Why is early Christmas so annoying?

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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’.

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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

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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.

How unreliable are the judges on Strictly Come Dancing?

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That very clean glass wall won’t hold itself up. Photo by Dogboy82 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44203685

Strictly Come Dancing, one of the BBC’s most popular shows involving celebrities moving in specific ways with experts at moving in specific ways while other experts check if they’re moving specifically enough contains certainties and uncertainties. We’re not sure who will be voted out in any particular week. We don’t know know what the audience are going to complain about. An injured woman not dancing! I was furious with rage! We do know that Craig Revel Horwood will use the things he knows to make a decision about whether he likes a dance or not while saying something mean. We can be pretty sure what Len Goodman’s favourite river in Worcestershire, film starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman and Star Trek: Voyager character is. But can we be sure that the scores awarded by the judges to the dancers are accurate and fair?

In science, a good scoring system has at least three qualities. These include validity (it measures what it’s supposed to measure), usability (it’s practical) and reliability (it’s consistent). It’s difficult to assess the extent to which the scoring system in Strictly Come Dancing possesses these qualities. We don’t really know the criteria (if any) that the judges use to assign their scores other than they occasionally involve knees not quite being at the right angle, shoulders not quite being at the right height, and shirts not quite being able to be done up. As such, deciding whether the scores are valid or not is tricky. The scoring system appears to be superficially usable in that people use it regularly in the time it takes for a person to walk up some stairs and talk to Claudia Winkleman about whether they enjoyed or really enjoyed the kinetic energy they just transferred. In some ways, checking reliability is easier. Especially if we have a way to access every score the judges have ever awarded. And we do. Thanks Ultimate Strictly!

For a test to be reliable, we need it to give the same score when it’s measuring the same thing under the same circumstances. If the same judge saw the same dance twice under consistent conditions, we’d expect a dance to get the same score. This sort of test-retest reliability is difficult to achieve with something like Strictly Come Dancing. The judges aren’t really expected to provide scores for EXACTLY the same dance more than once. Otherwise you’d end up getting the same comments all the time; which would be as difficult to watch as the rumba is for men to dance. Ahem. However, you can look at how consistently (reliably) different judges score the same dance. If all judges consistently award dances similar scores, then we can be more sure that the system for scoring dancing is reliable between raters. If judges consistently award wildly different scores for the same dances, we might be more convinced that they’re just making it up as they go along, or “Greenfielding it” as they say in neuroscience.

To test this, all scores from across all series (except the current series, Christmas specials and anything involving Donny Osmond as a guest judge) were collated and compared. Below, we can see that by and large the judges have fairly similarly median scores (Arlene Phillips and Craig = 7, Len, Bruno Tonioli, Alesha Dixon and Darcey Bussell = 8). The main differences appear to be in the range of scores with Craig and Arlene appearing to use a more complete range of possible scores.

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Box plot (shows median scores, inter-quartile ranges, maximum and minimum scores for each judge)

A similar picture is seen if we use the mean score as an average, with Craig (mean score = 6.60) awarding lower scores than the other judges, whose mean scores awarded range from 7.05 (Arlene) to 7.65 (Len and Darcy). Strictly speaking (ironically) we shouldn’t be using the mean as an average for the dance scores. The dance scores can be classified as ordinal data (scores can be ordered, but there is no evidence that the difference between consecutive scores is equal) so many would argue that any mean value calculated is utter nonsense meaningless not an optimum method for observing central tendency. However, I think in this situation there are enough scores (9) for the mean to be useful; like the complete and utter measurement transgression that I am. At a first glance, these scores don’t look too different and we might consider getting out the glitter-themed cocktails and celebrating the reliability of our judges.

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Bar chart showing mean scores and variance for each judge.

In order to test the hypothesis that there was no real effect of “judge” on dance scores, I did a statistics at the data. In this case a Kruskal-Wallis test because of the type of measures in use (one independent variable of ‘judge’ divided into different levels of ‘different judges’ and one independent variable of ordinal data). And yes, it would be simpler if Kruskal-Wallis was what it sounded like, a MasterChef judge with a fungal infection. Perhaps surprisingly, the results from the test used could be interpreted as showing that the probability that the judge doesn’t affect the score was less than 1 in 10,000 (P< 0.0001). The table below shows between which judges the differences were likely to exist (P< 0.0001 for all comparisons shown as red).

