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Is masochism necessary?

8 Post author: PhilGoetz 10 April 2009 11:48PM

Followup to Stuck in the middle with Bruce:

Bruce is a description of masochistic personality disorder.  Bruce's dysfunctional behavior may or may not be related to sexual masochism [safe for work], which is demonized by most people in America.  Yet there are ordinary, socially-accepted behaviors that seem partly masochistic to me:

  • Eating spicy food
  • Listening to the music of Anton Webern or Alban Berg (not trying to be funny; this is very serious)
  • Listening to music turned up so loud that it hurts
  • Fiction
  • Movies, especially horror movies
  • Roller coasters
  • Saunas
  • Enjoying exercise
  • Being Bruce

Question 1: Can you list more?

Question 2: Doubtless some of the behaviors I listed have completely different explanations, some of which might not involve masochism at all.  Which do you think involve enjoying pain?  Can you cluster them by causal mechanism?

Question 3: When we find ourselves acting masochistically, should we try to "correct" it?  Or is it part of a healthy human's nature?  If so, what's the evolutionary-psych explanation?  (I was surprised not to find any evo-psych explanations for masochism on the web; or even any general theory of masochism that tried to unite two different behaviors.  All I found were the ideas that sexual masochism is caused by bad childhood models of love, and that masochistic personality is caused by other, unspecified bad experiences.  No suggestion that masochism is part of our normal pleasure mechanism.)

Some hypotheses:

  1. Evolution implemented "need to explore" (in the "exploration/exploitation" sense) as pleasure in new experiences, and adaptation to any particular often-repeated stimulus.  This could result in seeking ever-higher levels of stimulation, even above the pain threshold.  (This could affect a culture as well as an organism, giving the progression Vivaldi -> Bach -> Mozart -> Beethoven -> Wagner -> Stravinsky -> Berg -> screw it, let's invent rock and roll and start over.  My original belief was that this progression was caused by people trying to signal sophistication, rather than by honest enjoyment of music.  But maybe some people <DELETION of "jaded"> honestly enjoy Berg.)
  2. We have a "pain thermostat" to get us to explore / prevent us from being too cowardly, and modern life leaves us below our set point.  (Is masochism more prevalent now than in the bad old days?)
    1. An objection to this is that sometimes, when people are in emotional pain, they work through it by throwing themselves into further emotional pain (e.g., by listening to Pink Floyd).
      1. An objection to this objection is that primal scream therapy seems not actually to work except in the short term.
  3. Pain triggers endorphins in order to help us fight or flee, and it feels good.
  4. We enjoy fighting and athletic competition, and pain is associated with these things we enjoy.

My guess is that, if it's a side-effect (e.g., 3) or a non-causal association (4), it's okay to eliminate masochism.  Otherwise, that could be risky.

These all lead up to Question 4, which is a fun-theory question:  Would purging ourselves of masochism make life less fun?

ADDED: Question 5: Can we train ourselves not to be Bruce without damaging our enjoyment of these other things?

Comments (143)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 12 April 2009 07:20:08PM 5 points [-]

I don't think pain and failure are the same thing. I like spicy food quite a bit, and I think it's the intensity as much as anything.

On the other hand, my reaction is a straightforward "Oh goody! Spicy food!"-- the kick has nothing to do with a satisfaction in overcoming my own resistance. I believe a lot of the attraction of endurance sports (something I don't feel) is in the latter.

My impression is that masochism includes both motivations.

I believe that intensity is a very strong motivation-- for some people it's a stronger motivation than safety or the more comfortable aspects of pleasure.

And where people fit in the space of challenge/comfort/intensity/novelty isn't a single point, either. Someone might be sexually adventurous but only want food they're used to, or the other way around.

The funny thing is, when S&M first crossed my path and I was trying to understand it, I realized how much sadism there is floating around, too. Is fiction masochism because you're suffering along with the characters or sadism because you're watching them suffer?

Spectator sports have a wide sadistic streak, imho, which shows up in the emphasis on painful training and in the fans, preference for the athletes to keep going in the face of injury.


More for the list:

Seeking out reading material that outrages you.

Constantly reviewing one's failures and deficiencies in a way that doesn't actually offer any chance of improvement.


Thanks for the Bruce link-- I think it's very important. However, pain and failure aren't simply related. A masochist who's just had exactly the kind of fun they want isn't being Bruce. A masochist who keeps trying to get non-sadists to do sadistic stuff probably is.

Also, people seem to have different success/faliure comfort point in different parts of their lives.

I've read about a study which found that people's success in life had a lot to do with whether they were thin in high school (if female) or tall in high school (if male). Latter weight changes or growth spurts didn't matter.


A little more music history: As far as I can tell, more recent academic(?) music has moved back towards relative sweetness though not towards melody. The only name that's coming to mind is Taverner, though he's not the only one.

Comment author: clarissethorn 11 April 2009 07:16:03AM *  11 points [-]

Hi. I'm Clarisse Thorn, a BDSM educator and activist. I blog at [ http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/ ]. Props to Michael Bishop for directing me to your post.

Wow, where to begin. I'll try not to get too upset, but for me, this was a really bad start to your post:

::::::::::: Many people think of masochism as a sexual perversion :::::::::::

Why did you start right out by referring to BDSM as a "sexual perversion"? Couldn't you have chosen some less judgmental words? Seriously, it would have been so easy. You could have just said "sexual preference". Instead, you chose to use language loaded with stigma.

::::::::::: When we find ourselves acting masochistically, should we try to "correct" it? :::::::::::

Amazingly, people are different and do things for different reasons. I assume you agree. Perhaps this means that if people find themselves acting masochistically, they should take different actions depending on their individual personalities.

I don't have much to say about non-sexual masochism, but I have a lot to say about sexual masochism ....

Many people see BDSM as an inbuilt sexual identity or "orientation". In that case, "correcting masochism" would be like trying to "pray away the gay" -- it ain't gonna happen, and you're just going to damage people if you assert that it should. I absolutely, definitely consider myself to have BDSM "built in", and I resent any implication that it would ever be reasonable to tell me that I "shouldn't" do BDSM.

I do think that some people use masochism for self-harm that may be bad for them. And yes, sometimes even BDSM-masochism can be a self-harming mechanism ... but before someone goes there -- no, that is not an argument against BDSM in itself. If you think that BDSM-type masochism should be argued against because it can be a form of self-harm, then I request that you read this excellent post: [ http://sm-feminist.blogspot.com/2008/11/finer-point-on-it.html ]

::::::::::: If so, what's the evolutionary-psych explanation? :::::::::::

Well, I am of the camp that thinks evolutionary psychology almost always ends up being an excuse to create legit-sounding theories that back up what we think we already know. In other words, I think it's usually used as an instrument to reinforce current social norms.

But since I know you will discuss it anyway, I request that you examine your assumptions very thoroughly as you do so. You might consider being particularly critical of evol-psych theories that imply that:

1) masochism is always maladaptive,

2) sexual masochism is a particularly "bad" form of masochism,

3) women are more likely to be masochistic than men.

::::::::::: Is masochism more prevalent now than in the bad old days? :::::::::::

I doubt it. If you start seriously investigating the history of BDSM, for instance, you find examples that show how it's been around since the beginning of time. If you are interested in BDSM history, I recommend this excellent blog: [ http://beautyindarkness.blog.ca/ ]

::::::::::: I was surprised not to find any evo-psych explanations for masochism on the web; or even any general theory of masochism that tried to unite two different behaviors :::::::::::

Really? Where are you reading? Check out my blogroll for any number of excellent BDSM blogs that will provide any number of excellent BDSM theories from any number of angles.

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 April 2009 08:04:52AM 10 points [-]

I very often read things in this community that suggests that sexuality is very much not one of the matters on which they have succeeded in being rational.

For the record, I'm a practicing sadomasochist; I enjoy both sadism and masochism, and have a large range of paraphenalia to that end. I'm having an absolutely fantastic time with it, and though I know tastes differ, from where I'm sitting if you're not a sadomasochist then you're missing out on the great fun we're having.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 11 April 2009 09:13:03AM 9 points [-]

I very often read things in this community that suggests that sexuality is very much not one of the matters on which they have succeeded in being rational.

How can you tell, or what makes you say so? (It's an honest, non-rhetorical question.)

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 April 2009 07:59:17PM 6 points [-]

Not sure I can fit that into a comment - I might try and make a top-level post about it. Sorry! In the mean time I'll do what I've done before when asked to say more on a sexuality issue, which is to recommend the blog of Greta Christina.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 10:00:33PM 3 points [-]

I might try and make a top-level post about it.

Please, do.

Comment author: gjm 12 April 2009 12:35:54AM *  2 points [-]

from where I'm sitting if you're not a sadomasochist then you're missing out on the great fun we're having.

If it's possible for non-sadomasochists to fail to appreciate the fun sadomasochists have, surely it's also possible for sadomasochists to fail to appreciate the fun some other people have; unless you've somehow ruled out the possibility that you might be doing that, I don't see how you can be justified in assuming that others are missing out.

