The Ghost of Your Ex: Country Music and the Law of Contagion
By Heath Shive
Country artist Jason Aldean has a song out called Drowns the Whiskey. He sings: "Maybe it's the bar or the stool I'm on/Maybe it's the band and the sad old song/ That keeps me buying rounds."
The "sad old song" is not literally making him drink. It's the association between the song...and her. This is actually a rule in psychology known as the Law of Contagion.
To the science! (And a sad old story)
Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time, I was crazy for a woman. I drove half-way across the state and back just to spend evenings with her! Crazy!
She told me that I had better like country music – it was a “deal-breaker.” I didn’t hate country music. It just hadn’t appealed to me earlier. But lo and behold, I came to like the stuff! Even put a country station on my car’s radio button.
But, the candle that burns twice as bright lasts half as long. A while later, she and I parted ways. Not long after, I was listening to country music…and I couldn’t stand it. Changed the music station on my radio button.
“Country music” itself was not responsible for my broken heart. I didn’t have a torrid affair with Reba McEntire or Miranda Lambert – though I would invite both of them to try (wink).
But she loved country music – therefore country music had been compromised.
Sounds crazy, but it actually has to do with an idea in psychology called the law of contagion – an idea that first got its start as a law of sympathetic magic!
Don’t believe me?
To the science and magic!
The Science of Roach Juice
Back in 1986, psychologists Paul Rozin, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff published a hilarious series of studies on the laws of contagion and laws of similarity.
In one experiment, students were asked to taste and rate 2 kinds of juice (apple and grape) from 2 different glasses. Afterwards, one juice glass was touched by a sterilized, dead cockroach and the other was touched by a plastic candle holder. Do I have to say it? The students rated the “roached” juice with intense dislike – even though, scientifically speaking the juice was fine.
But here’s the trick. Fresh juice was then poured into new glasses!
Whichever juice had touched the roach in the previous experiment was subsequently judged worse than the original rating!
This was fresh juice in a new glass – but the memory of contamination remained and conditioned the students’ judgments.
The Law of Contagion
The law of contagion states that a lasting connection is created between 2 objects that have been in contact with each other – or at least, if we “connect” them mentally. The law of contagion is generally ascribed to James George Frazer – author of the seminal work The Golden Bough.
It’s a magic trope. If an evil person dies in a house, then you get a haunted house. Or conversely, a saint’s bones or relics have benevolent powers.
But Rozin, Millman, and Nemeroff showed that there were psychological underpinnings to the idea, or that the “magic” involved was only a reflection of real and unconscious instincts.
Our ancient ancestors didn’t have hygiene science or even soap! Dangerous contagion was real and all around. It shouldn’t surprise us that an instinct developed to urge us in the right direction.
But that instinct can be evoked in crazy ways. And I was pretty crazy about her…once upon a time.
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Rozin, Paul & Millman, Linda & Nemeroff, Carol. (1986). Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 50 (4), 703-712.
Ice Age Ghosts and Their Groceries
By Heath Shive
Herbivores and plants have a tentative quid pro quo. Herbivores get food. Ideally, plants get seed dispersal. However, many herbivores - like rodents - eat seeds rather than disperse them!
No seeds, no future. That’s why some plants adapt defenses like toxic seeds. What we consider “spices” (e.g., black pepper) are really just seeds defending themselves.
Therefore, symbiotic plant-animal relationships are very specific. And some of those relationships could be over 10,000 years old!
To the plants...and their Ice Age ghosts!
The Case of the Useless Fruit
Years ago, in Costa Rica, ecologist Dan Janzen noticed that many of the larger tropical fruits were going uneaten, just rotting away.
Together Janzen and Paul S. Martin wrote a paper entitled “Neotropical Anachronisms” where they hypothesized that many fruit trees might still be making food for Ice Age megafauna (giant sloths, mastodons, mammoths, glyptodonts, etc.).
These great beasts were symbiotes. Now they’re extinct. But the trees still remember them and make Ice Age groceries to this day.
