Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Evolution of Music as Medicine: Improving Mood Regulation, Focus, and Well-Being

Psychologist Michael Hogan asks at Psychology Today, “What are the adaptive functions of music listening?” He explains:

Research has highlighted mood regulation to be the most important function of music listening, but people also listen to music for its cognitive benefits, such as increased focus and attention, the experience of cognitive complexity, to facilitate social interaction and bonding, and reinforce social identity. More recently, research has started to focus on how music promotes wellbeing, which we can think of as simply the hedonic balance of positive and negative emotions, or more broadly in terms of our life engagement, meaning, and overall psychological and social well-being. It seems that beyond hedonic well-being, the broader, so-called “eudaimonic” aspects of wellbeing become more important as we age, but we know very little about how music interacts with these aspects of wellbeing. Research does suggest, however, that music brings about not only pleasure but also absorption and transcendence in listeners, so it is worth considering how music enhances wellbeing in the fullest possible sense, drawing upon the rich collective intelligence of experienced listeners.

Referencing his research with Jenny Groarke, he writes:

While both younger and older adults emphasized the importance of music in bringing about strong emotions, these emotions had a more positive, transcendent quality for older adults, who consistently spoke about music taking them to “another world”, “a different dimension”, and “transcending the mundane”. Transcendent experiences are functionally significant and have been related to benefits such as increased happiness and meaning in life, higher life satisfaction, and reduced loneliness in older adults.  Indeed, for the older adults in our study it seems that listening to music plays an important role in easing feelings of loneliness. At the same time, while older adults spoke about using music to reduce feelings of isolation, younger adults spoke about how music allowed them to carve out a personal space where they could limit social connection. As one young woman described it, “When I’m listening to music, I can escape sort of, even though there’s people around… I can escape that stress,” (Female, 24). It seems that while younger adults may be using music to ease the stresses associated with their active social lives, older adults may listen to music to compensate for their feelings of social isolation.

Both age groups discussed using music to aid reminiscence. Analysis of the collective intelligence transcripts revealed that reminiscence is linked to personal growth and empathy for older adults, whereas for younger adults reminiscence may serve self-regulatory functions that facilitate coping with life. For example, while older adults spoke about listening to music to bring back fond memories such as “lovely memories of a particular person that may have passed on” (Female, 65), younger adults described using music to consciously remember significant others, for example when feeling homesick, and even for less adaptive reasons such as “break-up songs, just to torture yourself” (Female, 22). In relation to personal growth, older adults described music as enhancing reflection which, in turn, helped them to foster feelings of compassion for themselves and others.

Our study was the first to use Interactive Management to explore the connections between music listening and wellbeing, and consider how the functions of music listening may differ between younger and older adults. It appears that both older and younger adults believe that music has an effect on their wellbeing. A meta-analysis of the systems thinking of younger and older adults highlighted the importance of intense emotional experiences, reminiscence, and eudaimonic experiences such as meaning and transcendence in driving all other adaptive functions of music listening. These aspects of music listening function adaptively to enhance feelings of wellbeing across the lifespan, in old and young alike.

Read the full version of their paper here. And check out their site, The Adaptive Functions of Music Listening.


The Science of Sexy Backs: Women’s Evolved Lumbar Curvature Signals Ability to Handle Shift of Mass During Pregnancy

Evolutionary psychologists tell us there is an unmistakably Darwinian logic to the things we find sexually attractive. As we know, everyone alive today is the product of an unbroken line of ancestors who all succeeded in the game of survival and reproduction.

The first task a person must solve to have offspring is to find a fertile mate. Evolutionary psychology research suggests that modern humans have inherited a preference for looks that signal fertility: a low “waist-to-hip ratio,” for example — that hourglass shape that women aspire to have and men adore. Well, it turns out that a low waist-to-hip-ratio correlates with fewer complications in childbirth. And then there’s how men, more than women, are attracted by cues of youthfulness? In all likelihood, this is because fertility is sharply age-graded in women, more so than in men.

The latest kid on the block of Darwinian approaches to beauty is the unsexy term lumbature curvature. In a new paper published in Evolution and Human Behavior by David Lewis, Eric Russell, Laith Al-Shawaf and David Buss, the authors investigated which kinds of curvature of a woman’s lower back that men find most attractive. The reason? One adaptive problem uniquely faced in our bipedal species is a forward-shifted center of mass during pregnancy.

During pregnancy, if the center of mass could not somehow be moved back over the hips, our ancestral mothers would have suffered a nearly 800% increase in hip torque. One solution that women’s spines — though not men’s — evolved in order to deal with this challenge is a “wedging” in the third-to-last vertebra. That is, women’s third-to-last vertebra is shaped a bit like a wedge, with one thick end and tapering to the other, thinner end.  This makes it easier for pregnant mothers to bring the trunk’s center of mass back on top of their hips by extending their back. However, there is a delicate balance to strike — between enabling a move of center of mass during pregnancy and still retaining ordinary skeletal reinforcement.

To make a long story short, the researchers predicted that men will have evolved a preference for female backs that signal the optimal angle of lumbar curvature, which according to the orthopedic medical literature is around 45.5°. They conducted two experiments to test their hypothesis. First, they showed men images of women in profile, in which they manipulated the curvature of the lower back. (Technically, they varied the external angle formed between the buttock and thoracic spine.) The images that the men rated most attractive were those with a lower back that fit the magical 45.5 optimal degree of vertebrate wedging.

