Hating Mr. Collins

I saw “Pride and Prejudice” with my girlfriend yesterday. It was the 2005 movie adaptation, which we’d seen once before. We’ve also seen the 1995 BBC miniseries and the 2008 fanfiction-y meta-series “Lost in Austen”. So we were already quite familiar with the storyline and I could take a more distanced, analytical view of the whole thing.

I kept thinking of Mr. Collins, the awkward, sycophantic clergyman who proposes to Elizabeth in one particularly uncomfortable scene. I remembered that I didn’t quite understand his character the first time I saw the BBC series years ago. Why does everyone hate him so much? I mean, he isn’t a very appealing guy, but the degree to which the other characters are repulsed by him seemed just a little bit too much and it didn’t make sense to me.

I couldn’t help feeling sympathetic towards him because of this, especially considered how differently Mr. Darcy is portrayed: although he’s grumpy, wooden and somewhat rude (especially in the movie, less so in the miniseries but that’s because Colin Firth is congenitally unable to project unlikability) we in the audience (and Elizabeth) are drawn to him.

Darcy’s sins and flaws (at least in the first half) aren’t really lesser than Mr. Collins’s, they’re just different. There is something odd and somewhat unfair about how differently you’re obviously supposed to feel about the two. The degree to which others are drawn to vs. repulsed by is completely disproportional to the difference in how well or badly they behave.

Based on observable behavior, Darcy doesn’t deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt to the degree that he is and Collins doesn’t deserve to be the pariah that he is. Collins isn’t a great man but he isn’t a particularly bad one either, morally speaking. Yes, he’s haughty and oblivious to others but he certainly tries to be friendly and polite, which is more than you can say about Darcy. Collins is incompetent, not malicious.

I think the difference between Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy illustrate something about social status[1] and it’s not the same as and not a direct consequence of moral virtue (virtue here in the sense of behaving nicely and not behaving badly). Social status and moral virtue is, if not orthogonal, at least independent properties, and methinks[2] we’re a bit uncomfortable with this.

There is some just-world-fallacy-ing going on that makes us want to believe that people become admired/popular/appealing by being virtuous (being nice and not mean) and that unappealing people are so because they are morally bad[3]. Instead social status is determined by a whole host of factors (looks, wealth, power, sociability, skills, etc.), many of them irrelevant to moral virtue. Some study [citation actually needed because I can’t find it] I read suggest we tend to find good-looking people nicer even if they aren’t.

In a sense the unfortunate Mr. Collins is an archetype, representing the quintessential Nice Guy™ who makes the mistake of believing that being meek and unthreatening (and therefore above lots of people on the virtue scale by not doing anything mean) will make him socially (and romantically) appealing, or at least more appealing than mean people.

I suspect this common mistake wouldn’t be quite so common if we were less squeamish and more open about the fact that things don’t work that way; social status, popularity and appeal isn’t something you can reliably “earn” by being keeping a good nice-vs-mean ratio. But we aren’t open with it because it goes against our sense of right and wrong; we feel you should be rewarded for doing good, punished for doing bad and other reasons for rewarding and punishing people are immoral[4].

We’re okay with treating people differently as long as it’s based on what we consider to be moral qualities, while we feel guilty about treating people differently based on things like how they look or how much money they make. We pretend to ourselves and others that we don’t do that — leading to the unfortunate consequence of interpreting unappealing people’s behaviour in more unflattering ways because it reinforces our idea that we’re totally justified in avoiding them.

It’d be better if we admit that we’re not saints and we can’t be expected to be. We’d have fewer misunderstandings[5].


[1] A good way to define social status is to what degree someone evokes “approach” or “avoid” responses in other people.

[2] I want this word brought back.

[3] This may be a “self-fulfilling prejudice”: people judged unappealing might act rude and mean as a defense mechanism because it’s nicer to be disliked for something under your own control. I’ve come across cases that seem to be like this.

[4] There is a huge problem with seeing other people’s attention and affection as a punishment or reward, but I suspect we kind of can’t help but think of it that way when we look at things from a certain angle.

[5] Of course, there is another side to the argument. There always is. The movie The Invention of Lying makes a good point: if we can’t lie to each other and ourselves we may instead work to justify our negative feelings explicitly and reject unappealing people rudely without remorse. It’s a pickle.

Erisology, Take Two

[Note: This is not a post with new ideas, it’s just a shorter, more to the point explanation of what I mean by “erisology”, which I tend to mention quite a lot. I think its better to link to this stickied explanation from now on instead of my old post, not only because of length but also because my view of what erisology ought to be has changed somewhat since the original post.]

