It’s not often that wade into retractions in the mainstream media on this blog, but in this case, we’ll make an exception.
As Politico and Poynter — and probably others — have reported, CNN has retracted a story about a yet-to-be-published study in Psychological Science claiming to find a link between estrogen and elections (disclosure: Ivan’s wife works at CNN). Specifically, the researchers reported that the well-documented preference among single women for President Obama might be rooted in their sex hormones, while that of married women for Mitt Romney seems to reflect their own ovulatory cycle. Or something like that.
Here’s the money part of the piece, which can still be found floating around on the web:
The researchers found that during the fertile time of the month, when levels of the hormone estrogen are high, single women appeared more likely to vote for Obama and committed women appeared more likely to vote for Romney, by a margin of at least 20%, Durante said. This seems to be the driver behind the researchers’ overall observation that single women were inclined toward Obama and committed women leaned toward Romney.
Here’s how Durante explains this: When women are ovulating, they “feel sexier,” and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality. Married women have the same hormones firing, but tend to take the opposite viewpoint on these issues, she says.
The study used an online survey, and we can’t tell whether that 20% gap is an absolute spread or a relative difference.
Durante is Kristina Durante, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas, in San Antonio. According to her website:
My research draws on theory in evolutionary psychology to examine how both situational and biological factors nonconsciously influence social and consumer behavior. The overarching focus of my research program is the consumer behavior of women and families. Within this program I examine:
- The hormonal mechanisms that guide women’s decision-making
- The influence of status-seeking and competition on women’s consumer choice
- The role of social influence and word-of-mouth on women’s consumption
- The environmental factors that influence family spending patterns.
Her listed publications include:
“Ovulation Leads Women to Perceive Sexy Cads as Good Dads”, with Vladas Griskevicius, Jeffry A. Simpson, Stephanie M. Cantu and Norman P. Li, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — covered here by Psychology Today.
“Do Women Feel Worse to Look Their Best? Testing the Relationship between Self-Esteem and Fertility Status across the Menstrual Cycle,” with Sarah E. Hill, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 35, 2009, pp. 1592-1601
“Changes in Women’s Choice of Dress across the Ovulatory Cycle: Naturalistic and Laboratory Task-Based Evidence,” with Norman P. Li and Martie G. Haselton, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 34, 2008, pp. 1451-1460.
Why estrogen would make single women feel sexy but turns married women off goes unexplained in the article — probably because the notion is, on its face, complete poppycock. After all, there’s no evidence we’re aware of to suggest that single women have better sex lives, while data show that married women or those in otherwise committed relationships have plenty of sex.
CNN acted within hours of posting the story yesterday afternoon, and now has this notice up on its site:
A post previously published in this space regarding a study about how hormones may influence voting choices has been removed.
After further review it was determined that some elements of the story did not meet the editorial standards of CNN.
We thank you for your comments and feedback.
It’s unclear, of course, what they meant by “some elements.”
The reporter, Elizabeth Landau, tweeted yesterday that she was simply reporting on a paper that had been accepted for publication:
For the record, I was reporting on a study to be published in a peer-reviewed journal & included skepticism. I did not conduct the study.
And she did offer this disclaimer up high in her piece:
Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.
But that’s beside the point. Hers would be a more plausible defense if Landau had written, say, a 300-word brief on the paper — how’d she get it, anyway? A heads-up from the researchers or even the journal? A university press release? — rather than a 1,000+plus-word story (we counted) with several interviews.
Even with the quotations from skeptics, the net result feels a bit like passing on a rumor that someone kicked a dog, then asking three of his friends to vouch for his good character. Why monger the rumor in the first place?
The whole thing strikes us as a symptom of “poor science, poorly reported.” The mere fact that a paper has been accepted for publication in a “peer-reviewed journal” does not make it A) worth the paper it’s printed on and B) worth spilling more ink and pixels.
But let’s not pile on Landau for writing about what she supposed — correctly, but for the wrong reasons, it turns out — would be an attention-grabbing story. The journal and its peer reviewers bear as much responsibility for accepting the paper in what, on the face of it, seems an attempt to have some timely election-related research.
Still, Psychological Science, we should note, has recently retracted two papers by Diederick Stapel, and, to their credit, showed a great deal of backbone in pushing for a retraction from Lawrence Sanna.