Gene Expression

Do women fear mixed-race children?

I have pointed before to dating research which shows a stronger race-bias from women than men, correcting for physical appearance. In other words, if a man found a woman attractive the extra bonus for being of the same race was relatively marginal compared to the inverse. Well, it seems that this strong element of race-consciousness in the fairer sex might manifest in an even more evolutionarily relevant context. Race Bias Tracks Conception Risk Across the Menstrual Cycle:

Although a considerable body of research explores alterations in women’s mating-relevant preferences across the menstrual cycle, investigators have yet to examine the potential for the menstrual cycle to influence intergroup attitudes.We examined the effects of changes in conception risk across the menstrual cycle on intergroup bias and found that increased conception risk was positively associated with several measures of race bias. This association was particularly strong when perceived vulnerability to sexual coercion was high. Our findings highlight the potential for hypotheses informed by an evolutionary perspective to generate new knowledge about current social problems–an avenue that may lead to new predictions in the study of intergroup relations.

In the paper they’re specifically looking at white women and their reactions to white vs. black men. Here’s a figure which illustrates the dependence of race bias on menstrual cycle:

i-d27c4a14cd30585cc5f4c651be53f17f-racebias.png

The authors aren’t hypothesizing that there’s a “race module” which emerged in the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness. Rather, they posit among ancient hunter-gatherers intergroup conflict led to a heightened awareness of the Other due to possible danger. And it isn’t as if the necessity of this awareness disappeared with the rise of agriculture or even in modern societies. Humans seem to have a strong tendency toward “groupishness,” and physical characteristics coded as race were a natural candidate for this sort of reasoning once intercontinental travel made it more common that different physical types would interact regularly (and groupishness is probably not bad by the way, it is one way around the coordination problem, and so may allow for social complexity).

One can imagine for various reasons that women, especially fertile women, would be more fearfully aware of these intergroups dynamics when meeting at alien man than when a man meets an alien woman. We all know the stories about the traditions of kidnapping women in many societies to procure wives; Genghis Khan’s mother was stolen by his father when she was a newlywed with another man. From a “rational” perspective men would have less to fear from alien women, and in fact perhaps they would see an “opportunity.” Consider the Australian imam who labelled women subject to sex attacks by Lebanese gangs as “uncovered meat”. Additionally, in pre-modern societies the systematic genocide of other peoples was often accompanied by an exception clause which allowed for the assimilation of fertile females by the conquerors as concubines. Here’s a famous passage from the Bible:

31:15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?

31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.

31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.

31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

H/T Robin Hanson.

Comments

  1. #1 Charles Iliya Krempeaux
    February 13, 2010

    It would be interesting to see if the same trend holds when the women is not of the dominant “group” in the population.

    For example, what trend do you see with Chinese women who grew up among whites, and in a population where whites are the dominant group in the population?

  2. #2 Mylasticus
    February 13, 2010

    I’ve often heard women disparagingly remark on men’s reluctance to ask strangers for directions. But I wonder if that’s also a survival strategy. It’s less dangerous to approach strangers than it is to stay lost if you’re a man. As a woman, you will see if your theorized preconceived bias will be borne out, but at least you’ll live. Men? Not so much.

  3. #3 Ruchira
    February 14, 2010

    The title would probably read better as : Do Women Fear For Their Mixed Race Children?

  4. #4 Sharon Astyk
    February 14, 2010

    By that reasoning, Mylasticus, women have learned “ok, I may get raped repeatedly, see my husband and male children put to the sword and, if they only want virgins, get murdered myself, but there’s a chance I might live, so hey, let’s ask directions.”

    Ok.

    Sharon, who also thinks this was a poorly titled post

  5. #5 Nanonymous
    February 14, 2010

    So according to the authors of this paper the only thing that changes depending on a position in menstrual cycle is probability of conception. And then based on this assumption and not even considering any other factors, the authors present a stereotypical just-so story.

    All the correlations reported are weak. It is equally possible that in these 77 psychology students what really varied depending on the position in menstrual cycle is their inclination to lie about them being completely unbiased racially. Around the time of ovulation (that’s the peak of racial bias in this paper) the girls may experience mood swings and be less in control of their emotions. Also, their “racial bias” curve seems to parallels nicely changes in estradiol concentration. Estraiol is basically a psychotropic compound.

  6. #6 Mylasticus
    February 14, 2010

    @Sharon: I hadn’t thought of it that way. Maybe you’re right.

  7. #7 miko
    February 15, 2010

    Nano brings up a good point, there are no controls on the effect of menstrual cycle on, for example, the ability to get the desired outcome (“I’m not racist”) on an IAT, or general IAT performance related to attention for that matter. Or a dozen other possible cognitive/emotional correlations of menstrual cycle…they treat is as a single variable called “conception risk,” as if that’s all that is different.

