Peter Ungar on Evolution’s Bite

UngarWe carry in our mouths the legacy of our evolution. Our teeth are like living fossils that can be studied and compared to those of our ancestors to teach us how we became human. In Evolution’s Bite, noted paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar brings together for the first time cutting-edge advances in understanding human evolution and climate change with new approaches to uncovering dietary clues from fossil teeth to present a remarkable investigation into the ways that teeth—their shape, chemistry, and wear—reveal how we came to be. Ungar recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Why do paleontologists care so much about teeth? What makes them so special?

PSU: Paleontologists care about teeth because oftentimes, that’s all we’ve got of extinct species to work out details of life in the past. Teeth are essentially ‘ready-made fossils,’ about 96% mineral, so they survive the ages much better than other parts of the body. They are special because they come into direct contact with food, and can provide a bridge to understanding diet in the past. We can tease out the details by studying their size, shape, structure, wear, and chemistry. Teeth connect us to our ancestors, and them to their worlds. I like to think of nature as a giant buffet of sorts. I imagine animals bellying up to the sneeze guard on this biospheric buffet with empty plate in hand. Teeth can teach us about the choices they make; and it’s those choices that help define a species’ place in nature. As the old adage goes, you are what you eat. Teeth are important because they can help us understand relationships between animals in the past and the worlds around them, and about their—and our—evolution.

Why do we have so many problems with our teeth today? Why do we get cavities, require braces, and have impacted wisdom teeth?

PSU: Think about how extraordinary your teeth are. They have to break food, without being broken themselves, up to millions of times over your lifetime. And they have to do it built from the very same raw materials as the foods you are eating. Nature is truly an inspired engineer, and it’s remarkable they last as long and function as well as they do. But they’re not perfect. Most of us today get cavities, and many of us have crooked front teeth, and impacted wisdom teeth. This is largely because of our diets. We eat mostly soft foods, loaded with highly-processed carbohydrates, especially refined sugars. Cavities form by erosion from acids produced by plaque bacteria. Feeding those bacteria diets high in carbohydrates, especially sugars, means more cavities. Also, when we eat soft foods as children, we don’t exercise our jaws enough to stimulate the growth they need to make room for all our teeth. The result is crowded lower incisors, uppers that jut out over the lowers in the front of the mouth, and impacted third molars in the back. It’s not that our teeth are too big for our jaws, it’s that our jaws don’t grow long enough to accommodate all our teeth. Most traditional foragers that eat tougher or harder foods have longer jaws, and so don’t suffer the sorts of orthodontic problems the rest of us have.

Do other species have these problems? If not, why are we so different?

PSU: I’ve seen cavities and evidence for gum disease in some non-human primates, particularly in species that eat a lot of fleshy, sugary fruit, but they’re much rarer than in us. There are very few early human fossils that provide evidence of dental disease in our distant past either. Again, it seems to be a mismatch between our diets today, and the foods that we evolved to eat. Our teeth are not designed for hamburgers and French fries, nor to be bathed in milkshake. If you want to see evidence of that mismatch, just smile and look in a mirror.

What was your motivation for writing a popular science book?

PSU: My PhD dissertation was 654 pages, mostly focused on a quarter of a square millimeter of the surface of some incisor teeth. Most academics are so narrow in their research focus that it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. I wrote this book to give myself the big picture, to give me an appreciation of the larger context into which my own work fits. Also, no more than half a dozen people actually read my dissertation cover to cover, and that includes my mother. Academics often feel like they’re speaking, but no one is listening. I wanted to reach a larger audience. This book at first glance seems to be about teeth – but it’s really about the biospheric buffet, and how environmental change over deep time swapped out items and choices available to our distant ancestors. The take-home message is that large-scale climate swings winnowed out the pickier eaters among us, and drove our evolution. Teeth are our window through which to see it. The most important message here is that climate changes, and species have to change to accommodate or die. That’s why we’re here. It’s a timely, important lesson.

As a scientist who has spent the last three decades studying evidence for the evolution of human diet, what do you think of today’s “Paleolithic diet” trend? And what was the ancestral human diet, anyway?

PSU: I’m not a fan. I like pizza and bagels too much. Still, there’s little doubt that our ancestors did not eat such things; so it makes sense that a discordance between the foods we evolved to consume and what we fuel ourselves with today can wreak havoc on our bodies. Try putting diesel in a car built to run on regular gasoline (actually, don’t). And people do lose weight when they cut refined carbohydrates and processed sugars from their diets. We could well benefit from eating more like our Stone Age ancestors, with menus like those in some popular diet books—you know, spinach salads with avocado, walnuts, diced turkey and the like. I am not a nutritionist, and cannot speak with authority about the nutritional costs of benefits of Paleolithic diets—but I can address their evolutionary underpinnings. Think about it this way. Any diet that drains the body of fat reserves means not meeting daily caloric needs. It is difficult to believe that nature would select for us to eat only foods that don’t provide the nutrients required to maintain the body. In fact, the whole idea of the Paleolithic diet is problematic. Even if we could (and we can’t) reconstruct the glycemic load, fatty acid, macro- and micronutrient composition, acid/base balance, sodium/potassium ratio, and fiber content of foods eaten at a moment in time in the past, the information would be meaningless for planning a menu. All these nutrients varied with food availability over space and time, as items on the biospheric buffet table were swapped in and out, so focusing on a single point in our evolution is futile. We’ve been a work in progress for millions of years. What was the ancestral human diet? The question itself makes no sense.

Peter S. Ungar is Distinguished Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics Program at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of Teeth: A Very Short IntroductionMammal Teeth: Origin, Evolution, and Diversity and Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins.

Masters of Craft: A trip to the barbershop

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about barbering. 

OcejoOne Monday in the early afternoon a young Asian man in his late 20s sits in Miles’s chair at Freemans Sporting Club, an upscale men’s barbershop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After greeting him, Miles asks what he would like to do. The man takes out his phone and shows Miles a picture of a model he saw online.

“Well, I can’t exactly do that for you, at least not now. You’ve got that coming down [points to longer hair on the side of his head] that I’d have to gradually get rid of. It’d look good in a couple of haircuts. Is that what you want?”

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

Miles turns to get his tools in order and then starts cutting his client’s hair. He makes basic chitchat to set him at ease: Has he ever been here before? (No.) What does he do? (Lawyer.) Where does he live? (Upper East Side.) After about ten minutes, Miles gets to the side of his head. Perhaps feeling more comfortable, the client talks about his hair.

“I’ve always had problems with that side of my head.”

“Yeah, a lot of guys do,” says Miles. “It’s where your whorl is. Do you know what that is?”


“It’s this circle on the top of everyone’s head. Yours is there. It’s kind of like where hair starts [on the head]. Most guys who have cowlicks have them because either their hair is too short or it’s going in the other direction [from the whorl].”


“So that could be why you’re having problems with it. Or it could be how your mom parted it for you when you were a kid, or sometimes you’re left-handed and trying to part on the other side.”

