Curvy women smarter

and produce smarter children! Well, I guess the plus-side is the undermining of some old stereotypes about the sorts of bodies that go with brains. Worries include the fact that study is pretty darned unconvincing from what I can see: it’s all based on a correlation between high hip-waist ratio and performance on cognitive tests. But according to critics it didn’t take into account socio-economic and dietary factors that could play a role in both.*

Just for fun, though, reflect on the curviness at issue: waist-hip ratio. Now click through to see the photo chosen as illustration. (Thanks, Mr Jender!)

* I haven’t been able to read the full article. However, Eduard’s comment suggests that these critics may have been mistaken.

18 thoughts on “Curvy women smarter

  1. A diet with a reasonable amount of fat and protein is required for healthy intellectual functioning. It “keeps the brain cells well lubed”, if you will. Women who are NOT naturally built like Elle MacPherson generally tend to gain weight through the hips and thighs, and for many of us, healthy functioning vs. “thin thighs” is the “choice” that the media, etc. present us with.

    I suspect that the control group used in this study has slanted the results. It would be interesting to see a new study that compares the abilities of well fed, natural “ectomorphs” with those of women who stay slender by being cruel to themselves.

  2. I was going to write, “I can’t believe that this got funded and published.” Then I thought I’d better look up the actual article, because the science section of the BBC generally does a pretty crap job. I found this abstract (you have to be registered with the journal to get the full text).

    I can’t believe that this got funded and published. They look at what could be a really interesting mechanism linking good nutrition with intelligence… and frame it as a way of explaining heterosexual men’s presumed sexual preferences.

    I love the scientist dude at the end of the BBC article who claims that “we logically like the idea that men are interested in the waist to hip ratio”. Those are some assumptions about who “we” are, and what “logic” is!

    Question: does anybody here know of any good books or articles about the relationship between biased science journalism and biased science? I’d like a better big-picture understanding of what’s going on in cases like this.

  3. just looking at the article for 2 seconds, it looks like they controlled for SES – see table 2…

    Rachael, I am puzzled by your reaction. What’s wrong with looking at the cues that influence heterosexual human males’ and females’ attraction to others, exactly?

    There is actually a large body of research on WHP as a cue to attraction judgment in males (there are similar studies for females’ attraction as well), and while the outcome is far from clear (replicated in a range of cultures, but *not in all*; issues with the instruments used by psychologists), I see no reason to dismiss it as you do.


  4. Please. The logical gap between these two sentences:

    (1) Upper-body fat has negative effects and lower-body fat has positive effects on the supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for neurodevelopment.

    (2) Thus, waist-hip ratio (WHR), a useful proxy for the ratio of upper-body fat to lower-body fat, should predict cognitive ability in women and their offspring.

    …is so large that the entire work-product of two hundred years of neuroscience and cognitive science research could not possibly dam the leaks. (It might damn them, though.)

    Never has the word “thus” been made to bear such a load.

  5. Heather, I’m not sure I see the problem. If they had added “other things being equal” after the “thus” wouldn’t it have been ok?

    In any case, they claim in the abstract to to show that the conjecture is born out:

    These predictions are supported by data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Controlling for other correlates of cognitive ability, women with lower WHRs and their children have significantly higher cognitive test scores, and teenage mothers with lower WHRs and their children are protected from cognitive decrements associated with teen births. These findings support the idea that WHR reflects the availability of neurodevelopmental resources and thus offer a new explanation for men’s preference for low WHR.

    RB, I can’t tell if you could read the whole article, but it looks to be in part at least the sort of evolutionary psychology that is particularly interested in explaining men’s choices. Really, its point is to address the question: why do most men like low waist-hip ratio. So it’s part of the whole picture of women as the site of body characteristics and men as the ones who make the choices.

