We are not chimpanzees. Photo: Getty Images
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The sexist pseudoscience of pick-up artists: the dangers of “alpha male” thinking

We can mock the men in silly hats who claim to be experts in picking up women, but their weird anthropological worldview – of “alpha males” competing for “targets” – is a nonsense that has bled out into other sexist discourse. 

“[PUAHate] confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are.”

- Elliot Rodger, My Twisted World

[12:39 PM]: rape is low inhibition, DOM and alpha. its the ultimate DOM move

[12:40 PM]: what's your rape count

[12:40 PM]: rape is pretty beta

[12:40 PM]: if ur havent raped someone by age 22, ur prob a truecel [celibate] for life

[12:40 PM]: not rape rape, but date rape

[12:40 PM]: Not DOM enough

[12:40 PM]: date rape is the behavior of masculine blacks, and very alpha

[12:41 PM]: who is gonna be the next elliot rodger on this chat? i nominate greg

- An extract from a chatroom conversation between members of the now-closed PUAHate forum, as transcribed by Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan

Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter, was a member of the PUAHate forum. It was nominally a place for those who felt conned by the pick-up artist promise, and many of its members were rightfully suspicious of what they had come to see as snake oil. Yet PUAHate.com is now a dead link because many of its members reacted the other way - they blamed the women for not doing as they should, instead of the broken models of human interaction that they paid money for. They blamed women with a bile that gave Elliot Rodger a sense of belonging.

A "perfect gentleman", Rodger was driven by an immense sense of entitlement, and yet the surprising thing about his women-hating autobiographical manifesto is how little time he ever spends with any of them. Again and again he sets out to find a girlfriend by going to a local mall or park, sitting on a bench, and waiting. Apart from the female counsellor his parents pay to spend an afternoon with him, he never has a full conversation with a woman; he goes to a party, and stands in the corner, waiting for someone to talk to him first. His expectation was such that he felt his designer clothes, his BMW, even his bone structure marked him out as "a descendent of British aristocracy", a person who women should be uncontrollably attracted to for his obvious social value. He was, as he described himself in his final video, "the superior one, the true alpha male", and every woman in the world was thus in violation of his natural rights for ignoring him.

This attitude might seem alien to pick-up artists - by now, a recognisable pop culture stereotype, the subject of reality TV shows and bestselling books - and to those inside the community it might seem unfair to link them to a mass shooter. Pick-up artists, after all, are all about structuring as many opportunities to meet and seduce women as possible, in every kind of possible social situation. Yet it's not a coincidence that PUAHate was the first and only place where Rodger felt as if he was among people capable of understanding him.

Pick-up artists sell an ideology about women, and an odd one at that - cod evolutionary psychology and pop anthropology mashed together into a kind of brute forced seduction, or a quantified romance that approaches women like mechanical devices that can be debugged and reprogrammed. It takes the phrase “press her buttons” too literally, and assumes there’s a de facto biological Konami code that any man can use on any woman. Not for nothing has Neil Strauss, author of The Game, called it “the revenge of the nerds”.

(Arthur Chu’s “Your Princess Is In Another Castle” is also good at expanding on the nerd-romance trope of women as characters to be “won” by a determined hero, rather than being autonomous beings both capable of choice and deserving of respect.)

If you want to buy into this ideology, you can, for example, pay Erik von Markovik of Venusian Arts (better known as “Mystery”, perhaps the founding father of the modern industry) for literature, classes and boot camps that explore his patented Mystery Method. It uses something called the “M3 Model” of seduction:

Each step, broken down into further constituent steps, is designed to ease a woman into the idea of sleeping with a man she’s just met. (And I hope I’m not the only one appalled by the implicit threat in the penultimate step: “last-minute resistance”.) This is what is known in the business as “structured game”, though even proponents of the more improvisational “natural game” accept the need for some adherence to an overarching methodical narrative, some combination of attract/comfort/seduce.

The sine qua non of this narrative, or ideology, is “social hierarchy”. Much of it is framed by the idea of becoming the “alpha” within a group, or at least of understanding the hierarchy of a social situation enough to make sure that a man is valued enough to be a potential mate, literally by "demonstrating value". A PUA proceeds through his routine with the aim of ascending the hierarchy, which in turn inevitably gives a go-ahead for using further seduction routines.

