Has A Universal Preference Just Been Challenged?

One well-documented physiological feature which plays a role in determining women’s attractiveness is the ratio of their waist to their hips (their WHR). The largest underlying reason for this preference appears to concern fertility: controlling for other factors, women with lower WHRs tend to be more fertile than women with higher ratios (Zaadstra et al, 1993). Historically, men who found lower WHRs more attractive could thus be expected to have ended up pursuing more viable mating opportunities than men who failed to do likewise. It should come as no surprise, then, that this preference for lower WHRs shows up in cross-cultural samples. The preference is so robust in its development that even men who were born blind appear to show evidence of it from touch alone, demonstrating that visual input is not required to shape this preference (doing violence to the notion that these standards are socialized into us by media forces for some arbitrary reason). The cognitive mechanism responsible for generating these perceptions of attractiveness to relatively low WHRs can be considered what we would call a universal feature of human psychology. However, there appears to be some confusion over what precisely what is meant by “universal” which I wanted to address today.

For instance, this is Mrs. Universe; not Mrs. Universal

The point of confusion focuses on whether a universal human preference should be expected to be invariant in its expression. In a new paper, Bovet & Raymond (2015) present some data they claim challenges “the universality of an ideal WHR” of about 0.7. More specifically, their claim seems to be that “the assertion that the preference for [a] WHR [of 0.7] is universal and temporally invariant” (p. 9) is incorrect because preferences for WHRs have changed over time. Before I get to what their methods and results were, I wanted to make an initial note about the assertion they sought to challenge: I find it strange. What I find particularly strange about the assertion that Bovet & Raymond (2015) seek to cast doubt on is that, and I want to be crystal clear about this, I have never heard it before. By that, I mean that I know of no author who has claimed that men have and will continue to show an invariant preference for a specific WHR over time. Checking a citation for Singh (1993) that is mentioned in conjunction with that claim, for instance, reveals no evidence of that assertion being made. The closest Singh (1993) comes to saying anything along those lines is that the significance of WHR – not a particular value of it – should be expected to be culturally invariant. In that respect, it seems that Bovet & Raymond (2015) might be tilting at windmills.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to consider what Bovet & Raymond (2015) did and what they found. For what I would consider the main study in their paper, they collected 216 images of works of art – both paintings and sculptures – representing women over the last 2,500 years. The art was collected so as to show nude or partially nude forms, allowing the WHR of the subject being depicted to be observable. Pictures of these works of art were then presented to about 1,400 diligent Mturk workers, each of whom was asked to examine 17 of these art pieces and to select which female figure it most closely resembled from an array of 12 line drawings of women; drawing which varied on both BMI and WHR, and can be seen here. These estimates of which WHR was depicted were used to create an average estimate of the WHR of the figure in the art. Not the most precise method, admittedly, but let’s move to what they found.

Comparing the antique art (defined as 500 BCE to 400 CE) to the recent art (1400 CE to 2014 CE), no significance difference in the average estimates of depicted WHRs emerged: both groups averaged a WHR of about 0.8. In the more recent works group, there was a slight tendency for more modern art to depict a relatively smaller WHR over time, and no such trend was found in the antique art. It also happened to be the case that works of art designated as specifically depicting female beauty symbols – like Aphrodite – were depicted with relatively lower WHRs than the non-symbolic women – like Eve.

Depictions of clam shells remained highly unrealistic during this time

Study two just involved analyzing a data set of the WHR measurements of Playboy centerfolds and Miss America winners from 1920 to 2000 which, evidently, showed a curvilinear relationship over time right around a mean of 0.7, so there’s not too much to say there. Skipping to the third study, the estimates of the WHRs from the art in study 1 were compared against actual measurements of 13 of the sculptures to try and correct for participant’s estimation errors. As it turns out, participants tended to overestimate the WHRs by about 8% on average. Correcting participant’s estimates, then, it was estimated that the average WHR depicted in the antique set was about 0.73; quite close to the 0.7 figure I mentioned initially. By contrast, the more recent art set, combined with the Playboy and Miss America winners, yielded an average depicted WHR of about 0.75 at 1400 CE down to about 0.68 by the present. This latter set of modern depictions was the substantially larger sample, though I’m not sure what to make of that.

