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Disarming Cupid: Love, Sex and Science
By Scientific American
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Men and Women Can't be "Just Friends" by Adrian F. Ward
Can heterosexual men and women ever be "just friends"? Few other questions have provoked debates as intense, family dinners as awkward, literature as lurid, or movies as memorable. Still, the question remains unanswered. Daily experience suggests that non-romantic friendships between males and females are not only possible, but common — men and women live, work, and play side-by-side, and generally seem to be able to avoid spontaneously sleeping together. However, the possibility remains that this apparently platonic coexistence is merely a façade, an elaborate dance covering up countless sexual impulses bubbling just beneath the surface.
New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility — that we may think we're capable of being "just friends" with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for "romance" is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment.
In order to investigate the viability of truly platonic opposite-sex friendships — a topic that has been explored more on the silver screen than in the science lab — researchers brought 88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends into ... a science lab. Privacy was paramount — for example, imagine the fallout if two friends learned that one — and only one — had unspoken romantic feelings for the other throughout their relationship. In order to ensure honest responses, the researchers not only followed standard protocols regarding anonymity and confidentiality, but also required both friends to agree — verbally, and in front of each other — to refrain from discussing the study, even after they had left the testing facility. These friendship pairs were then separated, and each member of each pair was asked a series of questions related to his or her romantic feelings (or lack thereof) toward the friend with whom they were taking the study.
The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them — a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men's estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt — basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends. Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends; because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual. As a result, men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.
Men were also more willing to act on this mistakenly perceived mutual attraction. Both men and women were equally attracted to romantically involved opposite-sex friends and those who were single; "hot" friends were hot and "not" friends were not, regardless of their relationship status. However, men and women differed in the extent to which they saw attached friends as potential romantic partners. Although men were equally as likely to desire "romantic dates" with "taken" friends as with single ones, women were sensitive to their male friends' relationship status and uninterested in pursuing those who were already involved with someone else.
These results suggest that men, relative to women, have a particularly hard time being "just friends." What makes these results particularly interesting is that they were found within particular friendships (remember, each participant was only asked about the specific, platonic, friend with whom they entered the lab). This is not just a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naïve females; it is direct proof that two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways. Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance in their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships. The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation — one that is actually platonic.
To the outside observer, it seems clear that these vastly different views about the potential for romance in opposite- sex friendships could cause serious complications — and people within opposite-sex relationships agree. In a follow-up study, 249 adults (many of whom were married) were asked to list the positive and negative aspects of being friends with a specific member of the opposite sex. Variables related to romantic attraction (e.g., "our relationship could lead to romantic feelings") were five times more likely to be listed as negative aspects of the friendship than as positive ones. However, the differences between men and women appeared here as well. Males were significantly more likely than females to list romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships, and this discrepancy increased as men aged — males on the younger end of the spectrum were four times more likely than females to report romantic attraction as a benefit of opposite-sex friendships, whereas those on the older end of the spectrum were ten times more likely to do the same.
Taken together, these studies suggest that men and women have vastly different views of what it means to be "just friends" — and that these differing views have the potential to lead to trouble. Although women seem to be genuine in their belief that opposite-sex friendships are platonic, men seem unable to turn off their desire for something more. And even though both genders agree overall that attraction between platonic friends is more negative than positive, males are less likely than females to hold this view.
So, can men and women be "just friends?" If we all thought like women, almost certainly. But if we all thought like men, we'd probably be facing a serious overpopulation crisis.
--Originally published: Scientific American online, October 23, 2012.
The Truth about Boys and Girls by Lise Eliot
Parents anticipate sex differences from the first prenatal ultrasound but then seem amazed when their son goes gaga over trucks or their daughter will wear nothing but pink. Boys and girls are obviously different, and in many cases the gaps between them seem stark. But stereotypes do not always hold up to scientific scrutiny. Are boys really more aggressive and girls really more empathetic — or do we just see what we expect in them? Where true sex differences exist, are those gaps inborn, as our current Mars-Venus obsession implies, or shaped by environment — that is, by us?
A natural place to look for answers is in the brain. If there is a neurological disparity between the genders, it could explain important behavioral differences. But surprisingly, researchers have found very few large-scale differences between boys and girls in brain structure or function. Yes, boys have larger brains (and heads) than girls — from birth through old age. And girls' brains finish growing earlier than boys'. But neither of these findings explains why boys are more active and girls more verbal or reveals a plausible basis for the consistent gaps in their reading, writing and science test scores that have parents and teachers up in arms.
Brain differences are indisputably biological, but they are not necessarily hardwired. The crucial, often overlooked fact is that experience itself changes brain structure and function. Neuroscientists call this shaping plasticity, and it is the basis of all learning and much of children's mental development. Even something as simple as the act of seeing depends on normal visual experience in early life, without which a baby's visual brain fails to wire up properly and his or her vision is permanently impaired.
Does growing up as a boy or as a girl also wire the brain in a particular way? Obviously, girls and boys are not identical at birth: genetic and hormonal differences must launch the male and female brain down somewhat different developmental pathways. But early experience, we now know, permanently alters the chemistry and function of the genes inside cells, leading to significant effects on behavior. Neuroscientist Michael J. Meaney and his colleagues at McGill University, among others, have found that the quality of maternal care is associated with a host of neural and psychological consequences — from the production of new brain cells to altered stress responses and memory function. The different ways parents raise boys and girls may similarly leave its stamp on their developing brains.
Most sex differences start out small — as mere biases in temperament and play style — but are amplified as children's pink- or bluetinted brains meet our gender-infused culture, including all the tea parties, wrestling matches, playground capers and cafeteria dramas that dominate boys' or girls' existence. Through better understanding of these environmental influences, we can break down some of the gaps between boys and girls — in school achievement, risk taking, competitiveness, empathy and conscientiousness.
Boys are more physically active than girls, in infancy and throughout childhood. They kick, swing their arms and race around the house noticeably more than girls do, as many exhausted parents can testify. The difference may emerge before birth, although not every ultrasound study finds a sex difference in fetal movement. Nevertheless, the disparity is clear during the first year and expands through childhood, according to a 1986 analysis of more than 100 studies by psychologist Warren Eaton and his colleagues at the University of Manitoba in Canada, which reveals that the average boy is more active than about 69 percent of girls.
That gap is statistically moderate, larger than differences in verbal and math skills but small enough to permit many exceptions to the rule, notably the 31 percent of girls who are more active than the average boy. Sex hormones — in particular, a relative abundance of testosterone in the womb — appear to trigger boys' fidgetiness. And yet the sex difference in physical activity continues to widen during childhood, despite the fact that sex hormone levels do not differ between boys and girls from six months of age to puberty. Parenting is likely one factor amplifying the disparity. Mothers discourage physical risk taking more in daughters than in sons, suggest studies in the laboratory and on playgrounds. (Fathers encourage more risk taking in children than mothers do but no one has studied whether dads pressure sons more than daughters in this respect.) Peers also push conformity: in their preferred all-boy groups, energetic boys feed off one another, whereas energetic girls tend to settle down in clusters of more docile friends. In organized sports, girls start playing at a later age, quit earlierand join fewer teams overall than boys — differences that are influenced by parents and peers.
As many schools eliminate recess or cut back on physical education, both genders are paying the price with higher rates of obesity and attention-deficit hyperactivity diagnoses. Boys especially need more frequent physical breaks to satisfy their higher activity levels, and both sexes need the mental recharging that exercise confers during a long school day. Exercise is also important for maintaining a positive body image, which turns out to be the biggest risk factor for depression in adolescent girls.
Boy Meet Barbie
Yes, boys like trucks and girls like dolls. Given a choice of Power Rangers, Tonka, Bratz and a Barbie beauty set, preschool-age boys and girls strongly prefer the gender-obvious picks. In fact, children's gendered toy choice is one of the largest sex differences in behavior, second only to sexual preference itself! But this preference is not nearly so clear in infancy, when boys, in many studies, have been found to like dolls as much as girls do. (All babies are strongly attracted to faces, for obvious survival reasons.) Rather, toy preference emerges toward the end of infancy, grows stronger through the preschool years and then declines somewhat because of a complex interaction of nature and nurture.
Toddlers' toy preference is shaped, in part, by prenatal testosterone: girls with a genetic disorder that exposes them to high levels of testosterone and other androgens before birth are much more interested in toy trucks and cars than typical girls are. Even male and female monkeys prefer gender-stereotyped toys, telling us there is something about vehicles, balls and moving parts that resonates with boys' hormonal priming, drawing them away from their initial face preference and toward toys they can interact with more physically.
Starting from this innate bias, children's toy preferences grow more extreme through social shaping. Parents reinforce play that is considered gender-appropriate, especially in boys, and beginning at age three, peers perpetuate gender norms even more than adults do. In one example of peer influence, psychologists Karin Frey of the University of Washington and Diane Ruble of New York University reported in 1992 that elementary school — age boys and girls both opted for a less desirable toy (a kaleidoscope) over a slick Fisher-Price movie viewer after watching a commercial of a same-sex child choosing the kaleidoscope and an opposite sex child choosing the movie viewer. And yet around age five, girls begin choosing "boy" toys and "girl" toys equally. Boys, however, rarely do this crossover — a divergence that reflects different societal norms. Girls today are allowed — and even encouraged — to play sports, wear pants and build with Legos much more than boys are pushed to don dresses and play house.
The different play preferences of boys and girls are important in shaping many mental circuits and later abilities. Sporting gear, vehicles and building toys tend to exercise physical and spatial skills, whereas dolls, coloring books and dress-up clothes tend to stimulate verbal, social and finemotor circuits. Parents and preschool teachers can expand both sets of skills by encouraging girls to play with puzzles, building blocks, throwing games and even video games, while enticing boys to sew, paint, and play as caregivers using props for doctor, Daddy, zookeeper, EMT, and the like.
Sticks and Stones
Boys are more physically aggressive than girls, according to many studies, including a 2004 analysis by psychologist John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire in England. That difference is linked to prenatal testosterone but not, surprisingly, to the resurgence in boys' testosterone level in adolescence, because boys do not suddenly become more aggressive when they go through puberty, as Archer's work also indicates. Nor is this sex difference absolute. Two- and three-year-old girls, for instance, frequently kick, bite and hit other people — not quite as much as toddler boys but about three times more than either sex does later in childhood. In addition, girls fight with indirect, or relational, aggression. Through gossip, ostracism, whispers and, most recently, harassing text messages, girls leave more scars on competitors' psyches than on their bodies.
Thus, both sexes compete and both sexes fight; what differs is the degree to which such behavior is overt or hidden. Because physical aggression is a much greater taboo for girls than boys, they learn, even early in elementary school, to keep it below the surface, in the eye rolling and best-friend wars that teachers rarely notice and are harder to police.
But by admitting that competitive feelings are natural for all children, we can find ways to channel them into healthier pursuits. In recent years educators have tended to take competition out of the classroom, reasoning that the opposite style of interaction — cooperation — is more important in a civil society. But competition can be highly motivating, especially for boys, and girls need to develop greater comfort with open competition, which remains an inescapable reality of our free-market culture. One solution is team competitions, where groups of students work together to try to beat others at solving math, vocabulary, history and science problems.
Excerpted from Disarming Cupid: Love, Sex and Science by Scientific American. Copyright © 2013 Scientific American. Excerpted by permission of Scientific American.
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