Friday, December 06, 2013

On Nelson Mandela

I have nothing to say that others wouldn't have covered much better on the meaning of Nelson Mandela in the history of South Africa and the world.  But I would like to quote from Adam Serwer's article:
The point of remembering all this is not mere point-scoring. It is to remember that sometimes the radicals are correct, that in the heat of the moment, movements for justice can be easily caricatured by those with authority as threats to public safety, and those seeking basic rights and dignity as monstrous villains. And then after the radicals win, we try to make them safe and useless to future radicals by pretending our beloved secular saints were never radical at all.
It’s tempting to pretend we’ve all always agreed about Mandela, or about racial equality, or about South African apartheid. It would avoid awkwardness or hostility to join together in mutual admiration and mourning for a figure who was indispensible in so many senses of the word, without recalling those who stood against him.
Mandela believed in forgiveness, but he also believed in truth and reconciliation. And the truth is that many self-proclaimed champions of individual freedom in the United States refused to champion the individual freedom of black people in South Africa and at home.

Without intending to draw any comparisons between the South African apartheid and other types of societal ills, I believe that the treatment of past revolutionaries of different types does tend to follow that pattern when the revolutionaries win.  What they accomplished will be absorbed and tamed and it is that version which will be added to the general history of a country.* 

I am not sure if this kind of sanctification of taming isn't just the way human beings digest the changes that take place.  But Serwer has a point in the case of Mandela and also Martin Luther King, because the process of society-wide sanctification has been very rapid for both those men.

*Hence the long struggle of women's suffrage in the US became "women were given the vote" and Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth are now seen as worthy of statues.

Mother Guilt. How Bad Thought Frames Of Reproductive and Child Health Research Spread it.

You may have noticed a recent trend which picks up findings from epigenetics research (often about rodents) and converts them into direct advice to people, about how to behave or about what to eat.

That advice is pretty gendered, however, because rat studies about the impact of granddad or dad rats' "lifestyle" choices and their potential impact on the grandkid or kid rats doesn't immediately translate into advice to all men.  But anything about grandma rats does tend to elicit those kinds of argument*.

So there's an interesting gendered difference.  Rats teach women important stuff.  Rats are not expected to teach men important stuff.

But then, of course, men don't get pregnant, so anything having to do with what happens in the womb will be firmly on women's shoulders.**  Right?

But that's not the only frame some researchers use, these days.  Rather, anything that parents might do which affects their children's health is put firmly on the shoulders of mothers. A recent study, "Maternal Inactivity: 45-Year Trends in Mothers’ Use of Time"  tells us why parenting research of this type centers on women and not on men:
Contrary to the influence of maternal behaviors on the intrauterine environment, paternal behaviors have no direct influence on the intrauterine environment, but they may play a small role in the development of obesogenic behaviors in later childhood. While fathers report allocating more time to child care over the past few decades,35, 36, 37 it is trivial when compared with mothers’ allocation. As such, the influence of maternal behaviors is paramount from conception through early childhood because, in addition to controlling the intrauterine environment, mothers are the primary caregivers for most children throughout early life. For example, as of 2007, there were more than 5.6 million stay-at-home moms and fewer than 165,000 stay-at-home dads.67, 68

Bolds are mine.  So women get this extra responsibility to behave well (not for their own good but for the good of the future generations!) because they are the ones with wombs but also because they mostly take care of the children!  Here's more:***

There is growing evidence that body composition and energy metabolism are programmed in utero.21, 54, 55, 56 Because PA is a strong determinant of nutrient partitioning (ie, the metabolic fate of consumed nutrient energy to storage or oxidation57, 58, 59, 60, 61), preconception maternal inactivity may be causal to pregravid obesity62, 63 and when combined with prenatal inactivity may alter the programming of fetal body composition and energy metabolism, leading to an increased risk of obesity and chronic NCD. Additionally, there is strong evidence that maternal TV viewing behaviors influence children’s TV viewing behaviors,52 and large-scale epidemiological studies have revealed that one of the strongest determinants of obesity and cardiometabolic risk factors in later life is TV viewing as a young child.64 Given that most pregnant women spend more than 50% of their waking hours in SED and more than 15% of pregnant women report spending more than 5 h/d in screen-based media use,65, 66 it can be posited that, as with the intergenerational transmission of smoking behavior,53 children raised by inactive, sedentary, and therefore unhealthy caregivers may have an increased risk of being inactive, sedentary, and unhealthy as adults.

Bolds are mine.

I get the argument.  But on a different level it's a bizarre one.  It suggests that women's lifestyle choices and bodies indeed require additional societal oversight or at least strong propaganda aimed at women to behave a certain way.   Because of their societal roles and their biological roles.  Men are not required to think of their own nutrition or exercise as benefiting "others,"  because they are not the ones with the wombs or the ones taking care of children!****

If you don't see what's bizarre about all that, let me elaborate:
The best way for a woman not to have to feel guilt about how that extra chocolate bar she ate might destroy the health of future generations is by making sure that she doesn't have children, or that if she does have children, by making sure that she is not the primary caregiver for them.   

If those choices are not feasible for a woman, then this new socialized approach to women's behavior might mean that things like the citizen-police which examines whether a visibly pregnant woman has a glass of wine or not could become extended to lots of stuff women with children do.  Not exercising enough?  Evil woman!  Eating too much fat?  Evil woman!

At the same time, human beings are very bad about lifestyle changes, and many women will still fall for that chocolate bar or for lounging in front of the television.  Only now your guilt won't be limited to what you might be doing for your own body but it has become generalized! 

In the past all this focused largely on pregnancy, but the new trend is to expand it both forward and backward in time.  Thus, women with children are seen as modeling the correct eating and exercise patterns for their children, and women who don't have children yet are told that they should eat and exercise properly already, because they might get pregnant.

Add to this the possibility that new research, not yet available, finds different stuff about what you should have eaten or how you should have exercised during the pregnancy or while taking care of children!  Then your guilt will be retrospective. 

All this places different behavioral requirements on women as their role of mothers than it does on the rest of humankind, and those behavioral requirements are not necessarily possible to achieve for any human being.  Hence my argument that this creates unproductive guilt and frustration and possibly more of the kind of "public scrutiny" that pregnant women already face, only now expanded to post-pregnant and even pre-pregnant women.

What about those pre-pregnant or preconception women?  The term "preconception" seems to mean the time a fertile woman is not pregnant.  It's not a limited time period when a couple plans on pregnancy, say, but all of that woman's fertile life.  Here's one example of how "preconception" is defined:

Preconception health is a woman's health before she becomes pregnant. It means knowing how health conditions and risk factors could affect a woman or her unborn baby if she becomes pregnant. For example, some foods, habits, and medicines can harm your baby — even before he or she is conceived. Some health problems, such as diabetes, also can affect pregnancy.
Every woman should be thinking about her health whether or not she is planning pregnancy. One reason is that about half of all pregnancies are not planned.
Bolds are mine.

So being in the state of preconception means all the time from menarche to menopause, except when you are actually pregnant!  Wow.  And you should consider yourself to be in the state of preconception whatever your contraceptive use might be or whether you abstain from intercourse altogether, because half of all pregnancies are not planned.  This often-heard quote equates to women having no agency over their potential pregnancies.

