When society isn’t judging, women’s sex drive rivals men’s

Men just want sex more than women. I’m sure you’ve heard that one. Stephen Fry even went as far as suggesting in 2010 that straight women only went to bed with men because sex was “the price they are willing to pay for a relationship”.

Or perhaps you’ve even heard some of the evidence. In 1978 two psychologists, Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield, did what became a famous experiment on the topic – not least because it demonstrated how much fun you can have as a social psychologist. Using volunteers, Clark and Hatfield had students at Florida State University approach people on campus and deliver a pick-up line.

The volunteers always began the same “I’ve noticed you around campus. I find you to be very attractive”, they said. They varied what they said next according to one of three randomly chosen options. Either “would you go out tonight?”, or “will you come over to my apartment?”, or “would you go to bed with me?” (if these phrases sound familiar, it may be because they form the chorus of Touch and Go’s 1990s Jazz-pop hit “Would You Go To Bed With Me” – probably the only pop song whose lyrics are lifted entirely from the methods section of a research paper).

In Clark and Hatfield’s research, both men and women were approached (always by volunteers of the opposite sex). The crucial measure was whether they said yes or no. And you can probably guess the results: although men and women were equally likely to accept the offer of a date (about half said yes and half said no), the two sexes differed dramatically in how they responded to the offer of casual sex. None of the women approached took up the offer of sex with a complete stranger. Three-quarters of the men did (yes, more than were willing to just go on a date with a complete stranger).

A matter of interpretation

But since this experiment, controversy has raged about how it should be interpreted. One school of thought is that men and women make different choices because of different sex drives, sex drives which are different for deeply seated biological reasons to do with the logic of evolution. Because, this logic goes, there is a hard limit on how many children a women can have she should be focused on quality in her sexual partners – she wants them to invest in parenting, or at the very least make a high-grade genetic contribution. If she has a child with the wrong partner, she uses up one of a very limited number of opportunities to reproduce. So she should be choosy.

A man on the other hand, shouldn’t be so concerned about quality. There’s no real limit on the number of children he can have, if he has them with different women, so he should grab every sexual opportunity he can, regardless of the partner. The costs are low, there are only benefits.

This evolutionary logic, relentlessly focused as it is on reproduction and survival, does provide a consistent explanation for the differences Clark and Hatfield observed, but it isn’t the only explanation.

The problem is that the participants in this experiment aren’t abstract representatives of all human men and women. They are particular men and women from a particular place and time, who exist in a particular social context – university students in American society at the end of the 20th century. And our society treats men and women very differently. So how about this alternate take: maybe men and women’s sex drives are pretty similar, but the experiment just measures behaviour which is as shaped by society as much as biology.

Taking out the social factor

This month, new research published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, gives a vital handle on the question of whether women really don’t want sex as much as men do.

Two German researchers, Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht, replicated the original Clark and Hatfield study, but with some vital changes. First they showed that the original result still held, even among German university students in the 21st century – and they showed that it still held if you asked people in a nightclub rather than on campus. But the pair reasoned that one factor in how women respond to invitations to sex may be fear – fear of reputational damage in a culture which judges women’s sexual activity differently from men’s, and fear of physical harm from an encounter with a male stranger. They cite one study which found that 45% of US women have experienced sexual violence of some kind.

So, in order to find out if women in these experiments were held back by fear, they designed an elaborate cover scenario designed to make the participants believe they could accept offers of sex without fear of anyone finding out, or of physical danger. Participants were invited into a lab under the ruse that they would be helping a dating company evaluate their compatibility rating algorithm. They were presented with ten pictures of members of the opposite sex and led to believe that all ten had already agreed to meet up with them (either for a date, or for sex). With these, and a few other convincing details, the experimenters hoped that participants would reveal their true attitudes to dating, or hooking up for sex with, total strangers, unimpeded by fear of what might happen to them if they said yes.

