Category Archives: Interviews

Neurosexism: A conversation with Cordelia Fine

Uta: Cordelia, you just published a review article in Science, His brain, her brain?  where you argue that it is far harder to interpret gender differences in the brain than people think. And it’s a call for more rigorous science in the field. Now, your paper with Gina Rippon, Rebecca Jordan-Young and Anelis Kaiser earlier this year lays out in some detail what rigorous research designs would actually involve. I would love to know a bit more about why you wrote it.

Mary Cassatt (1878) Woman reading Le Figaro: Courtesy of www,

Cordelia: We wanted to write something positive about how research in this area could be done better, so we got together to write a paper that would be helpful to researchers, editors, reviewers and science communicators. We wanted to make a constructive contribution. After all, there has been a lot of controversy in this area,

Continue reading Neurosexism: A conversation with Cordelia Fine

Uta: You can say that again! The papers that report gender differences are almost always suggesting that women’s brains work differently, aka less well. So half the readers say, “At last there is some hard evidence for differences that are blindingly obvious”, and half say, “Of course we know that women and men are equal and there are no real brain differences, and this research must be hopelessly biased.” I expect you call the first position “essentialist”, because it presumes that being female means being one kind of thing, being male another, forever. It’s the forever bit that makes it suspect.

Cordelia: Happily, the perspectives are definitely not that polarized. One thing that’s worth stressing though is that criticisms of this area of research don’t stem from a belief that it’s intrinsically problematic to look at the effects of biological sex on the brain. But implicit assumptions about female/male differences in brain and behavior do influence research design and interpretation. They do this in ways that can give rise to misleading conclusions that additionally reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.

Uta: It would be strange to rule out this type of research on the grounds that it is bound to reinforce gender stereotypes. We can be aware of their influence and take them into account. But we need to be fearless when we read Nature’s book. It does not always tell us what we’d like to hear. I worry about our tendency to be ultra-critical when the findings are against our fondly held beliefs. But isn’t science exactly about being able to overturn fondly held beliefs?

Cordelia: I certainly agree that we shouldn’t rule out particular kinds of research because we may not like the conclusions. The concern is with conclusions that are unwarranted – an issue of ‘scientific correctness’ rather than ‘political correctness’ – and the goal is not to be ultra-critical, but to make visible the implicit assumptions that are guiding research.

Uta: We tend to be less critical when a paper appears in a prestigious journal because we can assume that there has been a stringent peer review process. You discuss the controversial Ingalhalikar et al.’s structural connectome article published in 2013 in PNAS – a reputable journal.

Cordelia: This article measured brain connectivity in a large sample of 8-22 year olds, and found greater intra-hemispheric connectivity in males and inter-hemispheric connectivity in females, on average.

Uta: This sounds like a good sort of gender difference, at first glance it has nothing to do with a gender bias, but it certainly is grist to the essentialist mill. I remember when I first read this paper I was thinking, so there is now some evidence for an essentialist type sex difference, and we can start to think what it means.

Cordelia: In our article, we make the case that researchers are often working from an implicit ‘gender essentialist’ model, that assumes that the brains and psyches of females and males are highly distinct, and differences between them are natural, fixed and invariant across time and place. This subtly influences research design and interpretation, and the Ingalhalikar et al. study was a good example of exactly that.

Uta: So what’s wrong with that?

Cordelia: In an earlier study, the researchers had reported behavioural sex differences in executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills and social cognition. This was in a larger sample from which these participants were drawn. But these differences were very modest: 11 of the 26 effect sizes were null/d<0.1, and the largest was d=0.33. Yet despite the substantial behavioural similarity between the sexes, the researchers interpreted their anatomical findings as underlying profound behavioural differences between the sexes, without actually testing for brain-behaviour correlations.

Uta: And what did you think of their interpretation of the brain differences?

Cordelia: They speculated that “[m]ale brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.”

Uta: Perhaps they couldn’t think of what else the differences could be due to.