Of the four workplaces I studied, the upscale men’s barbershops are the most obvious places where we can see men performing masculinity. The barbers perform a “caring masculinity” for their clients, while clients go to these high-end shops to seek out a particular look or style to perform their own form of masculinity. Here, Miles is engaged in a “masculinity project.” He’s actively helping his client realize what kind of style would work for him, while simultaneously teaching him about why men usually get cowlicks and giving him an excuse for why he’s always had problems with his part (his mom may be responsible, or his handedness). But Miles is not just passing on knowledge of how to “do masculinity;” he is also working in a masculine-coded job that has been redefined today for a new generation of worker in service and manual labor, which is what he has in common with the people in the other jobs I studied.

Among the most vaunted jobs in today’s economy are those that require knowledge work in some form. These are jobs in high technology industries (IT, nanotechnology, biomedical research), high-end services like finance and design, and creative/cultural industries that require a large amount of human capital. Meanwhile, recent reports show that women-dominated jobs (health aides, counselors) are among the fastest-growing in today’s economy, while men-dominated jobs (manufacturing) are among the fastest-shrinking. Additionally, women have been shown to be more likely to enter male-dominated occupations, such as medical positions, than men are to enter women-dominated occupations, such as those that require caregiving and interpersonal service. In short, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for men to earn a living and achieve respect by using forms of traditional masculinity, specifically their bodies, and more pressure on them to acquire advanced degrees and/or work jobs that require them to interact with and even show empathy toward consumers.

But the jobs I studied represent alternatives to the strictly knowledge- or service-based jobs of today’s economy, and they offer their workers, who are mostly men, greater social benefits than the more common versions of these occupations. They are interesting hybrids: they allow men to use both their minds, as in the sense of style and knowledge Miles provides for his client, and their bodies, as in the technical haircutting skills Miles uses to achieve this style. Similarly, cocktail bartenders use their knowledge of mixology and skills in making cocktails, while whole-animal butchers use their knowledge of meat and artisanal butchery skills. They all must provide interpersonal service, but their interactions almost always circle back to the cultural knowledge. And they all perform their jobs for an audience of consumers in search of unique products, services, and experiences from cultural experts. These consumers validate the performances of these workers by listening to their knowledgeable advice on taste and style, and expressing their gratitude for what they’re receiving from them. Meanwhile, even though they do not regularly interact with consumers, since they aren’t part of the service industry, the craft distillers I studied also use their mind and bodies to manufacture special spirits products. Comments about what they make, directly from consumers and in the media, always refer to their products’ originality and the craftsmanship that went into them. In short, men in these jobs are able to claim a fading sense of middle class masculinity through work by performing physical labor, at the same time as they can achieve a greater amount of status by working jobs that require them to understand and communicate sets of cultural knowledge that have high cultural value in today’s city.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.

Steven and Ben Nadler on Heretics!: An enlightening graphic novel

NadlerThis entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world. With masterful storytelling and color illustrations by father-son duo Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form. These contentious and controversial philosophers—from Galileo and Descartes to Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Newton—fundamentally changed the way we look at the world, society, and ourselves. Heretics! tells the story of their ideas, lives, and times in a vivid new way. Read on for a conversation between Steven and Ben about the process of working together on a graphic novel, their favorite illustrations, and what they each learned along the way.

Ben:  So Dad, tell me, what gave you the idea for us to do a graphic book together on modern philosophy?

Steven: Well, my editor at Princeton University Press had asked me to write a big new history of philosophy, perhaps with some illustrations done by you. But I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to do. However, I was intrigued by the notion of doing something really creative with a history of philosophy in the seventeenth century, my specialty. And then, with you recently graduated from art school, I thought it would be really fun to do something together. And it was! Let me ask you: why did you want to do it?


Ben: It was an offer I could not refuse. I was an intern in Seattle just out of RISD, but not really employed as an illustrator. So I was hoping this book would be a good way to get that career started. I was also part-way through a graphic novel that didn’t seem to have an end in sight, so the idea of doing a more collaborative project that had some structure and a deadline was appealing. Plus, it was a chance to bond with my father! What were your expectations going into it?

Steven: I was hoping that we could find an engaging and entertaining way to introduce a broad audience to a really interesting period of philosophy and a fascinating group of philosophers. I want this book to be read not just by professional philosophers and philosophy students, but general readers of all kinds, including high school and college students. It had to be really accessible and tell a good story. The hard part for me, in writing the text, was to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, being too dry and academic, and, on the other hand, being condescending and patronizing. I had to find the right balance between academic writing and simplistic popularizing. What was the hard part for you?


Ben:  The hardest part was finding the right visualizations for some of the really abstract, conceptual and heady ideas that you wrote about. It’s one thing to draw biographical comics about philosophers, and another to try to illustrate Leibniz’s concept of “monads.”

Steven: Yes, I do remember your panicked phone call asking me what the hell a monad is.  We had to give a lot of thought to how to depict a monad visually, and I checked in with various colleagues to see if they had any ideas.  Everyone was kind of stumped.  I think you came up with the best solution.  The other tough challenge was how to illustrate a person’s soul (as distinct from their body). Again, I think you did a great job with that visually.  What’s your favorite page or chapter of the book?


Ben: The page where the two guys are getting pushed out the window was really tough, I had to spend a whole day trying to get the perspective right. That might be my favorite illustration, because of how much work went into it and seeing the final pay-off. I also tend to like the later pages, after I settled into my drawing habits and improved over the year and a half we worked on the book. I completely re-drew the first twenty pages or so after everything else was finished, just to try to maintain a consistent look. What about you? I’m going to guess it’s God waving goodbye as the earth gets on the school bus.

Steven: Yes, I love that image of God waving goodbye to the world.  And the illustration of the defenestration is wonderful, really bold.  I also like the corpuscle in motion, roller-blading with headphones, in the section on Gassendi, and the image from the Newton chapter showing the earth and the moon being tugged toward each other by gravity as they hold on to the edges of the panel.  In the end, did you enjoy the experience of illustrating philosophy? It’s hard to do, and I think you did a brilliant job—but then again, I’m your father, and a little biased.


Ben: Thanks, Dad! I did enjoy it, it was challenging and fun. I learned a lot about what makes a book come together. I especially liked researching and implementing all of the costume design and set pieces for 17th century Europe, it was a really immersive way to learn about western philosophy.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ben Nadler, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is an illustrator. They are the author and the illustrator of Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.


Nadler portraits

Oscar Fernandez: A Healthier You is Just a Few Equations Away

This post appears concurrently on the Wellesley College Summer blog.

How many calories should you eat each day? What proportion should come from carbohydrates, or protein? How can we improve our health through diets based on research findings?

You might be surprised to find that we can answer all of these questions using math.  Indeed, mathematics is at the heart of nutrition and health research. Scientists in these fields often use math to analyze the results from their experiments and clinical trials.  Based on decades of research (and yes, math), scientists have developed a handful of formulas that have been proven to improve your health (and even help you lose weight!).

So, back to our first question: How many calories should we eat each day?  Let’s find out…

Each of us has a “total daily energy expenditure” (TDEE), the total number of calories your body burns each day. Theoretically, if you consume more calories than your TDEE, you will gain weight. If you consume less, you will lose weight. Eat exactly your TDEE in calories and you won’t gain or lose weight.

