Neoliberalism is creating loneliness

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze
Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

In Britain, men who have spent their entire lives in quadrangles – at school, at college, at the bar, in parliament – instruct us to stand on our own two feet. The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.

As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett has brilliantly documented, girls and young women routinely alter the photos they post to make themselves look smoother and slimmer. Some phones, using their “beauty” settings, do it for you without asking; now you can become your own thinspiration. Welcome to the post-Hobbesian dystopia: a war of everyone against themselves.

Is it any wonder, in these lonely inner worlds, in which touching has been replaced by retouching, that young women are drowning in mental distress? Arecent survey in England suggests that one in four women between 16 and 24 have harmed themselves, and one in eight now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder affect 26% of women in this age group. This is what a public health crisis looks like.

If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.

It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.

Studies in both animals and humans suggest a reason for comfort eating: isolation reduces impulse control, leading to obesity. As those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are the most likely to suffer from loneliness, might this provide one of the explanations for the strong link between low economic status and obesity?

Anyone can see that something far more important than most of the issues we fret about has gone wrong. So why are we engaging in this world-eating, self-consuming frenzy of environmental destruction and social dislocation, if all it produces is unbearable pain? Should this question not burn the lips of everyone in public life?

There are some wonderful charities doing what they can to fight this tide, some of which I am going to be working with as part of my loneliness project. But for every person they reach, several others are swept past.

This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.

This is not about Donald Trump: The age of decline, apple pie and America’s chosen suicide bomber

Voting for Trump, among other things, will be an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline

This is not about Donald Trump: The age of decline, apple pie and America's chosen suicide bomber
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a town hall with the Retired American Warriors, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, in Herndon, Va. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)(Credit: AP)

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

This is not about Donald Trump. And I mean it.

From the moment the first scribe etched a paean of praise to Nebuchadnezzar into a stone tablet, it’s reasonable to conclude that never in history has the media covered a single human being as it has Donald Trump. For more than a year now, unless a terror attack roiled American life, he’s been the news cycle, essentially the only one, morning, noon and night, day after day, week after week, month after month. His every word, phrase, move, insult, passing comment, off-the-cuff remark, claim, boast, brazen lie, shout or shout-out has been ours as well. In this period, he’s praised hissecret plan to destroy ISIS and take Iraqi oil. He’s thumped that “big, fat, beautiful wall” again and again. He’s birthered a campaign that could indeed transport him, improbably enough, into the Oval Office. He’s fought it out with 17 political rivals, among others, including “lyin’ Ted,” “low-energy Jeb,” Carly (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) Fiorini, “crooked Hillary,” a Miss Universe (“Miss Piggy”), the “highly overrated” Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle (“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”), always Rosie O’Donnell (“a slob [with] a fat, ugly face”), and so many others. He’s made veiled assassination threats; lauded the desire to punch someone in the face; talked about shooting“somebody” in “the middle of Fifth Avenue”; defended the size of his hands and hisyou-know-what; retweeted neo-Nazis and a quote from Mussolini; denounced the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs and products while outsourcing his own jobs and products; excoriated immigrants and foreign labor while hiring the same; advertised the Trump brand in every way imaginable; had a bromance with Vladimir Putin; threatened to let nuclear weapons proliferate; complained bitterly about arigged election, rigged debates, a rigged moderator, and a rigged microphone; swore that he and he alone was capable of again making America, and so the world, a place of the sort of greatness only he himself could match, and that’s just to begin a list on the subject of The Donald.

In other words, thanks to the media attention he garners incessantly, he is the living embodiment of our American moment. No matter what you think of him, his has been a journey of a sort we’ve never seen before, a triumph of the first order, whatever happens on Nov. 8. He’s burnished his own brand; opened a new hotel on — yes — Pennsylvania Avenue (which he’s used his election run to promote and publicize); sold his products mercilessly; promoted his children; funneled dollars to his family and businesses; and in an unspoken alliance (pact, entente, détente) of the first order, kept the nightly news and the cable networks rolling in dough and in the spotlight (as long as they kept yakking about him), despite the fact that younger viewers were in flight to the universe of social media, streaming services and their smartphones. Thanks to the millions, billions, perhaps trillions of words expended on him by nonstop commentators, pundits, talking heads, retired generals and admirals, former intelligence chiefs, ex-Bush administration officials and god knows who else that have kept the cable channels churning with Trump on a nearly 24/7 basis, he and his remarkable ego and his now familiar gestures — that jut-jawed look, that orange hair, that overly tanned face, that eternally raised voice — have become the wallpaper of our lives, something close to our reality. If he were an action film, some Hollywood studio would be swooning, because never has a single act gotten such nonstop publicity. We’ve never seen anything like him or it, and yet, strange as the Trump phenomenon may be, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that there’s also something eerily familiar about him, and not just because of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”

In a world where so many things deserve our attention and don’t get it, rest assured that this is not about Donald Trump. It really isn’t.