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Table showing potential differences between judges in terms of scores they give to dancers

Thus it would seem that the probability that Craig isn’t have an effect on score is relatively small. In this instance, Craig appears to be awarding slightly lower scores compared to the other judges. The same could be said for Arlene, except if she is being compared to Craig, where she seems to award slightly higher scores.

So it transpires that the scores on Strictly Come Dancing are indeed unreliable. Arlene did and Craig is throwing the whole system out of alignment like a couple of Paso Doble doing a Jive at a Waltz. Tango!

Possibly not though, for a number of reasons. 4.) I am clearly not an expert in statistics, so I may have just performed the analysis incorrectly. 2.) If differences do exist, they are relatively subtle and are likely to be meaningless within individual shows, only coming to light (and bouncing off a glitter ball) when we look across large numbers of scores. That is to say, that a statistical difference may exist, but this difference likely makes no practical difference. A.) At least it’s not The X Factor.

Keep dancing. And doing maths.

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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.”

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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.

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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.

 

Why Pudsey Bear is awful: An annually pointless grudge.

A bear that isn't Pudsey. I wasn't sure on the copyright and didn't want to give him another reason to come after me. A bear that isn’t Pudsey. I wasn’t sure on the copyright and didn’t want to give him another reason to come after me.

Every year in connection with Children in Need I tell the story of why I don’t like Pudsey Bear. I’m told by my friends (who despite what I’m told by others, do exist) that it wouldn’t be a real Children in Need without this story. They’re humouring me of course, but humouring me is 92% of the work of being my friend, so that’s fine.  I apologise if you started reading this thinking it was a complex critique of the inadequate wealth redistribution of Children in Need or a political discourse on how if society were better we wouldn’t even require Children in Need.  I don’t know if the former is true and while the latter certainly is, there are people far better qualified than I am to discuss it. I’m afraid my story is a short, bitter, pointless grudge against a monocular bear associated with a worthy cause. If you like, at the end, you can tut and say “One night isn’t Children in Need, children are always in need.” Yes.

Are we sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

As a much younger man, a child even, I was ill and had been to the see a doctor. I can’t remember what the illness was. I imagine it was probably just a virus that had gone on a bit too long or possibly the ongoing inflammation of my pedantry gland.  Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the pedantry gland doesn’t exist. After leaving the clinic, in fact just outside the clinic, I did a manly collapse (fainted). On my trajectory towards the ground, I decided that my head should take a slight detour towards the wall. I broke my glasses. Like most people who wear them, (*narrows eyes at hipsters*) I need my glasses for seeing. As a result, this was almost literally adding insult to injury. Actually, I guess it was just adding inconvenience to injury. As I lay there, bewildered and pathetic, head hurting, glasses broken, I notice a blurry figure approach out of the blurry distance into the slightly less blurry foreground. It was Children in Need at the time and this figure was Pudsey Bear! He was obviously out collecting money for Children in Need. That being the thing that he’s in to. Who better than the mascot of Children In Need to help a child in need outside a healthcare professional’s building? Pudsey stepped over me and carried on walking.

I’m not a fan of Pudsey Bear.

“Perhaps Pudsey didn’t see you, his vision can’t be that good.”

“Why did he step over me and carry on down the street instead of tripping over me and carrying on towards the pavement?”

I’m not a fan of Pudsey Bear.

Another acceptable bear. Another acceptable bear.

It is known from studies into altruism, that the decision to stop and help someone is influenced by a number of factors. If people feel they are short of time, see someone is bleeding, think there are lots of people around so one of them will help (diffusion of responsibility) or simply don’t identify with the person who needs assistance, then they are much less likely to engage in altruistic behaviour (the bystander effect).

Perhaps Pudsey was late for an important bear appointment, was put off when he saw I was losing haemoglobin, thought one of the other people would help me and noticed I wasn’t a bear like him, so didn’t help. Perhaps Pudsey’s just awful.

I’m not a fan of Pudsey Bear.

I am a fan of the work done by Children in Need. They do good work that shouldn’t be necessary. So please give generously. Because Pudsey won’t.

Or there are lots of good charities, so you can pick one. You might as well, otherwise reading this stupid story about my ridiculous grudge against a visually-impaired ursine has been a complete waste of time.

