Tuesday, January 4th 2011

Around the web: cognitive sex differences

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. Last semester I taught Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

ResearchBlogging.orgAh, cognitive sex differences. Here we often find a mix of explanations for why we don’t need to try to achieve equity in the sciences, or for why women are simply less interested in the sciences. There are plenty of examples trotted out of men’s superiority in spatial ability, and the few where women are sometimes found to be superior put women on a pedestal without gaining her any real power or advantage in society (look at lovely woman, so able to verbally communicate that it makes her a good mommy and wife!).

This year has been a good year to critically evaluate cognitive sex differences, thanks to Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender and the many spaces online that have reviewed her book. I have yet to read it and it didn’t turn up under the Christmas tree, so I’ll be buying it for myself. The reviews have me very excited.

So, I’ll start there, then work my way through the other cool stuff that’s been covered this year.

Delusions of Gender

Slate reviews the book and interviews Fine. Here is one of my favorite quotes from her:

We look around in our society, and we want to explain whatever state of sex inequality we have. It’s more comfortable to attribute it to some internal difference between men and women than the idea that there must be something very unjust about our society. As long as there has been brain science there have been misguided explanations and justification for sex and inequality — that women’s skulls are the wrong shape, that their brain is too small, that their head is too unspecialized. It was once very cutting-edge to put a brain on a scale, and now we have cutting-edge research that is genuinely sophisticated and exciting, but we’re still very much at the beginning of our journey of understanding of how our brain creates the mind.

New Scientist also has a review in CultureLab. This article also reviews Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm, which looks like a similarly excellent book on the topic of sex differences. It is published with Harvard University Press rather than a press that tends to attract a wider audience, so maybe that’s why Fine’s book has received more attention.

Katherine Bouton reviews the article in the New York Times. The last line was my favorite: “It’s really not just a few steps from looking longer at moving objects to aptitude in math, from gazing at faces to mind reading.”

This Language Log post refers to the Bouton one and makes some interesting parallels between the Connellan et al (2001) article Fine dismantles and the Hauser misconduct case. I love teaching the Connellan et al (2001) article, and have been for many years — it’s such a great example of reductionist wording, flawed methodology, and incorrect conclusions off the authors’ own evidence. I have used it in particular in introductory writing courses, as a way to show students they can be critical thinkers, since they quickly pick up on most of the paper’s errors.

The Language Log post already dismantled the flawed methodology. I just want to briefly mention the flawed conclusions off the results they get. Remember, Connellan et al are using Connellan’s face, and a mobile comprised of a broken up photo of her face, as the two objects the infants are gazing at. Staring at Connellan implies a preference for faces and eventual social superiority, where preference for the mobile implies a preference for physical-mechanical objects.

Below, I’ve reproduced Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1. Number (and percent) of neonates falling into each perference [sic] category
Face preference Mobile preference No preference
Males (n = 44) 11 (25.0%) 19 (43.2%) 14 (31.8%)
Females (n = 58) 21 (36.2%) 10 (17.2% 27 (46.6%)

Table 2. Mean percent looking times (and standard deviation) for each stimulus
Face Mobile
Males (n = 44) 45.6 (23.5) 51.9 (23.3)
Females (n = 58) 49.4 (20.8) 40.6 (25.0)

Let’s pretend for a minute that there were not significant methodological concerns and just look at the data. What I notice are a few things. First, females primarily exhibit NO preference, not facial preference. If half my subjects exhibited no preference, I’d probably have to say the methods and stimuli were flawed. Males might have a slight mobile preference, but even if that were statistically significant, I’m not sure there is a lot of biological meaning to 19 vs 11 individuals’ preferences. Further, they mention that their statistical significance derives entirely from the greater male preference for the mobile (not a greater female preference for the face), yet their conclusions indicate female superiority in social cognition skills.

Table 2 is perhaps more damning. First, the difference in percent looking time is not really different between any of the four groups (male/face, male/mobile; female/face, female/mobile). This becomes more obvious when you consider the standard deviations. Again, it is important to place statistical significance in the context of biological usefulness. Do these few seconds’ difference in looking time tell us something, or not? My bet is on the latter.

Other delightful bits

Coverage of Fine’s book wasn’t the only time I got to read about cognitive sex differences, prejudice, and social conditioning. Most of the posts and articles I link to this section should provide very strong evidence for social conditioning playing a primary role in cognitive and behavioral sex differences. I am quite sure there are some genetic and/or biological differences between the sexes; however, I am unconvinced that they would amount to much of anything if we didn’t seize upon them and nurture them from birth. Further, meta-analyses of cognitive sex difference studies have found very small effect sizes, which means that overall, even when differences are found in empirical studies, those differences are tiny (Hyde 2005).

Check out Greg Laden’s great post: Why do women shop and men hunt? He does a nice job criticizing the idea of some sort of universal Pleistocene environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), which already does a lot to undermine arguments that humans have evolved certain sex-specific behaviors over the last few million years due to foraging in the savannah. He also discusses the huge amount of variation in social structure among modern humans, which helps us understand why this idea that there is essential male and female behavior is flawed.