But is this really true?   The Guttmacher Institute seems to be the source for the finding that half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and this pie graph appears to support it:

But then there is this pie chart, which looks at contraceptive use and unintended pregnancies:

So let's summarize, from that bottom pie graph:  The two-thirds of US women at risk of unintended pregnancy who practice contraception consistently and correctly account for only 5% of unintended pregnancies.

Yet the preconception medical discussions ignore that, and so we get to the idea that women have no agency over whether they might become pregnant or not.

So it goes.  Returning to the most recent study about all those mothers who don't exercise, it tells us that all women in the state of preconception should exercise.

But what about the references to epigenetic rodent research at the beginning of this post?  Some of those studies suggest that what granddad and dad rats do, before mating, could influence their offspring, too.  So why not give men in the state of preconception (potentially a lot longer chunks of their lives, from pre-teen years to death) the same eager advice about the need to exercise and eat correctly?  After all, almost half of all pregnancies are unintended!

I don't think men would accept such meddling in their lives.  But should women?

That's why I'm concerned with this new trend of turning all fertile women into categories on the basis of their in-theory-possible or actual children.  On the other hand, perhaps the trend is beginning to take off about men, too:
Yet recent research has shown that men’s preconception behavior also matters. According to the CDC, tobacco and heavy drinking can damage sperm DNA, and we’re just starting to understand how older men’s sperm may affect their offspring adversely. The only venue where male preconception health gets much attention, the authors point out, is at the sperm bank, where men’s sperm is scrutinized in a way it’s not elsewhere.

To conclude, it's obvious that women's role in affecting the health of future generations is specific during pregnancy.  What is problematic about the current sociological framework in medicine is the implicit assumption that everything about reproduction and child-rearing should be coded female, that women should think about reproduction even when they are not planning to reproduce and that only women should think about their behavior in the context of future generations, because they are the major caregivers of children.****

This assumes that men have very little preconception impact and that men (who, after all, often live in the same households with women and children) provide no role models for their children, so their behavior matters not at all.

All this is, I believe, the fault of the research frames people have inside their heads when it comes to reproduction.  Those research frames seem to have started from pregnancy as the focal point of anything having to do with parental behavior and child health.  This research frame has then stretched and stretched so that it now covers preconception (women's whole fertile lives except when pregnant) and child-rearing.  That men may have an important role to play both before conception and after the child is born becomes invisible because the initial focus began with the part of reproduction which women perform:  gestation.

But the consequences of that frame (less research done on fathers, less research done on men's "preconception" lives, more maternal guilt) are serious, both in their potential impact on how good the research results are (areas people don't research could matter) and on the consequences of how women are viewed more generally.


*Rats do not ordinarily develop breast cancer and therefore the rats used in this study had to be treated with a cancer-causing drug.  The rapid shift from a rodent study to advice for human women (and grandma blaming?) is fascinating in some of those popularizations.

I looked for popularizations of the granddad and dad rat studies but didn't find a single one which gave advice to men.  Almost all the popularizations of the breast-cancer-in-rodents study gave direct advice to women.

**The junk-food reference in that article is to a study about rats.

*** I checked out the two references in that quote which relate to "preconception maternal inactivity may be causal to pregravid obesity62, 63".  One of them is a study about people between the ages of 53 and 57.  The other one is about the correlation between physical activity and weight from adolescence to adulthood.  After thinking about this a bit, I think the researchers mean that people get fatter if they don't exercise.   That can make sense, but to call all this "preconception" is a bit silly.

****I believe that argument is seriously flawed.  As long as fathers have any contact with their children, they are modeling behavior, and how fathers act in that context matters, both in good ways and bad ways.  

Just think of what the researchers' argument would imply:  As long as a family uses the gendered division of labor in child-rearing, what the father does Doesn't Matter At All.  So he can live in the same household, spend his time watching television or eating fatty foods, and none of that models anything for the children?  Alcoholism would matter if the mother is an alcoholic but would not matter if the father is an alcoholic?  Beating the children would matter only if the mother did it?

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze. The Most Outrageous Popularization of the New Gender Brain Study

The competition for the most daringly incorrect popularization of the Ingalhalikar et al. study is still open (send in submissions!), but by the time I'm typing this (ouch, the carpal tunnel syndrome all this gives me), the preliminary winner surely is Geoffrey Mohan at Los Angeles Times ("Brains of women and men show strong hard-wired differences.").

He must have read a whole different study than I did.  Or perhaps he imputed other stuff into it.

But daring he is.  He begins with a study looking at connectivity in the brains of young people which purports to find sex differences and declares:

A map of the human brain may in fact be a two-volume edition, divided by gender, according to a new study that found significant differences between how the male and female brains are hard-wired

He then tells us that those differences exactly match the observed behavioral differences (untrue, as my earlier post shows). 

But wait!  There's more:

The results lend weight to growing evidence that humans have formed strong adaptive complementarity, suggesting that biological evolution predisposes the species to divide gender roles.
So now the Ingalhalikar et al. study is about evolution!  About adaptive complementarity!  It suggests (well, that was a prudent word choice)  that biological evolution predisposes the species to divide gender roles.

The results do none of those things, actually (see my earlier post), because the study is not about evolution, and because of the plasticity of the brain and the impossibility of determining all the possible reasons for the observed path differences (including research mistakes, biological sex differences, differences based on how men's and women's lives make them use their brains differently, i.e. the very gender roles Mohan mentions.)

Then there's the idea of being predisposed to particular gender roles by biological evolution.  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But if we take the various guesses about the real-world meaning of the Ingalhalikar et al. study findings seriously, we must ask whether the traditional gender roles would be what those guesses immediately suggest.  

For instance, one of the researchers argues that women are better social intelligence.  That's not something the study could actually prove, of course.  But suppose that this is indeed the case.  How could we best use that talent edge women are supposed to have in our societies?  Perhaps only women should be the politicians?  The managers of firms?  Anything where people talents are needed (priests, mullahs, clerics in general)?

Duh.  I obviously don't support such sex segregation.

But I very much doubt that having more female presidents is what Mr. Mohan has in mind there when he talks about how the results supposedly justify evolutionary predispositions towards certain gender roles.

I pull out this particular popularization because it teaches us a lot about what these popularizations do. 

Here's an interesting thing for you to do:  Follow what happens to the Ingalhalikar et al. study over time.  Is it replicated?  Is it not found to be replicated?  Then ask yourself if popularizations would cover both of those outcomes equally noisily.

I'm willing to make a large bet that we will never learn in the popular media if the study is not replicated, partly because they will already cover some other Mars-and-Venus study.
PS:  All these studies teach us that we should not be lax in the way we look at a study if it supports our own prior beliefs about gender or if it supports the value of research we have been involved in.  I saw such laxity and bias far too often in the field of gender differences, and that's how Echidne The Viper Tongue was born!   I want popularizations to be objective and careful, even when that causes some results I adore to be found limited or false.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

What's For Breakfast? Fried Girl and Boy Brainz! How Men's And Women's Brains are Dramatically Different And What It All Means.

(Added later:  The proper way to read this post is to begin with the last footnote which talks about possible methodological problems with the study.  I hadn't had enough coffee when I wrote the post!)

Yesterday was a fantastic day for one group of researchers (Ingalhalikar et al.)* who specialize in looking at sex differences in the brain.  Their paper was popularized the way a cure for cancer would be, and that is because the authors made de-lic-ious comments about their study as proving that the hardwiring differences between male and female brainz had been found, that they are GIGANTIC!!! and  they gave us  all PICTURES which show this so very very clearly.

