Archive for category Psychology

Book recommendation – “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine

I know this isn’t exactly my normal sort of post, but to be fair, if every science journalist in the country read Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine,* the number of posts on this blog could probably be halved.

Delusions of Gender is a response to every “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” article and book, looking into the actual science behind them. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the time it turns out the evidence behind the claims weak or poorly thought out; relationship and parenting advice books routinely claim the existence of titanic gulfs between the sexes based on barely significant differences, while journalists will happily claim that women empathise more or that men are more logical based solely on the fact that more men than women answered “yes” to the question “Are you logical?”.

More interestingly, Fine brings out countless findings about how the mind is affected by the outside world. For example, there’s a process called “priming“, where simply telling someone that men or women are expected to do better on a puzzle affects their ability accordingly – even if the priming is entirely subconscious. Other targets of Fine’s include improperly interpreted brain scans, studies that assume children have no understanding of society, publication bias, and some frankly bizarre “science” (one study claimed that women had evolved to be homemakers because female chimps in captivity enjoyed playing with saucepans – of course, how a chimp with no knowledge of cooking would know what a saucepan was for was never answered).

A fair bit of the book feels quite specifically targeted at a few authors – Simon Baron-Cohen, Leonard Sax and Louann Brizendine (the latter two in particular are both called out for making claims not supported by the actual studies they cite) – which can make the book a bit alienating to read at times if you’re not familiar with them. Delusions of Gender is also a little more heavy going than some popular science books, as Fine sometimes sacrifices simplicity for rigour – though her dry, often wonderfully sarcastic wit will at least get you through these parts with a smile on your face. Nevertheless, it’s well worth reading when you want to read newspapers, pop-psychology books or parenting advice with a more critical mind.

* I should probably point out that despite the title, the book doesn’t actually claim gender is a delusion. In fact, Fine quotes a number of interesting studies, particularly involving transgender people, which demonstrate that gender is an actual property of the mind – but that the actual ties between sex and gender are often weak.

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Some comments on *that* sexuality survey

Most papers today cover news that the Integrated Household Survey found roughly 1.5% of the UK population self-described as gay or bisexual. There’s a nasty undercurrent to most of the articles, although only the Daily Express makes their point explicitly:

But critics have said it raises questions about the importance placed on homosexuality.

Tory MP Philip Davies said: “An awful lot of focus in diversity issues is given to people’s sexual preference and this difference is not quite as widespread as believed.

“That said, I do not see what relevance it is to anyone else. Someone’s sexual preference is a personal matter and it calls in to question why anyone is bothered at all.”

Yes indeed! If we can just fiddle the statistics to downplay the number of LGBT people, then we can just sweep them under the carpet and stop being bothered with such irrelevant things!

So before I go any further, I’d like to point out that even if this survey is correct, and there are just 700,000 gay people in Britain, not 3.5 million, that wouldn’t mean that gay rights would become less important or relevant, as The Express seems to claim.

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Brought to heel

Sorry this is kind of outdated (I’ve been away for the week), but it’s yet another article about research by your friend and mine, Dr. Nick Neave, researcher behind the dodgy dancing study.

Men don’t notice women in high heels“, The Telegraph reported on Tuesday, with The Express chiming in “Sorry girls, but men don’t get a kick out of your high heels” and The Mail adding “Don’t bother with the high heels ladies, men don’t even notice!

In fact, the study – apparently a follow up to the dancing study – only found that men found it difficult to distinguish between motion captured footage of women walking with and without heels. How statistically significant was it? Did all men fail to tell the difference or just some? How many different types of heel did they test? How did they control for the fact that people naturally have different gaits anyway? How did the motion capture take the different foot position into account?

The simple answer is that there’s no way of knowing. This is not based on published research (no journal search engines return any useful hits for “neave + heels”, “neave + shoes”, “neave + gait”, etc.) – as far as I can tell, it instead comes from data that was rejected from an actual study or, at the very least, data that has not yet passed through the peer review process. Without the data and the methodology, there’s no way to know whether they’ve stumbled onto some great secret of the universe, or just have a null result from a study that didn’t quite work.


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Telegraph columnists are from Mars, facts are from Venus

Yesterday, a couple of news outlets reported that a neuroscientist, Prof. Gina Rippon, claimed in an interview with The Sunday Times (annoyingly paywalled) that the differences between the brains of men and women are overstated, and that neuroscientists are often naive about the damaging effects their research can have when hyped up by newspapers – there’s a particularly interesting debate on the subject between her and Prof. Robert Winston from the Today Programme if you’re interested. So far, so reasonable. After all, she’s hardly the only person who’s made that claim lately.

Today however The Daily Telegraph carries not one but two attempted rebuttals of Rippon’s claims: “Why would society want men to be blind to their worn socks?” by Michael Deacon, and “Do men and women really think alike?” by Cristina Odone. Who are these people? Science journalists? Renowned neuroscientists? Leading psychologists?

