A Philosopher's Blog

Attraction & Clarity

Posted in Relationships/Dating, Science by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2011
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One common filler in the news these days is the study story. These are the stories about various studies, often in psychology, that purport to tell us things on the basis of rather limited samples and often with somewhat amazing inferential leaps. One recent filler piece I came across is one that purports to show that women are more attracted to men whose feelings are not clear.

This study was originally published in Psychological Science, where one may find a plethora of similar studies.

Obviously, academic types have to keep the gears of the research machine going. Status, funding, promotion and tenure all depend on this.

The study mentioned above was conducted by Dr. Erin R. Whitchurch and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virgina and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. In the study, 47 female UVA undergrads were told that male students from other schools had looked at their profiles and that each woman would be rated. Each woman was given “fake” profiles of four men. For the study, the women were divided into four groups. Group one of the woman were told that the four men gave them high ratings, group two was told that the men ranked them as average and the third group of women were not told which rated them high or average.

The women were most attracted to the men whose ratings they did not know. In second place were the men who rated them as attractive and last were the men who rated them as average.

While this study is somewhat interesting, the media coverage certainly outstrips the foundation that it provides.

First, the sample is extremely small and this makes inferences to the general population of women questionable at best. Second, the sample consists of undergraduates at a specific university. This raises the obvious question of whether the sample is adequately representative of women in general. After all, the age of the woman, their education, and so on could be factors that affected the outcome of the study.

Another concern is that some folks presented the study as if it provided findings relevant to dating and relationships. While using the fictional Facebook scenario might tell us something about psychology, making inferences about what would occur in dating or in relationships from such a scenario would be quite a leap.

However, the study did make good press and spread widely on the web. Perhaps someone should do a psychology study on that.

I’ve posted links to articles about the study below.

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5 Responses

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  1. FRE said, on February 19, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Those of us who have done much reading on psychology have noted how some psychiatrists, analysts, and others in the field have often jumped to conclusions that seems totally ridiculous and bizarre. For example, it has been widely believed that how generous people are with their money, i.e., how likely they are to become philanthropists, is determined by how they were toilet trained. It was also incorrectly believed, with no evidence, that women had two kinds of orgasms, and that one kind was wrong; we now know better. The medical health profession believed that masturbation led to a whole list of medical and psychological problems and all sorts of methods and devices were used to prevent the practice. Parents were blamed for improperly raising their kids if they turned out to be autistic or schizophrenic.

    The lives of people have been destroyed by people in the mental health field. For example, in the case of the McMartin Pre-school, school employees were put on trial on the basis of totally bizarre accusations that had no basis in fact. Children were interviewed in a way that caused them to believe that they were required to agree to stories that were concocted by the interviewers and it was on that basis that the totally innocent defendants were put on trial. After years of having their lives disrupted (one defendant was even in jail for a few years awaiting trial), the defendants were found innocent not simply because of inadequate evidence, but because the jury was totally convinced that the defendants were innocent. The information can easily be found by a google search; it is both shocking and interesting.

    The man who popularized the prefrontal lobotomy received a nobel prize for it. Lobotomies destroyed the lives of people and even killed some before the procedure was halted.

    I’m sure that others may be able to cite many more examples in the mental health field in which conclusions have been reached with no valid evidence and widely accepted to the detriment of many clients and the considerable financial enhancement of practitioners. Fortunately, things have changed to a considerable degree and theories are at least somewhat less likely to be accepted without proof.

    I tend to be very skeptical of conclusions reached in psychological fields unless I am convinced that the studies are valid and the results are replicated and confirmed by competent peers.

    • WTP said, on February 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm

      The psychology field is rife with people who are themselves of questionable mental stability. Many are in it for the purpose, consciously or not, of figuring themselves out. Our society has given their profession way too much influence. Whenever I hear a bizarre news story, quite often the perpetrator turns out to have a degree in psychology.

  2. Asur said, on February 19, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    It’s certainly true that we are biologically predisposed to “fill in” the vague and undefined with what we expect or desire to find there.

    • FRE said, on February 20, 2011 at 2:22 am

      Quite true and when people in the mental health field do that, it is often to the detriment of their clients. Here is an incident that was reported a few decades ago (about 1968) in a newspaper column.

      Dr. Walter C. Alvarez had a syndicated newspaper column. In one of his columns, he wrote about an experience one of his patients had with her analyst. The analyst had insisted that the problem his (female) patient was experiencing was always the result of sexual attack by the father. When she repeatedly insisted that such an attack had never occurred, he insisted that it had occurred and that she was repressing it. Finally, to satisfy her analyst, she “remembered” the “suppressed memory” and related it in considerable detail. The analyst wrote furiously and stated that he’d be presenting the case at the next professional conference.

      I strongly suspect that that sort of thing is not unusual, although it may be less common now. People sometimes do have sexual problems, but some mental health professionals seem to think that all problems are somehow associated with sex; it seems to be an obsession with them. And, they can mess up their clients quite badly especially because their clients are often very vulnerable and too inclined to believe everything their therapists say.

      Many people could benefit from counseling, but rarely are in a position to evaluate and choose an appropriate therapist.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 21, 2011 at 12:56 pm

      I’m reminded of Homer Simpson: “It could be anything…even a boat…”


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