Sunday, May 04, 2008

Conclusions About Complex, Ill-defined Phenomena Require Extraordinarily Complete Evidence by Anthony McCarthy

Despite what your experience might be, tall men are less jealous than shorter men and women of average height are less jealous because they’re healthier. Well, sometimes, that is. And this constitutes an “Insight” yielded from the social sciences. I know that because I read it in this morning's Boston Globe “Ideas” section. Here, I’ll give you the whole bolt:

PSYCHOLOGISTS IN EUROPE have found that your height can affect your propensity to jealousy. They asked men and women to indicate how jealous they were in their current relationships and how jealous they would be if they saw their partner talking to someone of the opposite sex. Taller men exhibited less jealousy. But for women, being of average height was associated with lower jealousy, apparently because average height confers better health and reproductive success in women, giving them less to worry about. There was an exception to this rule, though. When confronted with more dominant and higher-status rivals, average-height women were the more jealous ones. It could be that taller women gain some security from being perceived as stronger, which may reflect the idea that, at least in primitive cultures, women literally fought over men. (Wesley Bedrosian for the Boston Globe) more stories like this

Buunk, A. et al., "Height Predicts Jealousy Differently for Men and Women," Evolution and Human Behavior (March 2008).

Um, hum. Starting from the end, “at least in primitive cultures, women literally fought over men”. I had better come clean and say that I didn’t pay to download the published study found at “Evolution and Human Behavior” so I don’t know what this would be based on. I did read the abstract at "Evolution and Human Behavior" which doesn't mention "primitives". My guess is it’s another in the continuing series of “Just So” stories of adaptationist fable. Based on absolutely nothing, to put it plainly, except the wishful thinking of adaptationists and the rubes in the media who just so want them to be right about that. I don't know if it was from the "study" or if it might be supplied by the "reporter".

I’ve read a bit of the less taxing kind of anthropology and am guessing I’ve just happened to miss the majority of “primitive cultures” where it’s Sadie Hawkins day year-round. I don’t think there is the archaeological evidence to support that having been the dominant humanoid folk-way so as to have a dominant evolutionary impact now. You don’t seem to see it as the dominant pattern anywhere I know about today. But even if they could produce those cultures today, they are as contemporary as the folk who wrote this study so they would not be able to explain an evolutionary adaptation any more than a minute-dating service in any major metropolitan area now.

This whole idea of “primitive culture” is pretty condescending to people who aren’t engaged, mostly, in the most savage of all activities, destroying the planet. By the way.

Just looking at this account, and the abstract, I’d guess your study samples would have to be enormous to support conclusions about something this complicated, a lot bigger than those usually included in these kinds of “studies”.

You wonder how many people would have to be studied to really find out if tall men are less jealous and under what conditions you could come to a general conclusion about that. Given that they depend on the reporting of their subjects about their emotional state, the variability in the expression is as much a problem as the variation in what was felt. Maybe more taller men feel pressure to restrain expressions of jealousy, to maintain the facade of emotional detachment. Maybe they feel just as much or even more jealousy as short men but feel pressured to lie about it. To live up to their height, as it were. We have seen that men lie about sex, after all. Lying about their emotions? Are men never known to do that?

Or maybe the study didn’t control for differences in perception of threat. If you knew your spouse favored a certain type you might feel less threatened by a man with a different look. You would have to screen for differences in the threat of perception, wouldn' t you, to come up with a reliable measure of tendencies to feel jealousy? And even trying that would run into the same problems of relying on subjects reporting their emotions. In a small sample the difference in response to those factors could skew the "findings" rather dramatically. You’d have to make it a very complicated study to get past those barriers to accurate “findings” .

And get this: But for women, being of average height was associated with lower jealousy, apparently because average height confers better health and reproductive success in women, giving them less to worry about.

There is nothing “apparent” about it. If they want to contend that healthy women are less jealous, isn’t the way to test for that to test healthy and unhealthy women instead of basing it on height? There isn’t an absolute correlation of height and health, especially reproductive health. Just assuming that the taller women would have some innate sense of superior health is stretching it beyond reason.

I doubt they can really study something like this and draw any kind of reliable conclusion. They put together a combination of factors too complex in themselves to be easily studied, certainly not without an enormous number of randomly selected subjects.

This kind of stuff looks to me to be mostly a means of confirming the orthodoxy of adaptationism through twisting “findings” and pretending barriers to reaching the conclusions they want to find aren’t there. You would think that someone working for The Boston Globe would at least address these questions instead of acting as an echo of adaptationist ideology. I think I did get an insight, just not the one they might have expected.

* Because male height is associated with attractiveness, dominance, and reproductive success, taller men may be less jealous. And because female height has a curvilinear relationship with health and reproductive success (with average-height females having the advantages), female height may have a curvilinear relationship with jealousy. In Study 1, male height was found to be negatively correlated with self-reported global jealousy, whereas female height was curvilinearly related to jealousy, with average-height women reporting the lowest levels of jealousy. In Study 2, male height was found to be negatively correlated with jealousy in response to socially influential, physically dominant, and physically attractive rivals. Female height was negatively correlated with jealousy in response to physically attractive, physically dominant, and high-social-status rivals; in addition, quadratic effects revealed that approximately average-height women tend to be less jealous of physically attractive rivals but more jealous of rivals with "masculine" characteristics of physical dominance and social status.

Dealing with that number of vectors, you wonder how they even did the math.