Daily Archives: May 12, 2014

Is “Female Intuition” Responsible For God-Belief?


A recently published study suggests that “female intuition” has a biological component, due to the amount of prenatal testosterone exposure each sex is exposed to in the womb. It’s well known that women report being more religious than men and people who rely on intuition are more likely to believe in god. So this study might be further evidence that god belief has a biological component.

While this particular study confirms a number of things I already know about, that doesn’t mean that the study methodology itself definitively supports it; not being sufficiently skeptical of evidence that confirms what you already believe would be confirmation bias. And every budding rationalist should be aware of confirmation bias!

According to previous studies, prenatal exposure to testosterone affects developments in the brain that determine, to some extent, behavioural trends and tendencies throughout the lives of each individual, including humans. Males receive a higher amount of prenatal testosterone, which, according to scientists, has an influence on that they, for example, take more risks and be more [sic] empathic than women.

Intuitive thought can be defined as that which is processed automatically and unconsciously and which, therefore, requires little cognitive effort. On the other extreme is reflexive thought, which takes greater effort and conscious analysis. The former is based on sensations and is more “emotional”, while the latter is analytical and more “rational”. In certain situations, to “let yourself be led” by intuition will be better than stopping to think. In other situations, the opposite will occur.

You may recall the intuitive/reflective dichotomy in such posts as the thief and the wizard and the intuitionists and the rationalists.

For their analyses, the researchers used a prenatal testosterone marker, called “digital ratio”. This is obtained by dividing the length of the forefinger by the length of the ring finger of the same hand. “The lower the ratio, the greater the prenatal testosterone received and, therefore, the more “masculine” the cerebral disposition, regardless of the person’s gender. Men, obviously, have a lower average digital ratio than women”, as pointed out by Antonio Manuel Espin, lecturer at the Dept. of Economic Theory and History (University of Granada, Spain) and one of the authors of this article.

The participants first responded to a series of questionnaires, among which was the so-called Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), a test that precisely measures the dichotomy between intuition and reflection. The CRT consists of three simple algebraic questions that, given how they are presented, generate intuitive answers that come automatically but which are incorrect. To get the right answer, the individual has to stop to reflect and realize that the first answer that came into his/her head was incorrect.


The results were clear. Men responded better to the CRT than women but, among the latter, those that showed a more “masculine” (ie, lower) digital ratio, answered as equally well as the men. “To be more specific, what we found was an indication that prenatal exposure to testosterone predisposes people to adopt a more reflexive and less intuitive mindset. Furthermore, this effect seems to be stronger among women”.

First thing’s first. I’m not sure the experimenters actually controlled for other confounders that are related to intuitive/reflective thought like education level, class, stress, and so forth. Indeed, there are things like the stereotype threat: There’s a stereotype that women are worse at math than men, but if women are told to “think like a man” they do better on math tests!

So there are two competing hypotheses that might explain the above study’s data (though I think in this case they aren’t mutually exclusive, for the lack of controlling for confounders I pointed out). One is biological and the other is cultural. And when you have two competing hypotheses attempting to explain some data, it’s good to try thinking like a Bayesian; meaning following my heuristics for what makes a good explanation.

One of those heuristics is what I call “precision”. That is the rule of thumb to select the hypothesis that allows for the smallest amount of possible evidence. The example I came up with was if you had a jar full of two types of dice — one was a normal six sided die and the other was a die with only ones on all sides — which die was rolled if someone says they rolled a one? The same sort of situation applies here, when attempting to choose between a biological explanation and a socio-cultural explanation.

I would have to say that one could always respond with “it’s a social construct” to any and every single instance of psychological experimental results; “social construct” doesn’t restrict the type of evidence we would expect to see. Of course this doesn’t mean that it is wrong. It just means that (1) with no other information to go on, we should select the more precise hypothesis; prima facie “social construct” is the least precise explanation (besides “goddidit”) and (2) we would need additional evidence to move things in that direction, just like we could conclude that said hypothetical dice roller did pick the normal six sided die upon rolling a one.

But what about the aforementioned study? While it concludes that intuition has a biological component, it also concludes that it’s not necessarily female intuition. Women who were apparently exposed to higher doses of prenatal testosterone (due to their index-ring finger ratio) relied less on intuition than the women who were exposed to lower doses of prenatal testosterone. What would be more relevant to my blog is whether there’s a relationship between digit ratio and degree of god-belief. I would guess that the women who scored well on the CRT, intimating that they rely less on intuition, would also be less likely to be religious… the degree of which would depend on a host of sociological factors.

Of course I have to point this out, but this doesn’t prefigure some sort of biological determinism. Reading the CRT in a bad font is enough to improve performance. Indeed, students at MIT score less on the CRT than attendees at a Less Wrong meetup. Intelligence might be innate, biology might set a baseline, but rationality can be learned.

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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in cognitive science

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