Don’t Pay Attention To Psych Surveys That Amount To Self-Fortune Telling

Frequently, news stories herald the results of “studies” that involve asking people to discern:

  • How they would act or react to certain situations
  • Rational reasons why they made certain decisions which are most likely made emotionally and subconsciously and then rationalized after the fact

“Study: 41% of men would lie to get sex”

“88% of Millenials would rather be respected than wealthy”

“Women say they prefer equalist marriage to male-leadership model

(These are made up from my head but analogous to what you’ll see in media headlines.)

I have completely stopped paying attention to these studies that query people with hypotheticals. Their theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, their methods are sloppy and their conclusions are highly questionable.

Context: In reviewing this Dalrock piece for my last post, I came across a comment from “Lily” that linked to the summary of a book entitled “Why Men Marry Some Women And Not Others.” The book had the provocative (to women) but rather simple (to men) thesis that there are strategies women can employ to increase their likelihood of becoming married, and behavioral traits a woman can exhibit that will greatly increase the chance that a man will want to make her his wife. In other words, girl-game for ladies-in-waiting.

(It’s funny how much crap women at large give the idea of game, when in fact guys teaching other men how to be attractive to the opposite sex is simply copying the blueprint that women have used for generations.)

Dalrock found the piece interesting, but reminded us that “he is going on surveys which have the problem of people answering why they think they did something.”

I have three major objections to this kind of junk science.

1. People can’t predict with their minds how their gut instinct will react to a choice; only when the choice is put in front of them can they be sure what they’ll choose.

As I have commented several times around the Internet: if people could accurately predict their responses to decisions and stimuli, the entire field of research psychology would not exist at all. We wouldn’t have to run experiments to examine how our minds operate if we could just trust people to ascertain and then reveal the exact mechanisms of their operation.

Salesmen understand this as a core aspect of their trade – that customers can be influenced through social traits like reciprocation, likability or social proof to make decisions against their rational self-interest in a dollars-and-cents way. They walk onto the lot to buy one thing, or “just to browse,” and walk out with a purchase. Whether we want to admit it or not, we make decisions with our right brains far more than with our left brains. Rationalization is the art of convincing oneself that you’ve made a left-brain decision when in reality your limbic system did all the work.

Much of research psychology concerns itself with constructing creative head-fake experiments to keep the participants from catching on to what is actually being studied, and thus invoking their rationalization engines. I’m convinced that this focus on actually performing the science is part of the reason so many psychology majors seem wholly clueless as to the actual imperatives of human behavior.

One very famous study, the Milgram experiment, involved telling subjects they were participating in a study of memory when in fact the researchers were examining the response of people to authority when asked to abuse other human beings.

This experiment was spoofed in the opening sequence of Ghostbusters, in which the cynical and opportunistic Peter Venkman hit on a woman while giving electric shocks to examining “the effects of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.” The effects according to the male subject, was “pissing him off.”

His colleague Dr. Egon Spengler performed more sadistically absurdist research in Ghostbusters II, inviting a couple to “marriage counseling” and then forcing them to sit in a waiting room for hours while steadily increasing the temperature in the room.

2. There’s never a true binary choice to be made, the choices are among people with a range of traits we are trying to balance.

A major failure mode of popular studies is trying to examine a trait or a tradeoff in isolation.

Guys get asked stuff like “would you rather have a girlfriend who is sexually attractive or very intelligent?”

I don’t care what your teachers told you, there are stupid questions and this is one of them. People just don’t make decisions based on an isolated factor or pair of factors to the exclusion of everything else. Anybody in the sexual marketplace is looking at a range of traits in each potential partner and trying to balance them to get the optimal combination that’s gettable.

Women get asked stuff like “would you rather date a doctor or an accountant?” It’s impossible to answer the question without considering the other traits of the two men (not that the answer would be expected to be accurate, see point #1 above). What if Bradley Cooper wants to do her taxes and the doctor is C. Everett Koop?

Another silly variant of this binary-choice idea is “all else being equal, would you prefer X or Y?” There aren’t two men of exactly the same personality and job status except one is bald and the other has a mullet, or two women with the same nurturing traits and chocolate addictions but one has big boobs and the other has great legs. You’re going to get bad data if you ask people to choose in the frame of non-existent option spaces.

The one caveat to this is that almost no one will date someone who doesn’t meet a minimum threshold of attractiveness, so that trait absolutely has to be met.

However, the bar for attraction in men is not that high; once you meet that standard, it becomes a battle of relationship fitness. In other words, if you want a relationship with a guy, you don’t have to be hotter than the other girls he’s considering; you just have to be hotter than the least attractive woman he’s willing to be with. Which unless he’s a guy with a lot of options, is usually pretty meager. Hungry men gotta eat and all that.

In short, I’ve very rarely heard of a man who picked the hotter girl for a relationship on that basis. Commitment is earned by others means (see that book about who men want to marry).

