Dec 20 2006

Study du jour: the calming hand of patriarchy

The progenitors of a certain radical feminist blogger display marital bliss at their 51st anniversary party

Today’s dudely, reassuring, women-are-fragile-little-flowers study comes from the University of Virginia, where assistant professor of neuroscience James A Coan stuffed 16 ‘highly satisfied’ married women into MRI tubes, threatened to zap’em with electric shocks, and measured their brains when the threat of electrocution coincided with the opportunity to hold either their highly satisfied husband’s hand, the hand of a male stranger (satisfaction level unknown), or no hand at all.

I’m sure we don’t need to be dudely assistant professors of neuroscience to see where this is going, but for the record, I’ll tell you how it ends: women who claimed to be in “highest quality” marriages showed the most dramatic reduction in “threat-related brain activity” when they held their husbands’ hands.

There are always difficulties, when one’s source is a 200-word press release variously summarized by moron media outlets, in determining exactly what goes down in any given MRI tube. James A Coan, according to the UVA release, says “This is the first study of the neurological reactions to human touch in a threatening situation.” That’s as may be, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and hypothesize that any research involving heterosexual spousal hand-holding and women on the receiving end of clinical cattle prods is going to end up, as far as media are concerned, portraying dudes, heteronormativiity, and the dear old institution of marriage in a rosy light.

Imagine my dumbfounded surprise that the evidence turns out to support my hypothesis. Here’s what China Daily makes of the UVA press release: “High-quality marriages are the best stress-busters for women.” UPI declaims that the hand of the patriarch “calms a threatened wife.” “Marital Bliss Calms Stress,” quoth psychcentral.com. My personal favorite, Irish Health, not only morphs “the message” into a full-on advertisement for patriarchy, but gives it a pine-scented, seasonal twist as well: “Holding hands helps Xmas stress.”

As far as I have been able to determine, assistant professor of neuroscience James A Coan did not study the female brain response when the electrically-imperiled subject was offered the hand of her girlfriend, or her mother’s hand, or a golden retriever puppy, or a margarita. No male brains were studied, either, presumably because these were all engaged elsewhere, dreaming up new and clever ways to get grant money for jolting women with electrodes.


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  1. paycheckparty.org

    If they had studied mother’s hands it would have made husband’s hands look positively beastly! Just ask any toddler girl who she prefers to soothe her.

    These studies are an never ending source of needless evidence that the patriarchy is still firmly embedded in the minds of a cruel and oblivious world.

  2. teresawymore.com

    Unfreakingbelievable! How could they NOT think to test the margarita hypothesis?

  3. saraarts.com

    Reading that these people even get funding for their asinine studies makes me want to go back to bed. For life.

  4. And just how many women are in marriages of the ‘highest quality?’

    I saw a bumper sticker yesterday…in fact I drove around the parking lot twice so I could read it in its entirety. I saw the word, MARRIAGE, in big letters. An older man was getting out of the car…so I wondered if he was some kind of religious wingnut or a gay man or whatever wanting to have a say about Marriage on the bumper of his car.

    MARRIAGE is the number one cause of divorce. Ha! It gave me a chuckle…and I can’t wait to use that line someday when a male insists that women cheating on their husbands is the number one reason.

    Wow…51 years. That really is something.

    When are they gonna hook up the guys to electrodes and let them hold the hand of their wives or a shotgun or their penises? Now…that would be research of the highest quality

  5. denise.vox.com

    Wait wait wait, are you telling me that in a threatening situation people I know and like are more calming to me than strangers?

    Wow. I can’t believe someone paid to do that research.

  6. Twisty

    What the media are telling you is that being married to a man is more calming to you generally. This hypothesis is not, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, borne out by statistics on domestice violence.

