Blue Tuesday: Is there too much work against Blue Monday?

60_jahre_allgemeine_erklarung_der_menschenrechte_3084670759

This bear is leaving home because its owners believe that Blue Monday has a scientific origin. (Attribution)

Yesterday wasn’t Blue Monday. Or to use its full name, Blue Monday (A Normal Day Of The Year Which Was Rebranded Through Marketing With A False Veneer Of Misleading Science). Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) became a “not a thing” which happens as a result of holiday sellers, Sky Travel, and public relations company, Porter Novelli, selling holidays and public relating. They invented a formula which supposedly calculates that the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year and stuck what looks like a scientist on the front to complete its fancy-dress costume of sexy fake science concept. Needless to say, the average mood of everyone is too complex a thing to calculate with the simple equation being touted. Saying it can is a horrendous misrepresentation of the scientific method, human emotions and mental health. The added scientist, Cliff Arnall, is not a doctor or a professor of psychology. Or of anything. Saying he is is…

It’s difficult to argue with the success of the Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) idea as a piece of marketing. On the day itself, the number of companies, including charities, that use the term to promote their products or causes is vast. With the general theme of spending money to improve your mood, Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) is used to sell pretty much everything; be that the holidays it was designed to sell, cars, chocolate or financial advice. Perhaps more subtly, some groups have tried to re-purpose Blue Monday (I’ll stop now). They argue that while the supposed science might be a gargantuan heap o’ nonsense, it can still be a day to consider and support those who are unhappy. In addition, a lot of people have put a lot of work into explaining why, as a scientific concept, Blue Monday has the same credibility has half a brick with a picture of Dr Emmett Brown sneezed onto it by a guinea pig. So much so, that the publication of pieces debunking the science of Blue Monday have become as much of a tradition as the shower of gaudy sadverts.

kiara

This dog is more scientific than the formula for Blue Monday. (Attribution).

For the last few years, I have gained the impression that the pieces attempting to counteract the Blue Monday information have become more common than the items using its selling power. If this was indeed the case, the main thing keeping Blue Monday alive would be the valiant efforts to kill it. This could be placed in the Venn diagram of ironic things and bad things. However, whether this is the case is far from decided. While I have seen the same claim from others, my perception that anti Blue Monday work is more common than pro Blue Monday work is just that, a perception. Perceptions are at risk of bias.

Confirmation bias would mean that I might be interpreting information in a way that confirms my pre-existing beliefs. All the evidence I’ve seen shows that confirmation bias exists. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (or frequency illusion) would mean something that’s recently been noticed by me, suddenly seems to occur at a greatly increased rate. Once you’ve noticed the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Finally, the perception that anti Blue Monday work is more common than pro Blue Monday work might be the result of an echo chamber. I’m more likely to associate (digitally or in the great outdoors) with people who hold similar points of view to me. I’ll therefore see opinions the same as mine with greater frequency, and if I’m not careful will come to believe that those opinions are the most common. Everything I’ve seen on Twitter confirms I’m right.

One potential antidote to the plethora of human bias is correctly analysed data. I didn’t have that, so I took to the internet. On 16th January 2017, I searched for the term, “Blue Monday” on Twitter. I didn’t specifically use the hashtag because I wanted to avoid people or organisations using it just to make their tweets more locatable on the specific day. On a separate note, SEX! I then counted the tweets that seemed to believe the effect of Blue Monday, the tweets that actively opposed the effect of Blue Monday, and the tweets that didn’t believe Blue Monday, but wanted to use it to at least gain some benefit. I did this until the total tweets I’d counted reached 100. To be counted, a tweet had to at least hint at belief in Blue Monday or otherwise. It couldn’t just spout a load of a nonsense about sofas and then end with a hashtag. I also did a similar thing with Google (incognito window to avoid the influence of my search history) to count sites, news items, blog posts etc. and place them in the same categories as were used for the tweets. This was also completed when the total links reached was equal to 100. I later checked the Google search o a separate device and found the resulting list to be practically the same.

The results can be seen below. In summary, the pro Blue Monday items were much greater in the number than the anti Blue Monday items. These were both much more prevalent than items trying to re-purpose the day. My perception was wrong, and unfortunately the work to demonstrate that the idea of Blue Monday is anti-scientific rubbish appears to still has some way to go.

blue-pie

Pie part showing the proportion of pro Blue Monday, anti Blue Monday and re-purposing Blue Monday items.

 

One thing to note however, was that out of the pro Blue Monday items, 72% were advertisements. As discussed, these would make the argument that it’s the saddest day of the year so why not buy chocolate/hair gel/happiness? It is unclear to what extent the people behind these believe that Blue Monday was a scientific concept. While their adverts vaguely hint at belief, it’s just as likely that the mention of Blue Monday and its supposed effects are being used as devices to enhance how noticeable their brand is on a specific day. An increasingly difficult task given how common the use of the Blue Monday “brand” is. It seems to me that an advert that went with something other than Blue Monday marketing on the third Monday in January would be the one to stand out.

I’m not sure why efforts to educate people as to the non-scientific origins of Blue Monday are not working or even if they are actually not working in the first place. As discussed, it’s possible people know all of this, but find the term useful for their purposes; whether these are charitable or otherwise. Indeed, some news outlets may be using anti Blue Monday work to join in and take advantage of the temporary interest while maintaining an appearance of credibility. There’s no point in having your cake if you can’t eat it.

