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Hormones and How Women Vote: New Evidence, but No Consensus

New research partially rebuts a controversial 2012 paper that linked fertility with the way women vote, but fails to refute the basic premise.
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(Photo: halimqd/Shutterstock)

(Photo: halimqd/Shutterstock)

Few pieces of social-science research have received as much attention—or generated as much scorn—as the 2012 paper that found women’s menstrual cycles impacted their behavior in the voting booth.

Researchers Kristina Durante and Ashley Arsena reported that being in the high-fertility phase increased the odds that a single, unattached woman would vote to re-elect President Obama, and that a married or otherwise attached woman would vote for Mitt Romney. Not surprisingly, this generated a lot of controversy, to the point where CNN took down a blog post on the finding after readers called it offensive.

Psychological Science, the prestigious journal that published the original research, has just posted a new paper in which two researchers attempt to replicate those results. They “unequivocally failed to confirm two of the key findings” of the controversial study: That fertility influences women’s religiosity and sociopolitical attitudes.

"A vast body of research has examined how hormones influence men’s behavior, including their political views. It should not be surprising that women’s behavior, like men’s, is influenced by hormones."

However, authors Christine Harris of the University of California-San Diego and Laura Mickes of the University of London do report some evidence supporting the controversial conclusion about voting behavior. They express doubts about its validity, but as Durante and Arsena note in their response, the findings are “in tandem with our results.”

In replicating Durante and Arsena’s study, Harris and Mickes used a significantly larger sample (1,206 women recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, compared to 502 in the original). The original study looked at women’s voting intentions ahead of the 2012 election; the replication did so as well, and added a second wave of results taken soon after the election.

The original study found unattached women in the high-fertility phase were less religious and more liberal than those in the low-fertility phase, while the opposite pattern was found among women in committed relationships. In contrast, the replication study found “no interactive effect of ovulatory and relationship status on either religious beliefs or social-political attitudes.”

However, the researchers describe their findings regarding voting behavior as “more equivocal.” When they combined data on voting intention and actual voting (as reported in surveys taken before and after the election), they found “a significant interaction” between fertility, relationship status, and candidate preferences, in the directions the original paper indicated.

This suggests that, for all the outrage it stirred, Durante and Arsena’s conclusion—hormones impact women’s voting behavior in predictable ways—may very well be right.

“Even if the effects of fertility on religious and political attitudes are weaker (and they may or may not be), why is the effect of fertility on voting robust?” Durante and Arsena ask in their rebuttal. They speculate that “some other feature of the political candidates,” aside from ideology, may be the driving factor.

Perhaps, they write, “fertility increases liking for the male leader of one’s own group.” Since single women generally vote Democratic and married women Republican, that would mean fertility simply intensifies support for the head of one’s party.

While noting it does not enjoy “strong empirical support from our results,” Harris and Mickes offer a similar thesis.

“One possible explanation might be that women have a tendency to find men they like more attractive (or likeable) during peak fertility,” they write. “If so, any potential effect on voting preference could be due to the tendency of single women to prefer the liberal candidate and committed women to prefer the conservative candidate, with fertility accentuating this effect.”

So there is common ground between these two sets of researchers. But there also seems to be bad blood. Mimicking much of the commentary that riffed off the original paper, Harris and Mickes headline their study: “Women Can Keep the Vote.”

Durante and Arsena, along with co-author Vladas Griskevicius, take offense to that (presumably tongue-in-cheek) phrasing, calling it "grossly misleading."

“The view that women are somehow more fickle in their decision-making than men is false and was never the impetus for this research,” they write. "We never argued or implied that hormonal effects ... have implications for voting rights. A vast body of research has examined how hormones influence men’s behavior, including their political views. It should not be surprising that women’s behavior, like men’s, is influenced by hormones.”