In terms of any presidential candidate from George Washington to Barack Obama, Trump is little short of a freak of nature. There’s really no one to compare him to (other, perhaps, than George Wallace). Sometimes his pitch about America — and a return to greatness — has a faintly Reaganesque quality (but without any of Ronald Reagan’s sunniness or charm). Otherwise, I dare you to make such a comparison.

Still, don’t be fooled. As a phenomenon, Donald Trump couldn’t be more American — as American, in fact, as a piece of McDonald’s baked apple pie. What could be more American, after all, than his two major roles: salesman (or pitchman) and con artist? From P.T. Barnum (who, by the way, became the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., late in life) to Willy Loman, selling has long been an iconic American way to go. A man who sells his life and brand as the ultimate American life and brand… come on, what’s not familiar about that?

As for being a conman, since at least Mark Twain (remember the Duke of Bridgewater and the Dauphin, who join Huck and Jim on their raft?) and Herman Melville (“The Confidence Man“), the charm of the — excuse the phrase under the circumstances — huckster in American life can’t be denied. It’s something Donald Trump knows in his bones, even if all those pundits and commentators and pollsters (and for that matter Hillary Clinton’s advisers) don’t: Americans love a conman. Historically, we’ve often admired, if not identified with, someone intent on playing and successfully beating the system, whether at a confidence game or through criminal activity.

After the first presidential debate, when Trump essentially admitted that in some years he paid no taxes (“that makes me smart”) and that he had played the tax system for everything it was worth, there was all that professional tsk-tsking and the suggestion that such an admission would deeply disturb ordinary voters who pay up when the IRS comes knocking. Don’t believe it for a second. I guarantee you that Trump senses he’s deep in the Mississippi of American politics with such statements and that a surprising number of voters will admire him for it (whether they admit it or not). After all, he beat the system, even if they didn’t.

Whenever I see Trump and read accounts of his business dealings, I’m reminded of what 1920s Chicago crime boss Al Capone told British journalist Claud Cockburn: “Listen, don’t get the idea I’m one of those goddamn radicals …. Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system. My rackets are run on strictly American lines. Capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if only we seize it with both hands and make the most of it.” Trump’s “rackets” are similarly “run on strictly American lines.” He’s the Tony Soprano of casino capitalism and so couldn’t be more American.

My father was a salesman. I grew up watching him make his preparations to sell. I existed at the edge of his selling universe and, though I thought I rejected his world, the truth is that, given the chance and under the right circumstances, I still love to sell myself. It’s addictive in the most American way. There was as well another aspect of that commonplace world of fathers I once knew and that I now recognize in Trump’s overwhelming persona: the bully. That jut-jawed stance, the pugnacious approach to the world, that way of carrying both one’s body and face that seems inbuilt and offers the constant possibility of threat — it was the norm of the world I grew up in. It was what fathers looked like (and must still in so many families). It was, in short, an essential part of the pre-Trumpian world, a manner, a way of being that The Donald has distilled into an iconically brutal version of itself, into not the commonplace bully — schoolyard variety — but The Bully. Still, at least to me, and I think to many Americans, it couldn’t be more recognizable and, I suspect, for people raised among the bullies, the thought of having such a bully in the Oval Office and speaking for you for once is strangely appealing.

Just in case you were wondering at this point, I’m serious: this is not about Donald Trump.

And yet, don’t believe that everything about The Donald is old hat and familiarly American. In this strange election season, there are aspects of his role that are so new they should startle us all. Begin with the fact that he’s the first declinist candidate for president of our era. Put another way, he’s the only politician in the country who refuses to engage in a ritual — until now a virtual necessity for American presidential wannabes, candidates and presidents: affirming repeatedly that the United States is the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable nation of all time and that it possesses the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.”

Undoubtedly, that by-now-kneejerk urge to repeat such formulaic sentiments reflects creeping self-doubts about America’s future imperial role. It has the quality of a magic mantra being used to ward off reality. After all, when a great power truly is at its height, as the United States was in my youth, no one feels the need to continually, defensively insist that it’s so.

Trump broke decisively with this version of political orthodoxy and it tells us much about our moment that he is now in the final round of election 2016, not in the trash heap of American history. His claim, unique to our moment, is that America is not great at all, even if he (and only he) can — feel free to chant it with me — make America great again! Add to that his insistence that the U.S. military in the Obama era is anything but the finest fighting machine in history. According to him, it’s now a hollowed-out force, a “disaster” and “in shambles,” whose generals have been “reduced to rubble.” Not so long ago, such claims would have automatically disqualified anyone as a candidate for president (or much of anything else). That he can continually make them, and make the first of them his T-shirt-and-cap campaign slogan, tells you that we are indeed in a new American world.

