Another Inane Bit of Pseudo-Research

Researchers in the UK claim to have discovered that the use of birth control pills “changes women’s taste in men”. (Via Metafilter, where most of the posters rightly pooh-poohed it). This research is worse than worthless in so many ways…

In the study, women were shown pictures of a variety of men. Women on the pill were more likely to chose pictures of “macho types with strong jaw lines and prominent cheekbones”; whereas women not on the pill were “more likely to go for more sensitive types without traditionally masculine features.” On the basis of this test, the researchers concluded that “where a woman chooses her partner while she is on the pill, and then comes off it to have a child, she may find she is married to the wrong man.”

OK. The article doesn’t say how many women were questioned in the survey, nor whether any control was used for other differences between the women who were on the pill and those who weren’t (maybe the difference in preferences are related to the women’s decisions on whether to take the pill or not; as one MeFi poster astutely noted, they didn’t even ask the same women their preferences first when they were on the pill, and then when they were off it).

Not to mention that the study takes for granted cultural norms (strong jaw lines and prominent cheekbones = macho) that may well vary with time and place, as well as race and ethnicity, class, etc. (The article is illustrated with a photo of Russell Crowe, presented as the epitome of macho features. I wonder if the women would have equally preferred, say, men with the features of Bruce Lee, or Richard Roundtree, or John Wayne, or Randy “Macho Man” Savage).

Not to mention that these categories themselves (macho vs. sissy, or jaw lines and cheekbones divided into two groups) are way too simplistic to account even for judgments on the handsomeness of faces, let alone for “mating choices” more generally.

Not to mention that it’s quite a stretch to extrapolate from a survey in which somebody looks at pictures of faces for a moment or two to grandiose statements about the dangers of getting married to somebody you turn out not to like.

Not to mention that, as in so many psychological studies of this sort, the assumption of norms in male and female behavior, and of ubiquitous heterosexuality, is so strong as to rule out a priori any understanding of the vastness of human diversity and eccentricity.

The rhetorical trick of studies like this is that they give lame, and almost totally arbitrary, pseudo-Darwinian explanations for the findings: “As women who take the pill cannot become pregnant, they are sub-consciously attracted to sexy, macho men, rather than to men who are most likely to make a sensible long-term mate.” (If I didn’t know that these were actual researchers, I’d swear the whole thing was a mischievous parody of sociobiology).

Then, if you don’t accept the study’s extravagant claims, you are accused of being virtually a creationist, or someone who believes that biology is totally irrelevant to behavior (as one supporter of the survey put it on MeFi, “why is it that educated and informed human beings at the beginning of the 21st century still have trouble being told that many of the decisions they make in life are made in part by hormones and genetic wiring?”)

Well, sorry–I don’t doubt that human beings have evolved by natural selection, and that “hormones and genetic wiring” have a lot to do with how we act. But it’s quite a big jump from a study like this to an assertion that the observed changes in picture preferences are linearly determined, in all women, by sex hormone levels (let alone to posit a genetic cause, since no mechanism of that sort is proposed at all). (Not to mention that all talk of “sex hormones” is so wildly inflated as to be a misnomer, as Anne Fausto-Sterling has demonstrated at great length).

Sigh. If you want to learn something about human sexual psychology, forget studies like this, and go read Jane Austen or Marcel Proust instead.