William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Surprise: Men Find Hourglass Figures Attractive

The headline is “Hourglass Figures Affect Men’s Brains Like a Drug.”

Researchers—that darling, catchall term—conducted a study examining men who were allowed to look at pictures of naked females (from behind) and found that these men liked what they saw.

The joke circulating in commentary on this story is: Who knew? It’s the joke that’s interesting.

One can chuckle in two ways. That any scientist would study such a thing is silly, therefore funny. I have an image of white-frocked geeks measuring the amount of drool from their porn-watching subjects. “An increase of 32.8% as she bends. Success!”

But the second kind of mirth is meant to come from the sophisticates who know we can’t know men like sexy women until it’s studied scientifically. Not knowing before studying is mandated in science. And if you don’t know that, then that’s funny.

Which group has the best laugh?

To know, let’s look closer at the original study.

[R]esearchers had 14 men, average age 25, rate how attractive they found pictures of the naked derrieres of seven women before and after cosmetic surgery that gave them more shapely hips. These operations did not reduce weight but just redistributed it, by implanting fat harvested from the waists into the buttocks.

Brain scans of the men revealed that seeing post-surgery women activated parts of the brain linked with rewards, including regions associated with responses to drugs and alcohol.

That’s doing it the hard way. There are surely easier ways of finding, on the internet, pictures of naked females. Of all shapes, hourglass or not. It might take some effort to dig up these photos, but I’m guessing it could be done. But never mind.

What’s glaring about the study is that they used before and after shots. If you show two different females, one hourglass one not, and a man rates the hourglass more attractive, it’s easy to imagine it was some other quality of the hourglass woman that pushed the man’s buttons. Skin color, tone, height, weight, etc. But a lot of those qualities would be the same in the before and after pictures of the same woman.

After all, it’s same person, same amount of fat, but that blubber has been shifted. However, this doesn’t work. Those other qualities don’t stay the same in fat-shifting operations, particularly skin tone and texture. This is obvious. If these qualities didn’t change, women wouldn’t be paying such huge sums to have these operations.

Again, never mind. Showing different women, or showing the same before-and-after would give roughly the same results as long as enough pictures from either group were shown.

The real objection is that the study used “14 men, average age 25”. Sounds like American graduate students to me. But only 14? Is that enough? It’s both too many and not nearly enough.

Not nearly enough: Remember that the researchers hooked up a magnetic phrenology device (MRI) to the men and watched those men’s brains light up when those men saw the women’s butts. And they say that it’s the same region, more or less, of the brain that lights up when men toss one back. Therefore, they say, looking at naked women is intoxicating.

Now, if MRIs were specific enough, this conclusion might be interesting. But they are not: measurement error is not negligible with these machines. Plus, every activity in which we engage has not been mapped. We don’t know if that region of the brain lights up, say, when we sharpen pencils, or dig a ditch, or contemplate our 1040 long forms. Nor do we know if these other activities light up the brain more intensely. In short, we just don’t know.

And even if we had a better feel for the brain’s functioning, having just 14 young men—who were culturally much the same—is not enough to conclude anything.

Too many: We did not need a formal study to tell us that men, in the United States employed as graduate students, find shapely women sexy. The reasoning (some) scientists use—that our anecdotal experience has been know to misleads us, therefore it always does—is fallacious. We know plenty without having had to run formal experiments.

There isn’t anything in the world wrong with anecdotal evidence. If it does mislead, then it can be augmented with formal evidence. But that formal evidence doesn’t negate the anecdotal, it augments it.

Even worse for this study is that doesn’t answer the truly interesting question. Sure, as we already knew, most 25-year-old American graduate students prefer hourglass figures, but is that true in Brazil? In Zimbabwe? In, of all places, Australia? Is it even true outside of graduate school, or, say, above 100th street in Manhattan? Was it true yesterday and will it be true tomorrow? All historical experiences suggests no.

So which group has the best laugh? Probably neither: as evidence, the original study was linked to (via keyword matching, probably) a rival study, whose headline “Best Female Figure Not an Hourglass.”

Update The risks of running stories like this. Not two hours after I posted this, but Google has already sent two people searching for “naked women pictures” to my site. I hope they weren’t too disappointed.

19 Comments

  1. “We don’t know if that region of the brain lights up, say, when we…contemplate our 1040 long forms.”

    Whenever I feel the long arm of the IRS I know what part of my anatomy “lights up” and it is quite a distance from the brain. Of course this is a feature not a bug in any interaction with the IRS.

  2. Well, I guess that kills my favorite argument concerning health studies. To wit, “No one has (or needs to) conducted a study to determine if high velocity copper jacketed lead particles are harmful when intercepted by the body.” The point being that most health studies must rely on statistics because the effect is way down in the noise.

    Who’d a thunk milking the cow could be so lucrative? I should have stuck to farming.

  3. Take a similar sized group of men from New Guinea, show them the skinnier, hour-glass shaped gals, and they will comment that these girls must have had a bad case of diarrhea lately–they like their women a bit bigger around the middle. Thus, Briggs’ statement that the sample is too small is dead on.

