Archive | April, 2013

Senior Discounts: Thanks for Nothing

3 Apr

senior-discountsRecently I was paying for some books at a thrift shop and the clerk asked me if I was “of a certain age”. At first I had no idea what she was talking about, and then it dawned on me that she was asking me (rather obliquely) if I qualified for the “senior discount”. I try not to be sensitive about my age, but I don’t like when people try to rush me. My wife Diane had a similar experience recently when an intrusive insurance saleswoman improperly assumed that she would be interested in Medicare supplemental insurance. Whatever happened to tact?

A few years ago, a middle aged woman wrote in to the “Ask Amy” syndicated advice column, describing how upset she was, when a store clerk offered her a senior discount. Hundreds of Baby Boomers wrote in to columnist Amy Dickenson, offering their sympathy and support for the woman. Let’s face it, when you are offered a senior discount the first message is always, “I think you look old.” The second one isn’t much better, “You’re also probably on a fixed income, so let us help you pay for that purchase.” Now these may not be the intended messages, but they’re the ones that people hear.

According to Brad Tuttle, who covers business and personal finance for Time Magazine, almost 10,000 Baby Boomers are turning 65 each day. He says “…even though Baby Boomers love getting a deal as much as the next person, they hate the idea of getting a “senior discount”—which is tantamount to accepting the fact that they’re officially old.” For the most part boomers still think that the term “senior citizen” should refer to their parents, the so-called “Greatest Generation”. According to Jo Ann Ewing, a senior services coordinator from Connecticut, “Many individuals in their 70s and 80s are fine with ‘senior’ status and senior savings, while baby boomers mostly are not.”

Some businesses and restaurants have tried to accommodate Baby Boomers by using euphemisms like Boomer Bargains, to describe their senior discounts. The American Association of Retired Persons (rebranded simply as AARP) accepts anyone over 50 years of age, retired or not and they consistently use the term “member” rather than senior. They are also careful to refer to their specially negotiated discounts as “member benefits” rather than “senior discounts”.

Former organizational development consultant Roland Hansen has recently complied a comprehensive list of many well-known businesses that offer senior discounts on his blog (rolandsramblings.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/discounts-for-senior-citizens). Caroline Mayer, a consumer reporter who worked for The Washington Post, warns, however, that senior discounts are not always the best deal. She says that other promotions that are available to the general public, regardless of age, are often better deals. One investigative reporter found that the senior checking account at one bank actually was much more expensive than the regular checking account the bank offered. In addition Mayer says you may be able to save even more through bargain websites, like Groupon or Priceline than you can with a senior discount

In 1997 political scientist Ted Rueter wrote an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “Senior Citizen Discounts are Affirmative Action for the Wealthy”, in which he called for an end to senior discounts saying,They cost American business billions of dollars. They breed resentment among the young. They are part of the battle over generational equity. [and] They are probably unconstitutional.”

Just last year a USA Today op-ed piece written by a journalist named Don Campbell (a senior himself) again argued that senior discounts should be eliminated mainly because, older folks, on the average, are considerably wealthier than young adults, who end up subsidizing the discounts. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals the gradually increasing net worth of people over 65 and the simultaneous decreasing net worth in households headed by people under 35. Many senior discounts start at the age of 50 or 55, which is usually prior to retirement for most Americans and are often a worker’s peak earning years.

Young single parents are probably a more deserving demographic group for such discounts, but of course senior discounts are not based on altruism. Originally they were intended to encourage older people, with fixed incomes, to make purchases they might otherwise avoid. Today, however, they are clearly designed to attract an expanding market segment that has lots of disposable income, as well as lots of time to shop. Jim Gilmartin, the owner of Coming of Age, a marketing firm specializing in reaching older consumers, says that senior discounts “sort of exploded exponentially as older shoppers came to represent a fast-growing demographic.”

Campbell concluded his anti-discount tirade saying, “What I wonder about is why thirty- and forty somethings aren’t livid that senior citizens — the most pampered, patronized and pandered-to group in America — get to save money simply by maintaining a pulse.”

