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Fascinating Study About Flawed but Male Stereotype-Confirming Studies

A work colleague sent out a link on a traveler’s listserv (let me know if you see any possible relevance) to the following article, accompanied by the note:

Fascinating study about men.
A study finds raging male hormones pumping up the bull-bear cycle.

A fascinating study indeed, but does it tell us more about men, or about the ease with which a single poorly conducted bit of research can so easily lead to the implementation of discriminatory anti-male policies. The New York Times article opened with:

If a research paper published earlier this year is correct, traders have become prisoners of their endocrine systems — testosterone, the elixir of male aggressiveness, during a bull market; cortisol, a steroid that helps the body deal with stress, when the bears take over.

One investment strategist intuitively grasped the situation when he recently told The New York Times:

“Normally markets are driven by fear and greed. Now it’s fear and fear.” In other words, instead of a rhythm of testosterone alternating with cortisol, it’s been cortisol and more cortisol for weeks. Actually there was a step in between — greed and greed, the bubble period. That’s when traders were making a lot of money, which made them pump out extra testosterone, grow overconfident and overcompetitive, and take on more and more risks that eventually went bust.

This seemed a fairly sweeping conclusion to explain such a complicated phenomenon, so I figured the study must be built on a firm analysis of years of data across various markets. But the study itself told a slightly different story.

The study did not take place over any long term period of bubble or bust. It took place in London, and back in April before the major economic disaster was apparent to people’s endocrine system, and the study was conducted over only a period of 8 days based on surveys of 17 people!

In fact, the researchers themselves acknowledged their research

had the further drawback of being conducted during what turned out to be a period of low volatility. Realized volatility on the Bund contract during the 2 weeks of the study was 3.45%, whereas the average for the previous 5 years was 4.75% [with a maximum of 11.76% reached in the late autumn of 2001, after September 11, 2001 (9/11), and a minimum of 1.73% reached earlier that same year]. Such low volatility makes it difficult to assess the potential size of the hormonal effects stemming from the markets.

8 days during low volatility can be extrapolated to long-term trends in periods of high volatility?

There’s also a certain tautology here, if I understand the endocrine system. Fear leads to anxiety which leads to cortisol production which tends to result in the slowing of the market through less risk taking. Greed leads to competitiveness which leads to testosterone production which leads to market build up through risky behaviour. So what market activity can’t be explained by either one or a combination of these neural chemicals? Maybe periods of relative stability, like the ones that take place most of the time where small fluctuations fail to lead to large ones as might be expected.

The study was methodologically a mess. It focused exclusively on male traders with absolutely no control group. No comparison to days with very little market fluctuation to act as a baseline. No thought to conduct a similar study on women, say by comparing large numbers of male and female investors rather then just the mostly male traders.

What about confusing correlation with causation. At least one person got it.

The New York Times articles reports Jonathan D. Cohen, director of the neuroscience program at Princeton.

“This is intriguing, but correlation is not causation,” he said. “That’s the first thing we learn in science.”

Too bad it wasn’t the first thing the researchers learned. Although it may have dawned on them when they were forced to conclude:

Cortisol was likely responding to uncertainty rather than the other way around, because the calendar of economic releases and the relative importance of the economic statistics that create the uncertainty are independent of hormones.

So they aren’t sure that it’s cortisol leading to irrational behaviour and hence uncertain markets, or rather an evolutionarily developed way of coping with intrinsic uncertainty (always of greater concern for hunters then gatherers).

Yet from one paltry study, without comparison with the effects of female hormones (yes they have them too) Dr. Coates concluded:

It’s possible that bubbles are a male phenomenon

and gave a bit of hiring advice, based on the fact that he suspected that women were less likely to produce excess cortisol:

[get] more women and older men on trading floors.

But before we tell highly educated and every bit as qualified individuals that they will be discriminated against with a new round of affirmative action simply because of their gender, perhaps a few more studies should be conducted focusing on more then 17 people for longer then 8 days. After all,Research into how this may happen is in its infancy,” admitted the same researcher that would impose such instant conclusions on the job prospects of male traders.

Maybe for example we should start by looking into whether there aren’t some advantages to all this chemistry. After all, the researches found

our results suggest that high morning testosterone predicts greater profitability for the rest of that day…we found a significant relationship between testosterone and financial return.