Ultimately and unfortunately, it appears that not much can be done about the Blue Monday juggernaut. I might still hold out hope for those valiantly explaining the gibberish behind the claims and even for those re-purposing the day for more noble causes. Judging by the current proportions, these efforts need to increase or change their methods to become more effective. How? I don’t know, although at least I’ve got nearly a year to think about it.

Why is early Christmas so annoying?

old_christmas_riding_a_goat_by_robert_seymour_1836

Christmas riding an annoyed goat. By Robert Seymour (1798 – 1836) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing about Christmas getting earlier every year gets earlier ever year. Complaining about shops putting out their Christmas items when the Easter items are still egging up the shelves, howling in pain when I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday starts playing on Groundhog Day, and grumbling as your appointment card for your annual infusion of Will Ferrell’s Elf arrives in July has almost become a festive tradition. So called, ‘Christmas Creep’, the aforementioned phenomenon whereby retailers introduce their Christmas-based merchandise or decorations in advance of what would traditionally be viewed as the start of the Christmas period is widely considered to be pretty annoying. Almost as annoying as mince pies being on sale so early that their best before date is well before December. Although, not as annoying as the fact they didn’t call Christmas Creep ‘Premature Elf Adulation’. Overall it wouldn’t seem to be too much of stretch to say that early Christmas is considered to be a source of annoyance, but what are the reasons for this?

Annoyance is relatively poorly researched in psychology compared to emotions such as happiness, anger or disgust with Piers Morgan. As is often the case in psychology, there isn’t even a clear consensus as to what annoyance actually is. Therefore, which theory regarding the cause of annoyance we use will depend on how we define annoyance itself. Some have chosen to define annoyance as a type of stress, some as a mild form of anger, and some as a distinct cognitive process or emotion in its own right, which nonetheless is very similar to slight anger. This is ironically irritating.

Briefly, a common definition of stress is when resources (physical or psychological) are exceeded by the demands on those resources. Lazarus, and Launier stated that psychological stress is the consequence of an individual’s inability to cope effectively with environmental demands. For example, experiments from 1971 demonstrated that people who knew that they could eventually stop a stressful noise or knew when a stressful noise would stop experienced fewer stressful effects than people who didn’t have this knowledge. If you were forced to watch The X Factor and didn’t know when the Cowelly cacophony would end, then a stress response would result. In terms of early Christmas, stress and annoyance could be related to uncertainty as to when holiday demands (shopping, social obligations to family and friends, pressure to enjoy Home Alone) will start and finish, and whether those demands can be met. While the stress of Christmas is undoubtedly a real phenomenon and we could see how a prolonged state of Christmas could increase this stress, intuitively this emotional response seems difference to annoyance.

Anger in general has been more widely studied than annoyance and has been described across most cultures and multiple species. The recalibration theory of anger argues that the function (in evolutionary terms) of anger is to promote the resolution or recalibration of undesirable situations in favour of the individual experiencing anger. Anger occurs when something is wrong and needs to be changed. You are between me and some food/ a potential mate/not having my opinion unchallenged on social media and anger mobilises psychological and physical resources for me to try to correct that. Whether that thing can be changed or not is another story entirely. Early Christmas may be viewed by some as an out-of-place environmental stimulus, resulting in anger and a desire to change or avoid this misplaced jolliness. Someone shouts ‘bah’ at you, and you respond with a ‘humbug’.

glowballs_in_roundabout_avesta

A load of Christmas balls. By Calle Eklund/V-wolf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with the view of anger as evolved survival mechanism, which is now being applied to novel social and cultural situations, researchers such as Garrity and Cunningham have argued that annoyance is the emotional version of a withdrawal reflex. In the same way that a fly responds to a noxious stimulus by trying to avoid or move away from it, humans experience an emotion in response to a potentially ‘damaging’ situation, with this annoyance acting as a motivation or signal to withdraw from or stop the experience. This hints that for something to be annoying, some aspect of it must defy expectations. A large part of what the human brain does is to identify and seek predictable patterns. In fact, it (you) often recognises patterns where none exist. Where an environmental stimulus does not fit a pattern (I’m not normally covered in bees), it demands attention and depending on the nature of the stimulus should be avoided or stopped. As such, for a situation or behaviour to be considered annoying, it likely has three qualities: unpredictability, of uncertain duration, and experienced as unpleasant.

Moreover, behaviours that could potentially cause annoyance have been categorised into four groups of ‘social allergens’ based on how intentional they are and how specifically they are aimed at the person experiencing annoyance. These don’t necessarily explain why behaviours are annoying, but do allow some more precise description of annoying situations. The four groups of social allergens include:

  • Uncouth actions/impolite personal habits (unintentional and undirected) – the person on the bus picking their nose and sticking the nasal treasure to the window
  • Inconsiderate activities (unintentional and directed) – the person who was supposed to meet you on the bus, but is late
  • Rule breaking (intentional and undirected) – the person smoking on the bus
  • Intrusive behaviours (intentional and directed) – Katie Hopkins telling you her opinions on the bus

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Look, glitter! Buy stuff! By Iamraincrystal (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Which social allergen could an early Christmas be categorised as? There are several reasons people give for finding the early celebration of Christmas annoying. Many feel that the extended displays of Christmas behaviour are a sign of increasing commercialisation of the holiday, which is annoying in itself, and argue that this encroaches on family- and religious-based reasons for festivity. Additionally, a reasonable proportion of complaints against earlier Christmas relate to a dislike of emotional manipulation that they feel is being directed towards them by companies, organisations and saccharine relatives. In related reasons, some people argue that having the Christmas period start earlier and take place over a longer period of time dilutes and removes the specialness. Others state that having Christmas ‘start’ earlier is against the traditions associated with Christmas. The behaviours can be considered intentional in that retailers mean to be putting out their stock and decorations (they didn’t sneeze and accidentally spray tinsel everywhere). The level of direction is debatable. Christmas stock is basically aimed at everyone without being targeted at individuals and as such is fairly undirected. However, Christmas advertisements and items tend to have demographics they are aimed at giving them a modicum of direction. Overall we can classify the annoyance of early Christmas as an example of rule breaking and as an intrusive behaviour.

