Today's Friday Weird Science is a synchro-blogging with the ever fabulous Kate Clancy at Context and Variation. Because when you see a paper this...special...well sometimes it takes two of us. Make sure you head over and check out her awesome coverage!
I don't know about you all, but when I do anything, I do it with my hormones. This results in issues sometimes, like when my hormones tried to take the SAT (they never can bring a #2 pencil), but I'm confident that when it comes to the voting booth in November, my estrogen will represent my interests.
Or at least, it will depending on what phase of the menstrual cycle I'm on. Otherwise I might accidentally vote for Obama or something.
Durante and Arsena. "The Fluctuating Female Vote: Politics, Religion, and the Ovulatory Cycle" To be published in Psychological Science, 2012.
No one will deny that our values and political affiliations can change over time. The question is both how and why. Do people always become more conservative as they grow older? Are changes in political affiliation due to things like higher economic status, changes in religiosity, increased education, social pressure, or other factors? Or, in the case of women, do we just vote based on how likely we are to get knocked up? I mean, that last one sounds like biology! That's got to be the best reason.
The authors of this particular study wanted to look at the idea that religious feelings and political orientation were affiliated with "reproductive goals" in women (aka, how likely your eggo is to be preggo). They administered two internet surveys, the first to 275 women, and the second to 506 women, none of whom were on hormonal contraceptives. They asked the date of the last menstrual period, the expected date of the next one, and the average length of their menstrual cycle, and using this data, divided the women up into high and low fertility groups. They asked if the women were single or in a committed relationship.
Then they asked a series of questions. The first study looked specifically at measures of religion, asking questions like " (1) “How much do you believe in God?” (Not at All – Very Much); (2) “I see myself as a religiously oriented person” (Strongly Disagree – Strongly Agree); and (3) “I believe that God or a Higher Power is responsible for my existence” (Strongly Disagree – Strongly Agree)." The authors used these questions to come up with a score of "religiosity".
What they show is that single women show lower religiosity when ovulating, while married women show higher. The authors don't really explain this data, but in the introduction they hypothesize that ovulation makes women seek out more reproductive benefits, so I guess this would mean that when you are married and ovulating, you want some from your mate because...religion, and when you are single, you want some from, well, people, because...less religion?
Anyway, on to the politics.
In the second survey, the authors asked for the same menstrual cycle data and single vs married data, and then asked political questions, dividing their questions into social and economic issues (apparently no one cares about the views of your menstrual cycle on foreign affairs).
The questions for economic issues included things like "taxation policy, corporate regulation, economic standard of living, and privatization of social security", while the social issues included things like "legalizing marijuana, equal rights, and stem cell research".
The authors found no differences with regard to economic issues based on high vs low fertility or committed vs single status (hormones don't need your dirty money, apparently). But when they came to social issues, they saw some differences.
Specifically, they saw that single women who were high fertility were more liberal, while committed women who were high fertility were less liberal.
They then asked the women in the study, if they were walking into a voting booth today, who would they vote for, and then they asked which political party they would like to receive a $1 donation.
When in the low fertility portion of the cycle, committed and single women had the same preference. But when ovulating, single women preferred Obama more, while committed women preferred Obama less.
From these studies, the authors conclude that "Women’s voting preferences were mediated by their ovulatory-induced changes in
The problems I have with this paper are many and varied. And I'm certainly not the only one. Not only should you check out Kate's post, but you should also check out the coverage at Retraction watch, which covered the story of the original CNN report of this study being taken down (sorry, CNN, the internet is forever). The study as reported by the media was sketchy enough, but once you have access to the full paper, the holes really come through.
1. Women in committed relationships were more likely to have children, more likely to be in a higher socio-economic class, and were older. The authors never controlled for these incredibly important factors in their data.
2. Let's just be clear here, Romney ain't winning with women no matter which reproductive phase they vote in. The authors state that "married women tend to vote Republican, whereas
single women tend to vote Democrat." and "They also reveal a potential reason for the female divide in the 2012
presidential election, in which single women strongly prefer the more liberal candidate, while married women prefer the more conservative candidate." I'm not sure where they get this belief, but it's certainly not from their data. "Non-ovulating" women rated about the same in measures of Liberal and voting no matter what the relationship status, only the "ovulation" status showed a difference. Even when support for Obama was at its lowest point, it was still 60% in married women who were ovulating (and over 75% in non-ovulating). At its highest in single ladies, it's at over 85% (and around 75% in non-ovulating). The first is a comfortable win and the second is a landslide. So it looks like the incumbent need not fear for the menstrual cycle on election day.
3. The authors never asked how informed any of the women were about the political views they were rating.
4. The authors rated "high fertility" as cycle days 7-14 and "low fertility" as cycle days 17-25. They cut out the menstrual period itself, and some days before and after, as well as days in between "high" and "low" fertility. They cut out over a third of the menstrual cycle. Over a third! And this is where it gets sticky because...
5. Ovulating. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
The authors start out classifying as "high fertility" and "low fertility", but then switch on over to "ovulation". And this is a mischaracterization to say the least. Most "high fertility" times of the cycle are not all that fertile, and it certainly does not mean you are ovulating. For more on this, I recommend you check out Kate's post.
6. They ask "could the hormones associated with ovulation account for some of the discrepancy between single versus married women?"
I'm not sure what that means. First off, they didn't take any hormone levels. It was an internet survey. No hormone levels. Secondly...why would the hormones associated with ovulation account for DIFFERENCES between married and single women? Wouldn't they, rather account for some of the similarities? Are they stating that estrogen and progesterone have entirely different effects on behavior due to whether or not there's a committed relationship? They can suggest that and that's fine, but there's no data to back that up, and no studies have been done on this (and certainly none that are cited). And it certainly runs contrary to much of the behavioral literature on the topic.
6. Let me repeat. The authors here say that political views differ based on ovulatory phase...but they have no proof of ovulation. It was an internet survey at a single time point (what we call a cross-sectional study). They did not take hormone levels. The likelihood of ovulation actually occurring...is much lower than you'd think. This point, and the one I am about to list below, make me think these data are mostly artifact.
7. I'll repeat again. The authors here say that political views differ based on ovulatory phase...but they do not examine the same women over time. This is a cross-sectional study, a single time point. They did not ASK any of these women whether their political views differed as a function of ovulatory phase because they did not ask them during different phases of the cycle.
8. Finally, the social beliefs that they asked about...well many of them are not exactly things that you believe in shades of grey. Certainly issues like stem cells have shades of grey that can be influenced when rating on a 1-7 scale (as required by the study), but marriage equality? This is not something you believe in, but only at, like, a 4. You either believe that 'marriage is between a man and a woman' (as stated in the survey), or you don't. And this view is very likely to have been acquired and adhered to strongly. You don't just randomly decide to not believe in gay marriage so much today. Similarly, abortion issues are something that many women have thought very deeply about, and which many hold strong issues on. You don't just suddenly start rating your pro-life beliefs as a 2 rather than a 6.
I could keep going, but I don't think I need to. The paper bases its hypotheses on assumptions about the menstrual cycle for which they have no proof and ignores some major confounds in the data. But, as Kate Clancy notes...it's not like they're doing science or anything. And what do we know? We're the ones stuck voting with our ovaries.