“Great! So how do I calculate my TDEE?” I hear you saying. Good question. Here’s a preliminary answer:

TDEE = RMR + CBE + DIT         (1)                                                                                                                                                                  

Here’s what the acronyms on the right-hand side of the equation mean.

  • RMR: Your resting metabolic rate, roughly defined as the number of calories your body burns while awake and at rest
  • CBE: The calories you burned during the day exercising (including walking)
  • DIT: Your diet’s diet-induced thermogenesis, which quantifies what percentage of calories from dietary fat, protein, and carbohydrates are left over for your body to use after you ingest those calories

So, in order to calculate TDEE, we need to calculate each of these three components. This requires very precise knowledge of your daily activities, for example: what exercises you did, how many minutes you spent doing them, what foods you ate, and how much protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fat these foods contained. Luckily, nutrition scientists have developed a simpler formula that takes all of these factors into account:

    TDEE = RMR(Activity Factor) + 0.1C.         (2)

Here C is how many calories you eat each day, and the “Activity Factor” (below) estimates the calories you burn through exercise:


Level of Activity Activity Factor
Little to no physical activity 1.2
Light-intensity exercise 1-3 days/week 1.4
Moderate-intensity exercise 3-5 days/week 1.5
Moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise 6-7 days/week 1.7
Vigorous daily training 1.9


As an example, picture a tall young man named Alberto. Suppose his RMR is 2,000 calories, that he eats 2,100 calories a day, and that his Activity Factor is 1.2. Alberto’s TDEE estimate from (2) would then be

TDEE = 2,000(1.2) + 0.1(2,100) = 2,610.

Since Alberto’s caloric intake (2,100) is lower than his TDEE, in theory, Alberto would lose weight if he kept eating and exercising as he is currently doing.

Formula (2) is certainly more user-friendly than formula (1). But in either case we still need to know the RMR number. Luckily, RMR is one of the most studied components of TDEE, and there are several fairly accurate equations for it that only require your weight, height, age, and sex as inputs. I’ve created a free online RMR calculator to make the calculation easier: Resting Metabolic Heart Rate. In addition, I’ve also created a TDEE calculator (based on equation (2)) to help you estimate your TDEE: Total Daily Energy Expenditure.

I hope this short tour of nutrition science has helped you see that mathematics can be empowering, life-changing, and personally relevant. I encourage you to continue exploring the subject and discovering the hidden math all around you.

Oscar E. Fernandez is assistant professor of mathematics at Wellesley College. He is the author of Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us and The Calculus of Happiness: How a Mathematical Approach to Life Adds Up to Health, Wealth, and Love. He also writes about mathematics for the Huffington Post and on his website,


Face Value: Who is more likely to have committed a violent crime?

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 




The face on the right was manipulated to be perceived as more criminal looking and the face on the left as less criminal looking.

Note that these immediate impressions need not be grounded in reality. They are our visual stereotypes of what constitutes criminal appearance. Note also the large number of differences between the two faces: shape, color, texture, individual features, placement of individual features, and so on. Yet we can easily identify global characteristics that differentiate these faces. More masculine appearance makes a face appear more criminal. In contrast, more feminine appearance makes a face appear less criminal. But keep in mind that it is impossible to describe all the variations between the two faces in verbal terms.

Based on research reported in

  1. Funk, M. Walker, and A. Todorov (2016). “Modeling perceived criminality and remorse in faces using a data-driven computational approach.” Cognition & Emotion,



Masters of Craft: A trip to the butcher

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about butchering. 

Ocejo“Hi, can I help you pick something out?” asks Ted, a counter worker at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, a whole-animal butcher shop, to a customer. It’s a simple question, common in all types of retail stores. But this customer, a woman in her early 40s, walked into the shop with a surprised look on her face, and has been staring at the shop’s fifteen-feet-long display case for thirty seconds, wandering from end to end. She says she’s not sure, and takes a step back as she notices another customer next to her has a question.

“How would you prepare lamb steaks?” he asks Ted.

“In a hot, hot pan, both sides. You want it to be rare. It really has that funky, lamby flavor to it.”

The customer orders two arm chops. Another comes in and goes right to the beef section.

“No skirts left?” he asks.

“I don’t think so, but let me check,” replies Ted, who then he asks Giancarlo, one of the butchers, to look in the walk-in refrigerator. There are none.

“OK, what else do you have that’s like it?”

“Um, well, we have the feather steak and the sierra. They’re [from] a different part of the animal than the skirt. Sometimes the sierra’s left on the rib eyes as a flap of meat, but when it’s taken off it’s sierra steak. I think it has more flavor than skirt and it’s a good alternative.”

When a customer walks into a typical neighborhood bar, barbershop, or butcher shop (or meat counter Ocejoat a supermarket), it doesn’t take very long for what they see to “make sense” to them. Most of these businesses are set up in similar and familiar ways, and the routines for ordering are pretty standard. But the special businesses that I studied, like Dickson’s, disorient the senses of customers and clients. Craft cocktail bars are dark with sweet smells and sounds of forceful drink shaking. Upscale men’s barbershops accentuate the vintage imagery of classic shops, or feel like hunting lodges, complete with taxidermy. And whole-animal butcher shops feature tray upon tray of meat, with strange cuts of all shapes and sizes. The owners of these businesses want first-time entrants to feel like they’ve stepped into a different world, and to check their expectations at the door. And more than the décor and other sensory stimulants, it’s the workers and their brand of service that really turn the visit into a unique experience.

What does it mean to receive elite service? To be accommodated at an extreme level, to be treated like someone of great importance, and to feel like every immediate need is catered to, even to the point of feeling pampered. We typically think about elite service at places like luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, and high-end retail outlets, like BMW dealerships. These places still exist in today’s cities, but I’ve found that they’ve been joined by a new set of businesses with meanings behind the products, services, and experiences they offer that are also distancing with airs of exclusivity. Unlike their more common versions, craft cocktail bars, upscale men’s barbershops, and whole-animal butcher shops aren’t just selling drinks, giving haircuts, and selling meat. They’re also selling the ideas behind the unique products and services they offer and the experience of consuming them within head-turning, transporting environments.

That’s why having workers, like Ted in the above example, who are knowledgeable and passionate about their industry is essential for these businesses. People who strive to work at a craft cocktail bar don’t just want to create, make, and serve drinks with elaborate recipes. They also want to match customers with a drink that suits their tastes, while informing them of why their drinks taste the way they do. People who work at upscale men’s barbershops don’t just want to do as many haircuts in a day as possible. They also want to show clients how they can achieve a certain style that fits their personalities, lifestyles, and careers. And whole-animal butcher shop workers don’t just want to cut and serve meat. They also want to explain the importance of using the whole animal, the ethics behind sourcing meat locally, and the differences and similarities in taste and preparation between cuts that come from various parts on an animal’s body. The sets of cultural knowledge behind these products and services, which these workers communicate to their consumers through service, are what push these businesses above and beyond their mundane versions. In these places we’re seeing how important providing in-depth, rarefied knowledge has become in the world of consumption.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.