The results were dramatic. Now there was no difference between the dating and the casual sex scenarios, large proportions of both men and women leap at the chance to meet up with a stranger with the potential for sex – 100% of the men and 97% of the women in the study chose to meet up for a date or sex with at least one partner. The women who thought they had the chance to meet up with men for sex, chose an average of slightly less than three men who they would like to have an encounter with. The men chose an average of slightly more than three women who they would like to have an encounter with.

Men are from Earth – and so are women

The study strongly suggests that the image of women as sexually choosy and conservative needs some dramatic qualification. In the right experimental circumstances, women’s drive for casual sex looks similar to men’s. Previous experiments had leapt to a conclusion about biology, when they’d actually done experiments on behaviour which is part-determined by society. It’s an important general lesson for anyone who wants to draw conclusions about gender differences, in whatever area of behaviour.

There was still a gender difference in this new experiment – men chose more partners out of ten to meet up with, but still we can’t say that the effect of our culture was washed out. All the people in the experiment were brought up to expect different attitudes to their sexual behaviour based on their gender and to expect different risks of saying yes to sexual encounters (or of saying yes and then changing their minds).

Even with something as biological as sex, when studying human nature it isn’t easy to separate out the effect of society on how we think, feel and act. This new study gives an important update to an old research story which too many have interpreted as saying something about unalterable differences between men and women. The real moral may be about the importance of completely alterable differences in the way society treats men and women.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Vice on mental health

Somewhat unexpectedly, Vice magazine has just launched a series of articles, videos and interviews on mental health, and it’s really very good.

The VICE Guide to Mental Health covers the science of mental illness, what it’s like being sectioned, recovering from suicide or being severely anxious, and the social issues in getting mental health care, to name just a few of the many articles.

It also covers sex and drugs (it is Vice magazine after all) but even those are pretty good.

The series has been done in collaboration with the mighty mental health charity Mind and is well worth your time.
 

Link to The VICE Guide to Mental Health.

Cognitive lives scientific

CC Licensed Image by Flickr user Charly W. Karl. Click four source.The BBC Radio 4 series The Life Scientific has recently profiled three four, count’em, three four, cognitive scientists.

Because the BBC find the internet confusing I’m just going to link straight to the mp3s to save you scrabbling about on their site.

The most recent profile you can grab as an mp3 was artificial intelligence and open data Nigel Shadbolt.

The next mp3 for your list is an interview with cognitive neuroscientist and teenage brain researcher Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

And finally, grab the mp3 of the programme on spatial memory researcher and recent Nobel prize winner John O’Keefe.

UPDATE: Thanks to those nice folks on the Twitter who told me about another edition I missed. AI scientist Maggie Boden was also profiled and you can also grab that edition as an mp3.

That’s more than an hour an a half of pure cognitive science. Use carefully. Keep away from fire. Remember, the value of your investments may go down as well as up

Spike activity 24-04-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Prospect Magazine has a good article on early psychosis and young people who hear voices.

The cost of fame. The Message discusses the nefarious social effects of fame.

Neuroskeptic asks Where Are The Big Ideas in Neuroscience?

Emotional Intelligence Doesn’t Translate Across Borders. Essential piece from the Harvard Business Review.

The New Yorker has an excellent Oliver Sacks post-traumatic brain biography of actor Spalding Gray.

Can the Static-99 save us from sex offenders? BuzzFeed has an extended article on a widely used but perhaps over-trusted risk prediction tool in forensic psychology.

Neuroconscience has an excellent piece on current big trends in neuroscience.

Ritual cannibalism occurred in England 14,700 years ago reports Science News.

A visual history of madness

The Paris Review has an extended and richly illustrated piece by historian Andrew Scull who tracks how madness has been visually depicted through the ages.

Scull is probably the most thorough and readable historian of madness since the death of the late, great Roy Porter, and this article is no exception.

