Born to Tease | Cal’s Dacher Keltner on the politics of pestering.
As the world’s foremost authority on facial expressions, Cal psych prof Dacher Keltner can spot a fake smile a mile away. But in 20 years of studying blushes, touches, and other little half-second emotions, he remains astonished at just how much kindness there actually is in the world. In his new book, Born to Be Good (W.W. Norton, 2009), Keltner picks up where Darwin left off by arguing that these little bursts of spontaneity prove that we’re actually hard-wired for happiness as well as bringing it out in others (and all without necessarily watching Oprah every day). One of Keltner’s more controversial theories is that learning how to participate in some good-natured teasing (not bullying)—especially as an adolescent—is vital to development. Of course, this flies in the face of the current anti-teasing movement in schools, but Keltner persists. As a partially reformed teaser, I was curious as to whether I could again begin razzing the few friends I have left, so I gave Keltner a buzz.
Paul Kilduff: Where my daughter goes [to school] they have—I don’t know if you’d call it a no-teasing policy—but everything they say has to be what they call “an appreciation.” No put-downs. How do you go from that to okay, or acceptable teasing? It’s a tough one.
Dacher Keltner: Oh, man. Sure. And I’ve taken some heat on this one. So, what we know—and we and others have done research on this—is that developmentally there is this magical switch that goes off when kids are 10 or 11 where they just are better able to understand ironic statements. They’re better able to tease and to use it in a way that’s constructive and pro-social. And remember that if you have a one-law-fits-everybody you’re probably going to get it wrong. And a let’s-outlaw-teasing [policy] just doesn’t make sense for sixth- and seventh-graders, because they form friendships, and they joke around with each other, and they entertain each other, and they learn how to not take themselves too seriously. [Yet] if you let it run rampant on the playground, you’re going to have a lot of hurt kids when they’re 8 or 9. So the first big lesson is development, and the second big lesson is to have a sort of a friendly-teasing curriculum about how to use your voice, how to interpret it, and how to be ironic.
PK: So, literally going in and teaching it to kids—like soccer.
PK: Have you ever proposed that?
DK: I’ve done it with parent groups and I’ve done it with teachers. This is all based on our science—how to avoid the really sensitive topics. How to use your voice to be goofy is one of the great arts of life and it begins in childhood teasing, right? And man, what a lesson that is. Just to be able to say things that you don’t completely endorse, how to be sensitive to the right context.
PK: But there are boundaries.
DK: Oh, yeah.
PK: I was thinking about an old friend who would always seem to go to the point with his teasing where it made everybody uncomfortable. And everybody would kind of look and cringe and you’d have to apologize for him. I don’t think he ever got it because he thought he was being funny. He’d be laughing.
DK: And that is the telling example, isn’t it? Because there is clear social wisdom and consensus about who the bad teasers are. And odds are they’re doing it in really ineffective ways. And then there are the rest of us. And then there are actually good teasers, right?
PK: You’ve taken some heat on your pro-teasing stance. Where is this coming from?
DK: I wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine. And I bent over backwards to say, “Teasing gets better [as children age], and you’ve got to be careful, but there are these [also harmful] anti-teasing campaigns.” My hunch is—no one will ever do the research—but they’re kind of like the try-to-keep-kids-off-drugs campaigns, which have failed because this is a human universal, to joke around and tease, especially as you head into adolescence. I did a little research and all these anti-teasing campaigns end up being forms of humiliation. Like, get the teasing kid to stand up in front of the classroom and you embarrass him about how he teased another kid. Well, that’s a form of humiliation, which is what you want to avoid in the first place.
PK: Firing squad for teasers.
DK: And it was really interesting. A lot of teachers to a person said, “Thank God, we need to be able to joke around with our students. Make light of the mistakes and the difficulties and conflicts.” And it’s great to see this. The people I got heat from were just uniformly European-American males who had been teased in grammar school and responded really aggressively. And they were outraged at what I said. So I don’t know what to make of that.
PK: It seems as though the movement for all of this started after the horrible tragedy at Columbine, Colo. in the ’90s.
PK: What about the shooters that day?
DK: You read the profile of the video games they played and then they were on these medications. One of them was on all kinds of crap. And there’s the fact that there were guns all over their house. This is a classic example of our culture finding the wrong culprit. I had a counselor call me after that. She had heard about this teasing research and she was like, “Hey, what are you saying here? Because these guys were teased and bullied?” And I understand, but let’s remember the real causes of what they did … I got a lot of email after this essay from people from Africa and South America and they’re like, “Absolutely, we tease each other all the time.” And when you are in a cultural context of embeddedness and connectedness, teasing brings people together. In the Mexican-American culture they tease kids all the time and it brings them together.
PK: I heard a long time ago that it’s better to be teased than to be ignored.
DK: Always. And not only that—I found out about these results after the book—but there are these new studies of rough-and-tumble play in mammals. So for example, with coyotes, they do a lot of what looks like teasing, the adolescents. They wrestle. They bite each other and they tug at each other’s ears and it’s just like kids teasing each other. What they learn is the difference between play and harm, how to not bite in a way that hurts. They’re learning this fabulously important moral boundary. And it turns out that the coyotes that never learn that way of playfully biting—just like kids who don’t learn how to playfully tease—become isolated and they are not part of the group, right? So you could make the case that teasing is really the playground of moral education.
PK: And you’re advocating this position in the P.C. capital of the world.
DK: I know. And I’ve had a year of being bullied that would beat anything that’s happened around here. I know. I had a friend at my daughter’s school come up to me and say, “You know, I teach at this school in Albany and we had this whole anti-teasing campaign. We discussed your essay, and you had some detractors.”
