Thursday, 28 January 2010

The British Media's "Blonde Moment"

Ten days ago, the Sunday Times - Britain's "newspaper of record" - recorded that
Blonde women born to be warrior princesses
Women with fair hair are more aggressive and determined to get their own way than brunettes or redheads, according to a study by the University of California... “We expected blondes to feel more entitled than other young women — this is southern California, the natural habitat of the privileged blonde,” said Aaron Sell, who led the study...
Well who'da thought it. Other sources repeated the story. The problem is, it was all made up. The study in question had nothing to do with blondes, or indeed hair at all. As originally reported over at Neuroworld, Dr. Aaron Sell, the lead author, denies saying the things he is quoted as saying in the article. His response -
Journalistic ethics requires, at a minimum, that you remove from this article all references to me, and to the research I and my collaborators have conducted. This article consists almost entirely of empirical claims and quotes about blonde women that Mr. Harlow fabricated, and then attributed to me. Please take the article offline immediately. Once your investigation is completed, please issue a retraction...
The Times has done neither - the article's still online. According to Dr. Sell, what happened was that journalist John Harlow noticed the paper, which is about, amongst other things, physical attractiveness and anger. Harlow, whose recent output includes "Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie no more" and that incisive piece of reportage, "Sandra Bullock overtakes Streep in dash for awards glory", wrote to Sell saying that he was writing an article about blondes, and asking whether Sell's data was relevant.

Sell hadn't considered hair color in his research, but he reanalyzed his data on Harlow's request. He found no association between blondness and personality, which is not surprising because it's hair we're talking about. Harlow, apparently unhappy with this, wrote the article anyway, simply making up various claims about blondes and attributing them to Sell and his paper, backed up with some fake quotes.

That's what Sell says, anyway. Maybe the Times dispute it, but since they haven't responded in any way, I guess we have to assume they agree. Science blogger Satoshi Kanazawa commented that "by American standards, all British newspapers are tabloids because they don’t distinguish between what is true and what they make up. " You can see his point. But I think the problem is especially serious when it comes to science journalism.

A journalist who faked an interview with a politician would be sacked on the spot - so noone would even consider doing that. Scientists, apparently, are fair game. The standard of British journalism in general may not be fantastic, but what appears on the "Science" pages is bad even by the standards of the rest, as Neuroskeptic readers know. To be fair to other journalists, Harlow's article is even worse than average. But it's not unique - a couple of years ago the Guardian ran a front-page story about autism research which was also largely made-up.

*

In all the excitement over the Times, though, the paper itself hasn't attracted much discussion. What Sell et al actually found was that in men, physical strength (as measured by ability to lift weights, etc.) correlates with the tendency to get angry, and feelings of entitlement. And in both men and women, perceived physical attractiveness was also correlated with angriness and entitlement. Specifically, the men and women were University of California students.


What does this mean? Sell et al describe their results as empirical proof of the "recalibrational theory" of anger. This is the idea that evolution provided us with anger to make other people treat us better, because early humans who got angry reaped benefits from it -
The function of anger is to orchestrate behavior in the angry individual that creates incentives in the target of the anger to recalibrate upwards the weight he or she puts on the welfare of the angry individual.
In essence: we get mad when we think that someone's not giving our interests the weight they deserve. Anger signals to the offender that if they don't pay the proper respect, we'll make them sorry, so they'd better fall into line... or else.

Sell et al say that the recalibrational theory predicts that people with more power to make others sorry - people with "formidability" - should get angry more easily, because their formidability means that they're likely to triumph if things came to blows (either literally or metaphorically).

They further say that in men, physical strength is an important part of formidability, while in women, attractiveness is more important. While men have the muscles, women have the babies, at least if they're fertile, so having a hot (a signal of fertility according to some accounts) woman, decide not to sleep with you is the ultimate evolutionary defeat for any male who wants to propagate his DNA, which, according to evolutionary psychology, is all of us -
males will tend to preempt and hence monopolize the use of force as an avenue of negotiation in social groups—an enduring feature of human sociality that should have shaped our species ... In contrast, in mammals such as humans, access to female sexuality was a far greater limiting factor for male fitness than access to male sexuality was for females. Insofar as attractiveness reflects fertility and offspring fitness, even small changes in the probability of a woman’s granting sexual access constitute a powerful benefit...
Still, this study only found a correlation between anger and "formidability" - it couldn't prove a causal link. Moreover, the seven measures of Proneness to Anger, Entitlement, and so forth, were all self-rated. People got questionnaires and ticked boxes next to statements like "I feel an urge to punch people who think they are better than me" or "I deserve more than the average person." That's not a measure of how easily people get angry, it's a measure of people's self-perceptions of their anger, which is not the same.

Overall, though, I find the recalibrational theory of anger at least as good as any other. How convincing you find it probably depends upon your feelings about this kind of evolutionary psychology in general. Maybe you think it's a profound insight into human nature. Or maybe you think it's an untestable, unscientific just-so-story about cavemen. Personally, I'm in the middle, although I lean towards evolutionary explanations, if only because I can't see any realistic alternatives; basic human emotions are universal across cultures, and biologically, they must have come from somewhere...