Personally it’s not so much getting older that bothers me as constantly having it pointed out in unexpected ways. Not that long ago Diane and I went to a restaurant where they featured live music at night. After a while I went up to the counter and ordered a pizza. The cheery waitress, who looked to be about twelve years old, took my money and said that she would bring it to our table when it was ready.

The room was very crowded, so I was surprised when 10 minutes later the girl arrived and delivered the pizza right to us, without any difficulty or hesitation. I was innocently eating a slice and enjoying the music when I absentmindedly looked at the back of my receipt. There written quite clearly were the unforgiving words “Old guy in blue shirt”. And I didn’t even get a discount.

I’ve read where people have successfully sued businesses where employees have written insulting comments or discriminatory descriptions on receipts to be able to remember the customer. I’m afraid my only grounds for going to court would be that my shirt was actually more of a teal than blue. Frankly I’m just happy she didn’t write down “Fat, bald, and stupid old guy in a blue shirt”.

In a recent study, several age-related terms were evaluated by a sample of adults who were all 65 years or older. Results showed that the labels third age and elderly evoked quite negative associations, while several other names (including “seniors”) were generally seen as favorable, despite many Baby Boomers’ objections. I’m pretty sure that the label “Old guy in a blue shirt” was not among those tested, but I’m confident that it would not have fared very well.

Some folks don’t seem to have much of a problem with their age. Glenn from our Sunday School class, tells us that on his part-time job, he has to deal with lots of out-of-towners. He says these clients frequently ask him for recommendations about where to go “to have a good time”. While they seem to expect some sort of risqué suggestion, he says he always tells them, “I’m sixty-five, I go to Bob Evans for fun.”

Based on a column originally appearing in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.

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With Chair-ity Towards All

3 Apr

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The other day my wife Diane said that her back was hurting, but she felt better when she sat in the car.  That’s probably because the driver’s seat is the best, and most expensive, chair we own. It certainly is the only chair we have that can be adjusted  eight different ways.

One of the few things I remember seeing in Washington D.C. was the exhibit featuring Archie Bunker’s favorite chair, from the   1970’s  television series, All in the Family. In 1978, Norman Lear, the show’s creator,   donated Archie and Edith’s chairs to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, when he thought the series was being cancelled. To his surprise it was renewed for another season and he paid thousands of dollars to make exact replicas of the  chairs that originally cost only about $8.00 each. The notion of a family member being territorial about a shabby,  but treasured,  chair, is something familiar, that surfaced again on Fraizer.

I  personally can understand Archie’s reverence for his favorite chair.  When Diane and I  started dating in the 1970’s,  we were both  just out of school,  poor,  and worked for  not-for-profits My apartment was sparsely furnished with second-hand furniture from my parent’s attic and Diane had also accumulated whatever furniture she could.  I remember complaining  to her  that whenever I visited,  she didn’t have a decent chair to sit in.  It’s hard to look very cool sitting in a bean bag chair.  I kept falling over.

Besides comfort, chairs are also symbolic of social status. Having a “chair at the table” has come to mean that you belong to a group and have co-equal status. A few years ago when we asked our daughter what birthday present our youngest granddaughter, Rosie,  would like for  her second birthday, our daughter said that Rosie really wanted her own chair. Rosie couldn’t wait to escape from her accursed “high chair” , a symbol of babyhood, and take her rightful place at the table with her siblings, as a peer,  rather than a second class citizen.

Of course,  where you’re seated  and the nature of your chair also says something about your status.  People seated at the head of the table  generally have the most  power. It is said that Merlin created King Arthur’s Round Table to avoid quarrels among the knights as to who had the highest status, although they still probably squabbled over who got to sit closest to the King.

Chairs took on a political dimension last  year   at the Republican National Convention,  when  Clint Eastwood delivered his monologue to an empty chair, intended to represent President Obama. Obama’s reelection team countered by tweeting out a photo of the president sitting in his Cabinet Room chair, and saying “this seat’s taken.”   These theatrics may not have made much difference in the election , but addressing an empty chair is a time-honored technique  in Gestalt psychotherapy (another 70’s phenomena). It was used to help patients resolve “unfinished business” with  others,  or even among different  aspects of themselves.

