Sep 05, 2014 | By

Gender Bias and Subliminal Reasoning

This summer two curious scientific findings were reported, both dealing with the effects of gender, but in very different circumstances. The odd juxtaposition raises interesting questions about gender bias and suggests that in some cases it is deeply subliminal, rather than cultural – and inscribed in the actual biochemistry of the body.  This also suggests that there is a kind of subliminal reasoning built into our bodies and in life as a whole that deserves careful consideration.

The first study was published by Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University and his colleagues (reported in the Economist May 3, 2014), who inadvertently discovered that the sex of the laboratory attendants changed the physiological responses of laboratory mice. Based on detailed follow up studies to confirm the findings, they reported that male attendants (or male odors) caused elevated stress levels in the mice being studied, which changed their responses to physiological stimuli, specifically pain. Female attendants (or female odors), or the absence of any attendant, did not change the stress levels in mice. These results have very significant implications for the accuracy of laboratory animal studies, a key tool for scientific and medical research.

The second was a study published by Kiju Jung of the University of Illinois and his colleagues (reported in the Economist June 7, 2014). The team found that hurricanes with more feminine names were more deadly than hurricanes with masculine names – not because the storms were inherently different but because people seemed to take the male-named storms more seriously and were more willing to take greater precautions. This is an astounding finding relative to implicit biases, with significant implications for the naming of hurricanes, and potentially for any attributions of gender through names, descriptions or images. Of course, some of this may not be surprising to advertisers who have, quite likely, studied these issues for decades and routinely apply them in marketing efforts.

On the face of it, the hurricane naming study would appear to validate claims of a culturally derived gender bias – the view that we live in a patriarchal society where women are taken less seriously than men. This may be true, however the laboratory mice in the first study are, presumably, not subject to human cultural influences. The gender bias in the case of the mice is chemically based and represents an evolutionary heritage for mice, in dealing with predators that are gender-differentiated in terms of both behaviors and signaling hormones. The mice have a reason to fear male steroids – an inherited trait most likely based on the threat of male hunters to mouse survival.

This raises an interesting question – is there a similar inherited trait in humans relative to how they intuitively feel about the femininity or masculinity associated with names? Clearly, this inherited trait would not be linked to the names per se, but to the culturally derived associations that assign masculinity or femininity to a name. Are humans like mice – do we have a reason for intuitively fearing masculine attributes more than feminine attributes? It is a reasonable speculation that there are at least some biochemical bases for gender bias in the human species, and that these have an evolutionary basis. As evidence for the rationality of such a gender bias, one only needs to look at the statistics about gender and violent behavior to conclude that this is indeed the case. Men perpetrate about 90 percent of the world’s homicides and are reputed to have started all of the wars. (Psychology Today, February 3, 2012). An elevated fear associated with male names would not seem to be irrational.

Perhaps there is a strange new message in all this. Maybe we should consider the biochemistry of our body, and of the world at large, as a form of subliminal reasoning. Not all of that reasoning may be good – for example, the “fight or flight” reaction to sudden surprises may no longer be as useful as it was in the paleolithic era, particularly since it brings with it negative side-effects to our health. In these cases we need to interpose the reasoning of our thinking brains to control and moderate the physiological response. Nevertheless, the patterns imprinted into our bodies and on life as a whole contain information based on generations, even eons, of life experience, and this should be considered a generalized form of reasoning.

As they say in many yoga classes – listen to your body.

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