A few thoughts on evolutionary psychology, being aware of our biases, and casual sex


A recent talk by Rebecca Watson has been sparking a bit of controversy. Though it’s not particularly related to interfaith work or atheism, it’s a topic I have some background in. So to contribute a bit to the discussion, I thought I’d be a bit self-indulgent and talk about some cool science.

Ed Clint says Rebecca’s talk is science denialism, and though I disagree with that assessment, he makes a few points that I appreciate: first, that sciences can’t be judged by their interpretations in the popular press (otherwise I’d distance myself from neuroscience like whoa), and second, that evolutionary psychology as a research program is going to be validated by the predictions it makes. Personally, I’m interested in human behavior. I don’t necessarily care if whatever feature of whatever process came from such-and-such evolutionary pressure unless that knowledge can make some novel prediction that we can go out and test.

That being said, I liked Rebecca’s talk. I’m frustrated by a lot of pop psychology, and I think there is a legitimate critique that Rebecca made quite well—media accounts of psychology research, and some psychology research itself, seriously propagate sexist attitudes. And even though I think science should strive for ideological neutrality, I support feminist critiques of science because science isn’t ideologically neutral. Contrary voices and different perspectives can help us strive towards a more objective science—especially since a lot of research is biased with the prejudices of its day, and sexism is no exception.

I wish Rebecca would have stuck her talk to those topics, instead of overreaching to criticize evolutionary psychology writ large. I think I’m going to stay out of the broader discussion on what Rebecca’s talk got wrong or right, or what makes good research in evolutionary psychology, though. If you’re interested, a lot of pixels have already been rendered on the topic: Stephanie Zvan defended Rebecca, James Croft wrote about reading and writing responsibly, and John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts has some great theoretical posts on evolutionary psychology that should be required reading for anyone interested in the topic.

There was one specific part of Rebecca’s talk that I want to focus on, though. At around the 23 minute mark, she discusses a famous study where researchers recruited attractive men and women to approach strangers to proposition them for sex. They recorded whether the strangers accepted, and the results weren’t particularly surprising to many people: about 70% of men agreed and, to the laughter of many introductory psychology classes since, every single woman declined. This study has been generally robust cross-culturally and is often used to justify innate sex-differences in preference for casual sex.

Though Rebecca notes that she’s not a scientist, she goes ahead and points out a few potential reasons for the gender difference—namely the women might feel unsafe. The original authors of the study actually echoed this, and noted a few more explanations of these data:

Of course, the sociological interpretation—that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex—is not the only possible interpretation of these data. It may be, of course, that both men and women were equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation than did women. Men may be more confident of their ability to fight back a physical assault than are women. Also the remnants of a double standard may make women afraid to accept the man’s invitation.

Recent research by Terri Conley, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, explored why men and women responded differently to offers of casual sex. At the beginning, she points out such an obvious confound in the original study that I’m amazed I never realized it—the gender of the person being propositioned always co-varies with the gender of the person making the proposition. That is to say, the logic of the conclusion that men prefer casual sex more than women only really holds if propositions between both genders are interpreted in the same way. But if, as Rebecca suggests, men are perceived to be more dangerous (or sexually awkward, or emotionally cold) then the logic of the standard interpretation falls apart.

That’s exactly what Conley found. She demonstrated through a series of studies that men who approach women in the day-time to ask them for casual sex were perceived as less sexually skilled and more dangerous than women who do the same. No surprises there. She also surveyed men and women asking them about casual sex offers in their past—she found that, though men were more likely to accept than women in naturalistic settings (about 70 percent vs. 40 percent, respectively), whether men or women agreed was predicted by how sexually skilled the proposer was perceived to be. That is to say, women are turning down more offers of casual sex than men, but only because they seem to worry that they might be in danger, or that the sex won’t be a good time for them.

Conley also asked both men and women to imagine a casual sex offer from an attractive celebrity (Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp for women, Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Lopez for men) and unattractive celebrities (Donald Trump and Roseanne Barr, respectively). There was no significant difference between willingness to accept across both genders. Even more so, this study helped dismiss the simplistic notion that men want casual sex with young, fertile women, and women want a committed relationship with a high-status man—women were just as willing to reject an offer from Donald Trump as they were from a random attractive stranger, and men were just as likely to accept a proposition from Christie Brinkley, a former model nearly in her sixties, as they were from Angelina Jolie.

There were a few more conditions that further support the idea that most people have sex because it’s fun, and avoid it when it won’t be. Not only is Conley’s study a great, methodologically careful paper, but I think it’s a really great instance of good evolutionary psychology, too: she lays out a few models, works out what predictions they would make, then tests them. I encourage any interested readers to check out this in-depth analysis of the study by Yes means Yes, because there’s a lot to the study and I can’t do it justice here.

This just goes to show that there are a lot of biases and assumptions that work their way into science and science interpretation. Anything we can do to minimize this is not only good for society, but good for science, too.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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