Author Archives: dschelly

Gender, spiders, and media

090908_spiderOf the literally thousands of scientific journal articles published every month, only a select few receive media attention. From among the new research, the BBC recently chose to report on an infant study claiming a disproportionate fear of spiders among women.

The study reportedly showed 20 babies—10 boy and 10 girl—pictures of spiders paired with happy versus fearful human faces. The girls “looked longer” at the picture of the spider/happy face, evidently showing “that the young girls were confused as to why someone would be happy” when paired with a spider.

The BBC follows the leap of the researcher to conclude that evolutionary biology determines that women (who were “natural child protectors”) are more likely to be afraid of animals.

Notwithstanding the alleged evolutionary implications (some research has linked phobias to nurture, rather than nature), research has shown links between gender stereotypes and media content. A study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology even revealed measurable effects on cognition from exposure to stereotyped commercials.

It’s frightening, to say the least, that behavior might be related to gender stereotypes. While doubtful that pre-arachniphobe females will read the BBC article, existing gender stereotypes are still reinforced, while all of those other scientific articles remain unnoticed.

Gender bias in track and chess

090825Caster_SemenyaLast week an emerging track star became the focus of an international scandal. After 18-year-old Caster Semenya won the 800 meter world championships final by more than two seconds, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced the South African athlete was being required to undergo a gender determination test.

Apparently the South African improved her personal best time by seven seconds this year. After being cleared of doping, gender testing was the next “sensible” step, said I.A.A.F. spokesman Nick Davies. 

Two finalists shared the suspicion. The New York Times reported the Italian Elisa Cusma as saying, “These kind of people should not run with us.” Mariya Savinova, the fifth place finisher from Russia, agreed: “Just look at her.”

A recent study on gender reported an odd, but related, stereotype among women chess players. In on-line games, women who are aware their opponents are male play worse than if they believe their opponents are female, notwithstanding ability levels. 

Of course, gender tests are highly problematic: “Humans like categories neat,” said Alice Dreger to the New York Times, “but nature is a slob.” This didn’t stop Cusma from saying, as if to illegitimatize the track win, “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Perhaps Cusma would have finished higher than sixth if she had not suspected she was racing a man.

Cubicle-phobia in the 21st century

cubicleThere is nothing new about a concern for losing touch with nature. “When we get piled upon one another in large cities,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to Uriah Forest, “we shall become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another as they do there” (p. 479 in J.P. Boyd (Ed.) The papers of Thomas Jefferson). Cannibalism or not, Europe seems to be doing just fine.

Yet New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently took a break from Darfur and wrote two get-back-to-nature pieces. The first is a report on Richard Louv’s book detailing “nature-deficit disorder,” which along with obesity and autism is what Louv suggests will happen to kids who are stuck indoors. Kristof’s second piece describes “how to pry yourself and your family off the keyboard and venture into the wild.”

The implications of needing access to nature are rather unpleasant. Namely, those who recreate the most are white and middle- to upper-class – the same people who can both afford to hike and camp (“Try the ‘ultralight’ gear,” suggests Kristof), and who have the means and leisure to leave the city.

Nevertheless, some wilderness lovers both praise the essentialness of their experiences, and account for why they sleep under a tent while a guy in Philadelphia sleeps under an overpass. Attribution theory explains how people link the outcome of having access to nature (and others’ lack of access) to internal rather than external attributes. Kristof’s how-to guide is meant to give people the extra motivation for that trip to nature. And rather than because of structural conditions, Louv suggests a major reason children stay away from nature is fear.

Kristof’s how-to guide is said to be for readers who responded to the first article, “Camping in the woods sounds gloriously refreshing! But I wouldn’t know where to begin, and, ugh, what if I get eaten by a bear?”