Category: Gender

Reduced neural empathy for women wearing revealing clothes

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The participants watched women being rejected in a ball-passing game (the black blocks over their eyes did not appear in the actual study); from Cogoni et al 2018

By Christian Jarrett

Any context that encourages us to focus on a person’s body, more than their mind, is said to lead to objectification, such as when, in a previous era, a Formula One fan looked upon an attractive “grid girl” dressed in revealing clothes.

Perhaps the most serious concern about objectification is that it can lead us to disregard the rights and experiences of the objectified person. For instance, past research has shown that we’re more inclined to blame a rape victim depicted in a bikini, and more willing to (hypothetically) administer painful tablets to men and women shown wearing swim wear, rather than fully clothed.

Now a study in Cortex has taken things further by showing that volunteers’ empathy-related brain activity was diminished when they saw an objectified woman suffering social rejection, as compared with a woman who wasn’t objectified.

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Finding withdrawn after major author correction: “Sex differences in human brain structure are already apparent at one month of age”

Update: Today, 15 March 2018, the authors of the research reported below have alerted us to a major correction to their analyses: read their full correction. In short, the sex differences in regional brain volumes in one-month-old infants were no longer statistically significant after controlling for sex differences in total brain volume. Much of our discussion below is now nullified because it pertained to results that were not in fact obtained.

By Alex Fradera

On average, men and women differ psychologically in small but reliable ways, such as in personality, interests, and cognitive performance, but the basis of these differences is up for debate. Are they innate or due to how we’re socialised?

Neuroscientists look for traction on this question by studying sex differences in the brain, premised on the idea that these might contribute to the observed psychological differences. However, studying the brains of adults, or even teenagers, still leads to spinning wheels, because culturally produced differences will show up in the brain too. But how about one-month old infants, the subjects of a paper published in the journal Brain Structure and Function?  Since birth, babies at this age have spent most of their time sleeping and suckling with limited eyesight, so profound socialisation effects aren’t going to be a factor. And yet, the new findings reveal that sex differences in a number of brain areas are already apparent.

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Most children and teens with gender dysphoria also have multiple other psychological issues

GettyImages-811322022.jpgBy Alex Fradera

New research on gender identity disorder (also known as gender dysphoria, in which a person does not identify with their biological sex) questions how best to handle the condition when it arises in children and adolescents. Should biological treatments be used as early as possible to help a young client transition, or is caution required, in case of complicating psychological issues?

Melanie Bechard of the University of Toronto and her colleagues examined the prevalence of “psychosocial and psychological vulnerabilities” in 50 child and teen cases of gender dysphoria, and writing in a recent issue of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, they argue their findings show that physicians should be considering these factors more seriously when deciding on a treatment plan. Salting the situation, one of the paper’s co-authors is Kenneth Zucker, an expert on gender dysphoria who was last year considered too controversial for Canadian state television.

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Men and women interpret the sexual intent behind dating behaviours very differently

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Men tend to overestimate the sexual intent behind women’s behaviours on a date

By Alex Fradera

Imagine you’re out one evening with someone you met recently – you take your date’s hand in yours, or compliment your date’s appearance, or you kiss him or her passionately. For each behaviour, how likely is it that you wanted to have sex with that person for the first time? Researchers have put this question to heterosexual women, then they’ve asked men how they would interpret a woman’s intentions if she had behaved in these ways. The contrast in their answers is striking: men judge woman’s sexual intent as much higher than women do.

We could conclude from this that men read sex into situations where it isn’t there. But another explanation could be that men aren’t far off – it’s just that women under-report their true intentions. Which is closer to the truth? And what about men’s own sexual intentions – do women get those right?

In a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involving hundreds of US participants recruited online, Isabelle Engeler from IESE Business School and Priya Raghubir at New York University shine some light on the different ways men and women interpret the same dating behaviours.

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Reverse “stereotype threat” – women chess players perform better against men than against other women

GettyImages-103660991.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Stereotype threat is one of those social psychology concepts that has managed to break out of the academic world and into everyday conversation: the idea that a fear of conforming to stereotypes – for example, that girls struggle at maths – can make those stereotypes self-fulfilling, thanks to the adverse effect of anxiety and excessive self-consciousness on performance.

A recent review suggested that stereotype threat has a robust but small-to-medium sized effect on performance, but a meta-analysis suggests that publication bias may be a problem in this literature, inflating the apparent size of the effect. Also, the majority of the work has been done under laboratory conditions, which may not reflect what happens in the wider world. So when a field study comes along, it’s worth paying attention to, and a paper published as a pre-print at PsyArXiv from Tom Stafford at the University of Sheffield looks at a domain involving high pressure, clear success criteria, and a presupposition that’s it’s more a guy thing: chess.

