9 Sep 2009

Why Women Are Really Afraid of Psychologists

Last week's news coverage of a would-be psychologist's proof that women are 'genetically predisposed to be socially conditioned in certain ways', aka to be afraid of spiders, while men are less likely to fear spiders, has to be the most depressing thing ever. EVER. Here are some highlights from the Sky News coverage.

Why Women are Really Afraid of Sexist Spiders

Psychologist Dr David Rakison from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University tested 10 girls and 10 boys, all aged 11-months, with pictures of spiders to see how they reacted. He showed them images of a spider next to a fearful cartoon face and a spider next to a happy face. Dr Rakison's report, published in the New Scientist, states that the girls looked at the picture containing a happy face for longer than the scared one. However, the boys looked at both images for an equal amount of time.

He concluded that the girls found the happy face puzzling as they were expecting to see the spider paired with a frightened face.The psychologist said these tests show that girls have a genetic predispostion to fear the arachnids in contrast with boys who do not ... He linked the difference in results to our hunter-gatherer ancestry when he says women had to be wary of dangerous animals to protect their children, whereas men used more risky behaviour in order to be successful hunters.

Let's ignore the obvious - that 20 individuals tested is not representative of ANYTHING - and have a little look that Dr. Rakison's conclusions.

Firstly, I must ask, why didn't they monitor the amount of time the girls looked at the image of the spider? I had to delete the tarantula image from the article just to write this blogpost! There's every chance that they just enjoyed looking at the happy face. People are cute like that.

Or perhaps the girls, by the age of four, have learnt that spiders are often frightening, and were intrigued by the mixed messages being sent by scientists. This would have nothing to do with their innate predisposition for fear, more to do with their enhanced sensitivity to social mores in the abstract, which the silly (or 'indifferent') boys lack.

Another technical problem with the research is that Rakison doesn't seem to have used a control. In this case, I imagine an image of something innocuous like a circle or triangle next to a happy then scared face would demonstrate whether the amount of time the children looked at the image had anything to do with their enjoyment of the expressions thereon, or sheer confusion of the object and expression being put together.

Rakison's 'social' conclusions don't make sense either. I'm sure any mother would willingly mash a spider or fling a snake out the cave door to save her precious little ones. Otherwise she'd have to stand on a boulder or something squealing until a Manny Man came home, by which time the kids would all be dead.

More convincingly, maybe women in this day and age are allowed to indulge their fears more in infancy, and are encouraged to take delight in the attention of others (a nasty tarantula on my pretty pink dress, eek!) whereas men are encouraged to overcome them in shows of bravado. Social construction of gender anyone? Oh nevermind.

Anyway, none of these musings on the sexism of spiders matter anyway because


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