For instance, consider the following hypothesis (which, for the record, I think is extremely unlikely to be right): that what distinguishes sadomasochists isn't the ability to have a kind of fun that non-sadomasochists don't get, but the inability to get so much fun from "ordinary" sex without sadomasochistic accoutrements. If anything like that were true, then there'd be plenty of non-sadomasochists having just as much fun as the sadomasochists; do you know that no such thing is true?

Comment author: MBlume 12 April 2009 12:56:32AM 9 points [-]

I seem to recall Robin asking whether learning about wine increased your ability to take pleasure in good wine, or just spoiled your enjoyment of cheap wine.

Comment author: ciphergoth 12 April 2009 12:58:27AM 4 points [-]

That remark wasn't meant very seriously, sorry. When I say "from where I'm sitting" I mean to communicate the sense anyone who really likes X has, that if you don't really like X like they do then you're just missing out. It isn't true at all of course.

The hypothesis doesn't fit the data I have, in case you're curious.

Comment author: gjm 12 April 2009 01:25:05PM 0 points [-]

OK; sorry for misreading your tone. (And thanks for the extra data point about that hypothesis.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 April 2009 12:39:44AM 1 point [-]

You say it's extremely unlikely to be right. How do you know?

Comment author: ciphergoth 12 April 2009 11:27:22AM 3 points [-]

The "very unlikely" theory is the model by which an awful lot of people interpret the existence of sexual variation. See for example this dictionary definition of the word fetish against which I'm not a fetishist, which would seem like a rather counterintuitive conclusion. Or consider the standard diagnostic manual for mental illness in the United States, the DSM, which AFAICT uses the same model to discuss my "disorder".

Comment author: MBlume 12 April 2009 01:28:38AM 1 point [-]

I could've sworn there were some fairly recent studies on brain activity in BDSM practitioners, but my Google-Fu is failing me.

Comment author: gjm 12 April 2009 01:24:24PM 0 points [-]

No, I say I think it's extremely unlikely to be right, and I wouldn't use the word "know" to describe my epistemic situation about this. (Else I wouldn't have brought it up even as a hypothesis worth considering.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 April 2009 02:37:21PM 1 point [-]

Whether you say "think" or "know" doesn't matter; if your probability estimate is tilted one way, then you must think you have some kind of evidence already in hand which tilts it that way. What is it?

Comment author: gjm 12 April 2009 09:05:29PM 2 points [-]

Oh, sorry -- I didn't actually answer your question because I thought its point was not "I doubt that you have evidence to justify that opinion of yours" but "Since you presumably have evidence to justify that opinion of yours, what makes you think ciphergoth doesn't?", and since (1) what it takes to make my point is only that it be some way from certainty, and (2) ciphergoth has said he didn't mean what he said as literally as I took it, it seemed like the question was moot. But, since it turns out that you actually want an answer:

1. What (relatively little) I've read that's written by sadomasochists and that seems pertinent seems to point the other way. (For instance, I'm pretty sure I've read things by sadomasochists that seem to indicate that at least some of them have plenty of fun sometimes having non-sadomasochistic sex.)

2. Notice that for that hypothesis to be right, it's necessary that (at least for sadomasochists) sadomasochistic practices do in fact add something extra that enhances sex. So either (a) just about everyone finds, or would find if they tried it, that S&M makes sex better -- which doesn't appear to me to be likely -- or (b) the hypothesis in it's "what distinguishes sadomasochists is not X but Y" form is wrong, because in fact sadomasochists distinctively have property X too even if they also have Y.

3. There are rather a lot of sadomasochists. So, if the hypothesis is correct, either (a) there are an awful lot of people who lack the ability to enjoy sex "normally" (I hope it's clear that I have no normative intentions here), or (b) almost everyone finds, or would find, that S&M makes sex better, or (c) there's a substantial correlation between lacking the ability to enjoy sex "normally" and finding that S&M makes sex better. All three options seem improbable.

4. Gut feeling. (Which I shouldn't, and don't, trust very much; but I don't mind deferring some of my probability estimation to my gut in cases where the probabilities don't actually make much difference to my life. See also: jimrandomh's post "How much thought". If I were required to quantify "extremely unlikely" and then make a large bet at the resulting odds, I would give the question more thought and more research, and my estimate might well change in the process.)

Oh, and

5. I confess that I slightly overstated how unlikely I find the hypothesis, for the same reason as I emphasized that I don't think it likely: I am quite sure that sadomasochists are generally and rightly fed up of having such hypotheses thrown at them by people who do find them likely (or, worse, just assume they're right) and I wanted to minimize the risk of causing offence (both because I prefer not to offend people, and because when you offend someone you make it harder for them to respond rationally to what you say).

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 April 2009 09:11:47PM 3 points [-]

Fair enough! I wasn't quite asking for an answer of that length - rather I thought you might be holding ciphergoth to a higher standard of evidence than you were yourself, which is what struck me as unfair. (Especially since you seemed to have the same opinion!) My apologies for calling forth such a long comment. Incidentally your opinion and the given evidence seems to coincide pretty much with my own epistemic state as well.

Comment author: ciphergoth 13 April 2009 10:38:05AM 1 point [-]

This is really well thought out, thanks. Comments like this (including part 5) make me optimistic that we are succeeding in creating a more rational community.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 03:46:41PM *  5 points [-]

Why did you start right out by referring to BDSM as a "sexual perversion"?

Because it's making an interesting point; and because it's true. Many people do think of BDSM as a sexual perversion. I didn't invent this reality; I just live here. And the interesting point is that they might find it acceptable to do something similar in other areas of their life, perhaps just because sex isn't involved.

I didn't call it a sexual perversion. I said that "many people think of it as a sexual perversion." My post says that engaging in SM may be a lot like eating spicy food or watching horror movies. That's probably more sympathetic to your view than anything you'll find in mainstream media, or even in psychology journals.

I resent any implication that it would ever be reasonable to tell me that I "shouldn't" do BDSM.

If that means that you resent discussion of the idea, this website isn't right for you. We discuss things that make us uncomfortable, because we want to know the answer. (And the more uncomfortable the answer, the more interesting we find it. Perhaps it's our own special style of masochism. :)

You might consider being particularly critical of evol-psych theories that imply that: 1) masochism is always maladaptive,

It's almost impossible by definition for an evol-psych theory to imply that masochism is always maladaptive.

Check out my blogroll for any number of excellent BDSM blogs that will provide any number of excellent BDSM theories from any number of angles.

Could you post some links to specific pages discussing theories?

Comment author: clarissethorn 11 April 2009 05:13:24PM *  4 points [-]

:::::::::: Many people do think of BDSM as a sexual perversion. I didn't invent this reality; I just live here. ::::::::::

This answer strikes me as a bit facile. Sure, lots of people think of BDSM as a sexual perversion. Lots of people also consider it a sexual preference. You chose to use words that stigmatize BDSM, and you chose not to present words that don't stigmatize BDSM. You could have made the same point without using stigmatizing words. Stating that you have no opinion after the fact is an attempt to dodge responsibility for that.

The way we frame these things matters. I wouldn't have such a problem with what you said if you had at least noted the judgment inherent in the terms you used -- but you didn't. For instance, if you really have no negative judgments around BDSM, then you might have said something like: "Many people think of masochism as a sexual perversion, while others see it as a harmless sexual preference."

:::::::::: That's probably more sympathetic to your view than anything you'll find in mainstream media, or even in psychology journals. ::::::::::

Like those of people, the opinions presented in mainstream media and psychology journals vary. As it happens, I will be speaking at a psychology conference in May that's specifically intended to train psychology professionals in being more sensitive to BDSM-identified patients. (The conference will take place at Chicago's Center on Halsted.)

And again, by claiming that you've been more sympathetic to my opinions than "other" forms of media, you're trying to dodge responsibility for the fact that you presented a plainly judgmental viewpoint.

:::::::::: If that means that you resent discussion of the idea, this website isn't right for you. We discuss things that make us uncomfortable, because we want to know the answer. ::::::::::

Discuss the idea all you want. Just know, while you're "examining", that there are real people who have real masochistic needs whom you may really be stigmatizing with what you say. And the idea that you must "examine" this need in itself can be stigmatizing.

Perhaps I can illustrate this with an example: Would you even consider "examining" why gay people are gay? Why straight people are straight? I don't know this site very well. Maybe you would discuss those questions. But if you wouldn't, then perhaps it might be worth asking yourself why you think it's worth examining masochism and wondering what "causes" it, when you don't ask similar questions about straightness or LGBTQ or what have you.

For more on this, I recommend this post: [ http://sm-feminist.blogspot.com/2009/03/examination-burnout.html ]

:::::::::: Could you post some links to specific pages discussing theories? ::::::::::

I can try; I don't have a lot of time to hunt down specific posts, but I've read a lot on this topic and I might be able to come up with something. It would be helpful if you could ask a more specific question, though.

