Intuitively, the findings seem to make sense, but one big limitation of this last experiment is that researchers didn’t ask about non-STEM activities. It’s entirely possible that on days on which women were preoccupied with dating, they simply did less homework all around — math, English or otherwise.
“Those aren’t things we assessed in this study,” Park acknowledges, “though we asked about attitudes toward the arts in one of the conversation experiments. But it’s a direction for future research.”
Further, on days when women reported focusing on academic achievement, their feelings of desirability remained unchanged — which contradicts the theory that women think being brainy is a turn-off.
There were some additional limitations: all experiments looked only at the short-term impact of thoughts about dating; it’s unclear whether romantic pursuits may also lead to long-term outcomes like grades in STEM classes or later employment in science or math.
The study also did not clearly determine whether the romantic photos and conversations primed people to actively want to be desirable, or merely reminded them of romance as a general concept.
Since Monday, when the research was released, Park has been fielding criticism that her hypothesis is sexist and reinforces stereotypes that will only make it harder for women to enter STEM fields. (“No, the research wasn’t sponsored by Mattel,” joked Forbes’ J. Maureen Henderson.)
Park was surprised by the reaction. “It was not the intention or interpretation I had,” she says. “Women are exposed to sociocultural messages about the importance of being attractive and sexy and especially attuned to these goals in young adulthood. That’s precisely the time that women start to show less interest in STEM fields. It’s not something internal about them — it’s the socialization practices.”
Either way, the fact is that there are still not enough women working in the sciences. The reasons are many and varied — demands on family life and lack of role models, for instance — but whether interest in landing a man is one of them is still up for debate.
The study [PDF] was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.