December 2010


The British Psychology Society research blog is reporting on an ace little piece of research about the psychological benefits of thinking about your ancestors, which I’m going to henceforth assume you’ve read. Off you go. (The original paper, referenced at the bottom, is short and also well worth reading if you have an institution log-in.) One of the reasons I liked it is because I have consciously used this “mechanism” myself – usually, it must be said, when situations of physical bravery are required, because I’m such an utter physical coward (teeth! falling over on the ice! hnnnnnnng!), and the study is concentrating on improved intellectual expectations and performance.  But still.

It’s just a preliminary study. I think there could be some two-way trade here with historically and archaeologically attested instances of ancestor worship. That is, future findings could enlarge our understanding of past societies as well as our own. And also, attested cases of historical ancestor worship could suggest directions for the follow-up research, which will attempt to isolate underlying “processes of social identity, family cohesion, self-regulation or norm activation elicited by increased ancestor salience.”

Rome immediately springs to mind as a culture engaged in formal – and quite explicitly performance-related – ancestor worship. The study’s findings of the increased perception of control and the improved promotion orientation (inclination to tackle problems) associated with ancestor salience are certainly quite handy concepts to bring to Roman history. I’m particularly struck by the finding that ancestor salience is just as marked when a subject considers fifteenth-century ancestors as when he or she considers immediate or living forbears. This rules out the possibility that it’s really the fact that individuals are relatively close in time or even known to one that produces the boost to confidence and performance. It made me think of the processions of ancestor masks, stretching into the past, that were carried at Roman funerals even under the Republic – the more venerable, the better.

We tend, I suppose, to conceive of these displays in the received terms of modern aristocracies – “blue blood”, class, noble birth and so on. But it makes perfect sense if these are the outward justifications and defences for what is essentially a beneficial psychological practice – to which everyone, apparently, has access, whether or not they knew who their ancestors actually were. The study suggests that part of the mechanism of ancestor salience is to “increase the cognitive accessibility of things [the study's subjects] learned from [their ancestors] via intergenerational socialization processes” (p2). If this really is how the mechanism works, then a longer line of death masks at a Roman funeral really would be  better – more generations, more useful knowledge.

Mind you, I think the first experiment in the study assumes one of these received terms itself. In measuring the impact of thinking about 15th century ancestors, it instructed subjects as follows (from the paper, p2):

Please imagine your ancestors in the 15th century, that is, your great-great-great-great-great-. . . grandparents. Please imagine what they did at that time, how they lived, what their profession was and how many children they had, etc. Please also imagine what your ancestors from that time would tell you today, if you were still able to meet them.

This is a pre-circumscribed thought experiment because it encourages subjects to believe that they have only one line of ancestors – a “family-sized” line, simplified exactly as aristocracies and patronymic/matronymic systems in general do, and exactly as the Romans were doing with their successive line of masks. Of course, we all have several millions of direct ancestors living in the fifteenth century even allowing for the many duplicates (reckoning on four generations per century. Anyone know the precise way of calculating the number of duplicates? I”m sure there must be one).

It would be difficult to design an experiment to tease out why this simplification down to a single “line” is apparently necessary to ancestor salience (if it is). Is it just because a family-sized unit, or succession of them, can be more comfortably accommodated by our social conditioning? Or is it something more complex and specific to do with the linear nature of an ancestral line itself. Consider this part of the researchers’ hypothesis:

when we think about [our ancestors], we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities. In other words, because we are the successors of our ancestors and thus their genetic heritage, we tend to attribute successful problem-solving of our ancestors to our own problem-solving abilities

In other words, survival is being invoked, and by implication survival of the fittest, and that leads one to conceive of ancestry in terms of series of refinements leading down to a “perfect” result in the present (well, we’re here, aren’t we?) Half the population of England died of plague in 1348-9; one big tick against “some natural plague resistance” for the rest – and that “rest” is us. One of the many occasions on which we’ve been collectively winnowed for chaff, and disease resistance is just the most obvious example. Success of the “bloodline” is what I think the researchers are really getting at here.

Separating out the impact of notional lines of ancestry from familial warmth is one nudge Rome’s example could provide to future research. Another is the double-edged sword effect of formal ancestor worship – sure, ancestors may strengthen a sense of confidence and entitlement, but they can also provide an explicit set of targets to meet, and be used as a stick with which to beat errant descendents. So is this ancestral equivalent of parental expectation also operating in modern subjects? Or is it unique to Rome and other societies whose elites consciously emulate ancestors’ activities? Perhaps it cuts both ways, and we seek or imagine parallels between our own lives and ancestral lives – I remember being pleased to discover signs that some of my Mortimer/ore ancestors were nonconformists and part of a fairly radicalised trade (brushmaking, would you believe. Stiff with early radicalism, apparently). I wonder what attributes the study’s subjects imputed to their imagined 15th century ancestors.