In relation to his Republican rivals, and now Hillary Clinton, he stands alone in accepting and highlighting what increasing numbers of Americans, especially white Americans, have evidently come to feel: that this country is in decline, its greatness a thing of the past or as pollsters like to put it, that America is no longer “heading in the right direction” but is now “on the wrong track.” In this way, he has mainlined into a deep, economically induced mindset, especially among white working class men facing a situation in which so many good jobs have headed elsewhere, that the world has turned sour.

Or think of it another way (and it may be the newest way of all): A significant part of the white working class, at least, feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go. Under such circumstances, many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them.

That is the new and unrecognizable role that Donald Trump has filled. It’s hard to conjure up another example of it in our recent past. The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all. And voting for him, among other things, will be an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline.

Think of him as a message in a bottle washing up on our shore. After all…

This is not about Donald Trump. It’s about us.

The Collective Unconscious Is Creating Creepy Clowns

People just want to be scared about something…

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / tobkatrina

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: There are no clowns skulking around America’s neighborhoods, looking for children to abduct.

Since the first reports of creepy, potentially murderous clowns began surfacing across South Carolina in August, there have been supposed sightings in at least 10 states, as well as parts of Canada. Social media has been recast in its timeless role as the Perennially Loud and Wrong Town Crier, helping spread misinformation and “clown threats” across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Inside HigherEd reports that clowns have appeared at “the universities of Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Miami, Missouri at Columbia and Texas at Austin,” as well as “Bloomsburg, Butler, Sacred Heart, Texas A&M, Syracuse Universities [and] Mississippi and York Colleges.” Yesterday morning, White House press secretary Josh Earnest actually had to answer a reporter’s question about how the administration is addressing the clown epidemic.

“I don’t know that the president has been briefed on this particular situation,” Earnest answered, presumably with a straight face, and even acknowledged it’s “something that I’ve read about in some of the news coverage.” He went on to suggest that the reporter check in with “the FBI and DHS and see what they have to say,” because talking to reporters about imaginary clowns is definitely a good use of federal agents’ time, I’m sure.

Most of the reports have been revealed as pranks, obviously. The New York Times noted late last week that at least 12 people had been arrested for “clown hoaxes,” and there have been multiple arrests since then. Other cases have turned out to be a combination of real clowns and irrational panic, as when a 12-year-old Virginia boy with autism dressed up early for Halloween, only to become the subject of a viral social media post and a local news segment. Somehow, police dispatched to all the remaining sightings have found no red noses left behind at the scene and not a single oversized floppy shoe for the crime lab to study. Benjamin Radford, whose books on urban legends and the paranormal include the recent Bad Clown, explains how the lack of forensic evidence is less about stealthy criminal clowns than overactive imaginations.

“The problem is that when police investigate, they never find anything,” he toldUproxx. “These mysterious phantom clowns that these children, and occasionally adults, report—they don’t exist. There’s never any evidence of them, and more importantly they never actually harm anyone. This is one of the keys to understanding the phenomenon. It’s always just missed. It’s always, ‘A clown lurched at me but I ran away.’ It’s a potential menace. It’s not an actual menace.”

The only mystery here is how long the clown menace will continue to be a story before it fades from popular consciousness, like satanic ritual abuse, recovered memories and razor blade-stuffed apples before it. Imaginary clowns aren’t the cause of the mass anxiety we’re currently experiencing, they’re just the latest symptom and manifestation of it—and not for the first time, either. Scary clown sightings have trickled in from around the country since the early 1980s, when “stranger danger” first became the national concern that launched a thousand social panics. But the question remains, after 30-something years of clown sightings here and there, why the sudden peak in reports?

“I believe that the surge in phantom clown sightings in 2016 are a reflection of the fears and uncertainties in American society at the present time,” Robert Bartholomew, who writes about social delusions, fads and popular myths, “I think they are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers in an increasingly urban, impersonal and unpredictable world. Phantom clowns are essentially the bogeyman in a different cultural guise.”

That sounds about right. There is a huge part of America that virtually runs on fear, even in the best of times. An astounding part of the population is adept at, and secretly in love with, scaring the shit out of itself and dreaming up justifications for a paranoia that’s already embedded in its consciousness. In the worst of times, that fear is intentionally rattled by those who recognize its usefulness for their own ends. These operators know that nothing grips the imagination of far too many Americans quite like an imagined monster, come to threaten your home and take your kids away. When a fear-prone populace finds itself in a particularly frightening cultural moment—for reasons real or imagined—the hivemind can run amok.

“I know people are fed up,” one Florida sheriff said at a news conference late last month. “They’re tired of seeing demonstrations and riots. They’re sick and tired of terroristic threats. Now they’ve got to deal with these damn clown things going on.”