It's probably obvious that my personal favorite BDSM theory blog is SM-Feminist: [ http://sm-feminist.blogspot.com/ ]

But I don't think she has much truck with evol-psych, either, though I could be wrong.

Comment author: loqi 11 April 2009 05:39:51PM *  5 points [-]

And the idea that you must "examine" this need in itself can be stigmatizing.

That's an issue to take up with Socrates. We examine stuff.

Would you even consider "examining" why gay people are gay? Why straight people are straight? I don't know this site very well. Maybe you would discuss those questions.

You don't know this site very well. We would discuss those questions if they seemed relevant. An important category of discourse here is "examining what makes X people do Y" when Y runs counter to their other goals, as some of the masochism examples seem to do.

then perhaps it might be worth asking yourself why you think it's worth examining masochism and wondering what "causes" it, when you don't ask similar questions about straightness or LGBTQ or what have you.

Did you even click the "Followup to" link to see what the original context was for this discussion? People intentionally losing, people intentionally seeking "negative" emotional stimuli. Can you see how this might reasonably connect to masochism in particular, and not sexuality in general?

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 April 2009 06:16:00PM 6 points [-]

I do know this site very well, and I have to say the way the article refers to masochism got up my nose too. I think if we were going to discuss stuff like why straight people are straight, we'd take care that our audience didn't misunderstand our intent.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 April 2009 06:56:47PM 2 points [-]

Seconded.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 07:35:21PM 0 points [-]

How would you rephrase it?

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 April 2009 07:53:50PM *  6 points [-]

Good question. Here's a few thoughts - let me know if these are useful or whether you think I'm barking up the wrong tree.

  • As you say, the first thing people think of when you say "masochism" is sexual masochism; it's the root of the word and its primary meaning. I'd prefer to keep it that way than to extend it to cover self-defeating behaviour, which falls about as well on my ears as extending "gay" to mean "lame".

  • "Perversion" is judgemental in every other context and has been used to be judgemental about sexuality for years. A neutral word like "behaviour" or "activity" would serve just as well here.

  • This is harder to pin down, but I just don't get a feeling from the way you talk about us that you think of us as having a really good time. I promise you, in our own curious way we really are having a lot of fun.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 12 April 2009 05:02:06AM 1 point [-]

Okay, sorry, I didn't see this before.

As you say, the first thing people think of when you say "masochism" is sexual masochism; it's the root of the word and its primary meaning. I'd prefer to keep it that way than to extend it to cover self-defeating behaviour, which falls about as well on my ears as extending "gay" to mean "lame".

Hmm. I see your point. What Bruce has is called "masochistic personality disorder", but it could also be called "self-defeating personality disorder."

"Perversion" is judgemental in every other context and has been used to be judgemental about sexuality for years. A neutral word like "behaviour" or "activity" would serve just as well here.

I wanted to convey that many people have a judgmental attitude towards masochism, and yet don't have a judgemental attitude towards the other things on the list. If they truly are related, then that's a very interesting mental disconnect.

Comment author: ciphergoth 13 April 2009 10:39:14AM 4 points [-]

Thanks for making the changes you have to the article - they are big improvements from my point of view. It might be good to note in the article that it's been edited following this discussion, otherwise someone reading the comments might wonder what all the fuss is about!

Comment author: clarissethorn 15 March 2010 10:28:26AM 4 points [-]

Yeah, seriously ... I only just came back to this, and I'm rather surprised that a community like LessWrong will countenance editing posts without noting the edits.

Comment author: ciphergoth 12 April 2009 08:31:12AM 3 points [-]

It's not that surprising - sex is always treated as an exception

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 10:05:19PM 0 points [-]

I just don't get a feeling from the way you talk about us that you think of us as having a really good time. I promise you, in our own curious way we really are having a lot of fun.

So are people who eat food so spicy that many countries would classify it as a chemical weapon (please note that this is not an exaggeration for humorous effect).

The pleasure-pain connection is an interesting subject in multiple domains, even if Phil's phrasing was unfortunate.

Comment author: loqi 11 April 2009 08:41:57PM 0 points [-]

I'd hope we can spare some benefit of the doubt as whether or not someone's intent is bigoted and judgmental, rather than just slightly influenced in its phrasing by cultural norms (however unfair or misguided those happen to be), but I can see how it could be annoying.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 April 2009 08:48:43PM 4 points [-]

I've got to say, I was reading the original post and rolling my eyes, but it looked more like "Someone so naively square as to compare sexual masochism to eating spicy food" than "Someone actively bigoted".

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 11 April 2009 11:14:34PM *  15 points [-]

Note that one doesn't need to be actively bigoted in order to do harm. The vast majority of those who are slowing down the spread of rational thought aren't religious fundamentalists out to stop rationality; no, they're the completely innocent ones who unthinkingly pass on cached thoughts.

It's no different when it comes to attitudes concerning, say, BDSM. I don't for a moment think that Goetz was actively bigoted when he wrote that. That doesn't mean that he shouldn't have worded it differently. More generally... it's often dangerous to think "but (he isn't / I am not) bigoted", as if only active bigots could say harmful things. Once the harmfulness of what they're saying is pointed out to them, they automatically go on the defensive - after all, only bigots say bad things, and they're not a bigot, so the other person must simply be oversensitive.

This probably deserves a top-level post.

Comment author: clarissethorn 12 April 2009 06:25:11PM 3 points [-]

Yes. Exactly. This comment says everything I would have said, and probably more eloquently.

Comment author: mattnewport 11 April 2009 11:24:57PM 0 points [-]

What exactly do you mean by 'saying harmful things'? How are they harmful? If I firmly believe that someone should be allowed to pursue any activity they wish to as long as it doesn't cause injury to any non-consenting individuals, how is it harmful if I continue to consider that behaviour unusual, or even continue to view it negatively?

I believe there's are implicit assumptions underlying the claim that speech is 'harmful' that you need to make more explicit if you are going to expand this into a top level post. You may find that not everyone shares your assumptions.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 11 April 2009 11:39:29PM 3 points [-]

Well, the "Indeed, it's often dangerous..." wasn't referring to Goetz anymore, but was on a more general level (edited to make that clearer).

But anyway, by 'saying harmful things' I refer to saying things which propagate potentially close-minded attitudes which can do real harm to people. I'm by no means saying such speech should be banned - I am quite a strong advocate of freedom of speech, myself - but that doesn't mean it should be socially accepted, either.

For instance, if I read the comments below correctly, the original version of this post apparently said "socially acceptable behaviors" instead of "socially accepted behaviors". Saying that something "isn't socially acceptable" sounds pretty condemning. clarissethorn's criticism also has some merit. I don't really think that Goetz's post was very bad, but it did bring to mind the general phenomenon.

But yes, I will make the related assumptions more explicit if I get around expanding this. It's getting rather late here now, so I'm too tired to type up a much longer explanation right now.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 12 April 2009 01:12:21AM -1 points [-]

How would you rewrite the second sentence?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 12 April 2009 04:29:12PM 6 points [-]

Combining the second and third sentences:

"Many associate the term masochism with sexuality, but there are plenty of masochistic, non-sexual behaviors:"

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 11 April 2009 08:59:26PM 2 points [-]

Is that really naively square? Yes it seems obvious that sexual masochism is much more psychologically complex than that, but I'd be surprised if whatever it is that makes spicy food enjoyable weren't usually a factor as well.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 April 2009 09:08:46PM 3 points [-]

Well, simple way to test it. Just check out the prevalence of spicy food enjoyment among Ms versus the general population.

Comment author: loqi 11 April 2009 09:14:34PM -1 points [-]

I agree that spicy food and some others (fiction? really?) don't seem to fit. I'm objecting to Clarisse characterizing it as "presenting a judgmental viewpoint".

Comment author: clarissethorn 12 April 2009 06:33:16PM 4 points [-]

It is a judgmental viewpoint. Maybe he didn't mean it that way, but that doesn't mean it's not a judgmental viewpoint.

Comment author: clarissethorn 11 April 2009 05:58:53PM 4 points [-]

:::::::::: You don't know this site very well. We would discuss those questions if they seemed relevant. ::::::::::

Good!

I just think it's important for people who have these conversations to consider the point that "what's relevant" or "what's worthy of examination" is often, itself, socially constructed.

:::::::::: Can you see how this might reasonably connect to masochism in particular, and not sexuality in general? ::::::::::

Yes. But my concern is not masochism in general. I am responding to the ways in which sexual masochism has been framed in this discussion.

Sexual masochism is relevant -- it was brought up in the original post. I recognize that my comments may not directly address the main questions of the original post. But what I am hoping is that my comments shed some light on some aspects of the post, and encourage the writers here to consider what biases they are bringing to those aspects.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 11 April 2009 06:03:29PM *  2 points [-]

By the way, if you want to quote stuff, you can do it with a > at the beginning of the line.