Then, also, the differences were of the expected type!  Women seem to have brainz built(!)/hardwired(!) for social cognition (which all the nasty commentators in all the comments threads turned into women talking and gossiping so much) and better memory (which those comments argued was all about never forgetting that you, a guy, forgot her birthday), whereas men seem to have brainz  built for clear perception-action patterns and also seem to have better motor skills (which I thought was about stuff like muscle speed but which the popularization believe are about men's superior ability to read maps or the never-dying myth that men are better drivers than women).

On the other hand, menz are completely incapable of multi-tasking!

Now would you like some fries on the side?  The hash I made for you above wasn't made by me.  It was made by one of the researchers of the study, Ragini Verma, in several published interview comments.  She mentioned ideas such as that men might be better map-readers and that women, in turn, might be better listeners or better at multi-tasking!

But the popularizers haven't actually helped!  And John Tierney and David Brooks are probably still feverishly writing away, so we are going to get more fun and games for many, many weeks.   If (or when) the flaws in the current study are revealed and the results changed, not a single popularizer will care to put any corrections on the front page of their newspapers.  For that I'm willing to bet a Ferrari.

Goddess but I love-hate this shit!  Let's step back a bit, to sort a few things out.

First, this particular study is an attempt to map out gender or sex differences in the human brain's structure, not in functionality, by using a fairly recent imaging method.  I'm a babe-in-the-woods when it comes to such complicated research methods, but after spending most of yesterday looking for information, what I think the study tried to measure (and correct me if I'm wrong) is the water-permeability of the white matter in the brain.  The idea might be a bit like finding paths in the woods?  It's not the case that you cannot walk off the path but the paths show where you mostly use to walk.  Or finding rivers and brooks.  Water could travel anywhere but it mostly goes to those furrows in the soil it is used to.  So if these maps of connectivity show a sex difference then it could be that men and women use their brainz in different ways, on average.

Now, as far as I get it, ALL this study could try to establish is whether those paths or rivers look the same in the brainz of men and women or whether they look different.  The comments about how the maps of women's paths prove that women are good in multi-tasking and men not or how the maps of men's paths prove that men are good at driving and map-reading and women are not, all those seem to be assumptions lumped on top of whatever the brain pictures (SOOO pretty) show.  They are added by Ingalhalikar et al. who even conclude like this (from the study itself, behind a pay-wall):
Overall, the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

All that looks like making much bigger assertions than the data confirms.  What the pictures (to be talked about later) seem to show is that the male brain (typical male brain?) we are shown appears to have paths which largely go from the back of each brain hemisphere to the front of that hemisphere or the other way, wheres the female brain (typical female brain?) seems to have paths which more often cross from one brain hemisphere into the other.  But WHAT those paths imply about, say, communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes (the stuff which people in many of comments threads interpreted as meaning that men are logical, women emotional) is a whole different kettle of fish.

For instance, one recent study suggests that the left-brain-logical, right-brain-creative thinking we have all had for breakfast for decades might not be that tasty anymore:

The preference to use one brain region more than others for certain functions, which scientists call lateralization, is indeed real, said lead author Dr. Jeff Anderson, director of the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service at the University of Utah. For example, speech emanates from the left side of the brain for most right-handed people. This does not imply, though, that great writers or speakers use their left side of the brain more than the right, or that one side is richer in neurons.
There is a misconception that everything to do with being analytical is confined to one side of the brain, and everything to do with being creative is confined to the opposite side, Anderson said. In fact, it is the connections among all brain regions that enable humans to engage in both creativity and analytical thinking.
"It is not the case that the left hemisphere is associated with logic or reasoning more than the right," Anderson told LiveScience. "Also, creativity is no more processed in the right hemisphere than the left."

Bolds are mine.  So the point is that researchers can disagree about where those paths go or that perhaps researcher don't necessarily know where those paths go and why.

Second, the whole study and its treatment is a great breakfast barbeque of things designed, constructed, wired, hardwired and hardwired!  Just look at the titles of some of the popularizations:

Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal

The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading'

Male and Female Brains Really Are Built Differently

It’s true: male and female brains are wired differently.  Study shows women’s brains are designed for social skills and memory, men’s for perception and co-ordination

The picture that reveals why men and women's brains really ARE different: The connections that mean girls are made for multi-tasking
Men and women's brains are 'wired differently' Men and women's brains are connected in different ways which may explain why the sexes excel at certain tasks, say researchers.

Not all yesterday's  discussions of the study were like that.  This one is critical of the study.  What's the funniest thing on earth, right now, is that the paths one might make in the brain by either inheriting them or by walking a certain way a lot are just assumed to have been inherited.  In reality they might have been there when one was born, but there is lots of evidence telling us that people can make new path-works in their brains and that people can be trained to do that.  The brain, in general, has been found plastic (flexible, capable of learning new pathways).

The fault for concluding something from the study which it cannot actually prove (that the observed differences in brain structure are "hardwired") lies firmly in the researchers' lap.  The study uses the words "designed" and "wired" a lot:
Overall, the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

Taken together, these results reveal fundamental sex differences in the structural architecture of the human brain. Male brains during development are structured to facilitate within- lobe and within-hemisphere connectivity, with networks that are transitive, modular, and discrete, whereas female brains have greater interhemispheric connectivity and greater cross-hemispheric participation.

Bolds are mine.

This, despite the fact that the study used data from young individuals (between ages eight and twenty-two), divided them into three age groups, to roughly match with childhood, teenage years and early adulthood, and then found the differences develop predominantly only after the age thirteen.

Now, it is quite possible that such a wake-up point could be consistent with a "hard-wired" explanation because puberty could switch on the process.  But note that alternative explanations are possible:  The way boys and girls interact with the world and the way the world interacts with them also changes when they hit puberty.  Thus, to simply rule out anything to do with the way the genders use their brains (the trodden-paths explanation)  looks to me unscientific, even somewhat biased.  This is especially so because the case for innateness in the differences would have been much stronger if they had been visible from age eight onwards.

What did we get here?  The researchers assert that their findings prove to be caused by structural engineering (which women don't now have to be pushed into, as several commentators gleefully asserted in the comments threads because girlz can't do math)  without proving that.  Then the popularizers go with that!  Joy everywhere!  Controversial topic!  Lotsa clicks for advertisers, lotsa readers!  Sex stereotypes are twue, as the study researcher Ragini Verma told in interviews!  And I certainly had trouble understanding her (what with my frilly girl brainz) here:

Ragini Verma, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said the greatest surprise was how much the findings supported old stereotypes, with men’s brains apparently wired more for perception and coordinated actions, and women’s for social skills and memory, making them better equipped for multitasking.
“If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there’s a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better,” she said.
“Women are better at intuitive thinking. Women are better at remembering things. When you talk, women are more emotionally involved - they will listen more.”
She added: “I was surprised that it matched a lot of the stereotypes that we think we have in our heads. If I wanted to go to a chef or a hairstylist, they are mainly men.”

Why does she want to go to a chef?  And are hairstylists mainly men?  I doubt that in the US.  But never mind, we are told wonderfully controversial stuff, imputed to a picture of boy and girl brainz where the boys have blue brainz and the girls have orange brainz (which should be pink but the orange works, too).