Carol Graham on the optimism gap between rich and poor

GrahamThe Declaration of Independence states that all people are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that among these is the pursuit of happiness. But is happiness available equally to everyone in America today? How about elsewhere in the world? In Happiness for All, Carol Graham draws on cutting-edge research linking income inequality with well-being to show how the widening prosperity gap has led to rising inequality in people’s beliefs, hopes, and aspirations. Recently, she took the time to answer some questions about her new book.

Why did you decide to write a book on unhappiness in the U.S.?

CG: This was a first for me, as I have spent much of my career exploring and writing about the causes and potential solutions to poverty and inequality challenges in developing countries. I took a modest change in direction about a decade ago and began to explore the determinants of happiness in countries and cultures around the world. This turn was driven by my findings of deep frustration among upwardly mobile low-income respondents in emerging market economies. What was most notable was the remarkably consistent patterns in the correlates of happiness across countries of all levels of development. I then found that happier people tended to have happier and more productive lives, and wrote one of the early papers on what happiness ’causes.’ Those findings have since been confirmed by several subsequent studies. Meanwhile, despite (or because of?) my grounding in development economics and origins in Peru, I have been increasingly concerned by the very large gaps between the incomes, opportunities, and lives of the rich and poor in the U.S. – a country with a reputation as the land of opportunity. As such, I decided to explore if and how those gaps were mirrored by differences in well-being and ill-being across the same groups in this book.

What is different about this book from the many recent studies of rising inequality of incomes and opportunities in the U.S.?

CG: While many economists, including me, have been discussing and writing about the downsides of increasing inequality in the U.S., interest in the topic was largely confined to academic audiences until very recently. And while the debate surrounding the 2016 elections brought inequality to the public’s attention, public understanding of actual trends in inequality and their implications remains very limited, in large part because of the complexity of the metrics used to measure it, such as Gini coefficients and 90/10 ratios. In the book I try and tell the same story from the perspective of well-being metrics, in the hopes that it might be a better way to explain the implications of inequality for economists and non-economists alike. One of the little known channels that I highlight is a beliefs and behaviors channel via which high levels of inequality – and large differences between those at the top of the distribution and the rest of the population – can act as a disincentive to investments in the future. This is because ‘success,’ as defined by the lives of those at the top, seems (and often is) out of reach for those at the bottom, making them less likely to make the difficult trade-offs to forego current consumption for the ‘promise’ of future outcomes.

What are your key findings for the land of the American Dream?

CG: Most markers of well and ill-being, ranging from life satisfaction to stress, are more unequally shared across the rich and the poor in the U.S. than they are in Latin America, a region long known for high levels of inequality. The most remarkable finding is that the belief that hard work can get you ahead in the future – a classic American dream question – is the most unequally shared metric. The poor in Latin America are almost four times as likely to believe that hard work will get them ahead than are the poor in the U.S. In contrast, the rich in the U.S. are more likely to believe that hard work will get them ahead than the rich in Latin America. Meanwhile, stress, a marker of ill-being, is significantly higher among the poor in the U.S. than the poor in Latin America. The stress which is typically experienced by the poor is related to constant negative shocks which are beyond individuals’ control. This kind of stress makes it hard to plan ahead, much less invest in the future, and is distinct from stress that is associated with goal achievement – which is more common among those with more means and control over their lives. These findings highlight very different incentives – and capabilities – for making investments in the future across the rich and the poor in the U.S.

Were there any other surprises?

CG: The most surprising of the findings were large gaps in optimism across racial cohorts, which did not run in the expected direction. In the fall of 2015 – about the same time as the riots against police violence against blacks in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore – I found that the most optimistic group among the poor were poor blacks, followed by poor Hispanics. In contrast, poor whites showed signs of deep desperation. At roughly the same time, Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a study highlighting rising U.S. mortality rates driven by preventable deaths among uneducated middle aged whites. Since then, I have matched my desperation data/lack of optimism data with the mortality rate trends – by race and place – and find that the markers correspond quite closely. The most desperate people and places are poor and vulnerable middle class whites in the rust belt, where available jobs are shrinking due to the hollowing out of manufacturing and people are extremely isolated by distance and climate. In contrast, cities, which are more racially diverse, are healthier, more hopeful, and happier. These trends help explain some of the anger and desperation that drove the 2016 election results in the U.S. and also mirror those which influenced the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and an unexpected (and economically costly) decision to leave the European Union.

What are the potential solutions?

CG: There is no magic bullet to the narrowing the gaps between the lives – and well-being – of the rich and the poor in the U.S. And while desperation among poor and downwardly mobile whites is clearly a concern, there are still momentous challenges facing poor – if more optimistic – minorities. In the book I highlight a range of policies – from better vocational training, to more widely available pre-school and quality public education, to improving our safety net so that it does not stigmatize recipients and at the same time leave the non-working poor behind. I also provide examples – from novel experimental data – of interventions which raise aspirations and hope among the poor and disadvantaged, thereby encouraging investments in the future. I conclude by highlighting the important role that well-being metrics can and should play in official statistics, by tracking the health and well-being of our society, as the U.K. is already doing. The metrics can, for example, identify pockets of desperation before mortality rates increase, and highlight community level practices which increase well-being among the vulnerable, among many other things.

GrahamCarol Graham is the Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. Her books include The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-BeingHappiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, and Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream.

Global Ottoman: The Cairo-Istanbul Axis

First published in Global Urban History as ”Global Ottoman: The Cairo-Istanbul Axis” by Adam Mestyan. Republished with permission.

On a Sunday at the end of January 1863 groups of sheikhs, notables, merchants, consuls, and soldiers gathered in the Citadel of Cairo. They came to witness a crucial event: the reading aloud of the imperial firman that affirmed the governorship of Ismail Pasha over the rich province of Egypt. The firman was brought by the Ottoman sultan’s imperial envoy. After the announcement, which occurred, of course, in Ottoman Turkish, Ismail held a reception. Local Turkic notables and army leaders came to congratulate and express their loyalty. A few months later, in April 1863, they received Sultan Abdülaziz in person in Alexandria—something that had not occurred since the Ottomans occupied Egypt in the sixteenth century. From Alexandria the sultan took the train to Cairo. This was the first trip of a caliph on the tracks.



The Fountain of the Valide (the mother of the khedive), between 1867 and 1890, by Maison Bonfils, Library of Congress.

But what did Ottoman mean exactly in Egypt? My forthcoming book, Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt, examines the significance and meaning of the Ottoman imperial context for the history of Egyptian nationalism. The book demonstrates the continuous negotiation between Turkic elites in Egypt and local intellectuals and notables bound by collective, albeit contested, notions of patriotism. There was an invisible compromise through the new representations and techniques of power, including the theater. This local instrumentalization and mixing of urban Muslim and European forms is the backstory to new political communities in the Middle East. Importantly, the Ottoman connection was an urban one: imperial elites are urban elites and rural elites had to become urban ones in order to maximize their interests by the fin-de-siècle.

