Thursday, November 08, 2012

Mr. Stable Vs. Mr. Sexy. More Evolutionary Psychology Popularizations.

Back to evolutionary psychology, my dear readers!  This time I want to point out one basic problem with many popularizations in this field:  Statements like this one:

Long after women have chosen Mr. Stable over Mr. Sexy, they struggle unconsciously with the decision, according to a new study by UCLA researchers who look at subtle changes in behavior during ovulation.

At their most fertile period, these women are less likely to feel close to their mates and more likely to find fault with them than women mated to more sexually desirable men, the research shows.

The study popularized above is in that new field: female hormonal fluctuations*.  It's a growing field, and almost all the results are magnified by the popular media write-ups. 

What I mean by that is something of this sort:  A study might have found a few percentage point difference in some opinion or behavior when women are compared at two different points in their menstrual cycles.  In short, the kind of finding which is statistically significant but not big in real-world terms.  This is then translated into huge swings across the cycle.

But the magnification also applies to something else.  Note the beginning of that publicity piece I linked to above:  "Long after women have chosen Mr. Stable over Mr. Sexy...."

How long after?  What sort of relationships are we talking about here?  You might be surprised to learn that all the study subjects were undergraduates.   College undergraduates have rarely been a long-term relationship to which terms such as "long after" could be applied.  These are young people!

Why would any of this matter?  For several reasons:  First, the first sentence in that popularization has nothing to do with the study itself.  The study is all about asking young students questions within a very short time-frame.  There's no way a study like that could properly measure long-term "unconscious struggles" with one's choice of Mr. Stable over Mr. Sexy.  I'm not even sure if calling someone Mr. Stable makes much sense when the study subjects are so very young.  They haven't had enough time for instability to rear its head.

What I found especially hilarious about that write-up is its exaggerated reach in two directions.  Not only are we told what women unconsciously struggle with, but we are also later told this:

"Since our female ancestors couldn't directly examine a potential partner's genetic makeup, they had to base their decisions on physical manifestations of the presence of good genes and the absence of genetic mutations, which might include masculine features such as a deep voice, masculine face, dominant behavior and sexy looks," said Haselton, who is affiliated with UCLA's Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture.

"It is possible that we evolved to feel drawn to these visible markers because, at least in the past, they proved to be indicators of good genes," she said. "Ancestral women who were attracted to these features could have produced offspring who were more successful in attracting mates and producing progeny."

Remember that the actual studies consisted of having young undergraduate women fill in questionnaires.  From that we get sweeping generalizations.

Are there actual studies that men with deep voices, masculine faces, blah-blah have "better genes"?  Given that the whole argument here hinges on those studies, I find it odd that I haven't come across any that would conclusively prove that sexy=healthy genes argument.  

But then that whole quote discusses a hypothesis which we cannot subject to any kind of real testing.  Evolutionary Psychology is a bit like religion in that sense.

This post is about the popularization only, not about the study, because I have recently overdosed on these kinds of studies (send emergency chocolates!).  But I did find this rather interesting:

She and Haselton began the study by pinpointing the ovulation cycles of 41 undergraduate women involved in long-term heterosexual relationships. They asked the women to rate the sexual attractiveness of their mates by answering such questions as "How desirable do you think women find your partner as a short-term mate or casual sex partner, compared to most men."

They also asked the women a series of questions designed to measure their partner's stability or suitability as a long-term mate, including questions about how his present and future financial status compares with that of most men.

Then at two different points in her monthly cycle — at high fertility (just before ovulation) and at low fertility — each woman was asked about the quality of her romantic relationship. The researchers, who used a questionnaire designed exclusively for the study, found no significant change across the cycle in how the women perceived their level of commitment to the relationship or, at least initially, in their satisfaction with it.

But an exercise that required the women to rate how close they felt to their men yielded dramatic results. As women mated to less sexually attractive men moved from their least fertile to most fertile period, their closeness scores dropped one point on a seven-point scale. Women mated to the most sexually attractive men, meanwhile, experienced the opposite effect. As these women moved from their least to most fertile period, their closeness scores rose by a point.

I have bolded the interesting bits.  The reason the boyfriend's future financial status is  introduced has to do with the Evolutionary Psychology tenet that women marry for resources, men for looks.  Or men look for pron stars, barely legal, and women look for the Donald Trumps of this world.  I'm exaggerating ever so slightly there, because I find this annoying for a very simple reason:  IF all these things really are evolutionary adaptations fixed in our Stone Age brains and so on, surely they got fixed that way when prehistoric humans were nomadic.  Male resources under those circumstances would have been embodied in the person:  Youth, health, muscle tone, good food-acquisition skills, good social talents etc.  The list wouldn't have included any Stone Age equivalent to a man's bank account.

The remaining bolded sentences in that quote tell us the magnitude of the measured changes.  They also suggest that a certain amount of digging was required for the necessary findings to turn up.   This makes me immediately wonder what happens to those Evolutionary Psychology studies which can't come up with the results the basic stories require.  Do they get published?

Note, finally, that the men in this study are not divided into sexually attractive and less sexually attractive men on the basis of any objective criteria (if such exist).  That judgment is based solely on what the girlfriend herself answers.   Sorta like saying that if she finds him hot, then she is going to find him hotter when she feels especially sexy herself.

To go from that to our "prehistoric female ancestors looking for good genes" really is quite a stretch.
*My term for this growing field.  I am not aware of an equally important Evolutionary Psychology  field studying male hormones, even though they, too,  fluctuate.