PK: Is Berkeley a do-gooders paradise?
DK: Look, Paul, one of the other messages of the book is we have to switch our frame from materialism and self-interest to Jen [an equation developed by the Chinese philosopher Confucius that refers to the number of times you bring out the good in people versus the bad] and being good and giving and compassionate. And it’s exhilarating to do the research here that’s on that theme for this community because they understand that. The undergrads are receptive and the alumni are, [too]. You know, we have more Peace Corps volunteers than any university in the world.
PK: You learn from a very early age that money’s not going to bring you happiness but at the same time, hey, what are you supposed to do? You have to pull down some cash. How much is enough? How much is enough status?
DK: Yeah. That’s a great question. I definitely have not figured that one out. Well, here’s what I can say. And there are profound contradictions [in] that this is a very privileged part of the world. Even to be a property owner in Berkeley…
PK: You actually own property in Berkeley?
DK: I know. Got in early.
DK: And there are all these trustafarians around so it’s very easy to stop this stuff.
PK: They’re not going to like that comment.
DK: Oh, no.
PK: Well, you’re teasing.
DK: I am. I’m going to have picketing at my office door. Just want to be good. But, here’s the thing: what I find really exciting is there are a lot of data on the youth today. There are debates right now. Is this the most narcissistic generation ever? We know materialism does not bring them happiness, this old Berkeley theme. And I feel like in this university, when I teach my 400-person classes and I say there are a lot of moments in life where you have a choice between materialism, gratification, and desire or advancing the greater good, there’s an undergraduate population that will really push those ideas far. And that’s great. So, that’s kudos to Berkeley. Now, the community at large, that’s a different question.
PK: Donald Trump, is he the ultimate example of the “homo economus” you write about in your book?
DK: He is. He’s a joke. I’ll box that guy any day of the week, man. Take him down.
PK: Maybe you should be his apprentice. There’s sort of this attitude that we seem to have in this country that you’ve gotta do what you gotta do. Lead, follow, or get out of the way, as Ted Turner likes to say.
DK: It’s the American ideology. And there are less obvious targets. A lot of people who govern economic policy or legal policy start from this set of assumptions about homo economus. Here’s how I think about it. In the great span of life and the development of a community or culture, there’s always a tension between self-interest and other orientations, or bringing out the good in others. And when you go to East Asian cultures where they are superstars at being modest and deferential and bringing out the good in others, they have rampant forms of psychopathology where they aren’t self-asserting enough. [There are] lots of anxiety disorders in kids, social anxiety, a form of anxiety in Japan affecting millions of kids where they don’t express themselves and they hide in their room. And then they’re strong in being good to others. They’re a little bit out of balance there, and we have the opposite imbalance. We have tremendous capacities for self-expression. Thank goodness. It’s freedom from Emerson to Thoreau on down. But all the data say we’ve overemphasized that, and we could use a little bit more of the kindness and the modesty. It would be good for our culture.
PK: I think you’re right. When I was a kid I had a mouth. And not just to my parents, but in class I was always popping off.
DK: I can hear it in your voice. You are the satirist. And if I took a one-second snippet of your voice I would show you how.
PK: So you study people’s voice quality as well.
DK: Oh, yeah. The voice is just a great shift in primate evolution where when we started to walk upright we developed bigger vocal chambers and this very dexterous tongue. And so our vocalization is qualitatively different than the other primates, whereas the face and body stuff isn’t quite as different. And so we [researchers] spend hundreds of hours taking two-second teases and finding the little acoustic markers that make for a great tease versus a nasty tease. There are little properties of a very playful tease. It fluctuates and it rises in pitch and it has certain clues that say, “I’m not being serious.” When people do really good teases they elongate the vowels. “Oh yeah, this is great foooood.” Right? Such a subtle thing. And you go, “Hey, I’m not being serious here.” The bad teasers don’t do that stuff. I can take a tease, and if it were audio-recorded, can tell you how hostile the intention is.
PK: You’ve done a lot of research on smiles and what they really mean. What about the celebrity smile? Tom Cruise’s smile seems more like a grimace. If we’re hardwired to perceive that as a fake smile, how come there’s very little acknowledgement of that? We take it literally at face value. They don’t really look that happy.
DK: It’s interesting. Arlie Hochschild, who’s in the sociology department at Berkeley, had this whole critique of the smile that I actually disagree with. It was that we have this smiling-based culture. And it’s kind of this Marxist form of oppression that the powers and our bosses make us smile. And it ends up we’re emotionally alienated. And [then] you put it in the context of your children. If your child, when meeting a stranger, emits a nice smile or a polite smile, you feel good and the transaction works. If they furrow their brow and they scowl, they aren’t doing as well. But I like your example better. And I think you’re right. There’s a lot of junk emotion out in the celebrity world and in the media world, like the fake smiles of Julia Roberts. Because I think you’re right. It’s kind of this determined, willful, “I can subdue you with my optimism.” Although I actually met Tom Cruise randomly and he’s a very nice guy. He’s actually very interested in the research I do, which is funny. So I think you’re right. We know that people who are exposed a lot to the media see it as a portrayal of reality and kind of come to believe it. Like wow, the world is full of lawyers and doctors. And you’re raising an even deeper question, which is: “If I look out into all this junk emotion of cat fights and fake smiles and the like, do I become disconnected to the real thing?” I think there’s a possibility.
Suggestions? E-mail Paul Kilduff at email@example.com.
Age: 47 | Birthplace: Mexico