Cordelia: There were two other possibilities they might have considered, but didn’t, presumably because of the essentialist frame. One is that the female/male interconnectivity differences are a brain size effect, rather than a sex effect. As you know, the male brain is on average about ten per cent larger than the female brain. They also didn’t pay any empirical or theoretical attention to the possible influence of gendered experiences on brain and behaviour. I happened to be sent the article by a journalist for comment, and I wrote back to her:

“Ironically, even though the research from this group provides strong evidence for behavioral similarities between the sexes, provides no evidence that any modest behavioral sex differences are associated with neurological ones, and offers no information about the developmental origins of either, we can probably anticipate that this article will soon be drawn on by popular commentators as evidence that ‘hardwired’ sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”

Uta: This is precisely what happened.

Cordelia: Yes. The front page of the Independent, for instance, headlined with “Scientists discover the difference between male and female brains: Study reveals variation in hardwiring which may explain skills gap between women and men”.

It’s worth pointing out though that this particular example was unusual for the role of the researchers themselves in making reference to ‘hardwiring’, and in making especially incautious reverse inferences to concepts far beyond any measured behaviours (like motherly intuition). Usually this is a job left to the popularizers.

Uta: Hardwiring usually means that there is a biological cause for a behaviour. But, as you say, it could be the other way round. The hardwiring could be a result of behavioural practice. There are plenty of examples of how learning changes the brain.

Cordelia: Yes, and long before the buzz about neuroplasticity, feminist neurobiologists were writing about this ‘entanglement’: the fact that the social phenomenon of gender (which systematically affects an individual’s psychological, physical, social and material experiences) is literally incorporated, shaping the brain and endocrine system. One of the recommendations of our article is for researchers to attempt to incorporate the principle of entanglement into their research models, including more and/or different categories of independent variables that include ways of capturing the role of the environment.

Uta: We clearly need more thoughtful research in this area: You and your co-authors have made a very constructive start with your paper.

Cordelia Fine is the author of Delusions of gender.  She is ARC Future Fellow at Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and Associate Professor at the Melbourne Business School and the Centre for Ethical Leadership, University of Melbourne.


On Andrassy Ut

This is the Champs-Elysée of Budapest: a grand tree lined avenue, framed by glamorous buildings, and with some famous coffee houses. We are sitting outside the classic Café Müvesz, with a splendid view of the Opera: Ildiko Kiraly, Kata Egyed, Chris and me after a nice open air lunch at Liszt Ferenc Tér, not more than two hundred yards away.
-You used your famous “Head-touch” experiment with autistic children. You found in a new experiment that young autistic children, unlike carefully matched children with Down Syndrome, disregarded the experimenter’s intention as indicated by ostensive gestures. This is a strong indication that we cannot rely on what  Gergely and  Csibra called natural pedagogy when teaching autistic children.

Continue reading On Andrassy Ut

The waitress brought cups of coffee and glasses of water. I took up a previous threat of our conversation:

-Your colleagues made the stunning discovery that the A not B error in young  infants was much reduced if the experimenter did not use ostensive gestures. Let me see if I got this right: It is precisely the communicative setting that makes infants perseverate in their error. It is as if they assume the experimenter has taught them to go to a particular hiding place – and this is what they reach for. If the experimenter does not use ostensive gestures, they don’t learn this and consequently don’t make the error. Instead they go for the new hiding place where the object really is.

-Yes, that’s correct, said Ildiko, -and this was the same in dogs, but not in wolves, as shown in the paper with Topal. So natural pedagogy is something that works for dogs too, probably because they have been social companions of humans for millenia.

Chris and I had been extremely interested in studies testing the theory of ‘Natural pedagogy’, introduced by Gergely and Csibra (aka the rockstar Hungarian developmental psychologists). It is a fascinating theory that suggests that humans have a means to acquire culturally relevant information from each other, that makes learning incredibly fast and powerful. The trick that evolution has provided is ‘ostensive communication’.

Chris: – There are two ways of learning from others.  They can address you ostensively, perhaps call you by your name, look at you directly, flash their eye brows at you. But you can also learn by just observing them.

When  our coffee was almost finished, the conversation strayed towards a Bayesian theme. Chris asked: -Why do we pay so much attention to the information that comes from our own senses? When does this start in development?

Ildiko and Katalin both considered this question. -It seems very possible that at first young infants do not pay so much attention to their own sensory information. Take the A not B error. They follow the object with their eyes, and they therefore know where it has been put. But this information counts for less than the information conveyed by the adult’s communication. So it is another person’s perception that seems to win over their own.