Modern psychiatry seems determined to rob madness of its meanings, insisting that its depredations can be reduced to biology and nothing but biology. One must doubt it. The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness and civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or to prove no more than an epiphenomenal feature of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been.

By the way, most of the illustrations in the web article seem to be clickable for high resolution full screen versions, so you can see them in full detail.
 

Link to Madness and Meaning in Paris Review.

An instinct for fairness lurking within even the most competitive

It stings when life’s not fair – but what happens if it means we profit? As Tom Stafford writes, some people may perform unexpected self-sabotage.

Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, is the unlikely star of a viral video. His academic’s physique, grey jumper and glasses aren’t the usual stuff of a YouTube sensation. But de Waal’s research with monkeys, and its implications for human nature, caught the imagination of millions of people.

It began with a TED talk in which de Waal showed the results of one experiment that involved paying two monkeys unequally (see video, below). Capuchin monkeys that lived together were taken to neighbouring cages and trained to hand over small stones in return for food rewards. The researchers found that a typical monkey would happily hand over stone after stone when it was rewarded for each exchange with a slice of cucumber.

But capuchin monkeys prefer grapes to cucumber slices. If the researchers paid one of the monkeys in grapes instead, the monkey in the neighbouring cage – previously happy to work for cucumber – became agitated and refused to accept payment in cucumber slices. What had once been acceptable soon became unacceptable when it was clear a neighbour was getting a better reward for the same effort.

The highlight of the video is when the poorly paid monkey throws the cucumber back at the lab assistant trying to offer it as a reward.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that humans can feel very much like the poorly paid monkey. Injustice stings. These results and others like them, argues de Waal, show that moral sentiments are part of our biological inheritance, a consequence of an ancestral life that was dominated by egalitarian group living – and the need for harmony between members of the group.

That’s a theory, and de Waal’s result definitely shows that our evolutionary cousins, the monkeys, are strongly influenced by social comparisons. But the experiment doesn’t really provide strong evidence that monkeys want justice. The underpaid monkey gets angry, but we’ve no evidence that the better-paid monkey is unhappy about the situation. In humans, by comparison, we can find stronger evidence that an instinct for fairness can lurk inside the psyche of even the most competitive of us.

The players in the National Basketball Association in the USA rank as some of the highest earning sportspeople in the world. In the 2007-08 season the best paid of them received salaries in excess of $20 million (£13.5 million), and more than 50 members of the league had salaries of $10 million (£6.7 million) or more.

The 2007-08 season is interesting because that is when psychologists Graeme Haynes and Thomas Gilovich reviewed recordings of more than 100 NBA games, looking for occasions that fouls were called by the referees when it was clear to the players that no foul had actually been committed. Whenever a foul is called, the wronged player gets a number of free throws – chances to score points for their team. Haynes and Gilovich were interested in how these ultra-competitive, highly paid sportsmen reacted to being awarded free throws when they knew that they didn’t really deserve them.

Missed shot

These guys had every incentive to make the most of the free throws, however unfairly gained: after all, they make their living from winning, and the points gained from free throws could settle a match. Yet Haynes and Gilovich found that players’ accuracy from unfairly awarded free throws was unusually low. It was down compared to the free throw league average, and down compared to the individual players’ free throw personal averages. Accuracy on unfairly awarded free throws was lowest when the player’s team was ahead and didn’t need the points so much. But tellingly, it was also lower than average when the team was behind and in need of points – whether honestly or dishonestly gained.

If players in one of the most competitive and best-paid sports can apparently be put off by guilt, it suggests to me that an instinct for fairness can survive even the most ruthless environments.

At the end of the monkey clip, de Waal jokes that the behaviour parallels the way people have staged protests against Wall Street, and the greed they see there. And he’s right that our discomfort with unequal pay may be as deeply set as the monkey’s.

Yet perhaps these feelings run even deeper. The analysis of the basketball players suggests that when we stand to benefit from injustices – even if they can help justify multi-million dollar salaries – some part of us is uncomfortable with the situation, and may even work to undermine that advantage.