One last thing about Rome as compared to the present; everyone alive today in the western world could probably say with confidence that they have it easier than most of their ancestors. Technological and scientific progress virtually guarantee it. So there’s going to be an innate widespread acceptance of the notion that our ancestors survived greater difficulties than we’ll ever have to face (five minutes thinking about the First World War and suddenly that exam or dental appointment doesn’t look so bad).

That isn’t the case with Rome, is it. Of course, plenty of similar mood music seems to surround how Romans thought about ancestors – they were simpler, cleaner, more virtuous, “good honest Romans”, and so on, and this is why they overcame various odds – but their life chances were in many respects the same as those of the descendents invoking them. Indeed, that is what made Roman ancestors such effective weapons of chastisement. We don’t have the same relationship of equals with our ancestors – our life chances are unimaginably better than theirs were. It’s possible that one of the factors future research needs to isolate is whether we’re really being reminded of our ancestors’ “problem-solving abilities” and capacity to overcome odds, or whether they simply cause us to reflect on our own technological and economic good fortune. My First World War/dentist example points that up rather nicely.

So we would have to take care in applying the lessons of modern psychological research in history or archaeology. An interesting way to use this research direction, it  strikes me, would be to identify elements of historical ancestor worship that fit modern findings – and then look at what is left inexplicable. Whatever that is, it may constitute the essence of a relationship that ancient societies had with their ancestors that we can no longer access.

Equality and diversity at tertiary education level are  a tangled set of important and emotive issues. Needless to say, David Lammy has made a complete dog whistling breakfast of the whole thing. (Note: all the following figures not taken from his article are from table 5 in this summary, and relate to home students who filled in an ethnic diversity form.)

In an expose of racism in Oxbridge admissions for 2009 (on the watch of the last Labour Minister for Higher Education, apparently a Mr David Lammy) he has perpetrated statistical no-nos such as:

  • generalising from insignificant sample sizes (highlighting 1 Black Caribbean admission in Oxford for 2009, but failing to mention that it comes from 35 applications in that category, which in 10,210 applications and 2,653 acceptances, is pretty much noise),
  • cherry-picking (choosing the Black Caribbean group at all, with its acceptance “rate” of 2.9%, as opposed to, say, the Black Other group with an acceptance rate of 21.4% – but more about that anon),
  • a particularly technical error which I think is known as “making stuff up” (stating that there are no Black faculty members at Cambridge, something which will come as an enormous existential surprise to people who are in fact Black faculty members at Cambridge).

This is very sad, because a look at Table 5 suggests there is potentially something to investigate here. That healthy-ish 21.4% success rate for Black Other students? Also an inappropriate cherry-pick, of course. Hey, I could be a shadow minister! It represents 3 admissions out of 14 applications. Following Lammy’s logic, we’d have to surmise that some highly complex form of racism was going on which selected Black Other applicants over Black Caribbean applicants. This is clearly unlikely to be the case.

Anyway, averaging out these two groups along with Black African (which I realise is a bit of a lumpen way to treat people’s ethnicity, but they’re pretty lumpen categories anyway) you get 27 acceptances out of 221 applications, or a success rate of 12.2%. That sample size, 2.1% of applications and 1% of acceptances is still within the margin of error, but let’s be generous and take it as an indication, if nothing else. Not at all healthy, is it, given that the overall success rate for all British domiciled students is 26%.

If this indicator does represent a genuine problem, and not statistical noise, what might be happening? This is Oxford’s gloss:

Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths… This goes a very long way towards explaining the group’s overall lower success rate.

(Note: Where I have placed the second ellipsis, the Guardian has the words “with 7% of white applicants.”, no capitalisation, straight after the full stop of the previous sentence. I have assumed this is some kind of subbing error, but can’t be sure. They spelt “rein” as in “to rein in” with a g on their front page the other day, so anything’s possible.)

Now, this could well be special pleading on Oxford’s part. We just wouldn’t know without seeing the full figures, which they’re not releasing any more than Lammy is. Frankly, the way Lammy appears to have mauled the stats, I don’t think Oxford could do worse than release the lot in full – ethnicity breakdowns by subject and college.