Third, the whole research is about connectivity between parts of the brain, so it's apt to note that the paper makes poor connections between behavioral data on gender differences and the differences found in the structure of the brains.  I quote from the article itself:

A behavioral study on the entire sample, of which this imaging study is a sub-set, demonstrated pronounced sex differences, with the females outperforming males on attention, word and face memory, and social cognition tests and males performing better on spatial processing and motor and sensorimotor speed (2). These differences were mainly observed in midadolescent age (12–14 y), where males performed significantly faster on motor tasks and more accurately on spatial memory tasks.

So from a larger study (with extra people with no brain scans added?), we learn that the behavioral differences which the imaging study argues it finds in everyone over the age 13 or so, are in reality mainly observed in midadolescent age (12-14 years)???

Cordelia Fine has written about this study today.  I'm going to borrow more from her in my more detailed discussion of the study (see footnote), but she is worth quoting here, too:
 In an larger earlier study (from which the participants of the PNAS study were a subset), the same research team compellingly demonstrated that the sex differences in the psychological skills they measured – executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition – are almost all trivially small.

To give a sense of the huge overlap in behaviour between males and females, of the twenty-six possible comparisons, eleven sex differences were either non-existent, or so small that if you were to select a boy and girl at random and compare their scores on a task, the “right” sex would be superior less than 53% of the time.
Even the much-vaunted female advantage in social cognition, and male advantage in spatial processing, was so modest that a randomly chosen boy would outscore a randomly chosen girl on social cognition – and the girl would outscore the boy on spatial processing – over 40% of the time.
As for map-reading and remembering conversations, these weren’t measured at all. 
Yet the authors describe these differences as “pronounced” and as reflecting “behavioural complementarity” – scientific jargon-speak for “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”. Rather than drawing on their impressively rich data-set to empirically test questions about how brain connectivity characteristics relate to behaviour, the authors instead offer untested stereotype-based speculation. Even though, with such considerable overlap in male/female distributions, biological sex is a dismal guide to psychological ability. 
Also missing from the study is any mention of experience-dependent brain plasticity. Why?
Bolds are mine.

A second cup of bitter coffee, anyone, to go with those fried boy and girl brainz?

Fourth,  it really is necessary to ask when studies of this type are dragged out into the public square and when they are utterly ignored.  I bet you can guess the main reason!

For instance, another very similar study using data on 439 individuals between the ages twelve and thirty,  published last July,  was not popularized because its findings about sex differences were modest.  The researchers of the present study mention that study, but argue that their larger sample size (n=949)  allows them to find statistically significant sex differences when the previous study could not do so (quote from the study);
Insignificant differences between the genders were observed in a recent study on SCs of 439 subjects ranging in age from 12–30 y (38). However, detailed analysis on a very large sample is needed to elucidate sex differences in networks reliably, as is provided in this study.
Dorothy Bishop notes, in her criticisms of the study that:

...if an effect was only evident when N = 900, then it would be a very small effect; in other words, while there may be a mean difference between males and females, the variation within each of those groups would be much larger than any difference between them. This was not conveyed at all in the media coverage.

Indeed, she links to a post where Gerard Ridgway tries to figure** out the effect sizes which the Ingalhalikar et al. study doesn't tell us at all.  Here's his picture  of the effect sizes.  The top graph (on sex differences in height)  is to give you a comparison base for evaluating the effect sizes in the Ingalhalikar et al. study finding:

Hmm.   It doesn't look quite so dramatic as one popularization led us to expect.  The male and female distributions differ much less than they do for human height, even for the largest difference Ingalhalikar et al. found.

The point, my dear readers, is that the study was pushed as one about hard-wiredness, as one which reinforces old gender stereotypes and as one which finds humongous differences.  Then the readers were given a script of interpreting those, not based on the images of the brains themselves but on the researchers' ideas about how men and women differ in behavior.

What really, really helped them to get this study out into the public arena wasn't just that it allowed wonderful comments threads where hundreds (if not thousands) mentioned that they knew all this already, that every man knows women cannot drive, that we should perhaps now let Larry Summers to run the Fed as we have proven that women can't do mathematics and that we should certainly stop pushing women into STEM careers which they don't want and cannot do.

It was also the pictures of the brainz.  Bishop writes about another study:

How is it that this paper has been so influential? I suggest that it is largely because of the image below, summarising results from the study. This was reproduced in a review paper by the senior author that appeared in Science in 2009. This has already had 42 citations. The image is so compelling that it’s also been used in promotional material for a commercial training program other than the one that was used in the study. As McCabe and Castel (2008) have noted, a picture of a brain seems to make people suspend normal judgement.

Bolds are mine.  A picture of a brain makes people suspend normal judgement?  I think she's got something there!

Here is the picture most of the popularizations used. It's from the article itself (Figure 2) but looks to me to have been color-enhanced.

The top two views are of a male brain, the bottom two views of a female brain.  Those squiggly blue and orange lines are the increased connectivity paths.  Men are from Mars, after all!

But WHOSE are these brains?  Are these some kind of averages, constructed over the whole sample of 949 individuals?  Or are they actual brains of two individuals?  Neuro-scientists may know all about how such pictures are selected, but, alas and alack, I have no idea.  And the article doesn't tell us.  The answer to this question matters enormously, because it is these pictures readers seem to be reacting to.  So we need to know how they were created and what they mean.

And here's the fun bit about those brain pictures:  They are taken from the same Figure 2 in the article. Figure 2  also contains male and female comparison pictures for the three age groups in the study (children, teens and young adults),  which to me sounds like all of the study, right?  But those figures look a whole lot less dramatic:

Pictures B apply to children, pictures C to teenagers and pictures D to young adults.  I assume that out of each pair of brains the female one is on the right.  But the study doesn't tell us.

I am confused about the Now-Famous Pictures and these poor Cinderella pictures which weren't allowed to go to the public ball.

Nevermind.  Have one more cup of coffee and look at this hilarious spoof version of the Now-Famous Pictures:

It's a very nice way of summarizing one of the main reason why this study has gotten so much publicity.  The other reason would be in those fewer popularizations that suggested that men can never learn to multi-task (but see).

Fifth, and finally, a few important warnings: I'm obviously not an expert in neuro-science and what I discuss here is more based on my general knowledge how research should be reported as well as what more knowledgeable people (such as Dorothy BishopTom Stafford, Cordelia Fine and Sophie Scott) report.  Still, I'm fully responsible for all the things my feeble girl brain got wrong, even though that is sooo unfair.

Neither does anything I say imply that I believe there are no possible innate sex differences in the structure of the brain***.  My point is that reporting inflated findings or links to behavior which the study itself cannot prove is not nice (files nails).  Moreover it's bloody deplorable when its consequences might be increased stereotype threats for women (and men), reduced advancement of women in fields where an individual woman is perfectly skilled for the job, but where prejudices about what women can do have been made stronger by bad research (and thus keep her from getting a job she applies for) and a discouraging belief that men simply cannot learn social skills or have good memory and so on.

And if you care to spend few hours tearing out your hair, do go and read what the comments threads to those popularizations talk about!  The vast majority of them are about everybody knowing that women are like that and how the time now is ripe for feminazis to stop pushing women into the STEM fields and how all possible environmental effects on gender differences have now been proven false.  Because of pictures of brainz!  Which are colored blue for boys and orange for girls!