So don’t give up on the bankers and the multi-millionaire athletes just yet.

This is my latest column for BBC Future. The original is here.

Spike activity 17-04-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The latest instalment of ‘the seductive allure of neuroscience’ has been released (aka the force awakens) – a solid study suggest spurious neuroscience adds weight to explanations. Great coverage from the BPS Research Digest.

Aeon asks an interesting question: throughout evolutionary history, we never saw anything like a montage. So why do we hardly notice the cuts in movies?

There’s an excellent Motherboard documentary on the contested future of autonomous military robots you can watch online. To the bunkers!

Should I train to be a psychologist? asks The Telegraph “Clinical psychologist: pick this if you’re non-judgmental, thick-skinned and empathetic”. Cardigans, Telegraphs, you failed to mention cardigans.

Harvard Business Review has a good piece on how artificial intelligence is almost ready for business.

There’s a fascinating piece in The New York Times about how deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s might have its effect.

Pacific Standard covers an interesting study on how school counsellors improve school performance.

Did Neurons Evolve Twice? asks Quanta Magazine. I’m not sure either of mine have common ancestors to be honest.

Narratively has a great profile of the only psychiatrist in Sadr City, Iraq.

Sex and relationship researchers write an open letter to the NSPCC to protest their use of a PR survey to claim a tenth of 12-13 year olds believe they are addicted to porn.

MIT Tech Review has a great interview on why seemingly ‘obvious’ technological interventions for poverty fail. Culture, culture, culture.

Long corridors of the mind

I’ve just read Barbara Taylor‘s brilliant book The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times which blends her own experiences as a patient in one of the last remaining asylums with an incisive look at the changing face of mental health care since the Victorian era.

Taylor is a renowned historian but the book is not what you’d expect. It’s scandalous, searingly honest and often a exquisitely observed look at herself and others as they made shaky orbits around the mental health system.

Through severe mental unwellness, the state mental health system, and a searching course of psychoanalysis, Taylor is an exceptional guide and she is provides a lot of cold hard truths, as well as a lot of warm, overlooked ones.

You might think that this is a book in the same vein as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind or The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Sacks – accounts by brilliant women who recount the challenges of developing their careers while walking on the shifting sands of the mind.

But Taylor’s book is quite different. She has become a renowned history professor but the book ends well before, when she gets her first steady job after a long period of disability. Actually, most of the book describes her dysfunction in the face of wanting to fulfil her ambitions.

In this sense, the book is more like an explorer’s journal than the post-voyage story of success. It carefully captures the day-to-day atmosphere and characters of a world she never thought she’d be in.

Wrapped around this are Taylor’s descriptions of how her experiences, and the experiences of many others like her, were situated in the mental health system of the late 20th Century. It captures the course not only of her madness, but madness as a part of a changing society.

By the way, the ‘last asylum’ in the title is the sprawling Friern Hospital née Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, which we’ve discussed previously on Mind Hacks as one of the many Victorian asylums which have become don’t-mention-the-past luxury flats.
 

Link to more info on The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor.

She’s giving me hallucinations

Last year I did a talk in London on auditory hallucinations, The Beach Boys and the psychology and neuroscience of hallucinated voices, and I’ve just discovered the audio is available online.

It was part of the Pint of Science festival where they got scientists to talk about their area of research in the pub, which is exactly what I did.

The audio is hosted on SoundCloud which gives you an online stream but there’s no mp3 download facility. However, if you type the page URL into the AnythingToMP3 service it’ll present you with you an mp3 to download.

It was a fun talk, so do enjoy listening.

UPDATE: The nice folks at Pint of Science have made the mp3 downloadable directly from the SoundCloud page so no second website trickery needed.

Link to audio of Vaughan’s talk on hallucinated voices.

Spike activity 10-04-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

A new series of BBC Radio 4’s mind and brain magazine programme All in the Mind has just kicked off.

