One psychological study which made the news was headlined, “Sarah Palin’s Good Looks May Have Hurt Republican Ticket.” When interviewed, one author of the study was incapable of explaining (a) the study’s methodology, (b) the study’s findings, (c) what the study’s results mean. The disastrous outcome – people were affirmed in thinking psychological research is useless bullshit.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 7, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Caught in the Headlights -- Psychologist on O'Reilly

A psychological study that made the news was headlined, "Sarah Palin's Good Looks Hurt Republican Ticket." When interviewed, one author of the study was incapable of explaining (a) the study's methodology, (b) the study's findings, (c) what the study's results mean. The disastrous result - people were affirmed in thinking psychological research is obvious and useless bullshit.

The media were extremely interested in the results of a study conducted at the University of Southern Florida published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Jamie Goldenberg (an associate professor at USF) and Nathan Heflick. In all of the media I saw, only Goldenberg spoke, presumably because she was better at it, which is really scary.

People who read the headline would surmise that, because she was attractive, people were less likely to vote for Palin. The actual result was that, the more that people paid attention to her attractiveness, the less competent they saw Palin to be and the less likely they were to vote for her, which is almost the same thing. The take away is that good-looking women (people?) don't want others to focus on their appearance when trying to impress them with their ability. For example, don't dress sexy when you want a job based on your competence.

I came up with that example - I didn't read about Goldenberg offering one, nor did she do so on the television interview I saw.  (All right - I confess - it was with Bil O'Reilly, who really wasn't hostile, just frustrated.)

Complicating this bottom line: subjects were randomly assigned to rate either Palin or Angelina Jolie, and overall Jolie was rated more competent than Palin. But - since as attractive a woman as Palin is, Jolie is a world class beauty - why was she rated higher in competence?

Dr. Goldenberg, an obviously intelligent and - dare I say - attractive woman, was caught in the headlights on O'Reilly.  (Footnote: Dr. Goldenberg was wearing a revealing top - she was in Florida, after all - but did she calculate the effect of her appearance?) In the brief time she had allotted, she threw in the overall superiority of ratings for Jolie, but then had no explanation to offer when the obvious question was asked, "Why would that be?" She didn't lay out basics of the study, and thus the confused O'Reilly said, "So subjects chose whether to rate Jolie or Palin." Then Goldenberg backtracked to explain they were randomly assigned to each condition.

Dr. Goldenberg kept falling back on the buzz phrase, "psychological processes," by which she meant the place in people's minds that pays attention to attractiveness and how this impacts perceptions of competence. She seemed unprepared and unable to explain why this is what psychologists study - and hence, even the purpose of including Jolie in the study.

At all times, Goldenberg looked bemused (or was that confused) and detached, as she inappropriately filled the brief time at hand with useless and uninterpretable study details and results.

Of course, you can't blame Goldenberg - where would she have learned these things? She didn't major in journalism - she's a psychologist.

Possible recommendations:

  • Research should be designed with a quick summary of findings in mind - the results may not fit perfectly, but the framework should be clear. Researchers should imagine explaining on television the methods, results, and purpose of research they conduct - explaining them briefly.
  • Students should be required to write brief - and I mean brief - summaries of the results of research they study, or perform themselves.
  • Students should have a course in writing opinion pieces.
  • Psychology students should interview one another in a television format about research they have studied, and discuss their videotaped performances afterwards.
  • Students need to learn (don't we all): only mention what is important, what you can describe succinctly, and what your audience can take in.

You know, all of the above would improve communication and understanding within the field as well.

Oh, and here's another hint. When medical journals have an extremely newsworthy article, they make it readily available to media - it's in the interests of their journal, the researchers, and their profession to do so. In the case of the JESP, according to Political Insider Jim Galloway, the article was "hidden behind an Internet pay screen, and we're cheap, so we haven't seen it."  (I tried, but couldn't even locate the article at the journal Web site - and I do this sort of thing often.)