Evolved for exhibitionism?

Wired column makes weak claims about human behavior, psychology

“Sound the evo-psych bullshit klaxon!” British science journalist Ed Yong tweeted on Thursday. He was right to be concerned.

Yong’s warning pertained to an op-ed at Wired Science by Ogi Ogas. Jumping off from the string of celebrities who’ve taken naughty pictures of themselves only to have those images leaked from their cellphones and shared publicly, Ogas argues that people have a universal desire to “sext” one another. Not only that, he says, this exhibitionist urge is an evolutionary adaptation of the brain.

“The source of all this au naturel flaunting lies not in the culture of fame, but in the design of our sexual brains,” Ogas writes. “In fact, research has unveiled two distinct explanations: Female exhibitionism appears to be primarily cortical, while male exhibitionism is mainly subcortical.”

That means, one guesses, that he thinks a woman’s desire to flash is rational while a man’s is instinctual because the desire is rooted in different parts of their brains. But what is the evidence for this? What “research has unveiled” this understanding?

Ogas’s list of evidence includes the writing of an 18th century intellectual, Girls Gone Wild, the behavior of wild bonobos, and ChatRoulette. He also quotes Marta Meana, a clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who tells him, “An increasing body of data is indicating that the way women feel about themselves may be very important to their experience of sexual desire and subjective arousal….” But it takes a big leap to get from that statement to the conclusions Ogas makes about human sexuality.

He drops phrases like “studies have found” and “international data supports,” but doesn’t offer any specific support for his theory that there is an evolutionary adaptation toward exhibitionism rooted in different parts of the male and female brain.

Most of the Ogas’s column seems like an extension and rehashing of ideas presented in a book he wrote with Sai Gaddam in 2011, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire. I haven’t read the book, but the section about science on its website explains that the authors relied primarily on “a vast set of behavioral data that has previously been ignored by both computational neuroscientists and sex scientists: Internet data.” They compared people’s engagement with various forms of sexual content online with brain imaging studies, animal studies, and evolutionary theory.

“By drawing upon so many different forms of convergent behavioral data,” Ogas and Gaddam write, “it becomes possible to quantitatively compare the specific sexual interests and activities of different groups of people. It also allows us to model the specific cognitive processes behind individual sexual desire.”

Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t.

Ogas and Gaddam received PhDs in neuroscience from Boston University, but their research for the book, which began around the same time, wasn’t part of an officially sanctioned university project, and the way they went about it caused a significant uproar. Consumers of sexually oriented online fan faction, whom Ogas and Gaddam sought to survey, were particularly angered, accusing them of everything from poor study design to misogyny. (Ogas and Gaddam responded to some of their critics in a long Q&A on the blog Freakonomics.)

A more measured view came from clinical psychiatrist Stephen Snyder in a series of posts discussing the “the strange new science behind ‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts’” for Psychology Today. While stressing that Ogas and Gaddam are not psychologists or sex therapists, that neither of them has ever treated a patient, and that their work is “certainly no ordinary science,” Synder concedes that some of their data are “compelling” and “useful.” Ultimately, though, his take on their book is this:

Sex is complicated. Sexuality operates at many levels - biological, psychological, social, cultural, economic, and political. The book strip-mines through this terrain without addressing many of the fundamental complexities. It generalizes too broadly about the differences between men and women.

The same could be said about Ogas’s Wired column. Just as Synder emphasized that A Billion Wicked Thoughts was “written as a popular book, not a technical one,” it’s important to note that the column is labeled “opinion.” But that’s insufficient cover for the problems with this piece.

When he makes assertions about what “research has unveiled,” “studies have found,” and “data have shown,” Ogas has a responsibility to be specific, especially if those are mostly just references to his own controversial work.

The lack of transparency, the sweeping generalizations, and the unsupported conclusions should have raised red flags at Wired. It is credible outlet and it should demand better work, even from its columnists.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,