    As I read it, I was thinking of the Oct. 2 Science report on Ardi as much better because it featuress our reproductive crypsis as central in the explanation of human pairing, etc. However, I think it’s again got the picture of men actively making the choices and women passively developing characteristics. I’m not entirely sure that that’s fair, and it might be an interesting piece for someone interested in biases to study.

    I guess we’re supposed to think that God desired nature in this way: women passive, men active. I wonder if anyone has told the pope. He might be interested in an evolutionary argument for why only men can be priests. (You see, ladies, God’s view is encoded in nature and only men transform things. Since the Mass involves the great transformation ever…)

  6. I missed the last half of that. It sounds like some health food store trying to hock omega-3’s and tell their weed-eating clients that it’s okay to stay chubby or get thinner as long as they keep consuming those potions.

    It looks like the BBC is not quoting the original study, either. We all know how tabloids and mainstream newspapers alike think they’ll stay competetive by tying everything from walking your dog to painting your house in with having better sex.

  7. I could not access the full text; my university does not have a subscription to that journal.

    Edouard, the claim that men prefer women with a low WHR is not the primary thing I’m bothered by. I’m more bothered that the authors of the study could have framed it in terms of some really interesting issues, but chose instead to frame it in terms of what heterosexual men like. (Yes, the implicature there is intended.) The authors are suggesting that there’s a mechanism that affects the cognitive well-being of mothers and their children. (Assuming that “cognitive well-being” is a good name for whatever these cognitive test scores are a proxy for.) You might want to know what causes beneficial body fat distribution, whether it can be manipulated for the benefits of mothers and infants, and whether it had some effect on the survival of mothers and infants in our evolutionary past.

    And no, of course I wouldn’t want to live in one of those extremely distant possible worlds where talking about the tastes of heterosexual men (or women) is forbidden. But I would like to live in one of the closer-by possible worlds where studying and explaining the tastes of heterosexual men was not considered a super-important research priority. I understand that looking at human psychology in terms of evolution is a really cool and fruitful idea, but “evolution” is not the same as “mate choice”–there are a whole lot of other steps to survival and reproduction.

    I’m not sure it is entirely fair of me to be dismayed at this particular article: no individual article that discusses mate choice and ignores all other relevant questions is the problem. But there seem to be an awful lot of the damn things.

    Maybe I am wrong about the state of evolutionary psychology, and the proportion of articles on (hetero) mate choice is greatly exaggerated by skewed reporting. I suspect that the skewed reporting causes people to write more articles on mate choice (since it’s a way to get attention), but I haven’t really got any hard data to back up the suspicion. This is why I asked for reading recommendations.

  8. R.B., You don’t need a chi square model to confirm that studies like these are a marketing gimmick. All you need to do is look at the first few chapters of some used marketing textbooks to find the answer to that question. I took an entire year of business admin. including economics, marketing and accounting before I realized that it was the furthest thing from what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

    Marketing experts quote everything from Leon Festinger’s Dissonance theory to Abraham Maslow’s Needs Heirarchy to promote the idea that the products their salespeople are pushing “solve a problem.”

    Right now, the “sexy” field just happens to be evolutionary psychology. Marketing people also know that there are far more grocery store clerks, truck drivers and factory workers in their target groups than academics. Thousands will buy what only dozens will criticize.

  9. Xena, I’m sorry, but I have to say it is not plausible to regard this research as a marketing ploy. Their venue is a very academic journal with a small market.

    There are lots of things one might object to, but it’s important to realize that the journal they’ve picked is no where near what a professional interested in marketing is likely to choose.

  10. Rachel:

    “And no, of course I wouldn’t want to live in one of those extremely distant possible worlds where talking about the tastes of heterosexual men (or women) is forbidden. But I would like to live in one of the closer-by possible worlds where studying and explaining the tastes of heterosexual men was not considered a super-important research priority.”

    Word. Well-said!

  11. But surely if you are interested in whether there are psychological adaptations, mate choice is the first place to look at, since mate choice has an obvious huge impact on biological fitness. It is no accident that a large part of the biological behavioral research on other mammalian species has looked at mate choice.