So, what does the Ottoman framework mean for urban historians of the Arab world and in particular of Egypt? Such a framework does two important things: as Ehud Toledano underlines, it points to the delegated power of the governors by the sultan; and it reveals that new (elite) consumption practices and technologies spread not only by direct contact between local and European actors but also by the imperial mediation of Istanbul, or vice versa, by local provincial mediation to the capital. The Ottoman Empire guaranteed the network of free and safe trade, and movement between cities still in the nineteenth century. These basic features of the Ottoman context remained in place even after the British occupation of Egypt until 1914.

Such a perspective does not diminish the factual power of European empires and their military interventionism to protect their economic interests. On Barak eminently showed that the first train line in Egypt was crucial for British rule in India in the 1850s. European technologies and new sources of energy (coal, electricity) also helped the Ottomans to reach their far-flung domains quickly (remember the sultan arrived via train in Cairo). These instances, however, do not mean that the sultan’s (or his representatives’) power was usurped by Europeans completely until the 1870s. “Bringing the Ottomans back in” destabilizes the bifurcated view of West and East by highlighting a plural system of power just before the scramble for Africa.

We should not read “Ottoman” as “old” in contrast to the European “new.” This is the exciting moment of the Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire, in which new technologies were “Ottomanized” to a certain extent, next to legal changes. There was an Ottoman elite modernity representing novelty to the provincial populations which had milliard connections to bourgeois practices globally.


Interior of the Mosque of Silahdar Agha, picture by the author.

In the context of nineteenth-century Cairo, the most aesthetic representations of power were often formulated in terms of Ottoman sovereignty—a sovereignty that the pashas of Egypt wished to renounce but never did. Among these Ottoman features, one can see the mosque of Mehmed Ali in the Citadel. Doris Behrens-Abuseif reminds us that this mosque represents both Mehmed Ali’s power and Ottoman imperial aesthetics. It dominates the city’s skyline to this day. The pasha’s military elite brought late Ottoman baroque to Cairo: just look at the mosque of Sulayman Silahdar Agha in al-Mu‘izz Street and other smaller Ottoman mosques, schools, fountains, and palaces around the city. Though featuring local characteristics (“the Egyptian dialect of Ottoman architecture”), these structures are unmistakably Istanbulite and were built prior to or in the 1870s. A particularly interesting interplay between Ottoman and European aesthetics, hygienic considerations, and capitalism occurred in the creation of various public and private gardens in nineteenth-century Cairo and Alexandria. Buildings of power such as the Abdin Palace were likely conceived in a competition with the Ottoman capital (there the Dolmabahçe Palace was new in the 1850s) restaging political representation in a “modern” architectural idiom.

Socially, there are some who understand the Ottoman presence in Cairo (and in Egypt in general) as “The Turks in Egypt,” to quote the useful but somewhat misleading publication title of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu. There were certainly ethnic Turks in Ottoman Egypt. The local population looked at the quite cruel Ottoman military ruling class as the “Turks” (al-Atrāk). Yet, in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Cairo, there were many Ottoman Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Circassian families whose primary or secondary language was some version of Turkish and who had family or economic ties to various Ottoman cities in Asia and Europe. Their leading members rapidly transformed themselves into Franco- and Italophone “cultural creoles” (to use Julia Clancy-Smith’s expression), who forged new identities precisely by distancing themselves from their Ottoman past. Another identity strategy, not necessary exclusive of the previous one, was nationalism.


Ismail Pasha, Library of Congress.

The Cairo Ottoman elite was connected to Istanbul and was part of the imperial order. There was an elite Ottoman global network. The rulers, their families, and various relatives lived in both cities (later in Paris and in Switzerland). Every day, orders, secret reports, gifts, and personal staff arrived from Istanbul in Alexandria to be transported to Cairo and vice versa. From the 1860s onwards, this political and leisure traffic was facilitated by the Aziziya steamship company. The landowning-ruling households developed significant economic investments in between both cities, not to mention the large yearly tribute Egypt paid to the sultanic treasury. Ottoman treaties applied to Egypt to a significant extent. In the 1860s, as Nicolas Michel argues, the Ottoman Empire not only remained skeptical of the Suez Canal, but actually intervened in its construction. Ismail Pasha himself is usually remembered for the Suez Canal opening ceremony and associated follies which led to foreign control of Egyptian finances. He was, however, also an Ottoman man, part of the imperial elite and intimately familiar with Istanbul where he lived and where he eventually died. His mother, Hoşyar, who maintained a full Ottoman cultural elite household, invested significantly in the Muslim landscape of Cairo. Last but not least, one should not forget that the Ottoman sultan’s firman was the legal basis of the pashas’ rule.

There was also an invisible Ottoman underworld in Egypt. Sufis orders, especially in Cairo, had spiritual and material significance in Istanbul. Musicians and entertainers travelled between the two rich centers and other cities. Religious endowments (sing. waqf) in Cairo were related to Istanbul in many ways, going back to the sixteenth century. Religious scholars often received a salary from the sultan or from the Sheikh-ül-Islam. Small merchant networks fully functioned between Egypt, the Syrian provinces, and Tunis. Shari‘a court cases from Cairo could sometimes even reach the Istanbul courts. The question of religious endowments in Egypt belonging to individuals in republican Turkey remained a complex problem until the 1950s. Merchants living in Istanbul and in other parts of the empire had significant investments in Cairo and vice versa. Likewise, criminals circulated (and sometimes escaped) between Istanbul and Cairo. Al-Qanun al-Sultani, the “Sultanic Law,” was the basis of the penal system in Egypt, though the governor wanted the right of death penalty for himself in the 1850s. Political dissidents also commuted between the two cities (scholars are yet to properly explore the use of fin-de-siècle Cairo as an Ottoman hub of anti-Abdülhamidian propaganda). The khedives and the sultans used various figures in the capitals to keep each other at bay.

The often-romanticized bourgeois society of Alexandria was in large part a semi-Ottoman society, which had its less spectacular but perhaps even more powerful sister-groups in Cairo. The ministries in Cairo received the French, Arabic, and Turkish newspapers printed in Istanbul until the 1880s. Armenian refugees arrived in Egypt in large numbers. Egyptians were legally Ottoman citizens until the First World War.  Even in the 1920s there were (Ottoman) Turkish newspapers printed in Cairo.


Citadel of Cairo, between 1870 and 1890, by Antonio Beato, Library of Congress.

The British occupation did not reduce the Istanbul-Cairo traffic. Egypt and its capital Cairo remained both a cultural and financial market for Ottomans—from the Ottoman musical theater brought by enterprising Turkish-speaking Armenians, to clothing and other products.  Indeed, the occupation arguably boosted the symbolic Ottoman presence by the arrival of an Ottoman Imperial High Commissioner (the war hero Muhtar Pasha) in Cairo in 1885. Ottoman flags symbolized Egypt’s belonging and resistance in the 1890s. Some argue this was a mere instrumentalization of the Ottoman Empire because Egyptian anti-colonial mass nationalism had already bloomed, clamoring for an independent nation-state.

