Some Famous Evolutionary Psychology Studies Look Deeply Suspicious

A study that shows women are more likely to respond favorably to requests when lightly touched on the arm is just one of many by a researcher who may have invented his data. Jason Salmon/Shutterstock

Serious allegations have been made against an evolutionary psychologist, many of whose studies have attracted widespread popular attention. Other researchers have challenged the University of South Brittany's Dr Nicolas Guéguen to produce evidence his studies were actually done. So far, he has been reluctant or unable to back them up. As one of the most prolific and high-profile scientists in a field that is already highly disputed, Guéguen's situation could have implications for a whole area of science.

Regardless of whether you've heard of Guéguen's papers, you've certainly heard of others like them. From investigations of the most effective ways to flirt to testing whether padded bras help female hitchhikers get a ride, Guéguen has released a flood of publications on everyone's favorite topic: sex and how it guides our interactions. Not surprisingly, many of these have proven popular in the non-scientific media. Guéguen's work confirms national, as well as gender, stereotypes.

Yet the sheer volume of Guéguen's work is one of the factors arousing suspicion the data was simply made up, potentially raising big questions for his field, and indeed our view of gendered behaviors.

Nick Brown, of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and Northeastern University's Dr James Heathers were initially amused by a Guéguen study reporting men were more helpful to women with attractive haircuts, but noticed inconsistencies in the calculations. They then observed that the effects Guéguen reported are astonishingly large for social science studies, which usually find fairly subtle results. Further digging found such problems are widespread in Guéguen's work. It's also difficult to explain how he publishes so many more papers than most scientists, despite listing few co-authors.

After spending two years requesting supporting evidence, Brown and Heathers have gone public with criticisms showing just how impractical many of the studies would have been to conduct, and how unlikely the results are. These have been summarized in Ars Technica with detail in a series of blog posts with unusually thoughtful comments. Guéguen satisfactorily answered some of the pair's questions, but dodged the most important ones.

Humans are unquestionably a mix of our biology, shaped by hundreds of millions of years of evolution, and socialization. It seems a safe bet that both influence our psychology. What is much harder to say is how much influence each has. Evolutionary psychology explores how common human traits and behaviors might have helped our ancestors survive and breed, causing their entrenchment in our genome.

Unfortunately, critics argue, many evolutionary psychologists start with a bias that says a particular behavior has evolutionary roots, ignoring social influences, and set out to prove it. In particular, evo-psych, as it is often called, seems to spend a lot of time telling us gendered roles are natural. In this view of the world, men are born to hunt food and sex, while women are naturally passive, seeking partners who will nurture and protect them, rather than wanting to forge their own way in the world.

Most evolutionary psychologists deny it, but critics charge that by presenting these characteristics as natural, evo-psych also makes them out to be good. Those who don't fit the mold – gay people, women who enjoy casual sex etc – are seen as freaks, diverging from the natural path of biology.

Whether or not this is a fair representation of evo-psych in general, it certainly applies to much of Guéguen's output. Although some of his papers – for example a study on how music affects consumer behavior – have no implications for sexual politics, many others do. Guéguen's work on how women are more likely to respond favorably when lightly touched on the arm is beloved by creepers seeking to legitimize sexual harassment.

Brown and Heathers also note many of these papers, even if real, would raise serious ethical concerns, for example failing to credit co-researchers, and putting junior students in dangerous or degrading situations.

Those allegations are a matter for ethics committees, although research journals should probably pay more attention to such matters in future.

However, if Brown and Heathers are right that some or all of Guéguen's work is invented, there are big questions for the peer reviewers who approved publication. Such a conclusion would really put the spotlight on those doing related work because if the reviewers couldn't spot shoddy work that happened to fit their biases, their own research looks questionable.

Even in the worst case scenario, the criticisms may not discredit the entire field of evolutionary psychology, but they're bad news for its most prominent subfield. In which case, the whole idea that our mating behavior owes more to natural selection than the society in which we are raised would look shaky.

 [H/T: New York Magazine]

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