Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kilroy Café #49: "The Handicap Principle"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The Handicap Principle


In the 1970s, biologist Amotz Zahavi developed a theory to explain some of the most perplexing behavior and physical displays in the animal world. He called it the "handicap principle".

Loosely defined, the handicap principle says that animals will deliberately waste resources in an ostentatious way as a signal to others of their overall fitness. They will accept a theatrical "handicap" if it furthers their evolutionary aims.

The simplest example is the ridiculous plumage of the peacock. You see them strutting around the farm or zoo displaying a huge fan of feathers. The display offers no direct survival advantage. In fact, it is a significant burden, since carrying it around makes the bird more vulnerable to predators. Why, then, did it evolve this way?

Obviously, the display is a turn-on to the female peafowl, who has ev0lved a corresponding preference for big feathers. To put it in our terms, she figures, "Wow, if he's got this fancy, expensive car, he must really be strong and powerful!" Like females everywhere, she tends to fall for the display and overlook underlying fitness. Only after she marries him does she find out he's just a jerk with big feathers.

Males are by no means immune to such deception. Take human female breasts, which are unique in nature. They are far larger than they need to be to give milk and positively humongous compared to other mammals. For pure survival, they are significant handicap, flopping around and getting in the way as they do. They exist mainly as a signal to the male of overall fitness.

And the male falls for it! In his animal brain, he thinks, "Wow, if she's got knockers like that, she must be really fertile!" It's a somewhat honest signal because breasts consist of fat and to produce them you have to have energy to spare. But in another sense, it's just advertizing, which is vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation and deception.

Is breast size related to ones actual suitability as a mate? Most of us would say no—intellectually at least—yet males and females still play the game: women dressing up their breasts for display and men going gaga over them as though they meant something.

Zahavi would understand.

Once you grasp the handicap principle, you see it everywhere, especially in the social world. When most people gain extra resources, what's the first thing they do? They usually put those resources on display with some kind of pompous purchase that serves no purpose other than crowing to the world, "I have extra resources."

The flashy car, the high fashion, the palatial home—all of these supposed "luxury" items are actually a burden to use. For example, no luxury car is as reliable or easy to maintain as an economy model. The only reason for owning such absurdities is displaying them, to try to prove to others your underlying quality.

But there is also real quality, which is separate from any signal. As a species, it may be our destiny to put on empty displays, but as individuals, we need to recognize these displays as fundamentally phony and distracting.

Animals use signals because they save energy. If you're a buck deer and you see that some other guy's antlers are bigger than yours, you're not going to mess with him because it's a good bet he's more powerful. Likewise, if you're driving down the highway late at night and need a place to sleep, you might just stop at the motel with the biggest and prettiest sign. You guess that with all they have invested in the sign, it's probably not a fleabag.

These open signals can tell you something, but they aren't very subtle and they're not usually telling you the whole story. As soon as you have the means, you should be probing below the surface, trying to differentiate actual quality from advertized quality.

Actual quality is what really works over time. The best way to judge it, if you can afford to do so, is some sort of operational testing. The best way to choose a mate is not breast size or car size but to actually interact with the product for a while, under conditions closely resembling its intended long-term use.

Our society is based largely on signals—on advertizing, hyperbole and pompous displays that have little to do with underlying quality. That's just how society works.

But that doesn't have to be the way you work. The only lasting satisfaction in life comes from quality—both detecting it in others and producing it yourself. The strutting peacocks producing fancy signals will always get more notice, but they rarely feel successful. They're fakers and deep down they know it.

In the long run, it's better to be real.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Lumberton, North Carolina.
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Monday, June 8, 2009

Kilroy Café #48: "Escape from Narcissism"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Escape from Narcissism


We all started out as narcissists. When we first became conscious, the universe seemed to revolve around us. There were parents hovering over us attending to our every need. When we cried out, the world promptly responded, as though our own feelings were the only ones that mattered.

Unfortunately, the outside world doesn't work that way. In reality, we are only one human of billions, and for the most part no one gives a damn about us and our needs. We gain the attention of others only by noticing their needs and providing some sort of service to them.

Intellectually, we can accept that we are not the center of all creation, but emotionally it is very hard. It's a long, painful journey from egocentrism to globalism. We have to unlearn the self-serving habits of our youth and learn to see the big picture.

Narcissism isn't "self-love" as much as self-centeredness. There are some very unhappy narcissists who do not love themselves, but they can't step out of themselves long enough to see what others need. Therefore, they miss cues from others, step on people's toes and don't get what they need from them. A narcissist is a bull in a china shop, because he doesn't "get" how the world really works.

The narcissist expects others to serve his needs just because he has them. "I'm hungry, so feed me." He assumes that if something is important to him, it must also be important to others. He thinks others exist only to give him what he wants. After all, that's how things worked in his childhood.

When this theory fails to get results, he tries leverage. He throws a tantrum or uses some other threat, bribe or seduction to try to coerce compliance. If being "needy" doesn't get him what he wants, he tries power instead.

While power and neediness may both work on occasion, they aren't nearly as effective as a third method: understanding the inner needs of the person you are dealing with and giving them what they need in exchange for what you need.

This is the conceptual leap the narcissist is unable to make: Others have needs! When other people hurt us, it isn't because they want to but because our needs conflict with theirs. Finding a middle ground requires subtlety and grace that the narcissist doesn't have. He is so blinded by his own needs that he can't truly grasp someone else's.

The narcissist makes a good swindler, but he is also easily swindled because he can't grasp the hidden motivations of the people he is interacting with. He automatically assumes that his goals are the same as everyone else's, and he is shocked and surprised when that's not the case.

The self-centeredness extends not just to people but to systems. To truly understand, say, an electrical system, we have to step outside ourselves and see what the system wants. What are its own independent rules? Although we may have goals of our own (Become an electrician and make a lot of money.) the electrons don't care. To become a good electrician (and one who doesn't kill himself), you have to understand the inner needs of the electron.

Take another system: photography. Most people's vacation photos are terrible — because of narcissism. Their snapshots may be meaningful to them but they are dull and bland to the rest of us. This is true even in a supposedly interesting location like Times Square or the Grand Canyon.

The photos are boring because the photographer can't see what actually appears in the viewfinder and evaluate it on its own merits. He thinks, "This is a very special moment, so if I take a picture of it, the photo will be special, too." He fails to see that camera is an independent system that has to be understood on its own merits.

You can tell a person's relative level of narcissism by watching them compose photos at a tourist attraction— or indeed by watching him do anything anywhere. Does he take the time to understand the system or person he is dealing with, or does he plough ahead blindly, expecting the world to cater to his needs?

We are all narcissists to some degree. We are all trapped in one body that is the center of our perception. We mature, however, by learning there is bigger world out there. Yes, we have needs, but often they are best served by setting them aside and understanding the needs of others. With that knowledge, we might find the key that unlocks the others and eventually gives us what we want.

You may be hungry right now, but it's not the end of the world. If you can set aside the sensation for a while and learn about someone else's hunger, you might find a way to solve both of your problems at minimal expense.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from El Paso, Texas.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.
You can Retweet this article on Twitter™.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.