Writing in the on-line Magazine Jacobin,     design student Colin McSwiggen says that sometime  in the Stone Age between 6,000 and  12,000 years ago,  people of high-status  began sitting on  raised platforms containing  some sort of  backrest. He says,  “This was an effective way to signify  elevated status among people who otherwise sat on the ground.”  Throughout history the elevation,  size, composition, and expense of a seating device has conferred status.   Even today many companies have strict policies on who can order different kinds of office chairs.  Some only allow high backed  “executive chairs” for employees  above a certain rank in the hierarchy. On Star Trek, it’s obvious that the captain has the only decent chair  and view of the wide-screen TV.

Having a designated seat is also related to status, like having a personal  parking place.  Arthur’s Round Table had one special seat with a chair that was marked “Siege Perilous”, which means “the dangerous or perilous seat”.  Only the singular knight who was destined to find the Holy Grail could sit there safely. If was fatal for anyone to try.

I was once helping out at an outdoor festival and brought my own comfortable wooden folding chair to sit in because I didn’t care for the small metal chairs provided. Every time I got up to do something and came back, the same guy was sitting in my chair. I sure could have used some of that  Siege Perilous stuff.

According to  environmental psychologist Sally Augustine,  when people sit in a recliner  and  stretch out they generally  feel more powerful, confident, and have a higher tolerance for risk taking. They also get less angry when provoked by others.  Sitting in a confined or restricted posture, however has the opposite effect. Maybe this is the source for the sit-com folk wisdom that suggests it is best to confront mom or dad with bad news at the end of the day when they are relaxing in their recliner,   preferably with a potent cocktail in hand.

According to the health  quiz in Parade Magazine, that Diane  gave me last Sunday, these days chairs are actually considered to be even more dangerous to your health than cigarettes.  Research by The American Cancer Society  shows  that sitting is a significant risk factor predicting how long you’ll live. One recent  study found  sitting more than six hours a day increased female mortality  by 37% and male mortality by 17%.  Prolonged sitting also exacerbates back pain, which  afflicts 80% of adults, as well as  neck pain,  balance,  and flexibility.

Writing in the on-line Magazine,  Jacobin McSwiggen says, “No designer has ever made a good chair, because it is impossible. Some are better than others, but all are bad.” He says they are not only a health hazards that we are addict to,   but they  are also  “inextricably tied…  to our culture of status-obsessed individualism”.   .

 McSwiggen says that uncomfortable chairs can create pressure that leads to soreness, poor posture, restricted circulation, impeded respiration, and intestinal dysfunction. Even comfortable chairs encourage long durations of static positions,  which  in turn stress   the spine, weaken  muscles, and cause circulatory problems.

The science of ergonomics unfortunately has  shown little consensus regarding the best chair design, although  some progress has been made  with  Scandinavian innovations such as  ball chairs, kneeling chairs, and chairs that encourage sitting in different positions.  Even most of these, however,  are not compatible with current workspace designs  or acceptable in business settings due to appearance.

Some experts suggest  abandoning the chair altogether.  In the 1980’s   Jerome Congleton, from Texas A&M,  created  a standing desk and among  the newer products being marketed  are  standing work stations.    There is a famous photograph of President John F. Kennedy looking out of the south window of the oval office.  He was standing over a table reading newspapers. Due to his wartime back injury, President Kennedy couldn’t  sit in a chair  for more than a short time  without   walking  around.   He would often work and read standing up,  leaning over his desk. This may be the new work  model for many people– working while standing and/or  taking frequent breaks for walks.

               I’ve thought about trying one of the exercise ball chairs at work.  I hear, however,   that they are supposed to get sticky in warm weather.  I’m also afraid of accidently falling off and dribbling down the stairs.   

Based on a column that orginally appeared in the Southern Indiana News-tribune

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Lunchbucket Blues

3 Apr

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For the past several years I have been taking my lunch to work a couple of days a week.  It’s surprising how fast food smells can travel in our building.  When the hallway has the ambiance of  a movie theater,  everyone know that  someone  has been making buttered  microwave popcorn. Last month the whole building reeked of chili and shortly thereafter,  somebody  must have bought  fish sandwiches for all their coworkers,  as  going downstairs was like stepping aboard  a trawler.