That statement, which stops just short of a rant about “law and order,” makes it seem like this is all psychic collateral damage caused by Black Lives Matter and immigrants, in tandem with terrorists crossing across our borders pretending to be refugees. The quote is a particularly good example of the thinking and rhetoric that propels these moments of social panic into arising. It suggests the blame lies with some “other” (instead of faulty systems and power mongers) and helps rile up those who need only the slightest nudge to buy into the idea in a moment of social unrest and economic insecurity. The sheriff’s theory ignores that menacing cartoon clowns are a projection of the contrived fears of a populace that can’t connect its own traumatization with the people who use it against them and essentially retraumatize them for social, political and economic gain.

It also denies the fear of those who are afraid of very real things, from long-term state-backed terror to a rising tide of audible hate from multiple corners, and the way those issues might create an environment that’s inhospitable for everyone, even those who think it’s none of their concern. What’s more, it contributes to that fear in a way that pushes it toward a tipping point where the paranoia ultimately demands the projected, amorphous image of fear become fully embodied.

In the 1980s, bubbling hysteria about faceless marauding satanists eventually led to witch hunts that put real people in jail and ruined actual families and lives. If prankish teenage behavior becomes a reason for irrational national fear, punitive measures could follow. A case in Virginia that ended with two African-American teens being arrested and their mugshots splashed across the Internet for “chasing children while wearing a clown mask,” is a reminder of whose youthful indiscretions are most likely to count against them in the harshest way.

And like always, the hysteria feeds upon itself. Schools in Reading, Ohio, were closed after a woman claimed a clown physically attacked her. The Phillipsburg school district in New Jersey went into lockdown status after a “clown-related threat” appeared on social media. New Haven, Connecticut, schools announced a ban this Halloween on clown costumes and—wait for it—other “symbols of terror.” The police presence has been beefed up in Syracuse, Houston, St. Louis, and Winston-Salem, to name just a few places.

In Utah, police actually thought it necessary to use Facebook to gently suggest that maybe people should think twice before shooting at clowns. (Q: “Can I shoot or take action against someone that is dressed up like a clown?” A: “That’s not a simple yes or no question. It has a lot of variables to it.”) The police may be right, since there have been previous reports of people haphazardly firing guns into wooded areas where clowns were reportedly seen.

Yet, as Radford reminds us, “The fact is, to date, there are no confirmed reports of any clowns actually abducting, harming, killing [or] molesting kids. There just aren’t. There are zero.”

Amidst the other glaring reasons for the precipitous climb in clown hysteria, if you merely skim the surface of the fears plaguing the nation, is the season itself, which will culminate with the celebration of Halloween and the conclusion of a seemingly infinite and frightening election. There’s a chance the imagined clowns will pack up their imaginary cars and leave public consciousness with a proverbial whimper. All the better to make room for some other fabricated stand-in for American jitters about everything but the very real problems staring us in the face, before the clown car, at some point down the road, rolls back in again.

“By the end of November, it will become part of folklore,” Radford told Uproxx. “[But] this will happen again. I guarantee you this will happen again. It may be five years, it may be ten years, but someday, probably in my lifetime and certainly yours, there will be two or three more of these clown panics. They will be identical. There will be stories of clowns that are luring children. There won’t be anyone actually arrested for abducting kids.”

Why Clowns Creep Us Out

Creepy clowns have been terrorizing America.

Photo Credit: Elnur /

For the past several months, creepy clowns have been terrorizing America, with sightings of actual clowns in at least 10 different states.

These fiendish clowns have reportedly tried to lure women and children into the woods, chased people with knives and machetes, and yelled at people from cars. They’ve been spotted hanging out in cemeteries and they have been caught in the headlights of cars as they appear alongside desolate country roads in the dead of night.

This isn’t the first time there has been a wave of clown sightings in the United States. After eerily similar events occurred in the Boston area in the 1980s,Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist who studies the folklore behind mythical beasts such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, came up with something called “The Phantom Clown Theory,” which attributes the proliferation of clown sightings to mass hysteria (usually sparked by incidents witnessed only by children).

It’s impossible to determine which of these incidents are hoaxes and which are bona fide tales of clowning around taken to the extreme. Nonetheless, the perpetrators seem to be capitalizing on our longstanding love-hate relationship with clowns, tapping into the primal dread that so many children (and more than a few adults) experience in their presence.

In fact, a 2008 study conducted in England revealed that very few children actually like clowns. It also concluded that the common practice of decorating children’s wards in hospitals with pictures of clowns may create the exact opposite of a nurturing environment. It’s no wonder so many people hate Ronald McDonald.

But as a psychologist, I’m not just interested in pointing out that clowns give us the creeps; I’m also interested in why we find them so disturbing. Earlier this year I published a study entitled “On the Nature of Creepiness” with one of my students, Sara Koehnke, in the journal New Ideas in Psychology. While the study was not specifically looking at the creepiness of clowns, much of what we discovered can help explain this intriguing phenomenon.

The march of the clowns

Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years. Historically, jesters and clowns have been a vehicle for satire and for poking fun at powerful people. They provided a safety valve for letting off steam and they were granted unique freedom of expression – as long as their value as entertainers outweighed the discomfort they caused the higher-ups.

