Published December 5, 2013

It is always sad, during this, the holiday season, which fills our lives with joy and love, to see people get as angry as some did because of one particular article in the October issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Andrew Galperin and colleagues’ paper entitled, “Sexual Regret: Evidence for Evolved Sex Differences” drew on three samples, and investigated what people regret when it comes to prior sexual behavior. Putting it very roughly, more men regret that they didn’t and more women regret that they did. In the words of the authors:

… women reported more numerous and more intensely felt sexual action regrets than men did, particularly regrets involving ‘‘casual’’ sex …  men reported more numerous and stronger sexual inaction regrets than women did, particularly regrets involving failure to engage in casual sex or the pursuit of a relationship that delayed sexual activity or precluded better sexual opportunities

Erin Gloria Ryan was, it seems, not amused. She wrote about the work in a piece entitled: “Women Are Hard Wired To Feel Bad About Being Sluts, Says Suspect Study.” In typical fashion from my experiences reading Jezebel, the piece opens with some false, hysterical claims, including that substitute for good writing, ALL CAPS to make her point emphatic. She writes: “A new study claims that women are HARD WIRED (sic) regret casual sex whereas men are HARD WIRED to think random sex is great.”

While Galperin et al. do motivate their work with an evolutionary approach, neither the word “hard” nor the word “wired” appear anywhere in the piece. Further, the authors explicitly acknowledge that there are “social factors that might moderate or exacerbate evolved dispositions in each sex to regret certain sexual experiences.” My sense is that this idea is the sort of thing that the author of the piece favors, given what I take to be her favored explanation, which is that “… civilizations place high value on controlling female sexuality and humans are social creatures with an aversion to ostracization.” I’m not quite sure how feeling regret saves someone from ostracism—or ostracization, as Ryan would have it, but in any case, the venom in Ryan’s piece seems to have invited similar tones from the people who commented on her brief remarks, which comments included the usual name-calling, epithets, and use of ALL CAPS for emphasis. One writer seems to have taken Ryan at her word that the authors of the study used the term “hard wired,” writing:

Besides the fact that this “study” is a bunch of misogynist evolutionary psychology bullshit, I also really hate the phrase “hard wired.”

Other comments strike similar tones, with some inexplicable animated gifs thrown in for good measure, including Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and I think Rita Hayworth.

What is clear from the Ryan piece is that she’s very upset about the work. She’s not the only one. Amanda Hess at The XX Factor at Slate also wrote a piece about the paper, saying that “the reasoning employed here is primitive, at best” and ended her article with these provocative remarks:

A study of the sex lives of 200 college students can’t actually tell us anything about how our early ancestors shacked up, and vice versa. It could, however, speak to the masturbatory tendencies of some scientists.

From the last sentence, alluding to the behavior of the scholars as opposed to the ideas, it seems that Hess is sufficiently angry not to worry about getting personal, never mind worrying about understating the full sample size by 24,625.

A third person irritated by the work is Jon Marks, who posted the following remark on a Facebook site called BioAnthropology News: “Another argument for barring psychologists from talking about human evolution.” Marks is so miffed he wants to gag the members of a whole field. When asked to explain this rather strong position for silencing his fellow members of the academy, he explained this way:

Humans are the products of their evolutionary and cultural history. Taking a psychological snapshot of this population in the here and now affords no valid inferences about the origin of whatever results you find. Further, given the troubled history of the Universal Generalization in human evolutionary studies, serious students of the subject tend to be more circumspect. Hope that helps

I’m afraid that this explanation doesn’t help me much, but, passing on, Eric Michael Johnson commented on the post, remarking that it “sounds WEIRD,” and linked to his piece in Scientific American. In that piece, Johnson wrote:

The fact that empirical differences exist on identical psychological studies when replicated cross-culturally should make evolutionary researchers take caution (especially Evolutionary Psychologists who are most guilty of essentializing these studies)

To put this in context, I might note that there is a second article in the very same issue of Archives, by Rammsayer and Troche. This article analyzed the data from “156 male and 136 female undergraduate psychology students ranging in age from19 to 30 years.” The dependent measures were a series of self-report measures. These measures asked subjects about both their attitudes and their own behaviors.

So, as you can tell, not only did the research similarly use self-report data—something that Ryan fumed about—but the sample was far more narrow and far smaller than the Galperin et al. article’s sample.

The methodological criticisms that are invoked are really just smoke screens for the real reason that critics don’t like the papers. If their concerns were with the samples, then they would not be fretting so heavily over evolutionary psychology, which actually does better in drawing broader samples than the relevant comparison discipline.

Now, it’s true that UCLA issued a press release for the latter study, while as far as I know there was no release for the other one. Perhaps Ryan, Hess and Marks would froth as much over the Rammsayer and Troche piece as they did over the Galperin et al. piece.

For some reason, I doubt it. But I hope they don’t read it, against the chance that reading another article reporting data about human sexual behavior makes them even angrier. After all, ‘tis the season of peace and love.

References

Galperin, A., Haselton, M. G., Frederick, D. A., Poore, J., von Hippel, W., Buss, D. M., & Gonzaga, G. C. (2013). Sexual Regret: Evidence for Evolved Sex Differences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(7), 1145-1161

Rammsayer, T. H., & Troche, S. J. (2013). The Relationship Between Sociosexuality and Aspects of Body Image in Men and Women: A Structural Equation Modeling Approach. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(7), 1173-1179.

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