Friday, October 31, 2014

DID THE POPE EVOLVE? Evolution Psychology & Christianity

Evolutionary Psychology and Christianity

This week Pope Francis commented on creation and drew lots of media attention. Pope Francis has a huge audience as the leader of most of the world’s Christians—some 1.2 billion out of about 2.2 billion

Like many scientists who also hold Christian beliefs, the Pope reaffirmed Catholic teaching that there is no contradiction between religious beliefs and scientific theories about origins of the universe (e.g., so called “Big Bang Theory”) or life (theory of evolution). 

 RNS reported on the story 27 October 2014. The fact that the story became news in the United States reminds us of the continued teaching of a competitive creation narrative that is presented as incompatible with scientific explanations of the origins of the universe and of life.  They assert that the biblical story of creation in Genesis should be understood in a literal (or close to literal) fashion. Although creationists vary in how they deal with possible meanings of biblical words, they consistently reject natural explanations for the origins of the universe and the origins of life. The teaching of Ken Ham and others at TheCreation Museum illustrates a highly literal view (Goldberg, 2014). In fairness, there are a variety of ways Christian conservatives speak about the creation accounts in the beginning of the biblical book of Genesis. So, did the Pope evolve? No. Pope Francis re-affirmed Catholic teaching that God is the Creator. God is not a magician. Faith and science are not incompatible. For Catholics, there is no new teaching.

Evangelical Christians in the U.S. who are not strict creationists have worked to integrate faith and learning in many scientific disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology and psychology. The approaches these writers take vary with some positions requiring greater faith than others as the meaning of words and phrases are stretched or great efforts are invested in showing how a biblical text could be viewed as compatible with contemporary scientific evidence. Over the centuries, simple beliefs about the universe and life have been overturned. Famous historical acts of condemnation by the Catholic Church are well known. Scientists lived in fear.

U. S. Beliefs
The conservative beliefs of those in the U.S. make it clear why the Pope's statements make news in the U.S. media. A sizable minority (42%) believe God created humans in their present form (according to Gallup polls May 2014. See the chart for related questions and polls dating to 1982.

It is not surprising that conservative Christians have problems with science. Only a minority of U S scientists believe in God (33%, Pewforum, 2009) but who knows what type of God concept they have compared with that of the 83% believers identified as the "General Public" (not sure why they use the word general).

The National Center for Science Education reports that 97% of scientists believe humans and other life evolved.

The psychological response to a stressor is to flee or fight. That makes sense. Survive to live another day. The Big Bang Theory and Evolutionary Theory pose threats to some worldviews—especially when atheists ignore or ridicule any divine role. It is easy to understand the fears of Christian fundamentalists. The more scientists offer natural explanations about how the universe came into existence and how life formed and evolved, the less of a need to believe God did it all by speaking a few divine words. And some fear, maybe God will be written out of the cosmic equation altogether. You have one scope, not two, when looking at the world from a fundamentalist perspective ( perhaps a bad pun, here's the link to the Scopes Trial transcript).

When science educators teach children about the universe and evolution, they offer a different worldview than do fundamentalist clergy and other religious teachers. To the public it looks like a choice between science and religion. The vociferous conservatives and their equally ardent scientific counterparts seem poles apart. It appears as a win-lose proposition. The win-loss scenario is illustrated by those who participate in creation-evolution debates. Debates are staged to have a winner and a loser. The same goes for creationists and intelligent design advocates who go to court over evolution-related concerns. In court, someone wins or loses a case. When Christian theologians, scientists, and other advocates lose debates or court cases to scientists, they also lose credibility for themselves and for Christianity. (Link to Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate).

What’s next? Well if you can play “fast and loose” with the Genesis account of the creation of the earth and As it turns out, Christian fundamentalists view what you do with creation as a litmus test for what you do with the entire Bible. I’ve heard the slippery slope metaphor a lot. You can see this fear illustrated in Goldberg’s The Atlantic story. Do you see the fears about same-sex marriage linked to abandoning creationist views of the Bible?
life, what about those other Genesis stories? After all, the first three chapters of Genesis are where conservative Christians turn when they speak of man being created in the image of God. And it is where the first wedding or marriage happened between one man and one woman. Undoing the genesis creation knot leads to unraveling other beliefs—or so the fear plays out for some.

It gets worse. Pope Francis referred to evolution. Whatever details may or may not be in his mind, people who understand evolution know it isn’t just about the origins of life or gradual changes within species. The theory of evolution involves human evolution and challenges religious leaders to explain the concept of man created by God. And man created in the image of God. Where are the evangelical leaders who will offer university students a coherent framework for understanding what it means for life to have evolved over billions of years? And what about a theology that accounts for people who have evolved over some four to six million years?

It gets even worse for psychologists. As one preacher said to me a few years ago, “psychologists were kin to satan when you were in school” (I got my B.A. in 1972). Psychological theories were of the devil. People had problems because of sin and the cure for depression, anxiety, alcohol addiction and all the other mental disorders was prayer or in some cases, deliverance from demon possession. Just as conservative evangelicals and perhaps a few fundamentalists began to warm to the idea that some Christian psychologists and their colleagues in counseling, social work, and psychiatry are not so bad after all, here comes evolutionary theory to explain the origins of that part of human nature that has roots in the distant past. 

According to evolutionary psychological theory, human nature evolved over millions of years. Humans share some adaptive behavior patterns and survival characteristics with other animals. Evolutionary psychology offers a way of thinking about human nature (read more). Is it time for Christian fundamentalists and their conservative colleagues to re-assert their fears about psychology and related disciplines? Is it time for clergy to resume their rightful role of counseling parishioners rather than passing them off to psychologists and their kindred spirits? Where are the evangelical Christians who will integrate evolutionary psychology with Christian theology?

Psychologists and Psychiatrists have become the priests of western societies. They are the sages to whom people turn with troubled spirits and troubled lives. They are the people who study human nature and offer a range of interventions founded on science. In the minds of some, psychology is a religion. And psychology is in direct competition with the Bible. The fears of those fundamentalist Christians who warned about psychology a few decades ago have been realized.

Of course, the fears are only real for some people because many Christian clinicians work diligently to integrate their Christian beliefs with psychological science. And as noted last week, many people opt for Christian clinicians in the U.S. (I use the word clinician to include licensed professionals who diagnose and treat people with mental illness. Many people are not clear on the differences between psychologists and psychiatrists or between counselors, psychologists and social workers).

In the end, science educators in communities with high percentages of conservative Christians and in conservative Christian schools will bear the brunt of the challenge to maintain personal integrity as they remain current with advances in scientific knowledge while appeasing those who insist on specific statements about creation and evolution. I suspect educators in conservative venues will have to sign covenants and/ or remain on guard as to their communication (I’ve heard rumors of required signatures in the past). Faculty, staff, and students at conservative schools do not have free speech. And faculty do not have academic freedom in the same way as do their peers at secular schools or schools affiliated with that tribe of Christianity known as “liberals” (to rank and file conservatives, they are not really Christians).

There are several ways that Christians extract themselves from having to choose between a literal reading of Genesis and a godless view of origins. People want to understand themselves and their world. That is the quest of both science and faith. Both religion and science offer ways to understand nature. Fundamentalists frame alternatives as competing. Some Christians look for ways to insert God into the gaps of what has been discovered or known (God of the gaps). Still others look at multiple layers of meaning or different spheres of concern. You can read volumes on ideas people have that allow students to aggressively pursue knowledge without having to pinpoint where God fits as a causal agent in any particular algorithm.

That's enough for this week. I think I shall come back to this topic with additional information and reflections on integration.

Friday, October 24, 2014

How does hope lead to a better marriage?

Faith, Hope, and Marriage

I’m at that age when my wife and I attend weddings again. The children of our friends are getting married. We've known one or both members of the loving couple for years-- sometimes since they were children. What a great occasion! Old memories mix with the present celebration. For a day or two dozens of us are transported to a world where there is only joy and love. Smiling young people sing and dance, kiss and hug. And colorful pictures tag their way along digital corridors. A new marriage has begun.

Most people enter their first marriage because they are deeply in love and want to be together forever. Some obtain premarital counseling and some do not. If they think ahead, they have high expectations that they will have a great marriage. On occasion, close friends and family members can’t imagine a relationship working out. But love is blind. And sometimes the skeptics are wrong.

When trouble looms, many couples try to work things out. They take time to be together. Schedule a fantastic holiday weekend. See a marriage counselor. Consult a priest or pastor. Attend a marriage seminar. They have invested emotions, and a whole lot more, in a life together. But at some point many give up. Divorce is easy to come by and life is too short to spend any more time in a relationship that really ended months or years ago. Is there any hope that marriages can be restored?

So, what works?
If counseling is going to work, what kinds of interventions will make a difference? One intervention is the Hope-Focused Couples Approach (also known as HFCA, but I will refer to this as Hope) developed by Everett L. Worthington Jr. and his colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Hope approach is one of those interventions that has been supported by research and clinical practice. And it is a faith friendly approach (psychology researchers use the phrase religious-accommodative intervention), hence it is relevant to my blog on the Psychology of Religion. As you might expect, interventions that accommodate religious beliefs in the United States will be tested in Christian samples. In fact, given a choice, most in the U.S. will opt for a faith-friendly intervention (72%; cited in Ripley et al., 2013).