In summary, it would seem that psychologically, early Christmas can be classified as an intrusive behaviour and as an example of rule breaking. People experience this as an unpleasant collection of environmental stimuli that they weren’t predicting to occur yet and don’t know how long will last. Annoyance is then experienced as a mild form of anger to mobilise physiological and psychological resources for the avoidance of these stimuli.

The cingulate cortex is a part of the limbic system which has generally been associated with the formation and processing of emotions, learning and memories. MRI studies suggest that the cingulate cortex is involved with annoyance, noting a positive correlation between blood flow to this area of the brain and the level of irritation. Other brain areas implicated in the feeling of annoyance are the hippocampus (consolidating memories of annoyance with early Christmas from short- to long-term) and the amygdala (forming and retaining emotional memories of how annoying early Christmas is). However, the list of emotions and functions these brain areas have been associated with isn’t getting any shorter (I checked it twice), so any understanding of a neurological basis for annoyance with early Christmas is basically non-existent. While it can be helpful to know that theories can be applied to a wider range of relevant phenomenon, there’s no evidence for any of this with regards to why early Christmas is annoying and research probably isn’t forthcoming. This means this entire article is basically a Just So story (or Just Ho Ho Ho story if you prefer). How annoying.

Marmite: checking whether it really is a love or hate relationship

marmite_pop-up_shop_in_2009

What do you get for the person who has everything? And who you also hate? By Gilda from London, UK (Marmite pop-up shop Uploaded by Edward) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Jokes about Marmite; most people don’t have strong responses to them. This is unlike the recent news that as a result of potential Marmite price rises, one supermarket might have stopped stocking it. It was generally reported that people were furious with rage, which continued when the dispute was resolved approximately 24 hours later. And because it was opinions on the internet, people said that those opinions were wrong. And because it was definitely opinions on the internet, people went out of there way to say how little they cared about the issue. Whatever your thoughts regarding this particular spread, it’s difficult to deny that the specifics of its one “you either love it or hate it” advertising slogan have been pervasive. So much so that the name ‘Marmite’ is almost synonymous with something which polarises opinion. It’s a real Marmite situation. But what’s the question at the end of the first paragraph that reveals what the rest of the blog post is about? And is it true that people either love or hate Marmite, with no place for yeasty apathy? Luckily, surveys, maths and toast could be used to check.

The information regarding people’s opinion on Marmite was taken from the YouGov UK website. According to this website, YouGov survey approximately 5 million online panellists from across 38 countries including, among others, the UK, USA, Denmark, Saudi Arabia and Europe and China. They claim that their panellists are from a wide variety of ages and socio-economic groups, allowing them to create online samples which are nationally representative. The UK panel, from which the data used here were taken, includes more than 800,000 people. So essentially I went to the YouGov UK website, searched for ‘Marmite’ and took the numbers regarding what the people sampled thought of it. And ate some toast.

marmite-1

Figure 1. Numbers of people with certain opinions regarding Marmite.

Figure 1 shows the number of people who reported that they loved, liked, felt neutral about, didn’t like or hated Marmite. The actual YouGov website actually shows picture representations of heart, smiley jaundice face, straight-mouth jaundice face, sad jaundice face and angry rosacea face that I interpreted to mean the aforementioned categories. I’m good at emoticons; sideways punctuation smiley face.

You can see that the two tallest bars are for Love It (3,289 people) and Hate It (2,235 people), followed by Like It (1,870 people), Neutral (1,067 people) and Don’t Like It (909 people). However, these aren’t necessarily the groups we’re interested in. The claim is that people either love or hate Marmite. Figure 2 shows the number of people of love or hate Marmite (Love It plus Hate It) and the number of people who don’t feel that strongly about it (Like It plus Neutral plus Don’t Like It). Of the two populations, Love It or Hate It (5,524 people) is larger than Don’t Feel That Strongly (3,846 people). This is perhaps shown more intuitively in Figure 3, where it is depicted that compared with people who don’t feel that strongly about Marmite, 17.9% more people love or hate it.

marmite-2

Figure 2. Numbers of people who love or hate Marmite and who don’t feel that strongly.

The presence of a group of people that don’t feel that strongly about Marmite would seem to contradict the idea that there are only two populations with respect to Marmite desire. However, it could be argued that we are really examining the effect of Marmite on Marmite apathy. Does Marmite have an effect on whether you love or hate it or don’t feel that strongly about it? What is the probability of this many people loving or hating Marmite if Marmite doesn’t make you love or hate it?

marmite-3

Figure 3. Proportions of people who love or hate Marmite and who don’t feel that strongly.