Does Sean Bean Always Die at the End?

The Alpha Sean Bean, shown here to be still alive. The Alpha Sean Bean, shown here to be still alive.
“Sean Bean TIFF 2015” by NASA/Bill Ingalls. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons .

There’s a quote from a character in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, and J.R.R. Tolkein’s character from some book or other, that has been doing the rounds as an internet meme for quite some time: “War makes corpses of us all.”  Of course you all know it, it’s ridiculously famous, after all, one does not simply forget a Faramir quote. Much better than Boromir. In Sean Bean’s case however, the quote might as well be “appearing in a role in television or film makes a corpse of me, Sean Bean.” Sean Bean is well known for dying in films. So much so, that there exists a campaign specifically against the further onscreen killing of Sean Bean. At least, I think it still exists. It might have died.

Basically it is a fairly common assumption that if Sean Bean is in something, he will most likely not make it to the end. However, everyone knows what happens when you assume; you make a prick of yourself. Is it actually true that Sean Bean always dies? In psychology, confirmation bias describes the tendency for people to better recall information that confirms their existing beliefs than information that would refute them. The frequency illusion is where something (it can be an event or just an object) which has recently been brought to a person’s attention suddenly seems to occur or appear with greater frequency than it did before it had been noticed. This is also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon and once you know about it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. So it is possible that the appearance of Sean Bean’s repeated celluloid mortality is a function of some common cognitive biases rather than him actually ending more times than a Sunday furniture sale. The following information that was collected to test this may contain spoilers for Sean Bean projects. Unless you believe the appearance of Sean Bean in a cast list is in itself a spoiler.

Using some sort of internet search engine (if you want to find a similar one, you can look it up on Google) all of Sean Bean’s roles in film and television were listed to create a population of Sean Beans. From here forward, the collective noun for Sean Beans used will be “population” rather than the perhaps more common “can” or “cemetery.” Sean Bean’s roles in theatre or performing voiceover in video games were not included due to a combination of being too difficult to include, laziness and the words “Sean Bean” starting to lose all meaning. The actual actor Sean Bean (the Alpha Sean) was also included, as while technically it is an ongoing role, we do know with reasonable certainly that Sean Bean will die at the end of it. The Alpha Sean was not included in any cause of death calculations in case I end up as a suspect in a future murder investigation. Jupiter Ascending was not included for obvious reasons.

The number of times Sean Bean was dead at the end of a film/TV show and the number of times Sean Bean was alive at the end of a film/TV show were counted and used to calculate the incidence of death for the total population of Sean Beans. The incidence rate is the number of new cases of a disorder or death within a population over a specified period of time. This is commonly express in terms of per 100,000 persons per year. In terms of deaths, this in some ways can be seen as equivalent to the Mortality Rate. Some basic demographics, causes of deaths and intentionality of deaths were also calculated.

The demographics for the population of Sean Beans are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Sean Bean Demographics

Characteristic Sean Bean Numbers
N 75
Mean (SD) age, years 6,0810,851.05 (523,114,369.60)
Species, n (%)
Actor 1 (1.33)
Human 71 (94.67)
Lion 1 (1.33)
Portrait 1 (1.33)
God 1 (1.33)
Survival
Alive, n (%) 45 (60.00)
Dead, n (%) 30 (40.00)

The incidence of Sean Bean deaths across the total existence so far of Sean Beans (6000 BCE to 2072) is 4.85 per 100,000 person per year. The causes of Sean Bean death and intentionality of Sean Bean death are shown in figures 1 and 2, respectively. The most common cause of death was being shot by a gun. The best cause of death was fall from cliff due to a herd of cows. Most Sean Bean deaths were intentional (as a result of homicide) compared with accidental and orcicide.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Cause of Sean Bean death.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Intentionality of Sean Bean death.

The aim of all this Beanian death numbering was to determine if there was any truth to the common belief that Sean Bean always dies at the end. Examination of a fairly complete population of Sean Beans shows that this is not the case, with 60% of Sean Beans managing to survive the time it takes for many film and TV directors to tell a story. If you are a Sean Bean though, it seems you are most likely to die by being shot by a human. There may be some money to be made in a line of Sean Bean-specific bullet-proof vests.

