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Brainy or thin? You choose

January 10th, 2006

Dr Petra

Wallis Simpson famously once said ‘you can never be too rich or too thin’.

Now you can add ‘but you can be too clever’.

Apparently 19 out of 20 women would rather be slim than have a ‘much higher IQ’.

With people worrying about post-holiday weight gain what better than to run a ‘survey’ to show, shockingly, that women are more concerned about their weight than their intelligence?

If you were, say, a diet company such a survey could do several things for you. First the astonishing findings that women would rather be thin than brainy is bound to get some news attention. That news attention might convince some of those brainy types they ought to be worrying about their waistline, not their intelligence. If you then dropped in a name of your company (tescodiets.com) every so often you could make ladies feel bad for both filling their heads with knowledge and filling their faces. And lo! Women would certainly join your dieting service.

Oh where to start?!

How about questioning the ethics of a diet company that plays on women’s insecurities about body image – and makes out that being overweight is as bad as being intelligent?

Or you could ask questions about their ‘survey’. Their press release contained absolutely no mention of how many women were actually included in this ‘survey’ (so we have stacks of percentages but no idea of respondent numbers whatsoever). Did any of the papers that covered this story notice? Absolutely not.

Maybe you’d like to question how they got their ‘results’? Try “demand characteristics”. That’s where participants guess the aim of the study and try and confirm that outcome for the researcher.

Here’s how it works –
‘Hi, I’m calling on behalf of tescodiets.com and I’d like to ask you, what would you prefer – to be slim – or to have a higher IQ?’

Participant thinks ‘diet company, they’ll want me to opt for being slim – and I can’t admit not wanting to be slim to them’ – and they reply:
‘Oh, I’d like to be thin’

Using such an approach will lead to a skewed number of participants agreeing with you. In genuine research this can happen by accident so you’re always taking steps to prevent it. In PR research they deliberately word questions to create results that suit their headline-driven agenda.

Also, if you offer people limited options – e.g. clever vs. thin – you get an artificial response from a forced choice (which is why you only use this approach with caution in survey research). If you asked women to discuss generally how they feel about themselves they may say they feel under pressure to be thin and that intelligence isn’t valued (amongst other things) but that’s not the same as saying they’d rather be thin than smart.

And you know what? Give women a wide range of choices and instead of saying ‘I’d like to be thin, not brainy’ they’d probably be more likely to say ‘I’d like to be thin AND brainy’. In an ideal world they might even say ‘I don’t really care about my body size but I’m really glad I’m clever’.

You could also question why the company tried to support their flawed ‘survey’ (and the reporting of it) by making up a non-existent day and hype it up. According to the press release it was sent out to coincide with ‘d day’ – that stands for ‘diet day’ in case you’re in the 95% of people who don’t consider smartness an asset.

This is apparently the most popular day of the year to think about weightloss. Absolutely no other evidence for this miraculous day was given – although all the papers reported it as though it were true.

Finally you could ask if this really is a gender-specific response. The ‘survey’ presented the findings as though they only affected women. But if men were also asked the same question in the same, leading manner, then we may well expect that they too would also state they’d rather be thin than intelligent.

What’s more scary is how the media didn’t pick up on the numerous problems with this ‘survey’. The Independent led with “nineteen out of 20 of the female population say that they place a higher priority on having a smaller waist than on their intelligence”. Perhaps their social affairs correspondent hadn’t been to the journalism-training lesson where they explain you need adequate data to link findings to a population.

And worryingly both The Independent and Manchester Evening News, instead of finding other evidence on body image (of which there is stacks of published research) chose to back up the nonsense diet study with additional ‘evidence’ from another survey from Anne Summers – this one claiming that 87% women think there’s an unhealthy obsession with diet and dress size.

Both papers seemed to think if you throw in yet another statistic it contradicts the previous findings, whereas all you’re left with is a confusing muddle of findings.

None of the papers elaborated on the results. Although it would give this ‘survey’ more weight than it deserved, if these findings were so shocking why didn’t any media ask why might women feel that being thin is better than being clever? Why is body image such an issue for women? And what’s gone so wrong that women don’t value their intelligence?

This ‘survey’ got reported not because the media was shocked at the findings, but that it’s utterly predictable and sadly believable that women would choose being thin over being intelligent

The depressing thing about these PR stories is they’re so obviously flawed and it’s so easy to spot their faults. I know journalists are often on a tight deadline but it really isn’t too time consuming to evaluate surveys. You can even use this checklist to help decide if a survey’s any good or not. It’ll save you just dutifully regurgitating press releases.

Otherwise we’ll continue to end up with the situation yesterday when this ‘survey’ appeared alongside research reports that stated 10 million female foetuses have been selectively terminated in the past two decades.

I don’t know what’s scarier. That journalists give the same weighting to real and fake gender research, or that they’re can’t discriminate between stories like this.

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