Mate choice in the lab can teach us about ‘real life’ and speed dating encounters

Kip Dynamite, brother of Napoleon. Big with the on-line babes.
Kip Dynamite, brother of Napoleon. Big with the on-line babes.

My research group are always looking for subjects for our internet-based studies in which we measure how certain traits enhance or detract from an individual’s attractiveness. And we worry, like other researchers in the field, about whether these measured preferences tell us anything at all about real-life mating decisions. We’re encouraged, today, by a carefully-designed study showing that preferences can tell us quite a lot about the early stages of mate choice.

When asked about the characteristics they most desire in a potential mate, women and more likely than men to emphasise a potential partner’s wealth or ability to acquire resources. And men weight more heavily the importance of a woman’s physical attractiveness.

Findings like this draw criticism for the way they reinforce tired and oppressive stereotypes. But just because a finding is consistent with stereotype does not make it wrong. Stereotypes, after all, come from somewhere. Yes, the relative importance of various attributes varies with time, place, and the ways in which women and men make their livings economically. But the pattern is too strong, and too well replicated, to simply wish away.

At least it was, until evolutionary psychologists started to get their hands on data from modern speed-dating events. In one important 2005 study, both sexes relied almost entirely on physically observable traits: facial attractiveness, body shape, height, age and race. Actual decisions under the frenetic pressure created by speed-dating situations appear not to differ as much as the preferences scientists measure in carefully-controlled laboratory settings.

Some subsequent speed-dating studies found evidence more consistent with documented sex differences in preferences. But others did not. And few of the studies found that the preferences subjects admitted to, or expressed in laboratory tests, predicted much about who those subjects would like or want to see again after a speed-dating event.

Speed-dating events, like weddings, parties, and any invitation-only social event of the type where people used to meet before they had OKCupid, Ashley Maddison and Bang With Friends, are unusual in that only a very limited sub sample of humanity makes the invite list. All sorts of undesirable and invisible types have long since been screened out. So the strongest preferences, the ones by which individuals eliminate not-in-your-wildest-dreams unsuitable candidates never need to be expressed.

In their new paper, Norman P. Li and six collaborators recognise that speed dating events and similar arenas tend to screen out the least desirable candidates. After all, who would want – make that pay – to come to an event that captured an accurate sub-sample of humanity? Where ‘catches’ are outnumbered by the ones you’d be happy to let get away?

In a series of four experiments, they exercised considerable care to present a range of individuals who varied in social status or attractiveness. In one experiment, each subject spent seven minutes chatting on-line with a confederate of the experimenters. The confederate pretended to be either a high-school graduate working in a fast food restaurant, an undergraduate majoring in business, or a law student about to join a top law firm. Subjects were also shown a picture of the person they were ostensibly chatting to. The picture was actually experimentally assigned, with one third of subjects each seeing an unattractive, moderately attractive or highly attractive photograph.

After the chat session, subjects were asked a number of questions, including whether they would be interested in going on a date with their chat partner. Male subjects placed greater emphasis on the attractiveness of the photograph when making this decision. But women were more swayed by social status. More intriguingly, subjects who had in pre-experiment measures shown a strong preference for status or for attractiveness showed much stronger tendency to be influenced by those traits within the experiment.

Li and his coauthors used a similar experimental approach in two ‘modified speed dating’ trials. In one they went to considerable effort to recruit and present people of high and low socioeconomic status. In the other they sought out a mix of ‘unattractive and moderately attractive individuals’. How they screened these individuals is one detail I could not find in the methods.

Again, men responded more strongly to attractiveness than women did. And women responded more strongly to status. In both cases, the result was driven largely by the strength with which low attractiveness or low status individuals were rejected. Unattractive women and low status men seemed to be invisible – not even considered as possible mates.

In addition, the strength of these ‘real-life’ choice decisions was associated with the strength of preferences measured under standardised conditions. It seems that experiments, like the ones my students and researchers in countless other groups around the world do, certainly measure something real about the first filters by which we eliminate unsuitable potential mates.

What they can tell us about fine-scale choices among largely-compatible suitors has yet to be as well established.

