Freudian Field Day; 10 Idiotic Assertions in Psychology Today

10 07 2007

Update: Bora had kindly put together a short-list of other bloggers who have addressed the intellectual poverty of the article. Have a look here.

There’s been a little bit of a stir in the blogosphere in reaction to a recent evolutionary psychology article entitled “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature” that showed up in Psychology Today. I honestly am not terribly familiar with evolutionary psychology outside of how contentious it is (scientists like Niles Eldredge and Ian Tattersall, among others, regarding it as junk science), but at the moment I suppose I take something of the middle ground; our evolution certainly affects our mind today, but figuring out what has and has not changed is the trick. Case in point, I recently watched the first few installments of the BBC program The Human Face hosted by John Cleese. In the discussion of professional models, it was said that a particular look that models can give works so well because it is basically the face that women make before orgasm, so we’re naturally more attracted to such a face. I really have no idea if this is true, and overall it seems a bit too simplistic to me; everyone doesn’t just go helpless with euphoria when we see such an image (at least, I know I don’t). In any case, I’ll be going through the 10 assertions the authors of the Psychology Today list, giving my thoughts on each.

1. Men like blond bombshells (and women want to look like them)

One of the first things that strikes me about this article is that it isn’t especially tentative nor does it back up it’s sources; things are simply said to be as they are and we’re expected to believe what the authors are saying is true. Beyond that, the general hypothesis is that blond women remind men of young women, young women with large hips and a small waist being able to be better reproductively, and therefore they are more desirable sexually. On top of that, large breasts are supposed to be good age indicators, the amount of sag telling males how old the woman is. This, I must say, just sounds stupid; surely there are better indicators of age than breast size in relation to “sag”, and while I’m not an expert, isn’t there a large amount of natural variation in female chests anyway? The authors seem to be confusing correlation with causation, raising a “just-so story” to the level of fact. Likewise, their discussion of blue eyes sounds equally dubious;

Women with blue eyes should not be any different from those with green or brown eyes. Yet preference for blue eyes seems both universal and undeniable—in males as well as females. One explanation is that the human pupil dilates when an individual is exposed to something that she likes. For instance, the pupils of women and infants (but not men) spontaneously dilate when they see babies. Pupil dilation is an honest indicator of interest and attraction. And the size of the pupil is easiest to determine in blue eyes. Blue-eyed people are considered attractive as potential mates because it is easiest to determine whether they are interested in us or not.

This seems more of a reaction to modern eye color variations (which can be artificially achieved through contact lenses) than the effects of something evolutionary; I doubt there was a bias in our hominid ancestors towards blue eyes (if blue eyes were even common enough then). It also raises the question of blue eyes in populations where they nearly never occur today; is there any significant change in attraction to an individual solely because of eye color? What is people just like the color blue, or like blue eyes because they are unusual? The authors don’t put forth any alternative hypotheses.

2. Humans are naturally polygamous

The first thing that irked me about this discussion is that no distinction was made between what science may or may not tell us and morality, i.e. that whether our species was polygamous throughout our evolutionary history does not dictate whether it is good or natural today. As for the argument itself, the authors point to the mild sexual dimorphism between men and women and suggest that bigger, stronger males monopolized the females, females also preferring big and strong males. No alternate hypothesis was given for the variations, nor was it mentioned that it is unlikely that only the biggest, strongest men mated. Thinking back to what I’ve come to learn about sexual selection and the book A Primate’s Memoir, a hyper-masculine male may be highly aggressive (even abusive) in addition to being the biggest and strongest, and just because one male tries to monopolize all the females does not mean that other males never get the chance to mate (less privileged males may keep up longer term relationships with females and produce offspring surprisingly often).

3. Most women benefit from polygyny, while most men benefit from monogamy

Continuing with their assertion that it’s better for females to share a wealthy man (or, in terms of past history, one that can provide protection), the authors assert that monogamy benefits men because a “poor” wife is better than no wife at all. Again, outside of “protection” the authors make no qualifications as to what females actually benefit from sharing a dominant male, and polygynous mating structures do not necessarily guarantee the safety or well-being of the females. While it might be true, in a thought experiment, that less-masculine males would benefit more from a monogamous or polyandrous mating structure than a polygynous one, the authors provide no evidence to support their claim and the overall reasoning is rather shallow.

