Do a PhD with us at UNSW Sydney: Economic inequality as a driver of sexual competition and gendered traits

Could this PhD project explain Kimye? We reckon it could unlock this and other important mysteries.

This is an exceptional opportunity at UNSW Sydney for students interested in how evolved traits interact with economic circumstances to shape behaviour in contemporary societies.

Students may be trained in evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, economics or other disciplines.

This position is supported by the generous Scientia PhD Scholarship Scheme at UNSW Sydney, Australia. In addition to a stipend of $40K p.a. There is a $10k p.a. Travel allowance, and other opportunities for career development.

The supervisory team is:

Project Description

We propose to test the exciting idea that economic inequality among households also shapes mating competition, giving rise to many of the stark sex differences in dress, spending patterns, and mental and physical health that pervade societies. While wealthy Western countries have progressed steadily toward gender-equitable opportunities over the last century, differences between women and men in aggression, interests and the incidence of diseases like anxiety and depression have, paradoxically, increased. It is clear that ossified old ways of understanding gendered traits as either biologically essential o

r socially constructed have little to offer in terms of further understanding.

Our approach transcends old territorial boundaries, and promises a newer, better and more general way to understand gendered behaviours, including those implicated in harm to mental health, safety, and happiness. The work will involve both experimental psychological research and analysis of economic data. The project will be designed in collaboration between student and supervisors.

There may be opportunities for field work in Australia or the Pacific islands.

This is a highly competitive scheme, with excellent support, open to students from any country.

Interested students must express interest by 21 July (20 July in the Western hemisphere due to time differences). To learn more and to express interest visit the official UNSW page.

At the same time as you fill out the form, please email rob.brooks – at – a CV, academic transcript, and a few paragraphs on why you are interested int his project, plus any questions you have for us.

Up to 2 students will be asked to submit full applications in August.

There is also a lot more about the scheme at

How often does Donald Trump wash his hands?

How clean is that finger, Donald?
How clean is that finger, Donald?

Move over Nate Silver! The statistician and author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t may have called 49 out of 50 states right in the 2012 US Presidential election. But today I note that my predictions for the 2014 mid-term elections were 100 percent correct.

Mostly, that’s because I made only one. But it was a goodie. Noting the hysteria that then abounded about the West African Ebola outbreak, I predicted that it would propel a rightward swing in the mid-terms.

One might expect that an epidemic limited almost entirely to West Africa should be way, way down on the list of factors likely to swing American voters. What with ISIS, the economy, Obamacare, abortion and so many other issues of greater direct relevance to the United States.

But a spectacularly scary hemorrhagic fever outbreak – ravaging countries a mere single plane flight from the USA! – holds the potential to propel a rightward swing next Tuesday.

Readers of this column will know of my obsession with understanding how evolved psychological traits shape ideological and political differences. My Elections in the Time of Ebola column drew a link between heightened disgust sensitivity, outgroup fear and conservative voting intentions. Noting the U.S. media’s apparent terror of Ebola reaching American shores (rather than, say, visiting horrific hemorrhagic death on hundred, and displacing or inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Africans), I suggested that keeping Ebola fears foremost might flush out the right-wing vote.

Turns out that’s exactly what happened. Psychological Science just published a paper by Alec T. Beall, Marlie K. Hofer and Mark Schaller with the captivating title Infections and Elections: Did an Ebola Outbreak Influence the 2014 U.S. Federal Elections (and if so, How)?. Schaller was the first to propose the crucial, to that time unexpected, links between disease, disgust and political traits like outgroup fear and conservatism. And his group lead the world in studying not only the links but the psychological basis for those links.


The 2014 Ebola outbreak began in Guinea, and first gained international attention in March 2014. Six months later, the outbreak was ravaging West Africa, and flaring up in other parts of the world. On September 30 2014, The US Center for Disease Control confirmed that a man who had traveled to Dallas, Texas from Liberia had Ebola. He subsequently died, and two nurses who had treated him were infected but recovered. And on 23 October, Craig Spencer, a Medicins Sans Frontieres doctor who had cared for Ebola victims in Guinea became the fourth and last case in the US ‘outbreak’.