In a recently published chapter (2013) aimed at clinicians, Jennifer S. Ripley, Vickey L. Maclin, and Joshua N. Hook joined with Everett L. Worthington Jr. to review the evidence and offer practical suggestions. There’s a helpful table summarizing the findings of 11 research studies between 1995 and 2012. Most studies involve a dozen or more couples. Two were case studies. The 2012 study included 145 couples randomly assigned to Hope, another intervention, and a control condition. Worthington and his colleagues measured outcomes in several ways. They asked people to complete widely used questionnaires, studied behavior, and measured cortisol levels—a biological marker of stress.

What’s included in Hope?
The Hope focused approach is a strategic intervention. With clinician guidance, couples identify those behavior patterns and beliefs or other factors that seem so destructive. An intervention plan focuses on what can be done to improve the relationship with a focus on the importance of repairing the relationship bond (the authors draw on attachment theory).

What about hope? Hope is one of those positive psychology variables investigated in depth by the late C. R Snyder of the University of Kansas. Snyder found that hope has two components. Hopeful people are motivated to achieve goals and believe they can (agency). And hopeful people have a goal-focused plan (pathway). The Hope researchers also draw on a theology that encourages people to wait on God. (They cite the Catholic existential philosopher, Gabriel Marcel).

What else makes a difference? Worthington is known for his forgiveness research. He and his colleagues draw on that legacy to include forgiveness interventions known to heal damaged relationships. They believe the forgiveness component is the most important to long-term effectiveness.

How does Hope relate to Faith?
Referring to Christian theology, the authors observe that faith involves “belief in things not yet seen (p. 196).”

Christians couples are encouraged to have faith in God to support their relationship. Love is the third concept linked to faith and hope in Hope focused counseling as well as in Christian theology. In this context, loving couples increase their valuing of their partners and refuse to devalue them.

Christian virtues are linked to hope. I already mentioned forgiveness. Another virtue is humility. Also important are such virtues as waiting patiently, showing love, and speaking gently. Christians and many people of other religions view the marriage relationship as sacred. Marriages often begin in churches and temples. Clergy officially conduct the ceremony. And for Christians, God is invited to be present. Christians and other people of faith also think in terms of covenants and vows. These deep commitments go to the heart of what binds people together in any relationship and can be especially important to recall and enhance in a marriage relationship.

Any specific interventions?
The authors offer several of their most effective interventions. As you might expect, they include prayer and show its importance to Christian couples. They are aware of the problems in prayer research but note that prayer is the most commonly used Christian intervention in counseling or psychotherapy. Other specifics include communication skills, scaling strategies to assess closeness, empty chair techniques linked to empathy development and forgiveness interventions, and sculpting. Sculpting is a theatrical strategy that encourages people to use their posture to show their distance or closeness from each other and how they might relate to each other. For example, in a damaged relationship the couple may place themselves at a distance and be looking away from each other as if focused on their own life pursuits. See the sculpting video on my YouTube Playlist).

My Thoughts

The Hope Focused intervention works for many couples.

Clinicians ought to use counseling interventions that are known to be effective with at least some couples. Why would anyone want to use counseling approaches that are not supported by evidence when evidence-based practices are available?

Couples seeking counseling ought to work with clinicians who know and use interventions that are known to be effective with some couples. So many couples are in distress. Couples cannot be expected to know what interventions work and which do not. I hope readers of this post will get the word out to all people seeking counseling that there are some effective interventions for many conditions or situations. That does not mean an approach works well for all people but it does mean some interventions are supported by evidence. And people do well to work with clinicians who understand what works and what does not work.

Clinicians ought to understand and respect the role of faith in the lives of all clients. And clinicians ought to be especially cognizant of the importance of faith to the sacredness of marriage for many people. Most people in the world are religious. And most in the U.S. are Christian. The Hope approach is one approach that is faith-friendly.

Clearly more research is needed. There are other approaches to marriage counseling that have been supported by evidence. My primary concern is that people should seek treatment from professionals who employ evidenced-based interventions. And I consider it important that religious persons not seek treatment from someone just because they share the same faith. In this context, I might suggest that faith without evidenced based practice might lead to a dead relationship.

Follow this link to read my review of the book Evidenced-based practices for Christian counseling and psychotherapy (Free download or the paper can be bookmarked).

I recommend the book. Although I know some of the authors, I receive no compensation for my recommendation.

Related Posts

Ripley, J. S., Maclin, V. L., Hook, J. N., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2013). The hope-focused couples approach to counseling and enrichment. In E. L. Worthington Jr., E. L. Johnson, J.N. Hook, & J.D. Aten (Eds.), Evidenced-based practices for Christian counseling and psychotherapy (pp. 189-208). Downers Grove, IL: CAPS/IVP Academic.