Dating, as Napoleon Dynamite reminds us, is all about having skills. If you’re using those skills IRL or chatting on-line like Napoleon’s brother Kip

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Latest links: Celibacy, sex addiction, inequality, antidepressants affect sex and divorce, and gendered chores

EERC-Conference-LASTIt’s about time for me to rack up some of the more interesting reads I’ve encountered in recent days/weeks. Happy to receive recommendations from you, via comments, Facebook or Twitter.

And if you are a researcher and any of that interested you, then you might well want to submit an abstract to the Cooperation & Conflict in the Family Conference which Jason Collins and I are organising for next February. Abstract submissions close next Friday 30 August.

Does it matter if atheists are smarter than believers?

News just in, guaranteed to stir smug nods from non-believers and incite irritation among the devout: intelligence correlates negatively with religious belief. You may have seen similar – or contradictory – reports in the past. That’s because scores of studies have asked if religiosity is associated with intelligence. But a just-published meta-analysis in Personality and Social Psychology Review considered the evidence from 63 different studies. Overall, the meta analysis establishes the existence of a “reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity”.

Ricky Gervais, enthusiastic atheist and lampooner of mumbo-jumbo. Smart guy. Funny too. Wikimedia commons.
Ricky Gervais, enthusiastic atheist and lampooner of mumbo-jumbo. Smart guy. Funny too. Wikimedia commons.

University of Rochester psychologists Miron Zuckerman and Jordan Silberman, together with Judtih A. Hall from Boston’s Northeastern University, gathered 80 years of published studies that estimate correlations between religious belief or behaviour (like attendance at religious services) and intelligence. By intelligence, they mean analytic intelligence, also known as the g-factor, which captures the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”. Only 2 of the 63 studies found statistically significant positive correlations between religiosity and intelligence, whereas 35 showed significant negative correlations.

Intelligence linked more tightly to religious belief than religious behaviour. While some studies showed that smarter children were less likely to believe, the pattern was weakest among school-age subjects. The links grow stronger in adulthood and remained strong at older ages. Intelligence at one age also predicted religiosity some years later – an additional indication that intelligence shapes religiosity.

Here, then, is one of those thorny issues, guaranteed to stir circular discussion. It confirms what many atheists and agnostics have always felt – that the mere flexing of one’s intellectual fibres, particularly when accompanied by the scientific method, leads a great many smart people from the path of religious belief.

And yet the finding, and the very act of me writing this column, drips with confrontational implications. Does the fact that non-believers are, on average, more intelligent than believers also imply that the religious are all low-g? Or that believers are inferior?

Of course not. The ranges overlap, and many very smart people are, or profess outwardly to be, believers. And I’m sure most people know some rather dull atheists or agnostics, too.

It’s what you do with it

There’s a cringe factor at play here, too. Many people who flirt with unbelief can’t quite bring themselves to accept that the vast majority of humanity who profess a belief in one or more deities are somehow missing the obvious fact that gods don’t exist. This – the very embodiment of humanist humility – probably keeps a good chunk of non-practising folk from admitting – even to themselves – their absence of faith.

Daniel Dennett, my own favourite contemporary thinker on atheism and secularism. Wikimedia commons.
Daniel Dennett, my own favourite contemporary thinker on atheism and secularism. Wikimedia commons.

That same unwillingness to call believers dumb, even implicitly, underpins the cringe many secularists experience at the term Bright – an adjective turned into a noun by a vibrant community who organise around their naturalistic worldview. Prominent brights include atheist pin-ups Dan Dennett, Margaret Downey, and sceptic James Randi.

Richard Dawkins – another Bright – gave atheist intellectual superiority a fine point in The God Delusion. I’ve long supported Dawkins, excusing his haughtiness as old-school Oxbridge irascibility. But his clumsy recent tweets about the state of science in the contemporary Islamic societies show just how obnoxiously patronising his view of religious people has become. Perhaps those who doubt but can’t bring themselves to admit that believers are wrong or ignorant, are timid? But perhaps they are wise?

What CAN we learn

Beyond the posturing or smug self-assurances, can any good come from considering the links between intelligence and belief? I believe that it can. In understanding how those associations arise, we learn about the nature of intelligence, the nature of belief, and – just maybe – how to build a world that transcends ignorance, nepotism, exploitation and mumbo-jumbo.