Here’s a neat Time Magazine article on pink toys. It discusses the Pink Stinks campaign, which I follow on Twitter.

This article discusses the damage that can be done to a woman’s cognitive ability when she is objectified. I know I have trouble thinking when I receive comments on my physical appearance in my student evaluations, and the few times this has been done to me professionally by colleagues.

Related to this, Communicate Science discusses a study that had male and female actors give scripted 10-minute physics lectures and then had real physics students give evaluations (the students thought they were lecturers). The males received higher evaluations overall — when broken down by student gender, the female students gave slightly higher evals to the female lecturers, but the male students gave MUCH higher evals to the male lecturers. This is the sort of study that keeps me up at night, thinking about going up for tenure as a female scientist.

More on physics teaching: Ed Yong writes about a writing exercise that helps reinforce students’ values and their sense of self, which then appears to close the gender gap in physics assessment. I had my students do this assignment on the last day of class as a way to help them with their finals (though we only did it for about 2 minutes — I encouraged them to do more at home). A really neat piece!

Pharyngula is a blog I read often, and was one of the first science blogs I ever read, but I don’t think PZ’s work has ever made it into one of my Around the Web posts. However, this post, “Attention, perversely assertive women! You are abnormal!” really resonated with me. He covers a recent news story about using dexamethasone to pre-treat normal girl fetuses (and those with the legitimate genetic disorder CAH) to prevent masculine preferences and behaviors.

Next, an article in the New York Times Business Section on why more women aren’t the boss. There are some interesting thoughts shared on mentorship and risk-taking behaviors.

The always-brilliant Jennifer Ouelette discusses the idea that “boyz will be boyz” in her post that dismantles the idea that female science teachers are feminizing science classes and increasing the dropout rate for boys.

Finally, I don’t know how to introduce this piece, “The Rise of Enlightened Sexism” by Susan Douglas up at On the Issues, except to say: read it. Read it now.

Random interesting tidbits

I had intended to finish this post in time for the end of 2010. I had wanted to send you in the direction of some pretty pictures as a way to close out the year, so let this be some eye candy to start you off well for 2011. Myrmecos (who I feel privileged to know in person through his fantabulous wife) offers up “The Best of Myrmecos 2010.” I will be honest here and say that, before this blog, I had close to zero appreciation for insects and mostly thought of ways to keep them out of my house and office, or kill them if they came in. I pay a lot more attention to them now, and wish I knew more.

And, Jerry Coyne put together some images from National Geographic that I liked from the 2010 contest.

Happy new year to all!


Connellan, J. (2000). Sex differences in human neonatal social perception Infant Behavior and Development, 23 (1), 113-118 DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(00)00032-1

Hyde, J. (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60 (6), 581-592 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581

Wednesday, December 15th 2010

Around the web: female behavior

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

The second to last Around the Web of the semester covers female behavior. Because testosterone and aggression are sexy, there is a lot more popular coverage of it. Further, when I do find popular science coverage of topics that relate to female behavior, a lot of it relates to the menstrual cycle and mate preference. That stuff is interesting, but there is a lot more to female behavior than when we feel like having sex, and who we choose when we are ovulating or not. The other issue I often find interesting about the study of female behavioral endocrinology versus male behavioral endocrinology is that, for all the jokes made about men being driven by their hormones, most people work pretty hard to provide a nuanced perspective on the relationship between testosterone and aggression. Perhaps people have arrived more recently at the study of women, but I don’t always notice the same nuance when looking at menstrual cycle research.

So, I have a handful of links for you today that try to cover some of the other material. I think I’ve picked some of the best posts for you, ones that do their best to have a reasoned, thoughtful perspective.

Emily Anthes of Wonderland has an interesting post on impulse shopping and rewards; she discusses an article that found women in the luteal phase had a higher rate of impulse buys compared to those in the follicular phase. She also refers to an article she wrote in Scientific American MIND covering these issues more broadly. Both are worth a read.

Next, a few posts about women’s behavior and hormonal contraceptives – specifically because a student in class asked me to cover it. This is an increasingly important field of study as 1) we still don’t seem to understand the pharmacokinetics of women as well as men and 2) more women, and younger and younger women, are getting on the pill every day. To give you a sense of the pervasiveness of hormonal contraceptives, I’ll start you out with this OB quote: “Really? Without any regulators?” This demonstrates that hormonal contraceptives are no longer just for, you know, contraception, but for “regulating” the cycle. Why the cycle needs to be regulated is a topic for another day.

Then, Scicurious does an excellent job providing her perspective on a research finding that recently received a bit of attention. Scientific American wrote about an article that found that women’s brains who were on hormonal contraceptives were different than those who were not. Since women with spontaneous (that’s without contraceptives) cycles and hormonal contraceptives cycles have very different hormone profiles, this shouldn’t be surprising. We don’t even know if it should be cause for concern. Either way, it’s interesting, and I think Scicurious’s take on it brings the frenzy down a notch, and assesses the validity of the study’s claims.

