Bite Sized Science: Square jawed tough guy?

By Keir Liddle

The image of the rugged, wide faced, square jawed tough guy conjures up all manner of stereotypes about what kind of person they are. But how many of these hold true?

They are often seen as stoic,  lacking warmth, dishonest, and stubborn with some of these  being backed up by existing research into face morphology and personality it’s hard to escape the notion that the square jawed tough guy could be “bad to the bone”.

However University of St Andrews psychologists Michael Stirrat and David Perrett questioned this stereotype and wondered if the link between facial structure and an individuals personality and behaviour was real. Suspecting that men who look aggressive and untrustworthy might actually be good guys in some contexts.

The researchers gave University of St Andrews students money to play a game in groups where they could either benefit themselves and free-ride on the cooperation of others or they could risk their money to benefit their group. Half of the students were told that the outcomes of the game would be compared between St Andrews students, the other half that they would be compared with a rival university. The prediction was that the wider faced men would respond to the rivalry in the second condition and sacrifice their money for their own group.

The results of the study confirmed their hypotheses and turned the typical associations with facial width on their head: the more robust looking, wider faced men in the study were more self-sacrificing than other men. The present finding provides a more nuanced understanding of masculinity and male behaviour. Compared with women, men appear to be more sensitive to intergroup relationships and to whether they are being observed. The results of this experiment suggest that while more robust males may show more ‘masculine’ behaviour in anti-social ways such as physical aggression they are also more likely to make sacrifices to support the groups to which they belong. In short, the same characteristics in men predict both anti-social and pro-social behaviour, depending on the context.

The research seems to highlight that we should always be wary of the biases and stereotypes we hold. These can be useful cognitive heuristics that stop our brains shutting down under an immense cognitive load but no stereotype can cover every situation and context.

As a stereotype by necessity and by design is a mental shortcut nothing more.

Bite Sized Science: Plants are harmless, right?

By Sonia Watson

Of all fallacies none get my attention more than the naturalistic fallacy, the claim that anything “natural” is good and “unnatural” is bad. You can eat “natural” food and treat yourself with “natural” medicines, because of course the human body just can’t deal with ikky man-made products…honestly, have these people never been pushed maliciously by their younger cousin into a bush of nettles? Nature can be a stingy, itchy bitch. But she can be a lot crueller. Deadly even.

A new study published in PNAS adds to the decade of evidence that use of extracts from Aristolochia plants in herbal medicine can have fatal consequences. Aristolochic acid (AA), a compound produced by the plants, was first red flagged in 2001 after being linked to kidney damage and urinary tract cancers in Belgian women prescribed a weight-loss treatment containing the compound. It was subsequently found that AA causes tumours that have specific gene mutations. The new study into the effects of AA was conducted in Taiwan where the use of Aristolochia herbal remedies for, among other things, kidney stones, snake bites and to ease childbirth (the plants are also known as birthworts) is widespread and the incidence of upper urinary tract carcinoma (UUC) is the highest in the world. It found that patients with UUC carried this gene mutation specific to AA induced tumours, while those in their control group (patients with renal cell cancer) did not.

Although use of Aristolochia is now banned in Europe it is still widely available in Taiwan and interestingly its use is still legal in the US.

"Natural" may sound like a nice, fuzzy marketing word in today’s world but it is certainly not a synonym for "good".

Link to study: [http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/04/03/1119920109.short]

Chen et al., Aristolochic acid-associated urothelial cancer in Taiwan PNAS 2012 ; published ahead of print April 9, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1119920109