Thursday, February 19, 2009

All Roads Lead to Rome. Sooner or Later.

Thank You, Captain Obvious.

Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton, presented research this week to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that basically said:

“…men of a certain age view sex as a highly desirable goal, and if you present them with a provocative woman, then that will tend to prime goal-related responses.”

According to Fiske’s research, if you present 20 year old heterosexual undergrad human males with pictures of smoking hot women in bikinis, they tend to view them as hot sexy objects that they would like to take home and make steamy boom boom jungle monkey college boy locomotive whoopee with. 

No kidding, Doc. Really?

I did not see that coming at all.

I take it that Doctor Fiske doesn’t spend much time hanging out in bars around twenty year-old Navy Sailors, but you’d think she would have met a few frat boys, which are basically walking hormones, in her time. Hell, I’m pretty sure that even on the staid and Ivy League Princeton campus you can still find the occasional Tequila-Lime jello shooter and a copy of Girls Gone Wild.

Congratulations, Doc, you’ve just managed to prove what the rest of us have known pretty much since the beginning of history.

Men, in general, are piggy Neanderthals and we like it that way.


And I’m being an ass, of course, and having a little fun at Dr. Fiske’s expense.  I’m sure that the results or her research weren’t really a surprise to her, after all she is one of the top experts on social cognition, discrimination and racism, gender, culture and a host of other related areas of study. She’s highly regarded worldwide and the author of numerous papers and seven books. Several of which I own.  She’s a brilliant scientist and one of those people who make a difference in many, many lives.  (She’d be a perfect candidate for a Hot Chicks and Smart Men Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History post, except I beat Janiece to it. So Sorry.)

Scientific research isn’t always about discovering something new or unexpected, but also about confirming things we think we know and then figuring out why they are that particular way.

The popular media loves to report money spent on frivolous research, but the truth of the matter is that in many cases, that ‘frivolous’ research sounds silly only to the layman and only if you phrase the way I did above. Very little legitimate research is actually without merit, even if it only closes off blind alleys or confirms things that we already know.

And in truth, Dr. Fiske’s research is much more sophisticated than a simple statement of the obvious.  Her research results are consistent with our conventional view of men and how men tend to view attractive women, but what is interesting is that those male responses are very likely not conscious responses.  It may be that many male brains are wired to view suitable females as objects on purpose.  According to Fiske’s research, in men with the highest levels of hostile sexism, the areas of the brain associated with empathy were inactive while viewing pictures of scantily clad women.  In men, the portions of the brain that are most active when viewing pictures of bikini clad women are the areas associated with tool handling and intention to perform actions. According to a CNN article, supplementary research showed that men tend towards first-person action verbs when viewing scantily clad women (I push, I handle, I grab) but tend towards third-person action verbs when viewing fully clothed women (she pushes, she handles, she grabs). The difference is subtle but indicates that men tend to regard unclothed women as objects, and fully clothed women as in control of their own actions.  Women generally don’t show this tendency, and this is consistent the popular perception that under certain conditions men generally regard women as objects of action, vice equals in their own right.

It shouldn’t take a psychologist to see the broad (shut up) implications here.  This type of research impacts, in varying degree, fields of study from domestic violence to reproductive rights to gay marriage.  Fiske’s research deals a direct and provable blow to those who don’t believe pornography has an impact on how men view women, but it also seems to indicate that women who dress provocatively in the work place are much less likely to get respect from their male peers.  As with anything that deals with complex human thought and interaction, none of these implications are cast in stone and are neither simple or straight forward, and vary greatly depending on complex situational context. Like many other areas of scientific research, it would be easy for bigots and the short sighted to pervert this type of research for their own ends, and to justify actions beyond the pale.  But ultimately the results of this research may someday provide better understanding of complex human interaction and refined methods for dealing with a host of interpersonal problems.

But perhaps the most profound implication of this research is mentioned only in passing in the CNN article – and that is what caused us to be wired this way in the first place.  Research indicates that these results are consistent with modern evolutionary theory.  Early primates, including human males, had strong biological incentive to seek fertile females as a means of reproduction, by force if necessary.  There is an old adage that says, “A chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs, what the chicken wants doesn’t enter into it.”  And it may be the same with people at the unconscious level. Evolutionary theory predicts this, Dr. Fiske has found evidence of it in our neurological wiring, and in how we think, and in how we treat each other.

And that, right there, is what ‘theory’ means in the context of science.

Last week saw the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of the Species and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  Those who believe that modern evolutionary theory rests solely on fossils are sadly mistaken.

The evidence is all around us, and there is more of it every day.

The evidence is inside us, if we only have the wit to see it.


  1. Haven't read the article, but I saw another blurb about this that presented it in another light. What I read mentioned that when men see pictures of women that objectify them, the men are more likely to then objectify other women.

  2. Evolutionarily speaking, I wonder how the development of women's equality will affect human development?

    I think this is stunningly wonderful, and agree with those who feel that women tend to be smarter and more reasonable than men. My wife certainly is more so than I am. She probably wouldn't post to a public blog about her half-assed ideas.

    Anyway, humans are now beginning to go on an evolutionary path that's utterly new. The creation of minds, abstract thought, civilization, and the idea of equality has created a situation where heritability is more decided by our minds than by our fitness.

    Or is fitness still in charge but the environment changed by our minds?

  3. My wife is smarter than me, but far far less reasonable.

    I keep asking her if I can buy perfectly reasonable tools for the shop and she keeps saying no...

  4. In my marriage, my tool budget tends to be directly in proportion to either my income from tools or my income in general. The more money I bring in leads to more money I can spend.

    Which is of course fair.

  5. A very good example of why I didn't go to Princeton, although as I was reading it I thought it sounded like something that would have come from Yale.

    Maybe she's a great scholar and I just don't understand, but I haven't seen anything that isn't blindingly obvious to your average 10-year-old.

  6. Well, at least the "research" was not an example of our tax dollars gone wild.

    and, oh, whatever happened to imagination? or burlesque shows?

    I'd say grow up guys, but
    (a) that is not going to happen, and
    (b)there is a 50/50 chance that at this moment in time my boss is currently in his office doing research...and not on our next case. ;-)

    Happy Friday!!

  7. unfortunately these kinds of things can be taken as proof by both sides of an argument. People with a God-centric viewpoint could easily argue this is proof that God wired humans this way so we would actively discriminate against women who have left the chosen path of righteousness.

  8. "According to Fiske’s research, in men with the highest levels of hostile sexism, the areas of the brain associated with empathy were inactive while viewing pictures of scantily clad women. In men, the portions of the brain that are most active when viewing pictures of bikini clad women are the areas associated with tool handling and intention to perform actions."

    This is the only bit that's of any novel scientific interest, but it is quite interesting, and I'm going to pull the original article to see how it was handled, because the mainstream media seems to be extrapolating from that one segment of over-sexed men.

    I'm not sure I agree with you that Evolutionary Biology predicts this. In one scenario of how humans evolved this might be a logical conclusion, but there are multiple scenarios, Neanderthals and Cro-Mangons did mix, which might explain some of the segmentation and genetic variation we see. This is evidence for one story within Evolutionary Biology, not a hard and fast prediction in the way that the stellar light deflection in the eclipse was a prediction validating Relativity. If Biologists are claiming that, they are jumping the gun.

    But you're right there is evidence of evolution all around us. I'm just not convinced this is it.

    On another train of thought, recognition of this tendency in men was behind a lot of the "chivalry" in the treatment of women in the bad old days, and feminists who got angry about having doors held for them destroyed social fabric built up over centuries that was meant to counteract the baser instincts of men.


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