As this was a single population (people who give their opinions to YouGov UK) and we are looking at two possible categories within that population (Love It or Hate It and Don’t Feel That Strongly About It), I used a binomial test to determine the probability that there was on effect of Marmite on Marmite emotiveness. This demonstrated that the chances of this many people loving or hating Marmite if Marmite doesn’t make you love or hate it was at least 1 in 100,000,000 (P<0.00000001). Depending on your threshold for such things, this would seem to be reasonable argument that Marmite has a tendency to make people feel strongly about it.

There are some potential problems with this reasoning. Firstly, the analysis could be wrong. I’m far from an expert in statistics, and it’s entirely possible that I performed the wrong tests or interpreted the results incorrectly. While eating toast.

Secondly, these data only covers people who provide information to YouGov UK. While YouGov UK would certainly claim that they are representative of the whole population, we can’t know this for sure. The same YouGov UK page claims that being a Marmite customer correlates with having gardening as a hobby and being a customer of Waitrose, and I can count on the finger of know hands the number of times I’ve seen someone pruning the roses, while eating a Marmite sandwich and some Waitrose pickled quail eggs. This is a real product, although I think it’s cruel to pickle quails. Although, that’s not really the issue. Ultimately, there might be something different about the people who report to YouGov (such as a tendency to feel strongly about yeast-derived devil’s treacle) compared with the general population, and we can’t know that just from these results. Basically we’re saying that these results may be influenced by self-selection bias.

marmite_packaging_uk_2012

Well, what would you have put a picture of? Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

When people are in groups, their opinions and behaviour have a tendency to be more extreme than when they are acting as individuals. This is known in psychology as group polarisation. For example, if you have racist and sexist attitudes and join a group with racist and sexist attitudes, your racist and sexist attitudes will worsen; the group influence will trump your own lesser tendencies. Ahem. This process has also been seen to occur through social media, even though people aren’t physically interacting as groups. Observed over time on Twitter, discussion regarding political issues with like-minded individuals becomes more homogeneous and more extreme. In this instance, the hypothesis is that people identify with others who have a similar opinion to theirs regarding Marmite, and over time polarise that existing opinion until they state that they love or hate it. In reality, the truth is closer to a more moderate Marmite approval or disapproval. However, the online poll doesn’t involve group discussion and polls are completed anonymously, so even if people are basing part of their social identity on how much they enjoy a salty brown loaf goo, group polarisation seems unlikely.

Of relevance here may be a type of response bias called, ‘extreme responding’. This is a tendency for people to select the most extreme responses available to them and usually depends on the wording of the question, but has been linked to age (younger = more extreme), educational level (lower = more extreme) and cognitive ability (lower = more extreme). We don’t know how the poll was worded or the composition of the poll responders, so speculation as to the extent of extreme responding is fairly pointless even though it DEFINITELY HAPPENED!

Alternatively, the well-known advertising for Marmite may have introduced another kind of response bias called ‘demand characteristics’. Here, participants in an experiment or survey change their response because they are in an experiment or survey. This is assumed to be an attempt to comply with what they believe the aims of the experiment to be. Respondents asked about Marmite may be more likely to give an extreme response based on the advertised ‘consensus’ that people either love or hate Marmite. And so the opinion spreads like a pun-based analogy.

Finally, it could actually be the case that Marmite has such a distinct flavour that people really are more likely to have an extreme response than an ambivalent one. Although at this stage you may have stopped caring. I prefer jam anyway.

Stigma and mental health: a one-sided conversation

L0026693 A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong su

A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong suicidal tendencies. This is what people thought people with mental illness looked like before they all started looking out of windows with their heads in their hands. 

What is stigma?

Stigma is basically a word for discrimination. Slightly more technically, stigma has been described as a sign of disgrace that is perceived to set a person or group of people apart from others. It’s also a Greek letter, although everyone that uses it in that way is rubbish. Stigma can affect many groups, including people with mental health problems, the elderly, and a third less serious group that I was going to include as a joke, but didn’t because it would increase stigma too much.

The casual use of language stigmatising mental illness is exceedingly common. If you’re a bit angry you might be described as mental or psycho. If you put a book away you might be called obsessive compulsive. Media portrayals reinforce stigma by constantly associating images of violent and homicidal individuals with mental ill health. The Eurovision song contest recently got in on the stigmatising act by parading a person in a Eurovision-themed straitjacket for so called crazy fans and having one of the hosts proclaim “You know what they say – crazy is the new black.” Which is definitely saying like, “Half a cup of thunder makes the bears look at the handbag” and “You don’t have to be crazy to use stigmatising language, but it…oh…I see…I’m sorry.”

Even children’s television seems to have gotten in on the act. A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that during just one week’s worth of children’s television, 59 out of 128 programmes contained one or more references to mental illness. Terms like “crazy”, “mad” and “losing your mind” were commonly used to portray that a character was losing control. Six characters were identified as consistently shown to have a mental illness. These characters were almost totally devoid of positive characteristics. Luckily, children aren’t impressionable and don’t learn or pick up attitudes easily.

Does it really matter if people are offended?

In the great scheme of things, not really. Overall, it’s probably not good to upset people, although that largely depends on context. If you’re using abusive language and someone says your awful because of you’re abusive language and this upsets you, then you’re upset doesn’t matter a Katie Hopkin’s opinions worth. If someone with severe anxiety is offended because you’ve told them to “stop worrying”, then that does matter. You’re belittling a potential illness, and ignoring and heightening their distress. We’ll deal with these cases of offence on a case by case basis until we’ve Gervaised the lot of them.

Stigma

I really wouldn’t recommend searching for “prejudice” in order to find images for your blog post.