The urban nature of these dynamics and relations cannot be overemphasized. Rural Egyptians rarely identified with the empire. Outside the cities, “the Turks” meant taxation, conscription in the army, misuse of power, and pashas and beys with legal privileges. Until the nineteenth century, peasants could apply for justice to the distant sultan as his subjects by way of petitions, but the Mehmed Ali family, by assuming legislative powers, blocked this unique means of connection between the poorest and the highest.

The provincial system of the late Ottoman Empire was torn between centralization, local concerns, and integration into global infrastructures, as Johann Büssow, Christoph Herzog, On Barak, Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, and Till Grallert have recently shown on the examples of Ottoman Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, respectively. It was up to local elite activity to shape whether the processes of urbanization and capitalism were to be paired with imperial initiatives as negotiations played out in the European imperial context.

MestyanAdam Mestyan is a historian of the Middle East. He is an assistant professor of history at Duke University and a Foreign Research Fellow (membre scientifique à titre étranger) at the French Institute of Oriental Archeology – Cairo. His first monograph, Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt, presents the essential backstory to the formation of the modern nation-state in the Middle East.

Kathryn Watterson on I Hear My People Singing

WattersonIn I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African-American Princeton, Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson illuminates the resilience and ingenuity of the historic black neighborhood, just outside the gates of Princeton University, through the words of its residents. Watterson recently answered some questions from writer Kristin Cashioli, providing insight into this extraordinary labor of love that began nearly two decades ago.

What does this project mean to you?  Why is it so special?

KW: Wow, that question gave me goosebumps. When this book began, it was a simple effort to collect the life stories of the elders in the Witherspoon neighborhood.  This was thrilling work, and was second nature to me as a writer and journalist. Since I was a child, I’ve seen African Americans as national heroes. Imagine yourself living in the heat of laws and efforts to thwart you, keep you in poverty, to punish, demean, and often kill you; imagine that every single day, you encounter negative stereotypes because of the shade of your skin or the shape of your nose. Racism and segregation are so cruel and invasive, and it’s just amazing how black people live with some form of violence against them at all times. Even though Princeton wasn’t as bad as many places, it still had these patterns. Most white people never experience something so crushing on a daily basis. To see the great strength that dealt with this assault, rose above it, and created from within it, makes this project special. The humanity in these residents’ lives, the richness of their vision, and the way they came together made working on this project an honor. Turning this project into a book as a way to preserve these vital stories has been a gift to me.

What sets your book apart from others about race and justice issues?

KW: It’s the speakers’ voices that make this so powerful and intimate. There is such a panorama of diverse, complex individuals and their experiences. They are the heart of the book. I’ve been told that historians have done a lot of writing about racial issues in the North during the 18th and 19th centuries, but that this book will add to the scholarship of northern segregation in the 20th century. This is not a traditional oral history–it is its own creation, one that’s highly accessible and allows readers to imagine the inside experience as if they’d been there themselves.

What aspects of your research most inspired and surprised you?

KW: I was most surprised to discover the continuity of prejudice that this community has dealt with and addressed nonstop for more than three and a half centuries.  Its origins began with slavery, long before the village of Prince Town or the university existed. The designs of racism were established when slavery was an accepted practice, and have continued in other forms through America’s and the neighborhood’s history. In my research, I felt I kept uncovering the deep roots of racism. To see something that disrupts families and the lives of children so blatantly encouraged and accepted by fellow human beings is unnerving.  It’s very similar to the way we accept the prison system today. We act like it’s normal.

The most inspirational parts of this research were definitely the stories of individuals who blossomed throughout their lives in their service to others. I fell in love with Rev. William Robeson (Paul Robeson’s father) who, after escaping from slavery, went to Lincoln University, studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, earned two degrees in Theology, and then moved seamlessly into his ministerial leadership and family life in Princeton. His wisdom and grace are extraordinary. I also was enthralled by Betsy Stockton, formerly enslaved as well, who started schools in the 1830s for a people who had been forbidden to learn how to read or write. She founded the Witherspoon School for Colored Children and engaged the entire community in growing a school system that deeply understood the importance of education.

What do you hope your readers will take away from your book?

KW: So often in my own urban neighborhood, I see young black men crossing the street or walking with their heads down so as to deflect the fear they have learned to expect from white people passing by who clutch their bags or glance away. I especially want white readers to understand the impact of this diminishment and to recognize why black lives matter—just as it’s taken for granted that white lives do. I want to open readers’ minds, let them in on another level, and allow them to know how it feels. I want them to realize the courage it takes for an individual to live with hope and with the belief that the human experience we share is sacred.

How did you arrive at the title?

KW: Paul Robeson, the great orator, singer, and social justice advocate, wrote, “I heard my people singing,” when he was describing the beloved Witherspoon neighborhood where he was born. Back when we were conducting interviews in 2000, one of my students, Lauren Miller, suggested it as the title. One of the things we did during that time was to hold several public presentations at the library, the community center, and the university. Students read excerpts from the interviews we had, and residents in the audience heard their own words spoken back to them. It was like hearing singing—all of these different voices blending together. It was exhilarating and was exactly what I wanted people to hear—this fantastic chorus of voices. For me, in their stories, I hear America singing. I hear what this country could be. I feel lifted up, and I think everyone who has been involved with this book feels the same.

What is the greatest thing you have learned from writing this book?

KW: That magic happens. It all started with Hank Pannell’s love for the community and his urgency about saving these unique stories. When he told me that what he and his other Witherspoon neighbors really wanted was an oral history, I thought, how could I possibly do this? What seemed like an impossibility became a reality because it was built on love. I got swept up by the beautiful spirit of this neighborhood, and so did my students. It was contagious. This book shows what can happen when people come together, caring for and honoring one another.

What has been the greatest compliment and toughest criticism given to you as an author?  How have these helped you?

KW: The greatest compliments I’ve been given as an author are from people who’ve told me after reading one of my books, “This changed my life.” It’s been a moment or an emotional connection or a story that opened up the world for them somehow and moved them to new insights and a deeper understanding of our human experience. I’m humbled by this, as well as encouraged, because I, too, have been transformed by doing this work.

The toughest criticism that stands out is when someone wise tells me I’ve gotten something wrong, missed a point, or missed the bigger picture. These incidents act as a vehicle for learning. They sharpen my thinking and help me immensely with revisions. For this book, critical feedback that I received from three historians opened up my perspective and helped me discover more about the centuries of segregation and slavery in the North.

What is your next project?

KW: Before I found out that Princeton University Press wanted to publish I Hear My People Singing, I was immersed in a novel about a Philadelphia-based newspaper reporter at odds with the police in the 1970s. I’m eager to get back to work on it, as well as on several short stories that are treading water, waiting to get to the shore.

Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson is an award-winning journalist and writer, as well as a beloved teacher of writing. The author of nine books, including Women in Prison, Not by the Sword, You Must Be Dreaming, and Growing Into Love, she’s drawn to issues of justice and to expressing the full range of human experience. Her creative writing classes at the University of Pennsylvania, as they were at Princeton, are known for their close sense of community and personal empowerment, engagement with the world, and a great deal of fun and laughter. In addition, she sings, drums and plays percussion with an improvisational band, The Unity. She lives in the City of Philadelphia.


