The mechanics of subtle discrimination: measuring ‘microaggresson’

Many people don’t even realise that they are discriminating based on race or gender. And they won’t believe that their unconscious actions have consequences until they see scientific evidence. Here it is.

The country in which I live has laws forbidding discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, sexuality or sex. We’ve come a long way since the days when the reverse was true – when homosexuality was illegal, for instance, or when women were barred from voting. But this doesn’t mean that prejudice is over, of course. Nowadays we need to be as concerned about subtler strains of prejudice as the kind of loud-mouthed racism and sexism that makes us ashamed of the past.

Subtle prejudice is the domain of unjustified assumptions, dog-whistles, and plain failure to make the effort to include people who are different from ourselves, or who don’t fit our expectations. One word for the expressions of subtle prejudice is ‘microaggressions’. These are things such as repeating a thoughtless stereotype, or too readily dismissing someone’s viewpoint – actions that may seem unworthy of comment, but can nevertheless marginalise an individual.

The people perpetrating these microaggressions may be completely unaware that they hold a prejudiced view. Psychologists distinguish between our explicit attitudes – which are the beliefs and feelings we’ll admit to – and our implicit attitudes – which are our beliefs and feelings which are revealed by our actions. So, for example, you might say that you are not a sexist, you might even say that you are anti-sexist, but if you interrupt women more than men in meetings you would be displaying a sexist implicit attitude – one which is very different from that non-sexist explicit attitude you profess.

‘Culture of victimhood’

The thing about subtle prejudice is that it is by definition subtle – lots of small differences in how people are treated, small asides, little jibes, ambiguous differences in how we treat one person compared to another. This makes it hard to measure, and hard to address, and – for some people – hard to take seriously.

This is the skeptical line of thought: when people complain about being treated differently in small ways they are being overly sensitive, trying to lay claim to a culture of victimhood. Small differences are just that – small. They don’t have large influences on life outcomes and aren’t where we should focus our attention.

Now you will have your own intuitions about that view, but my interest is in how you could test the idea that a thousand small cuts do add up. A classic experiment on the way race affects our interactions shows not only the myriad ways in which race can affect how we treat people, but shows in a clever way that even the most privileged of us would suffer if we were all subjected to subtle discrimination.

In the early 1970s, a team led by Carl Word at Princeton University recruited white students for an experiment they were told was about assessing the quality of job candidates. Unbeknown to them, the experiment was really about how they treated the supposed job candidates, and whether this was different based on whether they were white or black.

Despite believing their task was to find the best candidate, the white recruits treated candidates differently based on their race – sitting further away from them, and displaying fewer signs of engagement such as making eye-contact or leaning in during conversation. Follow-up work more recently has shown that this is still true, and that these nonverbal signs of friendliness weren’t related to their explicit attitudes, so operate independently from the participants’ avowed beliefs about race and racism.

So far the the Princeton experiment probably doesn’t tell anyone who has been treated differently because of their race anything they didn’t know from painful experience. The black candidates in this experiment were treated less well than the white candidates, not just in the nonverbal signals the interviewers gave off, but they were given 25% less time during the interviews on average as well. This alone would be an injustice, but how big a disadvantage is it to be treated like this?

Word’s second experiment gives us a handle on this. After collecting these measurements of nonverbal behaviour the research team recruited some new volunteers and trained them to react in the manner of the original experimental subjects. That is, they were trained to treat interview candidates as the original participants had treated white candidates: making eye contact, smiling, sitting closer, allowing them to speak for longer. And they were also trained to produce the treatment the black candidates received: less eye contact, fewer smiles and so on. All candidates were to be treated politely and fairly, with only the nonverbal cues varying.

Next, the researchers recruited more white Princeton undergraduates to play the role of job candidates, and they were randomly assigned to be nonverbally treated like the white candidates in the first experiment, or like the black candidates.

The results allow us to see the self-fulfilling prophesy of discrimination. The candidates who received the “black” nonverbal signals delivered a worse interview performance, as rated by independent judges. They made far more speech errors, in the form of hesitations, stutters, mistakes and incomplete sentences, and they chose to sit further away from the interviewer following a mid-interview interruption which caused them to retake their chairs.

