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.

Alan Schulz
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An Amazonian tribe is challenging scientific assumptions about our musical preferences

The Tsimane’ – a population of people in a rural village in Bolivia – are overturning scientists' understanding of why humans prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones.

It was 29 May 1913. Hoards of Parisians packed out the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Messrs Proust, Picasso and Debussy were in attendance. Billed for the evening was the premiere of Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work debuted by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The attention and conjecture focused on the theatre that day meant expectations were high. However, within moments of the piece beginning, all preconceived notions held by the audience were shattered, as what was unfolding in front of them was a musical tragedy unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

A bassoon hummed into the ether before ballet dancers stomped on stage; the music, unpredictable with its experimental edge, drove forth the onstage narrative of a young girl whose selection during a pagan ritual saw her sacrificially dance towards death. Stravinsky’s composition and the ensemble of the night caused the room to descend from laughter and disruption to chaos and uproar.

The employment of dissonance – sharp, unstable chords – largely contributed to the audience’s disturbed reaction. Dissonant chords create a tension, one which seeks to be resolved by transitioning to a consonant chord – for example an octave or perfect fifth. These musical intervals sound far calmer than the chords which riveted the audience of The Rite of Spring.

Dissonant and consonant intervals find themselves as binary opposites; the frequencies at which notes played together vibrate determine whether an interval is consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals have simple mathematical relationships between them, but greater digression from that simplicity makes an interval increasingly dissonant.

It’s long been believed  both experimentally and anecdotally – that the preference among Westerners for consonant chords highlights a universal, perhaps biologically-rooted, leaning among all humans towards consonant sounds. If you were present at the introduction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on that night of furore in Paris, you’d find it hard to disagree.

There is, however, a growing movement against this consensus. Ethnomusicologists and composers alike argue that favouring consonance may just be a phenomenon that has evolved from Western musical culture. And following the visit of a group of researchers to a remote Amazonian society, these claims could well be grounded in scientific evidence.

Led by Josh McDermott, an MIT researcher who studies how people hear, the group travelled to a village in the Amazon rainforest called Santa Maria. It’s populated by the Tsimane’ – a group of native Amazonians whose rural abode is inaccessible by road and foot, and can be reached only by canoe. There are no televisions in Santa Maria and its inhabitants have little access to radio, meaning exposure to Western cultural influences is minimal.

The researchers were curious to see how the Tsimane’ would respond to music, in order to determine whether they too had a preference for consonant sounds over dissonant ones. To everyone’s surprise, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance; the two different sounds, to the Tsimane’ at least, were equally pleasant.

Detailing their research in a paper published by Nature, the group explains how the Tsimane’ people’s indifference to dissonance is a product of their distance from Western culture and music, removing any purported notion that humans are hard-wired to praise perfect fifths and fourths.

McDermott tells me that the Western preference for consonance may just be based on familiarity. “The music we hear typically has more consonant chords than dissonant chords, and we may like what we are most exposed to,” he says. “Another possibility is that we are conditioned by all the instances in which we hear consonant and dissonant chords when something good or bad is happening, for example in films and on TV. Music is so ubiquitous in modern entertainment that I think this could be a huge effect. But it could also be mere exposure.”

To fully gauge the Tsimane’ responses to the music, 64 participants, listening via headphones, were asked to rate the pleasantness of chords composed of synthetic tones, and chords composed of recorded notes sung by a vocalist. At a later date, another 50 took part in the experiment. They had their responses compared to Bolivian residents in a town called San Borja, the capital city La Paz, and residents in the United States – locations selected based on their varying exposures to Western music.

What made the Tsimane’ particularly interesting to McDermott and his group was the absence of harmony, polyphony and group performances in their music. It was something the researchers initially thought may prevent an aesthetic response from forming, but the worry was quickly diminished given the Tsimane’ participants’ measure of pleasantness on the four-point scale they were provided.

Unsurprisingly, the US residents showed a strong preference for consonance – an expected preference given the overrunning of Western music with consonant chords. Meanwhile, the San Borja and La Paz residents demonstrated inclinations towards consonant sounds similar to the US residents. The implication of these results – that consonance preferences are absent in cultures “sufficiently isolated” from Western music – are huge. We most probably aren’t as polarised by consonance and dissonance as we assume; cultural prevalence is far more likely to have shaped the consonant-dominant sounds of Western music.

McDermott raised the question about why Western music may feature certain intervals over others to begin with:

“One possibility is that biology and physics conspire to make conventionally consonant and dissonant chords easy to distinguish, and so that distinction becomes a natural one on which to set up an aesthetic contrast even if the preference is not obligatory. We have a little evidence for this in that the Tsimane' could discriminate harmonic from inharmonic frequencies, which we believe form the basis of the Western consonance/dissonance distinction, even though they did not prefer harmonic to inharmonic frequencies.”

There has been some criticism of this. Speaking to The Atlantic, Daniel Bowling from the University of Vienna said:

“The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full-blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading.”

Though the results from the Amazonian tribe demonstrate a complete refutation of previous assumptions, people's musical preferences from other cultures and places will need to be analysed to cement the idea.

With research beginning to expand beyond WEIRD people – those from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic background – the tastes in music of people the world over may continue to surprise, just as the Tsimane’ did.

The Rite of Spring, which was met with ridiculing reviews has now been canonised and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century. A Tsimane’ crowd on that tender night a century ago in Paris may have responded with instant praise and elation. With further research, the imagined Bolivian adoration of a Russian composer’s piece in the French city of love may prove music to be the universal language after all.