Bad Science: High Heel Study Retracted

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Bad news, friends — everything science has told us about women is wrong. Well, mostly everything. Well, okay, just everything about women that has been “discovered” by French social psychologist Nicolas Guéguen, who publishes 10 to 20 studies a year about various topics mostly related to how hot women are and how they might be able to be hotter, and what sort of stuff they can get by being so damn hot. For instance, are men more likely to approach a woman and ask her out if she’s wearing high heels? Are men more likely to help a woman wearing high heels? Are men more likely to pick up a female hitchhiker if she’s wearing a sexy color?? And if that last one has you wondering, “Wait, but what is the sexiest color?” then you’re obviously not well-versed in evolutionary psychology because everyone knows the sexiest color is red, because of berries or labia or something. The least sexy color is puce, both for its name and for the fact that it’s the color of your poop when there’s something terribly wrong with you.

Two researchers, James Heathers and Nick Brown, have been on Guéguen’s case for literally the past four years — I’ve had loving relationships die before that length of time has passed. They started investigating him after seeing a story about a study claiming men are less likely to help a woman if her hair is put up in a ponytail. They saw that his data looked sketchy, and that led them to looking at his other studies, and now they’ve been ripping him to shreds for four years. The worst part is that during that time he has continued publishing papers that get media attention, so over the course of those 4 years their workload has grown by, like, 50 new studies. No one can fact check 50 new studies in 4 years let alone competently oversee and publish them.

And that was Gueguen’s secret: he wasn’t competently overseeing the studies he was publishing under his name. He was letting psychology students do those studies, and then not checking their work or bothering to credit them. According to one anonymous student, those students had absolutely no idea what they were doing and just made up the data to get the homework done.

Now one of his studies has finally been retracted. It turns out that maybe men aren’t more likely to help a woman out if she’s wearing heels, which as Nick Brown points out on Twitter makes this HuffPo headline delightful in retrospect: “High Heels Increase A Woman’s Attractiveness, And For Once It’s Not A Bogus Survey”. 

I find this whole thing to be pretty bizarre, because obviously some people find high heels to be sexier than flats. Men do, women do. It’s not just a coincidence that the Victoria’s Secret angels aren’t stomping down the runway in Doc Martens. At the same time, many men and women don’t find them sexy. They are clearly outside of the cultural majority opinion, but an ex of mine hated to see them because he thought they looked silly and uncomfortable. But in general yeah, our society — Western, mostly white, American and European — we think high heels are hot. Other cultures may or may not. Europeans particularly used to think heels were sexy for men, too, but not anymore, because cultures shift and so do beauty norms. This isn’t groundbreaking.

The only interesting thing here is not whether or not people find heels sexy, but whether or not wearing heels makes it more likely for a woman to receive non-sexual help. I’ll also add, “help not related to the heels themselves.” Honestly I’m probably more likely to give up my subway seat to a woman in 8-inch heels at the end of a long night because that shit hurts. But in this case, it was just a woman walking down the street who dropped a glove. Guéguen (or his students, or, likely, no one at all) recorded how often the people behind her stopped to pick up the glove and give it back to her. He claimed that the higher her heel, the more likely a man would help out. Women were uninfluenced by the heel height, because we are all heteros, or just immune to the power of heel height regardless of our sexuality, or we don’t pick and choose who to help based upon how sexually attractive they are to us.

Because that’s the real sexism at play in this garbage, made-up study. Like, yes, there’s the reinforcement of the idea that there is one way for women (and only women) to be sexy and if you don’t adhere to that then you will be punished by society, and that sucks. But there’s also the idea that men are drooling morons who would never just help a person to help a person. Everything must be transactional, and a man can never be satisfied with merely feeling good about doing good — he must be trying to get sex as a reward for any action that requires any amount of effort. Men, in the world of Guéguen are dicks with legs attached to move them around in the hopes of getting wet. It’s stupid, and damaging to all people regardless of gender.

It’s also damaging to pop psychology. I used to be so into pop psy books — my bookshelf is still full of them. But I can never read them again because so many of the studies discussed in them have turned out to be nothing more than good headlines that have never been reproduced. In some cases, like this, they’ve since been retracted but you can’t really update a physical book with an asterisk (not that any of the news sources that reported on this study have updated their articles, even though it is easily accomplished. Brown has been Tweeting at them but without much success, and in fact the writer for the Telegraph blocked him). 

That’s not to say social psychology as a whole is trash. There’s so much great research coming out, and I try to talk about the good stuff when I see it. But let me tell you, it’s hard to find research that is well done, replicable, and interesting enough for a lay audience to appreciate without it necessarily being life-changing. So much of social psychology is based on very small effects. Be skeptical when you see headlines claiming that a new study shows some monumental, never-before-seen discovery about human nature. It might have just been made up by some students looking to get the C they need to graduate.

Thanks to Mark for pointing this out to me on Twitter, and thanks to all my patrons at Patreon for your suggestions, feedback, and support!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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