A few words about prior beliefs and prejudices:  It looks to me as if those who commented on the popularizations of the Ingalhalikar et al. study were of three major types, ranked in rapidly reducing group size from the largest to the smallest:  Many men (based on names or context) and a few women who loved the idea that women and men have now presumably been shown to be so fundamentally different that no further conversation can exist on anything having to do with gender differences, people (mostly women, I suspect) who were very angry at the study (and frightened by the way it is already used) and wanted to prove it wrong or have it proven wrong (which, anyway,  is really impossible to achieve the same day a study comes out) and then quite a small group of people who talked about plasticity vs. hard-wiredness and some of whom actually were in neuroscience.
All those people most likely have a prior belief about how much and in which ways women and men might innately differ, and it is those prior beliefs that even researchers have.  In that sense all these discussions will be gender-political, between those who think that men are from Mars and women are from Venus and between those who think that all such prior beliefs are pulled from Uranus.

The gender-political aspect has much to do with power and struggles for higher positions in the society, vs. trying to stay on top of the heap, and it has also much to do with feeling that one deserves, in a natural way, the good things one has or the feeling that others are out to get you either for being the oppressor or by making sure that you remain the oppressed.  It's all very emotional!  In a gender-neutral way, my friends.
These are the reasons why studies on gender differences should measure twice and cut once, as carpenters say.  Researchers' mistakes heap very high social costs on the shoulders of others, much higher than is in general the case with published research.  And that is the reason why I spend so much time on studies of this type and why I always try to bite the butts of bad popularizations.
These things matter.
On my own biases:  You can tell what they might be when my first quick reading of the study made me mutter how exaggerated it sounded.  That is a bias, too, of course, with a real world basis:  I don't see the kind of gendered differences in behavior which would suggest large fundamental differences in the architecture of the brain.  I do see differences, sure, but with lots and lots of individual variation and much weaker general differences than the  Ingalhalikar et al. tells us it has established, and I cannot really tell, for most of them, what the environmental effect in them might be.  And they say zero about individual variation, they fail to provide effect sizes.  These are the kinds of things which turn my skepticism engines on.
Whatever that is worth.  You can take any leftovers home with you if so desired.  A few additional criticisms about the study are left in the footnote if you are still peckish.****

*The paper can be found and purchased here.  Ruben and Raquel Gur, among the authors of the paper, have been studying gender differences for thirty years.  They and Regini Verma wrote the actual paper, which suggests to me that they chose to talk about hard-wiring and so on.
**I have not tried to check any of the calculations, either here or in Ingalhalikar et al..
***In any case, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  As both birds and bats can fly, so it is possible that brainz with quite different paths can solve the same problems and accomplish the same tasks.  For several examples of recent studies which have found sex differences in structural imaging (but not necessarily in the same direction or in the same places) read here, herehere and here.  

 For some criticisms of this field, check out this.It includes a fascinating quote pertinent to this topic:

Of course, sex differences are also found at cellular and molecular levels of the central nervous system (Cosgrove et al., 2007). But whether it involves gene expression, neuronal signaling, gross structure, or regional blood flow, every brain-related sex difference is not necessarily behaviorally relevant. As Geert De Vries (2004) has shown, sex differences in neural circuitry or neurochemistry often reflect compensation for genetic and hormonal differences and actually end up making male and female behavior more similar than different.

****The two more technical criticisms I have seen have to do with brain size and head motion.  Those might look very weird, for the uninitiated, but they both matter here, because men have, on average, larger brains, than women, and because one study found that the amount of head motion in young male subjects during imaging was clearly somewhat higher than the amount of head motion in young female subjects and it confounded some of the results of the imaging.
On the size of the brain, Fine states:
One important possibility the authors don’t consider is that their results have more to do with brain size than brain sex. Male brains are, on average, larger than females and a large brain is not simply a smaller brain scaled up.
Larger brains create different sorts of engineering problems and so – to minimise energy demands, wiring costs, and communication times – there may physical reasons for different arrangements in differently sized brains. The results may reflect the different wiring solutions of larger versus smaller brains, rather than sex differences per se.
I came across the same suggestion in other literature and also some findings that the imaging results may suffer if there is a consistent brain size difference between groups.  Some conclusions may be caused by that rather than whatever the study tries to analyze.  To test this, one might try to compare large-brained women with smaller-brained men?  I have no idea if that is doable.

On the head motions:  This study (Figure1) shows a sex difference in the amount of head motion during the imaging.  Head motion is greater for males than for females.  Moreover, the effect of greater average head motion was found to be associated with apparent decreased functional connectivity in large-scale networks and apparent increased functional connectivity between the left and right motor regions.  As far as I can figure out, that is exactly what one would expect in the Ingalhalikar et al. study which seems not to have taken head motion into account at all.  At the same time the authors of the article studying the effect of head motion find its impact to fairly small on the results in their study.  On the other hand, they state:

Paradoxically, large data samples may be particularly vulnerable to this kind of confound where small, systematic differences in motion could become the dominant difference as other sources of variation are matched between groups. The rightmost panel of Figure 4 illustrates this point. The panel compares two large samples (each n = 100) that were matched for age and sex but systematically differed in a small degree of motion (0.044 versus 0.048 mm Mean Motion displacement). A between-group effect on functional connectivity of the default network is evident that is most likely entirely driven by head motion. This difference in another context could easily be mistaken for a true neuronal effect.

Given this, the Ingalhalikar et al. study should be re-run reanalyzed with controls for brain size and head motion before its results are discussed.




Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Speed Blogging, Tuesday Dec 3 2013: On Rosa Parks, the Federal Minimum Wage And Saudi Women

1.  Sunday marked the 58th anniversary of the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her street in a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was not the first person to defy the racial segregation laws:

Others had taken similar steps in the twentieth century, including Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, and the members of the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit (Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith) arrested months before Parks. NAACP organizers believed that Parks was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws though eventually her case became bogged down in the state courts.[2][3]

But neither did her work for justice  limit itself just to that one event, and, no, she wasn't just "too tired" to get up and move to a different part of the bus.  She was protesting the unfairness of segregation.

2.  This article on why raising the minimum wage might not increase unemployment is necessary reading.*  Some economists argue that if we raise the federal minimum wage then fewer people can have those minimum wage jobs.  Seems to make sense, right?  When the price of something (here labor) rises, the buyers (here the employers) will choose less of it.

That's the case inside the simple competitive model of a labor market.  But more realistic models point out reasons why the duh-obvious!  increase in unemployment might not come about, after all:

But how can minimum wages rise without causing job losses? For starters, if the demand for burgers is not price sensitive, some of the cost increase can be passed on to customers without substantially reducing demand or jobs. Existing research suggests that if you raise the minimum wage by 10 percent, you can expect the price of a $3 burger to rise by a few cents, which is enough to absorb a sizable part of the wage increase. 
Going beyond simple supply and demand, economic models are getting better at incorporating frictions caused by the costs of finding jobs and filling vacancies, which turn out to be quite important when analyzing labor markets. There are good jobs and bad jobs at the low end of the labor market, and movements between these lead to vacancies and turnover. 
If McDonald’s is required to pay a higher wage, fewer of its workers will leave to take other jobs. This means fewer vacancies at McDonald’s, and it means other employers are more likely to fill their job openings from the ranks of the unemployed — both of which can help keep unemployment down. So while higher costs may dissuade some employers from creating new positions, it also helps other employers recruit and retain workers. Moderate increases in the minimum wage, in other words, can reduce vacancies and turnover instead of killing jobs. In a follow-up study using our bordering areas methodology, we provide empirical evidence for this argument: while overall employment in low-wage sectors does not change much following a minimum-wage increase, worker turnover falls sharply as workers stay with their jobs longer.