“Erisology” is a made up word for a made up academic discipline I think should exist. Built from the name Eris, the greek goddess of discord, it refers to the study of disagreement. I introduced the term in a post in January 2016, but this is a condensed version, intended to give an overview to those not interested in reading a meandering essay.

“Disagreement” can mean many things, but this is what I have in mind: A lot of online discourse is hostile and often needlessly adversarial (I trust no one needs to be convinced of this). I’ve got a lot of experience wasting time online and a lot of that experience is reading people arguing. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the severe dysfunction so much of online discussion exhibits is at least partly the result of a limited set of pitfalls that people tend to fall into time and time and time again. The same things happen in meatspace and traditional media, but the dawn of the internet and social media turned it all up to 12.

Erisology is the study of this dysfunction and, theoretically, the attempt to fix some of it by making people more aware of how it happens and how it doesn’t always need to happen.

To be extremely brief: for many reasons we don’t understand each other nearly as well as we think we do.

The field would be extremely cross-disciplinary, because I think you really need to bring together many of bodies of knowledge to make sense of something as thorny as “online verbal conflict”. It’s a funny chicken-and-egg problem that constructing the field of erisology would require some high-level erisology itself (understanding and harmonizing very different perspectives and paradigms).

Some examples off the top of my head:

The study of cognitive biases and how they affect our thinking, breaking it in particular predictable ways.

Traditional philosophy and its discussion of the nature of categories, objects and properties; a staggering proportion of online verbal conflict concern, at its core, some variety of the question of what category something belongs in. The pitfall here is that people act as though such questions have true answers when in most cases they don’t – making it possible for two people to both be right while contradicting each other.

Data analysis and its understanding of the relationships between models and data, clusters and categories, axes and properties. Statistical modeling and interpretation issues mirror a lot of the problems that arise when people use their own particular experiences to build models of how the world works (which later clash with those of others).

Cognitive and perceptual psychology, for insights in how we form concepts in the brain and how they affect our perceptions and interpretations of what we see, giving rise to differences between people we have a tough time understanding because they are so fundamental to our mental function they slip out of awareness. Also useful is how attitudes and opinions are sometimes the downstream result of ultimately physiological differences in perception and emotion.

Personality psychology, for differences between people that may create hard-to-comprehend, subconscious divisions.

Poststructuralist theory and its conception of language as being inherently slippery and devoid of ultimate, definitive meaning. Our intuitive blindness to this causes us to misinterpret things other people say without realizing it.

Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is partly useful because it’s a practice more than a science and as far as I know lack theory that grounds “what works and what doesn’t” in human psychology.

Anthropology and its examination of how many things we take for granted in our societies are non-obvious and somewhat arbitrary.

Literary theory and its treatment of narratives, their interpretation and how they cannot be definitive or claim absolute truth.

Epistemology, and how people take for granted different approaches to knowledge. I’m not talking so much about explicit differences like “personal revelation vs. scientific study” but more underlying differences like the balance between personal experience and statistics, empirical data vs. theoretical considerations. These differences are sometimes discussed but are present as an important factor in way more contexts than they are explicitly talked about.

Sociology and history and their theories of social construction, which are very useful when not overstated and used as a political bludgeon. They also have valuable insights about how the design of technology and institutions shape behavior.

Evolutionary psychology and social instincts, especially those related to intra- and intergroup conflict like argumentation, rivalry, social status, identity and dehumanization. An important aspect here is also recognizing that modern large-scale societies is an extremely unnatural social structure for humans and this gives rise to all kinds of weird effects.

Computer science, specifically insights from attempts to create artificial intelligence and the difficulties of modeling human concepts. Writing software also give you good habits, since it often makes you understand that accurately modeling reality is way more complicated that you first thought.

Not the purview of any particular field, but understanding reductionism and its discontents are important to a lot of erisology covering the often disappointing interactions between academic disciplines. Differing attitudes to reductionism vs. inherent semantics makes people find different kinds of explanations satisfactory.

I could go on, but that’s quite enough (I expect there are more useful bodies of knowledge that I’ve overlooked or don’t know about). In short, a lot of different research paradigms and philosophical frameworks are in play when people talk about anything even remotely abstract and/or ambiguous. And behind disagreement on even the most concrete things there is often one or several undissolved philosophical issues being discussed by proxy, and at the same time the discussion process itself is disturbed by all kinds of corrupting psychological and social influences.

An erisology research program would try to integrate basic insights and models from all these fields. It would involve describing and cataloging the kinds of issues that hide under the surface in dysfunctional discourse and the processes that make us unaware of them, contributing to the problem. Ultimately and hypothetically the goal would be to improve discourse by creating and spreading ideas and mental tools that work to defuse unnecessary conflict before it occurs, as well as clarify necessary conflict so we know what it’s really about.