It isn’t hard to see that in a winner-takes-all situation like a job interview, such differences could be enough to lose you a job opportunity. What’s remarkable is that the participants’ performance had been harmed by nonverbal differences of the kind that many of us might produce without intending or realising. Furthermore, the effect was seen in students from Princeton University, one of the world’s elite universities. If even a white, privileged elite suffer under this treatment we might expect even larger effects for people who don’t walk into high-pressure situations with those advantages.

Experiments like these don’t offer the whole truth about discrimination. Problems like racism are patterned by so much more than individual attitudes, and often supported by explicit prejudice as well as subtle prejudice. Racism will affect candidates before, during and after job interviews in many more ways than I’ve described. What this work does show is one way in which, even with good intentions, people’s reactions to minority groups can have powerful effects. Small differences can add up.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

An inner beauty of neurosurgery

The New York Times has an excellent profile of British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh that manages to be an indiscreet but humane look at the medic now famous for his autobiography Do No Harm

It follows Marsh as he operates with colleagues in Albania and recounts both his work and personal style. It is written by the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård and reads like downbeat gonzo journalism that hits some perfect notes along the way.

Could Marsh, this brilliant neurosurgeon, be troubled by a constant need to call attention to himself? Weren’t his extraordinary qualities, so obvious to everyone around him, fixed securely in his own image of himself?

I thought of what he said the night before, about keeping the wolf from the door. I had thought he meant something big. But perhaps, to the contrary, it was something very small?

I looked at him, there at the end of the table, seated at the place of honor, his strong fingers distractedly holding the stem of his wineglass as he talked, the round spectacles in his round, lined face, the lively eyes, which, as soon as he stopped talking, turned mournful.

I would also recommend an interview with Marsh in this week’s edition of BBC Hardtalk where he expands beyond his views on brain surgery to discuss healthcare in general. Well worth a listen.

Link to NYT article ‘The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery’
Link to stream / podcast of BBC interview.

Laughter as a window on the infant mind

What makes a baby laugh? The answer might reveal a lot about the making of our minds, says Tom Stafford.

What makes babies laugh? It sounds like one of the most fun questions a researcher could investigate, but there’s a serious scientific reason why Caspar Addyman wants to find out.

He’s not the first to ask this question. Darwin studied laughter in his infant son, and Freud formed a theory that our tendency to laugh originates in a sense of superiority. So we take pleasure at seeing another’s suffering – slapstick style pratfalls and accidents being good examples – because it isn’t us.

The great psychologist of human development, Jean Piaget, thought that babies’ laughter could be used to see into their minds. If you laugh, you must ‘get the joke’ to some degree – a good joke is balanced in between being completely unexpected and confusing and being predictable and boring. Studying when babies laugh might therefore be a great way of gaining insight into how they understand the world, he reasoned. But although he proposed this in the 1940s, this idea remains to be properly tested. Despite the fact that some very famous investigators have studied the topic, it has been neglected by modern psychology.

Addyman, of Birkbeck, University of London, is out to change that. He believes we can use laughter to get at exactly how infants understand the world. He’s completed the world’s largest and most comprehensive survey of what makes babies laugh, presenting his initial results at the International Conference on Infant Studies, Berlin, last year. Via his website he surveyed more than 1000 parents from around the world, asking them questions about when, where and why their babies laugh.The results are – like the research topic – heart-warming. A baby’s first smile comes at about six weeks, their first laugh at about three and a half months (although some took three times as long to laugh, so don’t worry if your baby hasn’t cracked its first cackle just yet). Peekaboo is a sure-fire favourite for making babies laugh (for a variety of reasons I’ve written about here), but tickling is the single most reported reason that babies laugh.

Importantly, from the very first chuckle, the survey responses show that babies are laughing with other people, and at what they do. The mere physical sensation of something being ticklish isn’t enough. Nor is it enough to see something disappear or appear suddenly. It’s only funny when an adult makes these things happen for the baby. This shows that way before babies walk, or talk, they – and their laughter – are social. If you tickle a baby they apparently laugh because you are tickling them, not just because they are being tickled.

What’s more, babies don’t tend to laugh at people falling over. They are far more likely to laugh when they fall over, rather than someone else, or when other people are happy, rather than when they are sad or unpleasantly surprised. From these results, Freud’s theory (which, in any case, was developed based on clinical interviews with adults, rather than any rigorous formal study of actual children) – looks dead wrong.

Although parents report that boy babies laugh slightly more than girl babies, both genders find mummy and daddy equally funny.