Education, particularly in the sciences, tends also to diminish belief. One can see why some big religious institutions, with the most to lose from the progress of secularism, proudly foster spectacular ignorance like Kentucky’s Creation Museum. That is not to say that all religious outreach propogates ignorance, but only that many organisations – historic and contemporary- do a pretty good job of it, and seem to benefit directly as a result.

The new meta-analysis by Zuckerman, Silberman and Hall does a thoughtful job of considering the processes that might cause the association between intelligence and religiosity. They discuss three main suites of ideas, none exclusive of the others, underlying what might be quite complex dynamics:

  • Intelligent people are more likely than their peers to defy convention and conformity. This makes them resistant to religious dogma and to the social pressures that bind people together in professed belief.
  • Intelligent people adopt analytic thinking styles. Last year I posted about how a few simple exercises in analytic thinking can erode belief. Folks who score lower for g tend to rely more heavily on intuitive thinking styles, which tend to suit religious learning.
  • Religion confers on adherents benefits such as building secure social attachment, mandating self-control and building a sense of self-worth. On top of that it can provide rules by which to navigate difficult social and moral waters: monogamy, loyalty, commitment. People who do well on intelligence tests tend also to find these areas easier to navigate unaided. Nobody does so perfectly, of course, but perhaps intelligent people have less need, on average, for religious belief and practises.

That said, perhaps the high self-confidence and self-esteem that often accompany intelligence give people a confidence – often misplaced – that they can navigate life’s tricker passages without assistance, supernatural or otherwise.

As a not-entirely-on-topic treat for anyone patient enough to reach the end of this article, Tim Minchin’s animated movie, Storm, explores pseudoprofound mumbo-jumbo of all types.

This post is, as always, a mere taste of the material I’m reporting on. If this question interests you, I do recommend you get hold of the meta-analysis, which contains a very full discussion of the complex issues underpinning the religiosity-intelligence association.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Breastfeeding in Kilimanjaro conforms to evolutionary theory

Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania dominates the region where this study of Chagga children was conducted. Source: Heather and Mike on Flickr

This week has seen an embarrassment of riches for a columnist with my interests. I’ve been torn between the “Gucci Handbags as a means of female-female competition” and the rather tragic unravelling of prominent ‘male feminist’ Hugo Schwyzer.

I hope you will forgive me for trying to find safe ground in an uncontroversial topic: breastfeeding.

One cannot leave a maternity ward these days, even after a short visit to drop off an unimaginitive bouquet and casually impart some unsolicited advice, without forming a strong view of the importance of breastfeeding. The visitors areas, wards, lifts, and even the areas where midwives and new parents nip out for an illicit smoke, all wear a mosaic of public health posters extolling the “Breast is Best” doctrine.

Unsung heroes of public health fight an unwinnable battle to keep mothers breastfeeding as long as they can. Because breast milk is the best available baby food. Except, of course, when it isn’t available. Or when the equipment isn’t working to capacity. Or mum is on certain drugs such as chemotherapy.

Many mothers experience strong external pressure to breastfeed longer than they feel they want to. But should every mother should be entirely self-sacrificing, maximising her breastfeeding tenure or conforming to ‘best practice’ guidelines? This is one of those areas in which some mothers feel their decisions and autonomy come a distant last to the views of in-laws, health-care advocates and even outspoken members of the public.

It is interesting to note, then, that breastfeeding and other ways in which parents invest in their children have been shaped by natural selection. At the heart of decisions such as when to wean a child thrums a tension between the mother’s interests and those of the child. I’ll spare you the mathematics, but suffice to say it usually serves the mother’s interests to feed less, and to terminate breastfeeding at an earlier age, than preferred by the baby. Which is why weaning so often leaves babies bereft and willing to yell about it.

According to evolutionary Parental Investment Theory, the investments parents make in each child should also be shaped by the prospects that child has of growing up, finding a mate and becoming a successful parent themselves. The benefit of having such a child must be offset against the cost to the parent of that care. Producing breast milk and the process of feeding use up time and energy that could be invested in the mother’s existing or future children.

