Extreme brains: gender bias, social sensitivity, the scientific method and eating disorders

Post in summary

This post links the controversial idea of an “extreme female brain”, to the teaching of (AQA A) gender bias and the ethics of socially sensitive research (Unit 3, AO2), various aspects of the scientific method (Unit 4) and biological explanations of eating disorders (Unit 3; eating behaviour).

The extreme female brain…?!

When I read a BPS Research Digest blog post entitled “Are eating disorders the manifestation of an “Extreme Female Brain”?” (Monday 1st October) I immediately took a sharp intake of breath as I prepared myself to read about the research that prompted this title, desperately trying to supress the tut I could feel about to fly off the end of my tongue at the use of (probably inappropriately) gendered brain terminology.

Only a few lines in and I was already thinking about all the possible sources of gender bias as well as the ethics of this potentially socially sensitive claim for the increasing numbers of males with eating disorders. The post also refers to a controversial (but influential) theory regarding an “extreme male brain” as the cause of autism (proposed by autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen).

I waited patiently for this research to prove me wrong and allay the concerns I had about the argument that an extreme female brain might explain eating disorders, expecting to see some inventive research methods to justify such a bold conclusion. I was, of course, sorely disappointed.

Just the title of this post and the – potentially misleading – images it conjures up has huge scope for discussion in the A Level Psychology classroom, regardless of the specification being followed.

Here are some ways to link the research in this post to the AQA A specification…

Gender bias (A2 Psychology, using issues to analyse research)

In order to access higher mark bands for AO2 students are expected to analyse with reference to approaches, issues and/or debates at A2 (Unit 3).

The assumption in this research is that male and female brains are inherently different, in fact direct opposites when it comes to the “extremes”. The reference to gendered brains, rather than patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking (which is actually what is being assessed), implies that this difference is biological in nature and as such represents a source of alpha bias as the difference is assumed to be real and enduring. The researchers are assuming that empathising and over-thinking are predominately female qualities and yet this claim is more based in hearsay than empirical evidence. The researchers go on to interpret the findings in relation to these unsubstantiated claims and as such the bias continues to impact the conclusions and any implications derived from this research.

The ethics of socially sensitive research (A2 Psychology, Unit 3, using issues to analyse research)

The implications of this research have the potential to have a negative impact on groups in society and therefore are socially sensitive. The assumption that anorexia, for example, is a female disorder and a result of being perhaps “too female” is not only fraught with problems due to the lack of evidence to support this claim, but is also sensitive for males with anorexia and bulimia who already experience stigma and are often misdiagnosed due to assumptions about eating disorders being female disorders.

Irresponsible reporting and publication

There are 3 terms in the title which are potentially misleading: “female”, “male” and “brain”. Professor Keith Laws (University of Hertfordshire) summed up my thoughts in his comment, in response to the post on the BPS blog site, highlighting that there is a worrying tendency to use the word “brain” when something else is being measured. The non-experimental methods predominately used in this research and the behavioural measures employed in no way indicate the structure or functioning of the brain. The word “brain” implies that this is a biological phenomenon. The fact that this research is published in a journal dedicated to Evolutionary Psychology (Evolutionary psychology: an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behaviour) also implies a biological basis to this phenomenon. The research methods used, however, do not allow a conclusion about gendered brains to be drawn.

The scientific method

In theory the “Scientific Method” (Unit 4) should be self-checking and make it difficult, if not impossible, for bias to creep in. However, the more you read about this study the less scientific the method seems to be. The Research Digest post includes reference to an unexpected finding where males with the most dysfunctional attitude to eating had lower scores on the measures of empathy, not higher as would be expected if these males have the so-called “extreme female brain”. As this finding is not consistent with the predictions it should be reported as such and taken seriously as a negaitve finding. However, the researchers simply seemed to have explained this away in such a way that it still supports their hypothesis (they claim the males couldn’t interpret the emotions of people in pictures because they were “over thinking” – a female characteristic – and seeing emotions that were not there!). As the theory cannot seem to be proved wrong it lacks falsifiability, a key hallmark of the scientific method.

Unsupported extrapolations

The post ends with a suggestion that vegetarianism may be common in those with eating disorders, not because it is one way to restrict calories, as is often assumed, but instead because the extreme female brain is more empathic and that vegetarianism is the result of empathy with the plight of animals. I can just imagine a popular press write up of this research depicting people with anorexia or bulimia as over-sensitive, touchy-feely, fluffy animal-lovers who are just a bit too female.

In the classroom

As teacher I love this research for all the reasons I hate it as an avid digester of research. I think it is worth asking A2 students to read the post and discuss the research, perhaps providing prompts for discussion relating to the ideas outlined above, at any point in the course. Students are very likely to raise many of the issues themselves which as a teacher you can simply hang the appropriate key term on the Psychology wide concepts they are discussing, even if they do not realise they are doing this. Ask students to look out for these issues in other research they come across. By using these sorts of examples, I often find I have taught the Scientific Method section of the AQA A spec long before I have even got to Unit 4 (my last teaching unit) as the concepts are so useful for analysing research in Unit 3 in a meaningful way, helping students to access the top makrk bands for AO2 in Unit 3.

Here are a few possible questions to pose to students after reading the Research Digest post and the comments that follow:

  1. Does this mean you cannot be autistic and anorexic? (Autism and eating disorders can co-exist so this might make an interesting area for students to investigate independently).
  2. What are the implications for the treatment of eating disorders?
  3. If you were male with anorexia how would you feel about this research?
  4. Why do you think this research was approved for publication? What validation processes would you expect to happen before it was published?
  5. If you were the researchers how might you defend your research in response to critical comments posted about this research?
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