Addyman continues to collect data, and hopes that as the results become clearer he’ll be able to use his analysis to show how laughter tracks babies’ developing understanding of the world – how surprise gives way to anticipation, for example, as their ability to remember objects comes online.

Despite the scientific potential, baby laughter is, as a research topic, “strangely neglected”, according to Addyman. Part of the reason is the difficulty of making babies laugh reliably in the lab, although he plans to tackle this in the next phase of the project. But partly the topic has been neglected, he says, because it isn’t viewed as a subject for ‘proper’ science to look into. This is a prejudice Addyman hopes to overturn – for him, the study of laughter is certainly no joke.

This is my BBC Future column from Tuesday. The original is here. If you are a parent you can contribute to the science of how babies develop at Dr Addyman’s (specialising in laughter) or at (which covers humour as well as other topics).

Compulsory well-being: An interview with Will Davies

The UK government’s use of psychology has suddenly become controversial. They have promised to put psychologists into job centres “to provide integrated employment and mental health support to claimants with common mental health conditions” but with the potential threat of having assistance removed if people do not attend treatment.

It has been criticised as ‘treating unemployment as a mental problem’ or an attempt to ‘psychologically reprogramme the unemployed’ and has triggered an upcoming march on a London job centre.

Will Davies is a political scientist and the author of the new book The Happiness Industry that looks at the history and practice of positive psychology as government and ‘well-being’ as a way of managing people.

We caught up with him to get some background on the recent controversy.

Is this use of psychology in social policy a quick fix or part of a broader trend?

There is a long history of using psychological techniques in order to encourage work or boost productivity. In my book, I trace this right back to the 1920s, when industrial psychologists first started to study the attitudes and emotions of people in the workplace, with a view to understanding how people could be more committed to work. Some of this was born out of a fear of socialism or trade union organising, i.e. that unhappy workers might rebel against business in some way.

But I also think something shifted fundamentally in the 1990s, as economists started to look at psychological survey data, and the field of ‘happiness economics’ took off. Economists were struggling to understand why unemployment sometimes remained high, even during times of economic growth. And one thing they began to realise was that unemployment causes types of psychological harm (namely depression) that can leave people unable to work, or unable to seek work. From an economist’s perspective, it stands to reason that the efficient course of action would therefore be to design a policy instrument that could alleviate this psychological problem. This is exactly what Richard Layard believed he had found, when he met the psychologist David Clark, who preached the virtues of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to him.

Layard studied the evidence on CBT in the mid-2000s, and quickly put together a ‘business case’ (of the sort the Treasury needs to see, if it is to endorse any new public spending) for why it was an efficient use of public money, given its apparent success in getting people off benefits of various kinds. Of course, this strongly economistic approach to psychology also has various risks attached to it, one of which is that everything becomes viewed in a highly instrumentalised way, which is precisely what there is now a backlash against.

A lot of the protests have centred on the idea that unemployed people might be coerced into psychological treatment with threats of having their benefits removed if they don’t attend but all over the world companies and individuals are voluntarily signing up to ‘happiness technologies’ that claim to be able to monitor and improve people’s contentment. Taking the coercive aspect away, isn’t this is a positive development in terms of also valuing people as emotional beings – rather than simply cogs in an economic system?

The problem here is that ‘happiness’ is becoming conceived in a heavily reductionist way. There tend to be two main types of reduction at play here.

Firstly, ‘happiness’ is viewed in roughly the way that neo-classical economists have viewed it, as the driver of consumer choices. Happiness economists may well be interested in broader notions of flourishing or life satisfaction than this, but the market research world has become fixated on positive emotions purely in the hope that they can be targeted by advertising or branding campaigns. Since the late 1990s, with the influence of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, ’emotions’ have been the hottest research topic in the world of market research.

Secondly, ‘happiness’ is viewed in some biological, most often neurological, sense, as a physical occurence in the body. The claim that it’s now possible to see emotions via fMRI or physical symptoms (such as muscular reflexes or pulse rate) is no doubt grounded in credible scientific research, but before long, you reach the point where experts are speaking about emotions in ways that entirely bi-passes the voice of the person who is experiencing them. Philosophically, this is nonsense, for the simple reason that words like ‘happiness’ or ‘sadness’ can only make sense, to the extent that we can both witness them in others and describe them in ourselves. Behaviorist approaches to emotion ignore this.