Jesters and others persons of ridicule go back at least to ancient Egypt, and the English word “clown” first appeared sometime in the 1500s, when Shakespeare used the term to describe foolish characters in several of his plays. The now familiar circus clown – with its painted face, wig and oversized clothing – arose in the 19th century and has changed only slightly over the past 150 years.

Nor is the trope of the evil clown anything new. Earlier this year, writer Benjamin Radford published “Bad Clowns,” in which he traces the historical evolution of clowns into unpredictable, menacing creatures.

A detail from one of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings.The Orchid Club/flickr

The persona of the creepy clown really came into its own after serial killer John Wayne Gacy was captured. In the 1970s, Gacy appeared at children’s birthday parties as “Pogo the Clown” and also regularly painted pictures of clowns. When the authorities discovered that he had killed at least 33 people, burying most of them in the crawl space of his suburban Chicago home, the connection between clowns and dangerous psychopathic behavior became forever fixed in the collective unconscious of Americans.

Following the notoriety of Gacy, Hollywood exploited our deep ambivalence about clowns via a terror-by-clown campaign that shows no signs of going out of fashion. Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s 1990 movie “It,” may be the scariest movie clown. But there are also the “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (1988), the scary clown doll under the bed in “Poltergeist” (1982), the zombie clown in “Zombieland” (2009) and, most recently, the murderous clown in “All Hallow’s Eve” (2013).

The nature of creepiness

Psychology, however, can help explain why clowns – the supposed purveyors of jokes and pranks – often end up sending chills down our spines.

My research was the first empirical study of creepiness, and I had a hunch that feeling creeped out might have something to do with ambiguity – about not really being sure how to react to a person or situation.

We recruited 1,341 volunteers ranging in age from 18 to 77 to fill out an online survey. In the first section of the survey, our participants rated the likelihood that a hypothetical “creepy person” would exhibit 44 different behaviors, such as unusual patterns of eye contact or physical characteristics like visible tattoos. In the second section of the survey, participants rated the creepiness of 21 different occupations, and in the third section they simply listed two hobbies that they thought were creepy. In the final section, participants noted how much they agreed with 15 statements about the nature of creepy people.

The results indicated that people we perceive as creepy are much more likely to be males than females (as are most clowns), that unpredictability is an important component of creepiness and that unusual patterns of eye contact and other nonverbal behaviors set off our creepiness detectors big time.

Unusual or strange physical characteristics such as bulging eyes, a peculiar smile or inordinately long fingers did not, in and of themselves, cause us to perceive someone as creepy. But the presence of weird physical traits can amplify any other creepy tendencies that the person might be exhibiting, such as persistently steering conversations toward peculiar sexual topics or failing to understand the policy about bringing reptiles into the office.

When we asked people to rate the creepiness of different occupations, the one that rose to the top of the creep list was – you guessed it – clowns.

The results were consistent with my theory that getting “creeped out” is a response to the ambiguity of threat and that it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get the chills.

For example, it would be considered rude and strange to run away in the middle of a conversation with someone who is sending out a creepy vibe but is actually harmless; at the same time, it could be perilous to ignore your intuition and engage with that individual if he is, in fact, a threat. The ambivalence leaves you frozen in place, wallowing in discomfort.

This reaction could be adaptive, something humans have evolved to feel, with being “creeped out” a way to maintain vigilance during a situation that could be dangerous.

Why clowns set off our creep alert

In light of our study’s results, it is not at all surprising that we find them to be creepy.

Rami Nader is a Canadian psychologist who studies coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns. Nader believes that clown phobias are fueled by the fact that clowns wear makeup and disguises that hide their true identities and feelings.

This is perfectly consistent with my hypothesis that it is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really? And they’re mischievous, which puts people constantly on guard. People interacting with a clown during one of his routines never know if they are about to get a pie in the face or be the victim of some other humiliating prank. The highly unusual physical characteristics of the clown (the wig, the big red nose, the makeup, the odd clothing) only magnify the uncertainty of what the clown might do next.

There are certainly other types of people who creep us out (taxidermists and undertakers made a good showing on the creepy occupation spectrum). But they have their work cut out for them if they aspire to the level of creepiness that we automatically attribute to clowns.

In other words, they have big shoes to fill.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Frank T. McAndrew  is a Cornelia H. Dudley professor of psychology at Knox College.

Proven Wrong About Many of Its Assertions, Is Psychiatry Bullsh*t?

Some psychiatrists view the chemical-imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie.

Photo Credit: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock

In the current issue of the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, Australian dissident psychiatrist Niall McLaren titles his article, “Psychiatry as Bullshit” and makes a case for just that.

The great controversies in psychiatry are no longer about its chemical-imbalance theory of mental illness or its DSM diagnostic system, both of which have now been declared invalid even by the pillars of the psychiatry establishment.