So, taking these results at face value, two major points fall out: while (1) estimates of artistic depictions of women’s WHRs show a remarkable consistency from 500 BCE to the present day, (2) these depictions do tend to get a little smaller in more recent works; there’s some variance. Does this little bit of variation cut against the heart of the idea that a preference for relatively-small WHR on women is a universal feature of our mating psychology? I would say certainly not. There are a few reasons I would give this answer. The first of those is that, as I mentioned before, I know of no theory which ever claimed 0.7 as the invariant set point for peak attractiveness. Every trait – including the psychological ones which determine perceptions of attractiveness – needs to develop, and development can be a rocky road in many respects. Expecting development to land on a specific value every time would be absurd.

The second, and perhaps more relevant point, is that traits are not depicted, nor selected, in a vacuum. For example, we could consider the ever-popular Playboy centerfolds. While the shape of their body is certainly one rather important factor that comes into play with respect to their selection for the magazine, their WHR is certainly not the only feature relevant to the decision. Also included could be other factors like hair color, breast size and shape, clarity of skin, BMI, whether they are pushing for the position, and so on. The same kind of trade-offs need to made when selecting a mate: do you want the one with a slightly shapelier body or the one with more intelligence? One might argue that such trade-offs need not be made when it comes to producing pieces of art, and I would concede the point. I would also add in the point that artists, no matter how talented, are not necessarily perfectly accurate in translating their preferences onto canvas or marble.

“Nailed it”

One final point relating to that second one is that preferences were not being directly assessed in any of this research: just depictions. While I (and the authors) would argue that we should expect a rather high degree of concordance between these preferences and depictions, I would also argue that the translation will be imperfect. This adds another source of variation into the mix which might account for a little bit of the inconsistency we notice. While I don’t doubt that preferences for one trait or another should be expected to vary over time adaptively on the basis on environmental inputs, I think that reflects more on trade-offs that have to made rather than on what some ideal would be in the absence of them. For what it’s worth, I see the current data as rather supportive of the idea that preferences of WHRs are universal features of or psychology, rather than cutting against it.

References: Bovet J. & Raymond, M. (2015). Preferred women’s waist-to-hip ratio variation over the last 2,500 years. PLos One, 10, e0123284. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123284

Singh, D. (1993). Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: Role of waist-to-hip ratio. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 65, 293-307.

Zaadstra et al. (1993). Fat and fecundity: prospective study of effect of body fat distribution on conception rates. British Medical Journal, 306, 484-48.

A Great Time For Women In STEM

In last week’s post, I reviewed some evidence that video games do not appear to be doing any damage to women, either in the form of encouraging negative sexism against them or making them internalize any of those ideas themselves. This should be considered good news for the people who have been doing a lot of hand wringing over sexism being encouraged in recreational media, though I suspect many of them will not be overjoyed with the findings. This ironic lack of enthusiasm about such data, where it exists, could be chalked up to those who have a vested social interest – and perhaps even established careers – in the notion that women are being disadvantaged and discriminated against, as victimhood can grant one a paradoxically strong position in the right contexts. Accordingly, a lack of evidence concerning discrimination and sexism would be threatening the goose that lays the golden eggs, so to speak. All the worse for the hand-wringers, some new data has just been published suggesting that women are actually finding themselves advantaged in the realm of obtaining STEM faculty careers.

“There are too many successful women; it’s tanking my dissertation”

The good news will get even worse for those who would, somewhat perversely, prefer to read about data suggesting women are being harmed, despite opposing that outcome: the data upon which those results are based are rather comprehensive. Heading off the standard claims of non-representative samples, the current paper (Williams & Ceci, 2015) presents data from approximately 900 faculty members across 50 states and 371 universities, tested between 5 different experiments and utilizing 20 different sets of materials. Williams & Ceci (2015) even provided an additional incentive ($25) to sample of about 100 subjects to elicit a higher response rate (about 90%) so as to ensure those who responded to their solicitation (about 35%) were deemed unlikely to be different than those who failed to respond.  As far as typical research within psychology goes, this data set represents a truly Herculean feat of collection and validation.

