Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Today's Second Evolutionary Psychology Critique

Well, the second critique of the way these studies get popularized in the mainstream media. This seems to turn out the evolutionary psychology week on my blog. Keep checking it for more posts on the topic.

You may have heard about this study, given that popularizations about it crop up among "the most e-mailed articles" lists on various newspaper websites. It's a study about instant dating in Germany:

Science is confirming what most women know: When given the choice for a mate, men go for good looks.

And guys won't be surprised to learn that women are much choosier about partners than they are.

"Just because people say they're looking for a particular set of characteristics in a mate, someone like themselves, doesn't mean that is what they'll end up choosing," Peter M. Todd, of the cognitive science program at Indiana University, Bloomington, said in a telephone interview.

Researchers led by Todd report in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that their study found humans were similar to most other mammals, "following Darwin's principle of choosy females and competitive males, even if humans say something different."

Isn't it comforting to know all this for sure! How wonderful science is!

Let's look at the science. The study consisted of 26 men and 20 women. The study subjects were asked to fill in a questionnaire about what they were seeking in a possible dating partner: wealth, status, physical attractiveness, family commitment.
They then went through speed-dating which consists of short meetings (three to seven minutes with one partner, then move on to the next one and so on). At the end of the session the researchers compared the study subjects' choices for those they'd like to date again with the list of desirables the original questionnaire, and -- surprise! -- they found that people didn't really act the way the questionnaire suggested that they would act:

Men's choices did not reflect their stated preferences, the researchers concluded. Instead, men appeared to base their decisions mostly on the women's physical attractiveness.

The men also appeared to be much less choosy. Men tended to select nearly every woman above a certain minimum attractiveness threshold, Todd said.

Women's actual choices, like men's, did not reflect their stated preferences, but they made more discriminating choices, the researchers found.

The scientists said women were aware of the importance of their own attractiveness to men, and adjusted their expectations to select the more desirable guys.

"Women made offers to men who had overall qualities that were on a par with the women's self-rated attractiveness. They didn't greatly overshoot their attractiveness," Todd said, "because part of the goal for women is to choose men who would stay with them"

Note that we are never told how women's choices deviated from what they wrote in those original questionnaire answers, only how men's choices deviated, so it's not clear how Todd "knows" that the women wanted the men they chose to stay with them.

This is one of those cases where I should read the original study. But even goddesses have 24 hour days and limited budgets for buying silly articles on the web.

But I'm concerned about the very small sample size and the fact that speed-dating strangers is not how humans have traditionally determined whom they might take to bed or to marry. I'm also not at all certain how one can find information on family commitment or status or wealth in a three-to-seven minute conversation, and I'm also wondering how "attractiveness" is measured here. How do the researchers decide that certain women were attractive or that certain men were? They must have used some sort of a ranking system to determine this, given that they argued the women were "more realistic" in their choices. But how does one devise such a ranking system? And let's not even mention cultural conditioning on the question of dating etiquette.

Whatever. There are hundreds of not-so-careful studies published every week in this world. It's only certain types of studies, though, that get pushed into our attention in bad popularizations. Go back and re-read the first quote again to see how bad this one is. Note the way women are interpreted as being "choosy". Usually the evolutionary psychologists interpret this as meaning that women would demand more from a mate in all the desirable characteristics, because these psychologists use the metaphor of the plentiful sperm and the relatively scarcer eggs to explain why mate selection would matter more for women: They don't get as many repeat chances to make more children than men do.

But in this case being "choosy" is something slightly different! It's not about being picky in that sense. It's about picking someone that might not leave!