Comment author: clarissethorn 11 April 2009 06:25:32PM 2 points [-]

Thanks!

Comment author: loqi 11 April 2009 09:10:42PM 0 points [-]

I just think it's important for people who have these conversations to consider the point that "what's relevant" or "what's worthy of examination" is often, itself, socially constructed.

Point taken. In this case, I thought the relevance was pretty clearly motivated by earlier discussion.

Yes. But my concern is not masochism in general. I am responding to the ways in which sexual masochism has been framed in this discussion.

It was "framed" by one pretty neutral statement, making the true observation that many people consider it a "sexual perversion". I object to your taking a statement like that as a cue to come "educate" the speaker on how judgmental he's being. He quite simply did not present a judgmental viewpoint. He made reference to a judgmental viewpoint. You're the one inferring some kind of endorsement from it.

Comment author: clarissethorn 12 April 2009 06:39:18PM 3 points [-]

Presentation is endorsement, unless it's framed with disclaimers.

Let's return to the LGBTQ example. Consider the following potential sentences:

"Many people think of homosexuality as a sexual perversion. But there are ordinary, socially-accepted behaviors that seem partly homoerotic to me:"

Would you call that a neutral statement? Would you claim so passionately that it revealed no bias on the part of the person who said it?

Comment author: loqi 12 April 2009 07:35:50PM 2 points [-]

Presentation is endorsement, unless it's framed with disclaimers.

Many people thought Hitler was a great leader.

Would you call that a neutral statement?

Yes.

Comment author: AllanCrossman 12 April 2009 06:55:55PM *  2 points [-]

I think you intended it to look like some sort of anti-gay rhetoric (didn't you?) so it's odd that it could be read as a pro-homosexual statement, i.e.:

"Many think homosexuality is a sexual perversion, but as I shall show, homoeroticism is perfectly ordinary and socially accepted in many arenas."

It's odd that nobody has defended Phil with the observation that the description of masochism as a possible sexual perversion was immediately followed by the word "but".

Update: This post no longer makes sense because the top-level post has been edited. :)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 12 April 2009 08:15:29PM *  1 point [-]

I want to get across the point that, if it's true that sexual masochism and other behaviors have some underlying pleasure mechanism in common, then it's remarkable that people demonize sexual masochism yet have no guilt about riding rollercoasters. I can't do that without saying something like "Many people think masochism is evil." There's no way to get my idea across without using negative terms.

(The thought just occurred to me as I wrote this: Maybe the puritans (the stereotypical puritans, as opposed to the real ones, whom I am less familiar with) were just being consistent! Seeing sexual pleasure as immoral should lead to seeing dancing, card-playing, and many other things as immoral.)

If I had just written

"There are ordinary, socially-accepted behaviors that seem partly masochistic to me",

that would be less neutral, as it would imply that I myself believed masochism was wrong.

I changed it. I think it's weaker and less interesting this way, but it's not in my advantage to repell people who have the expertise necessary for this conversation.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 12 April 2009 06:42:13PM *  1 point [-]

I don't think it reveals bias, so much as a lack of diplomacy.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 12 April 2009 10:30:00PM 0 points [-]

Hmm. I would object, but empirical evidence from other threads is compatible with the "lack of diplomacy" theory.

Sometimes rationalism is a bitch.

(Wait, am I doing it again?)

Comment author: GuySrinivasan 12 April 2009 07:42:47PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 08:12:42PM *  3 points [-]

If you jump into discussions of BDSM with moral accusations, and threaten people with social rejection unless they discuss it the way you want them to, you discourage people from talking about it at all. That's not to your advantage.

Thanks for the links - I'll look into them. I appreciate your sharing your knowledge.

Comment author: clarissethorn 12 April 2009 06:32:16PM *  5 points [-]

I made no moral accusations and I threatened no social rejection. I pointed out your bias. I did it with strong words; maybe I should apologize for that; I'm an orator, I don't usually run in specifically "rationalist" circles, and I'm used to a different kind of conversation.

In terms of discouraging discussion, here's what I think discourages discussion:

1) Any request for ideas that implies that people who have some experience with the matter at hand are "perverts" -- this insults and scares off people who could contribute to your discussion.

2) The implication that telling people they're being judgmental is the same as "threatening people with social rejection" or "making moral accusations" -- this tells potential commenters that if they call you out on your bias, you'll refuse to listen because you feel so hurt that someone called you biased.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 12 April 2009 07:02:19PM 2 points [-]

I think people here are used to being more "clinically detached" than you're used to. It's a bit of a clash of styles. You see PG above as judgmental, but I read him as trying to suggest a way of talking that would gain you better results.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 12 April 2009 08:27:59PM *  1 point [-]

The implication that telling people they're being judgmental is the same as "threatening people with social rejection" or "making moral accusations"

I didn't mean to imply that. I meant to say it clearly and unambiguously. It's the same to me.

How would you engage in discussion with someone who hates BDSM, if you don't want them to say anything negative about it?

And, yes, as long as you keep accusing me of bias, I'm not in the mood to talk about the actual content with you. I care more about defending my reputation than I do about the philosophy and psychology of masochism. Notice that we're not talking about content? That your participation is now impeding the conversation instead of facilitating it? The conversation should not be about my bias. People's opinion of my bias is important to me, so it's rational for me to spend all my time in this thread defending myself instead of addressing the issues I originally wanted to address. It isn't very important to anyone else, so I don't understand why you want to keep at it.

I suppose because you feel like I am accusing you of a moral lapse. The way for you to defend yourself against the charge of having made a gratuitous accusation of bias is to show that I'm biased; then the way for me to defend myself is to show that you made a gratuitous accusation.

Can we just call a truce?

Comment author: JulianMorrison 12 April 2009 09:21:19PM 0 points [-]

I care more about defending my reputation [...] People's opinion of my bias is important to me

Why?

Comment author: pjeby 11 April 2009 02:16:21AM 3 points [-]

But there are ordinary, acceptable behaviors

So, sexual perversion isn't ordinary or acceptable?

Pain triggers endorphins in order to help us fight or flee, and it feels good.

This is certainly an explanation consistent with BDSM usage of pain, and can be entirely independent of any sexual component.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 02:45:32AM 0 points [-]

So, sexual perversion isn't ordinary or acceptable?

No, by definition. I'm speaking descriptively, not normatively.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 11 April 2009 02:47:31AM *  5 points [-]

<pedant> "Acceptable" has strong normative connotations; "accepted" is unambiguously descriptive. </pedant>

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 03:01:11AM 0 points [-]

Good point.

Comment author: komponisto 11 April 2009 02:26:28AM *  1 point [-]

Vivaldi -> Bach -> Mozart -> Beethoven -> Wagner -> Stravinsky -> Berg -> screw it, let's invent rock and roll and start over

I'm afraid your model of music history is no better than your model of Eliezer's mind.

I don't want to get into the numerous problems with this right now, other than to say that it is supremely annoying when people speak about popular music (such as rock and roll) as if it were the "successor" of art music of the past. The successor to the art music of the past is the art music of the present. (That means all those composers you haven't heard of.) Rock and roll is in an entirely separate category.

As regards your list of "masochistic" phenomena, I don't see what the common thread is. You listed "fiction" in general without naming any authors, but when it came to music you singled out Berg and Webern. What's so special about these two composers? I'm guessing you don't like Berg, since you call anyone who does "jaded". (How much Berg do you even know?) But what's the connection between listening to composers of the Second Viennese School and listening to (whatever kind of) music so loudly that it hurts? And eating spicy food?

If these are all just things you don't like and others do, what makes you think that masochism is involved?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 02:38:44AM *  2 points [-]

You're reading way too much into that comment about rock and roll. The timeline isn't even right for it to be a serious model. But pop music is the cultural successor to orchestral music in this way: The energy and money that used to go into orchestral music, string quartets, piano recitals, etc., now go into pop music. It's seized that share of the public's attention.

I thought the connections would be obvious. I don't like Berg's music, at all, and I blame him and people who promoted the 2nd Viennese School for the death of great music. But it is not a list of things I don't like.

I say fiction is masochistic because we like to read about characters whom we like and identify with suffering. If a book's hero doesn't suffer, we don't like it. There's a larger story there, that usually has to do with overcoming obstacles. But then, maybe that's a part of the masochism story as well.

Comment author: komponisto 11 April 2009 03:15:24AM *  0 points [-]

The energy and money that used to go into orchestral music, string quartets, piano recitals, et. al, now go into pop music. It's seized that share of the public's attention.

What is this claim based on? The fact that you hear a lot more about both today's pop music and the art music of the past than the art music of the present?

If you think that "the public" used to be interested in art music to anything like the extent they're now interested in popular music, you're under the wrong impression. Serious music has pretty much always been an elite pursuit. Composers of the past worked for elite patrons who wrote the history of their time that we read; whereas today's composers don't get on the TV news, because the people that are interested in their work don't have the kind of political power that kings, nobles, and clergy used to.