With that piece out of way, let’s consider what the researchers did and what they found. In the first experiment, (N = 363, equally split between men and women), faculty in biology, psychology, economics, and engineering were presented with three candidates to assess for an associate professor position at their university. While the target candidate’s credentials were held constant, their gender was varied via references to them as “he” or “she”. The target was also described on lifestyle variables related to martial and parental status. When compared against an identical candidate, women were favored 67% of time over men, representing a 2-to-1 female advantage; a result which held pretty consistently across types of institutions, sex of participants, lifestyles of the targets, and field of study. Apples-to-apples, women seemed to be heavily favored as job candidates. The only exception to this pattern was that male economists were markedly unbiased with respect to the sex of the applicants. Good for you, male economists; you seem to be a very fair-minded bunch.

When divergent lifestyles of the targets were compared against each other in experiment 2 (N = 144), some changes in that effect were observed. When comparing a married male with a stay-at-home spouse to a divorced mother, both of whom had two young children, female participants preferred the divorced mother 71% of the time, whereas male participants preferred the father 57%. While there was a sex difference in that apples-to-oranges case, when it was a single, childless woman competing against a married father, the woman won 3:1 with male participants and 4:1 with females. This is in line with some recent data concerning young, single women out-earning their male peers.

Nothing will ever beat that lack of baggage

Another sex difference popped up in experiment 3 (N = 204), where a man or woman who took a one year paternity/maternity leave in graduate school was compared against one who did not, though both had children. Whereas the male faculty preferred the woman who took a leave over the one who did not by 2:1, they didn’t seem care to whether the man did. The female participants similarly didn’t care about male paternity leave, though they favored the woman who continued to work about 2:1 over the woman who took the leave. Maternity leave during graduate school may or may not hurt, then, depending on the sex of the person doing the assessing. For female faculty, it’s a bad thing; for males, it’s good.

In experiment 4, a smaller sample was used (35 engineering professors), but the prospective candidates now came complete with a full CV, rather than just a narrative summary. The same difference in favor of women came out as in study 1 (it was actually slightly more favorable towards the women, though not substantially so), and that’s for engineering; one of the more male-dominated professions out there. Finally, experiment 5 asked participants to evaluate single candidates, rather than choose among three different ones. Now each candidate had to stand on their own merits, removing some potential for socially-desirable comparisons being made, such as a man against a woman. When rating the candidates individually on a 1-10 scale of desirability as a hire, participants (N = 127) gave the identical female a full point higher on the scale, relative to the male (8.2 and 7.1, respectively). They really seemed to like the women more.

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but if these preferences were found to run against women, rather than in favor of them, I can only imagine the hordes of people who would be tripping over each other to be the most offended and outraged by them. As it stands, the authors’ conclusions that relatively low female representation in some fields is likely a product of women applying for them in fewer numbers, rather than any bias against women in the hiring process, seems reasonable. In fact, to the extent that women are being told that these areas are biased against them (when the opposite is true), the representation gap might even be encouraged, since no one wants to apply to work in a field they think will be hostile to them. So, if you’re a woman looking to get into the STEM fields, now might be a good time to try.

As for me, it’s back to the applications. By the way, got any change?

Now the reasons this bias in favor of women exists is a matter for speculation. My immediate guess on the matter would be that faculty seem to favor good female candidates over equally-good males because they are trying to, for lack of a better word, look good. Many people seem to have truly embraced the idea of diversity (inasmuch as things like sex/race per se make people more diverse in meaningful ways), and want to come off as accepting and tolerant: their only concern is getting more diverse people to apply. This speculation would hold at least as much as including more women is concerned; I don’t know that fields in which women dominate are actively looking to recruit more men to diversify the place up. They might be, but I don’t know of them.

Will this finding be tolerated or embraced by certain vocal subgroups of people who want to see sexism against women ended? I suspect not. Instead, I imagine this data will be treated the same way some previous data about traffic stops was: even when they find a female advantage, they will continue to dig for specific cases in which women were disadvantaged. They already have their conclusion – women are discriminated against – they just have to find the evidence. As it turns out, that last part can be tricky.

References: Williams, W. & Ceci, S. (2015). National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Are Video Games Making People Sexist?