I must confess, however,  that I am not entirely blameless.  The leftover Polish sausage and sauerkraut  I had last week created quite a stench and still sort of hangs in the air.    In an article entitled Brown-Bag Lunch Etiquette, Food Network blogger Victoria Phillips suggests that if you have an especially smelly lunch,  you should eat in the lunchroom or preferably outside at a picnic table. She also advises you not to eat your messy Ruben sandwich at your desk, where it can drip 1000 Island dressing all over your keyboard or phone.  She also cautions against leaving  uneaten lunch in the office refrigerator and throwing pungent food into the wastepaper basket under your desk.  She must have worked in our office.

            Today’s sluggish economy has motivated many people to look for savings wherever they can find them. According to a study published by the marking Firm NPD Group, Eating Patterns in America,   over 8.5 million Americans routinely take their lunch to work. A number of people have found that they can save anywhere up to  $2,500 a year,  simply  by eating lunch at work. One writer did the math  and figured  out  that a 22 year-old typical New Yorker  could have an additional $650,000    in his or her  retirement account by age 62,   just by taking their own lunch everyday.

According to Harry Balzer, a food industry analyst at NPD, a marketing firm,  “There are a number of factors adversely affecting the midday meal business at restaurants, and brown-bagging is one of them.”  About half of the people who frequent restaurants for lunch say that they now do it less often due to the expense. Besides the cost savings (about an 80% average reduction in expense), taking your lunch to work,  can give  you more variety, healthier choices, and  save you time. Also don’t forget to add in the savings for gasoline each week.

According to the NPD Group’s  2009 eating survey, people  spend more time eating and drinking at lunch than any other meal. At the same time lunch is the most frequently skipped meal (13% of the time compared to 10% for breakfast, and only 4% for supper).

Men are responsible for the most lunch meals prepared at home and about 40 % of  these meals  include a sandwich, although this trend has been dropping in recent years.  Classics like bologna, ham, and peanut butter and  jelly  are still the most popular  sandwiches in brown bag lunches.  Turkey also is growing in popularity,  but seems to fluxuate  a bit with its price. For women, fruit is now more popular than sandwiches for their lunches made at home.

For almost  40 years my father took a black metal lunchbox and Thermos to work each day. He left so early for work that I never actually saw what he took to eat at work. Both of his parents where from Eastern Europe and he grew up during the depression, so he was used to eating things like blood sausage, headcheese,  and pigs feet.   I always assumed that his lunch box contained something  equally unspeakable. My father was an electrician for a steel mill and each night when he came from work his lunchbox was empty,  except for a metal can containing a single roll of electrical tape. He used the metal cans to storage things like screws and nails,  but I was never sure what he did with all that tape. I think he considered it  a tip from the company for his good work.

Except for field trips and a brief period when I owned a Roy Roger’s lunch box, I always ate in the school cafeteria.  My lunch box eventually fell apart despite my father’s valiant attempt to repair its  handle with electrical tape. When I reached  high school, I took my lunch money and bought a Hires Root Beer and Butterfinger candy bar from the vending machine most days for lunch. To add  a little color and variety to  my diet I would occasionally  eat a Snickers Bar  and a Nehi Orange soda for its vitamin C content.

My wife Diane told me that end of the year school picnics her lunch consisted of a bologna sandwich, chips,  maybe a banana,  and for dessert,  the iconic  Hostess Cupcake.  Ironically that is about the same menu that was served in most   county jails for most of 1960 and  70s.

It was pretty much the same thing I would always take on school field trips.   The threatened demise of the Cupcake and Twinkie, since the  Hostess Bakery went bankrupt,  would  leave a huge gap in the traditional brownbag lunch,  if some other bakery doesn’t  save the brand.

For some reason my mother started making me ham salad sandwiches for my lunch for the annual school picnic.  (It was actually bologna salad, since it was never made with real  ham). This picnic was always  held at an amusement park  and  was the highlight of   the whole school year.  All of those positive associations with field trips and school picnics probably accounts for my garlic bologna addiction today.