Bolds are mine, and the bolded parts explain the two main reasons why employment might not be much affected by a higher minimum wage.  The "fewer vacancies" reason is about worker turnover, ultimately.  Worker turnover is expensive for firms (because of the need to find new workers when old ones leave and because it takes time to train a new worker and the worker is not terribly productive while learning the job).  If a higher minimum wage rate makes workers more likely to stay at the job, the turnover-related costs drop, and the firm may not feel the pressure to cut back on its labor force.

3.  While Saudi women still cannot legally drive, they now get some support to join the labor force:

The kingdom’s restrictions on women have long drawn the condemnation of rights groups, most recently after dozens of women drew headlines by defying a ban on driving.
But some women’s rights advocates here say that the international attention given to small numbers of women getting behind the wheel overshadows the deep, if gradual, shifts in Saudi society as more women work, broadening their range of experience, helping to run organizations and earning a degree of economic independence.
Although the effort has been promoted by the Ministry of Labor as part of a campaign to reduce unemployment and the dependence on foreign workers, it has butted up against strict social codes. The percentage of Saudi women who work remains minuscule by world standards, at about 15 percent.
Among those strict social codes is probably the code of gender segregation.  Which brings us a full circle in this speed blogging post.

*Depending on the source one uses, somewhere between slightly over half to two-thirds of minimum wage workers are female.  Black women and Latinas are somewhat overrepresented in this group of female minimum wage workers: " Black women were just under 13 percent and Hispanic women were just under 14 percent of all employed women in 2012,[3] but more than 15 percent of women who made minimum wage were black and more than 18 percent were Hispanic."  The industries most likely to offer minimum wages for full-time work are the restaurant and hospitality industries.

Monday, December 02, 2013

I Feel Bitchy, Oh So Bitchy. The Finale of The Series of Posts on Women's Bitchiness

The way to use this series I have written is probably like this:

First go and read the three popularizations which discuss the results on women's bitchiness (indirect aggression) as ONLY about sexual competition, rather than as a form of competitiveness which both men and women engage in though perhaps not to exactly the same extent, just as direct aggression can be seen as a form of competition both genders engage in though not to exactly the same extent.

Second, read my posts and the links in them (in particular to my earlier series on Baumeister and Vohr).  I'm sorry that they are boring and long.  I didn't have enough time and energy to make them short and fun.

Third,  while doing that, you might notice that many of the references in the EP (Evolutionary Psychology of a simple type, often capitalized to distinguish it form evolutionary psychology in general) articles go back to a small number of the same individuals who have written a lot on the same topic. 

The mere number of the references looks impressive until you do that.   Likewise, the references to the EP Hot Babe requirements in Vaillancourt and Sharma's 2011 article  refer back to main articles from the 1990s on the mythical ideal waist-to-hip ratio, with no acknowledgement of later studies suggesting that it isn't universally ideal but probably a Western cultural concept.  This omission suggests that the ideal waist-to-hip ratio theory has not been questioned or shown not to be universal etc. but is simply offered as a presumed fact.

Why bother doing that?  You don't have to, but it is one indication of the insular nature of the EP field and of the omission of references to studies from neighboring fields.  Those omissions make the body of the research look like all agreed-upon stuff, all generally accepted stuff, all facts and proven theory.

Fourth, if you are really weird and feel strong, go and Google, say the John Tierney popularization linked above (Women's Cold War, heh), to see what types of sites eagerly like it.  Put your wading boots on first and don't say I didn't warn you. Doing that is a good reminder about the gender-political aspect of EP.  It is loved among the non-religious part of the American right as a way to prove how natural the supremacy of men is.

To conclude, I want to stress that I'm absolutely certain that women compete with each other, just as men compete with each other, and that both men and women compete in the sexual arena with those they see as their rivals.  But we are all capable of cooperation and competition and we are all capable of those in many different fields of life.  While doing research for this series, I came across many recent articles about direct and indirect aggression among teenagers and young adults.  Those articles were not pulled out for wider popularizations, but a two-year-old article WAS treated that way this year. 

Is that article so scientifically important that it deserves this treatment? 

This is why I think it was selected for our brain food:  It is about Women Behaving Badly, it is about sexiness, it is about the idea that bitchiness is biological (natural) in women (but apparently not in men though other studies show that the differences in the use of indirect intrasex aggression between men and women are not large) and it is about women fighting over a man.  I also think that those popularizers who already believe all that (or who have bosses with those beliefs) are the most likely ones to discuss such studies.  Then, of course, this is major clickbait, so some sites will write about that for the same reason they write about people who eat rats etc.

To have prior views on a topic is not necessarily bad, if one is aware of having those views.  What's bad is the fact that studies which find, say, no gender differences in something that EP folks think should show them are not popularized.  What's bad is the fact that writers like John Tierney never appear to discuss any study in which women come across looking like they might qualify as equal human beings (I just went through all his writing in the NYT from 2004 onwards).  If you have a science popularizers with that template, what on earth is his influence on the reading public over time?  My guess is that some, at least, get the impression that all research demonstrates something about women's inability to be anything but what Tierney wishes them to be.
The rest of the series is here:  Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

To finish, you can listen to this song again.  Just replace "pretty" with "bitchy!"

I Feel Bitchy, Oh So Bitchy. Part 3 in the Series on Intrasex Aggression in Women: The Vaillancourt and Sharma 2011 Article.

This is the third post in the series, provoked by the fact that dozens of studies about indirect aggression among adolescents and young adults exist, but the one the media chooses to popularize is wimminz being bitchy.   And not only that.  As I pointed out in the first post of this series, the article that is NOW being popularized came out in 2011. -- The first post of the series can be read here, the second post here.

This post talks about the 2011 article* by Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma, titled "Intolerance of Sexy Peers:  Intrasexual Competition Among Women,"  because that is what John Tierney in the New York TimesClaire Suddath in the Business Week and Olga Khazan at the Atlantic Monthly website chose to speak about in 2013.

Let's begin by looking at the theoretical framework Vaillancourt and Sharma pick for their study.  This is very important, because it turns out that the framework consists of two bits which don't fit together very well, even though they are used at different parts of the article to explain various findings:

The Two Theories

The authors begin with the usual evolutionary psychology theory which I often capitalize as  Evolutionary Psychology (EP), a rather simplistic hypothesis about how prehistoric humans might have behaved a long time ago to maximize (not intentionally, but by evolution "selecting" for those behaviors which were most likely to let a particular person pass his or her genes on)  their chances of leaving offspring.**

This is then supplemented with the assumption that the "winning" sexual adaptations are still "hard-wired" in our brainz, what with the further assumption that evolution in something of that sort could not possibly have taken place more recently than in the distant Pleistocene.  We have Stone Age brains, my dears, and it is those stone age brains which explain how very young Canadian or US undergraduates  compete against other people of the same sexual preference for the attention of the object of their desires. 

Human mating has very little flexibility, from this view.  And because that is what is assumed, current forms of mating behavior among contemporary humans are examined for evidence about how they might have been successful sexual adaptations in the prehistory. 