In any case, whatever the fluctuations in the relative social status of serious music devotees, I'm quite confident that there is more actual interest (measured in person-hours) in the music of e.g. Mozart today than there has ever been in history.

ETA:

I don't like Berg's music, at all, and I blame him and people who promoted the 2nd Viennese School for the death of great music

Well, I love Berg's music (the Violin Concerto is sublimely beautiful). Great music is not at all dead, and I wish it were better respected. Especially in a place like this.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 04:54:33AM *  3 points [-]

If you think that "the public" used to be interested in art music to anything like the extent they're now interested in popular music, you're under the wrong impression.

Not everyone could attend concerts, but I have heard many references to musicians performing music by the same composers in small groups in coffeehouses, taverns, and other gathering places. In one of Robert Greenberg's music histories, he said, IIRC, that around 1800, 1 in 20 people in Vienna were professional musicians. You could walk into music shops there whose main business was selling sheet music for people to perform at home; today, a city of the size that Vienna was in 1800 (200,000) might have 2 to 8 such shops (based on my knowing cities of about 50,000 that have one such store; and on the fact that Music and Arts, the largest chain of music stores around here, has 5 stores serving a population of 5,000,000 in the Washington DC area.) Some composers made a living by selling their scores. Despite the reachable market now being many times larger (perhaps 100 times larger), I don't think anyone can do that today.

I could be wrong. I wasn't there. And the question of how popular Mozart was in his day is not as important to me as the fact that Mozart and Beethoven are popular today, while Schoenberg is not; history has already given its verdict against the 2nd Viennese School. I don't say these things in order to offend you. I apologize for using inflammatory language.

Comment author: arthurlewis 11 April 2009 05:27:14AM 2 points [-]

Sometimes history moves slowly. During his life, Bach was best known as an organist; sure, later composers studied and loved his work, but it wasn't until the mid 19th century that he started to get the reputation that he has now.

I think komponisto is implying that there was plenty of popular music back then as well, but most of those composers/performers didn't enter the canon.

However, I think there's another factor at play here - "art music" experienced the same academization and post-modernization that we saw in the visual arts. Serialism, musicque concrete, aleatory composition - all these things pushed the boundaries of what "music" actually meant, going against popular sensibilities in ways that (and I could be wrong here) the "art music" of previous centuries did not. The idea of linear stylistic progression totally breaks down once you get to the mid 20th century, so if you want to construct a convenient narrative, you've got to grab onto popular music or jazz.

I think the Second Viennese School tends to get singled out, because they are the major overlap between "music that some devotees of 'art music' really enjoy" and "music that some devotees of 'art music' think is too bizarre." If you go earlier, Mahler has too many fans, and later, people like Xenakis don't have enough.

Comment author: komponisto 11 April 2009 05:10:43PM *  1 point [-]

However, I think there's another factor at play here - "art music" experienced the same academization and post-modernization that we saw in the visual arts. Serialism, musicque concrete, aleatory composition - all these things pushed the boundaries of what "music" actually meant, going against popular sensibilities in ways that (and I could be wrong here) the "art music" of previous centuries did not

It's true that in the 20th century, art music became advanced beyond the point of being immediately accessible to most non-specialists. No one would deny this. But so what? Something similar happened in science as well: in previous centuries, any educated person could hope to understand the greatest work of the time, and even possibly contribute to it. Now, that's no longer the case.

This sort of progression is arguably inevitable. If people spend all their time refining some intellectual discipline, eventually, the results are going to require something like specialist training to properly apprehend. (That's not to say that casual listeners couldn't get a lot more out of advanced art music than they actually do, with suitable popularization efforts.)

The idea of linear stylistic progression totally breaks down once you get to the mid 20th century,

I dispute this entirely, and attribute this impression to our historical proximity. If you lived in the 18th century and were a connoisseur of music, Mozart and Haydn would have sounded a lot more different from each other than they do to us today -- because we can contrast with what came after. In a century or two, the progression of twentieth-century music won't seem very different in kind from what happened in earlier centuries.

Again, that's not to say that something different didn't happen in the twentieth century -- but every period has its unique developments.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 03:24:01PM *  1 point [-]

Sometimes history moves slowly. During his life, Bach was best known as an organist; sure, later composers studied and loved his work, but it wasn't until the mid 19th century that he started to get the reputation that he has now.

I thought someone would mention that. I think it's different. Schoenberg et al. were famous while they were alive. Their works were performed publicly, and adored by the cogniscenti, for decades. Bach grew into public favor. Schoenberg fell out of public favor. He had every chance the music establishment could give him, and still fell out of favor.

(BTW, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all made special studies of Bach's music in the 18th century; so I'm skeptical of the "Bach had no reputation as a composer" argument.)

Also note that the time between when Bach wrote the St. Matthew Passion in 1727, and when Mendelssohn "revived" it in 1829, was only 102 years. We've already had 100 years of Schoenberg.

Also note that Bach is always brought up in this context because he is such a notable exception in that way

However, I think there's another factor at play here - "art music" experienced the same academization and post-modernization that we saw in the visual arts. Serialism, musicque concrete, aleatory composition - all these things pushed the boundaries of what "music" actually meant, going against popular sensibilities in ways that (and I could be wrong here) the "art music" of previous centuries did not.

I agree completely.

Comment author: arthurlewis 11 April 2009 04:30:26PM 1 point [-]

I don't think Schoenberg ever had public favor. He may have had the favor of the "elite" music audience, but, as I understand it, the public at large was listening to early jazz. Maybe this is my American bias; I'm not sure.

I see your point about Bach; I always had the impression that composers knew about him, but the masses didn't. I could be wrong. What were people in their homes actually playing in the 18th and 19th centuries? Whose music were they going to see? The question of whether or not "popular music" has replaced the music of the canonical composers from a cultural standpoint hinges on these answers that I don't have.

Comment author: komponisto 11 April 2009 04:52:41PM 0 points [-]

Schoenberg et al. were famous while they were alive. Their works were performed publicly, and adored by the cogniscenti, for decades.

And this is still the case! There's been no "falling out of favor". On the one hand, you have elite musicians, who mostly admire Schoenberg; on the other hand, you have musical laypeople, who mostly don't. Same as it's always been!

You've already demonstrated before that you don't know what's going on in music today. Why do you keep making authoritative-sounding pronouncements on the matter?

(BTW, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all made special studies of Bach's music in the 18th century; so I'm skeptical of the "Bach had no reputation as a composer" argument.)

He had a tremendous reputation as a composer -- among those in a position to know about his work. That wasn't a very large group.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 05:23:39PM 0 points [-]

No; I was contrasting Schoenberg with Bach. Given the chance, most people liked Bach. Given the chance, most people didn't like Schoenberg.

Schoenberg may be good for people with decades of specialized training. Having fashion dictated by those people with specialized training resulted in a peacock's-tail runaway selection, and the effective extinction of the greatest family of music in history. IMHO.

Comment author: komponisto 11 April 2009 05:37:17PM 2 points [-]

You can't have it both ways. Your faction can't be both the underdog and the triumphant party at the same time. If Schoenberg et al fell out of favor and ended up in the dustbin of musical history, then you can't complain about his influence. If, on the other hand, you think he is responsible for the "extinction of the greatest family of music in history", then you must concede that he is still taken seriously by those in the know.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 10:08:10PM 1 point [-]

You can't have it both ways. Your faction can't be both the underdog and the triumphant party at the same time.

Can't you?

Comment author: komponisto 11 April 2009 06:10:03AM *  -1 points [-]

In one of Robert Greenberg's music histories, he said, IIRC, that around 1800, 1 in 20 people in Vienna were professional musicians.

Even granting this statistic, this is highly selective reporting. Vienna has historically been a musical center, and was especially so at that time. The situation there was hardly typical of European society as a whole. And the phenomenon of high-quality music being played in gathering places hasn't disappeared either: buskers play Bach, and recently I heard Beethoven's 7th symphony come on between jazz selections in a coffee shop.

Mozart and Beethoven are popular today, while Schoenberg is not; history has already given its verdict against the 2nd Viennese School

That is silly and presumptuous. "Popularity" is hardly an appropriate metric for judging "the verdict of history" on a form of advanced creative intellection. I can assure you that the Second Viennese School is held in high esteem by expert composers and music theorists.

Besides -- if "history" has "ruled against" the Second Viennese School, why are you complaining about the "death of great music" resulting from their influence?

I don't say these things in order to offend you. I apologize for using inflammatory language.

That's good; but there's also a larger issue here. Assertions about music should be held to the same level of scrutiny as assertions about anything else. (As a result of discussions like this, I may be tempted at some point to do a post on rationality as it relates to the arts.)