4. Most suicide bombers are Muslim

The title seems more like a matter of statistics (I wonder if they considered Kamikaze pilots during WWII), but the authors contend that Muslim men are engaging in terrorism to quench their sexual desires. Rather than being a product of religious brainwashing, the authors assert that Muslim suicide bombers are primarily doing it so they can receive 72 virgins when they arrive in heaven. They show nothing to support this at all, nor do they look at the motives of suicide bombers from other cultures and time periods. The authors case is highly dubious, at best.

5. Having sons reduces the likelihood of divorce

Once again, the authors don’t do much other than say “This is how it is, deal with it.” No statistics are given as to divorce rate, family makeup, etc., and they try and make the case that since fathers must pass their wealth and power onto their sons they are more likely to stay involved in the family. This model seems to assume that the family has only one child that is the “heir” to his father’s legacy, and overall it seems like it has more to do with culture than “evolutionary psychology.” Indeed, the model assume that the son actually inherits wealth and power from the father, but no qualification/quantification is made of what this would look like (i.e. making sure the son gets through college before divorcing?)

6. Beautiful people have more daughters

The authors contend that because males have historically been privileged and promiscuous, they produced more sons that went on to become privileged themselves, a kind of artificial selection for males that would cause a higher ratio of males to be born than females. Little is said of infanticide or males being favored over females in families, so once again the authors seem to connect two dots to make a line without trying to plot any more points to see if the results make sense.

7. What Bill Gates and Paul McCartney have in common with criminals

This one might have a grain of truth to it, but once again it is lost because the authors reduce everything to sex. Using Bill Gates and Paul McCartney as examples, the authors contend that much like Jackass-like feats of stupidity and crime, male “genius” tends to peak at an early age. Why? Because we all want to bad to impress women. Even if we were to argue that artists, scientists, musicians, etc. stayed active and creative all through their lives, the authors argue that the “best work” of all these men occurred early on in their lives because they were in competition to secure notoriety in order to obtain a mate. I wonder what Charles Darwin would say to them about this. I found the last few sentences of this point especially wanting;

Women often say no to men. Men have had to conquer foreign lands, win battles and wars, compose symphonies, author books, write sonnets, paint cathedral ceilings, make scientific discoveries, play in rock bands, and write new computer software in order to impress women so that they will agree to have sex with them. Men have built (and destroyed) civilization in order to impress women, so that they might say yes.

Yes, nothing gets women hotter than developing a new computer language or studying the flavors of quarks. While “male conquest” may have been significantly evidenced in the past, the authors don’t think about the societal context in which many men (especially within the past few centuries) create their “great works.” Can it really be all about sex and have nothing to do with having to establish oneself in science, art, etc. or other factors like an openness to new ideas? I don’t want to sound overly idealistic and I’m sure (especially in the realm of modern music) that sex does have a part to play here, but I would hardly argue that all of male artists, musicians, scientists, and writers were only driven by their sexual desire, their intellectual prowess declining as their desire did.

8. The midlife crisis is a myth—sort of

This point was a bit odd; men go through a mid-life crisis because they desire to replace their menopausal wives with a younger wife, once again having sex trump every other potential factor. Because the authors are so sex-obsessed, the “mid-life crisis” is said to have nothing to do with a man wanting to reclaim his own youth or get a “do-over,” but instead he just wants a woman along the lines of the one discussed in asinine assertion #1. I’m certainly not an expert on the “mid-life crisis” but reducing it to sex does a disservice to a complex issue.

9. It’s natural for politicians to risk everything for an affair (but only if they’re male)

Here the authors again make the assertion that every male would have sex with as many women as possible if it were feasible to do so, the primary reason for obtaining a political office being gaining sexual power (have a look at the Washington Monument; what are trying to say to the world?). This seems to run counter to their assertion that influential men do their most important work while young while being potentially in-agreement with or counter-to their “mid-life crisis” argument depending on the age of the man and his marriage. We should fully expect powerful men to try and have sex with as many women as possible, they say; why should we expect otherwise?

10. Men sexually harass women because they are not sexist

The last point is a bit confusing; men abuse and intimidate other men, so why should they treat women any different? Men try to achieve power through competition in the workplace and once they have that power they try to use it to get women to sleep with with in one-night-stands, women taking great offense to the despicable male behavior. The authors make no distinction between abuse/intimidating/hazing etc. amongst men in competition and they way they treat women at work (nor do they say that such behavior is unacceptable), sex being the most important factor in their view.

