Listening to Sauce

Legend has it that the Gods of Olympus ate nothing but ambrosia, a heavenly food that mortals would never reach.  Today’s “ambrosia” consists of a few nuts, raisins, and maybe the chocolate morsel or two.  Ambrosia?  Food of the gods?  More like food of the chipmunks!

No, I’m convinced that those gods were eating tomato sauce.  Not any tomato sauce, but with onions, garlic, sausage, mushrooms, some cheese, and the lightest eggiest pasta ever.  That’s why they were so sleepy after meals!

It was recently announced that the Ragu and Bertolli brands were being sold by Unilever to a Japanese firm, Miskan.  Good for them, paying 3.5 times sales!  And with sales of 600 million in the US, that’s a lot of ambrosia.  But what does this say about behavior, and what can the sauce tell us?

Plenty, we only have to learn how to listen!  For instance, at my local high-end grocery store, there are 26 “facings” of these brands on the shelf.  There are probably 200 other facings of competitive tomato sauce, but I’m not worried about them.  Let’s listen to the Ragu.

For Ragu to make 600 million a year in sales, that means each of those 26 facings has to generate almost 23 million each!  That’s a lot of tomatoes!  Here’s where the listening comes in.

How does the Ragu do next to the Prego?  Are they generating 23 million per facing?  Perhaps the company that arranges things on the shelf for the grocery store is doing a better job for Prego than for Ragu!  Let’s compare their sales per facing for the amount of advertising they are doing, also per facing.

Or let’s think time lapse; what if there was a camera that took a picture at midnight every day?  And all we looked at was the distribution of tomato sauce in every frame.  Would we see the Ragu slowly grow over time?  Or would there be a see-saw battle between the Prego and Ragu?

Next time you’re at the grocery, and you’re thinking of eating like a god, think of tomato sauce. Then stand in front of the entire display, and listen.

What are they saying to you?


Standing on Rice

I’m minding my own business, happily reading about how the Chinese government is using underwater archaeology to study the wrecks of a 600 year old Chinese Admiral to further their expansionist claims.  Then, out of the blue, comes this article [1] that claims the reason the Chinese didn’t invent the Industrial Revolution back in 1000 CE (AD) was because they eat rice!

Wow!  Talk about not seeing that coming.  But it’s true!

The article claims our western culture of WEIRD people (a real term meaning Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) can thank its wheat-growing, flour-loving, bread-based lifestyle on inventing the Industrial Revolution back in the late 1700s.


No wonder our fair “science” of behavior doesn’t get very far.

You and I don’t have a lot of time together (I do try to keep these short) but here’s the condensed version of what Talhelm claims.  When given certain tests, wheat-growing chinese respond differently than rice-growing chinese.  What are these all-so-insightful tests?  Well, wheat-growers associate things “holistically” instead of in “classes.”  When drawing themselves and their friends as connected circles, “wheaters” make their own circle slightly bigger than the others.  And when describing how they would reward or punish relatives versus business partners, wheaters are likely to treat the partners more equally.

Really?  Rabbits and carrots instead of rabbits and dogs?  Bigger circles?  Don’t be so close to your family?  THAT’S why China had no Industrial Revolution?

Is it possible, just possible, that Westerners weren’t so choked by “thought police” of their day during the Renaissance allowing them to advance in fields such as physics, chemistry, and medicine?  It is possible, just possible, that deadly competitions between nations forced governments to invest and nurture pure research?  Is it possible, just possible, that our (slightly) more equitable distribution of wealth allowed for some amount of social encouragement of entrepreneurism, so that men like Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont and Wedgewood and Watt knew they could take a chance and possibly realize the associated reward?

Is it possible, just possible, that the things Talhelm is measuring are the teeniest tinyest differences that really don’t amount to much?  He’s grasping at straws?

This is science, not a side show.  Science shouldn’t leave even a shadow of a doubt.  Science is the process of allowing light into every conceivable crevice.  Yet here, in a prestigious magazine, is a “Chinese” article that explains why they didn’t invent the Industrial Revolution a thousand years ago.

Hmmm.  No possible political motives here, right?

Excuse me.  I’m making toast.


[1]  This article appeared in “Science” magazine on page 603 of volume 344, published 9 May 2014.  Its title is “Large-scale psychological differences within china explained by rice versus wheat agriculture.”  Authored by T. Talhelm and 6 others, with Talhelm from Dept of Psych at the Univ of VA, Charlottesville, VA, USA.


Time travel gone wrong

Understanding our behavior is not a task for the weak of heart.  In order to know what makes mankind tick, we have to peel away all the protective layers in order to get at the innermost mechanism.  And when we peer back in time, as we will in a few moments, we have to know that we might not like what we see.  We can’t let that scare us, because we are tough!  And the answers are going to be worth it.

The other reason we have to reach back in time is because that’s going to let us get a better understanding of where we are today, and where we might be tomorrow.  Time is like that, it allows us to see how things develop.  Grand time scales allow us to see our development on the largest scale, so that we can make even better predictions into the future.