However, this isn’t really about people being offended. It’s about the harm that can be caused by language and attitudes. Stigmatising attitudes towards people experiencing mental illness are responsible for substantial additional distress, as well as reduced employment and social opportunities. In addition, stigma can lead to hate crimes, a decreased ability to access appropriate healthcare and reluctance to seek appropriate help (if that help is even available). In fact, the stigma surrounding mental illness has been identified as the primary barrier to providing mental health care and the delivery of treatment. It turns out that if large portions of society hold negative beliefs about a group that aren’t necessarily true, then that group suffers.

So I’m banned from using certain words?

Not at all, but it would be nice if you thought about what you were saying and the impact it might have. Unsurprisingly in a matter involving language and society, there’s a lot of nuance involved. If I privately say “my cat is going bananas” while my cat does something adorable like climbing up the curtains or becoming non-fictional, then I’m probably not doing any harm. If I loudly proclaim to a crowd that another person who is shouting “has gone schizo” then that’s another matter. I don’t know who’s listening, who might be upset and who might avoid social situations or potentially getting help to avoid similar judgement. If you don’t believe in the potential impact of your words in this setting, perhaps you should look at the research, or at least have more confidence in yourself. You can make a difference!

Well, what other words can I use?

I’m pretty sure there are quite a few words that aren’t stigmatising towards people with mental health problems. There’s probably a word for that situation. I’ll check the dictionary. Anyway, a bit of variety in your insults will make you look more intelligent, which is always nice.

Sanakniigu

A good source of awful words.

Why are people so thin skinned?

It’s not really about being offended (as discussed previously), but if we’re talking about people with certain diagnoses then there is evidence that negative terms can have greater impact than in people without those diagnoses. For example, much research has shown that people with clinical depression have what’s called a negative cognitive style. That is to say they’re much more likely to focus on or attend to the negative aspects of any personal experience and to an extent may be unable to focus on positive or neutral aspects. Conversely, other studies claim that this tendency differs across individuals with the depression with some people focusing on negative information, while others pay equal attention to negative and positive information but remember negative information more efficiently than those without depression. Either way, telling someone with this problem to just ignore the bad stuff isn’t helpful. Like telling someone with their foot caught in a bear trap to just walk it off.

I have a mental illness and it doesn’t affect me like that!

That’s good. However, there are other people who it does affect.

Isn’t this just being pedantic about language?

“Just”?!

But you got several phrases regarding mental health wrong!

Probably, and I apologise for that. I daresay I’ll do it again, but I’ll try and do better. Which is hopefully what we’re all trying to do. Not you though. You’re perfect. You’re hair is particularly good.

In fact, a bigger problem is that throughout this post I’ve essentially referred to people with mental illness as a homogenous group. This obviously isn’t true, just as it wouldn’t be for any large group of people. It also potentially marks a large proportion of the population (1 in 4 is often bandied about, although I can’t find a good reference for that figure) as an outgroup. I certainly don’t want to do that, and a large part of reducing stigma should probably be in getting people to consider that the group they’re stigmatising contains as much variety in personality as any group they consider themselves a member of, that that group contains people just as capable of experiencing harm as they are (more so in some cases) and that their words have the power to impact real-world events. Easy done.

Are you finished yet?

Yes.

 

Image credits: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong suicidal tendency. Lithograph, 1892, after a drawing by Alexander Johnston, 1837, for Sir Alexander Morison. 1837-1892 By: Alexander Johnstonafter: Alexander Morison and Byrom BramwellPublished: [1892]

By Ilja.mos – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46665757

 

How bad is Stormtrooper aim exactly?

Stormtrooper_Gun

A Stormtrooper gun. It’s possible they don’t know what these are for. Photo by Roy Kabanlit.

For some unknown reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars recently. Going forward, I’ll assume you’ll be familiar with the events and characters of at least the first six films. If not, what have you been doing? Living in a recent, recent time in a galaxy that’s very close to here? Broadly speaking, this post inevitably contains minor spoilers for Episodes II−VI of the Star Wars films. If you haven’t seen them, inexplicably want to find out about Stormtrooper aim and don’t mind knowing some plot details, then feel free to read on.

There are some characteristics of characters or groups of characters within the Star Wars register that are widely held to be fact. This may be despite them not being explicitly stated within the films. Red lightsabers are for the evil, Jar Jar Binks is rubbish and Stormtroopers have worse aim than a urinating drunk man in a vibrating chair trying to hit a toilet located on The A-Team van.

Can Stormtroopers really be that bad at shooting? There is an assumption that the Empire want effective troops to maintain their evil hold of the galaxy. Surely they get some training in marksmanship rather than signing up, being given armour that doesn’t even protect against Ewoks (weirdly, the autocorrect on my phone turns ‘Ewoks’ to ‘useless’) and told to, “go forth and do bad stuff.” In fact, Obi Wan Kenobi in Episode IV: A New Hope comments, “only Imperial Stormtroopers are this precise” when examining some blast marks on a massive used droid dealership tank. So Stormtroopers have a reputation in the Star Wars galaxy for good aim. There are a number of explanations for this:

  • Stormtroopers have good aim compared to everyone else, who is really awful (maybe the Star Wars galaxy is windy, wobbly or makes everyone slightly drunk for reasons)
  • Stormtroopers do have rubbish aim, but are good at marketing (history may contain examples where propaganda has been used by states with less than altruistic intentions)
  • Stormtroopers do have rubbish aim, but everyone is concerned about their self-esteem and tells them otherwise
  • Stormtroopers normally have good aim, but during the events of the Star Wars films develop bad aim; almost as if the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy has informed its troops that they should imagine themselves as antagonists in a series of films that won’t progress very far if the protagonists keep getting shot
Long_Beach_Comic_Expo_2012_-_Stormtrooper_takes_some_hits_(7186645662)

