Monday, December 31st 2012

Will the Pill Mess Up My Ability to Detect My One True Love?

It’s vacation time for Team Family, as my daughter calls us. While we’re skating and skiing, enjoy this repost from my old blog on hormonal contraceptives and mate choice.

Imagine you are a single, heterosexual woman. You meet a nice man at the driving range, or on a blind date. You like him and he likes you. You date, you get engaged, you get married. You decide to have a child together, so you go off the pill. One morning you wake up and look at your husband, and it’s like seeing him through new eyes. Who is this stranger you married, and what did you ever see in him?

After an article made the news when it suggested mate preferences change on hormonal contraception, this seemed to be the scenario in the heads of many women. Is my pill deceiving me? What if my birth control is making me date the wrong man?

Several articles over the years have demonstrated that women prefer men with more masculine features at midcycle, or ovulation, and more feminine features in less fertile periods. Based on body odor, women and men also often prefer individuals with MHC (major histocompatibility complex) that are different from theirs, which may be a way for them to select mates that will give their offspring an immunological advantage. These findings have been replicated a few times, looking at a few different gendered traits. And as I suggested above, other work has suggested that the birth control pill, which in some ways mimics pregnancy, may mask our natural tendency to make these distinctions and preferences, regarding both masculinity and MHC (Little et al. 2002; Roberts et al. 2008; Wedekind et al. 1995).

On the one hand, I think it’s both interesting and important to consider the implications of the birth control pill beyond just contraception. Hormones are messages, so any cells that have receptors for these messages, like specialized mailboxes, can receive them. The pill is made of synthetic versions of estradiol and progesterone, and there are estradiol and progesterone receptors in your brain. And yes, these hormones do change your brain, both during the natural cycle and on hormonal contraception; Scicurious has written well on this in the past.

On the other hand, I have a lot of questions: First and most important to me, how does any of this translate to non-straight women? I find the constant focus on mate choice between men and women a bit exhausting, and am not sure we can assume non-straight relationships to work the same way. Next, how well do preferences over the cycle map on to actual choices for mates, short term or long term? If we happen to find Brad Pitt more attractive than Justin Bieber at midcycle, does that mean no one will do but Brad Pitt? And finally, what are all the factors that we need to consider in mate choice besides a deep voice or square jawline (again, especially if you try to expand your thinking beyond straight relationships)?

I’ll start with the last two questions that deal with mate preference versus ultimate mate selection. As you all might expect, women and men choose mates for lots of reasons, not just masculinity or complementary immune systems. Bereczkei et al (1997) looked at singles ads and found women often sought mates with high parental care. In a separate singles ad evaluation, Pawlowski and Dunbar (1999) found that women mostly selected men of high resource potential who were interested in long-term relationships (either unlikely to divorce or unlikely to die within twenty years), where men selected women by markers of fecundity (ability to have babies). In a sample of 18-24 year old straight people in the US, Buston and Emlen (2003) found that most people selected mates who had similar characteristics to themselves. And a speed dating sample showed that people under those conditions selected dates based on easily observable traits, like physical attractiveness (Kurzban and Weeden 2005).

Now on to the fact that all of this research is on straight people. I found very little on lesbian women and the menstrual cycle… but what I found was very cool! Brinsmead-Stockham et al (2008) found that, like heterosexual women, lesbian women are quicker to identify unknown faces at midcycle, as long as they were the faces of the sex they preferred. So straight women were good at identifying male faces, lesbian women good at identifying female faces. Burleson et al (2002) found that sexual behavior in lesbian and straight women was mostly similar through the menstrual cycle, with both peaking at midcycle.

So, mate preference may be about telling a research assistant who is the hottest to you at a particular point in your cycle. And it is a fairly robust and consistent finding. However, when it comes to ultimate mate selection the most important thing to consider is a great point made by Pawlowski and Dunbar: finding a mate is about advertising what you have to offer while making known what you want in a mate. Then it’s all about finding some kind of compromise through a series of trade-offs based on what the individual wants, what they can offer, and what’s available in the dating pool. (So, since neither Brad Pitt nor Justin Bieber are currently in the dating pool, my previous comparison was pointless.)

Those of you who met your mate while on the pill: not to fear. I don’t think that the possibility that you may have some suppression of masculinized preferences at one point in your cycle means you’ve chosen the wrong person.

Who knows, it could have opened you up to the Mr. or Ms. Right.


