“Did you see her? Just my kind of adequate gluteofemoral fat stores!”
“No way, man. The kind of reproduction-related attractiveness cues I go for are located further north. I likes ’em of small renown. But then I intend never to father children.”
Such is the kind of conversation Christopher Burris and Armand Munteanu imagine men have. And, in the Archive of Sexual Behavior, in their 2012 “Preferred Female Body Proportions Among Child-Free Men“, they tested whether it was so. How?
Step one: Gather sixty-seven twenty-year-olds (plus or minus) via an ad “soliciting heterosexual males for an on-line study concerning ‘sexual attractiveness and attitudes towards fatherhood.'” Heterosexuality was not verified (how could it be?).
Step two: Ask these mostly “self-identified as Euro-Canadian” college students, on a scale of 1 to 5, whether they agree with “I intend to have a child at sometime in the future” and “I will try to have a child at some time in the future.” And ask questions like those from the “9-item Sociosexual Orientation Inventory-Revised.”
Step three: Show them a picture which has sliders to adjust three obvious particularities of (vaguely) female-shaped creatures.
Step four: Allow the college students to fix the figure until it reaches the “absolute ideal (=most arousing)” and then measure the size of the pile of drool which forms by their mouses.
Just kidding about the drool.
Step five: Statistics galore (mostly correlation coefficients) and the search for wee p-values.
Here’s the main claim (from the Abstract):
As expected, the desire to remain childfree was linked to erotic preference for a combination of smaller breasts and larger waist-to-hip ratio.
This is odd because evolutionary psychologists usually tell us large waist-to-hip ratios (WHRs) get the juices flowing. But you can’t argue with statistics.
Odder still is the admission, buried deep in the paper and in direct opposition to the Abstract, that the “reluctance to reproduce (RtoR)…was not significantly related to any of” the sexiness measures. So was it or wasn’t it? Actually, breast size was uncorrelated significantly with any of their measures.
The correlations of RtoR to breasts, waist, hips, and their various ratios was not significant (did not produce p-values less than the magic number). So they tried some kind of unspecified “interactive model” with RtoR and breast size as main effects. Neither gave joy. But the interaction of RtoR times breast size spit out a p-value of 0.04.
Success! Yet even classical statisticians frown on these kinds of models, where the main effects are not significant but where high-order interactions are. Too easy to get wee p-values to “confirm” nonsense. Our authors appear unaware of these cautions because they write several times of other models which are “nearly” significant.
Pay attention—a quiz is coming. Here is their main conclusion:
Consistent with this hypothesis, we found that greater reluctance to reproduce…predicted erotic interest in larger WHR among men who preferred smaller breasts.
Now for our quiz:
1) How many men saw real breasts in this study?
2) How many men saw real hips in this study?
3) How accurately do the computer-alterable pictures represent real women?
The answers, for slow readers, are: (1) 0, (2) 0, and (3) nobody in the world knows, except to say that whatever confidence we have in results which claim how men think about women has to be reduced to the extent this cartoons fail to capture true feminine aspects.
And then we must wonder how representative twenty-year-old Canadian college students are to men the world over. Et cetera. In other words, even the p-value of 0.04 is way too small. In other other words, the study is a dud.
Psychology Today couldn’t see that. They said the study provides “scientific understanding into the mystery of physical attraction” and that it “offers some novel insights as to why men perceive women as they do.”
The real conclusion is that you can’t stop magical thinking when p-values are used.
Ain’t Science grand?
Thanks again to Nate Winchester who found this study.