Wade, N.G., Worthington, E.L., Jr., & Vogel, D.L. (2007). Effectiveness of religiously-tailored
interventions in Christian therapy. Psychotherapy Research, 17, 91-105.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Christian women in positions of authority

Women as Religious Leaders and 

         the Morality of Discrimination

This weekend saw the inauguration of a woman as president of a conservative evangelical university in the middle of the United States. Dr.Carol Taylor earned her Ph.D. from Florida State University, gained leadership experience in higher education, and was hired to be the fourth president of Evangel University located in Springfield, Missouri. What makes the appointment interesting is not only that she is a woman heading up what is arguably the flagship university of the Assemblies of God USA (AG) but the fact that she represents an unusual position taken by an otherwise highly conservative Christian group. Unlike many Christian groups, the AG ordains women. Ordained women serve as senior pastors and missionaries and have done so for years. Not surprisingly, many women were encouraged by this move. If you are wondering how it is that the AG can justify women as clergy and leaders, here’s a link to their position paper. As to their Evangelical status, the AG is listed as a member of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the university is one of the members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

Sex Differences and Christianity

Perhaps the best known example of distinct gender roles within Christianity is the Catholic Church’s position that only men can be priests. In the past few decades, many protestant groups (e.g., Church of England, Episcopalians, Methodists) have changed their clergy-gender rules to allow women to hold the same positions as men. An unusual case is the conservative U.S. Assemblies of God, which has ordained women for years although in practice women often had difficulty obtaining senior leadership positions. The Bible contains other rules indicating different roles for men and women. Here are a few examples:

Men and women were not to wear each other’s clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Women are to submit to the leadership of their husbands (1 Corinthians 11:3; 11: 8-9; Ephesians 5:22-33)
Women are to be silent in churches (1 Corinthians 14:34).
Women should not have a teaching role (1 Timothy 2:11-15).

Following the teachings and patterns of leaders in the Old and New Testaments, fundamentalists view men as leaders within religious organizations as well as in the family. Some denominations are careful to point out that God values both men and women. Men are seen as protectors of women and their families and as leaders they should assume a respectful servant role. Women are to submit to men and help men.

Obviously, some Christians disagree with the traditional limitations imposed on women despite a handful of Bible verses. People interpret the texts differently.

Righteous robes

News accounts often depict Muslim men and women in modest clothes, which cover most of the body. Women’s clothes vary with some cultures requiring a covering from head to foot in public. Christian men and women used to wear modest clothes. But that has changed in the last few decades.

At different points in our marriage, my wife has worked for Christian organizations. When she did, she was required to wear a dress or skirt. Slacks are men’s clothing. As such, women were forbidden to wear men’s clothes. Although conservative Christian cultures changed since her childhood in that they no longer viewed wearing jeans and slacks as sinful, the rule in the workplace did not change until after the year 2,000. For thousands of years religious groups have maintained rules about the right and wrong clothes for women.

Most conservative Christians have moved beyond concerns about women in slacks and men wearing long hair. But ultraconservative groups continue to have rules about different clothing for women and men. Amish women continue to wear dresses and the men continue to wear suits for Sunday dress. LDS women and men have specific guidelines when serving as missionaries. On their website ( , 2014) are pictures of appropriate clothes. None of the women wear slacks.

An interesting aspect to the inauguration of President Carol Taylor is the dress—men and women wore robes distinguished by the degree earned and the school they attended—not their gender. No I am not suggesting unisex clothing but I like the idea of recognizing people for their accomplishments in their chosen field.

So how do Christian groups deal with those pesky Bible verses?

Some groups find ways to reject Biblical teaching by saying some biblical rules related to culture (i.e., ceremonial laws) and other rules had to do with morality. In this view, moral rules are universal. But rules about gender differences, clothing, food, and other matters were ceremonial and no longer apply to Christians. Other Christians e.g., those in the progressive movement, focus more on the  principle of love encapsulated in the famous teaching to love God and love one's neighbor. Luke 10:27 and Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5.

Different Roles at Home- Submission

James and Phyllis Alsdurf retell horrifying stores of abuse in their book, Battered intoSubmission (1989). One woman recalls the advice she got from Christian books and her husband who was a preacher. “Wives be subject to your husbands as unto the Lord,” she quoted from the Bible (Ephesians 5:22). The authors declare, “And her role was abundantly clear.” This battered woman remembers she was expected to stay home with her kids, meet her husband’s needs and obey what her husband said. She believed a Christian marriage was for life with no way out. After multiple beatings, she shot him. The murder trial was in 1984. And Lucille Tisland was acquitted. In their research, the Alsdurf’s found many examples of Christian women who suffered in silence. 

Tragically, horror stories continue. Women are beaten by famous athletes. And women are at high risk for rape in the military and on college campuses. Submission can be deadly. 

