science of us

These Ideas About Sexual Attraction May Be Based on Shoddy Science

Last week, the technology magazine Ars Technica published a bombshell of a story questioning the integrity of the work of French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen. You may not have heard of Guéguen, but you’ve almost certainly heard of his research. It’s even been covered by New York. “One French Scientist Found Five Research-Backed Ways to Get a Woman’s Number,” a helpful Science of Us piece touted in 2014. Time covered one of his studies in a story titled “Science Proves It: Men Really Do Find High Heels Sexier.” The Atlantic and the New York Times have written about his work, too.

The Ars Technica story describes the dogged efforts of two scientists, Nick Brown and James Heathers, who started asking questions of Guéguen in 2015 after noticing weird things. It started with a study they laughed over one evening — one that reported that men are less likely to help women whose hair is tied up in a bun or ponytail. When they carefully read the study, they noticed that many of Guéguen’s reported numbers didn’t make sense considering the calculations involved. Things smelled fishier when they saw just how huge the differences were that he was reporting — differences that are, in social science research, highly improbable. There were other things, too, like the fact that Guéguen was unusually prolific — according to Researchgate, a kind of Facebook for scientists, Guéguen has published 11 papers already this year, impressive considering that most of his papers require extensive field work.

Brown and Heathers sent detailed critiques of ten of Guéguen’s papers to the French Psychological Society in December 2015, highlighting various statistical and ethical concerns. The organization asked Guéguen for a response but didn’t get one until nearly a year later, in October 2016, when Guéguen shared 25 papers that, Brown and Heathers say, didn’t have anything to do with the ten papers they’d asked about. The papers he shared were studies conducted by his undergraduate students, nothing like his polished published work. (If you took an intro to psych class in college, you know that in the U.S., students are often used as study participants. In France, they are often the study testers.) The back-and-forth continued. Brown and Heathers then sent Guéguen more questions, asking for specific data sets as well as contact details for the research assistants (also supposedly students, Guéguen said) who had conducted the field work in his published studies — because, bizarrely, none were listed as study co-authors or even acknowledged in the papers. Indeed, in many, Guéguen is listed as the sole author.

Guéguen finally got back to Brown and Heathers again two months ago with answers to some questions but not others. He failed to share any information about his research assistants. Fed up, Brown and Heathers decided to go public with what they had found — hence last week’s Ars Technica story. They are also running a series of blog posts — the latest was published on Monday — containing detailed study critiques.

That this is all coming out in the midst of the #metoo movement is fitting. We are finally, as a country, publicly acknowledging that men have been treating women like shit for ages. Now, even the science that lends support to our iconic gender stereotypes — the science that reinforces the idea that men are biologically programmed to be sex-crazed and that women are basically sex objects — is coming crashing down, too. Making matters worse, Guéguen’s research may also have been conducted in an ethically dubious way.

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Guéguen publishes on many topics, but much of his work on seduction and sexual behavior fits into the rubric of evolutionary psychology, a controversial field that uses evolutionary theory to understand human behavior. Findings in evolutionary psychology can be used to explain our sexual and sexist behaviors using biology — we’ve evolved to be this way; it’s in our nature; boys will be boys. For instance, Guéguen’s high heels paper concludes that men focus so much on women’s “physical attributes” in part because men are evaluating the women’s “mating value,” a biological impulse. However well-intentioned researchers’ goals might be in trying to understand the biological underpinnings of behavior, evolutionary psychology findings are often used by the media and the public to blame biology for behavior, effectively absolving men of responsibility. (Some even shift the responsibility to women: One evolutionary psychology paper titled “Why Men Rape” points out that women should “be advised that the way they dress can put them at risk.”) As one university psychology professor who did not want to be named in this article said to me about the field, “it says that men are just animals that respond to these cues women are putting out —  and that women can’t help putting out the cues but also have to accept the men’s behavior. I think the implications are really dangerous.”

Brown, one of the researchers who sparked the Guéguen controversy, points out that scientific findings themselves shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as “good” or “bad.” “There is kind of a rule in science that you don’t argue with empirical results even if they don’t tell you what you want to hear,” he says. That may be true, but recent studies have questioned the conclusions of a number of evolutionary psychology findings, pointing out that sexual preferences and behaviors might not be innate, but instead shaped by our sexist culture. Moreover, Brown’s investigation raises the possibility that some portion of Guéguen’s conclusions might not just be frail but, in fact, fraudulent. If that’s the case, and Guéguen’s work is essentially “fake news” that is reinforcing dangerous sexual stereotypes, that’s a huge, messy problem.

There’s yet another twist, too: Guéguen may not give proper credit and compensation to his female research assistants (assuming they really exist). And he is putting them in ethically questionable situations.