In 2011, Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times, stated, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” And in 2013, Thomas Insel, then director of the National Institute of Mental Health, offered a harsh rebuke of the DSM, announcing that because the DSM diagnostic system lacks validity, the “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.”

So, the great controversy today has now become just how psychiatry can be most fairly characterized given its record of being proven wrong about virtually all of its assertions, most notably its classifications of behaviors, theories of “mental illness” and treatment effectiveness/adverse effects.

Among critics, one of the gentlest characterizations of psychiatry is a “false narrative,” the phrase used by investigative reporter Robert Whitaker (who won the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award for Anatomy of an Epidemic) to describe the story told by the psychiatrists’ guild American Psychiatric Association.

In “Psychiatry as Bullshit,” McLaren begins by considering several different categories of “nonscience with scientific pretensions,” such as “pseudoscience” and “scientific fraud.”

“Pseudoscience” is commonly defined as a collection of beliefs and practices promulgated as scientific but in reality mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method. The NIMH director ultimately rejected the DSM because of its lack of validity, which is crucial to the scientific method. In the DSM, psychiatric illnesses are created by an APA committee, 69 percent of whom have financial ties to Big Pharma. The criteria for DSM illness are not objective biological ones but non-scientific subjective ones (which is why homosexuality was a DSM mental illness until the early 1970s). Besides lack of scientific validity, the DSMlacks scientific reliability, as clinicians routinely disagree on diagnoses because patients act differently in different circumstances and because of the subjective nature of the criteria.

“Fraud” is a misrepresentation, a deception intended for personal gain, and implies an intention to deceive others of the truth—or “lying.” Drug companies, including those that manufacture psychiatric drugs, have been convicted of fraud, as have high-profile psychiatrists (as well as other doctors). Human rights activist and attorney Jim Gottstein offers an argument as to why the APA is a “fraudulent enterprise”; however, the APA has not been legally convicted of fraud.

To best characterize psychiatry, McLaren considers the category of “bullshit,” invoking philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 journal article “On Bullshit” (which became a New York Times bestselling book in 2005).

Defining Bullshit

What is the essence of bullshit? For Frankfurt, “This lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”

Frankfurt devotes a good deal of On Bullshit to differentiating between a liar and a bullshitter. Both the liar and the bullshitter misrepresent themselves, representing themselves as attempting to be honest and truthful. But there is a difference between the liar and the bullshitter.

The liar knows the truth, and the liar’s goal is to conceal it.

The goal of bullshitters is not necessarily to lie about the truth but to persuade their audience of a specific impression so as to advance their agenda. So, bullshitters are committed to neither truths nor untruths, uncommitted to neither facts nor fiction. It’s actually not in bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge can hinder their capacity to bullshit.

Frankfurt tells us that liar the hides that he or she is “attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality.” In contrast, the bullshitter hides that “the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him.”

Are Psychiatrists Bullshitters?

Recall establishment psychiatrist Pies’ assertion: “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” What Pies omits is the reality that the vast majority of psychiatrists have been promulgating this theory. Were they liars or simply not well-informed? And if not well-informed, were they purposely not well-informed?

If one wants to bullshit oneself and the general public that psychiatry is a genuinely scientific medical specialty, there’s a great incentive to be unconcerned with the truth or falseness of the chemical imbalance theory of depression. Bullshitters immediately recognize how powerful this chemical imbalance notion is in gaining prestige for their profession and themselves as well as making their job both more lucrative and easier, increasing patient volume by turning virtually all patient visits into quick prescribing ones.

Prior to the chemical imbalance bullshit campaign, most Americans were reluctant to take antidepressants—or to give them to their children. But the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants sounded like taking insulin for diabetes. Correcting a chemical imbalance seemed like a reasonable thing to do, and so the use of SSRI antidepressants skyrocketed.

In 2012, National Public Radio correspondent Alix Spiegel began her piece about the disproven chemical imbalance theory with the following personal story about being prescribed Prozac when she was a depressed teenager:

My parents took me to a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She did an evaluation and then told me this story: “The problem with you,” she explained, “is that you have a chemical imbalance. It’s biological, just like diabetes, but it’s in your brain. This chemical in your brain called serotonin is too, too low. There’s not enough of it, and that’s what’s causing the chemical imbalance. We need to give you medication to correct that.” Then she handed my mother a prescription for Prozac.

When Spiegel discovered that the chemical imbalance theory was untrue, she sought to discover why this truth had been covered up, and so she interviewed researchers who knew the truth. Alan Frazer, professor of pharmacology and psychiatry and chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, told Spiegel that by framing depression as a deficiency—something that needed to be returned to normal—patients felt more comfortable taking antidepressants. Frazer stated, “If there was this biological reason for them being depressed, some deficiency that the drug was correcting, then taking a drug was OK.” For Frazer, the story that depressed people have a chemical imbalance enabled many people to come out of the closet about being depressed.