The curvature of the back, however, is not just influenced by vertebral wedging, but also by buttock mass. And in the researchers’ first study, the images varied in “buttock protrusion.” So the researchers conducted a second study in which men viewed images identical in buttock protrusion, but in only one condition was the buttock protrusion a cue to vertebral wedging. They found that men preferred women where buttock protrusion signaled optimal vertebral wedging. Men’s preference for a curved back, then, seems not to be just a by-product of a preference for buttock mass (Sir Mix-A-Lot notwithstanding), but a preference for backs that signal a specific degree of vertebrate wedging.

Here’s to the sexy backs.

Stop Counting, Start Collecting: Hormone Measurements in Evolutionary Psychology Research

In recent years, evolutionary psychologists have conducted lab-based and naturalistic studies suggesting that naturally cycling women (i.e. women who are not on hormonal contraceptives, such as the pill) experience a suite of behavioral and cognitive changes depending whether they are in the follicular, ovulatory, or luteal phase of their menstrual cycles. During ovulation, when a woman’s chance of conception is highest, she is likely to report higher levels of sexual desire, have a strong preference for masculine-looking men, and wear certain types of clothing—specifically, red clothing.

In 2013, a study conducted by psychologists Alec Beall and Jessica Tracy found that women at high conception risk (women who self-reported being on days 6-14 of the cycle) were over 3 times as likely as women at low conception risk (women who self-reported being on days 0-5 and 15-28 of the cycle) to wear red or pink shirts. Day of the cycle was determined by counting the number of days since women’s last self-reported menses.

There was just one problem—that “day of the cycle was determined by counting the number of days since women’s last self-reported menses.” This counting method is frequently employed in studies relating cycle phase to behavior because of its ease relative to collecting and assaying saliva samples for hormone concentrations. However, prior to when this study was conducted, there were several reasons to doubt its accuracy in classifying high versus low fertility days, which may make results from studies using this method suspect.

Acknowledging this flaw, evolutionary psychologists Adar Eisenbruch, Zachary Simmons, and James Roney conducted similar analyses to Beall and Tracy, but instead of using the counting method, they collected saliva samples (that were then assayed for hormone concentrations) each time women came into the lab. They then also used the counting method, and examined the concordance between the counting and hormonal methods of conception risk classification.

Using the counting method, there was no difference in the percentage of low and high conception risk women who wore red. When using the hormonal method, however, a significantly higher percent of high conception risk women wore red than did low conception risk women. So, while the use Beall and Tracy’s methods resulted in an inability to replicate their own original findings, the use hormonal methods for conception risk classification resulted in support for high conception risk women being more likely to wear red.

Perhaps more interesting, and certainly more worrisome than this central finding, was the lack of concordance between the counting and hormonal methods of classification—the two agreed in a mere 64% of cases. In other words, for more than 1/3 of the time, these two methods classified women as being in opposite conception risk categories. Further, almost half of the days identified as high conception risk by hormonal methods were classified as low conception risk by the counting method.

That the counting method can differ substantially from hormonal methods of conception risk classification challenges the reliability of some prior findings of cycle phase effects. While it is certain that using the counting method is easier, quicker, and less expensive than collecting and assaying saliva samples, it is unclear whether these advantages outweigh the findings of Eisenbruch et al.  suggesting that the counting method may be incorrect more than third of the time.

It may be that as evidence of the flaws of the counting method continues to accumulate, its use in evolutionary psychology will become increasingly harder to justify, thus opening the door for broader use of more methodologically-sound research practices.

Men’s Mate Preferences: What OkCupid Can Tell Us About Evolutionary Psychology

In 2014, approximately 10 million people used the online dating website OkCupid. While for users this means that billions of messages were exchanged and (probably) thousands of bad dates were had, for OkCupid CEO Christian Rudder, this means there’s an endless pool of data on interpersonal interactions begging to be analyzed.

In his 2014 book Dataclysm, Rudder analyzes data from OkCupid along with other social media sites (e.g. Twitter) to teach us about how we see ourselves, and how we interact with others. While many of his findings are noteworthy, he describes a phenomenon particularly relevant to the potential evolutionary mechanisms that influence mate choice.

Rudder asked men from ages 20 to 50 to rate the attractiveness of women of all ages. He then figured out the age of the women who looked best (i.e. got the highest ratings) to men who were 20, to men who were 21, and so on.

Men who were 20 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive. Men who were 21 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive. Jumping forward a bit, men who were 30 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive, as did men who were 31, as did men who were 46, as did men who were 47…

As you can see, the men in Rudder’s sample prefer more or less the same thing across all ages: women who are 20. From an evolutionary standpoint, this kind of innate preference for women of this age makes some sense: a woman’s chance of conception is highest in her early 20s, and decreases continually thereafter.

So, if we believe that some behaviors and preferences in men are driven by evolutionary mechanisms to facilitate the creation of offspring, men with preferences for women at peak fertility could potentially be more reproductively successful than men with preferences for women who are older and thus less fertile.>

Interestingly, this preference of men for women in their early 20s did not translate to actual behavior on the site. When indicating their preferences, most men said they were looking for someone around their age, and sent the most messages to women within 10 years of their own age.

This disconnect between what men say they want and who they rate as most attractive may be in part due to what women on the site want. While men rate women who are 20 as most attractive regardless of their own age, women rate men who are in their own age range as the most attractive, and indicate that they are looking for someone in that same range.

What does this mean practically? While a 40 year old man messaging many 20-year-old women on the site may get some positive responses, he is much more likely to get them from women in their 30s and 40s, and should take this into account to maximize his changes of finding love (or whatever else he may be looking for on OkCupid).

For more findings about how Twitter has influenced the way we write, which phrases are most common in White OkCupid users and least common in Asian users, and why the variability in your attractiveness rating is more important than your average rating, check out Rudder’s book, Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity–What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves.