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The more feminine you appear, the more children you will want

Wednesday, November 9, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

Or as blogger Scicurious puts it: “it must be science”. Yes. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. And this time, we turn to the science bloggers for a reaction to some new research. The article abstract begins with this sentence: “Previous studies have shown that women with higher maternal tendencies are shorter and have lower testosterone levels than those with lower maternal tendencies.” This is a cue for the attentive reader that these writers are evolutionary psychologists.

What these researchers did was track levels of estrogen in women for four weeks after asking them how many children they wanted. And they found that women who had a desire for a greater number of children had both higher levels of estrogen and higher ratings of facial femininity. [They present photos that are judged ‘high maternal’ faces and ‘low maternal’ faces.] So. If you look more feminine facially—it only follows that you will want more children.  Or does it?

And the science bloggers pounced! What about context? What about both context and variation?  Thank you science bloggers. While evolutionary studies are often interesting and often can be amusing, they almost always fail to take context and variation into account.

Like attorneys (and sometimes consultants) who opine that “women are better for the plaintiff” or “gay black men are more likable”, we need to open our thoughts and consider variation and context—what we call “case facts” and the role that attitudes, values, beliefs, and cultural context play in the individual and collective reactions to our case narrative. Don’t take the shortcut of judging by appearance:

“That woman is a career woman who will value accomplishment over family and that woman is a woman who wants children—I can see it in their faces.”

Because you will be wrong as often as you are right. Both women in general, and your client deserve better.

Law Smith MJ, Deady DK, Moore FR, Jones BC, Cornwell RE, Stirrat M, Lawson JF, Feinberg DR, & Perrett DI (2011). Maternal tendencies in women are associated with estrogen levels and facial femininity. Hormones and behavior PMID: 21983237

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