It is such a simplistic model that the authors pick up first; the view that prehistoric men would have preferred young and attractive women as their mating partners because attractiveness is assumed to measure health and youth guarantees the maximal number of children for the men.  Usually the EP version of this distinguishes between the search for a short-term sexual partner and a long-term sexual partner.  Men are assumed to also value fidelity in their long-term sexual partners.  This is crucial to in my critiques.  Thus, it's worth pointing out here that Vaillancourt and Sharma drop it from the very beginning.***

This is what they state, instead:

Research on human mate preferences clearly demonstrates that males show a strong preference for young, attractive females [Buss, 1989; Buss and Schmitt, 1993; Grammer and Thornhill, 1994; Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh and Young, 1995]. In reaction to this predilection, females derogate rivals who imbue these qualities. Indeed, studies have shown that females are particularly intolerant of attractive peers, using indirect aggression against them at a greater rate than their less attractive peers [e.g., Leenaars et al., 2008].
Thus, we are led to expect that their studies will be about female intrasex aggression aimed at especially attractive competitors.

But wait a second!  The authors next add a completely different theory:  The sexual cartel of all women which Baumeister and Vohr developed.****  Why is this particular theory used in the article?  Perhaps because the results mostly fail to support the usual EP theory of female sexual competition? I have in mind the EP view that women would be most likely to compete against attractive young women because men prefer them and that women would also be likely to compete against attractive young and not-licentious women because that's what we are told men prefer for long-term dating purposes (or marriage).

A crucial point here is that Baumeister&Vohr argument is not an evolutionary psychology one.  Thus, the authors use two different (and not necessarily consistent) theories both in the introduction to the studies and in the discussion of those studies.  If one does that, there's almost always one theory which will fit some subset of facts!  The other theory can be used to justify a different subset, if needed.  But this is troubling when the two theories contradict each other.

Have I bored you enough already?  All this matters, sadly.  Here's what Vaillancourt and Sharma say about the sexual cartel theory:

In addition to being intolerant of physically attractive peers, we hypothesize that women are particularly intolerant of sexy attractive peers. According to Baumeister and Twenge [2002], a double standard of sexual morality exists in which women ‘‘stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage’’ (p. 166). In their review of relevant literature, Baumeister and Twenge found support for their theory that females, and not males, suppress the sexuality of other females. Females accomplish this by ‘‘punishing’’ other females who seem to make sex too readily available ‘‘through informal sanctions such as ostracism and derogatory gossip’’ (p. 172). In other words, females used indirect aggression to suppress the sexuality of other females.

See the second post in this series for more extensive discussion of the review of "relevant" literature in the Baumeister&Tvenge article.  For the time being, it is enough to note that Vaillancourt and Sharma have two basic hypotheses, derived from two different theories:  The first one is that women will use indirect aggression more towards attractive rivals than unattractive rivals, the second one is that women will use indirect aggression to suppress the sexuality of rivals who appear to be available for sex.

Let's look at the two studies in the article in greater detail.  They were both carried out on female heterosexual Canadian undergraduates, with the average ages in the two studies being twenty years and nineteen years.  Very young subjects, in other words.

The First Study

The first study applies to 86 young female heterosexual and ethnically diverse Canadian college students.  The women were told that they were participating in quite a different study, but while waiting for that study to begin, each woman was placed in a room with one other woman (either a friend or a stranger) and audio and video recorded while in that room.  A provocateur then entered a room.  She was picked on the basis of EP desirability (I find this part funny but it is important):

participants were exposed to an attractive, [...] 21-year-old Caucasian female confederate (independently rated as attractive by 20 female undergraduate students on a scale from 1 to 10, Mean7SE 5 8.670.25) who embodied qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective [low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts; Buss, 1989; Buss and Schmitt, 1993; Grammer and Thornhill, 1994; Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh and Young,

In half the cases (A) she was "conservatively dressed."  In the other half of the cases (B), she was dressed in a fashion that the authors denote "sexy."  Here are the pictures of the provocateur:

The total number of possible "conditions" in this study is four.  Either the pair of study subjects were friends (known to each other before) or they were strangers, and each of those types of pairs saw either the conservatively dressed woman in picture A or the "sexily" dressed woman in picture B.

The provocateur's behavior was choreographed, so that she behaved in the same manner however she was dressed.  She entered the room, took a few steps, asked where she could find the study experimenter.  She then left with the experimenter, a woman herself.

The video and audio recordings of the pairs of women in the room covered the period of time when the provocateur was in the room and the time right after that.   These recordings were then examined in two different ways to find out if the reactions of the pairs of women differed on the basis of which of the two outfits the provocateur used and also on the basis of whether the women were friends or not.  (The idea of using the latter aspect is that friends are more likely to express bitchiness to each other than total strangers.)

And what were the results?  I'm sure that you can guess those.  The reactions to the provocateur in the conservative outfit were nonexistent, the reactions to the provocateur in the "sexy" outfit were largely what the researchers call bitchy, and more so if the two study subjects in the room were friends, though the latter effect was minor.

There are three points worth making about this sub-study. 

First, it is not about the EP theory at all, because the same woman, deemed attractive in EP terms,  was used in all the conditions.  It is about the Baumeister&Vohr cartel theory, though obviously quite different sociological or psychological theories could explain the same reactions.

Second, the authors mention an alternative theory that might account for the findings later in the article:  The norm violation theory.  They use the example of a clown entering a room like that.  Because clowns are not expected in the university context, the reactions of the study subjects could well be due to the fact that the provocateur in the "sexy" outfit doesn't match our expectations about how people interacting with EP researchers or undergraduates might look.  A surprise, in short, could explain the reactions.  Vaillancourt and Sharma don't think that there is any good way of excluding the norm violation theory, because, introducing, say, a clown, in some conditions as a control would tell the subjects who see the clown that there is something fishy about the whole project.

Indeed.  But the fact remains that the role violation theory could explain the observed reactions.

Third, this sub-study does not support the idea that heterosexual women's indirect aggression is most likely to be aimed at an attractive rival, because the provocateur was the same woman in all cases.  But note the near-absence of any reaction to the conservatively dressed variant.  If men indeed value not only youth and attractiveness in their long-term sexual partner but also fidelity, the conservatively dressed provocateur should have elicited bitching from the study subjects, right, as a form of competition for long-term mates?  That she did not, and given that the "conservative" dress looks to me like the usual uniform for students, the case for the norm violation explanation is strengthened.

The Second Study

The second study, using 66 ethnically diverse women, all recruited from a university setting and with an average age of nineteen, continues the use of the provocateur from the first study.  This time she is present as only photographs, the two shown above as pictures A and B, and a third one, picture C,  which is a photo-shopped version of the provocateur in picture B., to make her look obese.  Here is picture B together with the photo-shopped picture C:

These three photographs were given to three separate groups (women in one group got picture A, women in the second picture B and so on).  The study subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness ("cuteness") of the woman in the photograph they were given, and also asked to rate her "sexiness."  They were then asked whether they would introduce the woman in the picture to their boyfriends (real of imaginary), whether they would let the woman spend time alone with that boyfriend, and, finally, whether they, themselves would like to befriend the woman in the picture.

