Archive for July, 2010

Avoid ‘elderly’?

A journal editor recently scolded my co-authors and me for using ‘elderly’ as a noun:

Following the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual, we ask you to avoid using “elderly” as a noun.  This occurs in the first sentence of the abstract and throughout the text.  I see frequent use of “elderly” as an adjective, which is permissible, but many authors prefer references to “older people” or “older persons.”

Are there negative connotations with the word elderly?

If people who are in the upper, say, 95th percentile of the age distribution feel discriminated against because of their age, then it would make sense that the word used to describe them would eventually have a negative connotation.  As Katja Grace pointed out

…polite terms are constantly changed for concepts which are followed by unwanted negative connotations, such as terms for physically and mentally disabled people and ethnic and racial minorities. …the negative connotations people attach to the subject matter get attached to the word, so the word becomes derogatory and we have to get another one for when offense isn’t meant. So these words cycle much faster than other words.

But why is ‘older people’ better?

‘Older’ requires a reference group — older than whom?

To me, elderly is to older as obesity is to fatter.  It would be more offensive to refer to someone as a fatter person than it would be to refer to them as obese.  Why doesn’t the same hold for older vs. elderly?


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One thing that I am still quite confused about is laughter.  Consider two examples:

  • We laugh when people fall down or get hit by a ball in the groin, but only if they are not seriously injured.
  • Most people hate being tickled, yet smile and laugh when it’s happening to them. (other great apes laugh when tickled too)

What would have been the fitness advantage in the ancestral environment?  I find this less obvious than I do for most other instinctive forms of expression (like crying, smiling).

So, I decided to read about laughter research.  Here is what I found so far.

Dr. William Fry says that laughter requires a “’play frame,’ which puts a real-life event in a nonserious context and allows for an atypical psychological reaction,” and an “incongruity” between what is observed and what was expected.

He also mentions the role that mirror neurons might play:

In the early 1990s the discovery of mirror neurons led to a new way to understand the incongruity aspect of humor. When we fall down, we thrash about as we reach out to catch ourselves. Neu­rons in our brain control these movements. But when we observe another person stumbling, some of our own neurons fire as if we were the person doing the flailing—these mirror neurons are duplicating the patterns of activity in the falling person’s brain. My hypothesis regarding the relevance of this mechanism for humor behavior is that the observer’s brain is “tickled” by that neurological “ghost.” The observer experiences an unconscious stimulation from that ghost, reinforcing the incongruity perception.

This suggests that laughter is an expression of sympathy, to some extent.  If we see someone fall down, we might first make a sympathetic “oooh” sound and even cringe, before laughing.  But why not just feel sympathy, without the laughter?

In An Introduction to Social Psychology, William McDougall theorizes that

…It is obvious that primitive sympathy, indispensable as it was for the life of the group, must have involved a heavy burden upon each member: for he had not only to bear his own mishaps and disappointments and failures, but also to share the distresses and pains of his companions.  … Some remedy was needed, an antidote which, while leaving men delicately responsive to all the more intense emotional expressions about them, should spare them the unnecessary suffering involved in sympathetically sharing all the minor pains and distresses which were the daily lot of each member of the group. … Nature seems to have solved it by inventing laughter, by implanting in each member of the race the tendency to laugh when confronted by the spectacle of any minor mishaps and distresses of his fellows.

Negative emotions (stress, depression) are correlated with cardiac risk.    Laughter, on the other hand, causes

promotion of the respiratory and circulatory processes and perhaps other vital processes, a general stirring up of the basal metabolic processes which is reflected in consciousness as euphoria, or the sense of increased well-being.  The opposite of euphoria is the sense of depression which accompanies a depressed condition of the fundamental vital functions; laughter removes this depression by exerting a generally stimulating effect throughout the organism.  But it does more than this, it diverts us; that is to say, it has the peculiar power of arresting the stream of thought and inhibiting all other bodily functions.  Even such automatised or deeply habitual bodily activities as walking and standing are apt to be interrupted by laughter.

As social animals we evolved to sympathize with other members of our group.  But, if we were to share their pain too often, it would have a negative impact on our health.  Laughter allows us to simultaneously sympathize and remain upbeat.  In that way, it’s somewhat like self-deception.


There are things about this theory which feel incomplete, but it seemed worth typing up so that I can refer to it later. I’m sure this is a subject I will revisit.

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As a research assistant, I  analyzed data on South African field workers.  To our surprise, workers were much more likely to get injured or die in a fire if the employer provided protective gear (clothing that was designed to be protective in fires).  We theorized that workers who wore protective gear probably ended up spending more time near the fire (the gear made them fear the fire less, to their detriment).

Similarly, Robin Hanson points out that boxing gloves made the sport of boxing more dangerous (boxers end up taking more hard blows to the head if gloves are worn).

One of his commenters pointed to a Malcolm Gladwell article, which suggests that American football has become more dangerous as helmets have improved:  “..the better helmets have become—and the more invulnerable they have made the player seem—the more athletes have been inclined to play recklessly.”

I’m sure there are many other examples.

As far as boxing goes, I think people are uncomfortable with the fact that they enjoy watching violence.  Watching a bare knuckled fight would be viewed as barbaric (low status).  But, if they wear gloves and perhaps other protective gear, then it’s just perceived as an athletic competition.  The boxers are worse off, but we feel better about ourselves.

Similarly, I suspect that football would be less dangerous if players didn’t wear pads or helmets.  Tackling would involve technique (see rugby) — the person doing the tackling would have to protect their own body.  Certainly you wouldn’t see men who can run a 40 yard dash in 4.4 seconds using their body like a spear.  But, we enjoy the big hits, and the pads and helmets make us feel like we care about the players.

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