Tag Archives: biology

That’s Fishy: From Scent to Suspicion and Back

Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue.  In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy.  Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.

Thanks to an email from USC professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects.  These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality.  So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).

Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect.  They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious.  It did!

Asked to participate in a fake study on whether they’d be willing to invest money in a scheme, subjects who were exposed to a fishy smell invested less than those exposed to no smell and less than those exposed to another icky smell that was “metaphorically irrelevant”: fart.

From sensory perception to psychological state.  Boom.

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Lee and Schwarz were also interested in the reverse process.  Did being suspicious increase the likelihood that they would identify a fishy smell as fishy.  Sometimes smells can be hard to figure out, but when people are primed with the answer, they are more likely to get it right.  Would the metaphorical effect work in the other direction: from psychological state to sensory perception?

They asked another group of subjects to sniff five different vials and attempt to label each smell.  Half the time, they induced suspiciousness by having the experimenter say: “Obviously, it’s a very simple task and, you know, there’s . . . there’s nothing we’re trying to hide here.”  The experimented would then spot a document on the table, whisk it away nervously and repeat:

Sorry, it shouldn’t have been there. But . . . ahem . . . anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, it’s all very simple. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide or anything.

Did subjects induced to be suspicious identify the fishy smell correctly more often?  Yep!

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This is a fun literature, but it has serious implications.  It reveals that the associations we have in our minds impact how we perceive the world and each other.

Sociologists believe that essentially all of life is socially constructed, meaning that we collectively learn and internalize arbitrary connections between things: like being male and computing or being black and athleticism.  These connections literally structure our brain, such that thinking about one is likely to trigger thoughts of the other.

Fishy and suspicious are connected in our minds and, so, when we are exposed to one, we are more likely to experience the other.  In other cultures, Lee and Schwarz point out, it is not fishiness, but other smells that are associated with suspicion.  These things are not natural or universal, but they drive our perceptions nonetheless.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

“Black and White Twins” and the Social Construction of Race

Flashback Friday.

This remarkable newspaper article illustrates how skin color (which is real) gets translated into categorical racial categories (which are not).  The children in the images below — Kian and Remee Hodgson – are fraternal twins born to two bi-racial parents:

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The story attempts to explain the biology:

Skin colour is believed to be determined by up to seven different genes working together. If a woman is of mixed race, her eggs will usually contain a mixture of genes coding for both black and white skin. Similarly, a man of mixed race will have a variety of different genes in his sperm. When these eggs and sperm come together, they will create a baby of mixed race.  But, very occasionally, the egg or sperm might contain genes coding for one skin colour. If both the egg and sperm contain all white genes, the baby will be white. And if both contain just the versions necessary for black skin, the baby will be black.

Fair enough.

But then the journalist makes a logical leap from biological determinants of skin color to racial categories. Referring now to genes for skin color as “black” and “white” genes, she writes: “Baby Kian must have inherited the black genes from both sides of the family, whilst Remee inherited the white ones.”  And, of course, while both children are, technically, mixed race*, the headline to the story, “Black and White Twins,” presents them as separate races.

We’re so committed to racial differences that the mother actually speaks about their similarities as if it is surprising that twins of different “races” could possibly have anything in common.  She says:

There are some similarities between them. They both love apples and grapes, and their favourite television programme is Teletubbies.”

This is also a nice example of a U.S.-specific racial logic. This might not have been a story in Brazil at all, where racial categories are determined more by color alone and less by who your parents are.  It is not uncommon there to have siblings of various racial designations.

The twins, by the way, are seven now.

* Of course, identifying them as mixed race also re-inscribes racial categories in that you must believe in two or more racial categories to believe that it is possible to mix them.

Originally posted in 2008.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Concern for Equality Linked to Logic, Not Emotion

A new study finds that people with high “justice sensitivity” are using logic, not emotions.  Subjects were put in a fMRI machine, one that measures ongoing brain activity and shown videos of people acting kindly or cruelly toward a homeless person.