For the original article, look here.

Varieties of “Black Mirror” Appreciation – A Statistical Analysis

[Note: This post contains spoilers for Black Mirror]

A few days ago I finished the last available episode of Black Mirror. If you haven’t seen the show, this post will make very little sense to you and I recommend closing this tab, watching the series (ONE EPISODE PER DAY, MAX. DO NOT BINGE.), and then come back after that approximate fortnight to read this.

For those who have seen the show but don’t remember every episode title, here is a reminder (plot descriptions from Imdb.com):

Season 1
The National Anthem
Prime Minister Michael Callow faces a shocking dilemma when Princess Susannah, a much-loved member of the Royal Family, is kidnapped.

Fifteen Million Merits
After failing to impress the judges on a singing competition show, a woman must either perform degrading acts or return to a slave-like existence.

The Entire History of You
In the near future, everyone has access to a memory implant that records everything they do, see and hear. You need never forget a face again – but is that always a good thing?

Season 2
Be Right Back
After losing her husband in a car crash, a grieving woman uses a computer software that allows you to “talk” to the deceased.

White Bear
A woman wakes up in a strange dystopian world with no memory, where everyone is glued to their phones and there are hunters out to kill her.

The Waldo Moment
A failed comedian who voices a popular cartoon bear named Waldo finds himself mixing in politics when TV executives want Waldo to run for office.

White Christmas
In a mysterious and remote snowy outpost, Matt and Potter share an interesting Christmas meal together, swapping creepy tales of their earlier lives in the outside world.

Season 3
In a future entirely controlled by how people evaluate others on social media, a girl is trying to keep her “score” high while preparing for her oldest childhood friend’s wedding.

An American traveler short on cash signs up to test a revolutionary new gaming system, but soon can’t tell where the hoot game ends and reality begins.

Shut Up and Dance
When withdrawn Kenny stumbles headlong into an online trap, he is quickly forced into an uneasy alliance with shifty Hector – both at the mercy of persons unknown.

San Junipero
In a seaside town in 1987, a shy young woman and an outgoing party girl strike up a powerful bond that seems to defy the laws of space and time.

Men Against Fire
Future soldiers Stripe and Raiman must protect frightened villagers from an infestation of vicious feral mutants. Technologically, they have the edge – but will that help them survive?

Hated in the Nation
In near-future London, police detective Karin Parke and her tech-savvy sidekick Blue investigate a string of mysterious deaths with a sinister link to social media.

I like Black Mirror, for some strange, masochistic, Stockholm-syndromic meaning of “like”. Most things on tv are disappointing in that they don’t surprise you, they work firmly within particular frameworks of genre and style. Some frameworks are more narrow and cramped than others (police procedurals or teen dramas barely leave place to stand), while others are more open. You can be ambitious and constantly work to break out of the previously established frames, but if you keep doing that over and over again you’ll likely to end up with a incoherent mess of a story (looking at you, “Lost”) unless you’re really awesome and have planned everything perfectly.

Black Mirror does it by cheating. It cheats by being an anthology, meaning you start over with a clean slate every time, never having any idea what you’re going to get. The episodes are all separate stories tied together by a common ethos and viewpoint more than anything else. They vary considerably in tone, feel, subject matter, aesthetics and genre. This has certain consequences for the fanbase; while everybody obviously likes the show, taste in individual episodes are all over the place and nearly every story manages to be divisive among fans, who nonetheless are united in their appreciation for the show as a whole.

This offers an interesting opportunity for soma data-driven erisology. I’ve touched upon a few times before here that I’m interested in people’s differing taste in art and stories and what it is, psychologically, that makes us prefer different things. “There is no accounting for taste”, they say. My reaction to that is something like: “Well why the hell not? Have you even tried? There is obviously some kind of explanation”. I won’t try to offer some explanations now, I’m not in a position to do that. But some exploratory work is possible, and Black Mirror is a great subject for it.

Black Mirror episodes are all different and the fans react differently to them, which means the set of 13 episodes are a small sample with quite a lot of variation in “story-DNA” terms. Divisive things can be used as clues to what defines people’s taste, but a single divisive movie, tv show or book don’t offer a lot of data — you only get one thing people differ on. What if you could get the same set of people to watch many divisive stories, and these stories were divisive in different ways, splitting people along different dimensions?

Usually this is difficult or impossible because people’s taste doesn’t just determine how they react to stories but which ones they seek out in the first place — and which ones they care to rate, making such data biased. That’s why its good to have a quite small set of  relatively diverse stories that you know everyone in the group has seen and can remember separately. Black Mirror offers not a perfect but a pretty good example.