The Ghosts of Evolution
Connie Barlow’s book The Ghosts of Evolution explores this idea in depth. Her anachronistic examples include honey locusts, Osage orange, calabash, paw paws, persimmon trees and others. All of these plants produce large fruit harvests that go largely nowhere. They’ve had to develop alternate means to survive without Ice Age megafauna, and their numbers were dwindling as a result.
For example, the Osage orange produces a softball-sized fruit that looks like a green brain. It’s made of a latex-like material, and it tastes worse than it looks. No animal is known to eat this fruit. By the time European colonists arrived in America, the population was restricted to a small tri-state range around Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Humans now propagate some of these “anachronisms”. Osage orange trees make excellent natural fences for farms. Honey locust trees thrive in cities and arid climates to provide shade.
Noted ecologist Henry Howe critiqued the idea of anachronisms in his 1988 book Ecological Relationships of Plants and Animals. Though Howe thought the idea intriguing, he criticized the hypothesis on two points. First, if the megafauna were the seed dispersers, then how could the plants survive “for 500 years, much less ten millennia” after the Ice Age megafaunal extinction? Second, how could one even begin to prove this hypothesis?
But it should be remembered that even if megafauna were the primary dispersers, it doesn’t mean they were the only dispersers. For example, without the honeybee, flowering plants wouldn’t go extinct, but many flowering plants certainly would dwindle.
Besides, some plants find alternate means to survive. For example, some plants will send out root suckers to form nearby clone trees. Some of the oldest plants in the world have survived this way.
This hypothesis is by no means perfect, but it seems better than any other alternative explanation for all the “nonsensical fruit.” Kind of a lonely story, really. Smacks of unrequited love.
But my advice for these trees, or any lonely heart, is this: They are plenty of other symbiotes in this big crazy world! Good luck!
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Barlow, Connie. The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Howe, Henry F., and Lynn C. Westley, 1988, Ecological Relationships of Plants and Animals (New York: Oxford University Press)
Janzen, Daniel H., and Paul S. Martin, 1982, “Neotropical Anachronisms: The Fruits the Gomphotheres Ate,” Science 215: 19-27.
Is Love Just a Fantasy? Is That a Good Thing?
By Heath Shive
As one critic put it, Terry Pratchett was “the wisest and gentlest of teachers.”
Terry Pratchett is my favorite author. He had more than 85 million copies of his books sold, in more than 37 languages. Pratchett was also a knight in the United Kingdom!
But he’s most famous for his Discworld series, of which there are 41 novels.
Pratchett thought that Mercy and Justice were fantasies.
And he thought that was a wonderful thing, even an essential thing for people!
I would say the same about Love.
Want to know why?
To the Terry Pratchett!
Hogfathers and the Power of Fantasy
In Pratchett’s Discworld, magic is so strong that if enough people believe in something, then it becomes real. If enough people believe in a certain god, the god will pop into existence. Gods can also die from a lack of belief.
There are also Auditors – creatures of the Universe who keep the laws of Nature running smoothly. The Auditors hate life because life is sloppy, messy, and chaotic. But Death (who is a person) admires life – because he admires the way we continually try.
In the novel Hogfather, the Auditors set out to assassinate the Hogfather – a kind of Santa Claus that brings bacon, sausages, and hams to good boys and girls every winter.
Death and his step-granddaughter Susan set out to stop this. And they succeed. But at the end, Susan wants to know Why.
Why would Death care about whether children have a Hogfather to believe in?
Death explains: children need to practice believing in little fantasies (like the Hogfather), so they grow up to believe in even bigger fantasies, like mercy and justice!
Susan shouts, “They're not the same at all!”
But Death responds (in capital letters): “YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY…”
To Death, the universe gives us carbon, methane, water, etc. But there is no mercy or justice or love in the universe. Humans invented these concepts.
It is the very invention of these fantasies – including Love – that make us human!