The New York Times has an excellent piece on America’s mental illness fuelled, jail and treatment revolving door: For Mentally Ill Inmates, a Cycle of Jail and Hospitals.

One of the few good, balanced pieces on the recent ‘genetics of sex offending’ study appeared in The Independent. Full open-access paper here if you want the original source.

MIT Tech Review reports an example of how the newly cloudified IBM AI system Watson will likely be applied more widely: focussed but free-form information provision at the human level. In this case, a museum tour guide that answers any question thrown at it.

A special documentary on Artificial Intelligence and Cinema was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. You can listen online, streamed only, because the BBC know that mp3s can kill.

New Scientist reports that a baboon bone has been found in the famous Lucy skeleton.

The pseudonymous and excellent neuroscience blogger Neuroskeptic is interviewed at Blogginheads.tv and we finally get to see his real face.

A fluctuating wellness

The New York Review of Books has an excellent new piece by Oliver Sacks where he describes the psychological effects of cancer treatment in terms of its effects on the ‘homeostasis of well being’.

The article weaves together the role of the autonomic nervous system, the progression of migraine and the repressions and releases of cancer treatment.

Indeed, everything comes and goes, and if one could take a scan or inner photograph of the body at such times, one would see vascular beds opening and closing, peristalsis accelerating or stopping, viscera squirming or tightening in spasms, secretions suddenly increasing or decreasing—as if the nervous system itself were in a state of indecision. Instability, fluctuation, and oscillation are of the essence in the unsettled state, this general feeling of disorder. We lose the normal feeling of “wellness,” which all of us, and perhaps all animals, have in health.

As you might expect it’s intricate, poetic and profound.
 

Link to ‘A General Feeling of Disorder’.

A brain of wonders

The U-T San Diego, which I originally thought was a university but turns out it’s a newspaper, has an excellent online multimedia project called ‘The Wonders of Your Brain’ which is an extensive and excellent look at some of the key issues in modern neuroscience.

It tackles everything from the development of the brain from embryo to old age, how the brain processes senses, the challenges of neurosurgery, mental health and brain disorders, and the future of brain science – to name just a little of the content.

It has some great articles, fantastic video, and includes a range of neuroscientists discussing their work.

Specialist science magazines would be proud to have this as a neuroscience piece so good work U-T San Diego. I may never have heard of you but apparently your a proper newspaper and you do great online neuroscience specials.

Recommended.
 

Link to ‘The Wonders of Your Brain’.

How is the brain relevant in mental disorder?

The Psychologist has a fascinating article on how neuroscience fits in to our understanding of mental illness and what practical benefit brain science has – in lieu of the fact that it currently doesn’t really help us a great deal in the clinic.

It is full of useful ways of thinking about how neuroscience fits into our view of mental distress.

The following is a really crucial section, that talks about the difference between proximal (closer) and distal (more distant) causes.

In essence, rather than talking about causes we’re probably better off talking about causal pathways – chains of events that can lead to a problem – which can include common elements but different people can arrive at the same difficulty in different ways.

A useful notion is to consider different types of causes of symptoms lying on a spectrum, the extremes of which I will term ‘proximal’ and ‘distal’. Proximal causes are directly related to the mechanisms driving symptoms, and are useful targets for treatment; they are often identified through basic science research. For example, lung cancer is (proximally) caused by malfunction in the machinery that regulates cell division. Traditional lung cancer treatments tackle this cause by removing the malfunctioning cells (surgery) or killing them (standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy)…

By contrast, distal causes are indirectly related to the mechanisms driving symptoms, and are useful targets for prevention; they are often identified through epidemiology research. Again, take the example of lung cancer, which is (distally) caused by cigarette smoking in the majority of cases, though it must be caused by other factors in people who have never smoked. These could be genetic (lung cancer is heritable), other types of environmental trigger (e.g. radon gas exposure) or some interaction between the two. Given the overwhelming evidence that lung cancer is (distally) caused by smoking, efforts at prevention rightly focus on reducing its incidence. However, after a tumour has developed an oncologist must focus on the proximal cause when proposing a course of treatment…