If the warnings of certain pop-culture critics are correct, there’s a harm being perpetuated against women in the form of video games, where women are portrayed as lacking agency, sexualized, or prizes to be won by male characters. The harm comes from the downstream effects of playing these games, as it would lead to players – male and female – developing beliefs about the roles and capabilities of men and women from their depictions, entrenching sexist attitudes against women and, presumably, killing women’s aspirations to be more than mere ornaments for men as readily as one kills the waves of enemies that run directly into their crosshairs in any modern shooter. It’s a very blank slate type of view of human personality; one which suggests that there’s really not a whole lot inside our heads but a mound of person-clay, waiting to be shaped by the first set of media representations we come across. This blank slate view also happens to be a widely-implausible one lacking much in the way of empirical support.

Which would explain why my Stepford wife collection was so hard to build

The blank slate view of the human mind, or at least one of its many varieties, has apparently found itself a new name lately: cultivation theory. In the proud tradition of coming up with psychological theories that are not actually theories, cultivation theory restates an intuition: that the more one is exposed to or uses a certain type of media, the more one’s views will come to resemble what gets depicted in that medium. So, if one plays too many violent video games, say, they should be expected to turn into more violent people over time. This hasn’t happened yet, and violent content per se doesn’t seem to be the culprit of anger or aggression anyway, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying to push the idea that it could, will, or is currently happening. A similar idea mentioned in the introduction would suggest that if people are playing games in which women are depicted in certain ways – or not depicted at all – people will develop negative attitudes to them over time as they play more of these games.

What’s remarkable about these intuitions is how widely they appear to be held, or at least entertained seriously, in the absence of any real evidence that this cultivation of attitudes actually happens. Recently, the first longitudinal test of this cultivation idea was reported by Breuer et al (2015). Drawing on some data from German gamers, the researchers were able to examine how video game use and sexist attitudes changed from 2011 to 2013 among men and women. If there’s any cultivation going on, a few years ought to be long enough to detect at least some of it. The study ended up reporting on data from 824 participants (360 female), ages 14-85 (M = 38) concerning their sex, education level, frequency of game use, preference of genre of game, and sexist attitudes. The latter measure was derived from agreement on a scale from 1 to 5 concerning three questions: whether men should be responsible for major decisions in the family, whether men should take on leadership roles in mixed-sex groups, and whether women should take care of the home, even if both partners are wage earners.

Before getting into the relationships between video game use and sexist attitudes, I would like to note at the outset a bit of news which should be good for almost everyone: sexist attitudes were quite low, with each question garnering about an average agreement of about 1.8. As the scale is anchored from “strongly disagree” to “agree completely”, these scores would indicate that the sexist statements were met with rather palpable disagreement on the whole. There was a modest negative correlation between education and acceptance of those views, as well as a small, and male-specific, negative correlation with age. In other words, those who disagreed with those statements the least tended to be modestly less educated and, if they were male, younger. The questions of the day, though, are whether those people who play more video games are more accepting of such attitudes and whether that relationship grows larger over time.

Damn you, Call of Duty! This is all your fault!

As it turns out, no; they are not. In 2011, the regression coefficients for video game use and sexist attitudes were .04 and .06 for women and men, respectively (in 2013, these numbers were -.08 and -.07). Over time, not much changed: the female association between video game use in 2011 and sexist attitudes in 2013 was .12, while the male association was -.08. If video games were making people more accepting of sexism, it wasn’t showing up here. The analysis was attempted again, this time taking into account specific genres of gaming, including role-playing, action, and first-person shooters; genres in which women are thought to be particularly underrepresented or represented in sexist fashions (full disclosure: I don’t know what a sexist depiction of a woman in a game is supposed to look like, though it seems to be an umbrella term for a lot of different things from presence vs absence, to sexualization, to having women get kidnapped, none of which strike me as sexist, in the strict sense of the word. Instead, it seems to be a term that stands in for some personal distaste on the part of the person doing the assessment). However, considerations of specific genres yielded no notable associations between gaming and endorsement of the sexist statements either, which would seem to leave the cultivation theory dead in the water.