Indeed, several studies bemoan the fact that since men’s risk taking nets them a higher lifetime return on investment women are disadvantaged when it comes to retiring (as an aside, note how testosterone – whether bringing damage or assistance to men’s financial decision making – is always interpreted with concern for its effects on anyone other then men like society, women, etc. No concern is given in either research paper or editorial on the possible health effects, for example, to men). The researchers found

Cortisol can experience changes of these magnitudes in situations other than distressing ones like losing money; it can rise in expectation of challenge and sustained effort, and it does so to promote anticipatory arousal and focused attention (6). An HPA reaction of this sort can occur when people are faced with situations of novelty and uncertainty (5). Traders face varying levels of novelty and uncertainty every day, so this feature of their jobs may help explain the high variance of their cortisol levels.

So it seems like these chemicals evolved due to selection pressure in competitive situations. This is a good thing. The researches go on

“If exposure is acute, glucocorticoids can be euphorogenic, increasing motivation and promoting focused attention. They can also aid the consolidation and retrieval of important memories”.

When it comes to testosterone, the researchers reported

When traders in our study experienced acutely raised testosterone, for example, they made higher profits, perhaps because testosterone has been found, in both animal and human studies, to increase search persistence (20), appetite for risk (21), and fearlessness in the face of novelty (22, 23), qualities that would augment the performance of any trader who had a positive expected return.”

So testosterone and cortisol have good, useful effects too! Who would have guessed testosterone are responsible for more then just poisoning.

But try to find that side of the story in the article. Maybe there was no room for it.

No, but there was room to include a report of an entirely irrelevant but male-bashing article from The Financial Times: “Icelandic Women to Clean Up Male Mess” where the country appointed two women to run banks nationalized after they were apparently bankrupted by men. Does 2 women and a handful of men merit a title that seems to imply all Icelandic women were cleaning a mess related directly to intrinsic maleness.

But I digress yet again. What I’m getting at is that much of this suggests that in the long run a male-only group of traders will do better for overall economic growth (not focusing on temporary boom and bust periods), so maybe we ought to keep women out of these and all high risk jobs!

I’m of course not suggesting anything like that, but I am wondering what we’d think if someone did make the case publicly that female biology might account for certain job rate discrepancies and inabilities (without necessarily even implying any concordant anti-women policy changes as was done against men here).

Oh right, he’d probably be forced to resign. At least that’s what happened to Harvard University President Lawrence Summers who dared to suggest that there were three reasons women were underrepresented in certain professions rather then just the acceptable one, namely systematic discrimination by elitist men.

Courtesy of wikipedia:

He [Summers] gave the three main hypotheses in the following order: that more men than women were willing to make the commitment in terms of time and flexibility demanded by high-powered jobs, that there were differences in the innate abilities of men and women (more specifically, men’s higher variance in innate abilities or preferences relevant to science and engineering), and that the discrepancy was due to discrimination or socialization. He also stated his view that the order given reflected the relative importance of each of the three factors.[15] An attendee made Summers’ remarks public, and an intense response followed in the national news media and on Harvard’s campus.

Summers never said discrimination didn’t exist, but simply added two well founded biological explanations as possible additional considerations, and was eventually forced to resign for it.

Unfortunately, no journalist worth his salt will ever publish an article highlighting the flaws in this “fascinating study about men” or reporting on the articles sure to be coming out shortly demolishing this bit of poorly conducted pseudoscience. Which means the notion of moving discriminatory affirmative action into this new market will likely go unchallenged.

Insight is in the eye of the beholder

The following comic is courtesy of Between Friends

Doesn’t it indeed seem like the sex of a commentator speaking on gender issues can be decisive, especially in the area of biological differences? Compare say a female using the supposedly uniquely female caring, empathic and cooperative traits to justify the “tender years doctrine” according to which courts should by default rule against single fathers in custody cases, versus a male university President being forced to resign for daring to put forward as one argument among many the intrinsic biological differences between the sexes to account for sex differences in science and engineering, while not seeking to thereby implement any policies.



UnEqual Employment Opportunity

A friend sent the following to me after coming across it and being at once appalled and confused.

