“New Study Debunks Prior Belief” is a pretty common format for science news headlines, especially in any area of science that deals with how human beings behave, what they believe, and what values are important to them (psychology, in other words). Very often, however, these alleged debunkings are themselves open to challenge. Sometimes this is because the results do not actually mean what the headline writers claim they mean. Other times, it’s because it’s not a real debunking. The stuff being debunked has already been debunked. It’s a re-debunk. But the bunk has gone.
Take this story from today’s media concerning maternal instinct. The claim is that new research is showing that women and men do not differ in their responses to the sound of their baby crying after all. This contrasts with the common belief that women are better than men at detecting, recognising, and responding to their babies. It turns out that men are just as good as women at detecting the unique wailing of their own mini-me.
In popular psychology circles the alleged mammy talent is described as if it constituted irrefutable evidence of the inherent (and comparative) nobility of women. Of course, it could also be seen as the basis for keeping women at home looking after children, and thus far away from workplaces and the like. Sexists just love biological reductionism.
That’s often a dilemma in behavioural science. When biologically-informed theories make it sound like men are preprogrammed to disregard little babies, the counter-balance is that it also means they should be kept away from kids for the kids’ own good. So womenfolk should stay at home and do all that home-making stuff. This is why conservative media like to adopt as a starting position the view that, rather than perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, such theories actually hold empirical water.
Hence the surprise of a paper like the Daily Mail when it is revealed that men are just as biologically hard-wired to respond to infant cries as women are. The researchers show that it’s hours-spent-at-home-with-the-kids that determines this type of perceptual sensitivity in parents. The reason women come out on top in such comparisons in so many studies is the fact that, in most societies, women spend more hours at home with their children. Studies are conducted in most societies, you see. Interesting, huh?
Well, yes, it’s interesting, but it’s also old. The fact that dads and moms respond to children with similar levels of parental sensitivity and with equivalent physiological profiles has been demonstrated repeatedly for the best part of two decades. Moreover, the idea that time-spent-with-the-kids is the variable that determines parental sensitivity — and does so in a way that wrecks many a study — has been discussed for at least 25 years. It has even been specifically studied in relation to men and women’s reactions to crying babies. Back in 2000 (You know. The last century).
The news coverage of this study tells us less about the non-difference of mothers and fathers in parenting sensitivity, and much more about the apparently incorrigible resistence of mass media toward empirical findings which show how many of society’s parenting norms are essentially founded on prejudice.
My guess is that this bunk is going to take a heck of a lot more debunking.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.