Laurie Toby Edison

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Cross-Gender Friendship, Meet Deep Cultural Bias

Laurie and Debbie say:

Ampersand at Alas! a Blog wrote an excellent response to last month’s article in Scientific American, “Men and Women Can’t Be Just Friends” by Adrian Ward. We only had to look at the title to know the article was wrong, because we and everyone we know has lasting friendships with people of the “opposite” gender. Ampersand mostly takes on the statistical problems with the article:

Ward reports that “men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa.” The study authors asked their subjects to rate their attraction on a scale from 1 (“not at all attracted”) to 9 (“extremely attracted,”) with 5 defined as “moderately attracted.” Here’s what they found: On a scale of 1-9, the average report for women was 4, versus 5 for men. Ward could have more accurately reported that men’s and women’s average responses were “almost alike.”

You’ll find good charts at the Ampersand link. We also point out that not only were men’s and women’s answers similar, they also were “average,” i.e., in the middle of the scale. On a 1-9 scale, extreme results would be somewhere under 3 and somewhere over 6, but neither men nor women landed there on any of the questions asked.

There’s lots more to take issue with in the article, including Ampersand’s closing comments:

Ward opened his article by asking “Can heterosexual men and women ever be just friends?” This study did address that question. Of the college-aged respondents, 98% of men and 97% of women said that they had opposite-sex friends. Among the respondents age 27-52, 86% of men and 88% of women reported having opposite-sex friends.

In other words, the overwhelming majority of both men and women reported that they have opposite-sex friends. Strangely enough, Ward didn’t find that result worth reporting.

Ward could have done a much better job of reporting the study, but the way he reported it is substantially inherent in the study itself. The first sentence of the paper tells us where the researchers are coming from:

We propose that, because cross-sex friendships are a historically recent phenomenon, men’s and women’s evolving mating strategies impinge on their friendship experiences.

So, they are examining friendships with a lens of “mating strategies,” which, although the study includes people from 27-52, implies that every heterosexual with a cross-sex friendship is also engaged in “mating strategies.” The researchers begin by excluding asexual and celibate people, people in solid monogamous relationships, and people whose sex lives happen outside of their friendship sphere, among others.

We also take exception to the “historically recent phenomenon.” In the paper itself, the scientists jump in one paragraph from hunter-gatherer cultures (in which they somehow get to conclude that cross-sex friendships didn’t exist) to contemporary Western culture. Cross-sex friendships do require a space in which women have some agency and men and women can meet each other outside of ritualized courtship customs–but whenever that happens historically, women and men have made friends.

One basic assumption of the paper is that cross-sex friendships create complex sexual attraction feelings between the friends and jealousy on the part of either one’s monogamous partners. Of course, this can happen. The expectation that it always or usually happens, however, is the researchers putting their own presumptions and cultural stamps on their research: they live in the same everything-is-a-mating-strategy box that they are writing about, and they can’t see over the lid.

In this context, you would expect to see their next argument, which is one of the mainstays of that box: long-term mating is better for women than for men, and thus women are more invested in it than men are (because of the children, of course).  They have lots of evolutionary psychology studies to “back this up,” see our “junk science” tag for how bad these studies usually are.

Oh? Size of the study? 88 friendship pairs, i.e., bigger than some of the junk science groups but nowhere near enough to constitute real data. Of course, all are from “a public university in the United States,” so we can forget any cross-cultural information.

Ampersand is dead right about how similar the numbers are (every single answer is within two standard deviations).

The paper (and the article) also report a second study, with a somewhat larger (but no more diverse) sample size, looking at costs and benefits within cross-sex friendships. The results of this study show somewhat more difference between men and women, but nowhere near as much as the tone of the reporting.

In sum, if the researchers had set out to prove that men and women (from one large public university) appreciate, enjoy, and value cross-gender friendships, they could use the data from the first experiment, and much of the data from the second experiment to make their case. Instead, they never examine their own oversimplified gender and “mating strategy” assumptions. Maybe they’ve been reading too many “women’s magazine” articles. They skew their results a little; Adrian Ward skews them more. In the end, we are all subjected to the ongoing drumbeat of gender simplicity, unless we really dig out the real results of the study.

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