Archive for category Psychology

The Telegraph’s “depraved sexual fantasies”

A couple of weeks ago, The Telegraph ran an article titled “Women’s sexual fantasies less depraved than men’s“. I didn’t see the article at the time, but it’s clearly gone on to have a big second life on social networks, remaining in the top five most read articles on the site – and with a title like that, it’s not hard to see why. After all, it hits all sorts of popular myths and memes: men are pervs, women are innocent maidens, Fifty Shades of Grey is somehow revolutionary. It’s just a shame that the article itself doesn’t back it up.

First of all, despite what the article claims, this research doesn’t seem to have been published yet. The only record I can find of it is a press release on the University of Granada website, titled “A study Shows that Men and Women Have the Same Sexual Fantasies“. That’s… well, that’s precisely the opposite of what the headline says.

Even The Telegraph admits in the article itself that:

The team said there were not “significant” differences between men’s and women’s racy thoughts, but that there were subtle differences between the sexes in the scenarios that they imagined.

Just as importantly, there’s no way of saying what’s “depraved” and what isn’t (and a Telegraph journalist would hardly be my first choice to draw the line…) Men tended to report fantasizing more frequently about group sex while women said they fantasized more about submission. Why is one more “depraved” than the other?

In fact, talking about what sound like safe, fairly common sexual fantasies in terms like “depravity” is probably just about the worst way you could report on them. As the press release says:

The University of Granada researchers point out that having sexual fantasies “favors some aspects as sexual desire and arousal”. In therapeutic terms, researchers think that it is not only the presence of lack of sexual fantasies what should be considered, but also the patient’s attitude towards them.

If  The Telegraph is calling people depraved for having what seem to be fairly common fantasies, is that really going to improve their attitude towards them?

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The Daily Mail blames “brain chemicals” for riots… the research they cite doesn’t

Daily Mail headline: Rioters have ‘lower levels’ of brain chemical that keeps impulsive behaviour under control

Do they? Well, some of them might, but the research in question wasn’t about rioters at all.

Researchers from the University of Cardiff uncovered a link between impulsiveness and levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in a key brain region.

… Around 30 male university students had their levels of GABA measured using a specialised type of brain scan.

They were also asked to complete questionnaires that assessed different aspects of impulsiveness, a trait known to influence self-control.

Participants with more GABA in the pre-frontal brain region had lower scores for ‘urgency’ – the tendency to behave rashly in response to distress or strong emotions and urges.

There was no connection to rioting in the study. Any connection made in the article is being made by journalists – this article has no by-line, being published solely under the Daily Mail Reporter name, but I think it came from the Press Association originally – and it’s a tenuous connection. You see, The Mail is working completely backwards here – they’ve decided that since people who have less GABA tend to behave more rashly, people who they think behaved rashly must have less GABA. You might as well assume that since every MP is in London right now, everyone in London is an MP.

Besides, although the paper in question, “Dorso-lateral prefrontal gamma-amino butyric acid in men predicts individual differences in rash impulsivity” (in Biological Psychiatry not Biological Society, despite what The Mail claims) did find a connection between GABA and impulsiveness, it wasn’t as strong as The Mail claims:

Figure 1 from the paper

Figure 1 from the paper (highlights my own)

That’s a graph from the paper, showing the connection between the amount of GABA in one particular part of the brain (along the bottom axis) and how strong the individual’s feeling of urgency was (along the side axis) in two groups (cohorts). There does appear to be a correlation (the R number is a measure of how strong this correlation is; R = -0.7 is a reasonable correlation) but look at the two I’ve highlighted with red dots in cohort 2. These two people have the same amount of GABA in their brains, but one of them was incredibly impulsive while the other was one of the calmest people in the study. Likewise, in cohort 1, while there was a definite tendency for people with more GABA to be less impulsive, just look at that cluster of dots – there are impulsive people with lots of GABA, and cautious people without it.

The best you could possibly say about this article is that maybe on average a rioter* has less GABA than normal, assuming these riots are entirely impulsive and there is nothing at all planned or premeditated about them. But then, why does this study need to be connected to riots at all? The paper came out in July before the riots, it’s not about riots – or any kind of violence at all – and none of the scientists quoted mention them, and to be honest, blaming the riots entirely on brain chemistry leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. As Mindhacks has pointed out, The Daily Mail seems to be going to great lengths to avoid exploring any of the context behind the riots, and this kind of story helps bolster the Mail‘s line that there is no deeper cause of these riots than “criminality pure and simple”.