  7. Twisty, thank you for once again helping me to laugh instead of cry.

  8. I’ve read that the happiest group of people in our society is married men, followed by single women. The most depressed group in our society is divorced men, followed fairly closely by married women. Those stats are from Susan Maushart’s “Wifework,” circa 2001. I’ve also noted the clear-headed-ness I experience when single vs. the feeling of riding a rollercoaster through fog that I get when I’m in a relationship with a guy (happy or not). And finally, I’ve heard many a piteous whine from happy-couple hetero women I know that they have to “check all the doors at night to see if they’re locked before they go to bed, and even then they can’t sleep WHEN THEIR BOYFRIENDS/ HUSBANDS ARE AWAY.” I assume this is because, much like how men can do their own housework as bachelors but suddenly develop a handicap when they start living with a woman, women who should be looking out for themselves enjoy the “tiny and helpless” schtick once they’ve got a guy around.

  9. Myself, I sleep with a margarita close at hand JUST IN CASE.

  10. redneckmother.blogspot.com

    Congrats to the ‘rents, T!

    Ewwww. This, to me, seems like a study that reveals as much about the mind of its designer as it does about the minds of the subjects.

    Next: research reveals that pulling the wings off flies harms flies.

  11. hedonisticpleasureseeker.wordpress.com

    This looks like just one more study of the oldest protection racket in the history of the human race. Priceless.

  12. I’m dying to see how they worded the question excluding women who had ever been struck by their husbands.

    Of course too, there’s the possibility the women in the study were disassociating. :)

  13. ninaturns40.blogs.com

    Since when does a sample of 16 constitute a valid study anyway?

  14. paycheckparty.org

    When I’m holding my husbands hand, I feel 75% more secure that he won’t hit me with that hand!

  15. Thanks to ((( you all ))) for the best good laugh that I’ve had for days.

    An MRI on me would show that I’m suddenly happy. :-)


  16. spinningtumor.blogspot.com

    So maybe this could explain why the last time I had badly botched surgery I called in the hospital chaplain while under the influence of twilight anesthesia and got myself hitched to the inert apendectomy patient on the next gurney. Next time I should just send out for fucking margaritas.

  17. ninaturns40.blogs.com

    Oh, and I now see from whom Twisty gets her gorgeously-shaped pate.

  18. Wow, what a fucked up study. This is exactly what I was getting at yesterday with the flaws in the scientific method.

    It’s all about who is hypothesizing. And, why.

    The fact that they didn’t turn the tables and zap the guys is just a small portion of the bias.

    I didn’t have time to follow the money trail on this one. Why are they so vested (invested?) in proving that people like to be touched by someone they care about?

  19. librarytavern.blogspot.com

    If they were testing the calming effect of human touch in threatening situtations, how did they jump from that to the benefits of marriage? That is bizarre. I would have used friends for the study because a threatening situation for a woman is likely to be caused by her husband!

  20. “If they were testing the calming effect of human touch in threatening situtations, how did they jump from that to the benefits of marriage?”

    That’s not the half of it.

    Why did they use electric shocks? WTF year is it?! Don’t we have video of threatening situations we could show? What’s with the Abu Graib-style torture? So, the threat needed to be ‘real’ but the study didn’t feel compelled to reverse the roles and see how men did?

    Hey, I would hold someone’s husband’s hand, too, if I thought I was going to get shocked. Maybe holding their hand would distribute some of the current through them and hurt me less.

  21. I, personally, would be far more interested in seeing that study done with men, due to the relentless pressures in our culture for men to view sex as the only acceptable human contact. Some guys really need to be forced to face the reality of their humanity, including all their “frailties” such as needing comforting human contact.

    Yes, this study seems to have been chock full o’ bias.

  22. unsanesafe.blogspot.com

    It would seem that there are attempts to manipulate this phenomenon of reassuring hand holding, whenever George Bush asserts that he “feels” that America will win the Iraq war. Thus the resident patriarch benevolently holds his Nation’s hand.

  23. From the thread in an earlier post on the scientific method, because jokerie said it much better than my feeble attempts.