Sophie Glovier on Princeton’s trails

Don’t miss Sophie Glovier’s free trailwalking event this May 6! And while you’re at it, hit the trails to find a geocached copy of the book.

Walk the Trails in and Around PrincetonGlovier by Sophie Glovier is an attractive, pocket-friendly guide to walks on sixteen of the best trails through preserved open space in Princeton, New Jersey, and its neighboring towns. This revised edition includes eight new walks, several of which have been created on land that has been preserved since the popular guide was originally published in 2009. The walks range from two to four miles, but many include suggestions for trail connections that allow you to extend your hike if you choose. The guide includes detailed color maps of the trails, directions on how to get to them and where to park, and recommendations for the most scenic routes. Each walk has been designed with a “reason to walk” in mind: a special boulder or waterfall to find, a bit of local history or a beautiful vista to enjoy. Recently, Glovier took the time to answer some questions about her new book.

Why did you think there was a need for a trail guide to our area?

SG: When I moved to Princeton and got involved with D&R Greenway Land Trust and Friends of Princeton Open Space, I realized that there was a lot of preserved land in town, but much of it was hidden from view and not well known. For example, many people don’t realize that we have two areas of more than 270 acres each within easy walking distance of town (The Mountain Lakes Open Space Area and the Institute Woods). As I started to walk the trails and get to know them, I would often take friends along. At the end of our walk they often told me that they had loved the trail, but didn’t think they would come back by themselves without getting lost. That’s when I decided to create Walk the Trails In and Around Princeton.

How much open space is there around here?

SG: Just in Princeton we have over 1,000 acres of open space and more than 20 miles of trails. Many people think of hiking as something to do when you travel to far off places, but I love that there are so many places to enjoy nature right here. When you walk in the woods of Woodfield Reservation (124 acres) or Herrontown Woods (141 acres) you can walk miles without seeing a house or hearing a car. Plus, I like to tell people that even though you feel far away, it is hard to get too lost!

Who is this book for?

SG: There is a trail in this book for almost everyone. I have included some short walks like the Scott & Hella McVay Poetry trail in Greenway Meadows, and some walks that are completely on a paved surface like Skillman Park. There are many walks that young parents can easily do with a baby jogger. There are also longer trails for walking or running, like the 4-mile route through Mercer Meadows. In addition, in the book I offer suggestions for trail connections to build a longer walk, and provide some good websites to explore for more trail ideas.

“Poetry Trail” in Greenway Meadows

Why is walking in open space so important to you?

SG: There have been many studies documenting the physical and mental health benefits of walking outdoors for people of all fitness levels. I think lots of people would agree that being outside is especially important now that many of us live our lives with so much time looking at our electronic devices. It is also really important to me that people who live here make a connection to our open space. When you walk or run outside you start to notice the plants, birds and animals in a way that you don’t when you drive by in a car. I think it is really important that we preserve open space and take good care of it, and people are more likely to do that if they have a connection with the natural world.

What are some of your favorite places?

SG: I have lots of favorite walks and where I go often depends on the time of year and the weather outside. On a very hot day, I really enjoy the Stony Brook Trail off Rosedale Road that runs along the stream. In the fall, I love to go to Mercer Meadows, to see the big swathes of color that the wild flowers make. On snowy days I like to snowshoe through the Woodfield Reservation to look for the tracks the animals have made. I might decide to go to the St. Michaels Farm Preserve to look for the kestrels that have taken up residence there or to visit Wargo Pond at the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association in late spring to look for baby turtles resting on a log.

Who takes care of the trails?

SG: Keeping our trails cleared is a big job and we are lucky to have many volunteers in our area who work hard to do this all year. If you are interested in working on the trails, or in making a contribution to support their maintenance, my website has a list of local nonprofits that do this work. In addition, a portion of the proceeds of this book will be donated for trail maintenance. Sales of Walk the Trails In and Around Princeton have already raised over $10,000 for this purpose.

Sophie Glovier is an author and environmental advocate who is passionate about the preservation of open space and the importance of connecting people to nature. She is a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission and has served as a board member of D&R Greenway Land Trust, Friends of Princeton Open Space, and The Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association. She is the author of Walk the Trails in and around Princeton: Revised to Include the Newest Trails.

Alexander Todorov on the science of first impressions

TodorovWe make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second—and these snap judgments predict all kinds of important decisions. For example, politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. Yet the character judgments we make from faces are as inaccurate as they are irresistible; in most situations, we would guess more accurately if we ignored faces. So why do we put so much stock in these widely shared impressions? What is their purpose if they are completely unreliable? In Face Value, Alexander Todorov, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, answers these questions as he tells the story of the modern science of first impressions. Here he responds to a few questions about his new book.

What inspired you to write this book?

AT: I have been doing research on how people perceive faces for more than 10 years. Typically, we think of face perception as recognizing identity and emotional expressions, but we do much more than that. When we meet someone new, we immediately evaluate their face and these evaluations shape our decisions. This is what we informally call first impressions. First impressions pervade everyday life and often have detrimental consequences. Research on first impressions from facial appearance has been quite active during the last decade and we have made substantive progress in understanding these impressions. My book is about the nature of first impressions, why we cannot help but form impressions, and why these impressions will not disappear from our lives.

In your book, you argue that first impressions from facial appearance are irresistible. What is the evidence?

AT: As I mentioned, the study of first impressions has been a particularly active area of research and the findings have been quite surprising. First, we form impressions after seeing a face for less than one-tenth of a second. We decide not only whether the person is attractive but also whether he or she is trustworthy, competent, extroverted, or dominant. Second, we agree on these impressions and this agreement emerges early in development. Children, just like adults, are prone to using face stereotypes. Third, these impressions are consequential. Unlucky people who appear “untrustworthy” are more likely to get harsher legal punishments. Those who appear “trustworthy” are more likely to get loans on better financial terms. Politicians who appear more “competent” are more likely to get elected. Military personnel who appear more “dominant” are more likely to achieve higher ranks. My book documents both the effortless nature of first impressions and their biasing effects on decisions.

The first part of your book is about the appeal of physiognomy—the pseudoscience of reading character from faces. Has not physiognomy been thoroughly discredited?

AT: Yes and no. Most people today don’t believe in the great physiognomy myth that we can read the character of others from their faces, but the evidence suggests that we are all naïve physiognomists: forming instantaneous impressions and acting on these impressions. Moreover, fueled by recent research advances in visualizing the content of first impressions, physiognomy appears in many modern disguises: from research papers claiming that we can discern the political, religious, and sexual orientations of others from images of their faces to private ventures promising to profile people based on images of their faces and offering business services to companies and governments. This is nothing new. The early 20th century physiognomists, who called themselves “character analysts,” were involved in many business ventures. The modern physiognomists are relying on empirical and computer science methods to legitimize their claims. But as I try to make clear in the book, the modern claims are as far-stretched as the claims of the old physiognomists. First, different images of the same person can lead to completely different impressions. Second, often our decisions are more accurate if we completely ignore face information and rely on common knowledge.