Put these two agendas together, and you have an emerging industry of psychological surveillance, which purports to collect objective data about our feelings, and then commercialises it. The way in which digital health companies and technologies (such as wearables) are also offering consumer research or HR services is indicative of this new fusion between economic and physiological methods. All the while, our everyday articulations of ‘happiness’, ‘anger’, ‘joy’ or ‘despair’ are being ignored as ‘unscientific’. Businesses and policy-makers are so obsessed with tracking and measuring emotion, that they’re losing the capacity to listen to and understand it.

Of course, a lot of wellbeing data is collected in less clandestine, more analogue ways than this. Surveys are still the main basis for the field of happiness economics and ‘national wellbeing’ indicators. But this could change over time. One of the slightly perturbing trends amidst all of this is that a lot of this data collection is happening ostensibly for our own benefit, and yet it still happens without us necessarily granting permission. It’s not typically malicious or punitive surveillance (in an Orwellian sense), yet there’s still something creepy about it. Several of the companies above (including Affectiva) were founded to serve medical needs, but then subtly shifted towards more business-oriented applications, once they received venture capital. They start with the goal of increasing wellbeing… but gradually shift to the goal of maximising profit. This is a trend worth keeping an eye on.

An “emerging industry of psychological surveillance” sounds ominous. Can you give some examples?

Firstly there are those which focus on our physical bodies in various way. Companies such as Affectiva and Realeyes seek to monitor emotions through facial scanning, and offer services to market research companies amongst others. It is rare (though not unheard of) for these technologies to be used without the consent of those being monitored, and consumer groups are mobilising against intrusive uses of such technologies. Wearable technologies, such as Fitbit and Apple Watch, are marketed as devices which benefit the wearer, through greater self-knowledge.

But there are emerging cases of employers making it mandatory to wear them, or health insurers offering lower premiums to those that wear them, because of the data they can gather about behaviour, stress and wellbeing. Humanyze is a company that seeks to track employee activity (including emotions) using wearable technology, while Virgin Pulse is an HR service that includes various tools (including wearable technologies) to keep track of an employee’s state of mind and health.

Secondly, there are ways of calculating emotional variations through our use of language. The field of ‘sentiment analysis’ involves teaching computers to recognise the emotions conveyed in a sentence, and can be put to use to monitor the general happiness level of twitter users, for example, or the spread of emotions amongst facebook users. It is also integral to social media-based market research, or the ‘people analytics’ used by employers to look at employee performance via analysis of email traffic. One company, Beyond Verbal, offers indications of emotion based on tone of voice when on the phone. This has various commercial applications.

The sociologist Nikolas Rose has charted how governments increasingly see individual psychology as part of their governmental responsibility. What role do the psychologists, mental health workers and the like, have in affecting this trend?

We have to be wary of exaggerating the powers of governments and businesses in this area. A lot of my book – like the work of Nikolas Rose on this topic– implicitly looks at the goals, measurement tools and strategies that policy-makers and managers have at their disposal. However, these can seem more effective (and potentially more sinister) than how things work in practice. One thing that sociologists such as Rose have stressed is that the process of ‘translation’ between a public policy (such as tackling depression in job centres) and the actual front-line intervention is long and tortuous, and there are various individuals and institutions along the way that can divert and subvert it, for better or worse.

Professionals working in psychiatry, clinical psychology and psychotherapy retain some power to influence how things play out. Since the 1970s, more quantitative, positivist traditions have come to the fore, which grant less autonomy to professional judgement, and rely more on things like questionnaires and standardised metrics. Naturally, that means that expertise potentially becomes more amenable to governmental co-option. And yet, especially in an area like mental health, the success or failure of a policy is ultimately in the hands of someone providing the care or the listening. It’s not clear that something like IAPT can succeed, even by its own yardstick, if it becomes ever-more integrated into the pursuit of ‘efficiency’ and benefit cuts.

Speaking as an outsider, it seems to me that there is still further scope for the ‘psy’ disciplines to offer coordinated alternatives, which aren’t merely resistant, but offer new policies across society. At present, government policy is driven by an economic rationality, combined with a reductionist, behaviorist notion of mental health. This approach is guilty of both over-medicalising social problems and over-economising policy solutions. A critical bio-psycho-social alternative should have things to say, not only about mental health services or welfare, but about the damage wrought elsewhere in society.

