The Science of Sexism

Leigh Nicholson is just not that into you.

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A recently published study by psychologist Mons Bendixen, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, explains why men constantly think women are flirting with them.  The paper observed 308 straight Norwegian students and found that men mostly over-perceived women to be flirting, while women under-perceived when men were flirting.  The study’s explanation for this is that from an evolutionary standpoint, men probably over-perceive most of the time because they will have a greater chance of finding a mate, and women under-perceive because they have to be sure it’s the right mate.

By mimicking an earlier American study, Bendixen tried to divorce his field of inquiry from sociopolitical factors. When he received similar results, he attributed them solely to evolutionary causes. His reasoning for this was that Norway has a comparatively high level of gender equality across different facets of its society. “The pattern of misperception for women and men was largely invariant across studies…the findings suggest that cross-national differences in the level of gender inequality do not influence reports of sexual over and under perception”.

One of the main problems with this assumption is that the levels of ‘gender equality’ which Bendixen cited in Norway, such as free education and paid maternity leave, do not account for differences in socialisation.  There have been a heap of studies which show that women are taught from an earlier age, and more frequently than men, to be nice and polite.  This is why the excuse of “I have a boyfriend” is usually used in lieu of “I’m not into you”; men have an undeniable sense of “misplaced entitlement” over women’s bodies. A purely evolutionary explanation overlooks the possibility that men thinking women are flirting with them all the time is the product of women being taught to be ‘polite’ and men’s learned entitlement to women’s bodies and conversation.  And this could have been explained quite easily had the psychologist in question contemplated other social theories.

Besides neglecting to take into account socialised forms of inequality, researchers also err because they usually don’t collaborate  and rarely take into consideration impacts outside of their area of interest.  University research is split into different disciplines with little to no communication between departments.  Even within disciplines, the laboratories are split into subgroups, with different groups often prevented from collaborating due to a lack of funding or simply academic contentions.  Despite there being this weird, and often dangerous, contempt and divide between the ‘sciences’ and ‘social sciences’, the need for collaboration extends into these fields as well.

There are still many studies which try to argue that evolution is the primary cause of behaviour X.  The problem with having a hypothesis taking into account only evolutionary causes is that psychology is no different from any other scientific field. In a society such as ours, where there are so many different social, cultural and religious factors in play, it is impossible to disentangle someone’s behaviour from these elements and attribute it primarily to their species.  You can do this with some physical actions, sure, such as the fight or flight response (sweating or shaking in response to a threat) or even getting wrinkly fingers in water (which increases your ability to grip things that are wet).  But behaviour is not that simple.

Whether evolutionary psychologists like it or not, society has fucked with “natural selection”.  We don’t abide by the same laws that Darwin spoke about.  Our peripheral vision is not designed to enable us to drive cars, but it still aids us in doing so.

Our ‘evolutionary history’ would tell us to avoid fucking people with bad eyesight, but people in glasses are sexy as hell. Attempting to explain a modern behaviour and only taking into consideration our cave-dwelling ancestors seems pretty unevolved to me.