Comment author: arthurlewis 11 April 2009 02:01:04PM 2 points [-]

I would love to read and comment on such a post. I would take issue with the widespread use of terms like "good," "high-quality," "real," and "art" to differentiate the Western canon of choral/orchestral music from everything else that's out there. I'm sure there are many jazz composers and theorists who wouldn't give Berg or Webern the time of day. And buskers play all kinds of music - it doesn't have to be Bach or Beethoven to be meaningful.

In terms of the Second Viennese School, what I should have said in my previous comment is that there's a popular misconception that Schoenberg was the one who tipped the linear progression past the point of contemporary accessibility. i.e. that while Bach's contemporaries, for example, may not have known his music, they were not freaked out by it. But this seems to be a pretty common thing in musical history - new composer comes along, people say "what the hell is that guy doing? ack, the impropriety!" and decades or centuries later, everybody gets it. Popularity is a fine metric for judging the verdict of history; you just have to wait until it's actually history.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 21 March 2011 04:09:18PM 0 points [-]

I'm sure there are many jazz composers and theorists who wouldn't give Berg or Webern the time of day.

That's true. However, I'm using this as a hook to recommend "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" by Charles Mingus. Jazz meets twelve tone, and it's the only music which at least made me feel more intelligent for listening to it-- probably a result of the music being more complex than I'm used to and very enjoyable.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 04:50:18PM *  0 points [-]

Beethoven consciously rebelled against the rules, so it's true at least for him. You can find many instances of contemporary music critics panning Haydn, Beethoven, and all the greats, and make them sound like people didn't understand them. I don't know how to interpret this, because I would bet that every composer had music critics write bad things about them.

BTW, it's possible that Bach was pushed into obscurity by music critics. Baroque music was unfashionable in the late 18th century, for political reasons. Simple melodies were believed to be more Republican. So perhaps we can blame the academics for suppressing Bach, as well as for trying to push Schoenberg on us. :)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 21 March 2011 04:05:55PM 0 points [-]

I'm interested in why there isn't a parallel track of new music for orchestral instruments which is written for the general public. Admittedly, there's movie music, but that seems very limited compared to what's possible if there were original compositions.

Comment author: komponisto 22 March 2011 04:00:37PM 1 point [-]

I'm interested in why there isn't a parallel track of new music for orchestral instruments which is written for the general public

There is. In fact most new orchestral music falls into this category. (The advanced stuff is difficult to perform and is generally only done by elite orchestras.) It just doesn't have the same prestige as the old classics or the new advanced stuff.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 22 March 2011 06:49:42PM 0 points [-]

Recommend some pieces and/or composers?

Is it possible that it has less prestige because it just isn't as likable for most people as the many sorts of competing music?

Comment author: komponisto 23 March 2011 12:15:09AM -1 points [-]

Recommend some pieces and/or composers?

Not particularly. :-)

But seriously, if you go to a concert by your local orchestra, there will often be a premiere of a new piece by some local composer which will sound like band music written for orchestra. (Unless your local orchestra is the New York Philharmonic or something. But even then, most new music will tend to be on the conservative side -- people such as Rouse or Harbison, rather than Babbitt or Ferneyhough.)

Is it possible that it has less prestige because it just isn't as likable for most people as the many sorts of competing music?

Usually it's plenty "likable", it just isn't particularly impressive.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 March 2011 01:39:43AM 0 points [-]

OK, it's likable, but it isn't lovable. Any theories about the shortage of lovable new music for orchestra?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 21 March 2011 04:03:09PM 0 points [-]

There's a larger topic there-- fiction composed entirely of events which are pleasant for the characters simply doesn't work for human beings, even though logically, such fiction should be possible.

I've asked around, and while there's a wide range of experimental fiction, no one seems to do the experiment of writing a "story" which consists entirely of friends getting together for a good meal and pleasant conversation, with nothing at all going wrong and not the faintest threat on even the most remote horizon. No tension, no nasty gossip, no discussion of scary world events.

This is apparently farther outside what we normally call fiction than "Waiting for Godot" is.

A different angle about the history of music-- I've got two examples, and I don't know whether I've got a worthwhile pattern.

When harmony was getting more dissonant in classical music, it was at least getting more complex in popular music. If my sample of civil war music is accurate, harmony was very sweet and simple-- ragtime had much more complex chords.

My other example is that melody has become much less important in both popular and classical music.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 21 March 2011 04:18:52PM 5 points [-]

no one seems to do the experiment of writing a "story" which consists entirely of friends getting together for a good meal and pleasant conversation, with nothing at all going wrong and not the faintest threat on even the most remote horizon.

Well, there is a certain fictional genre of which a large component comprises vignettes involving people getting together for mutually enjoyable social interaction, with no threats and indeed not much reference to anything outside of that interaction.

It is, admittedly, an extremely low-status genre... but it enjoys a certain robust-though-discreet popularity nonetheless, both in text and video. (Albeit I suspect more the latter than the former.)

Not sure what, if anything, follows from this.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 12:47:15AM 1 point [-]

Several of the items on your list have straightforward explanations that are variations on 3. In partiular, horror movies and rollercoasters are a controlled means of inducing fear for the emotional response it causes; and spicy food, if by that you mean food with substantial capsaicin levels, is a controlled and completely safe means of inducing arbitrary levels of pain in order to enjoy the resulting endorphin high.

On the other hand, while I'm not familiar with Alban Berg, I voluntarily listen to "music" that probably puts his work to shame in terms of apparent unpleasantness, and intuitively suspect 1 is the most accurate explanation of this. And no, I gain no benefit of signalling status or sophistication from this, as most people's response to said music is to wish not to speak with me.

Comment author: arthurlewis 11 April 2009 04:41:28AM 3 points [-]

Ah, but status-based behaviors aren't necessarily calculated based on present circumstances. e.g. I became somewhat of a grammatical pedant growing up to gain the approval of teachers, parents, etc.; although it's now an annoying behavior to those around me, the habit still exists.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 10:22:56AM -2 points [-]

Well, if there's any status-based aspect to my musical tastes I'm not aware of them and can't even imagine what they would be--some sort of status signalling by generalized breadth of taste, perhaps? But that's pretty dodgy because there are sound reasons to expect an innate urge to try new stimuli independent of social status.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 April 2011 02:29:37AM 1 point [-]

Question 2: Doubtless some of the behaviors I listed have completely different explanations, some of which might not involve masochism at all. Which do you think involve enjoying pain? Can you cluster them by causal mechanism?

None of the examples necessarily involve the enjoyment of pain so they don't necessarily fit the technical meaning of masochism. They do fit the colloquial definition of masochism though, which is somewhat different. More along the lines of 'enjoying doing things that make you feel like a tough badass even though pain may be an undesired side effect'. I do that kind of thing (and most of your list) rather enthusiastically but don't enjoy pain itself much at all. Sure, if running marathons didn't hurt they would lose some of their appeal - but only indirectly and because it'd mean anyone could be doing them.

Comment author: sgr 22 April 2009 01:55:13AM *  1 point [-]

The psychologist Michael Bader recently wrote a rather nice book that touches on this subject, called Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies.

His analysis of masochism (among many other things) is that it helps the masochist feel safe in a way that allows their desire freedom to be expressed.

For example:

  • a person worried about the intensity of his desire hurting his partner might normally self-inhibit; but when tied up, he can see he has no scope to hurt his partner, and thus let his sexuality run free at full intensity -- because it's safe to do so.
  • a person exceedingly focused on pleasing his partner might be less able to focus on his own body's sensations; but when presented with a demonstrably strong, happy partner taking what he/she wants, it's safe to set that worry aside.

Bader points out that these are brilliant solutions to the problems posed by pathological beliefs ("I might hurt my partner unless I control myself", or "I must reserve all my attention for my partner and not myself", ...). In therapeutic contexts, helping people understand these reasons for their desires makes them less guilty, and able to think of their particular desire as simply something any reasonable person would enjoy, given their psychological makeup.

Comment author: TimFreeman 13 April 2011 12:41:19AM *  1 point [-]

Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies

Thanks, I'll check that out.

pathological beliefs ... "I might hurt my partner unless I control myself"

I'm not sure that's pathological. I've read a few independent reports of broken penises from an overenthusiastic woman on top. I've also been warned that some people clench their teeth during orgasm, which can make some types of oral sex a problem.

I agree that the proposed examples solve the problems posed by the beliefs, whether true or not.

a person worried about the intensity of his desire hurting his partner might normally self-inhibit; but when tied up, he can see he has no scope to hurt his partner, and thus let his sexuality run free at full intensity -- because it's safe to do so.

That's bondage, not masochism.

a person exceedingly focused on pleasing his partner might be less able to focus on his own body's sensations; but when presented with a demonstrably strong, happy partner taking what he/she wants, it's safe to set that worry aside.

That's domination, not masochism.

Your examples are interesting, but they aren't helping to understand masochism. Perhaps there's some other example from the book you cited that pertains to masochism?