Look at our schools, for example: there is a crisis of stress and anxiety amongst teachers while pupils are suffering the mental strains of constant examination, no doubt justified on the back of some nonsense about Britain being in a ‘global race’. If politicians are serious about the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing, and don’t want those phenomena to be simply manufactured in a mechanised fashion, then the psy disciplines and professions might want to develop some blueprints for how labour markets or companies should be governed on that basis. I remain sceptical as to whether policy-makers do conceive of psychology as anything other than an economistic route to ‘behavior change’, but lets find out.

You can follow Will Davies on Twitter as @davies_will. There are more details of his book The Happiness Industry here.

John Nash has left the building

CC Licensed photo from Wikipedia. Click for source.So goodbye John Nash, brilliant mathematician and beautiful mind, who has sadly just passed away after being involved in a taxi crash with his wife.

Nash was famous for many things, but was probably most well-known for being the subject of the biopic A Beautiful Mind – an Oscar-winning production that sugar-coated the details although mainly stayed true to spirit of Nash’s remarkable story.

Outside of the mainstream media Nash is best known for his work on partial differential equations and game theory – and it is this latter development which has had the biggest impact on society.

Nash won the Nobel prize for developing the Nash equilibrium which is the point in an ongoing interaction (the ‘game’ in ‘game theory’) where everyone has nothing to gain by changing their current strategy.

In Adam Curtis’s documentary series The Trap, Curtis famously argues that Nash’s ideas on game theory were taken up by the radical Sixties psychiatrist R.D. Laing who modelled the family as a self-interested struggle in game theory terms.

It’s a neat idea – Laing’s conflict-ridden model of the family was driven by the paranoid ideas of a man who became psychotic – but there’s not much weight behind it.

Laing certainly did describe the family as conflict-ridden and used game theoretic ideas to describe these interactions, in his book Sanity, Madness and the Family, but Curtis seems to have been wrong about the influence of Nash.

Laing drew on Gregory Bateson’s idea of a ‘double bind’ where two conflicting forms of communicated demand are placed on a family member which, according to Bateson, could lead to psychosis as people are forced to come up with an ‘alternative reality’ that satisfies the incompatible requests.

We now know this is wrong but it was influential at the time and set the scene for wider investigations into family life and how it affects people with psychosis which proved genuinely useful.

But reading these theories, what is most surprising is how Nash’s work isn’t mentioned.

Bateson was in regular contact with game theory pioneers like Norbert Weiner and John von Neumann who would have clearly known about Nash’s discoveries, but Nash is not referenced in either Bateson’s or R.D. Laing’s key works.

I find it unlikely that neither knew about John Nash, not least because he had published papers in very well known journals.

It is possible, however, that neither knew about Nash’s mental health, as Nash had begun to become unwell in 1959 and Sanity, Madness and the Family was published five years later, so perhaps the news about Nash’s psychosis had not filtered through.

But it is also possible that they were aware of what had happened to Nash, and opted to avoid his ideas precisely because he was thought to have become unwell.

Either way, it was a missed opportunity, because the idea of a Nash equilibrium makes perfect sense in terms of arriving at an unhelpful stalemate where no individual can seem to make a positive change – exactly what Laing was describing in families.

Fast forward 50 years, and Nash’s ideas finally have begun to have an impact on the science of psychopathology. After A Beautiful Mind was released, based on Sylvia Nasar’s earlier biography, studies emerged applying game theory and the Nash equilibrium to understanding the psychology and neuroscience of schizophrenia.

After revolutionising economics, social science and mathematics, Nash’s ideas are starting to have an influence on the science of psychosis. A form of intellectual closure, perhaps, that Nash appreciated more than most.

Link to excellent obituary in The New York Times.

Five minutes with Carolyn Mair

CMairI’ve often seen people on the web who advertise themselves as ‘fashion psychologists’ who say they can ‘match clothes to your personality’. I’ve always rolled my eyes and moved on.

So I was fascinated to meet Carolyn Mair, a cognitive scientist who did her PhD in perceptual cognition, who now leads a psychology programme at the world-renowned London College of Fashion.

They are doing rigorous psychology as it applies to fashion, clothes and the beauty industry and I asked her to speak to Mind Hacks about herself and her work.

Can you say a little about your background?
My first job was as a ‘commercial artist’ (now graphic designer). Alongside this I made a reasonable income from painting portraits and murals. I then moved to Australia for two years where I worked in a cake shop/bakery where I was able to decorate cakes for special occasions. On returning to the UK, I became a mother and continued painting portraits and murals and also began to design and sell children’s clothes as well as cakes.