Once the CDC announced that Ebola had made it to the U.S.A., media coverage there intensified and people grew markedly more concerned about the possibility of an epidemic. Beall, Hofer and Schaller recognised the importance of this transition, and so they analysed polling trends from September and October, as well as the volume of Internet searches for the term “Ebola”.

Interestingly, after the first of October, once the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the USA became more salient, voters’ intentions swung discernibly toward Republican candidates. And the more voters searched for “Ebola”, the stronger the change in their voting intentions.

Interestingly, people’s concerns about Ebola appear to have influenced voting intentions in states that traditionally favour Republican candidates, but not in those that predictably vote Democrat. One might expect conservative politicians to play up disease fears particularly strongly within conservative electorates that appear to be flirting with swinging left.

Politicians should have clean hands
Politicians should have clean hands

The Hands of The Donald

Fortunately for West Africa, and for progressive politicians in general, the Ebola outbreak is largely over. That won’t stop politicians from appealing to voters’ basest fears. Donald Trump has done so shamelessly in his claims that Mexican immigrants bring “tremendous infectious disease … pouring across the border”.

From Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s repeated characterisation of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” to Marco Rubio’s desperate attempts to imply a Trumpish deficiency in the penis department, Trump’s hands get a lot of attention. So much so that he recently saw fit to defend his own hands
in an interview with the The Washington Post’s editorial board:

“Normal,” the Republican presidential front-runner insisted. “Strong.” “Good size.” “Great.” “Fine.” “Slightly large, actually.”

Perhaps it isn’t the size of his hands that matters in this election. Perhaps we should be paying attention to how clean he can keep them?

AC/DC “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)” Live at the River Plate.The Conversation

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Is there really a single ideal body shape for women?

Boticelli's "Birth of Venus" c. 1486.
Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus” c. 1486.

Many scholars of Renaissance art tell us that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus captures the tension between the celestial perfection of divine beauty and its flawed earthly manifestation. As classical ideas blossomed anew in 15th-century Florence, Botticelli could not have missed the popular Neoplatonic notion that contemplating earthly beauty teaches us about the divine.

Evolutionary biologists aren’t all that Neoplatonic. Like most scientists, we’ve long stopped contemplating the celestial, having – to appropriate Laplace’s immortal words to Napoleon – “no need of that hypothesis”. It is the messy imperfection of the real world that interests us on its own terms.

My own speciality concerns the messy conflicts that inhere to love, sex and beauty. Attempts to cultivate a simple understanding of beauty – one that can fill a 200-word magazine ad promoting age-reversing snake oil, for example – tend to consistently come up short.

Waist to hip

Nowhere does the barren distinction between biology and culture grow more physically obvious than in the discussion of women’s body shapes and attractiveness. The biological study of body shape has, for two decades, been preoccupied with the ratio of waist to hip circumference.

With clever experimental manipulations of line drawings, Devendra Singh famously demonstrated that images of women with waists 70% as big as their hips tend to be most attractive. This 0.7:1 waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), it turns out, also reflects a distribution of abdominal fat associated with good health and fertility.

Singh also showed that Miss America pageant winners and Playboy playmates tended to have a WHR of 0.7 despite changes in the general slenderness of these two samples of women thought to embody American beauty ideals.

Singh’s experiments were repeated in a variety of countries and societies that differ in both average body shape and apparent ideals. The results weren’t unanimous, but a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 came up as most attractive more often than not. The idea of an optimal ratio is so appealing in its simplicity that it became a staple factoid for magazines such as Cosmo.

There’s plenty to argue about with waist-hip ratio research. Some researchers have found that other indices, like Body Mass Index (BMI) explain body attractiveness more effectively.

But others reject the reductionism of measures like WHR and BMI altogether. This rejection reaches its extremes in the notion that ideas of body attractiveness are entirely culturally constructed and arbitrary. Or, more sinisterly, designed by our capitalist overlords in the diet industry to be inherently unattainable.

The evidence? The observation that women’s bodies differ, on average, between places or times. That’s the idea animating the following video, long on production values, short on scholarship and truly astronomic on the number of hits (21 million-plus at the time of writing):

This rather questionable video, called ‘Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History’, is getting a lot of airplay on YouTube.

I note that Botticelli’s Venus looks more at home in the 20th Century than among the more full-figured Renaissance “ideals”. So do the Goddesses and Graces in La Primavera. Perhaps there was room for more than one kind of attractive body in the Florentine Renaissance? Or is the relationship between attractiveness and body shape less changeable and more variegated than videos like the one above would have us believe?

Not that I’m down on body shape diversity. Despite the fact that there seems to be only one way to make a supermodel, real women differ dramatically and quite different body types can be equally attractive. The science of attractiveness must grapple with variation, both within societies and among cultures.

Enter the BodyLab

For some years our research group has wrestled with exactly these issues, and with the fact that bodies vary in so many more dimensions than just their waists and their hips. To that end, we established the BodyLab project, a “digital ecosystem” in which people from all over the internet rate the attractiveness of curious-looking bodies like the male example below.

Example image from the BodyLab ‘digital ecosystem’. The VW Beetle is provided as the universal symbol of something-slightly-shorter-than-an-adult-human. Faces pixellated to preserve any grey people’s anonymity. Rob Brooks/
Example image from the BodyLab ‘digital ecosystem’. The VW Beetle is provided as the universal symbol of something-slightly-shorter-than-an-adult-human. Faces pixellated to preserve any grey people’s anonymity.
Rob Brooks/

We call it a “digital ecosystem” not to maximise pretentiousness, but because this experiment involved multiple generations of selection and evolution. We started with measurements of 20 American women, a sample representing a wide variety of body shapes.

We then “mutated” those measures, adding or subtracting small amounts of random variation to each of 24 traits. Taking these newly mutated measures we built digital bodies, giving them an attractive middle-grey skin tone in an attempt to keep variation in skin colour, texture etc out of the already complex story.

If you want to help out with our second study, on male bodies, visit BodyLab and click through to Body Shape Study and then Rate Males (Generation 6).

This all involved considerable technologic innovation, resulting in an experiment unlike any other. We had a population of bodies (120 per generation) that we could select after a few thousand people had rated them for attractiveness. We then “bred” from the most attractive half of all models and released the new generation into the digital ecosystem.

What did we find? In a paper just published at Evolution & Human Behavior, the most dramatic result was that the average model became more slender with each generation. Almost every measure of girth decreased dramatically, whereas legs and arms evolved to be longer.

In eight generations, the average body became more slender. Waist, seat, collar, bust, underbust, forearm, bicep, calf and thigh girth all decreased by more than one standard deviation. At the same time, leg length (inseam) rose by 1.4 standard deviations. Rob Brooks
In eight generations, the average body became more slender. Waist, seat, collar, bust, underbust, forearm, bicep, calf and thigh girth all decreased by more than one standard deviation. At the same time, leg length (inseam) rose by 1.4 standard deviations.
Rob Brooks

That may not seem surprising, particularly because the families “bred” from the most overweight individuals at the start of the experiment were eliminated in the first few generations.

But, after that, more families remained in the digital ecosystem, surviving generation after generation of selection, than we would have expected if there was a single most attractive body type. The Darwinian process we imposed on our bodies had started acting on the mutations we added during the breeding process.

More meaningful than the mean

Those “mutations” that we introduced allowed bodies to evolve free from all the developmental constraints that apply to real-world bodies. For example, leg lengths could evolve independently of arm lengths. Waists could get smaller even as thighs got bigger.

When we examined those five families that lasted longest as our digital ecosystem evolved, we observed a couple of interesting nuances.

First, selection targeted waist size itself, rather than waist-hip ratio. No statistical model involving hip size (either on its own or in waist-hip ratio) could come close to explaining attractiveness as well as waist size alone. Our subjects liked the look of slender models with especially slender waists. There was nothing magical about a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio.

Second, within attractive families, which were the more slender families to begin with, evolution bucked the population-wide trend. These bodies began evolving to be more shapely, with bigger busts and more substantial curves.

It turns out there’s more than one way to make an attractive body, and those different body types evolve to be well-integrated. That’s a liberating message for most of us: evolutionary biology has more to offer our understanding of diversity than the idea that only one “most attractive” body (or face, or personality) always wins out.

What about the cultural constructionists? Are body ideals arbitrary, or tools of the patriarchal-commercial complex?

