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Some Context for the CNN Controversy on Women, Hormones and Voting

• October 25, 2012 • 5:15 PM

CNN, which has suffered more than its share of missteps of late, has been widely ridiculed this week for posting, and then quickly taking down, a story about some new research regarding how hormonal changes affect women’s behavior in the voting booth.

The concept was immediately decried as sexist, which is an understandable knee-jerk reaction—until you realize that the person who wrote the article, and the researcher who wrote the paper, are both women.

The yet-to-be-published paper is by Kristina Durante, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Earlier this year, I reported on two of her previous papers (after they were vetted and published by a reputable journal): one on how a scarcity of men impacts women’s career choices, and a second on the unfortunate tendency of some women to “attribute attractive qualities to sexually desirable men” around the time of ovulation.

The paper CNN described similarly focused on behavior and ovulation, but it did so in the far more delicate arena of voting. So as to not be accused of bias, let me just quote the abstract directly:

Each month many women experience an ovulatory cycle that regulates fertility. Whereas research finds that this cycle influences women’s mating preferences, we propose that it might also change women’s political and religious views. Building on theory suggesting that political and religious orientation are linked to reproductive goals, we tested how fertility influenced women’s politics, religiosity, and voting in the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

In two studies with large and diverse samples, ovulation had drastically different effects on single versus married women. Ovulation led single women to become more liberal, less religious, and more likely to vote for Barack Obama. In contrast, ovulation led married women to become more conservative, more religious, and more likely to vote for Mitt Romney. In addition, ovulatory-induced changes in political orientation mediated women’s voting behavior. Overall, the ovulatory cycle not only influences women’s politics, but appears to do so differently for single versus married women.

You can judge for yourself whether the original CNN story, which the Daily Kos has reposted here, does an accurate job of boiling down that finding, and putting it into context. I actually think the writer did solid work, pointing out the research’s limitations and quoting other researchers who questioned the conclusion.

So why the uproar? Two reasons, I suspect. First, at a time when not one but two male candidates for U.S. Senate have displayed astonishing ignorance and/or insensitivity regarding rape, no doubt many women feel under siege by the political system. This article could easily come across as another example of that trend—especially to those who haven’t read it in full (presumably a sizable group, since it has been pulled from the CNN website.)

The second reason, I think, is our deep-seated distaste for the idea that our political beliefs are driven by anything other than rational thought. We really want to think that we weigh the evidence and come up with a wise, considered decision regarding who is the better candidate.

But in fact, internal drives that operate beyond our consciousness (yes, including hormones) influence the choices we make regarding everything from what car we buy to which candidate we vote for. I lay out some examples of unconscious motivations behind voting behavior in this graphic.

No doubt misogynists will distort Durante’s findings and use them as an example of why men are the rightful rulers of the world. While pushing back against such arguments is extremely important, let’s not deny some of the fundamental insights of psychology while we’re doing so.

A better retort might involve pointing out some recent research linking the testosterone levels of young, male traders to the stock market crash of 2008.

 

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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