The majority of studies of depression have focused on distal causes (which psychologists might consider ‘underlying’). These include: heritability and genetics; hormonal and immune factors; upbringing and early life experience; and personality. More proximal causes include: various forms of stress, particularly social; high-level psychological constructs derived from cognitive theories (e.g. dysfunctional negative schemata); low-level constructs such as negative information processing biases (also important in anxiety); and disrupted transmission in neurotransmitter systems such as serotonin.

It’s not a light read, but it is well worth diving into it for a more in-depth treatment of the brain and mental illness.
 

Link to Psychologist article neuroscience and mental health.

Mind Hacks excerpts x 2

This month, Business Insider have republished a couple of chapters from Mind Hacks the book (in case you missed it, back before the blog, Mind Hacks was a book, 101 do-it-at-home psychology experiences). The excerpts are:

1. Why one of these puzzles is easy and the other is hard – which is about the Wason Selection Task, a famous example of how our ability to reason logically can be confounded (and unconfounded if you find the right format to present a problem in).

2. Why this sentence is hard to understand – which shows you how to improve your writing with a bit of elementary psychology (hint: it is about reducing working memory load). Steven Pinker covers the same advice in his new book The Sense of Style (2014).

Both excerpts show off some of the neat illustrations done for the book, as well as being a personal nostalgia trip for yours truly (it’s been ten years!)

Links: Why this sentence is hard to understand + Why one of these puzzles is easy and the other is hard

Trauma is more complex than we think

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how the official definition of trauma keeps changing and how the concept is discussed as if it were entirely intuitive and clear-cut, when it’s actually much more complex.

I’ve become fascinated by how the concept of ‘trauma’ is used in public debate about mental health and the tension that arises between the clinical and rhetorical meanings of trauma.

One unresolved issue, which tests mental health professionals to this day, is whether ‘traumatic’ should be defined in terms of events or reactions.

Some of the confusion arises when we talk about “being traumatised”. Let’s take a typically horrifying experience – being caught in a war zone as a civilian. This is often described as a traumatic experience, but we know that most people who experience the horrors of war won’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD – the diagnosis designed to capture the modern meaning of trauma. Despite the fact that these sorts of awful experiences increase the chances of acquiring a range of mental health problems – depression is actually a more common outcome than PTSD – it is still the case that most people won’t develop them. Have you experienced trauma if you have no recognisable “scar in the psyche”? This is where the concept starts to become fuzzy.

We have the official diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD but actually lots of mental health problems can appear after awful events, and yet there is no ‘posttraumatic depression’ or ‘posttraumatic social phobia’ diagnoses.

To be clear, it’s not that trauma doesn’t exist but that it’s less fully developed as a concept than people think and, as a result, often over-simplified during debates.

Full article at the link below.
 

Link to Observer article on the shifting sands of trauma.

Spike activity 06-03-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The strange world of felt presences. Great piece in The Guardian.

Nature reports that the Human Brain Project has voted for a change of leadership. But read carefully, it’s not clear how much will change in practice.

Surely the worst ‘neuroscience of’ article ever written? “The Neuroscience of ISIS” from The Daily Beast. Ruthlessly, it’s the first in a series.

Project Syndicate on why social science needs to be on the front-line of the fight against drug-resistant diseases.

Psychiatry is More Complex than Either its Proponents or its Critics Seem Able to Admit. Insightful piece on Mental Health Chat.

iDigitalTimes on what DeepMind’s computer game playing AI tells us where artificial intelligence falls short.

No link found between psychosis and use of ‘classic’ psychedelics LSD, psilocybin and mescaline in two large studies, reports Nature.

Beautiful online exhibition of the work of surreal optical illusion photographer Erik Johansson over at Twisted Sifter.

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