Saturday, January 08, 2011

And when his wife goes through the agony of chemo, a man really has no use for her.

Studies like this one bug the crap out of me. It's not so much that I dispute the findings of the Israeli research team, which appear valid, at least as far as they go. But what's the takeaway here? Sure, it's one thing if we're looking at the matter in tight focus, merely cataloging a biological or Darwinistically programmed response. I'm just concerned by the way this news is being spun. (Or maybe I'm paranoid because of all those TV ads that imply that we men come in three overlapping varieties: brutes, morons and/or sexual predators.)
All of the news reports I saw on the Israeli study incorporated the term turn-off, which, to me, has emotional overtones and connotations that go well beyond sexual uninterest. The coverage implies that a man actively dislikes when a woman cries—in the sense of being angry or disgusted with herwhich I think is untrue*. At the very least, it's a major leap based on the mission and design of this study. (I don't know how much of that subtext was present in the study itself, which I haven't read.)

Notice the art used to illustrate the version of the story linked at the very top. It seems intended to project that this man has zero use for this woman if she's not up for sex. (And can we eschew the cynical wisecracks here? I'm sorry, gals: Most of us are slightly less one-dimensional than you like to suggest in your chatty lunchtime discussions at work.) His facial expression and body language are cold, aloof, disapproving. It's as if he's thinking, Dammit, woman, you're CRYING? Couldn't you wait till after I come?

Now I grant you, if this is someone you've just met, and she has asked you back to her place, and the clothes are off, and you've been going at it for a while, and she suddenly bursts into tears and turns away from you, as shown ... might there be a sudden flicker of consternation? Yes. Emanating instinctively and entirely from between your legs. Still, I know that if it were me in the scenario just described, I would not likely be stationed on the far side of the mattress, arms folded, looking pissed. And surely if it were my mate lying there crying, there would be no large patch of bed separating us. I'd be cradling her, comforting her (or trying, in my admittedly inept male way); I'd be saying things like, "What's wrong, honey? Talk to me..." I don't think I'm the only man who'd react like that. I dare say
with absolutely no evidence to back me upI think the vast majority of men would react like that.

Instead of reporting from a point of view that fits the general narrative on men
we're boorish, callous, unfeeling pigs who care about just one thingwhy does no one mention the possibility that when a woman is crying, sexual desire fades to the background as a man shifts into nurturer-and-protector mode?

* For the purposes of this post, we're pointedly not talking about the drama queen who cries constantly at provocations that people really shouldn't cry about once they're past the age of, say, 13. Even then, you have to have a modicum of sympathy for adults who have such little control over their emotions.


Steve Salerno said...

And if you're thinking "John Edwards," I beat you to it. ;)

Tyro said...

why does no one mention the possibility that when a woman is crying, sexual desire fades to the background as a man shifts into nurturer-and-protector mode?

That was the first thought that lept to my mind when I read this. My second thought was to wonder if this was a real phenomenon at all.

I tried looking into the details but I don't have a subscription to Science so am stuck with secondary reporting. It was done with only 16 individuals which makes me want to see this replicated before being convinced - that's a small number so it's likely the effect is spurious.

So what is the likelihood that this is a real, large effect? Humans don't have the organ which, in other animals, responds to pheromones so there's little biological plausibility from the start. No studies have yet shown that humans respond so any pheromone study needs to be very clear.

As an illustration of some of the difficulties in this research, in a classic study a group of men were exercised to produce sweat and then some were randomly chosen to get deodorant while others were not. Women observers consistently found the men with deodorant more attractive which would seem to support the pheromone idea. However, the interesting thing is that this effect persisted over video recordings, not in person! It seems that the men with deodorant acted with more confidence and self-assurance and it was this which the women reacted to.

Finally, let's think about the idea that this could help save women from sexual assault. How many of the men in the study had a history of rape - could it be that rapists react differently, maybe they are turned on by the sight or scent of distress. More importantly, was rape such a big problem in our evolutionary history that this gene could ever have been fixed? Bonobos, chimps and gorillas all use sex very differently but all deal with inappropriate sex via social - not biological - correction. Is it even possible for subtle biological changes to be a significant influence? I doubt it.

And lets remember that the way genes are fixed via natural selection is when the genes give offspring a greater chance of reproduction and as callous as it may be, rape resulting in conception means the genes spread and anything to prevent conception means the genes do not.

I might buy that tears in infants evoke a nurture-instinct resulting in the infant getting more food and shelter; I just might consider tears in adults would increase pair-bonding by evoking the infant-care response. I am extremely sceptical that it has anything to do with rape. Let's face it - rape is a violent act and whatever subtle cues tears might evoke, it seems unlikely they would play a significant role, like blowing into a hurricane.

My take is that this is playing out in the classic media script: "shocking" new discovery, everything we knew before is wrong, good buzz words and for added bonus it ties into sex. When I see that, I give it a 90-95% chance that the media don't even report the study correctly and that the study itself is overstated. There's a vanishingly small group of reporters who have any clue how to report on genuine scientific discoveries.

RevRon's Rants said...

I have to agree here, that men (at least the ones I know) aren't as boorish as this little scenario would suggest. I'd even go so far as to say that the percentage of men who would react so callously is no higher than the percentage of women who use crying as a manipulative tactic. There may be times when anyone fits those negative stereotypes, but they are stereotypes, nonetheless, and are therefore not universally - or even that broadly - applicable.

theclam said...

Hilarious... the call to eschew cynical wisecracks followed by the cynical wisecrack, "I'm sorry, gals: Most of us are slightly less one-dimensional than you like to suggest in your chatty lunchtime discussions at work"

Gotta say, I'm with Rev Ron and Tyro on this one. They took a statistically insignificant study size and then interpreted the results to support what they wanted to be true.

Matt Dick said...

This the kind of study that can be used to point the way to another, more definitive study. It's preliminary research (probably) designed to decide if it's worth looking more deeply into.

Tyro said...

Jerry Coyne, the evolutionary biologist who wrote the excellent book "Why Evolution is True", posted on his blog about some evolutionary psychology articles in the press lately. It follows a theme we've touched on before - preliminary science that gets overblown and reported uncritically by poorly trained reporters:

This isn't to say that all science and science reporting is wrong or that our instinctive responses ("this doesn't make sense to me") are right or even good guides. It does seem that evolutionary psychology is plagued by these problems - an immature scientific field and an uneducated media that's longing to report Just So stories.

My favourite part:

If there are problems with a study, describe them. If an idea is pure speculation, say it. If there are other explanations for a phenomenon, give them. Let’s not gull the public into claiming that we understand something with near certainty when we don’t. These lax reportorial standards, pervasive in evolutionary psychology, seem to be much tighter in other areas of science, like physics or molecular biology.

+1 for some intellectual honesty.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Excellent. Really, so much of our so-called knowledge is evolutionary and in a state of flux, though we almost never say that or act like it. We keep acting as if we've found the New Truth that replaces the Old Truth, never pausing to consider that our New Truth will itself give way to a Newer Truth before long.