Bereczkei T, Voros S, Gal A, and Bernath L. 1997. Resources, Attractiveness, Family Commitment; Reproductive Decisions in Human Mate Choice. Ethology 103(8):681-699.

Brinsmead-Stockham K, Johnston L, Miles L, and Neil Macrae C. 2008. Female sexual orientation and menstrual influences on person perception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44(3):729-734.

Burleson MH, Trevathan WR, and Gregory WL. 2002. Sexual behavior in lesbian and heterosexual women: relations with menstrual cycle phase and partner availability. Psychoneuroendocrinology 27(4):489-503.

Buston PM, and Emlen ST. 2003. Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice: The relationship between self-perception and mate preference in Western society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(15):8805-8810.

Kurzban R, and Weeden J. 2005. HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior 26(3):227-244.

Little AC, Jones BC, Penton-Voak IS, Burt DM, and Perrett DI. 2002. Partnership status and the temporal context of relationships influence human female preferences for sexual dimorphism in male face shape. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences 269(1496):1095-1100.

Pawlowski B, and Dunbar RIM. 1999. Impact of market value on human mate choice decisions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences 266(1416):281.

Roberts SC, Gosling LM, Carter V, and Petrie M. 2008. MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275(1652):2715-2722.

Wedekind C, Seebeck T, Bettens F, and Paepke AJ. 1995. MHC-Dependent Mate Preferences in Humans. Proceedings: Biological Sciences 260(1359):245-249.

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Friday, December 21st 2012

2012 Best of Context and Variation

This here blog is many things — ladybusiness explainer, bad science outer, and a place where I reflect on higher education and the academic life. Today is the last day of the semester here at the U of I, there’s a lovely dusting of snow on everything, and it seemed like a nice time to reflect on what I’ve accomplished on the blog, what it’s meant to me, and sometimes what it means to you.

Also, everybody else is doing it.

Ladybusiness anthropology

Here is some legitimate science on pregnancy and rape. On Todd Akin’s brilliant words about the science of conception. This was the most difficult post I have written from an emotional perspective.

When a beginning is not a beginning. My post on the causes of miscarriage. I wrote it for a friend, and, I think, I wrote it for myself.

Don’t sweat it: premenopausal women, reproductive state, and night sweats. My most recent in-depth science blog post, and it was all about ME. While there weren’t too many men interested in this one, this is a post where I got a surprising number of private messages from other women, relieved I had written about night sweats because they got them too. It also opened up a lot of conversations with friends. This is why it can be hard to measure impact or define metrics for this kind of stuff.

Interrupting claims about natural sexual behavior. I probably should just lay this whole kerfuffle to rest, but I was pleased with my final blog post on Deep Thinking Hebephile at the beginning of the year. Whenever anyone evaluates claims about behavior, in evolutionary psych or in other fields, I do hope they remember to keep these tenets of evolutionary theory in mind and test hypotheses against them.

Nutty science

Llama, llama, get with mama: the magical semen ingredient that makes the ladies swoon (then ovulate). I wasn’t debunking anything in this post, which is often the case when I write funnier stuff (well, funnier to me). I just thought it was a great topic, and led to a lot of puns that nauseated adults who either are about my age and therefore saw the same Sesame Street episodes, or have children of their own and are familiar with a current children’s book series. I never said this blog was for everyone!

Hot for Obama, but only when this smug married is not ovulating. On that unfortunate study on voting behavior and ovulation that didn’t measure ovulation.

An academic life

Impostors, the culture of science, and fulfilling our potential. My follow-up post to Sci Foo on the impostor syndrome I and others felt. I was glad to hear that it resonated with a lot of people. I hope we all hold a picture of reality in our heads whenever those ugly feelings come up.

Which came first, rewarding outreach or doing it? On chickens, eggs, and overworked scientists. This was my contribution to a broader conversation on the impact of outreach, and whether it does or should “count” in an academic career.

I can out interdiscipline you: anthropology and the biocultural approach. I was intentionally a bit snarky in this post, to try and get at what it is about some of anthropology’s interdisciplinary work that irks me. Since this post, I have been the reviewer for some amazing interdisciplinary work between biological and cultural anthro. Could it be because of this very post??? Correlation equals causation, yes? Or not.