When I was in college I stayed at a dorm that had a food plan. If you were going away for the day or had classes too far away to return for lunch, the dorm cafeteria prepared box lunches that you could take with you. My friends and I always took them and stashed them in our dorm room  refrigerator, if we didn’t plan to eat them that day. They were classic bologna sandwich  and banana lunches, but they often had excellent home-baked cookies included. On warm days the mayonnaise would sort of curdle and the banana would brown a little, but the cookies were always good and  perhaps even better with melted chocolate chips.

Brown bagging  at work is also a good way to avoid eating at a restaurant alone, which many people  dislike.

I remember reading somewhere that the average office desk has more germs on it than the average public toilet seat.  Be that as it may, there is still something kind of fun about my desk.    

Base on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

Bored to be Wild

3 Apr

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 Last weekend I was assigned to  watch my two youngest grandchildren, while my wife Diane and our daughter went shopping. This has become a more or less a routine procedure, intended to weed out the especially cranky and whiney members of our party. I’m sorry,  but  too much shopping hurts my knees and makes me crabby.

I did my level best to entertain the little nippers, including a lengthy cartoon quiz and discussion session  regarding  the relative merits of Spongebob Squarepants as compared to  Patrick and Squidward, innumerable  games of Stupid Zombies on my cellphone, and watching most of an old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie  on You Tube.  Despite these desperate measures, blonde-haired, blue-eyed,  four-year-old Rosie turned to me and said dismally, “I’m bored.” Surprised that she  knew what that meant, I was forced to agreed, saying, “Yeah, me too”. With two older sisters I’m sure Rosie’s heard that phrase quite often.

I have always thought that being able to tolerate a boring situation with patience and equanimity was a sign of maturity. Since such circumstances are inevitable, it is an important life skill that children are seldom taught.  Of course, with today’s frenetic and over stimulating technology, entertaining yourself has become considerably easier, although some may argue that these same digital  advances,  have  resulted in shorter attention spans,  aggravating instead of ameliorating the problem.  

The first recorded use of the English word “boredom” was, appropriately enough, in Charles Dickens’ exceedingly boring novel “Bleak House”  back in  1852. Psychologists believe that there are three basic types of boredom stemming from:  1.  Being prevented from engaging in some desired activity,  2. Being forced to engage in some undesired activity, and 3. For no apparent reason, being unable  to remain engaged in any activity.  All of these are related to problems in focusing attention.

Boredom is usually described as an unpleasant emotional state,  experienced when an individual has nothing  in particular to do  and lacks  interest  in their surroundings. It is generally seen as the opposite of arousal and may occur when all immediate challenges   are either incomprehensible or conversely, too simple or monotonous.  Additionally boredom has been found to appear at times when all perceived needs have been fully met and overall motivation is low.

Relativity  may also be a factor in boredom,  as people who have just returned from a very exhilarating or stimulating environment may find their usual  surrounding dull and boring in comparison. Veterans, for example who return from combat, may have difficulty at times adjusting to the calmer environment of civilian life.   Inveterate thrill-seekers who engaged in highly exciting recreational  activities (such as sky-diving)  or occupations (such as fire-fighting) may also start to find everyday activities exceptionally  mundane and boring.          

Boredom also seems to be related to the fatigue that stems from engaging in repetitive activity. A 1926 study in Britain demonstrated individual differences in the amount of boredom reported by workers assigned to perform the same repetitive  and monotonous task.  When we are bored we generally experience a lack of interest,  poor concentration, and temporal distortion,   as time seems to crawl along.  

In 1986 Richard Farmer, from the Oregon Research Institute,  and  Norman D. Sundberg, from the University of Oregon, developed  the  Boredom Proneness Scale to measure how likely people are to feel bored.  Subsequent research has shown that boredom proneness is related to depression,  hopelessness, perceptions of increased effort, loneliness, and poor motivation.  Other studies have  found  it to be a significant factor in depression,  anxiety disorders,  alcohol and drug abuse (especially as professed by teens),  pathological gambling, as well as eating disorders. Individuals who are  easily bored,  also have reportedly more hostility, anger,  less career success,  and poorer social skills,  than people not prone to boredom.