Different Roles in Church

In Western cultures, many evangelicals have moved toward equality for women in nonreligious settings. They have slowly come to accept the changes in industry and government. Accepting women in leadership roles within an official church ministry is another matter. Groups that refer to scriptural teaching as the basis for limiting women’s roles are de facto fundamentalists. That is their behavior is based on a fundamentalist way of viewing the biblical texts. (Link to more on fundamentalists).

The group, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) has published a study of which Christian denominations include women in leadership positions (CBE, 2007). In their review, they focused on ordination but clarified other positions. Many groups affirm women by ordination and by placement in leadership roles. Examples include American Baptist Churches USA, Episcopal Church in the USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Mennonite Church USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and the Vineyard Movement.

The CBE also listed Christian denominations that do not affirm women in leadership positions. The list includes Christian and Missionary Alliance, Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and Mennonite Brethren Churches.

Moral Psychology and Gender Roles

Previously I have discussed the six dimensions of moralpsychology based on the research of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, which can be used to assess how different groups reach conclusions about what is right and wrong—righteous and unrighteous. So I will take a look at how conservative and progressive positions on women’s roles may be viewed in light of the six dimensions.

1  Harm/Care
Women are clearly harmed when their vocational opportunities are limited or they are paid less than men. Given the high number of divorces and the fact that most children continue to reside with their single mothers, harm is extended to children. In Western secular societies, women have made great strides in terms of equality of opportunity and pay but most Christians limit leadership roles for women. In addition to the obvious differential in income and benefits, women can also be harmed by a decrease in wellbeing when their desires are thwarted by religious or social policies.

2. Fairness/Reciprocity

From a philosophical perspective, it is clearly unfair to grant better positions or pay to men instead of women based on differences in biological sex. Because the leaders of any organization are normally paid more than those in lower ranks, and because women cannot hold leadership positions in some Christian denominations, a state of unfairness exists. A conservative might argue for separate but equal roles and suggest that women and men offer different and complementary gifts to a Christian community. It is not known if fairness in pay is also considered by those who hold this complementary position.

3.  Ingroup/Loyalty

Women who wish to hold leadership positions within Christian communities may be forced to leave their current Christian community to join one that affirms women in leadership. This choice can feel disloyal on many levels including not only feelings of betrayal toward the church but also toward family and friends. Leaving a group that has been part of one’s life for years often means exchanging one source of distress for another. The loss of opportunities must be weighed against the loss of relationships for some women.

4.  Authority/Respect

In the traditional view of most Christian groups, a woman is to function under the authority of a man. Over the years, I have heard ways that conservative Christians tried to deal with this rigid interpretation of the Bible. One example is the case of male preachers sitting on the platform when a woman speaks so he could be a spiritual covering for her. In other words, the presence of a man meant the woman was speaking under male authority. The teaching ability of one woman was clearly evident in conversation. She understood the Bible better than most lay persons and had teaching experience. When asked why she did not teach at church she explained it was against the rules.

Clearly, to go against a church’s teaching about a woman’s role is to show disrespect for the authority of the leadership. Although there seems to be a trend toward affirming what women contribute to Christian communities, many will feel ill-treated until they have full equality with men.

5.  Purity/Sanctity

The Hebrew Bible documents limitations on the interaction of women with others. Laws dealing with menstruation and child birth imposed restrictions. It appears that those Hebrew laws persisted into the Christian era and affected how women and men dealt with church attendance. Blood and bodily fluids were associated with the concept of uncleanness. It is obvious that some people have an aversion to blood and respond with a sense of disgust to blood and other bodily fluids.

The recent purity movement is an example of the persistent importance of a special interpretation of sexual purity to conservatives. Of course, this implies that those outside the interpreted boundaries are dirty or filthy. Although the purity message includes guidance to young men, it seems much responsibility is on the young women to be sexually pure. The downside of the movement has been noted e.g., Simon See also the story on purity balls.

6.  Liberty/Oppression

The bottom line regarding liberty is that women have not been as free as men are in most societies for most of recorded history. And the limitations on freedom are also found in Christian communities. Within church hierarchies, women will likely always feel inferior and under men’s rule unless their personal views are aligned with the official views of their tradition. For those who see sex-based leadership as evidence of oppression, bible verse-based sex discrimination policies will continue to incite protests.

The struggle for gender equality among religious conservatives is ongoing.

Congratulations are due Dr. Carol Taylor.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sexual self-control





Sexual responsiveness is my third of three posts looking at the psychology of sex with a view toward understanding variations in sexuality and what research findings might mean for religious leaders who offer guidance to people about right sexual conduct.  

In addition to research about sexual responsiveness, I look at self-control, offer some thoughts, and suggest questions for those concerned with moral implications.

How do psychological scientists study sexual responding?