Finally, a big thank you

Thanks readers, for being here, for supporting me, for being brilliant, interesting people in your own right, and being the kind of people who are eager to learn new things and make the world a better place. Thanks to my allies and friends online and off. Thanks to all those academics who tell me they secretly read me even if it’s not cool for academics to read blogs.

And of course, thanks to my family who have the patience to give me the space to write. Every time I tell my husband something good about my science writing (from “someone with lots more followers retweeted me!” to “I got an honorarium for that speaking gig about the blog!” to “an agent wants to represent me!”), he is delighted. And convinced that some day I am going to write a best seller that allows us to retire to Hawaii.

We can keep him in the dark about what it means to be kinda a little semi-known within a small sub-circle of the science blogosphere, though, because the delight never gets old.

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Wednesday, December 19th 2012

Link love: December 2012

Some interesting, insightful, or amusing things I’ve been reading this week.

The DSM-V is out

I’m not a psychologist, but the DSM, or Diagnostic Systems Manual, is still important to my research, but as someone who teaches evolutionary medicine, most especially my teaching. I have been teaching the shift from the DSM-IV to DSM-V (excuse me, I guess it’s DSM-5 now)  for the past several years, with students doing a close reading of the proposed changes, or projects on some of the new diagnoses. It will be interesting this year to have a finalized document to talk about — as well as the reactions. Two of the main ones I’ll be assigning:

The DSM-5 has been finalized by Vaughan Bell. Bell summarizes the major changes — mostly I can’t believe they took out the bereavement clause for depression.

The New Tamper Tantrum Disorder by David Dobbs. A smart perspective on the pathologizing of normal behavior.


Grumble grumble

Why Do Women Leave Biology? This is the page for the press release of an article in BioScience, but it links to the pdf of the manuscript. Shelley Adamo takes a smart look at the factors that drive attrition of female scientists. She suggests that the factors that are blamed for fewer female scientists exist in medicine, but the same gender differences in attrition don’t exist. Adamo claims policy issues drive differences instead (for instance, mandated parental leave seems to reduce attrition in Canada but doesn’t exist in the US). I agree.

A week of a student’s electrodermal activity. Teachers, check out the activity during classes and when sleeping. Decide you’d probably be better napping during your own lecture after all.

How to Email a Professor over at WikiHow. Overall not bad advice. I find it interesting that in the how to address professors section, they tell you how bad it is to call a professor “Mr.,” but only say it’s bad to call a female professor (note professors are default-male) “Mrs.” Personally, I take issue with anything that isn’t Dr. or Prof. if I don’t know the student. Once I know the student, particularly if I advise them, Kate is fine.

Stop Saying That. A great blog post that points out the error of complaining that women should “put as much time and effort into researching their birth as they do researching their next smartphone.”

Sexist humor… leads to more sexism. In the same vein as “stop saying that,” stop permitting sexist humor in your workspace, your home, among your friends. Don’t be a silent witness, and be the guy who interrupts sexism. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it, but if you let it go, you’re telling your friends that being sexist is ok.

I Am the Woman in Your Department Who Does All the Committee Work at McSweeney’s. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about this one.


Re-emerge from a tough week

Mouse research saves a little girl with leukemia. Because my husband is a two-time cancer survivor, with many of his treatments first being tested in animals, I am grateful to animal researchers every single day.

Your Holiday Mom. A blog that posts letters from parents who love and support LGBTQ kiddos. Have a tissue handy. Also, make it abundantly clear to anyone around you who needs to know it that you are a holiday mom, too, but with actions over words.

How do you pack your bag for a 7 year, 22,000 mile international reporting assignment? Journalist Salopek will walk the “out of Africa” route to South America. I highly recommend a few pairs of Ex Officio underwear — they last for years and you can wash and hang dry them overnight.

The flipped academic: turning higher education on its head. This article describes academics who are doing outreach or making their results available to the public before putting them in academic jargon-speak and up for peer review. Certainly an article that supports those of us that blog, but I didn’t see a clear way the flipped academic was going to push her university to consider her for tenure under that model. Also, why are we into “flipping” so much in academia right now (I’ve also read a few articles on “flipping” the classroom)? Why not call it “inverted” or “transparent” or “outreach-focused?”

And now my favorite post: Michael Eisen puts Darwin’s Tangled Bank in verse. Eisen wrote this poem because his daughter needed to recite a poem for school, and he wanted to give her something scientific and beautiful. He totally wins at parenting. Some day my daughter will learn this, too.

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