Tuesday, 19 June 2012


Simon Baron-Cohen is a professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, and in 2000 he published a book, where an experiment designed to observe biological gender differences in new-born babies (Jennifer Connellan – year unknown) was cited as key evidence to support his claim that the female brain is more suited to empathising with others.  He further concluded that ‘the fact that this difference is present at birth strongly suggests that biology plays a role’.

The experiment consisted of confronting babies with Jennifer Connellan’s smiling face, and also a hanging ball with human eyes painted on, in the wrong position. Baby boys looked for longer at the ball, while girls looked for longer at the face. These findings were summarised in The Guardian by Helena Cronin under the guise of biological gender differences, ‘even at one day old, girls prefer a human face, and boys a mechanical one’.

There are a few things that really surprised me about this experiment, regardless of the result. Firstly, it is not clear why a baby staring at something means that the baby has a ‘preference’ for it and therefore a ‘stronger interest’. Previous researchers (Kagan, Henker, Hen-Tov, Levine and Lewis) have offered us two equally viable reasons behind a pre-verbal baby’s gaze. One of them is indeed preference, and the other is disconcertion.  It seems convenient then, that scientists interpreting Jennifer Connellan’s experiment for the purpose of proving gender differences, are ignoring one pre-existing and perfectly viable scientific concept.

If I use myself as an example, I am more likely to look at a hissing cat for longer than I am going to look at a sleeping cat. This is because I am disconcerted by the hissing, not because I have a preference for it. In my opinion, we cannot measure ‘preference’ accurately by confronting people with two objects, and using how long we look at each of them to determine our conclusions. I don’t like cats at all, I’m allergic to them and a sleeping cat bothers me just as much as an angry cat: I am more afraid of my allergy than I am of being pounced on by a small, furry animal. My preference is to not be near cats at all. I, like the babies in the experiment, am not choosing what is being put in front of me. My personal, definitely-not-an-expert-opinion, is that preference does not necessarily come into it all. Perhaps disconcertion doesn’t either. I also think that unless the human we’re experimenting on can give us their explanation, we should be considering both possibilities, and more.

Secondly, no-one has ever repeated this experiment. It is absolutely vital that if we are going to present our ‘scientific findings’ as fact, that we create a replication of our experiment to ensure that our initial results were not purely down to chance. You learn that at about 12 years old. You can fail your GCSE science exam if you forget to do it. How on earth did this person get away with it? This constitutes an illegitimate result. It is really, really bad practice.

Thirdly, it is the only experiment of its kind to find this link between biology and gender differences in babies. Countless experiments of this kind have been conducted with the majority producing ambiguous results. A few produced results in the other direction, but I didn’t hear about any of them in the newspaper. Until one experiment finally comes along, claiming to prove what we all want to hear, we disregard all of the other ones.

Fourthly, she personally leant over the babies and smiled at them. She could have been communicating any number of things through micro-expressions that may have affected the outcome. Maybe she has a preference for girls. It is not impossible for her expectations to have had an impact on the experiment. Even her scent could have impacted. How anyone could take the experiment’s results as evidence that women are more empathetic is beyond me.

It would be foolish of me not to provide you with an alternative experiment.

Kagan, Henker, Hen-Tov, Levine and Lewis, carried out a study on innate gender differences, on four month old infants in 1966.  They chose four different objects: a regular face, a face with the features rearranged, a face with no eyes, and a face with the features removed. The results showed that all of the babies preferred the regular face as they smiled at it a lot more. The only difference to emerge between boys and girls was that the boys looked and smiled more at all of the faces. This result contrasts greatly with Jennifer Connellan’s, and it is probably important to note that a baby’s smile is a far more accurate way of measuring preference than a gaze, so perhaps it would serve Jennifer Connellan better to adapt her experiment for older babies. Also, this 1966 experiment was replicated, and the findings were the same. A gender difference was suggested but it was counter-intuitive to us, so we’ve glossed over it.

Another point of interest is, that if these results in 1966 really did highlight that boys are biologically more empathetic, why do the empathy tests we use to measure empathy in adults generally agree that women are more empathetic by nature? I'm not suggesting for a second that boys are biologically more empathetic, I'm simply raising an issue with stereotypes. Read my post, 'Stereotype Threat', as it shows how strongly we conform to our gender specific characteristics when we know they're being measured, and how remarkable the results are when we have no idea.

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