Wales Online originally ran this story too (here’s the Google cache, and if that stops working, here’s a screenshot), but they’ve since realised there’s nothing in this proving anything about the brains of rioters and have replaced the story with an altogether more reasonable report on the research. Will The Mail follow suit? Let’s see.

* Male rioters at least – the study only looked at men, so there’s no guarantee this correlation is true in women too.

Edit: The researchers behind the study have published a scathing rebuttal in The Guardian, saying “Let us be absolutely clear. Our research has almost nothing to say about rioting, and certainly can’t be used to justify or excuse any type of behaviour.” Despite complaints from the scientists, The Mail‘s article is still online.

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The Daily Mail, churnalism, and orgasms

Journalism is hard, guys! All that “interviewing” and “researching” and “fact checking” takes time and effort. It’s much easier if you can just nick someone’s article, rearrange the words and stick a misleading headline on it!

This week’s New Scientist has an article called “Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness” by Kayt Sukel. It’s pretty interesting – it’s about a couple of studies where women masturbated or had sex inside an fMRI machine (a type of MRI which shows which parts of the brain are active at any time), which imaged the activity in their brains to try to work out what happens in at orgasm. Interestingly, the two studies found completely opposite results. One group, led by Barry Komisaruk, found that one area of the brain – known as the prefrontal cortex or PFC – became extremely active at orgasm. Another group, led by Janniko Georgiadis, found a drop in PFC activity, and in particular, they found that the part of the PFC known as the orbitofrontal cortex or OFC shut down completely.

The article discusses a couple of possible reasons for this – Georgiadis suggests that since the PFC shuts down because the brain “loses control” at orgasm and enters an altered state of conciousness, while Komisaruk suggests that the PFC lights up because brain is investing heavily in controlling fantasy and pleasure. Since their experiments were slightly different, it’s of course possible that they’re both right – in Georgiadis’s experiments, the women had their partner with them in the fMRI machine, while in Komisaruk’s experiments, the women masturbated, and it’s possible that the two lead to very different patterns of brain activity (if the PFC plays a role in fantasy and imagination, it makes sense that it would be more active during masturbation).

At the end of the article, Komisaruk suggests that perhaps “anorgasmia” (the inability to have orgasms) might be treatable by having women “teach” their brains to have the right patterns of activity (one person New Scientist quotes, Kenneth Casey, compares this idea to the placebo effect – using the power of the mind to change the effect things have on the body), but since these are very early days, it’s certainly not a solid proposal. We don’t know which way round cause and effect are in this case anyway; perhaps changing the activity of the PFC causes orgasms, or perhaps orgasms change the behaviour of the PFC, and as Georgiadis notes:

I’m not sure if this altered state is necessary to achieve more pleasure or is just some side effect

Anyway, all very interesting, but quite vague, being more theoretical than practical at the moment. Unless you’re the Daily Mail, that is!

Secrets of the female orgasm revealed: Scientists discover new hope for women who can’t climax

Yes, for the Mail, these aren’t tentative – and confusing – first steps towards understanding the mental pathways that lead to orgasm, this is NEW HOPE FOR WOMEN WHO CAN’T CLIMAX. And also an excuse to show a model in her underwear miming either an orgasm or a sideways migrane. But mostly the NEW HOPE thing.

Interestingly, the Daily Mail ignores Komisaruk’s work completely – although he gets quoted at the bottom of the article, nowhere does the Mail mention his contradictory findings, presumably because that would mean that things are a tiny bit complicated and science can never be complicated!* This makes it a lot easier to pass the musings about a “cure for anorgasmia” as cold hard scientific fact, of course… but they’re not, they are just musings.

For some reason though – presumably because it’s the picture New Scientist used – they use a picture from Komisaruk’s experiment showing Sukel‘s brain, even though it shows exactly the opposite to what the Mail claims (the area in the image labeled “A” is the prefrontal cortext, and instead of being shut down it’s lit up like a Christmas tree). Not only is Daily Mail Reporter misrepresenting New Scientist‘s article, it’s doing a terrible job of it.

It’s not quite as terrible as “New theory could be “greatest discovery since chemotherapy”” or “Ten easy ways to beat cancer“, but it’s still a classic example of the press taking preliminary findings and twisting them into into “NEW HOPE” where hope may not (yet) be warranted.

* It’s also possible that the Daily Mail didn’t want to mention the possibility that people (even *gasp* women) might masturbate, but perhaps that theory’s a bit too Daily Mail Island (NSFW).

Komisaruk

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The Daily Mail guide to being a crappy person

Sometimes I wonder if the papers are specifically trying to legitimise being a rubbish romantic partner by misinterpreting scientific studies. Last month we had  The Telegraph suggesting that fathers should leave parenting to the mother, today we’ve got The Daily Mail telling us that “Behind every successful man is a woman keeping out of the way” (no, I don’t know who’s supposed to be behind successful women, gay men or single men either).

Luckily, for once, the study this is based on is freely available online: Outsourcing Effort to Close Others by Gráinne Fitzsimons and Eli Finkel.

The researchers carried out three experiments, only one of which is actually relevant. Women were asked to think about how their partners supported them in achieving either their health goals or their career goals, answered a questionnaire about their fitness regime, then were then asked how committed they were to their partner. They found that women who thought about how their partner helped them with their fitness planned, on average, to spend less time on exercise, especially if the women were close to their partners.*

It’s modestly interesting, but it doesn’t suggest that “behind every successful man is a woman keeping out of the way” for a number of reasons.

First of all, it didn’t measure whether being supported actually made people less motivated. Thinking in depth about a partner’s support may make you less motivated, but the actual support doesn’t.

Secondly, this is only in the extreme short term. Women were asked to think about how their partner supports them, and then straight away asked what their fitness plans were. If this was a long term effect, all women who were close to their partners should have had low goals, not just the ones mulling over how they were supported.

Third, this data is only about women. It says nothing about men! There was another experiment involving men, but that didn’t measure how close the partners were or how much support they got.

Fourth, it doesn’t measure success, it just measures how big the goals people are willing to set for themselves are. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether they achieved these goals or not. The researchers suggest this might be caused by “outsourcing effort” – people relying on a partner to provide some of the motivation instead of having to do it all themselves.

Fifth, they found this “outsourcing” effect was overwhelmed by the other benefits of providing support – for example, “he watches the baby so I can get to the gym”.

Finally, the report itself quotes other studies which found that:

individuals who have romantic partners who are strongly supportive of their individual goal pursuits (e.g., in academics and fitness) feel more confident about their ability to achieve those goals and are ultimately more likely to achieve them than do individuals who have romantic partners who are less supportive (Brunstein, Dangelmayer, & Schultheiss, 1996; Feeney, 2004)

Partners who see the individual as already possessing his or her ideal characteristics, and who behave in ways that affirm those characteristics, tend to promote or facilitate the individual’s growth toward those ideal self goals (Drigotas, Rusbult, Wieselquist, & Whitton, 1999; Rusbult et al., 2010).

Thus, in addition to making individuals feel more positively about their relationships and more valuable and loved by their partners, supportive partners also help individuals achieve their goals (Brunstein et al., 1996)

In other words, the bulk of the science out there, including this study, shows the “shocking” truth that receiving support and motivation from ones partner (and indeed other close friends and family members) helps people achieve their goals. In short, the exact opposite of what The Mail suggests!

* The study is annoyingly short on numbers; though they do say the results were statistically significant, I don’t know to what level or how strong the correlation was.  According to ScienceDaily, there were only 90 women involved, all of whom were selected anonymously online. Given how many factors were involved (there were three groups of women, and each was then divided up into smaller groups depending on how close they were to their partners), I’m not convinced you could get especially good data here, but I can’t find the numbers so I can’t be sure.

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More “Battle of the Sexes” BS

Genetic tests prove the ‘fairer sex’ is kinder too, according to today’s Independent.*

Women have a stronger genetic predisposition to help other people compared with men, according to a study that has found a significant link between genes and the tendency to be “nice”.

Funnily enough, the study in question (“A common heritable factor influences prosocial obligations across multiple domains“, Gary Lewis and Timothy Bates, Biology Letters) didn’t find that women were genetically kinder than men at all. In fact, it wasn’t really looking at men and women at all.

The researchers were looking at whether different types of “prosocial behaviour” (i.e., behaviour that helps society as a whole, rather than just helping the individual) were inherited and what roles nature and nurture played. There were three factors they looked at – civic duty, commitment to work and concern for other people’s welfare – and to check whether they were inherited they looked at identical and nonidentical twins; the idea being that if it’s mostly genetic, identical twins should be more similar in their “kindness” than non-identical twins, while if it’s caused by your environment growing up there should be little difference between the two.