So why is the belief that Sean Bean always shuffles off the mortal coil at the end so common? The application of confirmation bias to this has already been discussed, but for that particular bias to take effect, there must be an existing belief to confirm. The earliest manifestation of Sean Bean’s tendency for premature televisual corpse shenanigans that I could be found was approximately around his fourth appearance. However, at a preliminary glance, Sean Beans don’t seem to kick the bucket particularly often early on in the ascendance of Sean Beans to make any reputational impact.

If we divide the appearance of Sean Beans into tertiles (an ordered distribution divided into three parts, each containing a third of the population, not an aquatic reptile with a shell) and look at the proportion of deaths as time progresses, we get something that looks like figure 3.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Proportion of Sean Bean deaths by Sean Bean time tertile.

We can see that if 3 is the most recent tertile and 1 is the furthest in the past, then the Sean Bean death rate appears to be greatest in the middle of the population’s progression through time. In psychology, the serial position effect describes the tendency for people to recall items earlier (the primacy effect) and later (the recency effect) in a list the best, with items in the middle being recalled the least. This would not explain the Sean Bean always dies reputation, as in such a model we would expect more deaths in the first and last tertile. Besides, one explanation for the serial position effect is that earlier items are stored more effectively in long term memory than the other items, while more recent items are still present in working memory and are thus easily available for recall. This would only apply to these data if people experienced Sean Bean necrosis as a list in front of them, which most people (besides me) don’t. Even if the data matched a serial positioning explanation, it would be a stretch (i.e. wrong) to use it to explain the Sean Bean deceased at the finale reputation phenomenon.

Rise of the Nicole Kidmen would be a good episode of Doctor Who. Rise of the Nicole Kidmen would be a good episode of Doctor Who.

Characters don’t become instantly well known in popular culture. It takes time for a reputation to build and saturate society. In this respect, perhaps we can consider the middle tertile to be more akin to the starting point for a reputation i.e. Sean Beans will be more well known, with more opinions being formed about them. The Sean Bean death rate here is 52%, meaning that during this period Sean Beans were slightly more likely than not to die at the end. This may be enough to start the rumour of Sean Beans’ non-existence by the credits and establish a source for confirmation bias.

Characters don’t exist in isolation. They usually exist in a complex ecosystem of other populations. The Sean Bean population exists alongside the population of Bruce Willises (Willi?) and the population of Nicole Kidmans (Kidmen?) among others. Important data to consider would therefore be how often Sean Beans die in comparison to other populations. If the comparative death rate of Sean Beans is noticeably higher than that of other comparable populations, then this may explain the Sean Bean clog-popping conundrum. Future “research” should focus on this (I can’t be bothered right now).

It was suggested to me by KTBUG (kgwright73) that the popularity of the mode of presentation of Sean Bean would have an impact on the perception of his tendency for pushing up the daisies. It seems feasible Sean Beans die in more popular things and live in less popular things then the public perception would be that of a gentleman prone to leaving his life behind. To this end (where available) I took an average of lifetime box office takings for films where Sean Bean died and films where Sean Bean lived (figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4. Average lifetime box office takings by Sean Bean survival.

Figure 4 shows that films where Sean Bean shook hands with the Grim Reaper on average took more at the box office than films where Sean Bean continued respiring. If we use this as a crude measure of popularity (and it is very crude, subject to bias from missing TV shows and films where I simply couldn’t get the info) and impact on cultural awareness, then films where Sean Bean becomes an ex Sean Bean seem to have made a larger cultural impact. This could certainly be at least one source of the idea that Sean Bean always dies.

Please note, I am in no way suggesting that Sean Bean dying in it makes a film popular. As the old saying goes, “Sean Bean’s death correlation, does not prove film popularity causation.” You all know it.

In conclusion it would seem that Sean Bean’s reputation for always dying at the end is somewhat over exaggerated, with a death rate of approximately 40%. Sean Beans are most likely to die from being shot intentionally by a human or from being in the middle of their career trajectory. The Sean Bean Ex-Parrot Meme may be best explained by a high death rate at a time when Sean Beans were likely to be reaching their maximum prevalence in the public eye and by films which feature a Sean Bean death having made a larger cultural impact than films that feature a living Sean Bean at the end. These perceptions feed into confirmation bias. And then Sean Bean died.