So, younger mothers should invest less in each child instead looking after themselves to ensure they can breed again later on. Older mothers, with less of their child-bearing future ahead of them, should invest relatively more (by breastfeeding longer) in later-born children, as those mothers have less to lose. Mothers should also breast-feed children who are born heavy – with good survival prospects – rather than feeding up low birth-weight children to help them compensate for a slow start in life.

And, the duration of breastfeeding should follow Trivers and Willard’s prediction that high SES parents should favour sons, whereas low SES parents should favour daughters. The Trivers-Willard effect arises because, when women marry ‘upward’, in socioeconomic terms, the daughters of wealthy families and the sons of poor families face especially bleak prospects of ever finding a mate.

This week’s issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B contains a paper that tests exactly these predictions. Katherine Wander and Siobhán Mattison studied the Chagga subsistence farmers of the Kilimanjaro region in Tanzania. They studied the histories of 283 children between 2 and 7 years of age, and explored associations between a number of variables and when each child was weaned.

Chagga children

Seldom do data uphold a theoretic prediction so neatly. Higher socioeconomic status (SES) mothers weaned their daughters earlier than their sons, on average. But the reverse was true in lower SES mothers, consistent with the Trivers-Willard hypothesis.

Later-born children also weaned later. Whereas 20 percent of mothers weaned their first child before it turned 2, only about 7 percent did so for their sixth child. This, again, upholds a theoretic prediction, in this case from life-history theory, that mothers have less to lose from investing heavily in a child born near the end of their child-bearing years.

Intriguingly, too, parents who owned cattle weaned each child later, rather than earlier. This refutes the idea that the availability of other sources of food (in this case cows’ milk) can make weaning more likely.

What can we learn?

When applying evolutionary theory to our own species, one must guard against the ever-present threat of mistakenly inferring what ought to be from the way things are. Just because Tanzanian mothers – or mothers in general – optimise their weaning decisions in relation to evolutionary costs and benefits does not mean they should. Or that breastfeeding guidelines should accommodate the likely evolutionary returns on parental investment.

But I think we could benefit from a more nuanced understanding that breastfeeding and other forms of parental investment happen at the confluence of some fairly divergent interests: mother, child, father, paternal in-laws, maternal in-laws and so on. It is healthy to recognise that mothers can never be all-giving self-sacrificing Madonnas – even when they try valiantly. Breastfeeding, mothering, being a dad or being a grandparent all have their costs.

Which is why we should recognise that important as breastfeeding is to a baby’s development, pressure to do it perfectly and for as long as possible imposes a substantial burden on mothers.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Recent Links & News: Steven Pinker on “scientism”, male joblessness, political beliefs and decisions, luxury handbags and Hugo Schwyzer

I wanted to post regular updates of great reads. Weekly. Or even monthly. I really did. But I must accept that I’m better suited to providing irregular postings.I hope you enjoy these nonetheless.

For the first two articles, I must thank Claire Lehmann who always posts interesting content. Follow her @ClairLemon

  1. Steven Pinker at his brilliant best in New Republic, calling for a truce between science and those who feel threatened by it. Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.
  2. Sarah McDonald discusses How Male Joblessness Affects Women in Regular readers will spot one of my favourite themes here. I have more to say on this, just need to find the time to write about it.
  3. How (and Why) Political Beliefs Sway Supposedly Non-Political Decisions. David Berreby at
  4. Vlad Griscevicus and Yajin Wang tie luxury items (including handbags) to sexual jealousy in women. Interesting experiment, narrow interpretation in my opinion. Again, I hope to blog about this soon.
  5. Hugo Schwyzer, gender studies and history lecturer and prolific commentator has had a rough week (h/t to Rebecca LeBard for letting me know). He’s taken a fair amount of heat in recent times, for his opinions, his self-confessed troubled history and a recent affair. He quit the internetrepeatedly, to recover mentally and mend his personal life. He gave a seemingly ill-judged interview for the New Yorker. The the internet erupted with opinions about him; some wishing him well, others notsomuch. One of the most insightful, for me, is Melissa Petro’s On Hugo Schwyzer, Personal Essay Writing & Redemption.