Some sex researchers present videos of sexual activity to volunteers in laboratory settings. They obtain physiological measures of sexual responding along with subjective reports of the experience. Information about sexual interest and visual responding can be obtained from eye-tracking technology and the time spent viewing a stimulus. Brain imaging can be used to identify which areas of the brain respond to sexual stimuli. Researchers measure the rigidity, circumference, and erection duration of a penis to determine variations in a man’s physiological response to sexual stimuli (Bancroft, 2010). A woman’s genital response is taken from a probe inserted into the vagina, which measures vasocongestion. The participants’ subjective experience of sexual responses is based on self-reported ratings of items on questionnaires.

A man’s response

The relative specificity of the male response is illustrated in research reported by Meredith Chivers (2010). She and her colleagues found that men experience greater genital arousal and report greater subjective sexual responses when viewing increasingly sexualized content, which included their preferred gender. The agreement between physiological arousal and subjective ratings is an average correlation of 0.66

Correlations range from -1.00 through zero to +1.00. Strong relationships are close to either -1.00 (strong negative relationship) or +1.00 (strong positive relationship).

A woman’s response

A woman’s genital response also increases with sexual content but there is a difference between heterosexual and homosexual women. Heterosexual women responded to both male and female sexual content. But homosexual women showed a stronger genital response to female stimuli.

Subjective responses differed. The subjective arousal reports of heterosexual women did not closely match their genital responses. But there was a close match between subjective sexual arousal and genital arousal for homosexual women.

The average correlation between physiological arousal and subjective reporting is 0.26, which helps demonstrate the considerably less obvious connection between the psychological or mental experience of sexual arousal and the measured genital response for women compared to the correlation for men (0.66).


Women and men respond differently to sexual stimuli. And same sex oriented persons respond differently than do those attracted to persons of the opposite sex. The stronger connection for men might mean that sex education and counseling programs need to be different for men and women and people of different sexual orientations.


Testosterone (T) continues to be a dominant factor in understanding male sexual response. When hypogonadal men are treated with testosterone, penile rigidity increases and the erection persists beyond the presence of a sexual stimulus. The role of T in women’s sexuality is more nuanced. When given T, some women report increased sexual desire but others do not. When women do respond to increased testosterone, the level of T is below the effective level for men (Bancroft, 2010).

[An interesting challenge to T levels is that of Dutee Chand who was banned from competition due to male levels of testosterone. A small percentage of women have high levels of T (Hyperandrogenism). Sports new link. ]

Controlling sexual responses

Bancroft and his colleagues have conducted research that leads to a dual control theory of sexuality. Two brain-based systems are at work—the one is excitatory and the other inhibitory. Not surprisingly, people with low sexual inhibition are more likely to participate in high-risk sexual behavior, which is stronger in those with high levels of sexual excitation. People likely to experience sexual dysfunction were those with high sexual inhibition. And they may have low sexual excitation as well (Bancroft, 2010).

A 2013 study suggested that the reason men may be sexually unfaithful at higher rates than women may have more to do with stronger sexual desire than with differences in self-control. (Link to University of Texas report).

Awareness that some may have more difficulty with sexual self-control than others do is not a reason to excuse conduct that harms vulnerable persons. Children and adults have the right to feel safe at school and work. On the one hand, it is reasonable for society to create and enforce laws protecting the rights of all people to be free from sexual abuse and harassment. In addition, it is reasonable to
expect those having difficulty with sexual self-control to seek professional assistance.

On the other hand, a society ought to protect vulnerable persons with evidence-based safeguards likely to promote a safer society. We do not know all the factors that can make for a safer school and work place. But that should not stop organizations from interviews, background checks, video monitoring, patrols, adqequate lighting, sexual harassment training, and self-defense training along with any other evidence-based practices.

My Thoughts

Human sexual responding varies from person to person and varies within people during a day, month, year, and during a lifespan. Generalizations and stereotypes can be misleading and even harmful. Comments like “women are…” and “men are…” can interfere with helping individuals and couples and the creation of policies and guidelines.

Thinking and responding
Notice the gap between a person’s thoughts about sex and their biological arousal state. And notice how this is different for most men and women. And there are differences for people based on sexual orientation. When making policies or offering advice it is a good idea to realize that what people think is more closely linked to biological reactions for some people more than others. 

As with many aspects of morality, scientific information can help people formulate ethical rules of conduct. But it is not possible to decide how people should or should not behave based on evidence of biopsychological functioning alone.

Advertisements promising improved sexual responding abound. Researchers have found ways to improve functioning for people who desire an increased response or improvement in other areas of difficulty. The most obvious example is medication for erectile dysfunction, which was formerly treated with psychotherapy or other techniques. Most people enjoy sexual activity so it is not surprising that salespeople will take advantage of the uninformed by promising cures for sexual dysfunction and experience enhancements. Like many hopes and wishes based on testimonies (or lies) people can experience some improvement due to the placebo effect.

