Thursday, October 25, 2012

Today's First Bad Study Popularization

Is this one:

Men and Women Can't Be 'Just Friends'
By Adrian Ward

Why is it a bad popularization of a study?  Because the apparently hotwired link in this paragraph:

New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment.
 leads to!  Not to any particular study or even its abstract.

Likewise, the rest of the piece never mentions anything which would let an avid reader actually find the study.

This piece was also published in the Scientific American with the same omissions.  A commenter there managed to find the actual link to the study, the one Adrian Ward didn't bother to include.

Here's the abstract:

We propose that, because cross-sex friendships are a historically recent phenomenon, men’s and women’s evolved mating strategies impinge on their friendship experiences. In our first study involving pairs of friends, emerging adult males reported more attraction to their friend than emerging adult females did, regardless of their own or their friend’s current relationship status. In our second study, both emerging and middle-aged adult males and females nominated attraction to their cross-sex friend as a cost more often than as a benefit. Younger females and middle-aged participants who reported more attraction to a current cross-sex friend reported less satisfaction in their current romantic relationship. Our findings implicate attraction in cross-sex friendship as both common and of potential negative consequence for individuals’ long-term mateships.

Whiffs of evolutionary psychology there!  And indeed, that's what at least the first of the listed authors, April Bleske-Rechek,  represents.   She states, in an earlier interview:

The results showed that men more frequently admitted attraction to their female friends while also overestimating their friend's romantic feelings towards them.

Women on the other hand were less likely to fancy their friends or assume that the males had those kinds of feelings for them.

Though the male answers may come across as egocentric, Dr Bleske-Rechek explained: 'Historically, men faced the risk of being shut out, genetically, if they didn't take advantage of various reproductive opportunities. So the argument is that men have evolved to be far more sexually opportunistic.'
Why didn't women face the risk of being shut out, genetically, if they didn't take advantage of various reproductive opportunities?   Remember that according to her men only evolved to be opportunistic because otherwise they risked being shut out. 

I think her argument is circular.  It works only if we assume men were opportunistic to begin with, so that all women found it quite easy to bed one man or the other and thus pass their genes on.  But I may be quite wrong here.

This study, by the way, appears to have been extensively discussed last May.  That's a considerable time BEFORE the article appeared in print (August).  It's very neat to have that advance start against all critics, as I've mentioned earlier.  Journalists should really stop taking that bait because it is bad for truly valuable discussions.

About that earlier net discussion:  Much of it translated the topic into a normative one, asking whether men and women "should" be friends.  To make something "one can use" out of the study?

Getting the actual study costs 25 dollars and I need those for my chocolate-and-nectar budget, sorry.  But I should note that there are very strong gendered stencils on how one answers questions of those types, and those stencils work in the direction of the results the study obtained.  Or put in other terms, alternative explanations for the findings should be discussed, even in the popularizations but certainly in the study.  Not everything about human behavior should be automatically viewed as some f***ing "evolved mating strategies," given the utter impossibility of traveling backwards in time to watch that hypothetical evolving.

Finally, "friendship" itself needs to be defined for the argument that "cross-sex friendships are a historically recent phenomenon."  That may be the case for very exclusive and strong platonic friendships between one man and one woman (although even there the societal restrictions should be taken into account) but it is not true about human interactions in general.  After all, women and men live in the same society, inside the same families and even work together.