-Interesting! So it is not so obvious that we first and foremost regard our own sensory perceptions when making any inferences about the world. Perhaps we are taught that the evidence of our own eyes is the best.

Chris added: – I have just seen a paper by Jaswal who studied children’s trust in information provided by adults. Toddlers believe what an adult says even though they have just seen something different.

My thoughts strayed to “nullius in verba” -take nobody’s word for it- the motto of the Royal Society.

– So is it only since the enlightenment that we feel we must see for ourselves to believe? It was clearly a huge cultural change that brought about the attitude that we should not put our trust in the evidence transmitted to us by others.

-But then aren’t there lots of pitfalls when we put all our trust into our own senses? And by implication, our own experiments?

– Hmmm, we have a conundrum and this relates to our earlier and rather controversial post “Not to be found in any methods section.”



Not to be found in any Methods section

On 27th April Ernö Teglas, Chris, Agnes Melinda Kovacs and I met up at the most OTT coffeehouse in Budapest, the New York. The décor puts you into Rococo mood, but the pianist on the upper level suggests a 1920s jazz feeling. Continue reading Not to be found in any Methods section

NYCafe Erno TeglasWe are having outrageous layered coffee Melange with Chili, extravagant New York ice cream cups, pistachio cake, but Chris asks a glass of Furmint and a plate of Mangalica ham.

The conversation quickly turned to how to do experiments with babies. Why do such experiments take forever to complete? What to do with non-replications?

– “But this is the same with any experiments we have ever done!” – Chris quips.  “But why do you think your experiments take a long time to complete? Why are you skeptical about non-replications?”

ET: Here is my claim: The success of a baby experiment is decided by how you instruct the parents, how and where they hold their baby.

Instruction is particularly relevant because it is the parents who coordinate the data acquisition. Without them these experiments simply cannot happen and they are very willing to help. The problem is that they have no experience with such situations. So, in a short session we have to turn them into “experimenters”. Every detail matters. It may seem surprising, but we really have long debates about how to hold the baby during tests, and what is the optimal position. The way a baby is held makes all the difference to their freedom to move. For example when held just under the arms, the mother may exert more influence on the baby than necessary. Also, the baby can easily slip down just slightly. And then eye gaze slides too. It may no longer be on the target you display on the screen. The hold has to be on the hips of the baby.

CF: Experiments stand and fall by how the experimenter instructs the subject.

UF: But isn’t this against the idea that scientific experimentation has to be independent of the experimenter. The whole point is that they can be replicated by somebody else.

CF: Ah, there are critical aspects of instructions, which often don’t get spelled out in methods sections.

ET: The pity is that if a student doing a first experiment fails to replicate a previous result then this throws doubt on the previous finding, when in fact it throws doubt on the student who is still learning and doesn’t yet know how to do the experiment. Only once the student has succeeded in replicating a well known robust finding, can he or she be trusted to do a good job.

CF: When I first worked at the long disbanded MRC Clinical Research Centre, the biochemists (who, mysteriously, later turned into molecular biologists) often said things like: today the reaction just didn’t work. We have to try again.

UF: So it’s not necessarily the sign of an immature and still soft science that you have to be pernickety on exactly how an experiment is carried out. If an experiment doesn’t replicate, there are many possible reasons and does not necessarily mean the previous results are not true.

ET: With infants we basically rely on measuring what they are looking at, and for how long they look at it: they look longer at something that surprises them; they get bored and look away when something is highly predictable to them. However, they also look away when something else attracts their attention; when there is some noise, when they feel uncomfortable for some reason. All this makes us extremely careful to have completely soundproof labs, very relaxed mothers, and babies who have only recently woken up and have been fed before we even start the experiment.

NYCafe+3– This was the moment when we found out that the coffee Melange with Chili is actually rather spicy, but the honey that served as a bottom layer softened this feeling. “Overall each ingredient plays a role if their interaction is orchestrated by a hand sensitive to details” says Ernö

UF: Is it true that you often don’t get results that you know we should get?

ET: True! Then we go over every step of the procedure and find possible reasons.