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The Psychology of Sex Differences – 5 Revealing Insights From Our Primate Cousins

By Christian Jarrett

There are behavioural differences, on average, between the sexes – few would dispute that. Where the debate rages is over how much these differences are the result of social pressures versus being rooted in our biology (the answer often is that there is a complex interaction between the two).

For example, when differences are observed between girls and boys, such as in preferences for play, one possibility is that this is partly or wholly because of the contrasting ways that girls and boys are influenced by their peers, parents and other adults (because of the ideas they have about how the sexes ought to behave). Studying non-human primates allows us to identity sex differences in behavior that can’t be due to human culture and gender beliefs.

Learning more about the biological roots of behavioural sex differences should not be used as an excuse for harmful stereotyping or discrimination, but it can help us better understand our human nature and the part that evolved sex differences play in some of the most important issues that affect our lives, including around diversity, relationships, mental health, crime and education.

Earlier this year, as part of a special issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research – titled “An Issue Whose Time Has Come: Sex/Gender Influences on Nervous System Function” – Elizabeth Lonsdorf at Franklin and Marshall College published a useful mini-review detailing some of the sex differences observed among monkey and ape infants and juveniles.

“Many sex differences in behavioral development exist in nonhuman primates,” she writes, “despite a comparative lack of sex-biased treatment by mothers and other social partners”. Here is a digested account of five of these behavioural sex differences:   

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Women know better than men what other women are thinking and feeling

By Emma Young

If you want to know what a woman is really thinking, ask another woman. That’s the message of a new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, which was designed to probe our ability to use other people’s posture, facial expressions and behaviours, as well our interpretations of ambiguous statements, to infer what’s going on in their mind – no matter what they’re actually saying.

The research team, led by Renata Wacker at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, recruited 304 women and 241 men, ranging in age from 17 to 70. The volunteers were put through possibly the most irritating – though potentially clinically useful – movie-watching experience imaginable.

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How short-term increases in testosterone change men’s thinking style

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Competitive situations or the presence of attractive potential mates can lead to the short-term testosterone increases that were the focus of the new research

By Emma Young

The hot-headed “macho man”, who acts first and thinks later, has long been popular in movies. Now there’s psychological evidence to support it. A new study in the Psychological Science finds that a short-term rise in testosterone – as might occur when in the presence of an attractive potential mate, or during competition – shifts the way men think, encouraging them to rely on quick, intuitive, and generally less accurate, judgements, rather than engaging in careful, more deliberate thought.

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Trans men show unusual connectivity patterns in brain networks involved in self perception

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Photographic stimuli from the “body morph” task that was used in the new research

By Christian Jarrett

Most brain imaging studies involving transgender people or people with gender dysphoria have focused on whether their brains look more like what’s typical for the gender they identify with, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth based on their biological sex. For example, whether trans men have “masculine” brains, and trans women have more “feminine” brains.

The results have been mixed and if anything point towards trans people having brains with distinct features that are neither stereotypically male or female.

A new study in Brain Imaging and Behaviour adds to this trend, showing that trans men have unusual patterns of connectivity in brain networks involved in processing of the self, as compared with male and female controls. “The present data do not support the hypothesis that sexual differentiation of the brain of individuals with gender dysphoria is in the opposite direction as their sex assigned at birth,” the researchers said, adding that the unusual connectivity patterns they found in trans men “was detected in comparison with both male and female controls, and there were no differences between the control groups”.

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Why pink LEGO might be bad for girls (but we’re not convinced)

GettyImages-681325218.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

While the idea that the lack of women in science and tech is entirely about cultural obstacles is contentious (as demonstrated by the recent Google memo furore), few would argue that social and cultural factors aren’t important. And these social influences may begin early. For example there’s an argument that boys are encouraged to play with toys that are likely to promote skills that will help them in science and maths. Toys aimed at girls, in contrast, are more likely to promote stereotypically feminine skills, such as nurturing.

LEGO, say Megan Fulcher and Amy Hayes, the authors of a new paper in the journal Sex Roles, is a case in point: its marketing is skewed towards boys, especially since the increase in packaged sets, which tend to feature stereotypically masculine items like pirate ships and castles. The result, they argue, is that boys are more attracted to LEGO, girls deterred from it, and that boys get to practice their building skills while girls don’t.

LEGO has heard some of this criticism (and no doubt also seen a gap in the market) and they’ve released girl-friendly packaged sets and product lines, including Friends items with a focus on people and including pink bricks. But Fulcher and Hayes – who very much speak from the nurture perspective on these issues (they fail to cite a single study demonstrating a biological basis for sex differences in toy preference) – fear this could be counterproductive because girlie bricks and sets are likely to promote more stereotypically feminine LEGO play and remind girls of their gender. To find out if their concerns are justified the researchers tested the LEGO building skills and choices of 116 girls and boys (aged 5 to 10) depending on whether they were given boyish LEGO bricks and packages or girlie ones.

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