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

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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