The Things That Pass As Science

Occasionally I am asked to contribute to the scientific peer review process. A glance at my cv shows about a dozen times in the past three years. Never in the field of experimental psychology however. End disclaimer.

Still, I considered this: “Men Think Sex After Seeing Red Dress.

First let me agree with what one commenter to the article said, anything after Men Think Sex, is unnecessary.

But let’s get serious for a minute.

The article refers to a research paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (5-yr impact factor 2.9. So-so). I downloaded the paper and read it.

A social psychologist working in this field had this to say about the paper:

“It suggests to me that humans as they exist today exhibit these somewhat odd evolutionary artifacts that haven’t been applicable for some time.”

Readers who know me well know I am deeply suspicious of these so-called evolutionary “artifacts” said to be guiding human behavior just below the level of conscious detection and supposedly lurking (somewhere) inside our genome.

Nevertheless, let’s grant for the sake of argument that the color red is an ancestral cue that triggers a response in men, effectively increasing a man’s estimate of the female’s “sexual receptivity”, the actual measure used by the authors in this paper, scored on a scale 1-9.

People who buy into this hypothesis say this: That when men see red on a woman it is subconsciously interpreted by way of an ancient biological cue to indicate she is in estrus, and thus ready — even eager — for sex, specifically sex that will lead to reproduction. Indeed, one reason why women have for decades applied pink blush to their cheeks, they say, is to give the impression of being “in heat”. Surely, they further conclude, the countless shades of red lipstick at the cosmetic counter support this hypothesis as well.

But wait, if this is true then it must be that modern women are conscious of this ancestral cue in men, and know how to activate it through the application of makeup. In other words, women are (consciously) in on it too. So an “artifact” no longer applicable? Evidently not. Plus it doesn’t explain why elderly women continue to wear blush long after they have given up trying to attract men to have sex with them in order to have more babies.

And I see another problem, leading me to suggest a control experiment. The hypothesis would predict a woman with Rosacea to rank high on the sexual receptivity index, the measure used in the paper. Instead of (or in addition to) showing twenty five men a picture of an attractive woman wearing a white top or a red top, as was done in this research, create two pictures of the same woman wearing a white top, one with a normal complexion, the other with a mild case of Rosacea. Now we have a more realistic phenotype of estrus (ever see a Bonobo in a red blouse?), the ancestral cue modern men are supposedly still sensitive to. Survey the men and report the result.

My suspicion is the result of this experiment would be roughly opposite of what the authors would expect, and contradict their hypothesis.