Comment author: saturn 12 April 2009 08:19:26PM *  1 point [-]

I'll add another hypothesis. There are plenty of simple, harmless ways to induce pain of almost unlimited intensity, while doing the same with pleasure tends to involve nasty side-effects. Due to neuroplasticity, we can train ourselves to get our pleasure/pain wires crossed, thereby making intense pleasure "cheaper."

This would explain why children often at first dislike spicy food, horror films, roller coasters, etc.

I'm not sure how much this applies to "being Bruce."

Comment author: jimrandomh 12 April 2009 09:10:16PM 1 point [-]

Due to neuroplasticity, we can train ourselves to get our pleasure/pain wires crossed

I find this claim highly suspicious, because the little bit I know about neurobiology tells me that pain and pleasure are controlled by neurotransmitter chemicals, not by synapse connections (wiring), and so it should not be possible to cross them except by genetic defect.

Comment author: saturn 12 April 2009 10:12:55PM 2 points [-]

If you deny that a "masochistic" response to unpleasant stimuli can be developed and strengthened over time, we might be too far apart epistemically to have a productive discussion. I've seen it happen enough that I consider it a transparent fact.

If you agree that this happens but deny that it's an effect of neuroplasticity, what do you propose instead?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 April 2009 10:21:45PM 2 points [-]

Does anyone know of any actual case of a sexual masochist having been produced by learning/training/conditioning in which the person definitely was not a masochist to start with? (Begs the question of how, exactly, they ended up undergoing the said conditioning...)

Comment author: wedrifid 13 April 2011 02:34:29AM 3 points [-]

Just give me a sec while I get my proposal past the ethics committee...

Comment author: pjeby 12 April 2009 10:35:16PM 6 points [-]

Does anyone know of any actual case of a sexual masochist having been produced by learning/training/conditioning in which the person definitely was not a masochist to start with? (Begs the question of how, exactly, they ended up undergoing the said conditioning...)

Actually, it raises another question, which is, how can you establish that a person was "definitely not a masochist to start with"? After all, if you've never tried it, how would you know?

Does it count if the person was curious before you brought up the subject? Expressed an interest in trying it after you brought it up? Had prior rape fantasies?

How would you consider the analagous situation, where somebody's never tried a spicy food before? How do you know they're not already predisposed to like or dislike spiciness?

It might be more useful to ask, can you increase a person's sexual response to pain through learning and conditioning... but of course the answer to that is not just yes, but hell yes. (Same for sexual response to sadism -- many people learn to become aroused as dominants or sadists simply through repeated exposure to their partner's arousal and happiness as the recipient of their attentions.)

Comment author: CronoDAS 28 April 2010 11:50:22PM 2 points [-]

I once met someone who claimed to have trained people to be masochists. (It was at a rather weird convention, and he was demonstrating "knife play" - stimulating someone by lightly running knife blades across their skin without cutting them.)

Comment author: wedrifid 13 April 2011 02:35:41AM 0 points [-]

stimulating someone by lightly running knife blades across their skin without cutting them.

Does that hurt? With particularly sharp instruments even actually cutting yourself doesn't necessarily hurt straight away.

Comment author: khafra 13 April 2011 03:04:04PM 1 point [-]

It doesn't if you're not afraid, but fear and pain are highly interrelated and both have proximal places on the BDSM spectrum.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 13 April 2011 02:37:23AM 0 points [-]

It might be possible to get people who don't self-identify as masochists to volunteer for such a test. Unfortunately, it would be very difficult to distinguish the actual non-masochists and the people who have weak tendencies in that regard.

Comment author: saturn 13 April 2009 12:16:38AM *  0 points [-]

With sexual masochism, I think the conditioning generally starts with fantasies. Obviously this is hard to test, but I still like the explanation because of the parsimony with developing a taste for spicy or bitter foods, learning to enjoy frightening experiences, and so on; in those cases the progression from nonenjoyment to enjoyment seems obvious.

Edit: To (hopefully) avoid seeming naively square, I'm not saying these experiences are comparable or that anyone can learn to be sexually masochistic, only that the formation of these preferences could share a common mechanism.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 13 April 2009 12:34:31AM -1 points [-]

Sounds ripe for self-experimentation. How curious are you? ;-D

Comment author: wedrifid 13 April 2011 02:33:39AM 1 point [-]

This does not necessarily follow. The neurotransmitter chemicals can remain the same but whole areas of the brain can be rewired such that the area processing the pain can be connected differently to the rest of the brain, including an area which experiences pleasure.

(This is not an endorsement of the grandparent.)

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 11 April 2009 09:09:05PM 1 point [-]

I was surprised not to find any evo-psych explanations for masochism on the web; or even any general theory of masochism that tried to unite two different behaviors.

Keith Henson's Evolutionary Psychology, Memes, and the Origins of War suggests an explanation in passing.

Comment author: HughRistik 13 April 2009 03:03:27AM *  1 point [-]

I suspect that evolutionary explanations of masochism suck for the same reasons that evolutionary explanations of homosexuality suck: these sexual orientations are the product of developmental factors, rather than being evolved adaptations. Purely social/environmental explanations are also pretty bad.

Homosexuality is related to certain developmental factors, particularly prenatal hormones. There's some preliminary evidence that masochists are more likely to be queer: BDSM practioners disproportionately report non-heterosexual orientations relative to the general population (one example: this study found rates of 51.9% and 20.6% for female and male bisexuality, which is way above the general population, though this sample wasn't random). If homosexuality is related to developmental influences, and masochism is correlated with queerness, then I would hypothesize that masochism is related to developmental influences, also.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 15 April 2009 04:49:29AM 5 points [-]

BDSM practioners disproportionately report non-heterosexual orientations relative to the general population

I've always chalked this up to the conjecture that once you've personally accepted, or interpersonally admitted, one minority sexual preference, you're probably more likely to accept/admit others. The effect you cite sounds too strong to be explained just by that, though.

Comment author: ciphergoth 15 April 2009 09:17:11AM 4 points [-]

I don't see any reason why what you suggest wouldn't be a very strong effect.

Comment author: arthurlewis 11 April 2009 01:39:14PM 1 point [-]

What about 5. Linkage to another belief that causes us to associate so-called masochistic behavior with something good?

Some people like BDSM because they like the feeling of someone being else in control. Some people like being hit because they associate it with the love of their parents. Some people wallow in bad feelings because that's how they learned to get attention.

I think question 2 is an important one. These behaviors can be logically grouped together as "masochistic', but the kinds of "bad" that they move towards are completely different. You're talking physical pain, confusion, fear, exhaustion, self-judgment, identifying with "suffering," etc. I don't think there's anything to be gained by combining them into one category. If we want to talk real masochism, I think the cleanest solution would be to stick with the enjoyment of physical pain.

Anyone gonna weigh in on the old pleasure and pain two-sided coin?

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 April 2009 01:49:01PM *  4 points [-]

None of your ideas ring in the least bit true for me as an explanation of why I like BDSM. I think the original article is much closer to the mark in linking it to the enjoyment of spicy food, horror movies, rollercoasters, computer games, or intellectual challenges.

Comment author: HughRistik 12 April 2009 11:25:05PM 4 points [-]

I second pretty much everything said by ciphergoth in this thread.

I think it's clearer if the word "masochism" is reserved for sexual masochism. While some items on Phil's list might be related to masochism, but with others, the link is more tenous. For instance, masochism and self-defeating behavior are really different phenomena. Spicy food is probably closer than something like exercise or videogames.

Masochism also also has some psychological characteristics that are different from anything on the list, such as subspace).

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 April 2009 11:26:32PM 4 points [-]

You mean you've never heard of a Thai food lover going into spicespace?

Comment author: steven0461 13 April 2009 12:54:42AM *  2 points [-]

Not me -- personally I'm all the way over at the tame end of the spice/tame-continuum.

Comment author: steven0461 13 April 2009 12:10:26AM *  0 points [-]

I think it's clearer if the word "masochism" is reserved for sexual masochism.

If so, what should we call the more general phenomenon of "deriving pleasure from one's own pain/suffering" (and, for sadism, "deriving pleasure from other people's pain/suffering")? The latter thing, especially, seems to me to be just about the worst thing in the world, and it would be a great tragedy if, out of an overzealous desire to avoid bigotry, we lost the ability to criticize and be emotionally resolved against it.

Comment author: HughRistik 13 April 2009 01:59:58AM 3 points [-]

If so, what should we call the more general phenomenon of "deriving pleasure from one's own pain"

I don't know, but not "masochism." Whether these behaviors even hang together as a "general phenomenon" is an empirical question that is not yet answered. Let's look at some of Phil's examples:

  • Listening to music turned up so loud that it hurts

Are people who do this actually enjoying the pain, or they merely tolerate it because they like loud music?

  • Movies, especially horror movies
  • Roller coasters

I once read that one of the main enjoyments in horror movies is not watching it, but the relief afterward; if true, this would be a difference from masochism. Another difference from masochism is that horror movies may be experienced as scary, while in masochism, sensations that would normally be painful are not necessarily experienced as painful.

