- The Psychology of Beauty and Sexualization
Previous work on sexualization explains that it manifests in response to heteronormative patriarchal conditions where men hold power at the expense of women. These conditions create an environment where women are constantly looked at and evaluated, especially for their physical and sexual attractiveness to men. As a result, women internalize physical attractiveness as their primary source of self-worth, with a host of negative psychological repercussions (including but not limited to reduced assertiveness and disempowerment). This framework predicts that sexualization is largely driven by gender inequality and that it is associated with reduced female agency, yet 8 studies from our lab have challenged the centrality of these assumptions.
In our work, we have identified a novel driver of sexualization that suggests that sexualization is, counter-intuitively, an agentic strategy some women employ to socially climb and enact high status. That novel driver is status anxiety, which my work shows is robustly correlated with sexualization across cultures. We have also experimentally shown that engaging in sexualization increases women’s psychological and behavioural assertiveness, and that the same economic conditions which exacerbate status anxiety—namely, income inequality—are also robust predictors of sexualization. This latter investigation encompassed five studies across 113 nations, and also showed that there was no association between gender inequality and sexualization, once income inequality was entered in the model.
To be clear, there could be very good reasons why gender inequality was not associated with sexualization as predicted by previous work, and this work does not argue that gender imbalances have no relationship with sexualization. Rather, it highlights that researchers have overlooked income inequality as an important sociostructural driver of sexualization, and the very real relationship between women’s investment in their physical appearance and their agentic status-seeking.
- Twitplat and Loctarithm
Open social media platforms such as Twitter make billions of social media posts available to the tech-savvy researcher, providing an enormous volume of data on human behaviour that is exceptionally cost-effective to collect and truly cross-cultural. The problem is that Twitter limits data availability to live streaming or past searches of only a week, and the data is very difficult to geolocate using standard techniques that require latitude/longitude vectors (as only ~1% of all tweets contain this information). Both of these problems provide roadblocks to utilising big social media data for psychology by limiting the timeframe over which one can answer targeted research questions, and the cross-cultural variation researchers can investigate and account for. The ECE Lab has developed methods to solve these problems.
In response to the problem of data availability, Dr. Blake compiled a longitudinal database of all publicly available Twitter posts from the years 2012–2019 inclusive, through consultation with computer scientists, hard networking, and programming the Twitter API to create perpetually live stream and process Twitter data. The Twitplat database now contains more than 6 billion tweets, making it the largest freely available database of its kind. Locatarithm was developed to deal with gelocation issues utilising user location field text and matches it to a huge range of world locations, with very high granularity (e.g., all cities worldwide with populations >100K; all suburbs of Australia). Unlike latitude/longitude vector data which is largely unavailable, Locatarithm geolocates using location field data that is mostly available for all users, and as a result geolocates around 35% of all users.
Twitplat and Locatarithm caused a significant change as they provided an enormous database to explore variation in human behaviour across culture and place. With future funding, the ECE Lab will make Twitplat freely available to other researchers.
- Advancing Knowledge of Hormonal Effects on Human Behaviour
The field investigating fertility effects on women’s behaviour and cognition is suffering from numerous controversies, including claims of p-hacking and poor methodology. In response to this Dr Blake and colleagues have quantified how accurately the most popular methods in this field characterized female fertility, finding that they were associated with actual fertility at levels below chance. The ECE Lab now utilises a data-driven protocol for characterizing women’s fertile phase (a quasi-manipulation) that supports ovulation prediction with accuracy > 95%. The resulting methods paper caused a significant change by providing a cost-effective, pragmatic, and standardized protocol that allows researchers to test whether fertility influences behaviour and cognition.
This protocol has been used to investigate the effect of sex hormones on mating strategies, intrasexual competitiveness, and economic decisions. This work has also challenged the controversial finding that women wear red clothing when fertile, instead finding that these results yield from invalid methods. Preferences for male beardedness and facial masculinity also do not change over the course of the menstrual cycle. The ECE Lab is also interested in the psychological adaptations of fertility with results showing that the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone are correlated with psychological and behavioural assertiveness, which arguably facilitates mate choice. This finding has societal implications for the many young women taking hormonal contraceptives that alter the endogenous hormones.