While the authors of this may have had a few inklings of insight, it was all lost in a flood of male sexuality that seems like an attempt to justify sexually motivated aggression on the part of males. Women are not considered outside their roles of sex objects that males strive to obtain, giving the whole article (and probably the book the article promotes by the same authors) of rather lop-sided view. If this is the best evolutionary psychology has to offer, than I would have to join others like Niles Eldredge who regard it as worthless and even dangerous. It would be foolish to say that our evolutionary history has not influenced the way we are today, but asserting that such selected behaviors dictate the whole of the human experience, that sex rules all and we cannot hope to ever escape our desires, cheapens us all. As much as I disagree with much of what the authors of this article wrote, I could have at least given them some points for mentioning that finding out reasons behind certain behaviors should not endorse immoral or otherwise despicable actions, but the authors of this study would rather tell men that they’re pre-programmed sex maniacs than try and do anything constructive.



9 responses

11 07 2007

Until now I hadn’t heard anything about that article in Psychology Today, Brian. It sounds really bad. Just propogating cocktail hour type analysis of human behavior. Sounds like a lot of social Darwinism type thinking to me–and that’s no compliment.

11 07 2007

Utenzi; I agree. I’m doing my best to try and listen to the claims of “evolutionary psychologists” but all too often if falls into (as you noted) subjects strangely akin to social Darwinism or reduces everything to sex. Like I mentioned in the post, I would have been less harsh if the authors made some attempt at saying “This is how we think things are, but they don’t have to be this way,” but such considerations are neglected.

11 07 2007
Zach Miller

As you’ve noted, the authors seem to think that sex trumps everything else for, at the least, human males. I’m extremely wary of boiling down the behavior of ANY animal to merely the drive to reproduce, especially in a species such as our own, where “survival of the fittest” does not necessarily apply.

13 07 2007
Mark Wright

Sadly ‘survival of the fittest’ prevails, even though we might think it does not, on a day-to-day basis. Just bring on another asteroid, and we’ll see. Or any unexpected sudden change in environmental conidtions that exerts selective pressure.)
(Not that this makes the evol phsyc stuff coorect!)

13 07 2007

Thanks for the comment Mark. I’m no expert on evolutionary psychology, but it really bothered me that the authors just seemed to come up with an idea, say “Hey, sounds like it works,” and then gave no supporting information. All of their points may have grains of truth in them, but the way they were presented leaves little room for debate or other factors outside of male sex drive. When I’m done with my newest spate of books I’ll likely pick up some on evo psych so I can better determine how much of it is junk science.

16 07 2007
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[…] Amanda Marcotte, Laelaps and Larry Moran beautifully destroy the “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human […]

5 08 2008
Slawomir Wacewicz

Although you asserted that you were “no expert in evolutionary psychology”, you needn’t have. Its already evident :).

Let me explain. In criticising the “truths” (admittedly contentious), you rely on intuitions that are very often just not compatible with evolutionary thinking. E.g.:
1. “is there any significant change in attraction to an individual solely because of eye color? What is people just like the color blue, or like blue eyes because they are unusual?”
Yes, there is a substantial change in attraction based on eye colour.
“Unusual” is not an alternative hypothesis. Red eyes on albinos are unusual. Deformed eyes are unusual. They are not attractive. “unusual” is not attractive per se, it has to be unusual in a special way. Why this unusualand trait is attractive, and not a not million others, is something to be explained.

2. “No alternate hypothesis was given for the variations, nor was it mentioned that it is unlikely that only the biggest, strongest men mated.”
If across the animal kingdom the degree of sexual dimorphism correlates with the degree of polygyny, I don’t see why you would want any other arguments. Also, nobody needs to show that “only” biggest males mated – if the biggest ones mated even slightly more often, this is enough.

8. “the “mid-life crisis” is said to have nothing to do with a man wanting to reclaim his own youth or get a “do-over,””
Ironically, the men do all that because they do want to “reclaim youth” etc. This, however, stands in no conflict at all with the evolutionary explanantion. WHY do men at a specific age want to reclaim youth? In other words, what DRIVES them to want that? Don’t women around fifty, or men over seventy want to “reclaim youth”? And yet they don’t engage in a similar range of behaviours.

Admittedly, the explanations offered by the authors are merely plausible, not confirmed as “true”. And this is rightly pointed out. However, in criticising the “plausibility”, you need stronger arguments that are better informed of the evolutionary approach to the human psyche.

28 04 2020

The report states that Barca would likely have to offer a pay cut to the players, because of the astronomical wages in the Premier League.

28 04 2020

Getty Images5Wayne Rooney has had to get used to life on the Old Trafford benchMoment of the Week : .

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