Breuer et al (2015) note that their results appear inconsistent with previous work by Stermer & Burkley (2012) that suggested a correlation exists between sexist video game exposure and endorsement of “benevolent sexism”. In that study, 61 men and 114 women were asked about the three games they played the most, ranked each on a 1-7 scale concerning how much sexism was present in them (again, this term doesn’t seem to be defined in any clear fashion), and then completed the ambivalent sexism scale; a dubious measure I have touched upon before. The results reported by Stermer & Burkley (2012) found participants reporting a very small amount of perceived sexism in their favorite games (M = 1.87 for men and 1.54 for women) and, replicating past work, also found no difference of endorsement of benevolent sexism between men and women on average, nor among those who played games they perceived to be sexist and those who did not, though men who perceived more sexism in their games endorsed the benevolent items relatively more (β = 0.21). Finally, it’s worth noting there was no connection between the hostile sexism score and video game playing. One issue might raise about this design concerns asking people explicitly about whether their leisure time activities are sexist and then immediately asking them about how much they value women and feel they should be protected. People might be right to begin thinking about how experimental demand characteristics could be effecting the results at that point.

Tell me about how much you hate women and why that’s due to video games

So is there much room to worry about when it comes to video games turning people into sexists? According to the present results, I would say probably not. Not only was the connection between sexism and video game playing small to the point of nonexistence in the larger, longitudinal sample, but the overall endorsement and perception of sexism in these samples is close to a floor effect. Rather than shaping our psychology in appreciable ways, a more likely hypothesis is that various types of media – from video games to movies and beyond - reflect aspects of it. To use a simple example, men aren’t drawn to being soldiers because of video games, but video games reflect the fact that most soldiers are men. For whatever reason, this hypothesis appears to receive considerably less attention (perhaps because it makes for a less exciting moral panic?). When it comes to video games, certain features our psychology might be easier to translate into compelling game play, leading to certain aspects more typical of men’s psychology being more heavily represented. In that sense, it would be rather strange to say that women are underrepresented in gaming, as one needs a reference point to what appropriate representation would mean and, as far as I can tell, that part is largely absent; kind of like how most research on stereotypes begins by assuming that they’re entirely false.

References: Breuer, J., Kowert, R., Festl, R., & Quandt, T. (2015). Sexist games = sexist gamers? A longitudinal study on the relationship between video game use and sexist attitudes. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 18, 1-6.

Stermer, P. & Burkley, M. (2012). SeX-Box: Exposure to sexist video games predicts benevolent sexism. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4, 47-56.

Announcing A New Journal In Psychology

For the last week, I have found myself residing in the blissful haven that I would call a video game coma. With new content for another game on the horizon, the good news doesn’t stop rolling in for me. While video games might be a great source of recreation and pleasure, did you know that playing video games has all sorts of positive consequences? Among the many documented benefits, they serve a wonderful ego-boosting function, lead to increases in mental acuity and intelligence, help build social skills and, perhaps shockingly, even help build muscle mass while burning fat. In fact, an hour of gaming can be directly compared to an hour of strenuous exercise at the gym in terms of physique and health outcomes. Now I can assure you that all these things happen to be true so long as you don’t ask me for a source. Unfortunately, these results will never see publication in the current mainstream of psychological journals, owing to the fact that editorial boards demand that such claims be met with empirical support.

Demands I’m frankly too busy to meet.

In this day and age, psychological research finds itself in a tough spot. There have been claims made that researchers are manipulating their data in various ways to try and find statistically-significant results – a practice known as p-hacking or employing researcher degrees of freedom. Assuming that such practices are not employed by researchers, journals are already notorious for only publishing positive findings, avoiding publishing failures to replicate. There have even been a few prominent cases of data being flat-out fabricated by researchers. Even foregoing these issues, there are also always concerns raised by critics that some experiments might be so poorly designed that the data obtained from them doesn’t really tell us much of value. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to believe that leading questions are bad things for making scientific progress. All this trouble with data in psychology – from it not existing, to it not cooperating, through it being useless – is a relatively constant headache for many otherwise-talented researchers seeking outlets for their conclusions.