  4. liamascorcaigh,

    I trust you did not mean you are aroused by 1040 long forms — but then you may be a CPA.

  5. Wouldn’t it have been much cheaper and more reliable to use a resistance strain gauge in the right place instead of an MRI? They’re cheap and reliable. Measuring the amount of drool is an interesting idea but i don’t know about the precision of drool metering. Also you would have to compensate for individual variation of drool production. A dry mouth is a serious health problem for some people; a lack of drool can lead to premature tooth decay.

    Very good article, William, made me chuckle.

  6. …er…i wanted to say “a lack of saliva can lead to premature tooth decay”. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

  7. “MRI” is surely an fMRI (“f” for “functional”; which measures blood flow, as opposed to merely imaging the structure of the body). A very expensive piece of equipment, by the way, which brain-study-associated post-docs try desperately to latch on to. And I agree it’s the new phrenology (and not only because I’m bitter about not having made the latch).

    DirkH: Believe it or not, gauges such as you propose have been widely used in research, and in the diagnosis of “ED”. Look up Plethysmography in combination with appropriate body parts, if you’re really interested.

  8. “Morgan says:
    […]
    DirkH: Believe it or not, gauges such as you propose have been widely used in research, and in the diagnosis of “ED”. Look up Plethysmography in combination with appropriate body parts, if you’re really interested.”

    😉 It was pretty obvious, wasn’t it?

  9. You know, it probably wouldn’t hurt your traffic if you took the hint from those googlers. Just sayin…

  10. Is it sweeps month? Is that what this is all about? Otherwise couldn’t “researchers” just as well be testing whether pelicans become excited when they’ve spotted a fish? Seems almost as newsworthy as studies on horny graduate students. Or CPA’s studying IRS longforms.
    Maybe Georgia Gwinnett College is too far from the sea and they don’t have a travel budget for field trips to Savannah or DC. So they do what they can to add to the general scientific Bet the research was fun while it lasted.

  11. Was this a stimulus grant?

  12. Given the subject matter, clearly much more funding, extended research and study of the subject is required.
    One can never be too certain.

  13. Dav,

    if CPA means Can’t Pay Anyway, I’m surely one!

  14. Briggs

    February 28, 2010 at 11:54 am

    49erDweet,

    Gwinnett College? As in Button, signer of the Declaration? I think Katie can tell us more about him.

  15. I actually find the premise quite interesting from an evolutionary psychology perspective. I think methodological problems abound, but what the hell!

    If the premise is that men – as a human universal- do indeed exhibit a strong preference for women with hourglass figures, what does this tell us about us. “That obscure object of desire” to paraphrase Bunell, is desirable because desiring that, conferred an evolutionary advantage – no! if so, it begs the question, was an hourglass figure signalling fecundity, to our pleistocene ancestors.

    Obviously, the study above does not come close to answering that question. It is interesting neverthless. and perhaps additive/ reinforcing to a larger body of knowledge on the subject.

    And why this bruhaha about fMRI on a site that is in general pretty on the ball. While i am neither a biomedical engineer nor a neuroradiologist, my impression has been that the fMRI gives us an- albeit primitive- first look at the brains functioning in real time. I actually find the technology interesting and exciting.

  16. Aha… a beer fridge, weed and two silicone implants can have similar effects on young men’s brain activities: they all can cause cognitive impairments in young men. I’d go for a beer fridge if forced to choose one.

    I often see that students’ eyes light up after I answer their questions. What I want to know is how or what regions of students’ brains light up (if at all) after a stat class. Don’t think a stat class affects their brain activities in the same way that hourglass figures do though. Whoo knooows?!

  17. Many years ago, my mother told me about the results of an experiment she was shown in a college psych class in the 1940s. In the experiment, both male and female subjects were shown a variety of pictures while the dilation of their pupils was monitored. (The subjects were not told what was really being monitored.) Unconscious pupil dilation in response to liking what you see is a long-known physical response. Poker players often use it in gauging opponents’ likely hands.

    The male subjects’ greatest response was invariably for pictures of naked women; the female subjects’ greatest response was for pictures of babies.

  18. Noted that you turned off comments on the “Ayn Rand and the Differences Between Groups” post, Matt. But just to finish up, the word “more” doesn’t appear in any quote from Rand, but does appear in your paraphrase. And if “randomly” is not part of the equation (Rand said, “any given individual,” which certainly implies random), then your original contra-proposition against Rand’s point is merely an implicit and irrelevant tautology. In your final reply, you shifted your ground.

    This is obviously off topic here, so please do snip. I just wanted you to know that I know.

  19. Briggs

    March 2, 2010 at 8:11 am

    Pat,

    She said “known…is greater” which I translated, for brevity, to “more”. However, put her original words back in and all remains the same.

    Also, comments on all posts turn off after two weeks. This is a WordPress feature to reduce spam. For some reason, dumb bots target older posts hoping to slide their material in; perhaps their authors feel they won’t be noticed.

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