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      Contextual representation may mediate sex differences in heterosexual attraction


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          Heterosexual men and women differ in their sensitivity to cues indicating material status. This dissociation has been explained by appealing to sexual selection processes that encourage women to evaluate men on the basis of their material status but could perhaps be explained by sex differences in contextual attention, or, associative representations.


          In Experiment 1, heterosexual women rated the attractiveness of an opposite sex model in 4 conditions; (1) attractive context, (2) attractive context with implied ownership, (3) unattractive context, and (4) unattractive context with ownership implied. A second experiment used a fictitious stockbroker learning task (with both men and women) in 2 biconditional discriminations to measure contextual attention (stage 1) and then to explore the structure of contextual representation (stage 2) using a transfer of occasion setting test.


          In Experiment 1, females increased ratings in attractive contexts, both when context ownership was implied and when it was not. In the first stage of Experiment 2, men and women were equally sensitive to contextual cues. In stage 2, women’s learning was impaired when a stimulus previously used as a target was employed as a context (they showed transfer of occasions setting), men showed no such difference.


          Sex differences in sensitivity to cues indicating material status may reflect how men and women tend to encode the relationships between background/context stimuli and target stimuli. Women automatically attend to the background and modulate the value of targets using a hierarchical form of representation, whilst men represent background-target associations configurally.

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          Most cited references26

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          Beautiful faces have variable reward value: fMRI and behavioral evidence.

          The brain circuitry processing rewarding and aversive stimuli is hypothesized to be at the core of motivated behavior. In this study, discrete categories of beautiful faces are shown to have differing reward values and to differentially activate reward circuitry in human subjects. In particular, young heterosexual males rate pictures of beautiful males and females as attractive, but exert effort via a keypress procedure only to view pictures of attractive females. Functional magnetic resonance imaging at 3 T shows that passive viewing of beautiful female faces activates reward circuitry, in particular the nucleus accumbens. An extended set of subcortical and paralimbic reward regions also appear to follow aspects of the keypress rather than the rating procedures, suggesting that reward circuitry function does not include aesthetic assessment.
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            A large sex difference on a two-dimensional mental rotation task.

            Mental rotation tests require participants to identify rotated versions of a target stimulus. The Vandenberg Mental Rotations Test depicts rotations in 3-D space and typically yields one of the largest established cognitive sex differences favoring males. It is presently unclear whether this male advantage is related to the nature of rotations depicted in 3-D space or to the high level of difficulty of this task. The present study developed a new test depicting picture plane, or 2-D, rotations. When task difficulty within this 2-D test was varied, a male advantage as large as that seen on the Vandenberg test was found for the difficult component. These findings suggest that processing in 3 dimensions is not a necessary condition for a large sex difference on tests of mental rotation.
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              Sex differences in eye gaze and symbolic cueing of attention.

              Observing a face with averted eyes results in a reflexive shift of attention to the gazed-at location. Here we present results that show that this effect is weaker in males than in females (Experiment 1). This result is predicted by the 'extreme male brain' theory of autism (Baron-Cohen, 2003), which suggests that males in the normal population should display more autism-like traits than females (e.g., poor joint attention). Indeed, participants' scores on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Stott, Bolton, & Goodyear, 2001) negatively correlated with cueing magnitude. Furthermore, exogenous orienting did not differ between the sexes in two peripheral cueing experiments (Experiments 2a and 2b). However, a final experiment showed that using nonpredictive arrows instead of eyes as a central cue also revealed a large gender difference. This demonstrates that reduced orienting from central cues in males generalizes beyond gaze cues. These results show that while peripheral cueing is equivalent in the male and female brains, the attention systems of the two sexes treat noninformative symbolic cues very differently.

                Author and article information

                Evolution, Mind and Behaviour
                Akadémiai Kiadó
                March 2016
                : 14
                : 1
                : 23-42
                [1] Cardiff Metropolitan University
                Author notes

                Corresponding author: Dr Andrew Watt; Department of Applied Psychology, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Western Avenue, Cardiff, Wales, CF5 2YB, UK; E-mail: awatt@ 123456cardiffmet.ac.uk

                © The Author(s)

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.

                : 2 July 2014
                : 20 June 2015
                : 18 December 2015
                Page count
                Pages: 20
                Original article

                Evolutionary Biology,Medicine,Psychology,Educational research & Statistics,Social & Behavioral Sciences
                hierarchical representation,biconditional discrimination,background attractiveness,ocassion setting,configural representation


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