Seems about right. Photo by The Conmunity – Pop Culture Geek from Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Why would Stormtroopers’ aim be so bad? Is it their tools? This seems unlikely given that non-Stormtroopers steal Stormtrooper weapons and seem to have no issue with shot accuracy or a gaining a reputation for terrible aim. Perhaps their helmets obscure their vision and make aiming difficult. Possibly, but the Stormtrooper helmet eye holes don’t appear to be any smaller than human spectacles, which can’t be said to obscure vision. Not if they’re doing their job. They are tinted though, which may make aiming difficult when in badly lit conditions and make Stormtroopers look like posers when wearing their helmets indoors.

Perhaps Stormtroopers are just human. In spite of the impression given to us by world events, it is actually quite difficult to get one person to actively shoot to kill another person. During World War I, British Lieutenant George Roupell reported that the only way he could get his soldiers to stop firing above their enemies’ heads was to beat them with his sword while ordering them to aim lower. Later reports of Lieutenant Roupell winning a medal for being a slightly charming human being may have been an exaggeration. Similarly in World War II, US Brigadier and army analyst S.L.A. Marshall reported that during battle, only 15−20% of soldiers would actually fire their weapons. This should perhaps be considered sceptically, as later analysis hints that Marshall may have fabricated at least some of his results. A 1986 study by the British Defense Operational Analysis Establishment’s field studies division found that in over 100 19th- and 20th-century battles, the rate of killing was actually much lower than potentially should have been the case given the weapons involved. Some reports from the Vietnam War state that the average US solder fired approximately 50,000 rounds before they hit their target.

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman claims that psychologically this is a result of soldiers choosing to posture (falsely display active combat to attempt to intimidate or deter the enemy) rather than fight, flee or submit to the enemy. In this regard, posturing is chosen as the least costly (psychologically, socially and physically) of the four possible options available to a soldier in combat. In terms of Star Wars, we know that the Empire is not adverse to a bit of posturing with their giant shooty snow dinosaurs, Nazi-chic uniforms and ‘tis no moon space stations. Perhaps the legendary terrible aim of the Stormtroopers is simply due to a human tendency to try and look scary rather than murder another individual. Should they be renamed as ScaryLookingHugtroopers?

To even start to get an answer to this we need to at least get some idea of the accuracy of Stormtrooper aim. Luckily, counting exists and can be used get numbers for percentage purposes. In order to calculate the Stormtrooper hit rate, the number of shots fired by Stormtroopers in Star Wars Episodes II-VI (the ones with Stormtroopers and that aren’t currently in cinemas) was counted. The number of times that the Stormtroopers hit what they were aiming at was also counted.

SWCA_-_A_Stormtrooper_and_Chewie_(17201213072)

Let the Wookie in. Photo by William Tung from USA (SWCA – A Stormtrooper and Chewie) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Stormtroopers were identified as such by their armour. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were not counted as Stormtroopers when they were wearing said armour as a disguise. The Stormtroopers wearing the special armour in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (the ones dress as Arctic pepper pots) and in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (the ones with helmets like sad bulldogs) were counted as Stormtroopers. A hit was counted as such when a Stormtrooper launched or fired a projectile that hit what the Stormtrooper was judged to be aiming at. A miss was defined as when that stuff happened but the projectile didn’t hit the target. When the final resting place of a projectile was not seen on screen, it was presumed to be a miss, unless there was some kind of sound effect that hinted otherwise (like a character saying, “Ouch, this laser wound is relatively painful”). Only shots fired from hand weapons were counted. Shots fired from vehicles were not counted as some sort of computer-aided guidance may have been used. We know they have that and that’s it’s not as good as trusting your feelings when you’re a bit forcey.

It should be noted that the resulting Stormtrooper accuracy ratings will be rough estimates only. It’s quite difficult to count shots fired in the reasonably frenetic action scenes of these films and it is likely that the number of shots fired here is an underestimate. Also it’s not real and this may be a waste of time.

Table 1 illustrates the accuracy of Stormtrooper aim for each of the films and the overall Stormtrooper shot accuracy rate across all of the films. Stormtrooper aim appears to be most accurate (37.4%) in Episode III and least accurate in Episode IV. Otherwise Stormtrooper accuracy is reasonably consistent at around 7% across the other episodes with an overall accuracy of 9.8% calculated across all of the films. Of note is that Episode III is the only film where Stormtroopers can feasibly be argued to be on the side of good. It would seem that it’s being evil that’s bad for your shooting accuracy.

Table 1: Stormtrooper shot accuracy in the Star Wars films.

Table 1

However, many have noted that during the events on the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the plan was to let Princess Leia and company escape so that the Empire could locate the Rebels’ headquarters and blow it up along with the planet they were on. The Empire is apparently not that concerned about conservation. Or about killing lots of people. As such, it is likely that the Stormtroopers firing on the protagonists had been ordered not to kill their escaping prisoners. This may change the accuracy rate for this film as we suddenly have to count every miss in these sequences as a hit. So the space abacus (calculator) was broken out again and the Stormtrooper shot accuracy rate for Episode IV and the overall Stormtrooper shot accuracy was recalculated. Table 2 shows these new figures.