Or as Pratchett’s Death says, these fantasies make humans “THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”
The Fantasy of Love
Without these fantasies (Love, Mercy, Justice, etc.), we cannot be human. We would just be another animal.
That is why a public education has to be about a common pool of fantasy. How else could large groups of people believe in the same concepts of freedom, equality, and justice?
Because a fantasy must be shared in order to grow.
Two people can share a great love – which means they both have the same fantasy at the same time. A few couples share this fantasy for a lifetime. The fantasy exists – it becomes real – as long as you believe in it.
And sometimes, one of those two lovers (or both) stops believing in the same love – the same fantasy – which leads to a reality called divorce.
The older that I become, the more I distrust the fantasy of Romantic Love.
However, the older that I become, the more I believe in the fantasies of Kindness and Compassion – which are also kinds of Love.
But the real question is this: What will you believe?
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Pratchett, Terry. Hogfather. HarperPrism, 1998.
The Power of Charisma: How Do They Do It?
By Heath Shive
Charisma projects outward from an individual and stimulates us. A charismatic person can seduce people one-by-one or on a massive scale.
Robert Greene – author of the The Art of Seduction – tells us that a Charismatic relies on the power of words because words are the quickest way to create emotional stimulation. Words can elevate, energize, and motivate.
But which words? And how?
Maybe charisma is just narcissism – extroverted and eloquent narcissism.
To the science!
Bragging Is Better?
In 1992, psychologists Lynn Miller, Linda Cooke, Jennifer Tsang, and Faith Morgan performed some studies on the nature of “positive” disclosure versus “boastful” disclosure. Both positive and boastful disclosures involve communicating your achievements, but boasting adds an element of competition and “one upmanship.” Boasting implies that you beat somebody.
In one of the studies, the researchers had the study subjects respond to characters who disclosed in either a boastful, positive, or negative fashion. The respondents rated both the boasters and positive disclosers as more competent than the negative “wimpy” (my word) disclosers.
Later, respondents rated the positive discloser to be more “socially involved.”
But the boasters were rated as more competent!
The Charisma of Popularity
In 2011, psychologists Mitja Back, Stefan Schmukle, and Boris Egloff performed a study on the first impressions that popular people make. They gathered 73 college students on their first day of class (so that they didn’t know each other). All the students had to introduce themselves individually in front of the class. Immediately after this introduction, the rest of the class evaluated the student (no pressure!).
Then, each student had to fill out a questionnaire at home which determined whether the student’s personality was – among other things – self-centered (narcissist) or self-transcendent (nice).
The most popular people in the class were of 2 types: extraverts and the self-centered. Extraverts were considered popular because they were seen as more fashionable, more self-assured, had a friendly facial expression, strong voice, and an original introduction.
Self-centered people were popular for the exact same reasons!
Perhaps at first, we can be attracted to self-centered people not because they are self-centered, but because they superficially seem to be like extraverts!
But whereas extraverts genuinely like other people, self-centered people view others as being inferior.
But Sooner or Later
In 1998, psychologist Delroy Paulhus performed a study on 124 college students, who were divided into groups. Each group contained a narcissist. At the end of the 1st meeting, the narcissists were considered intelligent, confident, and entertaining. The group seemed to enjoy their presence.
But by the 7th meeting, narcissists were not liked at all.
Robert Green warns that charisma is as volatile as the emotions it stirs. Too much charisma for too long creates fatigue, and a desire for calmness and order.
So when I hear someone say “charisma,” I think “narcissist who talks well…for now.”
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Back, M.D., Schmukle, S. C., & Egloff, B. (2010b). A closer look at first sight: Social relations lens model analysis of personality and interpersonal attraction at zero acquaintance. European Journal of Personality. 3, 225-238.
Miller, Lynn, & Cooke, Linda & Tsang, Jennifer & Morgan, Faith. (1992). Should I Brag? Nature and Impact of Positive and Boastful Disclosures for Women and Men. Human Communication Research. 18 (3). 364-399.
Paulhus, D. L. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1197-1208.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.