    “Hi! in response to the scientific method thread. It is really just a tool and as such not inherently bad/patriarchical. You make a hypothesese, you make experiments, you look how the results change your hypotheses. Nothing wrong with the hammer until you use it to bash in someones brain. SciMeth can also be used to bash in someones brain. Problems:
    1) the hypothesese you pose depends on your previous (subjective) experience
    2) wether results are accepted or put down to errors depends on how badly you want your hypotheses to succede.”

    This is exactly what jokerie is talking about. The scientific method works great, but the scientists don’t. They, or the journalist, decided that they would put some great spin on the story.

    And here I am procrastinating on writing my paper on social construction when a great example pops up.

  24. FOUL!!!!

    This study is totally invalid. Why? Because it did not include the following as control series:

    Men threatened and women hand holding
    Gay spouses (crossover)

    Having seen my own husband through having his leg bones spirally fractured in four places and heart surgery, I can honestly say
    that having people you love around to hold your hand (and threaten nurses with the doctor’s pager number if they don’t get that morphine out stat!) can really make a difference. But that difference happens for both genders REGARDLESS of whether that loved and trusted person is your parent, your child, your lover/spouse, your sibling, etc.

  25. I’ve got this study. But no time (or inclination) to read it.

  26. BTW Finnsmotel, the scientific method isn’t where the flaw is here – the flaw is in the investigator’s innability to understand and follow scientific method.

  27. I think Kate, the flaw is twofold: you haven’t read the study, and assumptions about the study are being made on the basis of having heard about it from someone who read a media story or press release.

  28. All of the most difficult and/or threatening situations I’ve ever been in I’ve been alone and I am here to tell you I survived it.

    Might I add that whilst pushing out my first child at the tender age of seventeen, although terrified out of my mind, I had no inclination to hold anyone’s hand, much less that of the man beside who caused that condition.

    Indeed, although the assumption was generally made that while a single mother, I could not put up boundaries around myself and my family, nor turn away the kindly offers of Desperado Dudes on Mission to Save the Frail Female, I’m here today to tell you I managed and my children are all alive and healthy.

    Frankly, in my experience, holding a few crisp Benjies tends to lower my blood pressure a bit and reduce my fear response to negative stimuli, especially when in a hospital. But that’s just me.

  29. ..and also how do they know these women weren’t calming themselves while clutching said loved one’s hand thinking, “This is that bastard’s throat…”

  30. Here is the abstract from the actual study.


    What it says is that “Social contact promotes enhanced health and well-being”

    Twisty:”What the media are telling you is that being married to a man is more calming to you generally.”

    Yep, that’s what the media tells us. Which is not what the study says at all.

  31. i confess that i was memorably comforted once by the offer of my special gent’s hand when i was getting a tetanus shot in an emergency room after a bad bicycle accident. though my special gent is indeed high-quality, we needn’t be married to offer one another support and kindness.

    i imagine he was also deeply comforted when i loaned him my brand new laptop for a week when his broke in the middle of law school finals. he installed world of warcraft posthaste.

    it’s sad that humandecency has to be categorized as behaviour exclusive to the married.

  32. “Yep, that’s what the media tells us. Which is not what the study says at all.”

    Yep. That’s pretty much what the study says.

  33. Xmas stress? Did they drape the MRI machine with fake holly or something?

  34. Whatever the sutdy says exactly, it was still badly done. And just because the abstract does not say that marriage reduces stress, the conclusions in the paper might well do this. Unfortunately I don’t have access, but when I’m next in Charlottesville (soon, soon) Mr. smartypantshumancontactpseudoscientist better not cross my path. Bad science drives me nuts.

    What drives me even more nuts is what the media does with research, to bend it to their own ends. I will go have an apoplectic fit now. Thank you very much.

  35. Pony, I have read the study. I still have journal access for a couple of weeks until the formally print my epidemiology ScD sheepskin.