As always, where would I be without Ed Yong and Not Exactly Rocket Science? He cogently reviews all the articles I wish I had the time to read (where do you find the time again, Ed?). In fact, I used information from two of his blog posts in the lecture I provided on this topic: his post on the oxytocin receptor gene and cultural responses to social stress, and the one on the “dark side” of oxytocin that discusses how oxytocin enhances favorable and unfavorable perceptions of mothers’ parenting styles.

Random links

Just a couple of random links for you today. First, Ed Yong (I know, again! I can’t help it!) helps us curb our holiday eating with his post on mental exercises that can curb food cravings.

Next, a new article by Gettler and McKenna that covers the biology of breastfeeding and co-sleeping practices in humans. A great article for those new to this topic. (hat tip AAPA Bandit)

Then, an interesting perspective on “patient refusal” being a contraindication in the use of epidurals during labor over at Unnecesarean.

Finally, a post about beauty in the birth room over at Science & Sensibility (quickly becoming a favorite blog of mine), which constructively criticizes a Boston Globe article about women who want to look beautiful while in labor.

The last Around the Web of 2010 will cover cognitive sex differences, and it will be a doozy. Thanks to Cordelia Fine’s book, it’s a good year for discussions on this topic!

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Wednesday, December 8th 2010

Around the web: stress and social disparities

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

On the week we learned about stress and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, we didn’t just talk about Type A personalities or parachute jumping. Instead, I tried to apply our understanding of how acute and chronic stress impact the body by examining social disparities and racism. This led to all of us being confronted with some very harsh statistics about the health of people of color in this country and the long-term effects of systemic oppression, and powerful narratives about internalized oppression in first and second-generation immigrants.

I wanted to augment that lecture with some links on social disparities and racism. I have a TON of links for this topic, so enjoy!

Check my what?

First, some primers to help us contextualize social disparity and conversations about it. One of my favorites is “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it. This is a post that does get updated from time to time, and it defines privilege, and instructs the reader how to identify one’s own privilege, accept it, and from that point of acceptance, move towards actions and attitudes that are pro-equality. I like this because of the way it implicitly explains the uselessness of the seemingly pro-equality stance of “not seeing color.”

A slightly more humorous, but still important, primer, is called Derailing for Dummies. I hope a reading of this primer will help people communicate respectfully around oppression.

Context matters

I also wanted to share a few posts about Western perspectives on mental health, because of the time we spent in class on immigration. Aspects of immigration and acculturation are stressful, and cultural contexts strongly influence behavior. Another issue to consider is whether Western perspectives on mental health overpathologize context-dependent behaviors (that is, doing things that make sense in context and are occurring in context, like a toddler tantrum, or grieving after losing a loved one). Take a look at these links: Will anyone be normal? discusses the overpathologization issue I just mentioned; Westerners vs. the World: we are the WEIRD ones brings population variation in behavior to light; and a related story interviewing Ethan Watters, Going Mad the American Way.

The science of oppression

In addition to the material we learned in lecture on race and immigration, I wanted to add some other good sources. Science of oppression I is a great primer from Racialicious. Scicurious also has a great researchblogging post on inflammatory responses to stress, particularly as they relate to social rejection. She reviews a particular paper that links immune health to neural sensitivity to social rejection (meaning, those demonstrating the most sensitivity to social rejection also had an increase in inflammatory markers), which is interesting since it demonstrates a relationship between the immune system and psychosocial stress.

This Jonah Lehrer article in Wired follows up on the Sapolsky article we read about stress vaccines. I also like this story (well, press release) from ScienceDaily on how stress relates to one’s coping method. I imagine this is also linked, in some ways, to the study Scicurious discussed on neural sensitivity. It seems as though if we can change some of our coping and sensitivity behaviors, we can probably alter the degree to which stress negatively impacts our health. I also wanted to link to this special edition of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that was exclusively on “The Biology of Disadvantage.” Really great articles in there. Finally, this post at Language Log critically analyzes some of the ways in which we misunderstand and essentialize disadvantage. An important read.

Random, unrelated, but always interesting, stuff

Patrick Clarkin has a great post on Evolutionary Aesthetics — basically, the idea that our concept of beauty is context-dependent in more ways than we may realize. I found it inspiring and insightful.

Here’s a weird story about mercury exposure and how it changes the sexual behavior of the ibis. See how flexible sexuality can be?

This is a piece I really enjoyed on the ways in which current journalism practices don’t get at the subtlety and complexity of science. It refers back to a kerfuffle earlier this year when Martin Robbins of the Lay Scientist wrote a very funny satire piece called This is a news website article about a scientific paper.

Finally, while it’s a bit belated, a nice Thanksgiving post by Krystal D’Costa over at Anthropology in Practice.