I wanted to examine Black Mirror episode preferences to see if there was any interesting structure to it. When you browse threads on Reddit’s r/blackmirror where fans rank their favorites from top to bottom there is a remarkable amount of disagreement and with a few exceptions the rankings look almost random.

I copypasted data from a few of those threads, comparing usernames to avoid duplicates, and ended up with 89 full ranking lists. Ideally I’d have more but I didn’t want to start a new thread when there already were several of them. What did I find? Lets dig in.

First of all, which is the best episode? Here are they all, ordered from top to bottom by average rank (lower figures indicating higher positions).

Episode title Average rank
White Christmas 3.9
Fifteen Million Merits 4.4
Shut Up and Dance 5.0
San Junipero 5.4
White Bear 5.9
The Entire History of You 6.0
Be Right Back 7.2
Hated in the Nation 7.6
Playtest 7.8
Nosedive 8.4
The National Anthem 8.5
Men Against Fire 9.4
The Waldo Moment 11.5

Seems like, among Black Mirror fans hardcore enough to post their full lists on Reddit, “White Christmas” is the favorite. Note however that its average rank is only 4th place, far from a consensus. The community is far more in agreement about the outlier “The Waldo Moment” being the weakest episode, ranking 11.5 out of 13 on average. Interestingly, all three seasons were about equally popular, with averages 6.3, 7.1 and 6.2, respectively.

Since I’m interested in divisiveness and disagreement I also checked which episodes were the most controversial. Based on the discussions on Reddit, I suspected “San Junipero” would top the list, being hailed by many as the best of the series but strongly disliked by others for deviating from the shows’ usual ethos of pessimism and grimness. I also expected “The National Anthem” to be controversial, considering that fans often advise newcomers to not start with it even though it’s the first episode because its primeministerial pig sex puts many people off for some reason.

I was right. Here is the full list of standard deviations in rank, from most to least divisive.

Episode title Standard deviation
San Junipero 3.76
The National Anthem 3.52
Playtest 3.27
Fifteen Million Merits 3.25
Shut Up and Dance 3.22
Be Right Back 3.21
Hated in the Nation 3.12
White Bear 3.07
The Entire History of You 3.07
Nosedive 2.98
White Christmas 2.80
Men Against Fire 2.46
The Waldo Moment 2.29

Just looking at the standard deviations doesn’t quite do the data justice because we don’t really have intuitions for standard deviations the way we have for averages. What does 3.76 mean? Here is a figure showing the distribution of rankings for each episode, from best to worst. Note that every single episode has people ranking it in the top three (green) and bottom three (red), and a full 9 out of the 13 is both someone’s favorite and someone’s least favorite.


Ok, so there is a lot of variety. But is it all random and inscrutable or is there some kind of sense to the variation? Does liking one particular episode or episodes make you more likely to like another? I’d presume so, all kinds of recommendation systems for movies, books and whatever are built on that principle and I don’t think people’s preferences are random — there is accounting for taste.

Recommendation systems generally work with spotty and flawed data for reasons I described before, and Black Mirror episodes are an unusually clean data set (hopefully compensating for the small size of my sample) so odds are good we can find something.

I could look at correlations between the rankings of different episodes, but that would only give pairwise relationships. Instead I ran a statistical procedure called Principal Component Analysis, or PCA. What PCA does is to take a multidimensional data set (this set has 13 dimensions, one for each episode) and retain as much as possible of the variation in the set while reducing the number of dimensions by creating complex properties (“principal components”) that consist of weighted combinations of the raw dimensions. It’s technical, requires quite a bit of “data analysis literacy” to really get and hard to explain properly without pictures and way more than one paragraph. What it does, in layman’s terms, is look at all relationships at once and try to find the underlying axes along which the data varies the most.

I ran the analysis and found three components with eigenvalues significantly over 1 (that just means three strong dimensions that very probably are not random noise). By using these three combined properties instead of the full 13-dimensional rankings we can keep about 45% of the total variation, which is decent but not spectacular. Maybe more data would offer better results.

So without further ado, here is the first and strongest axis along which tastes vary. The numbers refer to how strongly each episode defines this dimension (1.000 is the theoretical maximum, 0.0 means complete irrelevance). The next issue is the interpretation of what the axes actually mean, and while PCA is “scientific”, interpreting the resulting axes is an art.