    And similarly what you are interested in are the mate choice processes of heterosexual conspecifics, since for obvious reasons homosexual males and females have a fairly low biological fitness and have thus little influence on how populations evolve.

    That said, evolutionary psychologists have looked a bit at mate choice by homosexual males.


  12. EM, Because of human reproductive crypsis, it looks very much as though successful reproduction depends on establishing longer-term cooperative relationships. Relatedly, with humans the social setting for the infants is crucial to reproduction. The enormous importance of cooked food for human development is another complicating factor; see link below.

    So two points: It’s not clear only men make mate-choices. And, given reproductive success requires longer term relationships, the relationship between how a women looks at some point in time and reproductive success is problematic at best. By the time one gets to human beings and the need for a much more complicated social setting, the role of “a look” seems puzzling enough that one might wonder whether the fact that other close species appear to depends on looks hasn’t left us with more of a burden than benefit. That seems like heresy, but clearly human beings are left with conflicts – e.g., brain size vs. easy success in birthing.

    In short, if biology is written by people for whom a look can leave them ready for sexual intercourse, then it might well be that fact gets counted as much more decisive in the account of human reproductive success than it in fact is or could be. It might, after all, appear that it is only social conventions that hold one back, and if they weren’t there in prehistoric times, one would just go about leaping on women. And that might be right, but then one wouldn’t be as successful as other males.

    Sally H and I discuss this a bit in comments on this post.

  13. JJ: I did not say that “only men make mate-choices”, and evolutionary psychologists have been very interested in the cues made by heterosexual females in mate choice and in how male and female mate choice interact (as have been biologists working on other mammalian species).

    Whether their research is convincing or unbiased is of course another matter.

    As for the look, there is some substantial evidence that WHR correlates with fertility, so surely it is not unreasonable to assume that it is a relevant cue for males. And surely it is not implausible that looks are an important determinant in mate choice, though not the only one, obviously!

    In any case, mate choice is a complex business that might involve the (perhaps unconscious) use of a large number of cues some of which might be socially learned, some of which might be physical, etc. And which cues are used will depend on context. But all this is fairly well known stuff, even by someone like Buss.


  14. apologies for going on, but: It mightthen be that the connection between low waist-hip ration and fitness goes through maternal intelligence, and male preference is either epiphenomenal or merely one additional factor. Smart females with extra nutritional resources carried on their bodies might have been the most successful, with males’ seemingly determining selections playing a secondary role. It just makes it easier for the smart females to get their mates, but they might contrive other ways to do that.

  15. EM, my “not only men” comment was a comment on your defense of the stress on what was in fact male mate choice. We have actually commented here on some of the research on factors in female choice, so of course we are aware of some at least of the research.

    I know it seems right to include “look” in mate choice, but I think it might be good to try to rethink some of these truisms. The looks that get attention are ones that set men off fairly quickly; that’s got to be the product of our evolution, but look doesn’t play the same role in our species. At least, looks do not reveal which is the short period of fertility. In addition, we know that nature is perfectly capable of arranging for false signals.

    It’s a different picture of the main business of species survival being carried on by the bright fertile females, with the factors that attract males are mostly to get them to go along. I think the at least informal implications of explaining low hwr in terms of an answer to why men are attracted to it carries with it a contrasting picture.

    I wish at this point I knew Eliz. Lloyd’s arguments for saying that the female orgasm is a by-product and not a fitness factor. That’s research that questions what many have thought a truism.

  16. JJ, your point about “mate choice” not necessarily being the same as “speedy evaluation of physical appearance” is well-taken! (I think I ran those together in my criticism.)

  17. Thanks, Rachel. It was one way of supporting your objection. It’s an implication of crypsis that is pretty stunning; the science articles are worth reading, especially in this context the last one by lovejoy.

Comments are closed.