The results?  The woman in picture A was rated the most attractive.  This is the conservatively dressed thin version of the provocateur from the first study.  The woman in picture B (sexy-thin, as the researcher call it) was rated the sexiest, while there was no discernible difference in the ratings of photographs A and C.

The sexy-thin woman (B) was the least likely to be introduced to anyone's boyfriend or to be allowed to spend time with him alone.  The conservatively dressed thin woman (A) was the most likely to be deemed as someone the study subjects would like to befriend. 

Anything Echidne wants to complain about in this context?  You bet!  Why only photo-shop one picture, to end up with three?*****  What is the logic behind that?

It would seem obvious to me that if the researchers wanted to introduce a fatness aspect to the study (based on the EP assumption that men don't like fat women), then both pictures A and B should have been photo-shopped fatter.  Why is there no picture D, showing the conservatively dressed version as fatter?

This is such an odd omission that I can't quite get over it.  Surely an additional twenty-two study subjects could have been found, to test all four versions of the pictures if a sub-sample of 22 was necessary?

My second concern is that the second study has introduced a version of the provocateur which does not abide with the mythical EP-dictated standards of beauty, with the ideal waist-to-hip ratio.  The basic EP theory would suggest that she would be the one whom the study subjects would most eagerly introduce to their boyfriends, because she is less likely to appeal to them (in EP theory, that is).  But this turned out not to be the case at all.

The researchers speculate that her signals of sexual availability were seen more of a threat here than her failure to match the mythical waist-to-hip ratio.  But this is EXACTLY WHY the omission of picture D (with the conservatively dressed version made to look obese) is so troublesome.

Discussion in the Article

The discussion of these results in the article has inconsistencies.  For example, this is how the researchers write about the EP theory of intrasex competition:

Although the ultimate reason women derogate rivals is unknown, we strongly suspect that the use of indirect aggression by human females is rooted in evolutionary history. It has been noted in the nonhuman animal literature that female reproductive competition is most intense within species in which males invest heavily in their offspring (with some exceptions see Clutton-Brock, 2007]. In humans, males are invested in their offspring, albeit to a lesser extent than females, and because they invest they also tend to be selective in terms of who they mate with on a long-term basis [Kenrick et al., 1990]. This choosiness puts pressure on females to compete for the most desirable mates and the form this competition takes is often the derision of perceived rivals [Campbell, 2002; Vaillancourt, 2005].
Using an experimental design, results of Study 1 provide support for the hypothesis that women do engage in intrasexual competition and that the form it takes is indirect aggression.
Bolds are mine.
Butbutbut.  Note that men want faithful partners for long-term mating!  The partner in the first study most likely to fit that bill is the conservatively dressed version of the provocateur.  Yet she elicited essentially no bitching, which suggests to me that the above hypothesis was rejected by the study evidence.

The researchers then go on about the sexual cartel theory by Baumeister&Vohr. There are several alternative theories (better ones, in my view) to interpret the first study findings.  The norm violation theory, say,  seems credible.

In discussing the second study, Vaillancourt and Sharma again bring up long-term competition for mates:

Notably, women were also less likely to introduce the sexy-fat confederate to their boyfriend or allow him to spend time with her than the thin attractive, but conservatively dressed, confederate. It is clear from the research literature that larger women are not perceived by men as being attractive. In fact, studies consistently demonstrated that women with large breasts and a low waist-to- hip ratio are preferred by men for both short-term and long-term relationships [e.g., Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh and Young, 1995]. However, this finding is consistent with evidence that women are threatened by, disapprove of, and punish women who appear and/or act promiscuous [Baumeister and Twenge, 2002]. Recently, Griskevicius et al. [2009] reported that for women, mating motives increased indirect aggression use, a finding consistent with Benenson’s [2009] idea that human females constantly compete with one another to initiate and maintain a long- term partnership with a mate. The form this competition takes is indirect aggression. Across human history, females have relied heavily on the investment of males for the provision of resources and for the protection of themselves and their offspring [Benenson, 2009, p. 269]. Having a mate defect often indicates fewer resources for the woman and her offspring.

Bolds are again mine.

Note that the actual evidence is against the competition for long-term mates, because the most likely version of the provocateur to qualify as attractive, young and faithful (what men are said to want in EP) was the conservatively dressed woman in picture A, and she was not the one whom the study subjects were least likely to introduce to their boyfriends and the most likely to want to befriend.

The inexplicable absence of picture D makes it hard for me to say much more about the findings in the second study, though a certain type of concept of one's peer group might be working there, too.  If the average woman participating in the study dressed like the conservatively dressed version of the provocateur (picture A), then that version might be the most likely to be invited to meet a boyfriend or to become a friend simply because of that type of similarity of expressed values or lifestyles.  It would have been interesting to control for the study subjects' own clothing choices in the studies.

So what did these two studies tell us?  

I would argue that they showed that young, undergraduate women at one Canadian university reacted negatively to the clothing of the "sexy" version of the provocateur in study one.  Why that was the case is not, in my view, something that the article was able to prove, partly, because the "sexy" clothing doesn't look to me like the kind of "sexy" clothing a female undergraduate would wear in a place like a university or even more generally.  We do not know what the study participants read into that clothing choice, and so we cannot really conclude what their motives might have been. 

*The article is behind a pay-wall.  The reference is Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma, 2011, 
"Intolerance of Sexy Peers:  Intrasexual Competition Among Women," Aggressive Behavior, vol. 37, pp 569-577. 
The study only covers heterosexual women.  We are told that the participants are ethnically diverse but we are not given numerical data on that.

**I regard these theories simplistic because they are.  For instance, they almost always assume that a prehistoric man successfully passed his genes on if his sperm fertilized an egg, whereas a prehistoric woman had to carry the child to term, give it birth and then feed and care for it until the child, in turn, became a fertile adult who could continue the game. This simplistic argument is used to explain why men would naturally be more eager to have casual sex and many sexual partners and commitment avoidance (why bother?) than women.

The point I wish to make is that a fertilized egg is NOT a fertile adult of the next generation.  Even for prehistoric men's offspring, someone had to go through pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing before the process was complete.  Thus, men's ability to pass their genes on was still limited by women's ability to pass their genes on.   The two were intertwined, unless we assume that women acted like some type of passive slot-machine:  Insert sperm, a mature, fertile adult child pops out.

Suppose, say, that a pregnancy resulting from prehistoric casual sex left the pregnant woman on her own.  Suppose, moreover, that a pregnant woman under these conditions was  more likely to die due to the pregnancy or  in childbirth or less likely to manage to feed the child to his or her adulthood.  This could have meant that casual sex didn't produce the number of fertile adults in the next generation that EP researchers assume.  Indeed,  the "selection" for promiscuity in men (as opposed to preference for long-term mating) would have been reduced, because fewer men would have passed on their genes through casual sex than the EP lot assume.

The above is just one example of many, many similar omissions in the simplistic frameworks.  They also usually fail to include the fact that evolution not relating to sex would also have had an impact on how successful prehistoric people were in passing on their genes, and that the different kinds of evolutionary forces probably acted simultaneously, and that the final outcomes might be hard to predict within one very simplistic model.

***In her 2013 review article Vaillancourt states:
Females attack other females principally on appearance and sexual fidelity because males value these qualities in their partners.
The findings here contradict the latter quite clearly.

**** You can read my views on that particular theory, in excruciating detail in this series of posts (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3).

***** morf in comments to the first post in this series pointed out this problem, too.