ResearchBlogging.orgSell A, Tooby J, & Cosmides L (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (35), 15073-8 PMID: 19666613

16 comments:

NeuroPsych said...

"by American standards, all British newspapers are tabloids because they don’t distinguish between what is true and what they make up"

Is that why the Pulitzer is an American journalism award only?

I sometimes find evolutionary psychology (AKA sociobiology) hard to swallow. Just because something evolved under a set of circumstances hundreds of thousands of years ago, does not dictate that the said trait is now utilized in a similar fashion as when it originally evolved (e.g., the brain mechanisms that are now utilized for reading).

Livia said...

Wow, so much for journalism standards...

Neuroskeptic said...

NeuroPsych: Reading's a good example of a new behaviour that we invented (about 5,000 years ago) rather than "evolve to do". But that doesn't mean that evolutionary explanations aren't useful for understanding things that we didn't invent. At the other extreme, breathing obviously did evolve, and the parts of the brain that control breathing must have evolved too, for the purpose of getting oxygen into our lungs. The question is whether less black-and-white things like emotions are more like reading or more like breathing, and I think it's the latter.

Neuroskeptic said...

Although that doesn't mean that this particular theory of anger is the right one. According to this theory anger should directly correlate with "self-esteem" - which would predict that people who are depressed should rarely get angry and people who are manic should be very angry. I think these are both true of some people, but there are also lots of angry, irritable depressed people and incredibly friendly manics...

dearieme said...

"Specifically, the men and women were University of California students." When America is over, and philosophers inquire what it contributed to civilisation, they will conclude that it recorded vast amounts of data about what undergraduates claim to have felt.

Anonymous said...

Weird. When someone gets angry at me, I usually recalibrate the weight I put in that person's welfare downwards. I doubt that being respected more can be the function of anger, because more often than not it fails at that. Even when a display of anger makes people respect you, that isn't based on real esteem but only fear, and the people who will respect you are not the ones whose respect matters. I think anger is more about self-esteem, about evading the feeling of defeat.

figleaf said...

Yikes! It's already irritating when journalists make up their own conclusions to science reports. When one makes up the data as well it's completely disgraceful.

That said, if you're going to quote scientists on tabloid journalism you might want to cite someone besides a Psychology Today writer who uses article subtitles like "Are Russian women more likely to be whores?".

4ndyman said...

Considering how horribly laughable Britain's slander and libel laws are, I hope Sell and his colleagues consider taking the Guardian to court in Great Britain, using those laws to expose these ongoing misdeeds.

I would hope that the court could see how citing Sell as someone who "researches" young, blonde coeds could be damaging to his professional reputation.

Neuroskeptic said...

4ndyman: heh, nice idea. With any luck our libel laws will be reformed soon, but even if they are, I'd say Sell has an excellent case. As a scientist your reputation is everything, and getting a reputation as someone who does ridiculous research about blondes and then gives sexist quotes to the media is potentially harmful for your career.

Although I suspect that in the long run this episode will be a good thing for Sell's career, that's not the point, Harlow's article was defamatory. Either that or Sell's lying in which case he's defaming Harlow, which I very much doubt that.

Anonymous said...

such a storm in a teacup; get over yourself

Neuroskeptic said...

Britain's Newspaper of Record publishes stuff that's literally made up and that's a storm in a teacup? Fair enough. I didn't realize old media was that dead yet.

Alex Catgirl said...

"By American standards, all British newspapers are tabloids because they don’t distinguish between what is true and what they make up"

This from the people who consider Murdock's FAUX network "News". Two Words - Sarah Palin

pulnimar said...

Re: The evo psych interpretation of anger.

All it takes is a few percent of the population with both muscles/pulchritude and the personality to become angry when they don't get their way, for the two traits to percolate through our common ancestry.

The genes controling these traits may be many centimorgans apart from each other, and possibly even uncorrelated, and still be frequent enough alleles to make a 10% or so overlap. Given the ability for dominant men, at least, to have many, many children, that's all that's necessary for either of these traits to become frequent.

It's annoying when evo-psych people overlook this stuff and assume absolute correlation when you don't need anything more than occasional, transitory interaction to make something evolutionarily beneficial on a species-wide fitness scale.

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Anonymous said...

Oh that's a good sample...a bunch of college kids from one university in Cali. Hmmm...how many forms of BIAS can we find in this study...ummm, we have sampling errors, possible researcher bias (I don't know how those questions were phrased), participation bias (did the kids sign up for the study?) - and they're going to base a GENERATIONAL THEORY on this!?!? Hell this doesn't prob. doesn't even meet their hypothesis let alone a theory!!! Geez...and then some yahoo runs an article on it with fabricated quotes, etc...how many levels of garbage must we sift through?

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