Some respondents reacted more strongly than others — hence the high versus low justice sensitivity — and an analysis of the high sensitivity individuals’ brain activity showed that they were processing the images in the parts of the brain where logic and rationality live.   “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven,” explained one of the scientists, “Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

So, no:

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Activists aren’t angry, they reasonably object to unjust circumstances that they understand all too well.

Image borrowed from Jamie Keiles at Teenagerie, who is a high sensitivity individual.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

That’s “Heavy”: The Mind-Body-Metaphor Connection

Last year I was tickled to write about a cool study showing that, if a person grows up with a language that writes from left to right, then numerical estimates of things like weight or height will, on average, be smaller when a person is imperceptibly and unknowingly leaning to the left.  Seriously, it’s awesomely fun research and you can read about it here.

Today I have the equally fun pleasure of sharing a research study on weight and importance.  It turns out that, when people are holding something heavy, they will report an issue to be more serious, compared to when they are holding something lighter.

Some examples come from a set of studies by psychologist Nils Jostmann and colleagues.

  • In the first study, European participants were asked to guess the value of various foreign currency in euros.  Some were given a heavy clipboard on which to mark their estimates, and others a light clipboard.  Those who held the light clipboard estimated, on average, lesser values.
  • In a second study, subjects were asked to estimate the importance of college students having a voice in a decision-making process involving grants to study abroad.  Participants with the heavy clipboard felt that it was more important for students to have a voice.
  • In a third, subjects were asked to report whether they liked their city after reading a biography of the mayor and indicating how the felt about him.  If they carried the heavy clipboard, there was a relationship between their estimation of the mayor and that of the city, but not if they carried a light clipboard.  In this case, the importance of their feelings about the mayor weighed heavier on their evaluation of the city if the clipboard was heavy.

What is driving these findings?

In English, and several other languages as well, weight is used as metaphor to signify importance.  The authors hypothesized that this abstraction can be triggered by concrete experiences of weight, like holding something heavy.  They call this “embodied cognition.”  Our thinking is affected by the connection between our bodies, their relationship with objects, and metaphors in our minds.

Another nail in the Descartian mind-body dualism coffin.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Wanna Be in the NBA? It Helps to Grow Up Rich

Part of what makes professional basketball appealing, for kids who love to play as well as fans, is the idea that a person can come from humble beginnings and become a star.  The players on the court, the narrative goes, are ones who rose to fame as a result of incredible dedication and extraordinary talent.  Basketball, then, is a way out of poverty, a true equal opportunity sport that affirms what we think America is all about.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz crunched the numbers to find out if the equal opportunity story was true.   Analyzing the economic background of NBA players, he found that growing up in a wealthy neighborhood (the top 40% of household incomes) is a “major, positive predictor” for success in professional basketball.  Black players are also less likely than the general black male population to have been born to a young or single mother.  So, class privilege is an advantage for pro ball players, just like it is elsewhere in our economy.

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The richest Black men, then, are most likely to end up in the NBA, followed by those in the bottom 20% of neighborhoods by income.  Middle class black men may, like many middle class white men, see college as a more secure route to a successful future.  Research shows that poor black men often see sports as a more realistic route out of poverty than college (and they may not be wrong).  This also helps explain why Jews dominated professional basketball in the first half of the 1900s.

LeBron James was right, then, when he said, “I’m LeBron James. From Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I am not even supposed to be here.”  The final phrase disrupts our mythology about professional basketball: that being poor isn’t an obstacle if one has talent and drive.  But, as Stephens-Davidowitz reminds us, “[a]nyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him.”

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Blood of Carrie: A Feminist Review of the Re-Make

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.”

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Screenshot_1Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order — as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.

While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.

Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now — when 41 percent of Americans report being born again — was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.

The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters,Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers — who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening – and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation — coming into her power — which has been marred by fundamentalism.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.

When Carrie’s mother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.

Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.

Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end — as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.

None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.

If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed — but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her — and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.

Holly L. Derr, MFA, is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist FandomFor more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwoThree, and Four at the Ms. Magazine blog.

Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine.  Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

50 Years Later: Is the Birth Control Pill Patriarchy-Compliant?

If I have one thing to say about Holly Grigg-Spall’s new book, Sweetening the Pill: How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control, it’s that it brings together ideas in creative ways and comes out with conclusions that are new to me.

The book is an interrogation of the popularity of hormonal birth control in the U.S.  In one argument, Grigg-Spall begins with the fact that women’s bodies are a fraught topic. For hundreds of years, the female body has been offered as proof of women’s inferiority to men.  Feminists have had two options: (1) embrace biological difference and claim equality based on essential femaleness or (2) reject difference and claim equality based on sameness.

Largely, Grigg-Spall argues, the latter has won out as the dominant feminist strategy. Accordingly, all things uniquely female become suspect; they are possible traitors to the cause.  This includes ovulation, menstruation, and the mild mood swings that tend to accompany them (men have equivalent mood swings, by the way, they’re just daily and seasonal instead of monthly-ish).

Hormonal birth control, then, can be seen as a way to eliminate some of the things about us that make us distinctly “female.”  “Science is making us better,” the message goes.  By getting rid of our supposedly feminine frailties, “we are [supposedly] becoming better humans…”  A quick look at birth control pill advertising reveals that this goes far beyond preventing pregnancy.  Commercials frequently claim other benefits that conform to socio-cultural expectations for women: reduced PMS, clearer skin, and bigger breasts.  This Yaz commercial, for example, claims that the pill also cures acne, irritability, moodiness, anxiety, appetite, headaches, fatigue, and bloating.

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To add insult to injury, Grigg-Spall notes, advertising then frames consumption of the pill as liberation.  In this commercial for Seasonique, the pharmaceutical company positions itself as women’s answer to a mysterious oppressor.  “Who says?” is repeated a full eight times.

Others have criticized Grigg-Spall for, among other things, essentializing femaleness: utilizing  that strategy for equality that embraces women’s difference from men and asks others to do so as well.

I’m coming down on the side of “huh!?”  The Pill made an immeasurable difference for women when it was introduced as the first effective, female-controlled birth control method.  There’s no doubt about that.  Her book asks us whether our designation of The Pill as a holy pillar of women’s equality still applies today.  I think it’s worth thinking about.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

A Sweet and a Sad Story of Animal Nurture

I recently across two examples of cross-species education.  Both illustrate that what we often consider instinctual must also often be learned, revealing that nature and nurture are not competitive forces, but deeply interconnected.  The first is adorable to the point of making me cry from laughter, the second is so sad I can hardly stand it.

Here’s the first.  A sheep tries to teach a young bull how to head butt.  Words don’t do justice to the care and patience shown by this teacher.

Perhaps the bull just isn’t ever going to understand, but the fact that the sheep seems to understand that the bull doesn’t understand, and then thinks of an idea of how to fix that, is amazing to me.  Presumably, he would take as much care with a young sheep who would be predispositioned for head-butting, but might still benefit from some instruction.

Here’s the second.  Remember the movie Free Willy, where the captive killer whale is freed by a little boy?  Well, in true Hollywood irony, the whale that played Willy, Keiko, wasn’t freed at the end of the movie, of course.

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After the movie was released in 1993, however, people joined in a movement to free him.  After 22 years in captivity, humans — who count as animals in this story – spent a decade and 20 million dollars trying to rehabilitate him to the wild, attempting to teach him how to feed himself and bond with wild whales.  He continued to seek out humans, even after he was left to fend for himself, and died in 2003 from pneumonia.

There are lots of lessons to take from this story.  One is the importance of nurture in making us what nature intended us to be.  Keiko was a social individual who learned how to be a captive killer whale.  Given the opportunity, he never could be the wild killer whale he once had the potential to be.  Or, at least, we’ll never know if he could.

Whenever we talk about human biological imperatives, we should remember the patient sheep and the friendly killer whale.  We need each other to become human, and we can become human in many different ways, depending on what is demanded of us.  Nature never works alone. Without each other, we simply don’t become recognizably human at all — as one of the worst cases of child neglect taught us only too well — regardless of our biological potential.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.