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Developmental instability, fluctuating asymmetry, and human psychological science

Published: 22 August 2022

Abstract: Developmental instability (DI) is an individual's inability to produce a specific developmental outcome under a given set of conditions, generally thought to result from random perturbations experienced during development. Fluctuating asymmetry (FA) — asymmetry on bilateral features that, on average, are symmetrical (or asymmetry deviating from that arising from design) — has been used to measure DI. Dating to half a century ago, and accelerating in the past three decades, psychological researchers have examined associations between FA (typically measured on bodily or facial features) and a host of outcomes of interest, including psychological disorders, cognitive ability, attractiveness, and sexual behavior. A decade ago, a meta-analysis on findings from nearly 100 studies extracted several conclusions. On average, small but statistically reliable associations between FA and traits of interest exist. Though modest, these associations are expected to greatly underestimate the strength of associations with underlying DI. Despite the massive sample size across studies, we still lack a good handle on which traits are most strongly affected by DI. A major methodological implication of the meta-analysis is that most studies have been, individually, woefully underpowered to detect associations. Though offering some intriguing findings, much research is the past decade too has been underpowered; hence, the newer literature is also likely noisy. Several large-scale studies are exceptions. Future progress depends on additional large-scale studies and researchers’ sensitivity to power issues. As well, theoretical assumptions and conceptualizations of DI and FA driving psychological research may need revision to explain empirical patterns.
Keywords: developmental stability / evolutionary psychology / fluctuating asymmetry

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