Table 2: Stormtrooper shot accuracy in the Star Wars films (assuming they were aiming to miss during those bits on the Death Star in Episode IV).

Table 2

Suddenly, the accuracy of Stormtroopers doesn’t look so bad. In order to determine if this is the case, it is necessary to compare these rates with others. Ideally, this would be with other accuracy rates from the Star Wars films (probably not Greedo’s) in order to remove any confounding windy, wobbly drunken influences that the Star Wars galaxy might have. I didn’t do this for reasons of time, illness, difficulty and laziness. However, we do have some shot accuracy rates from our galaxy. These are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Comparison of Stormtrooper shot accuracy with real-world examples.

We can see here that Stormtroopers don’t fair too terribly, with greater shot accuracy than archerfish and the average US soldier (aiming at a human-sized target) at 300 metres, but lower shot accuracy than a US sniper at 600 metres. So Stormtrooper aim suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. In terms of accuracy. Their aim is obviously “bad”. They tried to shoot Chewbacca!

If we discount the US sniper (unfair to compare to a trained specialist with more time and calibrated equipment) and the archerfish (a fish which spits water at land-insects in order to eat them and which is rarely found in conditions of modern warfare) the Stormtrooper is four-times more accurate than our only remaining comparator, the average US soldier aiming at a human-sized target from 300 metres. If we accept that reduced soldier accuracy is due to posturing in favour of other combat choices, it suddenly seems that Stormtroopers are choosing to fight rather than flee, posture or submit. This makes Stormtroopers seem less human and more terrifying. Fitting soldiers for the Dark Side indeed and certainly not deserving of their reputation for inaccuracy! Unless they didn’t read the Death Star memo. Then, they’re just average.

 

 

Shocking evidence of stereotyping in Mr Men and Little Miss

UntitledI have very occasionally been asked the question, “Why are all Mr Men good and all Little Miss bad?” I’m sure this was meant to be rhetorical, with the underlying assumption that all Mr Men are good and all Little Miss are bad, but my admittedly limited recall was not in agreement with this statement. I was sure Little Miss Sunshine existed for start and unless exposure to her was the cause of skin disease, I didn’t remember her being bad as such. I also remembered Mr Uppity, a wealthy character who was rude to everyone and could potentially run for parliament as a member of the Conservative party. I don’t think he could be considered good per se.

For those who are unaware, the Mr Men and Little Miss are a series of semi-popular children books, originally written by Roger Hargreaves, which took shapes, gave them faces and one bit of a personality and asked us to enjoy ourselves by judging their actions. Luckily, their popularity meant other people had heard of these Euclidian protagonists. When I asked others about the Mr Men/Little Miss morality divide, the general response was not that Mr Men were good and Little Miss were bad, but that the characters as a group were sexist. It was generally felt that the characters conformed to harmful gender stereotypes. This is certainly understandable. For a start they all live in Misterland. The place they live in is actually named just after the males of the population. It’s like if the countries were called Manada, Mance or Oman. Which is obviously ridiculous. Secondly, the female characters’, the Little Miss’, creation began in 1981, much later than the Mr Men, whose creation began in 1971. I don’t know the actual reasoning behind this, but it does somewhat make the Little Miss seem like an afterthought. Finally (for this list, by no means for all reasons why Mr Men/Little Miss might be sexist) why don’t the Little Miss follow the same naming convention as the Mr Men? Why aren’t they the Ms Women? Or something better? “Little Miss” seems a little demeaning, like describing something that’s demeaning as “a little demeaning.”

1024px-Clothing_Rack_of_Jeans

They’re jeans! They’re all essentially the same. Just like people. Depth!   “Clothing Rack of Jeans” by Peter Griffin – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There is very little reason to even divide the characters based on binary gender. If they were real people, we could say that they each identify with a gender or different aspects of genders i.e. they all have different traits as people, and that would be fine. Except that these are characters which have been assigned a traditional gender and a specific characteristic. We don’t know how this decision is made other than the gendered title is not based on primary or secondary sexual characteristics. There’s nothing specific about the characters that even make them stereotypically male or female other than their names. They’re all just shapes with personalities. Technically I suppose this is true for most people.

So far these are all opinions based on perceptions. Perceptions, psychologically speaking, are prone to an enormous amount of bias. For example, Distinction Bias, where there is a tendency when considering two things to see them as more dissimilar when evaluating them at the same time than when evaluating them separately. Like when comparing different pairs of jeans in a shop and tiny differences are magnified, but really they’re all incredibly similar because they’re just blue trousers for crying out loud! Or potentially when comparing Mr Men and Little Miss. Or there’s Trait Ascription Bias; where individuals consider themselves to be variable in terms of behaviour and mood, while considering others to be much more consistent and predictable. To be fair, this may be understandable when it comes to the Mr Men and Little Miss. Our judgement on the relative goodness of Mr Men and Little Miss may therefore be influenced by such bias. Can the morality of these shapely (literally) populations be objectively examined?

Each book in the original Mr. Men and Little Miss series introduced a different title character with a single dominant personality to convey a moral lesson. The dominant personality trait was also their name. Luckily this is not how humans or Piers Morgan are named. To examine whether the Mr Men and Little Miss are separated by some sort of weird moral judgement, it should therefore be relatively easy to use their names to observe if there are any trends.