UF: Is it okay to eliminate data when you believe there was a slip in the procedure for one particular baby?

ET: Actually you have to do it. You have to eliminate data all the time. If you don’t you include complete nonsense, when for example an infant no longer looks at the target. You need him/her to look to take notice of the scenario you have devised. We have to eliminate usually 20% of the data, if not more. …of course it depends on the experimental protocol: In habituation studies rejection rate can be as high as 50%. The procedure only lasts a few minutes because babies soon tire of watching a simple scenario on video. Sometimes we can only use a fraction of these few minutes.

UF: It makes me marvel not only at the fact that you are so incredibly scrupulous in your procedure but also that you have so many successes with your ingenious experiments.





The great Smurf Experiment

I am at the gorgeously magnificent Széchenyi baths with Ágnes Kovács, one of the senior researchers of the CDC group at the CEU. I have long admired Ági’s work and one experiment conducted with Ernő Téglás and Ansgar Endress, has completely changed how we think about the development of Theory of Mind. 

We are sitting at the edge of the pool marked 36ºC. Silky water is all around us and we can comfortably settle at the edge.

UF: Agi, how did you come to embark on your amazing experiment that showed that 7-months old infants can track another person’s false belief? Most researchers up until then were convinced that Theory of Mind was testable only from age four onwards. Continue reading The great Smurf Experiment

agnes melinda kovacs

AK: It started in a conversation I had on a train in Trieste. I did my PhD there in Jacques Mehler’s lab, on bilingualism and its effects on cognitive development. Amongst the effects I considered were Theory of Mind (ToM) and Executive functions (EF).

It turned out that these two factors had been confounded in the well known Sally-Anne task that was typically used to test ToM. I wanted a pure test of ToM. It occurred to me that I actually wanted a ToM test for babies, and that it simply had be a non-verbal version of the Sally-Ann task.

UF: Wow that was ambitious! So how did you get this idea and go about designing such a test?

AK: I didn’t know it was ambitious, – I only knew that there was a risk  of not finding anything. So I only pursued the project on the side. Jacques Mehler very kindly allowed me to do this – even though he himself was very skeptical about it. In his lab I had learned that by merely observing babies’ looking behavior you can get an idea about what they expect. So it should be possible to look for evidence of whether or not they have an implicit form of ToM.

UF: If babies have expectations, does this mean that they have mental representations –  images perhaps of what might be there in the outside world? And sometimes this image agrees with what is out there, and sometimes it doesn’t?

AK: You could say that. We knew already from earlier studies that infants can represent the continued presence of an object even when the object was hidden behind a screen. When the screen was lifted, the infants still expected the object to be there.

UF: So, they did a double take when the object wasn’t there.

AK:  These and other findings suggested that young infants can also represent another agent’s goal, and this made me think that it might be possible to study not just infants’  representation of objects, whether they are present or absent….but beyond this, whether infants represent not just their own beliefs about objects, but the belief of another person.

UF: Why did you test 7months olds?

AK: I thought even 6 months olds might do this, since even at this age they understand goals.  But at the time, the babies coming to the lab to be tested were 7 months old.

To go on exploring the baths we are moving to a slightly warmer and larger pool, surrounded by Roman style marble columns.

UF: You designed the famous Smurf task. Can you briefly describe what your aim was with this task?

AK: We wanted to we find out whether human beings would spontaneously track another agent’s belief about a location of an object – even when the agent and his beliefs are completely irrelevant for the task. So, basically, we transformed an object detection task into an implicit ToM task.

UF: The other agent was a Smurf! The thrilling question was whether observers, adults or babies, were influenced by the Smurf’s belief. So when he had a false belief, namely that an object was still there when it had actually been removed, then the observer might be systematically affected by this. But how did you measure the effect on the observer?

With adults we used a simple visual detection paradigm. They have to detect the presence of a ball and press a button as quickly as possible when it was present. We knew already that our expectations and knowledge modulate behavior. For instance, imagine a person arriving to a crowded airport and spotting her best friend. She will be much faster in noticing her friend if she knew in advance that the friend was waiting for her, as opposed to the situation when she did not know that the friend was coming.