    While the media is jumping to conclusions, the investigators have made it easy. The study is truly minimal, the selection bias is not formally addressed, and the investigators don’t exactly take pains to emphasize the lack of statistical power and the limitations of study the findings.

  36. Bleh. Study findings.

    Need coffee.

  37. That’s odd Kate. The copy I got from the author yesterday says it’s still in press.

  38. Twisty:”What the media are telling you is that being married to a man is more calming to you generally.”

    And this is what I was referring to when I said “that’s what the study says”. Among other things.

  39. Correction: the copy I have is the “in press” copy, not that it is still in press. What I’m saying is the article is a bit more involved than what Twisty has said, but what Twisty has said is a pretty fair distillation of the STUDY.

  40. Here’s yer reassuring hand holding for bushboy:


    I sleep better at night knowing I can reach out and touch my machete.

  41. So I’m supposed to get hitched to my fella so I won’t feel frightened when somebody shoves me into a tube and threatens me with electrocution? Feh! We have been a (mostly) happy couple lo these 17 years, and for the life of me, no one (including my uber-Catholic would-be mom-in-law) has yet convinced me why marriage would be better. I’ll be the first to toss a bouquet to those who can and do make it work, but it ain’t my cup of tea.

  42. I’m with you, grrr kitty. I’d rather chew off my own foot.

  43. I was convinced that my baby-daddy in the room would make child birth easier for me. Or maybe I was hoping if I took him to birthing classes he’d step up and be more supportive in general, like be useful somehow.

    I guess it works for some, but it didn’t for me. At the height of labor, his face and hands just reminded me of how much stress he gave me. Like having your boss in there or a pile of bills. Especially when he complained that I didn’t bring money so he could buy cigarettes.

    I wonder if the other women in the class found it useful, like the one whose husband played solitare on his blackberry through the class.

  44. I’m down with the witty Ktal’s comment that the Benjies in the hand are very very calming.

    Professor Coan confirms my rule-of-thumb: Most people are bad at their jobs.

    yrs, B. Dagger Lee

  45. So I just got my hands on the study and were you right pony. Apparently marriage is just about the best thing ever.

  46. Wait–so these women calmed down if they entertained the notion of holding their husband’s hand while they were being electrocuted?

    Umm…the thought of taking him down with me would calm me, too. Or at least make me a little happier about the shocking. But whatever that is–I’m pretty sure it isn’t love.

  47. I think having a loving relationship with a man (or whoever you choose) outside of marriage is just about the best thing ever. From there, I’d work on the equitable part, but at least, I’d not be officially owned.

  48. Twisty

    I of course used the word ‘electrocute’ poetically; its literal definition involves cessation of life.

  49. Maybe they should repeat the study with a doula.

  50. Bad science. Their sample size is too low for the potential variation (unless their acceptable margin of error was very, very high). It’s too low for pretty much anything to consider it predictive for or indicative of the population:


    Reading this made my brain hurt and brought back painful memories of my one ugrad stats course, but confirmed my views on their sample size.

    Threatened? Dunno. Stress, however, is a close buddy. I’ve often found holding my wife’s hand or a girlfriend’s hand extremely comforting. On the other hand, the most comforted I’ve ever been has been when held by another guy, a very dear friend, who happened to be where I needed somebody.

    Always felt to me like any close bond with anyone/thing would do it. Doesn’t having premarital sex decrease one’s ability to form these bonds? Just kidding.

  51. hedonisticpleasureseeker.wordpress.com

    Contrast the news coverage of this bogus study to the news coverage of the fact that (globally speaking) marriage is a risk factor for HIV/AIDS, and that married and monogamous women are among the HIGHEST RISK GROUPS.



    This was mentioned in a newsweek article http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12665685/site/newsweek/

    and today in the New York Times:


    Shall we start laying our bets on how many articles with headlines such as “Women: Save your lives, don’t get married! will soon be hitting newstands?

  52. “Doesn’t having premarital sex decrease one’s ability to form these bonds?” ramou

    Women remaining premarital for life reduces their stress enourmously.