Take, for instance, “Bust Size and Hitchhiking: A Field Study,” a 2007 paper Guéguen published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills. In this study, a handful of 20-year-old females had their bust sizes rated by 15 male students to ensure that their breasts were “smaller than young women of their age typically possess on average.” If they passed the test, the women then had to insert a “latex leaf” into their bras to increase their bust size, put on a “white figure-hugging shirt which highlighted the bust” and jeans, and then attempt to hitchhike along a busy road. After 100 cars had passed, the women then had to change their bras (it’s unclear where) and continue trying to hitchhike. In another study, female research assistants had to lie on the beach in red bikinis; in yet another, women had to wear “very short” skirts and “off-the-shoulder tight-fitting” tops with plunging necklines and then, in the late evening for 16 nights, sit at tables “near a bar at which single men usually stood.” None of the women tasked with these jobs were acknowledged by name.

The papers do say that a few male observers were stationed nearby for safety reasons, which is reassuring. But still: These were college women who were putting themselves in highly sexualized situations, presumably because participating in these studies was a requirement of Guéguen’s class. (Guéguen did not respond when contacted for an interview.) Or, possibly, they said yes to impress their college professor or curry his favor. “This seems really creepy,” says Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist, historian and philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

It’s one thing to run an advertisement to find women willing to dress provocatively for a study and be compensated for it, he says; but the individuals used should never, ever be in an unequal power relationship with the person who will benefit from their work. (I contacted Université Bretagne Sud administrators to find out whether the university is investigating any of the ethical issues raised by Brown and Heathers, but no one got back to me in time for my deadline.)

And the women should certainly be compensated and credited. Brown and Heathers have specifically asked Guéguen for more information on how they are compensated, but they haven’t gotten answers. “These junior researchers, usually women, are working hard,” Heathers says. “Dozens of days of participation, often as sexual lures, and with no authorship, no mention, no credit, beyond the fact that their measurements are outlined in the appropriate method sections.” A few female scientists have been listed as co-authors with Guéguen on his papers; Christine Bougeard-Delfosse, a researcher with Guéguen at the Université Bretagne Sud, assured me that Guéguen’s student researchers conduct the experiments to “learn methods of survey” and that “their aim was not to write a scientific article.” But Moreno says that “if they’re going out in the field and doing something, they should be acknowledged.”

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Beyond these obvious problems, Gueguen’s work is problematic on yet another level, too: It reinforces the very sexual stereotypes that can fuel sexual misconduct. To understand why, let’s go back a few years. Let’s start when you were a baby.

By the time you celebrated your first birthday, you could tell the difference between male and female faces. Little brains notice patterns. Soon after, you learned that gender is an important construct, because your parents, siblings, and teachers were constantly labeling it, pointing it out. “Look at that cute boy over there!” “Should we ask that woman where the bathroom is?” “You’re such a sweet girl.” If gender wasn’t socially meaningful, your brain deciphered, everybody wouldn’t be calling it out all the time.

Then you probably started noticing patterns, including hierarchical differences, between the genders. You may have noticed that the vast majority of powerful businesspeople and politicians were men, whereas most grocery store cashiers and daycare providers were women. You might then have started to make causal inferences from these observations. Gee, if men tend to be in these important jobs, then maybe they’re just inherently better and smarter. Because this is what little brains do: They over-interpret. They over-generalize.

While this was happening, you were constantly bombarded with social signals reinforcing the notion that the two genders are very different — and should stay that way. You noticed that girls were dressed in pink and boys wore blue; that girls carried dolls, while boys gravitated to trucks. Research tells us that your parents, your teachers and your friends reinforced these stereotypes: studies have found that teachers encourage gender-stereotypical play during recess, that preschool boys ridicule boys who play with dollhouses or dresses, and that parents reward kids for playing with gender-appropriate toys and scold them for doing the opposite.
(Even parents who think they are gender egalitarian do things like this sometimes without realizing it.)

The problem is, these gender stereotypes are like poisonous seeds — seeds that blossom into misogynistic beliefs and behaviors. Studies have shown that in adolescence, kids’ gender stereotypes change into sexualized gender stereotypes. They come to believe that boys are obsessed with sex, while girls are expected to look pretty and seek male attention. One study found that the stronger boys’ gender stereotypes were during the teen years, the more likely they were to make sexual comments and jokes and to grab girls’ bodies.

Put another way, some men may come to think it’s okay to harass and assault women in part because of deep-seated beliefs rooted in childhood observations: Beliefs that started with the seemingly harmless idea that girls and boys are different, which then morph into the notion that boys are more able and deserving than girls, and that transform, eventually, sometimes, into sexualized beliefs that give men the impression that it’s acceptable for them to take sexual liberties.

Is it a coincidence that the Guéguen exposé was published in the midst of #metoo? “The zeitgeist feels appropriate, but the timing is mostly accidental,” Heathers says. He and Brown did, however, “speculate if people would pay more attention to these problems given the present discussion concerning the rotten souls of powerful men.”

The goal of science is to inch ever closer to the truth. The truth that Guéguen has been peddling is unsavory, in that it bolsters beliefs that men are hard-wired to ogle certain types of women and that such women are destined to be the objects of their advances. Yet his findings may not just be culturally pernicious — they could be flat out fraudulent. If he has been doctoring data to manipulate the truth surrounding sexual beliefs and behaviors, and if he has done so while putting young women under his power into debasing situations, it’s only fitting that he should fall now — with the other powerful men who have harmed women and gotten away with it for far too long.

The Shoddy Science of Gender Dynamics