In our baseline task participants watch short video and have to detect the presence of a ball behind a screen when the screen falls. We find that they are faster in detecting the ball when they have previously seen the ball rolling behind the screen, and expect it to be there, as compared to the situation when they have seen the ball rolling out of the scene, and thus don’t expect to find the ball.

In our critical condition we vary the belief of the Smurf and this is how we did it: if the Smurf walks out of the scene before the ball rolls away, he would “think” that the ball is still behind the screen.

UF: Ingenious! So you expect participants not only to be faster in detecting the presence of the ball when they themselves believed the ball to be behind the screen, but also when the Smurf believed this.

Baby watching Smurf

AK: And this was the result. It suggested that just watching animations could lead participants to automatically compute the Smurf’s (false) beliefs, even though the Smurf’s belief was entirely irrelevant to the task they had to perform.


UF:  What was the task in the case of the infants?

AK:  Here we measured looking time. In exactly the same situation as the adults, they looked longer when the Smurf had a false belief.

UF: These findings must have just clicked into place for you. It must have been thrilling to see your ‘high risk’ study work out.

We visit the steam room and are surrounded by thick mist. My glasses completely become clouded and I can only see through a fog. After a refreshing shower we brave the outside. There is an open air hot pool at Szechenyi baths. An amazing sight greeted as: steam rising against a purple evening sky, lights glinting and water pouring from the spouts of statues at the edges of the pool. We braved a short walk through the cold air and then gratefully slipped into the delightful warmth of the water. 

AK: Well, arriving to the final design took many hours of discussions with Erno and Ansgar to make sure we control for various factors to rule out other interpretations. Another difficulty was that we wanted to use the same movies with adults and young infants, thus movies had to be simple (1 location, 1 object, 1 agent).

UF: Can you tell me something about your collaborators, Erno Teglas and Ansgar Endress?

AK: It was Ansgar I had the conversation with in the train when it all started. He suggested that we test the paradigm first with adults.  Here we used Reaction Times, not eye gaze. This was a really good idea. Ernö was indispensable. First he was my boyfriend, and we previously had had long discussions on how to study ToM in infants; second he was doing a PhD where he had gained the necessary experience with studying looking behaviour in infants.

UF:  Can you briefly summarise the results?

The results were just as I had expected. With the adults and then also with the babies, when we used eye gaze as a response. We have found that adults and infants spontaneously tracked an agent’s belief about a location of an object, even when the agent and his beliefs were completely irrelevant for their task.

UF: I believe it took some time before you published the paper?

AK: I had to finish my PhD first. We did present the results at a conference and it was known what we were trying to do – and there were many skeptics.  So we did not rush to get into print. We wanted to do every thing properly and be sure about our results…

The nice thing was that Jacques Mehler encouraged us to submit the paper to Science, and just as the three of us, only students, without him as a senior author. This is actually quite rare, and it had the additional benefit, that on the strength of this publication I could apply for a European grant.

After more showers, and a short stay in a sauna, Agi and I get ready to leave. But first, we share a refreshingly cold Stella Artois overlooking the outdoor pool. The evening visitors are now arriving.

UF: Thank you for telling me the story behind the Smurf experiment. I vaguely remember when I saw this study, when it was published in Science in 2010 it made me jump for joy. It was not only because I liked the results – it was the beautiful design that made it possible to compare children less than 1 year old with adults. Getting the same results for both groups really put a big question mark about what we call ‘development’ of Theory of Mind. New questions had to be asked. For example: Is the ability to attribute mental states part of our brain’s hard ware?

AK: Well, this is a highly interesting question! Together with my students and collaborators we are currently performing studies addressing this question as well.


Post-script 30th April 2014:

“Why on earth was it a Smurf?”   Because they are cute, of course,  but here is Agnes:

“The practical reason was that we had the software to animate a Smurf, making him roll the ball, turn around, move along, and so on. Also we knew from other experiments that babies really love animated shapes.  They don’t need to watch real people doing things to pay attention; simple shapes with faces and self initiated movements are just as good, if not better. Deep down there was perhaps also another reason: For our generation, and certainly for Ernö, Ansgar and myself,  Smurfs are incredibly bound up with happy childhood memories.”



Selfish – moi?