Shut Up and Dance 0.776
The Waldo Moment 0.482
The National Anthem 0.377
White Christmas 0.323
White Bear 0.272
Men Against Fire 0.131
Hated in the Nation 0.089
Playtest 0.044
The Entire History of You -0.136
Fifteen Million Merits -0.243
Nosedive -0.554
Be Right Back -0.589
San Junipero -0.708

So the most powerful pattern is that people who like “Shut Up and Dance”, “The Waldo Moment” and “White Christmas” more than others tend to dislike “San Junipero”, “Be Right Back” and “Nosedive”. This makes sense to me. The top 5 here are kind of grim and shocking (The Waldo Moment sticks out, but it’s quite cynical which I guess fits and also a bit wonky statistically because of its outlier status making the data highly asymmetrical which isn’t ideal for PCA), while the bottom 3 (and to a lesser extent the next 2) are gentler and softer, more relationship-oriented. If I was interested in opening up a jar of angry bees I might also guess that there could be something male vs. female about this axis.

This first axis explains 18% of the variation and is about as important as the second and third put together. The second and third are about equally strong. Here is the second:

Playtest 0,696
White Christmas 0,617
White Bear 0,286
The Entire History of You 0,148
Men Against Fire 0,143
Nosedive 0,026
San Junipero -0,003
Shut Up and Dance -0,008
Be Right Back -0,212
Fifteen Million Merits -0,234
Hated in the Nation -0,331
The Waldo Moment -0,389
The National Anthem -0,67

What this means is less obvious, but what stands out to me is that the top 2 and somewhat no. 3 and even less 4 and 5 all deal with mind games and terrifying, freakish mental experiences. “The National Anthem” and the others near the bottom are more about society and politics, more “extroverted”, you might say.

The third and final dimension is even harder for me to interpret.

Men Against Fire 0,67
Hated in the Nation 0,63
Be Right Back 0,219
White Christmas 0,13
San Junipero 0,13
Shut Up and Dance 0,065
White Bear 0,039
Nosedive -0,051
The National Anthem -0,193
Playtest -0,22
The Waldo Moment -0,309
Fifteen Million Merits -0,333
The Entire History of You -0,703

Ok, the top two are both kind of suspense-based. But so are the middle ones… They’re critical of society in a broad sense, but so is “Fifteen Million Merits” and “The Waldo Moment”. Could there be something about season 1 vs season 3? The top two are the last of season 3 and the bottom 2 are from season 1. Could a certain group of people rate older episodes lower because they haven’t seen them for while and the impression has faded? Another possibility is genre-conformity. “Men Against Fire” is like an action movie while “Hated in the Nation” is like a police procedural, both down-to-earth style wise. The bottom three are a bit more mixed up and more difficult to parse. But I’m grasping now. Suggestions welcome.

So there is a pattern behind who likes what. But few if any people will recognize their own taste perfectly in any of the dimensions. I know I dont. I’ll end this post with my own list:

  1. San Junipero
  2. The Entire History of You
  3. Fifteen Million Merits
  4. White Bear
  5. Nosedive
  6. White Christmas
  7. Shut Up and Dance
  8. Hated in the Nation
  9. The National Anthem
  10. Be Right Back
  11. Playtest
  12. The Waldo Moment
  13. Men Against Fire

Yes, in the for-or-against “San Junipero” controversy, I come down on the “pro” side. It was such a wonderful catharsis after so much grimness (and the show surprised me yet again).  But note that “SJ” would not be that high up on its own, its place at the top (for me) depends entirely on other episodes in the series being so disturbing [1]. We earned that happy ending, especially after the double gut-punch of the two preceding chapters “Playtest” and “Shut Up and Dance”. After the end of the latter my first words were: “Sometimes I wonder why we’re even watching this show”.

I noticed that ranking all the episodes is really hard. No order seems fair because the episodes are so different as to be incomparable. And how do you rate the episodes that are extremely effective but makes you feel like shit? “White Christmas”[2], “White Bear” and “Shut Up and Dance” are outstandingly well put together but I don’t want to watch them again. It makes me think of Funny Games, a masterpiece that made me want to throw up my intestines.


[1] This is a common problem for any long story. Often the very best and most appreciated elements are the ones that stand out and deviate from expectations (especially in comedy, since subversion of expectation is kind of what humor is). But you want to do more of what works, so those things become less and less outstanding as you do them more and more and a feedback mechanism that amounts to “do more of whatever you do the least” is ultimately self-defeating. Its the mechanism behind Flanderization (Warning, tvtropes link) and the reason Family Guy cutscenes stopped being funny.

[2] I rank the fan favorite “White Christmas” somewhat low. Not because its not powerful or affected me, it is and it did. I think it’s because it contains three separate stories and I find that kind of messy. In general my personal preference is for focused, highly cohesive stories.