That Racist Time of the Month

by by Josh Kopin

Over the last few years, a cluster of studies has emerged from the varyingly rigorous depths of experimental psychology reporting correlations between what researchers call “conception risk” (which varies over the course of the menstrual cycle) and psychological traits ostensibly related to sexual selection. This little pocket of research seems to reinforce, or at least to re-legitimize, the idea that a woman’s decision-making process tends to swing, largely unbeknownst to her, to the same rhythm as her body. These studies suggest that women’s evaluations of men who demonstrate good health, high social dominance, and high willingness to settle into a committed relationship all fluctuate over the course of the cycle, reaching their peak with maximum fertility. One new contribution in particular has taken these already provocative hypotheses to a new level of complexity.

In the paper “Race Bias Tracks Conception Risk Across the Menstrual Cycle,” Navarette and his team report that women, especially those “highly vulnerable to sexual coercion”—‘VSC,’ as the paper abbreviates it—exhibit increasing implicit race bias with increased conception risk. The researchers drew their sample of women from Michigan State University’s Psychological Study Pool, winnowing down the 115 white and black American volunteers to a group of 87 by turning away those with unusual cycle lengths, those who were pregnant, and those who used oral contraceptives. And then, since only 10 of the 87 acceptable candidates were black, the researchers decided to control for race by declining to test them and focusing exclusively on the 77 remaining white volunteers.

The researchers recorded each volunteer’s position in the menstrual cycle and administered several written tests, including an unsubtly named “Fear of Rape Scale,” two measures of implicit race bias, and one measure of explicit bias. They followed these up with two more tests in which the volunteers were shown “artificial digital images of four seminude male exemplars representing Black and White American race categories” and asked about their feelings toward the composite men in the photographs—to what extent did they find the exemplar “‘attractive,’ ‘sexy,’ and worthy of a ‘romantic encounter?’”; “to what extent [did they] think this person looks ‘scary’? […] 1 = not at all scary, 7 = very scary.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers found a statistically significant correlation between “conception risk” and implicit bias against black men, which they illustrate with a graph. A solid red line and a dashed blue line, presenting a “smoothed local average” of the values “Race Bias” and “Conception Risk” respectively, are situated above an axis indicating “Cycle Day” on a scale from 0 to 35. Right up until day five, the red line and the blue line lie flat at their initial values, which indicate negative race bias and virtually no conception risk. One week in, “Race Bias” reaches zero as conception risk increases swiftly. At the two-week point, “Race Bias” and “Conception Risk” both peak near the top of the graph. By day 25, Race Bias has dropped below its starting value and conception risk approaches zero once again. The researchers conclude that their hypothesis is correct: women have evolved to be sensitive to in-group and out-group cues in their evaluations of mate fitness, and this manifests as variable race bias.

The paper makes a telling observation, saying “[…] investigators have yet to explore the relationship between [the effects of menstrual cycle on women’s perception of men] and one of the most fundamental features of interpersonal social evaluation: race bias.” Calling race bias “fundamental” and “uninvestigated” is clearly meant to engage the reader’s sense of manifest scientific destiny: an uninvestigated fundamental aspect surely deserves investigation and funding! But in this case, the appeal amounts to question-begging, considering the researchers’ project of investigating race bias’s supposed biological basis. Chasing a hypothesis made on the assumption that race bias is fundamental must lead to the discovery that race bias is fundamental. Despite this fallacy, it remains clear that the researchers are trying to engage with the political issue of race bias, and, in fact, consider that issue sufficient to justify their whole project.

Two problems emerge with this strategy of justification. The first is the researchers’ clearly partial political engagement. While the researchers refer to racial politics and clearly consider it a problem, what they’re trying to say about women is not so clear. They reference prior research that supports the hypothesis that women’s minds are out of their conscious control, thereby engaging with the problematic conversation about female fickleness. But the researchers do not acknowledge their own involvement in this conversation at all. Furthermore, the paper itself refrains from referring to women in general, using “the menstrual cycle” instead. But the euphemism amounts to little more than a stand-in for the female.

Equating gender with hormonal-cyclical state is negligent, in light of the existence of intersexual, transgendered, amenorrheic, pre- and postmenopausal women. In doing so, the researchers accept an outdated and sexist notion of gender while dressing the whole mess up in the sheep’s skin of scientific rigor. The study provokes the reader by entering into a conversation about women, declines to do say anything informative on the subject, and leaves the reader with unanswered questions about the researchers’ commitments and biases.

The second problem is that it isn’t clear what the researchers are trying to say about the very topic of their paper—namely, race bias itself. Their study brings the subject of race into play by using visual cues in the form of seminude exemplars. It also claims that the biased reactions it measures can be traced to an organ of sorts that identifies in-group and out-group subjects, and it supposes that this organ evolved over time and therefore bestowed some advantage on its possessors. As Richard Lewontin has pointed out, though, genetic differences are greater within racial populations than between them. If the bias organ evolved but could not have given its possessors an advantage based on genetic factors (since visual cues of race, like race itself, have no reliable genetic correlates) it must have given them some other kind of survival advantage. But the researchers don’t make clear upon what this advantage could have been based.

I’m in the realm of speculative reasoning here: it isn’t at all clear to me that a biologically rooted bias organ could exist. But if it did, it seems reasonable to think that whatever mechanism is at work has more to do with environmental factors than genetic ones, given that genetic differences cannot play a role here. In light of my present line of reasoning, eliminating race bias or mitigating its effects would need to take place not in the biological realm but the environmental one. In the researchers’ line of reasoning, it seems impossible to change the state of affairs—mental organs are not excisable. But oddly, the biological interpretation they arrive at is the same one they depart from; as I have shown, it is the result of sloppy reasoning and question-begging. If the researchers are concerned with eliminating or ameliorating race bias, it is hard to understand why their hypotheses, assumptions, and conclusions are all based on an idea of an inborn racism that no environmental measure could address.

Between the issues of feminism and race relations, it’s not clear that these scientists could simply have been doing what scientists do—which, to paraphrase Richard Feynmann, boils down to making hypotheses and checking to see if they are wrong. It seems an agenda is afoot.

In hopes of sniffing it out, I I visited the principle investigator Carlos David Navarette’s homepage, at An animation plays in the center of the page, cycling between several uncaptioned photographs: a figure in a red dress surrounded by butterflies; a line of warriors of uncertain provenance standing on a field dressed in what one supposes to be traditional garb and brandishing spears; Charles Darwin; and an obvious digital collage depicting a signpost: one of the signs says “Right Way,” the other, “Wrong Way.” On the site, Navarette writes that his research interests “touch on topics that cut into broad, existential questions of life, such as why do we love and hate, and why are we moral yet so damned tribal? In framing my approach to these questions, I contemplate how evolutionary pressures... might be relevant to the emergence of the psychological mechanisms…”

His research may be an attempt to address the origin of tribalism, but I am not sure his approach could ever succeed. The second page of his website, the one with his research interests, is headed with the picture of the tribal warriors taken from the earlier slideshow. The photograph has been stretched and squashed to fill a pre-shaped space. I eyed the malproportioned natives, concerned about the violence that pulled them from their original shape. In the quest for the origins of cultural phenomena, I think, it is important for representations not to be distortions. It seems Navarette does not agree.

--JOSH KOPIN B'11:will not be represented by a seminude exemplar.