On the other hand, modern young women seem to mentally separate men into hopeless betas and dashing alphas at a moment’s notice. Roosh actually just tweeted to that effect tonight: “The game is so fucked up in USA that if you push the wrong button on your phone and accidentally call her, she may write you off completely.” (I have many thoughts on this issue that are better suited to another post – TL;DR: an entire generation with daddy issues.)  This means they price themselves out of the opportunity to take advantage of the wide spread of alpha-beta balance options. So women are often observed to date men of poor long-term fitness, because by the time she’s found a man who meets her attractiveness standards she’s committed herself to sacrificing almost all other considerations. There are men who exhibit a range of tradeoffs between core attraction and comfort traits but most of them are invisible to the Millenial girl.

3. People tell pollsters what they think they should say, and what flatters their own sensibilities and self-concept

Finally, there’s the problem that we don’t want to admit our wicked thoughts to other people. We instinctively want to give answers that fit our egos, that flatter the pollster so we can please them and avoid upturned eyebrows and dirty looks. I’m such a noble person!

Interestingly, I’ve noticed personally that this effect doesn’t disappear when you take away the in-your-face questioner. Even on anonymized Internet surveys or work feedback sheets with no names, I find myself asking “is this how I want to answer this? Am I the type of guy who would say this?”

My experience is backed up by a celebrated study (analysis liked here) that suggested that women dissemble about their partner counts even in anonymous surveys. (The differences in men’s counts were concluded to not be significant.) It appears this effect can be mitigated by introducing the spectre of objective truth via a polygraph or something like it.


So those are three reasons to not put a lot of stock in these person-on-the-street style of surveys, even the ones done in labs under the guidance of PhDs. They don’t qualify as anything close to scientific or even informative; all you get with these studies is a good idea of what people will say when asked questions about a particular topic, not what they really think or how they will truly act.

It’s interesting to note that while we in the Manosphere are quick to criticize women who give rationalized, face-saving and bogus answers to these sorts of surveys or to classic questions like “what do you find attractive in a man,”  in the case above case Dalrock (and me) are calling the veracity of men’s answers into question. (The cheap joke here would be to posit that married men are habituated into saying what women want to hear.) The fact is, however, that there’s only a limited amount of rank dishonesty going on; seriously, what is the overt incentive to lie on a survey? Rather, the nature of the study itself intrinsically taints the results with cognitive biases that are almost unavoidable.  It’s like driving in the snow without chains – it doesn’t matter if you’re a Rain Man level of excellent driver, it’s just a fundamentally flawed setup.


Filed under media, primary sources, science+technology

6 responses to “Don’t Pay Attention To Psych Surveys That Amount To Self-Fortune Telling

  1. Infantry

    Good work expanding on the self-rationalisation and false presentation of people even to themselves. It shows why we must ascribe to ‘Look at what women do, not what they say’.

    Even well laid out arguments such as this will just result in exceptional personal annecdotes (outliers) and NAWALT, eg ‘I and my friends never did that, so your red pill theory is false and this survey is accurate.’

    The only danger I find in all this is how it lends itself to the creation of false paradigms. Many guys studying game go ‘ok we can’t trust anything’ and instead cling to red pill theory like a drowning man to a life raft. Red pill theory is great and definitely has its place, but do we really know that all women lie about their number for instance? We’re making our own assumptions and erring on the side of caution, but that doesn’t mean our own paradigms are accurate.

    How can red pill theory be codified into something more solid? Do we need to get red pill Sociologists and Psychologists to conduct blind tests? What form would those tests take?

    Further, is this already underway? It wouldn’t surprise me if some studies are presented a certain way to be PC and get funding, but the person running the study has their own red pill agenda. Its not like Roissy isn’t starting to reinterpret some of these studies either.

  2. Candide

    What else would NAWALT bloggers base their arguments on then, Badger the logical & patriarchal oppressor?

  3. rockthrowingpeasant

    Anecdotal, but you may find this interesting. In SERE school (the one in Fairchild), the instructors told us that married men were better at deflecting direct questions, such as answering questions with questions.

    This may touch on The cheap joke here would be to posit that married men are habituated into saying what women want to hear.

    It’s may be less a conscious dishonesty/rationalization than, well, a survival method.

  4. Wayfinder

    One way to break through all this: “revealed preference”. In other words, look for studies that look at what people do, not just what they think they’re going to do. And even surveys can be useful, if you take them for what they are.
    You’re unlikely to find any of that in a headline, though.

  5. Brian

    Go read the “You are not so smart” blog, and the book as well. They don’t overlap much, so the book is actually worthwhile as well. But both give numerous examples of how nearly everything people think about why they do things are wrong. Basically, we’re bullshitting ourselves constantly to try to rationalize things that we’ve done, even when someone can prove otherwise.

  6. Chuck

    The worst part about these stupid Psych surveys are you have to take them to get a job in this shitty US economy. Corporations will make you waste forty minutes of your time as you take a “pre-employment questionnaire” which is just an egregiously long Psych survey that serves no purpose other than to weed out applicants that don’t match the personality description of a dutiful corporate drone. If you’re an alpha male, good luck ever getting called in for an interview. You need to answer every question like Ned Flanders to pass this shit.

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