I’m afraid that I fall into that high boredom prone category. When I’m in a situation that  I find boring  where there is  little activity  going on,  my mind is  like a computer that automatically shifts into sleep mode.   I find that I have   these attentional lapses  especially at   continuing education seminars.  I used to embarrass Diane by bringing along a big stack of paperwork to do during these workshops to keep myself occupied. Now it’s even worse with  laptops and smart phones. I’m afraid that I’ve turned into  one of those insufferable people  who sit near the wall so they can plug in and pretend they are taking notes, when they are really reading their e-mail,   watching You Tube, checking their bank balance, or making grocery lists.

I suppose my worse attentional lapse took place a few years ago at a department  store. There were a lot of bargains and sales that day and   Diane and I had been shopping for quite a while. After an exhausting search,  Diane had found several items of clothing that she wanted to buy. I was tasked with watching over her intended purchases while she tried on some other things. I found an empty chair and put the clothing on the chair next to me. With nothing to do, except to sit there,  my attention started to wander.  Eventually the lack of activity caused my internal  screensaver to  kick  in, I shut down,   and  must have  nodded off. When I was roused by a rude shake, I discovered, to my horror, that all the clothes had disappeared. Some overzealous clerk had taken the entire pile of clothing and hung them back up on the racks, literally under my nose. Suffice it to say that Diane was less than pleased with my dedication that day.

            According to educational researcher Ulrike E. Nett  from  The University of Konstanz in Germany  there are  three psychological strategies that people  typically use to cope with boredom. 1. They reappraise the situation and try  to increase the relative importance of the boring situation or activity. 2. They actively make changes to the situation to make it less boring. and 3. They evade the boring situation by seeking out a more interesting activity or diversion.  

Generally boredom is seen as a negative force in people’s lives, however,  like any situation that causes discomfort,   it also can serve as an impetus for positive change by increasing our motivation to act. For example,  an individual with a very boring job,  may use the boredom as a catalysis to seek out a more challenging and ultimately rewarding position.

Finally, existential philosophers have viewed boredom, which they have called “a muffling fog”,   as a fundamental dimension of human existence.  In situations lacking any stimulation, the individual must confront “nothingness”.  Directly experiencing this lack of meaning creates existential anxiety.   Using  “waiting at the railway station”  as an example,  philosopher  Martin Heidegger wrote over  100 pages on the topic of boredom, which, either ironically or perhaps  fittingly, are  themselves incredibly boring to read. 

I had no idea Rosie could be so profound in her observations about spending time with me. I’m just afraid she might agree with Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who once   famously wrote “…there is a sense that any immediate moment of life may be fundamentally tedious [especially when spent with grandpa].”

Based on a column in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

A Ticklish Issue

3 Apr

ImageAristotle, Socrates, Galileo, Da Vinci  and Darwin  are just a few of  history’s  great minds who  have speculated  about the origin and purpose of tickling.  My four-year-old grand-daughter, Rosie,  is an inveterate tickler. She revels in the power that tickling gives her over  older and larger  people. I also think she does it  because she likes to be tickled herself.  For some reason, however, she has picked me  as the primary target for her assaults, as small children and dogs often do.

I must have victim written all over my face, as I  can hardly visit anywhere,  without  some child or dog giving me the business. Little dogs, like my daughter’s Bichon Frise, jump on my lap and try to lick my face.   Our niece’s  Siberian Huskies slobber on my hands,  steal my fur hat, or try to bury  a bone (the one in my arm). I’m also a prime target for mimes. For her part Rosie never misses an opportunity to tickle me.

Today evolutionary psychology may be close to finding some answers regarding why people tickle.   Robert R. Provine,  a psychologist at the University of Maryland says that  tickling is a “mechanism for social  bonding between close companions. It helps forge relationships between family members  and friends...”

According to Provine, infants begin laughing in response to tickling  within the first few months of life. He says “It’s one of the first forms of communication between babies and their caregivers…”   Parents tickle because they are so reinforced by the baby’s laughter.