You mentioned research advances that visualize the content of first impressions. What do you mean?

AT: Faces are incredibly complex stimuli and we are inquisitively sensitive to minor variations in facial appearance. This makes the study of face perception both fascinating and difficult. In the last 10 years, we have developed methods that capture the variations in facial appearance that lead to specific impressions such as trustworthiness. The best way to illustrate the methods is by providing visual images, because it is impossible to describe all these variations in verbal terms. Accordingly, the book is richly illustrated. Here is a pair of faces that have been extremely exaggerated to show the variations in appearance that shape our impressions of trustworthiness.


Most people immediately see the face on the left as untrustworthy and the face on the right as trustworthy. But notice the large number of differences between the two faces: shape, color, texture, individual features, placement of individual features, and so on. Yet we can easily identify global characteristics that differentiate these faces. Positive expressions and feminine appearance make a face appear more trustworthy. In contrast, negative expressions and masculine appearance make a face appear less trustworthy. We can and have built models of many other impressions such as dominance, extroversion, competence, threat, and criminality. These models identify the contents of our facial stereotypes.

To the extent that we share face stereotypes that emerge early in development, isn’t it possible that these stereotypes are grounded in our evolutionary past and, hence, have a kernel of truth?

AT: On the evolutionary scale, physiognomy has a very short history. If you imagine the evolution of humankind compressed within 24 hours, we have lived in small groups during the entire 24 hours except for the last 5 minutes. In such groups, there is abundant information about others coming from first-hand experiences (like observations of behavior and interactions) and from second-hand experiences (like testimonies of family, friends, and acquaintances). That is for most of human history, people did not have to rely on appearance information to infer the character of others. These inferences were based on much more reliable and easily accessible information. The emergence of large societies in the last few minutes of the day changed all that. The physiognomists’ promise was that we could handle the uncertainty of living with strangers by knowing them from their faces. It is no coincidence that the peaks of popularity of physiognomists’ ideas were during times of great migration. Unfortunately, the physiognomists’ promise is as appealing today as it was in the past.

Are there ways to minimize the effects of first impressions on our decisions?

AT: We need to structure decisions so that we have access to valid information and minimize the access to appearance information. A good real life example is the increase of the number of women in prestigious philharmonic orchestras. Until recently, these orchestras were almost exclusively populated by men. What made the difference was the introduction of blind auditions. The judges could hear the candidates’ performance but their judgments could not be swayed by appearance, because they could not see the candidates.

So why are faces important?

AT: Faces play an extremely important role in our mental life, though not the role the physiognomists imagined. Newborns with virtually no visual experience prefer to look at faces than at other objects. After all, without caregivers we will not survive. In the first few months of life, faces are one of the most looked upon objects. This intensive experience with faces develops into an intricate network of brain regions dedicated to the processing of faces. This network supports our extraordinary face skills: recognizing others and detecting changes in their emotional and mental states. There are likely evolutionary adaptations in the human face—our bare skin, elongated eyes with white sclera, and prominent eyebrows—but these adaptations are about facilitating the reading of other minds, about communicating and coordinating our actions, not about inferring character.

Alexander Todorov is professor of psychology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions.

Masters of Craft: A trip to the bar

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. First up, learn more about the art of bartending.

OcejoOn a busy Friday night at Death & Co., a well-known cocktail bar in the East Village, Alex, one of tonight’s bartenders, takes the order of a customer sitting at the bar who just finished his second drink.

“Would you like to order something else?” he asks while taking away his empty glass and cocktail napkin.

“Yeah, sure.”

“OK, you just had a Conference, and remind me of your first one?”

“I had a La Vina.”

“Do you want to stick with rye?”


“OK, do you want to taste the peppery notes or the whiskey?”

“Um, more of the peppery flavors.”

Alex nods and gets to work on his drink. After a few minutes he finishes and places it in front of the customer on a fresh cocktail napkin.

“Here we have a variation of a Sazerac, with an ounce-and-a-half of Rittenhouse rye and half-ounce of cognac. Enjoy.”

Common to each of the occupations I studied is that these workers elevate the status of very common, or even lowbrow, products, services, and consumption spaces and experiences through the work practices they use to make and provide them and the interactions they have with their customers and clients. They also often lower the status of products that are generally regarded as having high status, or at least put them on the same level as low-status ones. The first two cocktails the customer in the above example had ordered—the La Nina and the Conference—are both cocktails that feature rye (with sherry and amaro and with a mixture of other spirits, respectively). Rye isn’t typically a spirit that conjures luxury, like scotch or cognac do. It’s an obscure spirit, rarely found behind average bars. Ryes usually have strong, sharp flavors, and are rarely consumed on their own (or “neat”).

But bars like Death & Co., where bartenders strive to achieve unique flavors in cocktails by precisely Ocejomixing ingredients, love rye because of all the possibilities it gives them to make interesting drinks. As the customer’s order and Alex’s interaction with him show, rye can be mixed with an array of ingredients to make drinks with new flavors, and bartenders reveal its range of possibilities to their customers, such as by asking customers if they prefer its more “peppery” notes. These bartenders certainly don’t reject sacred spirits like scotch and cognac. They just don’t automatically see them as “the best.” Since their aim is creativity and innovation, they prefer a variety of spirits, especially versatile ones. Taste, then, rather than reputation, is key. They therefore reject the initial lure of popular brands, with their name recognition, advertising, and sleek bottling. What’s inside the bottle is far more important than what’s outside it.

There are parallels in the other jobs I studied. Small-scale craft distillers make many of the unusual products cocktail bartenders use. They often emphasize rare ingredients, such as heirloom grains, and unorthodox production methods, such as barrels of different sizes and wood varieties. Barbers at upscale men’s barbershops consider the simple, straight-to-the-point men’s haircut to be a special, life-enhancing experience, rather than a basic, forgettable necessity. And butchers and counter workers at whole-animal butcher shops laud rare and lowly cuts of meat and meat products, such as the flatiron steak and jerky, for their unique flavors, while downplaying such elite staples like the tenderloin and the filet mignon for their relative blandness.

By making and promoting these distinctions to their customers and clients, these workers engage in what I refer to as “omnivorous cultural production.” With this idea I’m building from a well-known concept in the sociology of culture, namely the “cultural omnivore.” This theory claims that today more and more people are becoming open to consuming cultural products (e.g. music, film, food) from outside of their own social strata. Most commonly, we’re seeing well-to-do folk show interest in and knowledge of so-called “lowbrow” and working-class forms of culture, that had never been considered “good” or “quality” before by well-regarded arbiters of taste. And they do so without compromising their own social standing. So burgers and tacos become the subjects of food trends, while bourbon and rye join the ranks of elite spirits.

A key question is where these tastes come from. How do people learn that a flatiron steak is better than a filet mignon because of its bolder flavor profile? Consumers certainly learn from the media and from their peers and social networks, as much research has shown. But they also learn from the people who work with these products and perform these services on a daily basis in these high-end workplaces. These workers essentially create these tastes through their daily work practices. Taste, then, is not natural, or something that is universal. It’s something that is created, and people learn it in different ways.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.