Men are from hunt, women are from gather

By Kevin Lewis
May 9, 2010

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The conventional wisdom is that men have better spatial skills, while women have better verbal skills, but a new study offers a more nuanced view. Researchers tracked men and women from a rural village in Mexico as they foraged for mushrooms. Using GPS and activity monitors, the researchers found that men were less efficient--they traveled farther, went higher, and exerted more effort than women for the same amount of mushrooms. Women also collected a greater variety of mushrooms from more sites. This pattern is consistent with the theory that, during the hunter-gatherer period of human evolution, women honed spatial skills needed for gathering while men honed spatial skills needed for hunting.

Pacheco-Cobos, L. et al., ”Sex Differences in Mushroom Gathering: Men Expend More Energy to Obtain Equivalent Benefits,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

Autism comes in clusters
The number of autism diagnoses has increased dramatically during the last several decades. Some blame the environment, some blame pathogens, and some blame changing diagnostic standards. Researchers at Columbia University think we should add another cause to the mix: social influence. Analyzing data from California, the researchers found that a child who lived closer to other children with autism was more likely to be subsequently diagnosed with autism. Of course, this fact alone could be explained by something in the environment, a pathogen, or local medical culture. However, there wasn’t a similar change in diagnoses of mental retardation, the effect held up even with controls for individual and community characteristics, and the effect was strongest for younger children and high-functioning autism--observations inconsistent with alternative explanations.

Liu, K. et al., ”Social Influence and the Autism Epidemic,” American Journal of Sociology (March 2010).

Need a negotiator? Hire Grandpa
Older is indeed wiser, according to new research. A team of psychologists asked adults to read several newspaper articles describing situations involving group conflict and then answer questions about the outcome of the conflict. Transcripts of the answers were then scored by independent reviewers on the basis of how well the answers appreciated the perspectives, dynamics, and opportunities for resolution of the conflict. Older people scored significantly higher on each dimension. This finding was replicated in a similar experiment where people read three ”Dear Abby” letters describing relational conflict. Overall, the biggest jump in wisdom occurred between middle and old age, and age contributed to wisdom even more than IQ.

Grossmann, I. et al., “Reasoning about Social Conflicts Improves into Old Age,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 2010).

Predators near schools
In recent years, especially in the wake of TV shows like NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” many jurisdictions have passed laws requiring paroled sex offenders to register their addresses in public databases and to live far away from schools or playgrounds, on the theory that proximity equals temptation and opportunity. The theory makes sense, but the evidence is beginning to cast doubt on it. For example, an analysis of data from Florida compared convicted sex offenders who were charged with another sex offense to a similar group of convicted sex offenders who were not charged with another sex offense during the same period. The addresses of all the offenders were mapped relative to the addresses of all schools and day care centers. The analysis found ”no empirical association between where a sex offender lives and whether he reoffends sexually against a minor.’’ Even more worrisome, as the authors note, is that other research has shown that making it harder for ex-cons to re-integrate may actually increase the likelihood of re-offending.

Zandbergen, P. et al., “Residential Proximity to Schools and Daycares: An Empirical Analysis of Sex Offense Recidivism,” Criminal Justice and Behavior (May 2010).

Who doesn’t go to college
Economics has generally assumed that people pursue opportunities that generate more benefits than costs, and that if people are short on cash they will simply borrow the money. For example, economists have argued that people will pursue education to the extent that the benefits (e.g., future earnings) exceed costs (e.g., tuition, lost wages), even if they have to go into debt. Sociologists have a slightly different view. According to a recent analysis, it’s not the case that those most apt to benefit from a college education are also the most likely to get it. Instead, the analysis found the opposite: the consequences of not getting a college education--in potential earnings--are biggest for the most socio-economically disadvantaged people, yet they are much more underrepresented at the college level.

Brand, J. & Xie, Y., “Who Benefits Most from College? Evidence for Negative Selection in Heterogeneous Economic Returns to Higher Education,” American Sociological Review (April 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at