Our first stop, ancient cultures about 4,000 years ago, such as: Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Harappan.  Dust yourself off and take a look around.  These are some of our earliest cultures, a time when gods ruled the land and monsters were real.  There was no understanding of health, and if a child was born unwanted, it would perish or be given away.  If that child was born deformed, it suffered until it died.  If the parents were merciful, they would kill it themselves.  This was not a bad thing, this was how people acted.  Children were plentiful, they were personal property, and they were expendable.

Next stop, only a few hundred years before the present.  Watch your step, and wear your mask.  We are somewhere in Europe, and the air is filled with smoke, because the industrial revolution is in full swing.  Take look inside that factory there.  See all the small hands busy at those machines?  Children.  Working long hours for meager pay.  By today’s standards this is cruel punishment, even for adults.  But here in this factory, they are happy to be earning pennies to take home to their families.  The good news is that if a child dies here, their parents may get a bit extra.  But the even better news is that the owner of the factory does not (technically) “own” the child.  He can’t walk over to a random kid and kill them.  Nor can the parents.  Society has matured to the point where those who murder children are considered criminals.  It’s alright to work them to death, and there is no such thing as abuse, but outright killing is frowned upon.

Step back into our contraption and take your mask off.  Yes, we’re back in our civilized and enlightened society.  I’m sure the air is perfectly safe.  And yes, children are also safe, in the historical sense.  It’s a very serious crime here to kill children, any children.  For one thing, kids are less plentiful than they used to be.  Another is that parents tend to love them more than they used to.  And there’s also that whole thing about educating them as an investment in the future.

You might point out, and rightly so, that there are still some cultures even in the present that don’t treat their children as well.  Some of the more radical and less mature cultures, we have heard, are killing and selling their girls, while also using some as fodder for their wars.  It’s true.  But overall children are at much less risk for getting murdered.

That’s time travel for you.  It allows us to see great trends quickly.

But what other trends are there?

Time will tell.


Funny Family Business

Anyone here know a family?  Did you come from one?  So did I.  Sometimes I wished I wasn’t, but overall it was a nice experience.  As a child there were many times I thought about running away and joining a circus, or the army, or any other family but mine.

Maybe you have your own family now.  How’s it going?  Mostly fun?  I sure hope so, because how much fun you have is up to you.

Here’s the rub, as far as studying behavior goes.  Your family is unique.  It’s an island almost all by itself.  Sure, you may visit a house of worship with other families, or belong to other such social groups, but most of the time it’s only your family.

All the rules and regulations that apply to behavior of groups have to apply to your family, too.  We don’t like to admit it, but a family is a very special kind of group.  In fact, we could argue that it’s one of the better inventions that evolution has thrown our way.

We need to learn all of these things so we can make a better family in the future.  The problem with evolution is that it’s just so darn slow!  If we wait for evolution to make a better family, it could take a million years.  Frankly, I don’t think we can afford the wait.

So, in order to learn better and faster, we should talk about things our families do.  But this is the funny part.  We don’t.  Almost everyone thinks that what happens in the family should stay in the family.  Shame things.  Hurt things.  Bad things.

This attitude does no one any good.  It protects the bad people, it tells the victims that they have no support, and it doesn’t allow any of us “do-gooders” to try and intervene or help.  My own extended family practices this form of self-inflicted pain, because my sister and her ex like to try and hurt each other by manipulating their children.  I see them suffer, and I know that their future happiness will suffer as well.  And I’m powerless to stop it.

Funny how that works.



Can a married man really have a mistress, or does SHE have HIM?

Let’s talk about sex bias in our culture today.  Interesting, yes?

As students of behavior we have to try and be as neutral as possible, at all times.  Who knows how our own bias may be acting to color our senses, and cloud our path to Truth?  And we want the truth!

Early this morning the radio was talking about a famous composer and “his mistress.”  I thought, that’s a pretty sight.  He had a piano, a favorite beer stein, and over in this room he has his mistress.


In any relationship people choose to be together.  Unless it’s some kind of backward “you are my property” sort of relationship, but let’s ignore those for now.  Are you in a relationship?  Do you consider your lover to be your property?  Or are you more the thankful type that thinks “my gosh, this lovely person doesn’t mind being around me and enjoys my company, I enjoy theirs, I think I’ll do something nice for them?”  I’m certainly the latter.  Still can’t believe my wife puts up with me.  Of course, anyone that knows us thinks the same thing.

We choose.  That mistress, long-dead and unnamed, chose to be with the composer.  Moreover, I’m willing to bet that she did her best to be noticed and be attractive to the man.  She probably spent time making her hair pretty, her face lovely, her clothing fashionable and her scent, divine.  We may possibly go as far as to say she SNARED him in her web!  Yes, he didn’t have a mistress, SHE HAD HIM!

So why didn’t the radio say “He was snared by a mistress?”  Does this make her sound evil and conniving?  Maybe she was?  What if they had a child?  Did he “make” her pregnant?  Maybe it was a joint decision?  Maybe SHE’S the one who made HIM with child!

And that’s the point.  To be objective observers, all we really know is that they seem to have been together long enough to be noticed, but not long enough to be considered married.  We don’t know who had the original designs on who, how they were brought together, or what kept them together.  And those are the important questions.

No, as a culture, we like to think that the men “have” their women.  Women put up with this misconception, but they know better.

Now, where’s my hot milk?  Oh yes, my wife is making it!