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More on Emotional Intelligence and Women’s Sex Lives

May 13th, 2009

Dr Petra

As you’ll remember from yesterday there was a lot of (uncritical) press coverage of the intelligent-women-have-more-sex story. Except, as you’ll also remember, the research that prompted the media flurry didn’t measure intelligence at all and had a number of problems with methodology and funding.

What the research actually assessed was the link between emotional intelligence (EI) and frequency of orgasm. You can read my (rather long) take on the study here.

I’m glad to see that today a number of bloggers have also picked up on this story. Either critiquing the research, the media coverage, or both.

First up, Vaughan at Mind Hacks has taken a closer look at the statistical analysis in the Emotional Intelligence/Orgasm Frequency study and found the correlations aren’t that strong and don’t seem to support the conclusions posited in the paper.

This issue is also covered by Observations of a Nerd’s blog which serves as a useful reminder that correlation doesn’t equal causation and also questions what exactly has been measured in the EI/Orgasm Frequency research.

NHS Choices
also cover this in a blog that begins in a heartsink way, you almost believe they’ve been suckered in with the media coverage. But about half way in they carry out a very clear and thorough critical appraisal of the paper with some excellent summaries and conclusions about the research. Well worth a read – not least as an example of how to communicate an academic paper to a lay audience.

Taking on both the academic content of the research and media coverage Menstrual Poetry criticised the way the media constructed ‘intelligent’ women within coverage (ie mostly as ladies in states of undress, with their hair in a bun and librarian-style glasses on). They also complained about the unhelpful construction of female sexuality as emotionally driven, which admittedly the original paper did not do but the subsequent press coverage definitely played upon.

Interestingly I had an email from a pictures editor in response to my blog yesterday. They told me stories like this are particularly attractive to editors because they allow for very little thought about the story but are guaranteed to generate interest with the combination of sex and science. Most importantly they can be matched with a ‘suggestive photo of a sultry lady ‘. Apparently for such stories the standard photo of half dressed lady in glasses signifies sexy intelligence.

Something the comedy website The Daily Mash also picked up on :-) Want to put this to the test? Just put ‘emotional intelligence’ into google news and see what photos were selected to sell this story.

You can see why coverage like this either annoys people or makes it seem like sex research is lightweight and untrustworthy. Certainly researchers aren’t to blame for images chosen to illustrate their stories. But if you put out any press release that suggests that smart women have better sex it’s got to be obvious what kind of coverage will follow – and how that may not fully represent your research and could mislead the public about female sexual desires.

Feministing’s response to the study was a quick quip and an opportune posting of an oft-overlooked Madonna song (and raunchy video). While the criticisms of the research seem to be based more on what it represents for women than a critique of the actual paper, there are a number of valid concerns raised in the comments section of the Feministing post around women’s sexual response that again should have been discussed more by the researchers of the study – and the media.

Finally, another reader of this blog emailed me with the suggestion perhaps women who scored higher on EI were better able, from an evolutionary perspective, to select partners who would satisfy them sexually. An interesting hypothesis, and one that I’m sure would encourage heated debate between evolutionary psychologists and those who’re more into social/critical approaches to the study of sex.

What’s worth noting is with all these different takes on this story – particularly in the cases where people have read and critically appraised the original research paper – is the more people who reflect on the research, the more problems have been identified.

Which leaves me wondering how the peer review process worked on the original study. Since if we were all able to spot these problems, why didn’t the reviewers?

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