Self-control is a major factor in morality. To be fair, moral rules require the same behavior of all persons. But people vary in their levels of sexual excitation and inhibition, which are the components of self-control. One may hypothesize that stricter moral rules will result in more noncompliance.

Put another way:

Some people’s biological status will make it easier for them to live a more saintly life.

Test the hypothesis- people with low sex drive will on average demonstrate a more saintly life than those with high sex drive when sexual purity and sexual self-control are markers of saintliness.

Self-control is an important area of research related to morality. Here's a link to more information. A scientist who has published much research on the subject is Roy Baumeister.

Questions for religious leaders

I have added some questions focused on people in the Christian religion because that is the religion I know best. I also focus on those with conservative Christian beliefs because they express most concern about sexual purity and high levels of compliance with sexual codes of ethics. I invite knowledgeable readers to offer suggestions for those from other faiths concerned with the regulation of sexual behavior.

Christian leaders often encourage unmarried persons to control their thoughts about sex. But biological sexual arousal can lead to sexual thoughts and related feelings. This can be confusing to those who fail to control their thoughts despite great effort. There’s more to self-control than thought control. What aspects of one’s environment might help control sexual behavior?

The gap between thinking and self-control has been obvious for centuries – I wonder if the Apostle Paul’s comment in Romans reflects this gap?

Christian youth often feel guilty about their sexual behavior in conservative groups that preach sexual purity—essentially meaning no sex outside of marriage. How might forgiveness be helpful –especially for people in those Christian groups prone to condemnation?

How can awareness of same-sex attraction help Christians offer better advice? Christians encourage others to draw on God’s strength to help with personal problems. But they also encourage getting help from others. One source suggested being accountable to “a mature Christian of the same sex…” Does the sex of the helper make a difference for people with different sexual orientations?

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g.,  AMAZON

Start a conversation in your church or organization.  You can find an inexpensive discussion guide on AMAZON.

Related Posts

Bancroft, J. (2010). Sexual desire and the brain revisited. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 25, 166-171.

Chivers, M. L. (2010). A brief update on the specificity of sexual arousal. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 25, 407-414.

 Also see the intext links to articles.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What do people find sexually attractive?

 Sexual Attraction

In my previous post, I wrote about sexual orientation. This week I take a look at factors that influence sexual attraction. I'll take a look at recent research and consider how the findings might relate to the concerns of people working to integrate their religious faith with beliefs about sexuality.

Over the years I have consulted with organizations. Not surprisingly, Christians who supervise housing (e.g., colleges, group homes, residential treatment programs) express concern about appropriate sexuality. They focus most on keeping men and women apart. Despite a common occurrence, it is rare for a Christian organization to discuss same sex activity within their residences or among coworkers. It does not seem to occur to many that two persons of the same sex may find each other sexually attractive. The leaders would not think of assigning a man and a woman to the same room but they do not consider the assignment of two same-sex oriented persons to the same room.

What have psychologists learned about sexual attraction? How is it similar or different for heterosexuals and homosexuals? Research is ongoing but recent findings were summarized by Jon Maner, Saul Miller, and Jennifer Leo in 2012. I'll draw on their summary for this post and encourage you to read their work for details.


Attention is a key component in the overall process of sexual attraction. The brain’s attentional system is located in the posterior part of the parietal lobe. Normally functioning attentional processes focus on a salient stimulus, end that targeted focus, and subsequently orient toward another stimulus. For example, if you are planning on picking up a guest at an airport and have a picture of the person, you intentionally scan the crowd for faces similar to the one in your picture. You naturally orient from one face to another in search of a match. And you screen out other faces. Motivational processes guide the attentional system through the orienting processes by identifying key characteristics in the environment. So what do people attend to when it comes to sexuality?


Both women and men search for mates who appear physically fit. In general, people with highly symmetrical characteristics are more attractive and symmetry is linked to a strong immune system and overall genetic fitness. Women tend to select men who are socially dominant. Social dominance is linked to high levels of testosterone. The brain-linked bias toward attractiveness is not just based on what people say. Laboratory studies using eye-tracking technology identify how long men and women look at attractive faces. The bias is strongest for people who are single and interested in a sexual relationship

A difference between the sexes exists. Men tend to look longer at physically attractive women and women tend to prefer men who displayed evidence of high social status. Both gay men and heterosexual men prefer sexual partners who are relatively younger than themselves and they place an emphasis on physical attractiveness.