March 2014, Uta Frith

Chris and I are in our nice office in the Swan-house (Hattyuhaz). Agnes Volein, the coordinator of the Babylab has come in for a few minutes of chat.

Photo on 07-02-2014 at 11.55CF: I must finish this Q&A to send to the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. My paper with Masahiko Haruno is going to be published at last and they will highlight it on the journal’s website.

AV:  What is the paper about?

CF: The title is Activity in the Nucleus Accumbens and Amygdala Underlies Individual Differences in Prosocial and Individualistic Economic Choices

It’s about individual differences in people’s preference for fairness or otherwise. We call it their social orientation, which can be pro-social or pro-self. Continue reading Selfish – moi?

UF: You have often said that you don’t believe that we are all basically selfish and constantly working hard to inhibit  this tendency. Instead you think that, deep down, most of us are pro-social. Some people would say that is a charming belief, but surely naïve.

CF. Well, in this paper we present data to confirm my belief.

UF: Here is the first question for your Q&A: How did you personally become interested in this topic?

CF: A very long time ago (1969) I did my PhD on individual differences, but subsequently paid little attention to this aspect of psychology. More recently, I have been interested in social cognition and the neural mechanisms underlying social interactions. Most studies have tended to ignore individual differences. This is a shame because the functioning of human societies depends upon individual differences in order to achieve optimal division of labour.

UF: Lets go to question 2: In just a few sentences, what were the objectives of your study?

CF: Fairness is a very important concept in human society. But some people are more concerned about fairness than others.

Paul van Lange has used a questionnaire about the sharing out of money. Prosocials (~60%) prefer the money to be split evenly even if this means getting less themselves. Individualists ( ~30%) will choose the split that gives them the most money without regard for what other people get. Competitive types (10%) want to get more than others. Importantly, the behaviour on this questionnaire relates to real life behaviour. Prosocial people are more cooperative, give more money to charity and tend to vote liberal rather than conservative.

These differences seem stable, like personality traits. We wanted to explore their neural basis.

UF: Did you have a hypothesis?

CF: In a previous brain imaging study, Haruno & I found that dislike of unfairness was associated with activity in the amygdala. Since the amygdala is a relatively ‘primitive’ brain region, we suspected that this was a rapid, automatic response that did not involve much conscious reflection, and we wanted to test this idea further.

UF: How did you do measure dislike of unfairness?

CF: We gave people an ultimatum game to do in the scanner. Here an amount of money is presented, and a split is offered. The person has to make a decision to either accept or reject the offer, – and this is the ultimatum. If the answer is accept, the split goes to each person as per the original offer. If the answer is ‘reject’, neither person gets anything. We also had a version of the game, where the other person got his split even if the decision was ‘reject’, the impunity game.

A fair split is 50% of course, but most people accept less. For people strongly oriented towards fairness, the more unfair the split, the more likely their decision will be ‘reject’. Not so the pro-selfs. They take something rather than nothing. We wanted see what would happen when people were prevented from thinking too deeply about their response to fair or unfair splits. So we gave them a task that distracted them.

UF. Were you surprised by any of the findings in your study?

CF: We had expected that cognitive load would not affect the behaviour of our participants since their responses to unfair offers in the ultimatum game would be intuitive rather than reflective. Our findings showed that the cognitive load actually exaggerated the individual differences. So the prosocials became more prosocial, as shown by rejecting offers that were insultingly low. The pro-selfs became more selfish. That is they accepted even tiny offers, because something is better than nothing. They did not care about the other person getting a lot more, especially in the impunity version of the game.

UF: What was the significance of the activity you saw in the nucleus accumbens and amygdala?

CF: We believe that the activity in these ‘primitive’ brain regions reflects intuitive, rather than reflective processes in decision-making, and that it is these intuitive processes that largely determine whether a person is selfish or prosocial.

UF: So you feel confirmed in your belief that people are pro-social and basically have an aversion to unfairness?

CF: Absolutely. It goes against the widely held belief that people are basically selfish and that we need to reflect upon what we are doing to overcome our selfish urges. Our research says most of us are basically prosocial rather than selfish. Of course we can override this basic tendency. When we do that, our powers of reasoning are typically used to justify selfish behaviour.