But, pending such mere inputs as hard data, the Oxford response has a slight ring of truth about it, and I’ll tell you why. We might posit that as a general rule, black kids are less likely to be applying from public schools, private schools and top state schools. They are disproportionately educated in lower-achieving schools in poorer areas. That means that, amongst many other unfortunate things, their Oxbridge preparation is not going to be so hot. And one of the things they tell you in Oxbridge preparation is “maximise your chances”. If you want to apply for a big name subject, but there’s another less popular variation that will do just as well, go for that. If you’re not that fussed about golden twiddly bits on your college, go for one of the concretes or redbricks as your first choice.

This is how Oxford (and broadly Cambridge too, as far as I know) admissions works: you pick a first choice college, and you get allotted another two (alternatively, you can make an open application, in which case you’ll be allotted three colleges, and they will probably be the ones with fewest applications). If you’re called for interview, your first choice college will interview you. If they want you, that’s it, no more interviews. If they don’t want you, and your second and third allotted colleges still have places to fill, you’ll be sent along to those. And here’s the crucial thing: all of this happens within a week.

You can see what happens to people who apply to the popular colleges. Not only have they lowered their chances by applying to a competitive place as their first choice – their second and third choices are compromised too. Because by the time their first, popular choice has chewed them up and spat them out, the second and third colleges have already filled plenty of places from their own first choice (or allotted open) applicants. Fewer places remain for the scramble of applicants rejected from popular colleges. And if you’ve picked a popular subject as well, then you’ve exacerbated the problem. Very probably, this means that some of those who get rejected every year could have got in if they’d applied to a less popular college, or subject.

The point of all this is not, of course, to imply that black students can’t get onto these courses, or into popular colleges. All other things being equal, they stand the same chance as everyone else – but everyone’s chance is lower than the chances of those applying for less popular subjects and colleges. So a disproportionate number of black applicants to popular subjects would indeed have the effect the spokesperson suggests.

But, as I say, this isn’t really demonstrable without the full figures *hint to media*. As a matter of fact, the most shocking statistic for me to emerge from the whole thing doesn’t have anything to do with Oxbridge admissions. It’s this one:

In 2009, more than 29,000 white students got three As or better at A-level (excluding general studies) and about 28.4% applied to Oxford; while 452 black students got three As or better, and nearly half applied to Oxford.

*attempts Steve McQueen impression* Four hundred and fifty two? There are probably more people than that in John Lewis on Oxford Street right now. They are outnumbered by our MPs. Jesus.

Good god, it’s a mess in here.

*kicks skeletons of former readers aside*

I’m only picking my way back in through the cobwebs to ask, seriously now, what on earth the NUS/the Campaign for Nice Pixies Against Nasty Orcs/Labourlist/whoever thinks it’s doing by gloating over the cancellation of the London Lib Dem conference?

You total hilarious dweebs! What is up with you?! The entire party has been in open revolt for over a month, big long lists of PPCs are writing letters to Nick Clegg, there are rumours of resignations all over the place, councillors and activists are to my certain knowledge running around right this minute badgering, cajoling, threatening and pleading with their MPs to stick to the damn pledges and you know what? They were wobbling. That PPCs’ open letter was quite quickly followed by speculation on mass abstention peppered with individuals voting against.

Now, I’m still wavering on the whole question of tuition fees, and would be quite happy to go to my grave in that condition because I find the issue genuinely complex, and am continuously baffled at the number of people who don’t, on both sides. But there’s no doubt the plurality of opinion in the active section of the party is anti-fees. And now they’ve had taken from them the last big chance ahead of the vote to speechify, press flesh, lobby in person, brief an attentive media and generally make a nuisance of themselves. The students of Liberal Youth have lost the chance to square up publicly and en masse to their supposedly elders and betters and demand a hearing.

Now, it’s true that Lib Dem regional conferences are ham sandwiches and flipcharts affairs with typical attendances in the low hundreds, and the media’s rebranding of the London conference as a “summit” is the subject of much internal hilarity. Bilderberg this ain’t (and that’s why the cancellations have happened, because busting the sort of venues usually chosen for a Lib Dem regional conference is about as difficult as breaking into an envelope).  But the fact remains – you’ve just lost a day of public pressure on Clegg and you are celebrating the reduction of Lib Dem membership lobbying opportunities.

It’s hard to see how anyone who thinks this helps the anti-fees cause could possess the requisite neural co-ordination to hold up a banner, never mind be fronting a national campaign. What were you going to do at the protest, dribble on us until we got really annoyed? Political short-termism is one thing, this is pure bloody goldfish territory. Yes! We stopped the Lib Dem conference! Let’s celebrate by occupying this pinhead! Now they won’t be able to publicly debate and restate their opposition to their own leadership and be top of all the news bu-

Duh.

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