However, a component that horror movies share with masochism and rollercoasters is arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. fight-or-flight). Whether horror movies also result in release of endorphins, like exercise and masochism, I don't know.

  • Enjoying exercise

My guess is that in painful exercise, people aren't really deriving pleasure from their pain. Rather, pain is signifying that they are getting closer to their exercise goals, and is linked to feelings of accomplishment. People may derive pleasure from endorphins released during exercise, which would be a similarity with masochism. Furthermore, exercise may involve an altered state of mind, like masochism.

  • Being Bruce

For this point, we do have a name: self-defeating behavior. There may be many motives for self-defeating behavior, such as insecurity, negative self-concept, or desire to be right about beliefs that limit oneself. Although these factors may coexist with masochism in some people, there is no reason to believe that the link is necessary or that they are part of masochism. There is also currently know evidence that self-defeating behavior is linked to certain factors in masochism, such as arousal of the sympathetic nervous system or release of endorphins.

As for masochism itself, it's misleading to describe it as "deriving pleasure from one's own pain." Sensations that non-masochists might experience as pain (or masochists themselves when not aroused), masochists might not experience as pain, but rather as pleasure or stimulation. In The Social Dimension of Sex, Roy Baumester suggests that masochism involves temporary escape from the self (which to me, is plausible as a factor in masochism, but not as a complete explanation). This would be a similarity with exercise, videogames, and perhaps horror movies. However, the particular self-escaping mental state would be different: the flow state) of exercise and videogames is not the same state as subspace. Escaping oneself is different from defeating oneself, which requires a self to defeat.

In Phil's supposedly masochistic pursuits, there are actually a bunch of completely different factors: - Experiencing typically painful sensations as pleasure - Experiencing pain, but as information about one's success - Seeking pain or failure as confirmation of one's insecurities - Escaping the self - Enjoying sympathetic nervous system arousal - Enjoying endorphins - Enjoying the relief you feel after pain or discomfort - Sexual pleasure

Something else to emphasize about masochism is the sexual element, particularly the link to sexual submission (though submissiveness and masochism are not the same thing). In my view, there is something fundamentally different about the psychology of masochists from typical "vanilla" people, and perhaps a biological difference also; that's why I like the description of BDSM interests as a different sexual orientation, or set of sexual orientations. It's problematic to take the psychology of this taxon of people, and generalize from it to the psychological traits of the general population.

Most of Phil's items, including sexual masochism, have some similarities with all other items, and fundamental differences from all the other items. Not all these phenomena are accurately described as deriving pleasure from one's pain, and they can't be fit into the term masochism; doing so will lead to more analytical confusion than clarity.

and, for sadism, "deriving pleasure from other people's pain")? The latter thing, especially, seems to me to be just about the worst thing in the world, and it would be a great tragedy if, out of an overzealous desire to avoid bigotry, we lost the ability to criticize and be emotionally resolved against it.

First, I should say that my objections to Phil's post are not on the grounds of bigotry. Second, I agree with you we should not lose our ability to criticize terrible things due to a politically correct avoidance of "labeling" and necessary categorizations.

Yet the need to morally condemn something shouldn't make us careless about how we categorize it. Like masochism, "sadism" is often used in a non-rigorous way. Enjoying giving someone pain in a safe, sane, and consensual context, is different from the behavior of sexually-motivated serial killers, who do not care about consent and have genuine impulse-control problems. And giving sexually-motivated pain is different from enjoying giving pain out of hatred, experimentation, or political motivations.

In my view, the word sadism should be reserved for when there is a sexual motivation. Otherwise, describing killers and mass-murderers as "sadistic" obscures the many non-sexual motivations behind killing. Although sexually-motivated serial killers are highly cognitively accessible due to the availability heuristic, the "worst thing in the world" (at least in the sense of the body count caused) is probably not sexually motivating killing, but rather political and ideological related killing.

Comment author: arthurlewis 11 April 2009 02:10:06PM 1 point [-]

Ciphergoth, I'm proposing that 5 is another option, not that it should replace the ones he's already proposed. I don't know much about BDSM, but I assume it covers a much wider spectrum than the enjoyment of pain. My main point, which I didn't express clearly enough, is that the term "masochism" is being seriously overloaded in the post. Personally, I can see a connection between spicy food and intellectual challenges (both put me into an excited and forward-moving state, although for propbably different reasons), but horror movies and rollercoasters go into a completely different category (just being scary).

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 04:17:42PM 0 points [-]

You might be right; in which case there's no underlying motivational mechanism, and no reason not to split off any one behavior (whether SM or being Bruce) and eliminate it if we choose to, without fear of harming our enjoyment of the others.

That would be disappointing, because if there is an underlying mechanism, it would have interesting psychological and ethical consequences. (I'm biased towards conclusions that have more consequences. Is that an irrational but useful bias?)

Comment author: CronoDAS 11 April 2009 02:33:19AM 1 point [-]

Playing extremely difficult video games, such as I Wanna Be The Guy, seems to be another form of entertainment related to masochism.

Also, rock music seems to be part of its own progression, based on slightly earlier styles such as blues, ragtime, and jazz, which have their roots in African music.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 02:46:46AM *  0 points [-]

Playing extremely difficult video games, such as I Wanna Be The Guy, seems to be another form of entertainment related to masochism.

For the benefit of anyone reading this: no, you don't wanna be the guy. Trust me.

Also, I again recomend Nethack, as both a masochistic game and one with possible relevance to applying rationality.

Comment author: CronoDAS 11 April 2009 06:07:22AM *  0 points [-]

Ah, Nethack. One of my favorites.

[bragging] I ascended an Archeologist once! [/bragging]

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 10:34:50AM *  0 points [-]

I ascended an Archeologist once!

Congratulations on being in the top, er... (small number)% of nethack players!

I ascended a Tourist after successfully running the protection racket. Sadly I did it playing locally, not on a public server, so I don't have a public record of this, and I've not had much time for playing nethack lately in order to try again on nao.

After the discussion of M:tG I've actually been trying to think of possible lessons on rationality that could be drawn from nethack; it's an interesting case because it's very difficult, but virtually every death is caused by pure player error.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 11 April 2009 04:57:34PM *  1 point [-]

virtually every death is caused by pure player error.

Wow, that is not my impression. Nethack inflicts random sudden death. Nethack works dramatically by repeatedly putting you in situations where you have to choose between certain death and possible death.

I've never read the source code, so my perspective is limited. Does your view of nethack as a rationality game consider reading the source code to be cheating, or to be a prerequisite for playing?

I'm undecided on whether to call optimal Nethack playing "rational" or "using a big lookup table".

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 11 April 2009 05:51:05PM 3 points [-]

Wow, that is not my impression. Nethack inflicts random sudden death. Nethack works dramatically by repeatedly putting you in situations where you have to choose between certain death and possible death.

There are a few sudden deaths not caused by some degree of player error, all in the early game, but even those could be avoided most of the time with sufficiently paranoid play (that most people would find crushingly dull). Beyond annoying things like gnomes with Wands of Death or spike pits with lethal poison, most deaths are caused by reckless combat or failing to take appropriate countermeasures against certain monster types. Skilled nethack players have win ratios of over 60%, vs. people who play for years and never win once.

As evidence, on nethack.alt.org's top deaths list, 10 of the 11 most common game ends are "killed by a (weak monster)", all of which are likely to be player error, including "killed by a water moccasin", which is all but guaranteed to be egregious player error. The 3rd most common is "killed by a wand", which encompases one of the most common "unfair" deaths as well as a fair number of player error deaths. The 12th most common "death" is winning the game. After that, the 13th is again egregious player error, after which are piles more deaths by careless combat, with a few "killed by a *, while helpless" deaths that are again egregious player error.

Reading the source code isn't cheating per se--it certainly doesn't guarantee winning--but it's not required, either. There are a handful of simple spoilers that help a great deal, but most of what you really NEED to know could fit on an index card. Among regular nethack players, almost all are "spoiled" to the hilt, but huge variance in success remains, because some people are better at making rational, methodical estimations of what they can safely do to advance the in-game goals.

Comment author: Vaniver 13 April 2011 02:50:50AM 0 points [-]

Question 3: When we find ourselves acting masochistically, should we try to "correct" it? Or is it part of a healthy human's nature? If so, what's the evolutionary-psych explanation?

Um. The evolutionary-psych explanation is Azathoth does not care about your happiness. If there are instances where masochism makes one more likely to win, then masochists will survive. It seems obvious that there are, especially if that masochism is context-sensitive.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 12 April 2009 05:13:40AM *  0 points [-]

Webern is actually on my playlist. 5 Movements isn't unpleasant, and 2 Arrangements of Bach's Fuga (Ricercata) is awesome.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 11 April 2009 05:52:02AM 0 points [-]

there is nothing inherently wrong with masochism and it would certainly be sad to eliminate all the experiences you list above.