The lack of data cooperation is especially troublesome for those of us who have political or personal agendas to advance through our research. For example, the majority of people can agree that sexism against women must be put to an end. To ensure that other people take up this cause, it’s important to put out demonstration after demonstration about how each and every sex difference can be attributed in whole to both overt and subtle types of sexism against women. What is a researcher to do, then, if it turns out the conclusion they began with is not being supported by the data? Are they to just abandon their cause in that instance, or perhaps modify their stance? Of course not, but going back in and trying to make the data fit the conclusion can be a time consuming and occasionally unsuccessful process. This, my colleagues, is where I am proud to announce that I – along with my collaborators – have managed to solve these problems with our new journal, Psychological Feelings Review. The underpinnings of this journal will change the face of psychology forever.

Quite the improvement, if I do say so myself

What new ideas will Psychological Feelings Review bring to the table? For starters, our new journal will be banning the reporting of data altogether. Historically, important ideas in psychology and data have frequently found themselves at odds, and we feel by banning the use of data we can finally put an end to this meaningless conflict. Instead of reporting data, we strongly encourage those who submit to Psychological Feelings Review to instead just report the conclusions they were going to begin their research with anyway. The nature of the conclusions themselves less important than the level of pretentious snark or moral indignation through which they are expressed. Conclusions can be strengthened by repeating them, each time adding some level of formatting-based emphasis, as replications are important. Conclusions can be strengthened by repeating them, each time adding some level of formatting-based emphasis, as replications are important. Conclusions can be strengthened by repeating them, each time adding some level of formatting-based emphasis, as replications are important.

Our journal is a mere fledgling right now, and we do assume there will be criticism from the lame-stream of psychology who are seeking desperately to maintain their structural power monopoly on what they deem to be truth; an idea recently confirmed in our first forthcoming issue. In order to help authors respond to these criticisms, the editorial board has put together the following quick list of suggestions: first and foremost, remember, do not reference data in your replies to mainstream outlets; don’t start playing the game they want to play. Instead, try and assassinate the character of the author(s) you are replying to, such as by claiming they hate minority groups, that their ideas have grave social implications likely to lead to genocide, or that they have been credibly threatening you and your pets with violence to try and shut you up. Alternatively, you can also add some section to your reply making it clear that you “can’t even right now”, while also suggesting that your detractors need to go out and educate themselves. This latter tactic is especially effective, as it takes the burden off you needing to source your obviously-true claim while also casting doubt on the credibility of the critic: if your critics can’t be trusted to be well-informed about the topic in question, their concerns and comments can be safely dismissed as the ravings of an angry madman, all while you establish yourself as the insightful party who just doesn’t have the time or mental energy to deal with them; they’re just too far beneath you for you to even bother.

We also strongly encourage women and minority groups to submit to Psychological Feelings Review, as the questioning of conclusions from these groups can be taken as prima facie evidence of sexist or racist biases, allowing critics to be more safely dismissed. If you happen to not be a member of these groups, we would also strongly encourage you to at least publicly claim you are. The same guidelines hold for research on topics which the author has a personal history with. For instance, if you are concluding things about the negative effects of objectification, make sure to recount some moving personal anecdote about a time you’re moderately sure you were personally and severely disadvantaged because of it. Nothing says “objectively right” quite like a strong vested interest in the conclusion you’re pushing. If the conclusions sit well with other people’s intuitions, there’s a lower probability of them being questioned, and anecdotes help here; if they do not, you then have the ability to complain loudly about having your lived experiences erased by arrogant bigots who couldn’t possibility begin to understand what they’re talking about.

Don’t let other people’s experiences speak for them; that’s your job

Finally, we do anticipate that our journal will receive more submissions than could possibly be published, owing to space and time constraints. Until other journals take up our data-exclusionary methods, we will be forced into the uncomfortable position of having to only publish the conclusions that support our personal biases to the highest degree, or at least the ones we find most interesting after a night of heavy drinking. While this peer-review process might seem harsh, we believe it is one of the existing traditions of psychological review and publication that should be maintained in its current form, owing to its completely open-ended and intuition-based nature. After all, confronting challenges to one’s worldview is always unpleasant, so it seems selfish that any of you would ask us to do so in order to publish your work. Anyone submitting such papers really needs to get a life, and quit being so malicious towards us. I just…can’t even right now.