-whipped the other day, and an "Australian adult film actor and male escort, in the middle of shooting porn."  I had originally titled this blog "I am A pornographic film actress/Elvis impersonator/astronaut" but changed it after realizing that no one other than my son Dave would have any idea what I was talking about, would hence not get the joke, and/or find it undignified for a college professor to make such a confession (especially at a stage in life when he was supposed to have become "dignified"). 

Elvis Presley, when he was still recording with the Jordanaires.

Why should I care about a Reddit IamA anyway?!

As a college student, I worked summers as a doorman at the Paramount Hotel in New York. Because my family lived out on Long Island, I had a tedious commute on the Long Island Railroad. Forty years later, I can still recall the announcement I heard singing out every night in Penn Station: “Next train leaving on track 7 for Lynbrook, Rockville Center, Baldwin, Freeport, Merrick, Bellmore, Wantagh, Seaford, Massapequa, Massapequa Park, Amityville, Copiague, Lindenhurst, and Babylon. Change at Babylon for all stops East.” But that long commute had an up side. It gave me plenty of time for reading. In fact, there was nothing else one could do, since iPods and iPhones weren’t yet invented, and New Yorkers didn’t talk to strangers. So I consumed fascinating books like B.F. Skinner’s Science and Human Behavior and Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom. One night, somewhere between Lynbrook and Bellmore, I decided that when I grew up, I would write popular press psychology books. Just like that.

Well, I did go on to get a Ph.D. in psychology, and then I landed a job as a college professor, so I had what I had figured were the qualifications. Indeed, I had an idea for a book as I was walking home from my office at Montana State University one afternoon. I would call it The Science of Loving. The title was a play on Fromm’s very popular Art of Loving, but my book would discuss human sexual behavior through an evolutionary lens. This was 1977, and such a book would have been timely. But if I wanted to get tenure, writing a popular press book was not high priority. First I had to publish some serious scientific articles in good empirical journals, such as the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Which I did, but in the academic world, the next step up is to publish some review papers in top tier theoretical journals, such as Psychological Review. And then I looked around, and realized that my graduate students needed more of those empirical papers published if they were to get tenure-track jobs. To get those publications, it really helps if you have grant money to pay their salaries to buy them out of being teaching assistants grading papers for undergraduate research methods classes.

Next thing you know, almost three decades pass, and I have not written that book. But I have a lot of publications in swell journals, on interesting topics, and the idea of applying evolutionary ideas to human beings has become slightly more fashionable, yet remains sufficiently controversial to generate interest. So, I finally decided to write a book describing our fun research on topics ranging from one-night stands and homicidal fantasies to creative displays and religious beliefs. In that book, I had a couple of chapters about our research looking at economic decisions in an evolutionary light. One of them was called “Deep Rationality,” and several people said: “How people make decisions about money! That’s what you should write a book about!” So, with my former student Vlad Griskevicius, now a marketing professor, I did that, and it was a lot of fun. 

But wait, it doesn’t end there. I always imagined that Erich Fromm and B.F. Skinner went to a book signing or two at a couple of bookstores in New York and Boston, and then their books just started selling themselves. If that is remotely true, it doesn’t seem to be the way things work these days. Now authors are supposed to be all connected via “social media.”  As I was writing my first book (published way back in 2011), I did not have a Facebook account. Indeed, it was not until I happened to see the movie The Social Network that I had any idea what the term “Facebook” meant. So, as an author, I was informed that I really ought to join Facebook. I have since clicked my way up to 531 friends (my son says I should have 5310, and it is ridiculous that I do not click each and every suggested connection, even if I never heard of them, but that feels a bit like becoming a Fuller brush man [I know that term dates me to the Sinatra era as well, Fuller brush men were door-to-door salesmen who would boldly knock on every stranger’s door on every street in America]). More recently, I joined LinkedIn, where I have another 274 connections. But, I come to find out that this is grossly undernetworked: To be truly non-Sinatra era, I needed to join some groups.  Now, I am a member of 9 Facebook groups with indirect connections to tens of thousands fellow Facepersons interested in evolution, behavior, religion, and the lack thereof. On LinkedIn, I am now joined at the hip with 2,463 fellow ASU alumni, 3,956 economic psychologists, 5,629 evolutionary psychologists, 4,885 people interested in social influence, 3,714 positive psychologists, and 5,937 social psychologists. And sometime tomorrow, I will announce to all of them that at 2 PM Eastern Standard Time (11 AM pacific) on Saturday, October 5 (aka tomorrow) I will attempt to master the technology required to do a Reddit IamA. It will say something like: “I am an evolutionary psychologist, TEDx presenter, and author of The Rational Animal and Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life  AMA! (by the way, for you Elvis Presley fans, AMA means “ask me anything”). 

In truly networked elegance, it will also recursively loop back right here, by saying:

For my blog on Psychology Today:

sex-murder-and-the-meaning-life

Unless, of course, I somehow mess it up. Because, the truth is that when I am required to do something as simple as find my password for anything on the internet, I mess up approximately 46% of the time. If that happens, I will spend a couple of hours after 1 PM EST on Saturday listening either to Elvis Presley and the Jordanaires, or Frank Sinatra singing with Tommy Dorsey’s band, depending on how old I feel. 

P.S. It ended up going reasonably well, a number of interesting questions and comments.  Here's the link if you're interested: Iama evolutionary social psychologist

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Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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