I’m well aware of discriminatory affirmative action style euphemistically labeled “Equal Opportunity” programs, but that disclaimer at the top made no sense, so I decided to send Environ the following e-mail to clarify this document.

I was perusing the job application for your organization and got to Step 6, Equal Employment Opportunity.

I was hoping you might clarify for me to what purpose your organization put this information. You state “Please be aware that it is optional and that your resume will be given the same consideration whether you answer the following questions or not.”

Is that to be taken to imply that no advantage or disadvantage will be given to a candidate who chooses not to fill this out compared to one that does? Or, is it to be taken to mean that the answers provided on the application will not be used in any way to provide advantages or disadvantages between candidates who opt to fill out the application? If the latter interpretation is correct, I am unclear what the purpose of this form would be to your organization.

Thank you for your clarification

(Mis-)Undertanding Men and Health – Part 1

I am so tired of reading about “hegemonic masculinity” and all the advantages it’s supposed to confer. What is hegemonic exactly about having measurably worse health care, dying significantly younger, being of a gender that dies in 95% of workplace fatalities, and having few resources (rarely even an acknowledgment) invested in violence targeted at your gender.

I just finished a book called “Understanding Men and Health: Masculinities, Identity and Well-being” which was full of this nonsense of hegemony but did nevertheless have some fascinating points to make, like the following:

1. We often hear that modern healthcare developments were developed to focus on helping men. This was indeed sometimes the case, although mostly because it was acceptable to use men as ginny-pigs on which to experiment with new and dangerous treatments. But ironically, today’s men are less likely to enjoy the medical benefits obtained through such humiliating and damaging experiments on their fellow men. As those supposedly defining the normal body and exercising “hegemonic power”, men in the 20th century became less appropriate subjects for study and examination:

“Yet the (male-led) development of health promotion/education services around this time did very little directly to target information or health promotion campaigns towards such men. Rather, as Welshman’s (1997) work on health education during this period shows, such services and campaigns were more often targeted at mothers, infants and schoolchildren…As feminists have rightly pointed out, it was the poor state of men’s health that generated cause for concern. Yet, the patriarchal nature of health service structures determined that subsequent actions – including the development of a health visiting service, the establishment of maternal and infant welfare clinics, and an expansion of school health services – focused atention (and thereby responsibility) specifically on women and children.” (pg. 136)

More insights in the next post…



Men need a Roe v. Wade

Those who moralize on either side of the tired abortion debate seem to forget it takes two people to conceive a child. I was reminded of that again while listening to the audiobook “Freakenomics”, which attempts to study the psychology of incentives and its effects on microeconomics. One interesting insight discovered was the correlation between the legality of abortion in the US and a drop in crime right around the period that those non-existent babies – over 50% of whom would have been born into families below the poverty line – turned into non-existent criminals.

The book made the compelling point that the benefits of this voluntary eugenics was at least partially apparent to the Justices that made their fateful decision in Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court Majority Opinion, written by justice Harry Blackman, read as follows “the detriment that the state would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Maternity, or additional offspring may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by childcare. There is also the distress for all concerned associated with the unwanted child and there is the problem with bringing the child into a family already unable psychologically and otherwise to care for it.”

Which got me thinking, what part of this quote couldn’t just as easily be drafted about men, fathers and paternity. We talk about a woman’s choice and bodily autonomy, and I’m not suggesting women shouldn’t ultimately have the final say over their body, but why have we come to the point where we go out of our way to ignore and sideline the father’s opinion in the issue.

It seems counterintuitive to me to insist a man have no say in the creation of a life, then complain that he makes a crummy father and seems less interested in childreadring. A doctor is expected to give the woman as much information as needed to make an informed abortion decision. Shouldn’t a man who has some of the doubts expressed by Justice Blackman – psychological distress or economic concerns – be encouraged to contribute that information as well to this important family decision.

And if we’re so concerned with bodily autonomy, men ought to have an opt-out available, so that if their partner should say lie about being on birth control, their male body isn’t then held financially accountable to raise a child for 18 years, often necessitating cutting short a possibly fantastic career and instead entering dangerous and unsatisfying (but hence highpaying) jobs.

One last reminder to those feminists who like to pat themselves on the back and tell each other that they and they alone are responsible for women’s progress. All 9 Justices deciding Roe V. Wade were male.