In general for females, there appeared to be a clear genetic variance – in other words, those who were “kind” tended to have kinder twins – while for males the water was a bit muddier; the sample wasn’t large enough to tell conclusively one way or the other whether kind males had kind twins. This doesn’t mean that women were all kind however, or that there is a gene which means women are kinder than men!

Instead, it just means that the difference in kindness between different women is fairly likely to be affected by their genes (they found that around 48% of the difference in kindness between women could be caused by genetic difference, with the rest being caused by upbringing), while in men it’s not quite as clear just how much of an effect their genes have, which is why they’re holding onto the data to analyse it more thoroughly.

Just to add to the confusion, there was a significant genetic effect in males when looking specifically at concern for people’s welfare, though again, this doesn’t mean that men are any more empathetic than women are, just that genes play a big role in deciding precisely how empathetic each particular man is.

In short, this research says very little about the differences between men and women, and what it does say isn’t massively important to anyone who’s not a geneticist, and yet that still hasn’t stopped The Independent turning it into another “battle of the sexes” piece. Funnily enough, they actually quote the researcher behind the piece quite extensively – I wonder if he knew what they were twisting the study into.

* The comments are… about what you’d expect, really.

Edit: Thanks to Press Not Sorry, for pointing out that The Mail has spun the research into “Why women are nice by nature… but for men it’s more of an effort“. The research doesn’t show that men have to make an effort to be nice – or that women don’t – it just shows that “niceness” in women is more likely to be genetic than it is in men (although upbringing causes the majority of the variation in everyone, male and female). This doesn’t mean that it takes effort to be nice just because it’s not genetic, by the way, any more than it takes effort to speak your first language or to be scared of spiders; it means that the tendency to feel empathetic towards people (or not) is ingrained into your personality at the deepest level.

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The Telegraph gives parenting advice, fails miserably

I bet The Telegraph‘s science desk leapt for joy when they realised they could have a run a story with the headline “Men should concentrate on playing with their children and leave the care to women“.

Trouble is, the actual study didn’t say that. Instead, it showed that parents* whose roles overlap tend to be more competitive, and sometimes that competitiveness can undermine the support given to the child. For couples who can avoid letting that rivalry get the better of them, there’s no reason both parents can’t share caregiving duties.

Incidentally, the paper doesn’t seem to mention couples where the men did the majority of the caregiving and women just focused on playing; since there’d be no competition in these couples, there’d be none of the undermining behaviour seen in the study.

The Telegraph‘s article seems to quote heavily from this Science Daily article, though curiously they forget to neglect to quote the author’s conclusions:

Overall, [study leader Sarah] Schoppe-Sullivan said the results show that each couple has to decide for themselves which way works best when it comes to taking care of their children.

“There is more than one path to an effective co-parenting relationship,” she said.

“Effective co-parenting is not necessarily synonymous with equally sharing caregiving duties.”

In other words, this study isn’t saying “men are bad parents”, it’s saying “every couple is different”. There’s a big difference between the two.

* All the parents in the study were in couples, most were married, all lived in Midwest America, and they all had 4-year-old children; hardly a definitive sample of all parents anyway. I don’t have access to the paper, unfortunately, so I don’t know where all the parents involved were the birth parents of the children, whether any of the children were adopted, whether any of the couples were same-sex, etc.

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Is dodgy neuroscience in journalists’ nature or their nurture?

(Hat-tip to This Wicked Day for the link, and for pointing out that I can’t spell)

Another story exclusive to all papers: The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Daily Express have all churned out a story based on this morning’s Today (two parts, sound only).* The show was guest edited by Colin Firth, who decided to use this as an opportunity to commission some research into whether political views are visible in brain structure.

The results are fairly interesting – though the only place they’ve so far been published is on the Today show’s blog, which means I can’t really comment on them in any detail. As far as I can tell, this is what they found: people who self-identified as left-wing or liberal were found to generally have a thicker anterior cingulate – the part of the brain believed to deal with empathy and decision making – while people who described themselves as right-wing conservative had a larger right-hand amygdala – the structure which seems to be do with anxiety and higher emotion processing. There seems to be some confusion on the Today show blog about whether it’s a “strong correlation” or “a weak but statistically significant correlation”.

