Field of Science


Woo Hoo, Witchy Woman

The latest piece by reporter John Tierney has been flying up the New York Times most-emailed list today. You may remember Tierney from his previous appearances on this site, where he argued that men are inherently better than women at math and science. Today's article, though, is about evolutionary psychology, a field that involves blessedly little in the way of numbers--perfect for my analytically impaired brain!

The article is about a new study by Florida State University graduate student Saul Miller and his advisor, John Maner. In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Miller and Maner argue that women put out sexy signals while they're ovulating. While single men respond by seeing ovulating women as more attractive, men in committed relationships rate ovulating women as less attractive. The authors call this phenomenon "relationship maintenance." That is, men in relationships insist that the most fertile women aren't attractive, in order to preserve their relationships.

I should say woman, not women. The study involved 38 male college students and one (1) (ONE) female college student. But don't worry, the authors made sure to choose a woman who was "approximately average in attractiveness." (Hope she didn't read their paper.)

Over the course of three months, each man spent one 20-minute session with the woman, working on "several cooperative tasks" that apparently involved Legos. After his session, each man rated the woman's intelligence, outgoingness, flirtatiousness, and attractiveness on a scale from 1 to 5. He also indicated whether he considered himself to be in a "committed relationship."

To make sure the woman didn't botch the results by employing any agency in her own attractiveness, Miller had her go without makeup, keep her hair in a ponytail, forego scented products such as perfume or deodorant, and wear jeans and a t-shirt. She "underwent extensive training on how to remain expressively neutral"--in other words, how to not flirt. Thus prepared, the female student presumably had no way of influencing how men perceived her, and was rendered a sweaty, regularly-cycling robot. (I'm surprised they didn't add glasses.)

The men's ratings were plotted against the woman's menstrual cycle. Single men, Miller reports, rated the woman as marginally more attractive during ovulation, though this result was not statistically significant. But men in relationships rated the woman as significantly less attractive when she was ovulating, confirming the authors' hypothesis about "relationship maintenance." Attached men perceive a woman's fertility signals and, in an act of self-protection, tell themselves she's not so hot.

Tierney writes,
It's possible that some of the men in Florida were just trying to look virtuous by downgrading the woman's attractiveness, the way a husband will instantly dismiss any woman pointed out by his wife. (That Victoria's Secret model? Ugh! A skeleton with silicon.)
But paper co-author Jon Maner insists, "It seems the men were truly trying to ward off any temptation they felt toward the ovulating woman."

As unimaginative as his Victoria's Secret joke is, Tierney's lack of criticism toward this paper distresses me more. He fails to point out to his Times readers the dubiousness of a study that relies on one female subject--and that creates an entire 28-day curve out of 12 data points (only 12 of the 38 men were actually in relationships). He doesn't make note of the arbitrariness of "statistical significance" when all your results are on a subjective 5-point scale. Nor does he mention the paper's control: the authors had two other women watch videos of the female subject and rate her on various days, in order to provide "objective ratings of attractiveness."

And although he discusses other current research in evolutionary psychology--for example, studies saying that ovulating lap-dancers get higher tips and that fertile women dress better--Tierney doesn't question the central idea of the paper.

Other research, as Tierney mentions, has suggested that women are programmed to consider cheating, so that they can sneak a child with more desirable genes into their monogamous relationships. Being in a committed relationship is a plus, evolutionarily speaking, but more so for women than for men. The more surviving kids you create, the more evolutionarily successful you are by definition. So while it probably benefited the cavewomen to keep a provider nearby, it benefits males of most species to spread their offspring around as much as possible. The idea of male "relationship maintenance," while a nice story, goes against the rest of evolutionary biology.

But the idea of women as crafty temptresses whom men must actively resist was, apparently, too tempting for John Tierney. He must really hate ponytails.

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