As “encyclopaedia for pick-up artists” PUALingo.com describes it:

In animal hierarchies, the Alpha Male is the most dominant, and typically the physically strongest member of the group. For example, in wolf packs, the “alpha wolf” is the strongest member of the pack, and is the leader of the group. This position of leadership is often achieved by killing or defeating the previous Alpha Male in combat. Alpha wolves have first access to food as well as mating privileges with the females of the pack.

Social status among human social groups is less rigidly defined than in the animal kingdom, but there are some recognizable parallels. Although people don’t often engage in physical violence to achieve dominance, there are still recognizable leaders in different fields who have wide access to material resources and women.

Here’s Mystery laying out the same concept in one of his many, many training videos:

The apes are still living that way. They have complex social hierarchies, and so do we. If you can systematically demonstrate those three characteristics - again, they are leader of men, pre-selected by women, protector of loved ones - if you can convey and systematically demonstrate those characteristics, you will be the tribal leader. A woman’s brain is designed to align with the tribal leader of her community. Why? Because it improves her chances of survival and replication dramatically. She doesn’t even have to be with the tribal leader, she just has to hook up with one of his friends.”

Even when not explicitly citing this evolutionary psychology, most other pick-up artists will implicitly accept it by reference to concepts like “alpha behaviour”. Through concentration, meditation and training any man can shed his earthly beta skin and attain alpha enlightenment, like a horny Bodhisattva - motivated not by empathy for all living things, but a hard-on.

What makes someone alpha depends upon who is asked, but the rule of thumb seems to be it’s related to whatever constitutes mainstream, attractive heterosexual masculinity in Western society: standing up straight, wearing clean clothes, no spitting, presenting as physically and emotionally “normal”. It’s not necessarily about being physically strongest or smartest, but being strong or smart enough to usurp a rival’s position or to make oneself the only attractive option in the club. All the other stuff - the negging, the manipulation, the codification of body language into categories like “bitch shield” or “indicator of interest” - is built upon this idea.

This is an error of pseudoscience, as much a cousin of skull shape determining personality as it is an unloved child of the neoliberal doctrine of rational self-interest. It’s dangerous, too. It bleeds into the wider “men’s rights movement”, and to places like reddit’s nightmarish r/theredpill sub, where terms like alpha are a bedrock of the lingo and women are seen (without apparent awareness of the contradiction) as both intentionally disrespectful of men and witless automatons in thrall to their genetic programming. Women who deny men their due are feminists, and they must be feminists not because they value themselves but because they're broken, and hate men. It's a catch-all justification that reframes any female action that isn't male-centred as morally wrong: women are bitches, because they are.

It’s a mess, of course. At its root is the idea that the hunter-gatherer societies that existed before the Agricultural Revolution reflect our primitive, and undeniable, nature. That the mating rituals of 200,000 years ago are still there, in our bones.

There is, though, no rule for ape social structure. Gorillas live in troops of around a dozen individuals with a clearly-defined male leader, who earns his position based on strength. Chimpanzees have larger communities of twenty or more individuals, each with a position in a hierarchy that is subject to a kind of ape politics. Orangutans live alone. Bonobo society is polygamous - they mate with each other near-indiscriminately, bonding with each other through both heterosexual and homosexual sex. Males get their social status from the status of their mothers, and some believe that bonobo society is matriarchal. They are capable of empathy and altruism.

In contrast, we can be reasonably sure that prehistoric human societies were non-hierarchical, egalitarian and cooperative, as are the majority of today's hunter-gatherer societies that have survived, and that human nature still tends towards these instincts. They - and we’re not only talking homo sapiens here, but possibly also antecedents like homo erectus - are believed to have had strong ties beyond their bloodline, with individuals in a group caring for children who were not their own. Members of a society who were reproductively useless - such as women too old to bear more children - would have still been valued, as humanity was apparently not synonymous with reproduction or social status. Early art venerated the female, not male, form, and so matriarchal societies may have been common. As kinship was not the main motivation for cooperation, it meant language, technology and friendships spread within and between groups more easily. From computer modelling of social interaction, it appears that egalitarianism may be an inevitable consequence of human-level intelligence.

