Cheating Hearts in a Gendered World–Is It All Evolutionary

This is a brief note that might seem like it’s wandering a bit far afield.  I’ll do my best to tie it in.  

I came across this article in yesterday’s NYT.  (It was in the Style Section, which is one of my favorites.)  It reports on a study conducted by Jamie Confer (a graduate student in psychology) and her father, Mark Cloud (a professor of psychology).   They surveyed 700 college students and concluded that:

 “a man is more than twice as likely to continue dating a woman if she has cheated on him with another woman than if she has cheated on him with another man.”

Assuming the finding is sound, the question is what does it tell us.  

The explanation that Ms. Confer used (at least according to the article) seems to be rooted in evolutionary psychology:  

“Ms. Confer said that because men’s paternity is threatened by a heterosexual affair, they’re more likely to object to such transgressions.”

In other words, men’s reactions are shaped by their evolutionary drive to ensure the continuation of their genetic line.   If a woman has sex with another woman there’s no risk that they’ll be left raising that woman’s genetic offspring.  But if a woman has sex with another man, then the offspring they raise might be genetically his and not their own. 

Now there’s a lot of evolutionary psychology (EP) explanations out there these days and it seems to me that this ties in with out current fascination with DNA.   So, for example, I understand the argument that DNA should be the (sole?) determinant of parenthood to be at least in part rooted in the notion that there’s reason to think that those who are genetically related will be particularly good parents and this in turn seems to me to be consonant with arguments about evolutionary psychology.  Essentially we’ll take better care of genetically related offspring than kids who we are not genetically related to because that is what we are evolutionarily predisposed to do.  

It’s in that context the NYT article was interesting to me.   After reporting the study and noting the evolutionary psychology explanation for the disparate results for men, the article turns to the results of the same study for women. 

“Meanwhile, a woman was slightly more likely to stick with a man if he’d cheated on her with another woman: her likelihood of standing by her man was 28 percent, and only 21 percent if he had had homosexual sex.”

This might seem to run counter to the result you’d predict from EP.      While Confer does offer a possible explanation, it’s at this point that the article takes a different turn.   Lisa Diamond, yet another psychologist who was not, it seems, involved in the original study suggests a totally different way of looking at both bits of data:

men see a woman sleeping with another woman as “maybe a Katy Perry thing” and not all that threatening, whereas women see a man’s having sex with another man as proof, in her mind, that “You’re gay.”

“This is a great example of the way in which it doesn’t make sense to test evolutionary psychology principles with contemporary college students,” said Dr. Diamond, when asked to comment on the findings. “The much more plausible explanation has to do with what contemporary men and women think of contemporary sexual orientation.”

This is surely outside of my field of expertise, but it seems to me to be a fascinating example of how little bits of evidence can be viewed in radically different ways and therefore seem to support fairly disparate conclusions.   A study that might be portrayed as supporting EP can be recast as one that has nothing to do with EP.   (And vice versa.)  Which means it may end up as nothing more than an interesting little factoid.   

I actually think you could do very much the same thing with much of the evidence offered to support EP.  Perhaps all it goes to show is that you tend to find what you are looking for.


2 responses to “Cheating Hearts in a Gendered World–Is It All Evolutionary

  1. I would like to think us men are so evolved that we would tolerate an infidelity so as to preserve the continuation of our genetic line. Sadly, I think there is a more rudimentary explanation but I am looking forward to reading the entire study.

  2. Agree with Dr. Diamond on EP. EP is very sexy nowadays; point to any phonomena and you’ll have people inventing some EP explanation to justify it. Say “oops I really meant” and give them the exact opposite and they’ll come up with another EP explanation.
    EP- there’s some clear science to it but is largely speculative.

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