Our results suggest that the similarities between places, and even between male and female raters, are pretty strong: the 60,000 or so people who viewed and rated our images held broadly similar ideas of what was hot and what was not. But their tastes weren’t uniform. We think most individuals could see beauty in variety, if not in the full scope of diversity on offer.

What’s cool about our evolving bodies, however, is that we can run the experiment again and again. We can do so with different groups of subjects, or even using the same subjects before and after they’ve experienced some kind of intervention (perhaps body-image consciousness-raising?). I’m hoping we can use them to look, in unprecedented depth, at the intricate ways in which experience, culture and biology interact.

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Happy National Orgasm Day

Today, I have just learned from Katherine Feeney’s column in the Sydney Morning Herald, is National Orgasm Day. What that is and how you celebrate it remains a little opaque to me*. Will there be organised pageantry and fireworks later on? Should one share this knowledge with a loved one? Or simply mark the occasion alone?


But my recent post on the function of orally-induced orgasm stimulated so much discussion, I thought I’d dip into the pages of Archives of Sexual Behaviour for an appropriate reading to mark NOD. And the journal did not disappoint.

The paper I chose, so steaming hot out of peer review that it has only just been published online, concerned female orgasm as a signal. Readers of my previous column might recall my irritation that the social feedback of unselfish stimulation and orgasmic response seemed to be a missing dimension in the Evolutionary Psychology paper that precipitated that post.

Today’s paper tested two predictions concerning womens’ orgasms as signals. First, that orgasms signal a woman’s sexual satisfaction and thus her likely fidelity as a partner (the Female Fidelity hypothesis). And second that women orgasm to signal an increased chance of conception (the Sire Choice hypothesis). Yes, I know it seems a little man-centric to frame these questions with reference to the man, rather than the subject of the orgasm herself. But at least we’re talking about orgasms as part of the give-and-take commerce of sex and satisfaction.

The authors, Ryan M. Ellsworth from the University of Missouri and Carnegie Mellon’s Drew H. Bailey, administered a questionnaire to 138 women and 121 men, each currently in a heterosexual romantic relationship. Through a rather exhaustive bank of questions, they estimated each participant’s relationship satisfaction, partner investment, sexual fidelity, sexual behaviour and orgasm history.

Women reported orgasming during sexual intercourse 61 percent of the time. More than half of the women (58%) reported faking orgasms sometimes, with 18% of copulations with current partners resulting in faked orgasms. Men, you might not be surprised to learn, underestimated the rate of faked orgasms. Only 21 percent reported that their partners faked, and only estimated that women faked about 5 percent of the time. Women who faked a lot also reported having fewer real orgasms.

The other main findings by which Ellsworth and Bailey tested their hypotheses included:

  • Women satisfied in their relationships also reported orgasming more intensely and more frequently.
  • Women whose partners invested plenty of effort in them and their relationships also had more intense and more frequent orgasms.
  • Women who reported past infidelity reported having more orgasms.
  • Women who report being open to future opportunities for infidelity reported having more orgasms, and more intense orgasms.
  • Women who reported having past infidelity or openness to future infidelity also reported more frequently faking orgasms.
  • Men in satisfying relationships reported higher rates of partner orgasm and lower rates of partner faked orgasm.
  • Men who have been unfaithful to their partners report that those partners have fewer orgasms.

Taken together, these results suggest that female orgasm and faked orgasm are involved in the quality and dynamics of the relationship, but in more nuanced and complex ways than predicted by the two hypotheses being tested. Female orgasm does not seem to signal female fidelity, and frequent, intense orgasms don’t seem to convince men of their partner’s fidelity. Instead, it seems that faked orgasms are associated with past and likely future infidelity.

It seems more likely that genuine orgasm is either a happy cause or a thrilling consequence of relationship satisfaction. So far so good, but it also seems that a high rate of both true and faked orgasm makes for an especially high chance of infidelity. Given the prevalence of the faked orgasm, and men’s ineptitude at detecting it, perhaps this is one of those cases in which the fake is at least as interesting as the original?

Well, scientifically at least.

* I have elsewhere seen it claimed that National Orgasm Day is to be celebrated on every day that ends in a “Y”

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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