Back in the 1980’s University of Iowa  psychiatrist Donald Black  noted that the most ticklish parts of the body  tend to be where we have protective reflexes.   He believed that children learn to protect their necks, ribs, feet, and armpits as they wrestle and  tickle each other. In 1924, J.C. Gregory proposed that ticklish places on the body were those most vulnerable in combat and learning to guard them conveyed an evolutionary advantage. Laughter in response to such tickling may be seen as a sign of submission or a way to say “uncle”.

 Besides possibly developing self-defense skills, tickling among children can reinforce sibling and/or peer bonding.  It also may be an alternative to  violence intended  to hurt or  dominate each other.  When one sibling tickles  another  relentlessly,  to point of  unpleasantness it is called “tickle torture.”

Based on his observations of chimpanzees and orangutans, Provine also believes that the “ha-ha” of human laugher most likely evolved from the inevitable panting  that takes place  during prolonged tickle fights. 

Some experts  believe  that tickling  requires  social interaction and that’s one reason why  you can’t tickle yourself.  University of California psychologist Christine Harris, however, believes that tickling is more like a automatic reflex. To test her hypothesis,  she built a robotic arm that looked like a tickling machine. She christened her creation — Mechanical Meg. Subjects were blindfold and then tickled by what they thought was Mechanical Meg. Actually they were tickled by a human assistant hiding under a table (Meg didn’t actually work).  The subjects laughed and squirmed anyway, demonstrating that   tickling did not require the perceived presence of another human being.

I personally believe that you can tickle someone without actually touching them. When our kids were preschoolers I would sometimes tickle them on the knees (a much neglected tickle target). Then I would sit across the room and tell them that I could tickle them by remote control. I would stare seriously at their knees and wiggle my fingers and they would invariably start laughing and grab their knees.

Around the turn of the century scientists classified tickling into major categories. “Knismesis” is  evoked by a very light touch on the skin. It may produce an itching sensation, but not laughter. It is the sensation you get when an insect crawls on you and may have evolved in mammals to help them keep rid of parasites. 

The other class of tickling is called “gargalesis” and is achieved by repeatedly applying pressure to sensitive areas. Gargalesis is generally met with uncontrollable laughter.  It is generally   pleasurable, but can be extremely uncomfortable when it involves persistent involuntary tickling. Gargalesis was once believed to be the exclusive province of primates,  but more recent research suggests that rats can also be tickled. I pity the poor graduate assistant who  had that  job.

Charles Darwin  theorized that tickling was related to the anticipation of pleasure. He based this on the observation that ticklish people often  laugh before  being actually  tickled . In addition unexpected tickling from a complete stranger is generally perceived as an assault and no laughing matter.   Darwin believed that in order to laugh at a tickle, you cannot know the exact location where you were going to be touched. Knowing where the stimulation was going to take place removes all anticipation and that’s why people cannot effectively tickle themselves.  More recent research seems to confirm this notion.      

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues at University College London analyzed   self-tickling  using sophisticated  brain imaging studies.  Her studies show your brain can predict sensations when your own movements are the cause, but not if someone else does it. She says, “When you try to tickle yourself, the cerebellum predicts the sensation and this prediction is used to cancel the response of other brain areas to the tickle. Knight Ridder newspaper reporter Usha Lee McFarling says,” the cerebellum acts as a killjoy, squelching the tickling response if the tickling doesn’t come from an outside source.

Research also suggests that tickling is a young person’s game and often between four and seven years of age many children no longer see it as pleasurable.  A survey of college students found that that only 32%  reported that they enjoy being tickled and about 36% said  they didn’t  like the experience at all. .  It probably has a lot to   do with   the wide variability in different peoples’ pain and pressure thresholds.  Provine says that interest and   participation in tickling drops off significantly after the age of forty. I must be an exception, since I have to frequently use tickling in self-defense. I think it must be like jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. Young children have no problem doing it,  but the older you get the harder it becomes. 

Some authorities say that if you shut your eyes tight and concentrated real hard during a tickle attack, you can stop the sensation. I think I’ll try that next time, but I’m skeptical.

 

Based on a column that originally appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune,