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SheThought: Pop Psychology and the Media

Super exciting, my first “article” for SheThought is up.  I am writing for like a realer blog than my own .com.  So, go read this on SheThought, there are pictures there:  http://shethought.com/2010/08/25/pop-psychology-and-the-media/ If you want to comment, please comment there.  I’m including it here for those lazy RSSers… you know who you are.

Today I read an article that I found infuriating, but then I’m easily infuriated, because of what appeared to be either really bad methodology in a study or really silly conclusions by the journalist who wrote the piece.  Since I can’t see the study and I can read the piece, I’ll try to avoid pointing a finger in either direction.  It was posted several months ago, but came to my attention today.  It reminded me of how important it is to be critical of the media’s handling of scientific studies.

The piece is called “The Psychology of Knock Offs: Why ‘Faking It’ Makes Us Feel (and Act) Like Phonies“.  The basic premise is that, through a study recently conducted, scientists have concluded that people are more dishonest and cynical when they wear knock off goods.

I’ll be the first to admit that this sort of thing falls well below my normal threshold of caring.  People who wear things because they are a specific brand or because they look like they’re a specific brand are a little alien to me.  It strikes me as fairly shallow behavior, but if it makes them happy, it’s really no skin off my back.  If you can buy something for $5 from a dude on the street in New York and it impresses all the ladies back home because it looks like a $500 purse, good for you, right?  How on earth does a purse cost that much anyway?

In any event, the basic methodology for the study was that they had girls come in and they gave them sunglasses.  Half were told they were super expensive awesome sunglasses, and the other half were told they were cheapo knockoffs.  They were then given a battery of tests in which lying would earn them more money.  They were also given a survey that asked them their views on the world.  The women (and it was all young women, why no guys?) who were told they had cheapo sunglasses were much more likely to lie and be cynical.

From this, the journalist concludes that people who buy knock offs are paying a hidden moral cost that makes them more likely to lie and be cynical.

Wearing counterfeit glasses not only fails to bolster our ego and self-image the way we hope, it actually undermines our internal sense of authenticity. “Faking it” makes us feel like phonies and cheaters on the inside, and this alienated, counterfeit “self” leads to cheating and cynicism in the real world.

That would be a really interesting conclusion if the methodology at all allowed you to make it, but it doesn’t.

I have some questions that aren’t answered in the article.  Did they all get the sunglasses at the same time?  Did they know other people had supposedly real sunglasses?  Were they tested by the same person who told them that the sunglasses were real or fake?  Did they get to take the glasses home, or did they think they would get to take the glasses home?

But there are problems I can see with just the information in the article:

1) The volunteers given “real” sunglasses were told they were authentic, so they’d already been rewarded and were therefore more likely to do what they thought the researchers wanted.

2) The volunteers given “fake” sunglasses had been told, essentially, that they didn’t deserve real sunglasses when the researchers told them they were fakes, and were therefore less likely to do what they thought the researchers wanted.

3) The volunteers had just been cheated, of course they felt more negative.

4) The volunteers were gifted sunglasses, they didn’t buy them knowing that they were knock offs, so it’s impossible to extrapolate the behavior to people who buy their own sunglasses.

5) The volunteers received no benefit from wearing fake sunglasses because they didn’t buy them — the entire reason people buy fake brand names is to save money, in what way is a study that excludes the primary motivating factor at all useful in studying a behavior?

6) There’s no way to be sure that the behavior is linked to wearing the sunglasses rather than linked to being given sunglasses of one kind or another.

The only reasonable conclusion from the study is that people who are given things they’re told aren’t very nice don’t feel terribly good about it.  This is, of course, not a broad and moralistic statement and it doesn’t really make good news, and that’s a big problem with a lot of science reporting.  When something interesting happens in a study, the response is to exaggerate it, make huge claims, and moralize wherever possible.  Interesting patterns are often pointed to as conclusive results and people with pre-determined moral opinions take things and run.

If you want to tell me that “[c]ounterfeiting is a serious economic and social problem, epidemic in scale,” I’d love to hear the whys and wherefores, but I’d much rather hear the facts and figures accurately explained.

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