Friday, February 09, 2007

Don't Disconnect Your Smoke Detector

In a rambunctiously written article in last month's Psychology Today, Kaja Perina discusses the mating strategies of H. sapiens, noting that some scientists see a benefit in women assuming "all men are pigs." The opposite is true for men, or course: Assume all women are mating material. An error for a man is missing out on a willing woman. An error for a woman is a man who isn't going to stick around. Or so the scientists tell us:
Martie Haselton of UCLA and David Buss of the University of Texas, Austin, have empirically demonstrated the existence of these error-management strategies in men and women. Haselton likens a biased decision pathway to a smoke alarm that can make one of two errors. It can go off in the absence of fire -- a false positive: irritating, but far from lethal. The more dangerous error is the false negative, which fails to signal a real fire. "Engineers can't minimize both errors, because there's a trade-off," explains Haselton. "If you lower the threshold for noting fires, you're going to have more false alarms. Natural selection created decision-making adaptations not to maximize accuracy but to minimize the more costly error." Faced with uncertainty about people and predators throughout human history, we again and again took the safe road.
In other words, be wary of your instincts; just assume he's a jerk who wants only one thing.

The smoke alarm analogy reminded me of a scene in the movie Garden State, in which Carol (Jean Smart) tells her son Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and his friend Andrew (Zach Braff) that they shouldn't stay in the house because she took the batteries out of the carbon monoxide detector: "It was beeping all night, driving me crazy," she tells them.

Does this not take the analogy to a brilliant new height? What a sick, beautiful metaphor.


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