All of which is to say that if you’re going to do a dumb thing like resort to an is-ought fallacy to justify your sexism - should we start calling it scientific sexism, or is that too formal and dignified a label? - then at least get the first part right.

Research into what makes a human attractive is a bit strange, actually. Spraying yourself with a love phermone isn't going to work, but there is some element of smell involved. There's the aesthetics of body shape, and the degree to which intelligence plays a role. A model of the 1930s looks very different to a model of the 2010s - to say nothing of the myriad norms of gender and sexuality that exist in different communities around the world - so there must be something that shapes how we fancy people, but the nature/nurture interaction here is a foggy one. Weird Science's compliant superwoman is, I'm afraid to say, a fantasy.

(If we ever invent time travel, let's use it for something productive: drop pick-up artists in 17th century London, 7th century Pyongyang, 8th century Caracol and 14th century Timbuktu, give them a phrasebook, and let them test what really works.)

This might seem a bit of a fool’s errand, pointing out that self-help gurus - gasp - make stuff up. Yet, it bleeds. The days after the Isla Vista shooting, as PUAHate closed down and its members spread out to colonise other chatrooms and forums, there was debate about whether it was either a result of mental illness or a misogynist hate crime influenced by social pressures. The two are not mutually-exclusive. The widespread acceptance of the inferiority of other human beings can have terrible, unforeseen effects in shaping the people who grow to believe it. Reduce Africans to stupidity and strength, and it is a short leap to asserting a claim over them; reduce women to their genitals and "tribal" impulses, and it is a short leap to asserting a claim over them. After all, that's what an alpha has every right to do.

Amateur pick-up artist meetings, where they can swap tips and tricks, are known as "lairs". I've never been sure if it's really tongue-in-cheek or not.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

MAHMOUD RASLAN
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“I was frozen to the spot”: the psychological dangers of autoplay video

Videos that play automatically are now ubiquitous across social media, but the format leaves many viewers vulnerable to harm and distress.

Have you ever seen a dog being skinned alive? Witnessed a child, whimpering for his mother, getting beheaded? Have you watched a man, pinned down by two police offers, being shot multiple times in the chest and back?

A few years ago, if you answered “yes” to these questions, you might have been considered deranged. Possibly, you would have been on a list somewhere, being monitored for seeking out disturbing and illicit videos online. Now, you’re more than likely just a victim of social media’s ubiquitous autoplay function.

No one likes autoplay. Back in the Nineties, homepages often came with their own jaunty background tune that would automatically play, but it didn’t take long for this annoying and invasive practice to die out. Nowadays, when you click on a website plastered with noisy adverts and clips, you immediately click off it. But although users frequently bemoan them, autoplay videos remain a huge business model for social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

That’s fine, of course, when the autoplaying video in question is a bird’s-eye view tutorial on how to make nacho-chicken-pizza-fries (though even then, the videos might be gobbling up your data allowance without your consent). The problem arises when disturbing content is posted by users, and even media outlets, without any warnings or disclaimers.

“There are many incidents where the autoplay feature has affected me negatively,” says Sarah Turi, a 19-year-old college student from Boston, USA. Turi suffers from anxiety, and says that anything related to horror or gore can keep her awake for multiple nights on end. She has previously experienced anxiety attacks after viewing autoplaying horror movie trailers.

“Recently though, many of the videos that begin playing have to do with police brutality or terrorism or riots,” she says. “There was one incident where someone had shared a video of an execution. The video started playing, and before I could scroll away, I watched a man get beheaded by a terrorist organisation. It left me pretty shaken to say the least. I wasn't crying, but I was frozen to the spot. Even just thinking about it now leaves me feeling somewhat ill.”

Dr Dawn Branley, a health and social psychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use, tells me that autoplay videos on social media raise a variety of ethical concerns.

“Social media is more personal in nature compared to news channels and it is also often idly browsed with little conscious effort or concentration, and, as such, users may not be mentally prepared for the sudden appearance of a distressing video,” she says. “Suddenly witnessing a beheading, rape or graphic animal cruelty whilst scrolling through photos of your friends and family, holiday snaps, baby videos and wedding announcements may provide a real shock to the viewer.”

