Ever noticed that the studies which seem to get the most attention are often the least deserving of attention? Which then leads to me getting so riled up that I give them even more attention?
This is one of those studies. According to MSNBC’s article, “Breastfeeding makes new mothers mama bears”:
A study published in the September issue of Psychological Science found that nursing mothers are roughly twice as aggressive as bottle-feeding moms and women without children when confronted by a threat….researchers recruited 18 nursing mothers, 17 women who were feeding formula to their babies and 20 non-mothers. The women were told they’d be playing a competitive computer game against a research assistant posing as a rude and aggressive study participant. When the women “won” a round of the game, each got to choose how long and loudly they would blast their opponent with an annoying sound….After accounting for other differences, the researchers found that breast-feeding mothers delivered sound blasts to the rude opponent that were more than twice as loud and long as those administered by non-mothers and nearly twice as loud and long as those by bottle-feeding mothers.
Back in college, I made extra cash by being a guinea pig for psych department experiments. This was exactly the type of thing they’d have me do… play a computer game, and then have me rate my levels of anxiety, exhaustion, etc. I never took it seriously. In fact there was this one time, they had me dress up in a Barry Manilow Fan Club t-shirt and walk around the cafeteria; afterwards, I was asked to recall as many things as I could (like what they were serving for lunch, how many cashiers there were, the approximate number of people sitting at my table). The point was to see how embarrassment/shame would affect awareness/recall or something like that. But I totally freaked out the poor research assistant by proudly strutting through the cafeteria singing “Mandy” at the top of my lungs. Serves them right for hiring a theater major.
But I digress! Back to the study! The monumental “mama bear” study!!
Now, looking at the logistics of this thing, I’d agree that there was a strong correlation between breastfeeding mothers and aggression.What can be extrapolated from this seems to be where I and the media/study authors part ways, though. In my mind, this study proved that there was something about breastfeeding, or perhaps the type of woman who breastfed, which was related to aggression. While this could be a good thing in the animal kingdom, the whole free will/human consciousness theory sort of negates any real world applications of animal instinct. For instance, there’s a theory that yawning can serve as a “warning signal:” or sign of aggression in some animals (you know, because the mouth is open wide, teeth bared, all that). But can you imagine if a WWF star began yawning at his opponent? Probably not a highly effective threat. Although it might set off a chain reaction in the audience, and it would look pretty anachronistic to have a bunch of wrestling fans acting all sleepy and cute in the middle of a brawl….
So, it seems like a stretch that when they looked at the results, the researchers interpreted them as such:
The study suggests that lactation—and not just motherhood in general—kicks maternal protection into overdrive. During the confrontations, for instance, nursing moms exhibited lower blood pressure levels than the other two groups of women. That can actually dampen fear and stress responses and give them a little extra moxie to defend their offspring, the study concluded.
“We interpreted this as breastfeeding being nature’s way of helping moms calmly but effectively deal with potential threats,” Hahn-Holbrook said…“…This wouldn’t just come up in terms of predators but might also encourage a mom to run back into a burning building and save an infant. I definitely think that moms generally are inspired to do that, but I wonder if lactation would just give moms a little extra push and a little extra courage.”
How the hell does something as punitive as “punishing” an opponent get interpreted as a good thing?
It’s the difference between defensive and offensive behavior. Protecting your young against predators, running in to save them from a burning building… these are defensive behaviors. Playing an aggressive video game and then going “BOO-YAW” in your opponent’s face is offensive, in every sense of the word. But come to think of it, this wasn’t even measuring face-to-face aggressiveness. The whole interaction was done via a computer screen… how can we measure something so animal using something so artificial? It’s much easier to be aggressive when you have the advantage of anonymity. Kind of like when you bully someone for their choices on the internet.
Wait a minute…what if we interpreted these findings through a different lens?
Defending yourself against jerkface bosses who won’t let you pump at work, or morons who don’t want you to nurse in public, or ignorant healthcare providers who don’t respect your desire to prioritize breastfeeding… these are defensive, understandable, and often necessary behaviors.
Harassing bottle-feeding moms on the internet, trying to “punish” those who are using formula by insisting on limited information, sin taxes, or second-class citizen status, posting studies in misleading ways that freak out pregnant women and scare them into breastfeeding… these are aggressive behaviors, and sound to me an awful lot like yelling “BOO-YAW” in your opponent’s face, or whatever the virtual equivalent of that would be.
Maybe this study is deserving of more attention than I thought.