The problem is that, just as with the so-called “liberal gene“, there’s nothing here which proves that these structures actually cause people to be left or right wing. For one thing, we don’t know which way the correlation runs; in other words, whether having a larger amygdala causes people to be right wing, or whether being right wing just makes the amygdala grow – or whether there’s something else hidden in the body which affects political views and brain structure.

Secondly, again, just like with the liberal gene, it’s possible that political views are only indirectly linked to brain structure – the fact that the correlation between the two was weak would seem to back this up. For example, if people with a thick anterior cingulate are generally better at empathy, and more empathic people are generally more liberal, then there might be a small correlation between cingulate size and left wing leanings. This would not mean that one causes the other however! It would be perfectly possible for someone with a thin cingulate to be empathic, and for someone with a thick cingulate to be self-centred. Our brain structure isn’t the only thing that affects our personality – nor are our political views driven entirely by our empathy and our anxiety.

* Interestingly, the reliably right wing Mail goes for the self-deprecating headline “Tory voters found to have larger ‘primitive’ lobe in brain” while the similarly leaning Express runs with the exact opposite: “Lefty? Blame the shape of your brain“.

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More PR survey junk from npower

So WordPress managed to lose the text of this post. I don’t have time to rewrite it, so here’s the jist:

This is a pointless npower press release about how everyone supposedly wastes a whole every day worrying, plugging boiler repair. Of course, this is basically meaningless – no-one could remember or quantify exactly how long they spend worrying each day, so they’ll just give random numbers.

This didn’t stop the Daily Express uncritically repeating this interesting claim.

Because today was just so slow news wise.

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time The Express have printed an npower press release as news.

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A liberal helping of dodgy science

The Mail and The Telegraph are both fairly right-wing papers, so it’s perhaps not surprising that both have seized on a study showing a genetic “cause” for liberal political views; the Mail under the headline “The gene that makes you lean to the Left: How genetic variant determines your political views” and the Telegraph under “Left wing liberals are born not bred” (The Telegraph also has a satirical opinion piece about the study which, with the help of an American cartoon nabbed from Google Images, manages to accuse the Lib Dems of supporting communism).

The theory goes that a certain gene – the “7-repeat” variant of the gene DRD4 – causes an increase in novelty seeking behaviour (though some studies claim this isn’t actually true), and this makes people search out more alternative views on things, broadening their horizons and generally making them more liberal.

The papers aren’t completely misrepresenting the study – the scientists did indeed find that people who had the 7R form of DRD4 and a large social circle tended to self identify as more liberal than people without. However, they clearly missed a very important paragraph of the study:

For most traits, the effects of individual genes are too small to stand out against the combined influence of all other genes and environmental factors. [...] Thus, perhaps the most valuable contribution of this study is not to declare that “a gene was found” for anything, but rather, to provide the first evidence for a possible gene-environment interaction for political ideology

The scientists then went on to say

While our finding is statistically significant, the strength of the association is quite small. However, even in a biometric trait such as height, less than 15% of the variation has been attributed to specific genes. Genetic effects take place in complex interaction with other genes and environments, and it is likely the combination of hundreds if not thousands of genes interacting with each other and with external stimuli that influence political attitudes and behavior.

(Emphasis mine)

This gene isn’t the be-all-and-end-all the papers claim it is. Rather, it’s a gene that, if you ignore everything else, may have a small effect on someone’s political views. There is incredibly wide variation in political views among everybody, whether they have the gene or not.

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Of mice and men and mounting

Here’s another game of “spot the difference”.

Headline in the Telegraph:

Men brought up with women are less sexy

First sentence of that article:

Having a large number of female siblings makes men no less heterosexual but their mannerisms and body language may be seen as less butch than those who have been brought up amid the rough and tumble of a male dominated household.

If you answered “Butch and masculine is not always the same thing as sexy”, you’d be right.

In fact, it gets worse. The study in question (paywalled – here’s the press release) didn’t look at humans at all, but rats, and found that males raised in largely female litters mounted females less often – though interestingly, the number of times the rats actually mated, instead of simply mounting the female then falling off straight away, was the same regardless of how they were brought up.

Once again, the psychology of animals is not necessarily the same as that of humans. The study suggests the difference in mating may be caused by rats with many sisters smelling different, or finding less “novelty” in female rats.  Nothing in this study shows that men with sisters are less attractive or less masculine than those without, and it’s dishonest of the Telegraph to suggest otherwise.

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