Branley says that, in her line of work, she has spoken to users who have experienced distress at photos of abuse and violence on social media, and speculates that autoplay video could only exacerbate this problem. She also notes that they can trigger vulnerable users, for example, people who suffer from eating disorders or PTSD.

Even those without pre-existing conditions can be negatively affected, however, as anyone who has seen disturbing footage before knows how it can pop into your head intrusively at any time and refuse to budge, remaining plastered to the edges of your skull. Even trolls are aware of this, as some tweet distressing footage at people, aware that it will autoplay.

In January 2015, Facebook responded to these issues by adding warnings to videos users flagged as graphic, meaning the footage wouldn’t autoplay and was preceded by a warning message. Viewers under 18 would be shielded from seeing violent content on their feeds. Yet just over seven months later, in August, autoplay meant thousands inadvertently watched footage of the shooting of TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

Remember when I said no one likes autoplay? That’s not strictly true. You have three seconds to scroll away from an autoplaying video before Facebook counts it as a view. In a world where Facebook, and the users of it, are desperate to tally up as many views as possible, autoplay is considered a smart business model.

“Autoplay video originated as a way to capture viewers’ attention and prevent them from ignoring or scrolling past website content,” says Branley. “The autoplaying nature of a video is likely to capture the viewers’ attention and may potentially be harder to resist watching – compared to a static image and text.”

For those profiting, it seems not to matter that some people who can’t look away are viewers like Turi, frozen on the spot by distress.

Because of how profitable autoplay is, then, many news outlets continue to upload sensitive footage that might better be suited on their website – a consensual click away. They might add their own pre-roll warnings, but Branley notes that these are easy to miss if the video is autoplaying. If you were online yesterday, you might have seen this in action, as footage of a boy – or rather the boy – in an ambulance, distressed and bloodied, autoplayed repeatedly across social media.

News outlets have been called out for this before, and have admitted their mistakes. In August 2015, New York Times social media editor Cynthia Collins told The Media Briefing that she wishes she’d added a warning to a video of men being shot and killed at sea. After backlash from their audience, she said:

“If we could do it all again . . . there would have been a discussion about whether or not we should upload the video at all. But if we decided to upload the video I absolutely would have added a warning.”

The video ended up on the website, and viewers had to click through a handful of warnings before watching it. News footage has always had the potential to alarm and distress, but at least in the past viewers had a choice about whether they watched it. Although many news outlets have guidelines on graphic content (such as, for example, the famous breakfast test), these haven’t always been updated for social media.

It’s important that users are made aware of potential solutions to this problem,” says Branley, noting that Facebook and Twitter include options in their settings to turn off autoplay, and your browser or phone may also allow you to disable all autoplay. “However, that does not detract from the moral obligation that internet platforms should consider when introducing autoplay.

“I would suggest that an ‘opt-in’ approach (where users are required to switch on the autoplay setting if they wish to enable this function) would be much more appropriate than the current ‘opt-out’ approach, which requires users to find the settings to switch off autoplay if they do not wish to use it.”  

This seems like the simplest and fairest answer. It’s hard to argue that distressing videos shouldn’t be posted on Facebook – last month, the footage of Philando Castile’s shooting dramatically shed light on police brutality – but it seems only natural that viewers should have a choice about what they watch.

“It is possible that autoplay videos could be used to raise awareness of sensitive topics and/or to grab users' attention for positive reasons like charity campaigns,” says Branley. “However, it is a fine line between raising awareness and distressing the viewer and what one viewer finds acceptable, another may find highly distressing. Therefore, care and consideration is required.”

Right now, both care and consideration are lacking. In its current iteration, autoplay is like Anthony Burgess’ Ludovico technique – pinning our eyes open and forcing us to watch violence and horror without our consent. There are things I know I never want to watch – the curb stomp in American History X, an Armenian weightlifter dislocating their elbow during the Olympics – that could be sprung upon me at any time. Why? Because someone, somewhere, profits.

“I don't think autoplay is necessary in Facebook,” says Turi. “I think that people should decide for themselves whether or not they want to watch something. And yes, I think that it should be banned.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.