  53. It’s true that staying away from men altogether is healthy, it is well-known that during the bubonic plague, the safest profession was a nun.

    But I have issues with the Melinda Gates article. (The newsweek link in Hedonsitic)
    The answer she is promoting isn’t questioning marriage or heterosex, the answer is a sermicidal lubricant, which is being tested on prostitutes, many of whom are penetrated by 20-40 men a day(!), and which effectiveness has failed to be shown in 10 years of research. Such a sermicide, if it does show effectiveness, will bring in beaucoup cash for Big Pharma, and will not be affordable to the populations it’s being tested on. Further, the methods they use in testing do not adhere to American standards for informed consent, and are comparable to the Tuskeegee experiment. I have been following this issue of racist research practices for many years, and have documentation for anyone interested.

    The bottom line? Gay white men in Frisco will pat out the ol wazzoo for products resulting from unscrupulous testing on bonded colored women.

  54. Sorry, women of color.

  55. pay, not pat.

  56. Yah post the documentation because I collect goodies like that too.

  57. They’re at my house and I’m at work now, but here’s one from CNN which briefly touches on the question of should ethical standards in HIV research be the same in Uganda as it is in the US?


    “The research was conducted in Uganda. HIV infected individuals were not offered what has become standard medical care in the developed world to treat HIV infection, and uninfected partners were not informed that their partner was HIV infected.”

    Because, if the subjects were informed that they were having sex with someone who was , well that might mess up the research.

    Anyway, this one wasn’t on prostitutes, it was on monogamous hetero women, and that’s probably why there was even any concern.

    Background: the infamous Tuskeegee experiments followed the course of syphillis in black men without treating them. It was a scandal, but had they been in Africa, and had it been AIDS, no scandal, only a tiny bit of “concern”.

  58. I’m familiar with both. I always look for hard data to keep on this (and similar) issues.

    Send me a pm at GB. Ok?

  59. http://www.aegis.com/news/newsday/2000/ND000713.html

    “the statement that nonoxynol-9 is harmful is excessive. The high-risk women in the study had up to 20 partners a day.”
    Now, OK. It didn’t say the women were held against their will, or that they didn’t want to be prostitutes. But 20 “clients” a day? For those of us who have seen the sex industry up close, is there even a question that they want out? We don’t test on prisoners in the US.

  60. Hedonistic, thanks for this reminder: “Contrast the news coverage of this bogus study to the news coverage of the fact that (globally speaking) marriage is a risk factor for HIV/AIDS, and that married and monogamous women are among the HIGHEST RISK GROUPS”

    According to Stephen Lewis (UN special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa) in his book ‘Race Against Time’ and his Massey Lectures, the most vulnerable position for a woman in Africa, in terms of exposure to HIV, is *within* a marriage. I can’t find a reference online but here’s a little quote from an interview with him (halfway down the page):

    from: http://www.stephenlewisfoundation.org/news_item.cfm?news=1506

    “The women think they are in a monogamous relationship and the older person, older man, with much more experience and probably partners outside the marriage, brings the virus into the marriage. So women are tremendously vulnerable. They are disproportionately infected. If you are between 15 and 24 in Africa and you are one of the people that’s infected, of the total number 77 per cent will be women and girls. As people say, women and girls become an endangered species in parts of the continent.”

    Yep. The loving husbands. I don’t think that men in Africa are any worse than men in the global North for example, but because of the prevalence of the epidemic there, the consequences of male violence and coercion against women are more apparent in those statistics.

  61. saraarts.com

    BTW, Twisty — and I meant to say this the first time I came through here, but I was too nauseated by the post content — that’s a really lovely photo of your parents.

  62. I thought they told us before we had to smell men’s armpits.

  63. Mark

    Thank You

  64. Kaitreni

    Hmm. My guess is that they tried to do the opposite (shocking men while women held their hands), but the men refused to hold hands to receive comfort. XD

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