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.
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.