"Menstrual Cycles, Politics & Science"
It’s a nice, sunny day, so why not jump with both feet into the middle of a couple of big, fat controversies? One is related to a topic that polite company didn’t publicly discuss in the not-too-distant past, and the other is a very important issue to anybody concerned with the validity of scientific research…ummm, that would be basically everyone. So here we go!
CONTROVERSY 1: OVULATION AND WOMEN’S POLITICS
Women’s vote choice can be influenced by the menstrual cycle? That’s what Kristina Durante, Ashley Rae, and Vladas Griskevicius reported shortly after the 2012 election in an article entitled, “The Fluctuating Female Vote: Politics, Religion, and the Ovulatory Cycle.”
If you want to see a male version of hormone effects, see my blog post: “Sex (Hormones) and the Elections.”
They found that peak fertility, which occurs during the week or so following ovulation, affected women’s political and religious preferences, and the effects varied by whether women are single or paired (i.e., in a committed relationship). In their study they report:
- Ovulating single women expressed more liberal and less religious attitudes and said they were more likely to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
- Ovulating paired women expressed more conservative and more religious attitudes and said they were more likely to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
Why? The authors say that reproductive goals affect religious and political attitudes. Here’s their argument. First, research shows ovulating women experience increased: libido, interest in socializing, interest in men, and interest in improving their appearance. In other words, women seem to be more interested in mating when their bodies are prepared for reproduction.
Second, social and sexual permissiveness, which facilitate mating, are associated with lower levels of religiosity and higher levels of liberal political ideology. Conversely, social and sexual regulation, which limit mating, are associated with higher levels of religiosity and higher levels of conservative political ideology.
Put together, the researchers argue that single women experiencing increased reproductive impulses as the result of ovulation hold less religious and more politically liberal preferences, because they are interested in increased mating opportunities.
On the other hand, paired women experiencing the same reproductive impulses hold more religious and more politically conservative preferences. They want reproductive impulses regulated to prevent sexual infidelity that may be discovered and cause them to lose access to the resources they have to care for their children and themselves as a result of their relationship. (Note that this argument for paired women is unconventional in terms of evolutionary theory and sexual selection, but it’s not completely beyond the pale and, as we say in the scholarly world, “it calls for further research.”)
As you can probably imagine, there was a lot of interest, media and otherwise, in the story. OK, maybe “interest” isn’t quite the right word. Skepticism? Outrage? Yeah, I think those adjectives fit the bill. At one point CNN covered the story online but later pulled it due to public criticism. If you want to see some of the discussion, do an internet search on something like “durante voting ovulation.”
On the other hand, the highly rated journal that published the paper, Psychological Science, stands by it. I have read the paper. It seems to me it’s fairly typical social science, and it suffers from the same problem that much research like this suffers from: there are a lot of people who won’t tolerate the idea that biological factors might influence men and women to behave differently.
CONTROVERSY 2: SCIENTIFIC REPLICATION
One of the foundations of scientific inquiry is replicability, or the ability of researchers to reproduce the results of previous studies. When a scientist conducts a study a second time and gets the same results, then we believe the original results were probably not a fluke and the original study might be on to something.
If the results can’t be replicated, then it raises questions, particularly about the original study. Did the original study contain a mistake in data collection or analyses? Were the participants in the first study unique, so they reacted differently than a group composed of “typical” people? More ominously, is the original study fraudulent—were the data fabricated or massaged? (There’s been an alarming amount of this discovered in recent years, which has often been attributed to the “publish or perish” pressures many researchers face.) Or did the scientists conducting the replication precisely reproduce the original study or make one of the previous mistakes?
You guessed it. A research team conducted a replication study of Durante, Rae, and Griskevicius’s study. And what did they find? Christine Harris and Laura Mickes report they “unequivocally failed to confirm two of the three key findings” in their article entitled, “Women Can Keep the Vote: No Evidence That Hormonal Changes During the Menstrual Cycle Impact Political and Religious Beliefs.” They did confirm, though, that ovulating single women were more likely to vote for Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
WHAT TO MAKE OF THIS
In a lot of ways, I think this is science at its best. One set of scientists argue for and find an interesting relationship or effect. Another set of scientists try to confirm it. That’s what is supposed to happen in science. And in this case it’s even more interesting because the replication isn’t a complete failure, so “it calls for more research.” Again, that’s what is supposed to happen.
Do I believe ovulation can affect women’s political attitudes? My beliefs on this are influenced by my knowledge of research showing hormones and other biological factors are related to people’s political attitudes and behaviors (e.g., “Sex (Hormones) and the Elections”). So I'm not shocked to hear this.
And based on both of the studies discussed here, I am inclined to believe that ovulation can affect women’s stated candidate preferences since both studies found that ovulating single women preferred the Democratic candidate. So, yes, I suspect something may be going on in regard to ovulation with women and their political attitudes, but it’s not something I’d put a lot of money on at this point.
Finally, there’s the issue of what you do with this information if it is true. I used to run political campaigns for a living, and I have no idea. I’m having trouble imagining political campaigns telling their door-to-door canvassers to ask women where they will be in their ovulatory cycle on Election Day. I think I’ll leave that question for another day that’s not so nice and sunny.
Put on your political consultant hat…let us know, how would you use this?
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For more information:
Kristina M. Durante, Ashley Rae, and Vladas Griskevicius. 2013. “The Fluctuating Female Vote Politics, Religion, and the Ovulatory Cycle.” Psychological Science 24(6): 1007-1016.
Christine R. Harris and Laura Mickes. Forthcoming. “Women Can Keep the Vote: No Evidence That Hormonal Changes During the Menstrual Cycle Impact Political and Religious Beliefs.” Psychological Science, first published on February 25, 2014 as doi:10.1177/0956797613520236.
In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University.
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