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Aunt Pythia’s advice

March 8, 2014

Aunt Pythia missed you very much last week and is ever so grateful to return today. And although she usually takes on four questions from readers, today she feels like switching it up and taking on three but making them extra delicious. She hopes you agree that this was the correct choice. Plus she’s running out of questions again, so she’s conserving.

In other words, after you enjoy Aunt Pythia’s wisdom, please don’t forget to:

think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

So about that Valentine’s Day article which you asked us to ask about… so many questions!

1. In consecutive paragraphs, she says that educated men want “younger, less challenging women” and then that educated women will be frustrated with someone who “just can’t keep up with you or your friends.” Question: is this more insulting to women or to men?

2. She says that “College is the best place to look for your mate. It is an environment teeming with like-minded, age-appropriate single men with whom you already share many things.” Is she talking about STDs here?

3. Did she actually write the sentence “Men won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.”?

4. She writes, “And if you fail to identify ‘the one’ while you’re in college, don’t worry—there’s always graduate school.” So she’s encouraging the old MRS degree. Question: what year was this article written?

That’s all I’ve got for now… I can’t bear to read any more of it!

Woman Turning Forty

Dear WTF,

First, may I express deep satisfaction and pleasure at both your willingness to hate on this article with me and your gorgeous and appropriate acronym. Nicely done, we should hang out. Plus we are age-appropriate, so I’m sure Susan Patton would approve. In fact, here’s a picture of Susan Patton approving or not:

She actually looks like she's reserving judgment in a baffled way.

She actually looks like she’s reserving judgment in a baffled way.

On to the questions:

1. Great point, but I’d have to go with “equally insulting to all human persons” here. The basic assumption she makes is that people can be meaningfully measured by external attributes such as age and education level. Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met were at Harvard and MIT, and some of the wisest – and in some sense, most threatening – people I’ve met are young children, who can really say it like it is. As to the assumption that men are only interested in young, less challenging women, I’m going to assume that’s the way she raises her sons to be, and I pity them.

2. I mean, look. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take lovers in college, and experiment with STDs for that matter, when it suits you and you have the time and interest. In fact you should fool around as much as you care to, and it’s a natural thing to do considering how many hormones are knocking about. But the idea that you should feel like you’re already late to the critical party if you graduate from college without a fiancee is just putrid advice. People make desperate and bad choices when they are insecure, boxed in, and panicking for time. The way I see it, getting people to marry young is a kind of social control that old people exert on the young, before they really know how to say “fuck this particular model of conformity”.

3. OMG yes she did, and guess what? That’s sexual objectification, pure and simple, and it’s not empowering. If she doesn’t see that, she should watch this video with Caroline Heldman, the chair of the Politics department at Occidental College. In fact everyone should, it blew me away.

4. I’m eyeballing the answer as before 1920, the year women were given the right to vote.

Thanks again for the opportunity to vent!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

You asked for questions on the Susan Patton column. This is barely a question, but here you go.

I have a lot of “alpha” traits that may be stereotypically associated with males. Your posts on being an alpha female have definitely helped me understand some aspects of myself and why it can be confusing for me when I interact with other women, so thanks for that.

For example, my ego likes it when I’m the smartest one in a group, or earn the most money in a relationship or something. But that isn’t always actually what will make me happiest/best off. I am an amateur musician, and I have learned to enjoy being in a musical group where I am the weakest link. I don’t like being a burden to the other people in the group, but if I’m the worst, that means I’m making music with a bunch of people who are even better than I am, so I am making really great music. (And of course I work hard to improve and play as well as I possibly can.) I don’t like playing music with people who are so much better that they will hate the experience, but if I’m the worst by a little bit, it’s perfect for me. Sure, it would give me a little ego boost to be the best and look down on the other people, but that ego boost isn’t as good as the feeling of making better music.

Likewise, if my family’s earnings were limited to 2x, where x is my salary, I would be worse off than if I had a partner who made more money than I did (assuming that money can buy happiness, which it basically can). But in the Patton piece, she talks about the old trope that men don’t want to be out-earned by their partners. My question is, what’s the deal with that? Why are people (stereotypically males, I guess) so threatened by having a partner who earns more than they do, or who is smarter than they are?

Another Alpha Female

Dear AAF,

I just want to make a couple of remarks before getting to your question. First of all, everyone likes feeling like a smart person in a group, and second of all, not everyone is willing to be the worst player in a band. So good for you for being willing to put yourself out there, and alpha female or not, people need to challenge themselves. Plus keep in mind many people – maybe even all – will think they’re the worst person in a band, because they notice their own mistakes more than they notice other people’s.

As for the money thing, I think there are two effects going on here. First, there’s a very temporary “attributes seem important” effect when you first meet someone. This was illustrated recently by various reports (e.g. this) on how people create artificial filters in their online dating profiles – things like height, weight, and education requirements. As it turns out, people are much more restrictive online than in real life, partly because of the nature of the information that is available to online daters.

So just as you think you want a tall guy when you fill out a form, if you meet someone in real life who is two inches shorter than you but makes you laugh yourself silly, you will not even notice his height. And just as men might abstractly be seeking a woman who earns just a little bit less than he does – although I’m not sure men think about it explicitly like this – there’s a good chance he will fall in love based on how she smiles when she plays guitar rather than her paycheck.

There may be a longer term intimidation problem as well, where men and women are accustomed to the idea that the man should be in some way dominant. For example, I still think that men are less likely to leave bad jobs because they have more of a sense of duty towards their images as workers. I’m not sure how to address this in a relationship except to advise women to find a man who loves his job.