Frazer’s rationale reminds us of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent, the title deriving from presidential adviser and journalist Walter Lippmann’s phrase “the manufacture of consent”—a necessity for Lippmann, who believed that the general public is incompetent in discerning what’s truly best for them, and so their opinion must be molded by a benevolent elite who does know what’s best for them.

There are some psychiatrists who view the chemical imbalance theory as a well-meaning lie by a benevolent elite to ensure resistant patients do what is best for them, but my experience is that there are actually extremely few such “well-meaning liars.” Most simply don’t know the truth because they have put little effort in discerning it.

I believe McLaren is correct in concluding that the vast majority of psychiatrists are bullshitters, uncommitted to either facts or fiction. Most psychiatrists would certainly have been happy if the chemical-imbalance theory was true but obviously have not needed it to be true in order to promulgate it. For truth seekers, the falseness of the chemical imbalance theory has been easily available, but most psychiatrists have not been truth seekers. It is not in the bullshitters’ interest to know what is true and what is false, as that knowledge of what is a fact and what is fiction hinders the capacity to use any and all powerful persuasion. Simply put, a commitment to the truth hinders the capacity to bullshit.

Trump’s Behavior Similar To Male Chimpanzee, Says Jane Goodall

Well, she’s the expert.

09/17/2016 08:10 pm ET

A Chimpanzee jumps at a glass screen as primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall
holds a press conference at Taronga Zoo July 14, 2006 in Sydney, Australia.

Donald Trump’s antics remind famed anthropologist Jane Goodall of the primates she spent decades studying in the wild.

“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Goodall told The Atlantic. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks.”

Goodall added, “the more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”

To date, we’ve not seen Trump drag branches or throw rocks, although anything is possible. Instead of physical displays, the Republican presidential nominee has stuck to verbal ones ― bragging about his penis, launching personal attacks and resorting to racist and sexist insults.


Trump is set to debate his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, on Sept. 26. When it happens, Goodall told The Atlantic she’ll be thinking of “Mike,” a chimpanzee she studied that displayed dominance by kicking kerosene cans, creating a racket that sent would-be challengers fleeing.

Unsurprisingly, Trump has already boasted that he will come out on top, telling The New York Times “I know how to handle Hillary.”

Whether his strategy includes childish tidbits has yet to be seen. Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, however, bets it will.

“Trump has severe attention problems and simply cannot take in complex information — he will be unable to practice for these debates,” Schwartz told the Times. “Trump will bring nothing but his bluster to the debates. He’ll use sixth-grade language, he will repeat himself many times, he won’t complete sentences, and he won’t say anything of substance.”

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

What Happens If Marijuana Is Legalized?

In order to succeed, the regulation of legal pot needs to be balanced.

A “legalize” poster for a referendum about marijuana is placed with mayoral posters in Washington, DC on October 31, 2014

Twenty years after legalizing the use of medical marijuana, California voters will decide whether to permit the use of recreational pot. This week, in a special series, Capital & Main looks at what will happen if Prop. 64 passes in November. “High Times: How Legalizing Marijuana Would Transform California” reports on how a legal cannabis industry will affect the environment, workers and the state’s economy.

When we speak of legalizing marijuana we are really speaking of the Great Cannabis Debate. Come November, Californians will vote on Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which could bring safety and security for both cannabis consumers and farmers, and the sales taxes accrued could provide much-needed revenue to our state. Let’s look at a short list of possible unforeseen ramifications.

Local mom-and-pop cannabis growers fear that if we legalize the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, its distribution will be taken over by large corporations, such as Seattle’s Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm that strategically invests in legal medical cannabis. It was founded in 2010 by MBAs from Yale and San Francisco State University with ambitions to create new brands of pot products. The company’s portfolio has expanded to include a partnership with the Bob Marley estate, just as the Marley family launched the cannabis brand Marley Natural.

In Ohio, a group known as ResponsibleOhio tried to carve out a monopoly by inserting into the state constitution language that only authorized 10 people to legally grow, process and sell marijuana. The Initiative, known as the Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative, or Issue 3, would have legalized marijuana, but commercial cannabis could have grown at only 10sites owned by investors in the ResponsibleOhio campaign. The Ohio initiative did not pass; by contrast, through California’s Prop. 64, our state’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry would be subject to the first-ever consumer protection regulations and licensure. Perhaps most important, its backers also point to the astronomical amounts of tax revenue they claim would stream in from what is now California’s largest underground industry.

Professor Mark Kleiman isn’t buying it, however. Kleiman, who teaches public policy at New York University, is an expert on drug and criminal justice policy. He is also an advocate for what he calls “grudging toleration,” a sort of middle ground between prohibition and legalization, one that favors heavy pot taxation, strict limits on promotion, age minimums, restrictions on public consumption and a personal quantity limit.

“It is as much of a pipe-dream as the lottery,” Kleiman, told me about legalized pot’s increase of education funding. “They always say they’ll have lots of money for public schools, but the states do not spend more [lottery revenue] on public education – just look at Colorado.”

In fact, Colorado, whose voters legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012, last year experienced a boon in tax revenue, collecting $70 million off of marijuana sales—nearly double what was collected from that state’s alcohol sales. According to the fiscal impact statement for California’s Prop. 64, the net additional state and local tax revenues potentially range from the high hundreds of millions of dollars to over $1 billion annually. And, similar to Colorado, most of these funds would be required to be spent for specific purposes, such as substance-use disorder education, prevention and treatment. Although the ballot language approved by California’s Secretary of State claims passage of Prop. 64 will result in a windfall of money for “after-school programs,” it makes no mention of increased funds for public education itself.

Some people fear that Prop. 64 will increase marijuana use and are concerned about its potential marketing to minors. Yet the legalization of cannabis will require inspections of the product and establish packaging, labeling, advertising and marketing standards. The ballot measure states that the new law would prohibit the advertising of marijuana to minors. There are questions as to whether or not marijuana will take on an advertising model that mirrors that of alcohol or tobacco. Kleiman made an interesting point: “Why advertise at all?” he asked. This goes back to his model of grudging toleration, which favors strict limits on promotion. When asked about the potential inequities in the quality and marketing of marijuana to people in lower income neighborhoods, Kleiman replied, with some agitation, “If you’re asking me, ‘How many people are gonna be stuck with a bad cannabis habit and how many of them otherwise belong to disadvantaged groups?’ my answer is, A lot and most.”

In order to succeed, the regulation of legal pot needs to be balanced: Legal sales have to be high enough to destroy the black market, but taxes can’t be so high that illegal pot becomes much cheaper. Otherwise the heavy users—estimated to be about 80 percent of the market—will continue to buy illegal pot. (The inspections regime isn’t seen as enough of a draw since longtime marijuana users have been buying uninspected, “unsafe” pot already, probably with little demonstrable effect.) Counterintuitively, therefore, legal pot could result in a greater need for resource expenditure by law enforcement than advertised by Prop. 64’s backers.

Should the ballot measure pass, the state excise tax on the retail sales of marijuana will be equal to 15 percent of the sales price. This would seem to be a reasonable price increase for the ability to purchase pot without legal risk. There is a projected cost reduction in the tens of millions of dollars—to potentially exceed $100 million annually—related to the justice system’s no longer having to enforce certain marijuana-related criminal offenses, as well as ending the incarceration and supervision of marijuana offenders. Meanwhile, space in overcrowded prisons would suddenly be freed up for those convicted of violent crimes.

The initiative will also authorize resentencing and the destruction of records for prior marijuana convictions, including those of people who may have been arrested on possession or conspiracy to sell, but who had two prior felony convictions and the arrest proved to be their third strike. This raises a simple moral question: How does a society come to punish a person more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?

As Alice Huffman, the president of the NAACP has stated:

“Creating a legal, responsible and regulated framework for marijuana is a predominant civil rights issue and it’s long overdue. The current system is counterproductive, financially wasteful and racially biased, and the people of California have repeatedly called for it to be fixed.”

Two potential scenarios seem to lie ahead for California, should the legalization initiative pass. If Prop. 64 is poorly implemented, the cannabis industry could be corporatized, with state agencies only certifying a few powerful companies to grow and distribute pot, while putting smaller grow operations out of business. Raising the costs of cannabis to such a degree that poorer people are left to purchase lower quality, cheaper black market pot could lead to more or less the same number of cannabis-related arrests for lower income users as there are today.

The other scenario, though, could see the return of good-paying blue collar jobs in warehouses and factories – jobs that provide those who work in the cannabis industry with benefits and safe working conditions. (As opposed to the continued shuffling of blue-collar professionals into service industries throughout California’s boomtowns—including Silicon Valley, which experienced a historical tech explosion but whose service-sector employees have been priced out of the housing market.)

Then again, the reality may lie somewhere in the middle. Armed with the benefit of hindsight about how the legalization of marijuana is playing out in other states, California will have a better sense of what doesn’t work, even while getting a handle on what does work. These are the provisions that make Prop. 64 an attractive candidate for passage:

  • a moderate sales tax (with the exception of medicinal marijuana)
  • tax on cultivation
  • regulation against advertising to minors
  • legalization of possession and cultivation (although Prop. 64 limits possession to an ounce and cultivation to six plants)
  • has measures that prohibit the possibility of a monopoly
  • dedicates revenue to education (specifically, substance abuse education)

Ultimately the benefits of decriminalization, along with the revenues that could come from Prop. 64, far outweigh any concerns raised by its opponents. California is a state of dream seekers—we’re too innovative to continue to incur costs associated with policing personal habits, social rituals and medicinal remedies found in cannabis consumption.

Paul Tullis contributed research to this article.


Melissa Chadburn’s work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, WordRiot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and elsewhere. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) or follow her on twitter @melissachadburn.