Dumb Blonde Story

Sunday Times botches the science in piece on the “princess effect”

Dr. Aaron Sell, a researcher at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, has been hearing from a lot of old friends and colleagues over the past couple of weeks—and he’s not happy about it.

The calls and e-mails are flowing in thanks to a January 17 article published in London’s Sunday Times that prominently featured Dr. Sell’s research. Headlined “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses,” here’s how it started:

IT really is a case of blonde ambition. 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.

Researchers claim that blondes are more likely to display a “warlike” streak because they attract more attention than other women and are used to getting their own way — the so-called “princess effect”.

Even those who dye their hair blonde quickly take on these attributes, experts found.

The story quotes Dr. Sell as saying, “We expected blondes to feel more entitled than other young women — this is southern California, the natural habitat of the privileged blonde. What we did not expect to find was how much more warlike they are than their peers on campus.”

Here’s the problem: Dr. Sell’s research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PDF), had nothing to do with blondes. It dealt with attractiveness and anger, and found that women who consider themselves to be more attractive are more prone to anger, among related findings. Dr. Sell told me he has no data that supports any conclusions related to blondness. If you read his research, you’ll see that it makes no references to blondes or hair color.

It appears the Sunday Times either grossly misunderstood his findings, or simply did its best to sex up the story. Scientific findings are often perverted by a press interested in simple, clear narratives that either support or debunk popular conceptions. Occasionally, we just get things completely backwards. Consider this 2009 correction from another British paper, the Daily Telegraph:

Owing to an editing error, our report “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists” (June 23) wrongly stated that research presented at the recent BPS conference by Sophia Shaw found that women who drink alcohol are more likely to be raped. In fact, the research found the opposite. We apologise for our error.

(More detail on that mistake is here.) Not long after the Sunday Times published its blondes story, The Guardian had to clarify a headline on a report based on other research:

A headline, Who’s the big earner now? These days it’s probably the wife, say researchers (20 January, page 25), was not supported by the study results reported in the article: they showed that in 2007, 22% of US wives earned more than their husbands. That still leaves 78% who earned the same or less.

In regards to the Times piece, Dr. Sell told me that the paper didn’t just misinterpret his data. That quote from him about southern California being “the natural habitat of the privileged blonde”? He said it was “fabricated.” Dr. Sell and the article’s author, John Harlow, spoke by phone prior to the story appearing, and he said Harlow implied that Dr. Sell’s research was one of many pieces of scientific work the Times was looking at.

“He said he had been reading articles about blondness all over the place and had been researching this for a while,” Dr. Sell said.

Harlow, who did not respond to my request for comment, asked him to look through his data and see if he found anything related to blondes. Dr. Sell looked and came up empty.

“I got back to him and said ‘Sorry, there is no real effect here’,” he told me.

After the story first appeared, it was quickly picked up by other publications in Europe and other countries around the world. That’s when friends and colleagues started getting in touch with Dr. Sell. As he saw the inaccurate stories appearing far and wide, he sent a letter to the Times, and contacted other publications to get them to correct their stories. (You can read the BBC’s corrected story here.)

From his letter to the Times:

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.

Psychology Today, Stinky Journalism, and a contributor to True/Slant have weighed in on the questionable article. Dr. Sell also decided to publish a note on his Web site to try and get the word out:

News Flash! Press gets the data fantastically wrong

The Sunday Times of London recently published a piece claiming that I found a link between blonde hair in women and anger, entitlement and “warlike” behavior. No such research was done, and my colleagues and I believe the claims of the article are false. As can be seen by a search in my original publication (here) the words “blonde” or even “hair” never appear. Nevertheless, the story spread rapidly throughout the blogosphere and the mainstream news…

Given the widespread re-reporting of the erroneous findings related to blondes, Dr. Sell is left to conclude that “there is a lot of interest in blondes in Europe.”

That’s especially true when it comes to the Sunday Times. Back in 2006, it was one of several news outlets fooled by a hoax claiming a WHO study found blondes were on the path to extinction. Here’s the correction that was eventually appended to the story (“Cavegirls were first blondes to have fun”):

The World Health Organisation has asked us to remove an earlier erroneous reference suggesting it had conducted a study which forecast natural blonds were likely to be extinct within 200 years. The WHO issued a formal denial of such a study in 2002.

The paper also recently published an article headlined, “Recession chic: why blondes are having more fun,” and an earlier one, “You silly boys: blondes make men act dumb”.

As of this writing, the paper has not issued a correction. In a statement issued to CJR, the Times said: “There is a difference of opinion between the reporter and the complainant
about their conversation, which has not yet been resolved.” The paper has also rebuffed Dr. Sell’s attempts to place a comment on the story, though the top-rated comment on the piece states that “this article is made up” and provides links to support the assertion.

In response to his letter objecting to the piece, the article’s author and one of his editors asked Dr. Sell to provide evidence that his research has nothing to do with blondes. Yes, the paper is asking the very man whose research it based the article on to defend his work. As if he misunderstood his own data. I guess they subscribe to the notion that the best defense is a good offense.

“How do you prove that you didn’t say something?” Dr. Sell said, noting the other researcher quoted in the article, Catherine Salmon, also expressed dismay with the reporting and her quotes. (They saw each other at a recent conference.)

“I e-mailed the editor to ask what he needed from me, and he said I need to provide evidence to my side of the story,” Dr. Sell said. “… I’m the source and I’m telling you it’s not true. What more evidence do you want?”

Like, totally.

Correction of the Week

“A story on Page 1 of Tuesday’s Telegraph quoted a White House official explaining that a Q-and-A session with dozens of teenagers in Nashua High School North on Monday was “off the record.” However, the explanation about the talk being “off the record” was, it turns out, also “off the record” and should not have been quoted.” – The Telegraph (New Hampshire)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.