Influential factors

Researchers find that an almost magnetic property exists for attractive faces when people have a mating mindset. Here’s an example of how the mindset is studied. A mindset can be created by giving people a short story to read or words about loving and kissing. Then a series of faces are presented and attention measured. In the blink of an eye (milliseconds), people who were primed by the mating mindset focused more on the attractive faces and sustained their attention on those faces longer than those who were not primed.
For women, psychological changes are linked to different points in the menstrual cycle. On days before and the day of ovulation, when the probability of conception is most likely, women show higher interest in their partners compared to other days. The biological measure of interest is an increase in the diameter of the pupil. Also, using eye-tracking methodology, researchers find that women who were ovulating attended to more highly attractive men.

Because of the variations in the menstrual cycle and the obvious importance of timing to successful reproduction, researchers have focused attention on the time surrounding ovulation. Several findings describe commonly occurring behavior patterns linked to this time when fertility is optimal. Women report increases in self-stimulation, sexual desire, and sexual fantasies. They are more interested in social gatherings and wear more sexually provocative clothes. And they show a greater interest in men who appear fit.
Scent of a...

Men appear biologically adapted to recognize the scent of a woman who nears her peak period of fertility. When men are presented with clothes worn by women at different points in their menstrual cycle, they preferred the clothes worn by ovulating women. And men biologically responded to the clothes as measured by higher testosterone levels compared to the men in a control condition who smelled similar clothes, which were not worn by ovulating women. The men were unaware of a woman’s ovulation status when they were exposed to the scents in women’s clothes. Also of interest, the men who smelled the clothes of an ovulating woman increased their responding to sexual words and ideas more than did men in other conditions. Other research, based on women’s descriptions of their mates’ behavior, indicates increased guarding behavior. An example of guarding behavior is actively becoming more possessive of her time when she is ovulating. In experimental conditions, men displayed more risk taking when an ovulating woman was present suggesting an unaware effect of a woman’s fertility status on how men behaved.

Women are also responsive to the scent of men. Women prefer men whose scents indicate genetic differences related to immune system functioning. They prefer the scent of men who appear highly symmetrical, especially when the women were ovulating. Women also prefer the scent of men with high levels of testosterone as do gay men. But heterosexual men do not show a preference for the scent of testosterone.


Most of the research has focused on heterosexual attraction. There's more to learn about sexual attraction especially among people who identify as a sexual minority. The above summary offers some information about persons who experience same sex attraction. Whether for personal reasons or reasons related to employment, supervision, or residential services, learning more about sexual attraction is important. And thinking broadly about sexual attraction and the automaticity of human biopsychological systems may help plan ways to limit unwanted relationships as well as enhance desirable relationships.

The importance of faces in sexual attraction seems to be well known as some religious groups require a veiled face and others require no make up, which presumably makes a face more attractive.

The importance of faces also can be seen in Facebook's popularity and the ubiquitous selfie.

Recognizing one's degree of sexual attractiveness may offer some control over attracting or repelling interest from potential romantic partners.

Understanding the contribution of biology to sexual attraction can help appreciate the rapid pre-awareness brain activity that invites attention and triggers sex-related thoughts before thoughts and feelings fully enter awareness.  In fact, many entertaining stories include the funny situation in which the audience sees the attraction before the focal couple recognizes what others see.

The findings suggest some hypotheses related to religious groups concerned about the sexual behavior of their members.
 * Girls and women will find male religious leaders attractive based on their social role-- even more so if the leaders are fit and have a handsome face.
 * A modest appearance may decrease unwanted attention compared to a highly sexualized appearance.

Assuming individual students agree with a religious organization's policies limiting sexual activity to married persons, the college or other organization has a role in promoting same sex relationships among singles when two same-sex attracted persons share living space.  Clinicians are no stranger to stories of young Christians anxiously reporting their same-sex relationship with roommates which can be very confusing. And very threatening when they wish to complete their education in a setting where such relationships are unacceptable.

And a corollary to the above, if it is not safe for college students or others to speak about same sex attraction then they remain alone in attempting to cope with powerful feelings as they are surrounded by potential partners unlike their heterosexual peers who are physically separated-- at least they have different living arrangements. 

Of course, despite the best intentions of students and staff, people will have sexual relations. And in conservative religious communities, discovered relationships have negative consequences that take on greater significance when sexual purity is glorified and contrastingly, sex outside of marriage is repeatedly condemned.

Read more about Christianity, Sexuality, and Christian Morality in A House Divided


How might information about sexual attraction assist people working to make campuses safe from sexual assault?

Do you think people can stimulate sexual interest by their appearance? If so, what might this mean for living or working closely with people interested in finding a romantic partner?

What facts might make a difference in how Christian schools revise or enforce their sexual conduct policies? See the Gordon college news story for example


Maner, J. K., Miller, S. L., & Leo, J. (2012). Adaptive relationship cognition: The sights and smells of sexual attraction. In O. Gillath, G. Adams, & A. Kunkel (Eds.). New directions in close relationships: Integrating across disciplines and theoretical approaches (pp. 153-168). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.