Err, no. Odone writes on “families and faith”, while Deacon is The Telegraph‘s TV Features editor.

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Dancing around the facts

Thanks to This Wicked Day for the tip.

Remember The Office? That show that was popular circa 2002? Today, the newspapers finally have an opportunity to use up the stash of photos of David Brent dancing that they clearly built up during the fat years.

Every news outlet today covers an article which recently appeared on the pre-print servers of Biology Letters: “Male dance moves that catch a woman’s eye“, by a team from University of Northumbria headed by Dr. Nick Neave.

What do they say?

MEN swinging their arms too much is a dance floor turn-off for women, scientists said yesterday.

Windmill movements like David Brent in TV’s The Office are signs of “bad” dancing, a study found. (The Sun)


Running on the spot, windmill arms and spinning may attract ridicule on the dance floor but it will also attract the opposite sex, claim psychologists. (The Telegraph)

Wait a second…

MEN trying to impress women on the dance floor with the slick, cool moves of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever are making a mistake. (The Express)


Ladies prefer smooth movements like John Travolta’s in Saturday Night Fever. (The Sun)

Hold on.

Psychologists have found that over-the-top fancy routines and nifty footwork are not what women want. (The Express)


If you use big body movements and fancy footwork you may look like a show off but subconsciously women will desire you. (The Telegraph)

This is just getting silly.

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Antisocial Networking

The latest Daily Mail Facebook Scare TM claims that “Using Facebook ‘can lower exam results by up to 20%’“.

In fact, a study found a correlation between Facebook use and lower grade-point average. This doesn’t mean that using Facebook lowers your exam results. As the article itself later admits:

Those who did not use the site also said they devoted more time to studying, spending an average of 88 per cent longer working outside class.

The correlation implies causation fallacy is one of the best known, and this article is a textbook example. The students who work hardest are less likely to have Facebook profiles, for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t mean Facebook played any role in actually lowering students’ scores.

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Perfect news:fluff ratio = 0.0

Plenty of other bloggers have pointed out how the Mail website these days exists solely as an excuse to post pictures of scantily clad women to boost clicks, and today, their semi-nude supermodel output intersects with their science output: Beauty summed up: To tell if a woman’s really attractive, it’s all in the figures (possibly NSFW, assuming your workplace would frown on gratuitous images of Kate Moss in her underwear).

Mathematics may not sound sexy, but the right measurements determine sexual attraction within milliseconds for men, it has been revealed.

New Zealand anthropologist Barnaby Dixson studied what the sexes found attractive in a partner across cultures and over history using a method of eye tracking.

The usual suspects of personality, breast size and weight apparently do not figure.

Instead, Dixson found the same formula for what men favoured in women came up almost every single time: a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7.

Why did 0.7 come up “almost every single time”?* Well, because there were only two options.

The eye-tracking experiment (Eye-Tracking of Men’s Preferences for Waist-to-Hip Ratio and Breast Size of Women, 2009 – link behind Athens/paywall, again NSFW) used six computer manipulated images of a nude woman (the same model each time, with her body adjusted in Photoshop), described as “small, medium and large breasted”, with waist-to-hip ratios (WHR) of 0.7 and 0.9. These were the only two used in this experiment.

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The Potato Council wants to give you relationship advice

Fellas, what to buy so you don’t get left on shelf” is the starkly consumerist silly season science story in today’s Express. The story is based on a survey, carried out by the Potato Council of all people, asking women whether they chose boyfriends based on the contents of their shopping baskets. Supposedly, 90% of women do.

Except of course, they almost certainly don’t.

GMTV, who have what may be the saddest news/current affairs website in history (they’ve got almost five stories, guys!), covered this story a couple of days ago, and detailed the results of the survey (which sadly doesn’t appear to be in the public domain).

Women were asked first whether they judge shoppers based on the contents of their basket, which is a rather leading question. Of course people judge from time to time; it’s rather hard not to. Unsurprisingly, 90% of women said they did sometimes.

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The Metro stinks

Women’s contraceptives ‘reduce animal attraction factor’ for men” says Metro today, in an article that is in NO WAY just an excuse to show a naked woman wearing a contraceptive patch. Ah yes, the well-known scientific measure, the ‘animal attraction factor’. Incidentally, I’m not sure why ‘reduce animal attraction factor’ is in quotes, since no-one said it, but it does indicate one important thing – this study has only been done on animals.

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One story, two headlines

Harold Shipman thought he was ‘boring’” says The Telegraph. “Harold Shipman thought he was God” says The Mail. Two headlines that are diametrically opposed. Which is true?

Both articles are about the release of some of Shipman’s personal correspondence released as part of a BBC documentary to be shown this evening. The release of the letters is a relatively small part of the documentary, which actually focuses mostly on foot-dragging by the government on reforms to death certificates and the licensing of doctors. While both the newspaper articles do mention the lack of reform, the bulk of the articles is about the letters (letters that the victims’ families did not want released, by the way).

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