During this time, I studied on the BSc Applied Psychology and Computing at Bournemouth University in 1992 and then the MSc Research Methods Psychology at Portsmouth University in 1995. I was asked to do a PhD in Computational Neuroscience, a very young discipline in 1999, investigating the ‘binding problem’; specifically short-term visual memory. During this period I spent three months at the centre of Cognitive Neuroscience at SISSA in Trieste which dramatically changed the direction of my thesis from computational to cognitive neuroscience. I completed my postdoc in the Department for Information Science, Computing and Maths at Brunel University and then took up a Senior Lectureship at Southampton Solent University. I left there in 2012 to join London College of Fashion as Subject Director Psychology.

How did you get into the psychology of fashion?
I love fashion! I started making clothes for myself when I was 13 years old and for others during my teens and again when I had children. Following a chance meeting at a conference in 2011, I was asked to give a paper on psychology and fashion at London College of Fashion. I was then invited back to discuss how psychology could be introduced at Masters level. A role was created, I applied and was successful. I have since developed the world’s first Masters programmes, an MA and MSc, to apply psychology to or, in the context of, fashion.

Why does fashion need psychology?
Fashion is about perception, attention, memory, creativity and communication; it involves reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving and social interaction. Fashion is psychology! Although it has been interpreted anecdotally in psychological terms for centuries, applying psychology to fashion as a scientific endeavour is very new.

Psychology matters beyond what our clothes say about us. People are involved in every aspect of fashion from design, though production, manufacture, advertising and marketing, visual merchandising, retail, consumption and disposal. Taking a scientific approach enables us to derive a more meaningful understanding of behaviour related to fashion and therefore to predict and ultimately change behaviour for the better. We know that within one second of seeing another person, we decide how attractive they are, whether we like them and what sort of characteristics they possess. In addition, what we wear can affect our mood and confidence, and interestingly, what we believe about what we are wearing influences our cognitive performance.

However, the ultimate impact and value of applying psychology to fashion goes beyond what we wear. The fashion industry is an important global industry which employs millions of people worldwide and ultimately involves us all. Since the 60s, the fashion industry has promoted a very narrow stereotype of ‘beauty’ which has now become the ‘norm’ through the ubiquity of web and mobile technology. With the increase in exposure to such images, comes an increase in body dissatisfaction across the lifespan. This brings multiple behavioural issues which can be addressed by psychologists.

In addition, psychologists can challenge the status quo and promote a more inclusive and diverse representation of what is ‘beautiful’ by demonstrating the benefits such an approach would bring. The narrow stereotype of beauty is reinforced through the multibillion pound cosmetic industry. The repercussions of this can be seen in the increase in demand for cosmetic surgery and other interventions many of which are conducted by unqualified practitioners on vulnerable individuals. The impact of such practice is yet to be fully realised, but psychologists are concerned at the lack of regulations that currently exist.

The fashion industry has a poor reputation in terms of the environment and sustainability. In fact, sustainable fashion can be considered an oxymoron. However, it is possible to have a sustainable fashion industry which considers the environment and consumers who care more about what they buy and in doing so buy less. Working alongside fashion professionals, the role of psychology in addressing these issues is education.

When I started applying psychology to fashion, I was determined not be a ‘wardrobe therapist’ or a ‘fashion psychologist’. I am often asked to write about what a particular garment or accessory says about the wearer, for example do glasses suggest intelligence or what does a politician’s fashion style say about him or her? My typical response is that deriving deep meaning from a single ‘snapshot’ is unrealistic as it’s more complex than that! I have been surprised about the demand for this sort of information and think the time is right for developing this new sub-discipline of psychology that has the potential to do good at individual, societal and community levels.

Fashion is a multibillion global industry which employs millions of people worldwide. As a result it affects, and is affected by the intricacies, fallibilities and fragility of human behaviour. In addition to those impacted by fashion as employer; fashion influences its consumers at all levels. Even if we consider ourselves not interested in fashion per se, we all wear clothes! Until recently, the scientific study of psychology applied in the context of fashion has been neglected. This important area, which affects billions worldwide, is in obvious need of investigation.

Name three under-rated things
Looking healthy as opposed to looking young
Getting older
Chilling out

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.

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