The populations of Mr Men (n=50) and Little Miss (n=37) were examined. Based on their names alone, each character was assigned a moral weighting of good, bad or neutral. For example, Little Miss Brainy was considered good, Mr Greedy was considered bad and Mr Bounce was considered neutral. These decisions were just made by me, which will almost certainly introduce a source of bias towards my own values, determined by upbringing, culture, socialisation and so on, regarding what’s good, bad and neutral. I could have attempted to correct this by hiring a suitably varied team of Hargreaves-trained research assistants and averaging their judgements, but I haven’t the money, time, inclination or money.

The proportion of the total population for each moral assignation was then calculated. No further statistical tests were performed to compare the two populations, as the numbers involved weren’t large enough to make these comparisons meaningful. Any differences observed can therefore be considered trends or as a real statistician might technically call them, “nonsense.”

As Figure 1 illustrates, contrary to what was originally proposed, there were fewer good (18 vs. 24%) and more bad (48% vs. 38%) Mr Men compared with Little Miss. So it would seem that generally Mr Men are (a bit) morally worse than Little Miss.

Figure 1. Moral Proportions of the Populations of Mr Men and Little Miss.

Figure 1

However, we know that what is considered morally good or bad changes over time. For example, it was formerly considered a moral failing to be left handed. This attitude is now agreed to be a bit sinister.  Previously there was a lot of public judgement as to the type of clothing women should wear. Nowadays, this is also done on social media. There may be one or two other examples in history. Perhaps the moral association of the Mr Men and Little Miss has also changed with time. To examine this, the populations of Mr Men and Little Miss were divided into new and old characters based on whether the book featuring them was published before or after 1990. This year was selected as a fairly natural cut-off as in 1988, Roger Hargreaves unfortunately died and his son, Adam, began writing and illustrating new stories and characters.

Figure 2. Moral Proportions of the Populations of Old and New Mr Men and Little Miss.

figure

 

Figure 2 illustrates that there are fewer good (10% vs. 24%) and more bad (56% vs. 48%) old Mr Men compared with old Little Miss. It can also be seen that there were fewer good (18% vs. 25%) and more bad (25% vs. 18%) new Mr Men compared with new Little Miss.

From a slightly different perspective we can also see from these data that (numerically at least) there are more good and fewer bad new Mr Men than old Mr Men and approximately the same number of good, but fewer bad new Little Miss than old Little Miss. So it would seem:

  • Mr Men have been historically morally worse than Little Miss and continue to be so into the present day
  • New Mr Men are morally better than old Mr Men
  • New Little Miss are more morally neutral than old Little Miss

Because we’re humans with prejudices and bias, it is easy to interpret these trends in a number of ways. For example, it may be argued that it displays the prejudice of the the Mr Men and Little Miss book series, with the Mr Men being allowed more complex characters and the Little Miss, where they have moral character at all, being relegated to the old “good, sweet and innocent” stereotype. Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little female polygons are made of. Without looking in greater detail at the actual traits assigned, it is difficult if not impossible to say what this may reveal; if there is any stereotyping present or if these trends are simply random.

It could be argued that rather than morals changing over time, these data show the change in morals between Roger and Adam Hargreaves. I don’t know either of them, so can’t really say anything in that regard, but I do know that books are rarely just produced by one person on their own and the differences will at least reflect the views of two teams.

Judgement across gender stereotyping is obviously more complicated than a seemingly simple good versus bad dichotomy. The idea of gender as a binary concept is laden with all sorts of complex and subtle stereotypes and comparisons. It may be possible to broadly determine if there are any obvious stereotypical comparisons by matching the names within the Mr. Men and Little Miss populations to see if they conform to any traditional gender roles.

To examine the roles of the Mr Men and Little Miss, the populations were examined to see if their names could be paired with a counterpart with the same meaning e.g. Mr. Birthday and Little Miss Birthday, with a counterpart with the opposite meaning e.g. Mr Messy and Little Miss Tidy, or if there was no counterpart e.g. Mr. Moustache. Where pairs were available, the moral weighting (good or bad) and the meaning of the names themselves were compared. Again, it was just me that was checking, so interpretation is potentially based on any prejudice I may have lurking within my poor tired brain.

Table 1. Matched and Opposing Mr Men and Little Miss Characters

Table 1

From Table 1 we can see that is was relatively more common for Mr Men to be matched with Little Miss than for them to be opposing. We should perhaps be pleased about this meagre hint of equality, although it is perhaps notable that the majority of the matching pairs may be considered bad characteristics.

Where the Mr Men and Little Miss are compared in terms of their opposite character, they seem to be reasonably balanced in terms of which group is good or bad. However, when we look at the actual words associated with the Little Miss (tidy, neat, helpful, scary) and Mr Men (messy, brave, mean) it begins to sound too much like the parents in a sitcom for us to be comfortable about the lack of gender stereotyping. The sitcom where the husband is the silly, humorous idiot and the wife is an attractive, home-based nag. I’m sure you know the one. However, these characters represent only 13% of the total pooled population. This is perhaps too small a proportion with which to judge all of the 2D people.

In summary, we have managed to get a few bits of information by looking at the total population of Mr Men and Little Miss. We know that the population of Mr Men contains more bad characters than the population of Little Miss and this is also the case historically. Pretty much just like with humans. We also know that stereotyping is likely present in this population, but we can’t say more without cooperation between more people. Pretty much just like with humans. Finally, we know that gender and how it can be used to stereotype is a complex issue (even the word gender means different things to different individuals) and that there is a lot of thought needed to advance many issues in this field. Pretty much just like with shapes with personalities.