Being a scientist means coming up with questions about human behavior and formally testing them. It also means that in my social circles, you are officially a geek or a nerd. In childhood, unusual things happen. Have you ever had someone climb a telephone poll and take a sentry position until school ended to jump on your back and beat you into submission? I didn't think so. As you get wiser, you embrace and relish this geekiness.
When I promote science to the public, I am serious about carefully interpreting the data. This is why I am commenting on my fellow blogger's posts which seem to be obsessed with women's breasts for the sake of talking about women's breasts. Nothing wrong with that if this was pornub, penthouse, or maxim, but this is psychology today. Also, nothing wrong with talking about sex if the focus is on good science with a reasonable take-home message.
Here was the question being asked, "Do women with bigger breasts get picked up more frequently by hitchhikers?" Personally, using limited scientific resources to study this kind of question is a waste of taxpayer dollars- but it does make for good conversation when you are snorting ketamine on the rooftop of an ice cream truck with your friends. According to the research study itself and the blog post, lo and behold, common sense wins. Women with bigger breasts appear to be more likely to be picked up by strange men than women with smaller breasts (p < .03).
But here's the catch, the researchers and the blogger are misinterpreting the data. If you look at the numbers, you find that the researchers studied 774 women. In the world of science, this is a large number of drivers stopping or passing by women on the side of the road. The size of the sample must always be considered when a positive correlation is found. If a poll says that men prefer women with big breasts over small breasts 80 percent of the time, you assume that men crave large breasts. But how many people were polled? A hundred? A thousand? And where was this poll done? In the middle of a fraternity house while college boys were drinking alcohol? Or how about men over 90 with degenerative brain diseases at a nursing home in Vermont? There could be a false positive correlation that overstates the true preference of men.
On the surface, everything in the results of this hitchhiker study looks legit. Men driving by offered a ride to 40 women with A cup breasts, 46 with B cup breasts, and 60 with C cup breasts. The researcher was excited to verify his view of reality- bigger breasts capture men's attention! The blogger was excited- people will froth at the mouth, read my blog post, and if I add a really sexy picture of someone with big boobs, maybe they will buy my book!
Guess what? When you dig into the results, there is a different story. Let's say that the size of a woman's breast can tell us EXACTLY who stops to pick them up. That is, if you tell me a hitchhiking woman's bra size, I can tell you with 100% certainty whether a passing driver will pick them up. It is nearly impossible to account for 100% of the variance when using breast size to predict whether a car stops. In fact, there is virtually nothing in psychology that can perfectly predict anything. Intelligence is a good but imperfect predictor of success in school. Being abused as a child is a surprisingly small predictor of whether that child will have psychological problems later in life. A scientist can explain anywhere from 0% to 100% of human behavior. Scientists simply try to explain as much of the randomness of human behavior as possible.
In this study of breasts and hitchhiking, how much did the scientists explain by focusing on breast size? Less than a mere 1% (a correlation of less than .10)!! You heard that right. The breast size of a hitchhiker tells us virtually nothing about whether a man will stop to drive away with them. What does this mean? If you believed the researcher or the blogger, you were tricked. They focused on meaningless statistics because they forgot to tell you whether the relationship matters.
Morals of the story:
1. Common intuition is often wrong. In this case, you would think breast size matters but it didn't.
2. Hold onto the punk rock ethos and challenge everyone. Be skeptical. Be curious. Explore. Don't take your guard down just because you see those extra letters in a person's name (Ph.D. or M.D.) or their credentials (best-selling author, New York Times journalist). Focus on the ideas, not the person.
3. Statistics can be manipulated to tell several different stories. And the story to be told about the scientific data is usually the story that the writer had in their head before they started. Try to look at the statistics, graphs, and figures from a different perspective than the writer.
The story about this study could have been different. Intriguing, counterintuitive findings failed to align with evolutionary theories about how men respond to women's bodies. Why? Is this an outlier? Do these results suggest important nuances that have been overlooked? Too bad this was not the centerpiece of the blog post. Instead, what we have is a lesson on how not to get fooled by scientists and their numbers. Constantly ask authors, how much of the randomness in human behavior did you explain (what is often referred to as "explained variance")? Healthy skepticism contributes to a healthy life.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his talks and workshops, books, and research go to www.toddkashdan.com or the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena