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Thursday, January 28, 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

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