Finally, I don’t think anyone ever thinks they’re “not as smart” as their partner. It’s a combination of the multidimensionality of intelligence and human nature that we all find ways in which we’re plenty smart with respect to our long-term friends and partners. I guess the exception might be if both people work in the same exact field and so one dimension of smarts is overemphasized. In that case I’d suggest working in different jobs or at least focusing on other kinds of talents whenever possible.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Isn’t fairness at least as quantifiable as happiness? Why have no fairness rankings of nations been published? If psychologists can study happiness, then surely sociologists can study fairness.

Elvis Von Essende Nicholas Friedrich Lester Otto Widener IV


Well, depending on what you mean by fairness, there have been a few attempts. For just plain income inequality, we have what’s called the Gini coefficient with an associated map:

In 2009, USA had a terribly high Gini coefficient. Most recently it is 0.486.

In 2009, USA had a terribly high Gini coefficient. Most recently it was measured at 0.486, the very top of that bin.

For other concepts of fairness like “given your situation at birth, what’s your situation later on?” you have the concept of mobility, and here’s a graph of that by city from the New York Times:

inequality map 630

Did you have something else in mind?

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. a
    March 8, 2014 at 10:53 am

    I think I have to defend at least the spirit of some of Susan Patton’s advice. I’m single guy in my mid-thirties, and work as a math professor at the small college in a college town in the middle of nowhere (closest big city is 120 miles away). It is so hard to meet compatible single women around my age, and I actually agreed with Susan Patton’s article – I wish I had found a significant other in college or grad school in Cambridge, MA. I’ve been to some meet ups to meet more people, but it was really depressing…most recent one I met a divorced bus driver in her 50s, a separated dental hygienist around 30 …they seemed nice and intelligent but just based on their profession (and the fact that they hated their jobs), I just am not interested in them…sorry if I sound so judgmental. (To even things out, I would not be interested in an ivy league lawyer that hates her job, either). You wrote, “Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met where at MIT and Harvard”, but I’m guessing you’ve been around really smart people most of your life. You should spend some time in the Deep South, especially rural, Republican, anti-public-education-funding, and somewhat racist (I am not white) deep south. As far as I know, all of my colleagues in the department met their significant other (usually in grad school) before moving here (and they moved here just because they got a tenure track job here).
    But I realize people in college are still finding their way, and they will change, and so I might have met the wrong person in college. In fact, just the other day, I was thinking about how someone I was really interested in in grad school turned out would have been a really horrible choice for me … the signs where there, I just didn’t see them because she seemed the best available person at the time.

    • Josh
      March 9, 2014 at 3:48 pm

      While I also agree with some tidbits (neither my wife nor I can imagine how we would have found someone outside of college), Patton is a terrible advocate for this position. Also, while I would agree that a single-minded focus on career isn’t optimal, I don’t think a single minded focus on finding a spouse is optimal either. A focus on doing a broad range of interesting things in life, spending time with great people (who are better at something than you are) sounds like a much better approach. Who knows, it might also help with career and spouse, too.

  2. a
    March 8, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Anyways, I have always been kind of curious – how did you meet your husband? I’ve always assumed it was when you were in grad school, sparks flew over some number theory, but what was the time line? I was kind of curious especially in light of a comment on the previous AP post (about a question about an experience at the JMM meeting) that suggested guys try to develop a friendship with a woman before asking her out.
    (If you don’t want to answer, feel free to not approve this comment – that’s why I wrote it separately).

  3. Kari
    March 9, 2014 at 10:30 am

    There is a difference between suggesting that both men and women in college and grad school (i.e. in their twenties and early thirties) are at the most common time of life for choosing a life partner, and advising them to make sure they get married so that they don’t miss out. The former is obviously true, though suggesting that it only applies to women seems dumb. The latter is advice that can make for very miserable marriages and divorces. (For both sexes.) I know first hand how hard it can be to meet someone after leaving the amazing ‘singles scene’ that students experience, but having watched the breakups of numerous marriages that I suspect were partially motivated by the feeling that this was their “last chance” to find someone, I don’t recommend that approach. (I’ve seen both men and women buy into this and regret it later. A bad marriage is SO much worse than being single.)

    • March 9, 2014 at 10:32 am

      Just to be clear, she’s talking to college girls, who are typically 18, 19, 20, and 21. She never suggested waiting until your early thirties!

  4. Savanarola
    March 9, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I have to take issue with your statement that everyone likes to be the smartest in a group. I’m profoundly uncomfortable in that position, and was constantly made to defend myself and blamed for people’s own insecurity in situations where I was the smartest in the group.

    I always wanted to be normal. I always wanted to be part of a group where I fell in the fat part of the bell curve. And while I’m very competitive, I compete only with myself: I’m constantly trying to best my own personal best, and I don’t really gauge off of others. Apparently it is plenty intimidating, without my intending to be.

    The dating pool can be a puddle when you’re a smart girl. It doesn’t help to be operating in a universe full of the kind of moronic tropes expressed in that article. I’m glad every day that I didn’t marry anyone available at my university. I got married way too early as it was, and I was done with graduate school at the time.

  5. Zathras
    March 10, 2014 at 8:06 am

    I have to say, I don’t understand the issue with point (3). She is not saying it is okay that “Men won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.” She is just pointing out what many men will do. It’s not Objectification; it’s pointing out that objectification will happen.

  1. March 20, 2014 at 6:30 am
  2. March 20, 2014 at 8:56 am
  3. April 5, 2014 at 7:17 am
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