Junk science (reporting) strikes again

| June 20, 2008

This story has been making the rounds of the news services and the internet:

NICE guys knew it, now two studies have confirmed it: bad boys get the most girls. The finding may help explain why a nasty suite of antisocial personality traits known as the “dark triad” persists in the human population, despite their potentially grave cultural costs.

The traits are the self-obsession of narcissism; the impulsive, thrill-seeking and callous behaviour of psychopaths; and the deceitful and exploitative nature of Machiavellianism. At their extreme, these traits would be highly detrimental for life in traditional human societies. People with these personalities risk being shunned by others and shut out of relationships, leaving them without a mate, hungry and vulnerable to predators.

I’d like to see the study itself, but as reported, the study (and the reporting of it) represents much of what is wrong with current “research” and the reporting thereof, especially into the so-called “soft sciences”, to wit:

Jonason and his colleagues subjected 200 college students to personality tests designed to rank them for each of the dark triad traits. They also asked about their attitudes to sexual relationships and about their sex lives, including how many partners they’d had and whether they were seeking brief affairs.

The study found that those who scored higher on the dark triad personality traits tended to have more partners and more desire for short-term relationships, Jonason reported at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting in Kyoto, Japan, earlier this month. But the correlation only held in males

My sister Deirdre, in studying psychology as a college undergrad many decades years ago, complained that most of what passes as “human psychology” in textbooks and published articles is really “the psychology of American college undergraduates” — not a group that anyone who has attended, taught at, worked at, or hung around a US college campus would consider (or would want to consider) representative of humanity as a whole.

Furthermore, since such research projects often simply advertise for participants (I recall participating in at least one or two as an undergrad myself), the research group tends to be self-selected rather than truly random and representative. In other words, you’re getting a group that says, “Hey, they’ll pay me $X to come in and answer some questions [or push some buttons or whatever]!” I know that a course in statistics is usually required for psych and sociology majors, but since people in those fields don’t tend to be “math” types, I wonder how many squeak through their statistics course and promptly forget (or misunderstand) most of what they are supposed to have learned. (Note: I not only had to take an upper-division, engineering-oriented statistics course as a computer science major, I later took a graduate-level pattern recognition class that was, in effect, advanced applied statistics and calculus. Toughest class I ever had, too.)

Finally — and this is the real flaw in the study — note carefully how the researchers gathered the information about the subjects’ sex lives: they simply asked them. How many college students are going to give a straight answer about “how many [sex] partners they’d had” — particularly male college students who scored high on the “dark triad personality traits” as describe above? I mean, can’t you hear them getting together afterwards and asking each other, “How many did you put down?” “Dude, I put down 10 and said they only lasted for a week each!” “Ah, you loser — I said I’d had 20 partners, and they were all one-night stands!”

But wait — it gets worse. This study was done with just 200 college students, presumably all at New Mexico State University. The news articles give no sense of the gender mix, other than to indicate that it was both men and women. The articles also give no sense of what percentage of the men surveyed “scored higher” on the “dark triad” of traits. But any way you look at it, you’re seeing a broad generalization of human nature — as New Scientist puts it, “Bad guys really do get the most girls” — based on the self-reported sexual prowess of maybe a dozen or so New Mexico State male college students who scored the highest out of the group for narcissistic, psychopathic, and manipulative behavior.

And the real irony is that Peter K. Jonason — the lead author of this study (Jonason, P. K.. Li, N. P., Webster, G. W., & Schmitt, D. P. (in press). “The Dark Triad: Facilitating short-term mating in men.” European Journal of Personality) — also has another article in press right now.

The title: ” The power of prestige: Why young men report having more sex partners than young women.”

Just makes me want to put my face through a wall.  ..bruce w..

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Category: Main, Science

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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