Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Researching the lady in red

The research reported in this article, conducted by the University of Rochester, should surely win some award for absurdity. It's not really the conclusion of the research that bothers me - that men find women in red more attractive, whether for some ingrained evolutionary reason, or because of the old association between red and romance. It's more the silliness of undertaking research like this in the first place that gets my goat.

According to the article, a bunch of men (gay men and colour blind men were excluded) were shown different pictures of women, some wearing or surrounded by red, and others not. The men were then asked questions including how much they would like to kiss or have sex with each woman, and how much they would be willing to spend on each during a date.

One of my favourite authors is Professor Sandra Harding, a feminist philosopher of science. Her claim to fame is questioning just how neutral and objective science actually is. One point she raises is that the research questions science chooses to pursue reflect particular cultural values. The psuedo-science of phrenology is a case in point. Phrenologists weren't motivated by lofty unbiased ideals of innocent scientific inquiry - they were trying to prove that white people are smarter than others. More recently, research into what causes homosexuality also reflects particular social interests. Attempts to identify the gene, the hormone, the traumatic childhood experience that made a person gay have been motivated by different views. Some researchers have tried to show that homosexuality is a disease that we should aim to cure, and others have tried to demonstrate it is natural and therefore OK. Politics and science go hand in hand, but that's not necessarily a bad thing so long as we recognise it.

Leaving aside what motivates people to take up particular research questions, there's the fraught question of research funding. Research that might produce something of commercial value tends to attract funders more readily than other research. This might not matter, except that for every bit of research done, there is an opportunity cost in the form of another, maybe more beneficial bit of research that won't be done. The worth of every bit of research - its ethical merits and its social usefulness - should be scrutinised closely before it's begun.

In light of all this, it's kind of annoying to see a university producing research that not only offers nothing useful to humankind whatsoever, but seems to reinforce dumb stereotypes about the relationships between men and women, and the roles of each. It's the same old story. Men are programmed by evolution to hunt women, picking and choosing amongst us to find good breeders. We display our wares in the hope of being chosen by a strong and protective male who will provide for us. Whatever. And the idea that the measure of a woman's attractiveness is how much a bloke will spend on her is so antiquated that it's difficult to know where to begin laughing at it. Using this as a research question does little except show the researchers' quaint ideas about how men and women ought to socialise. It's like the researchers started with the answer - what they thought the relationship between the sexes ought to look like - then tried to gather data to fit.

So, what was the purpose of this University of Rochester research? Is it intended to help us ladies snag husbands? Was the researcher trying to get his name in the newspaper, or to promote some pop-psychology book he's writing? Whatever it is, it's hard to see this research making the world a better place.


Violet said...

Interesting what you said about how cultural assumptions influence what is researched. But I recall from my university days (I was a science major) that the scientific method is to: start with a hypothesis, see if you can disprove it, then come to some conclusion. Surely this suggests that scientists are actually supposed to have some belief/opinion/cultural bias to start with. Not that I disagree with you on the worth of the "lady in red" research, but I find that kind of thing very handy for making small talk at parties.

Hugh said...

I don't understand how you're going from the formal conclusion of this research, "straight men are more attracted to women who wear red" to what you have identified as the implict conclusion, namely "Men are programmed by evolution to hunt women..." etc. What's the connection? I don't see it.

Generally I think any research that deals with how people are attracted to one another falls under the heading of "social usefulness", myself. Sexual/romantic attraction is a tremendously significant dynamic in human society and any further understanding of it can only be helpful, in my view.

Anna said...

Hi Violet - that's pretty much what Sandra Harding argues (or half of it). She claims that Western science's claims to be being superior to other forms of knowledge is based on the belief that Western science is objective, which is in turn based on the neutrality given by hypothesis testing. This overlooks the fact that hypothesis selection falls outside the safeguards of scientific method, and completely reflects what the researcher regards as interesting or important or problematic. Therefore, when science claims to be an unbiased representation of the facts, it's actually a partial view - ie the particular information that someone with a particular view has chosen to put forward. I find that critique pretty straightforward and acceptable.

Harding also has some critiques of scientific method itself which I'm not quite as comfortable with, but to be fair, she doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. She argues for retention of traditional scientific methodology, but for scrutinising it more closely for cultural bias. She thinks it's inevitable that science carries the biases of researchers, but that we should at least have a crack at exchanging anti-woman or racist biases with more progressive ones.

If you're interested, the book to read is 'The Science Question in Feminism', which explains it much better than me!

Hugh, the connection is sociobiology, and there is no way the researchers in question could have conducted the research without be aware of the literature in this area. In fact, the phrase 'evolutionary heritage' is used by the researcher. If you believe that attraction is innately determined or influenced by evolution (in the face of all the anthropological evidence that says it's not), you obviously buy into all the arguments about fitness of the species and sexual selection that go with it. Sociobiological arguments of this sort always assume that the sexual behaviour observed amongst animals (ie men's sexuality is active or even predatorial; women are passive, and because pregnancy and their natural attachment to children make them vulnerable and dependent, they look for men who will provide for them well). The fact that the researcher actually asked men how much they'd spend on hypothetical dates suggests the men-as-provider assumption was alive and well in this research. It's hard to imagine women being asked 'how much would you spend on this bloke' as an index of male attractiveness.

Danielle said...

Tangential evolutionary psychology note: if anyone ever seriously uses the compound word 'hard-wired' to describe some kind of gender-based sexual or social behaviour, you know that there is all manner of dodginess ahead.

Hugh said...

Anna, I don't have much time for sociobiology either, but I would be cautious about judging the content of a piece of research based on the researcher's comments to the media, which, while ill-chosen, don't affect how good or bad the research is. I've known some very competent researchers who spout off when a journalist asks them an open-ended question.

You're right that any reasonably competent researcher would have to be aware of the sociobiological thesis, but being aware of it doesn't mean endorsing it.

The strongest piece of evidence that this piece endorses sociobiology comes, as you point out, from asking men how much they'd spend on a woman. I agree this is dodgy, but it's possible they were simply trying to get men to consider their attraction in less abstract terms than 'yes she's attractive', 'no she's not'.

But going back a bit, you say that those who believe in evolutionary causes for social/sexual behaviour must also believe in male sexual primacy. I'd be a bit more cautious about saying that if I were you. I'm sure you're familiar with the gender essentialism debate within feminism, and I would say that condemning everybody who's more gender essentialist than you as a supporter of male privilege is not going to win you many friends.

Anna said...

I'm not saying that those who believe in evolutionary causes for social/sexual behaviour must also believe in male sexual primacy - merely that all those I've read have. It's quite conceivable that people can come up with other essentialist positions (and they have, of course), but it would be difficult to base one on evolutionary psychology which didn't assume male sexual primacy.

Given that the researcher in this case published his findings in the 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology', I've no reason to doubt the way it's been reported.