    I know psychologists are somehow able to proudly present correlations of 0.25 with p=.05 with a straight face, not sure how–they are like market researchers in that respect. The only convincing correlation with the menstrual cycle (or “conception risk) in the table is with “fear of out-group males,” in which they explicitly asked how “scary” each male was. Does asking whites how scary black men are in the US really test “out-groups?” Or test something special about the modern US and its history?

    Finally, I think in most primates females do mate with out-group males. Particularly in small groups, this is expected. Where would the chronic, long term adaptive pressure to not do so come from in hominid history?

    All they tested was fear of violence in a particular, racially-charged social context and how it varies with hormone levels.

  8. #8 Gary
    February 15, 2010

    I am disappointed that the discussion seems to focus on the political correctness of the implications and attempt to discover some way to escape it. It would appear that we can no more control the described reaction than we might control the digestion of cooked starch or whether we feel warm after exercise.

    General distrust of “those not like us” has been with us since the dawn of time and for good reason; why should we be surprised that, as animals, this has not left us within the least 100 years?

  9. #9 Nanonymous
    February 15, 2010

    @Gary:

    Look, it’s not about political correctness. It seems pretty obvious that xenophobia must be at least partially hard-wired. But a lousy paper is still a lousy paper, regardless of whether it tries to support this intuitively obvious notion or not. There is a trend there – a priori sensible ideas of evolutionary biology tend to be supported by flimsy evidence.

    BTW, the “results” presented in that paper imply that on average this set of white college girls is completely racially unbiased (the area below zero is approximately the same as the area above). Do you really believe that?

  10. #10 Nanonymous
    February 15, 2010

    A big oops:
    sensible ideas of evolutionary biology tend to be supported by flimsy evidence.

    “evolutionary psychology” of course!

  11. #11 Martin R
    February 16, 2010

    Another way to interpret the results is this. The white-skinned women under study are always somewhat afraid of dark-skinned men for cultural and class-related reasons. And when at their point of maximum fertility in the oestrus cycle they are more afraid of everything they usually find scary.

  12. #12 miko
    February 16, 2010

    @Gary: General distrust of Others is undoubtedly a human trait, and a broadly mammalian one. That is not what this paper is claiming–it is making much more specific claims, which are poorly supported by their experimental design and results. Scientific correctness, not political, is the driver of these criticisms.

  13. #13 Dave
    February 17, 2010

    Miko,

    “I know psychologists are somehow able to proudly present correlations of 0.25 with p=.05 with a straight face, not sure how–they are like market researchers in that respect.”

    Actually the study found an aggregate correlation of of 0.45 with p=.0001.

    You are badly misrepresenting what the study is actually reporting.

    “The only convincing correlation with the menstrual cycle (or “conception risk) in the table is with ‘fear of out-group males,’ in which they explicitly asked how ‘scary’ each male was.”

    That was the strongest correlation between Conception Risk and Anti-Black Bias.

    However, 3 of the 4 other measures of Anti-Black Bias had statistically significant correlations with Conception Risk, and the chances of getting that many P Values below .05 from so few tries is very small.

    “Does asking whites how scary black men are in the US really test ‘out-groups?’ Or test something special about the modern US and its history?”

    The test was the RELATIVE degree of bias against Blacks, and thus even if American Women have a normally elevated aversion to Black Men it wouldn’t invalidate the results.

  14. #14 Nanonymous
    February 17, 2010

    Actually the study found an aggregate correlation of of 0.45 with p=.0001

    A textbook example of correlation inflation. That is, “race bias in mate attraction”, “fear of out-group males” and “explicit race bias” are all virtually the same thing and, coming from the same individual, they violate assumption of independence. It is highly improper to aggregated them this way.

    I think we need a law that every paper prepared for publication in social or clinical sciences has to have a statistician assigned as a co-author. (That would probably negate >90% of the “results” obtained so far but as far as I am concerned, it’s a good thing).

  15. #15 miko
    February 17, 2010

    “The test was the RELATIVE degree of bias against Blacks, and thus even if American Women have a normally elevated aversion to Black Men it wouldn’t invalidate the results.”

    Right, and it’s relative the every single thing that varies throughout a menstrual cycle, not just “conception risk.” So if you already have an socially-grounded emotional aversion to, say, photographs of black men, this might be stronger or weaker depending on what hormones your brain is bathing in. That doesn’t mean that’s what those hormones are FOR.

    I referred to individual correlations that to me were both weak and of marginal statistical significance (which is not the same thing as “real” or “relevant”).

    I did point out the result I thought was a reasonably strong finding, but I questioned their stupid pop-EP interpretation and assumption-laden design.

    And no, getting several marginally significant results does make each individual marginally significant result stronger.

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