Open letter from Dr. Sell to the Sunday Times of London

Remember the study I mentioned last week, where Dr. Aaron Sell had supposedly claimed blondes are “warrior princesses”? Remember how it was mostly fabricated by the media and has yet to be properly corrected in the outlet that initially fabricated the story? Well, Dr. Sell certainly didn’t. Nor have I. It appears neither of us like to be made fools, though my own self-inflicted foolishness must by necessity be dwarfed by the outrage of having your scholarly name dragged through the mud.

I contacted Dr. Sell upon reading this letter and requested permission to republish it in its entirety in order to correct the record here, as I had also taken their “quotes” of him at face value. He has granted me free leave to do so, and in fact wants the widest dissemination possible — please feel free to republish. If nothing else, this is yellow journalism and must be squelched. One does not fabricate pullquotes for an intentionally sexed-up story from whole cloth, no matter how bad your sales are flagging.

The original paper is available here, and you’ll quickly note if you search it, the word “blonde” does not appear even once. A copy of this paper was included in the following letter to the Times of London.

To: The Editor of the Sunday Times, London
From: Dr. Aaron Sell, University of California, Santa Barbara
Re: Fabrications in Times article

Today the Times published an article, “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses” by John Harlow, purportedly based on my research. Journalistic ethics requires, at a minimum, that you remove from this article all references to me, and to the research I and my collaborators have conducted. This article consists almost entirely of empirical claims and quotes about blonde women that Mr. Harlow fabricated, and then attributed to me. Please take the article offline immediately. Once your investigation is completed, please issue a retraction. I trust that the Times is committed to being accurate, and the clearest measure of this is the speed with which it removes obvious and demonstrable falsehoods. I have appended the research article, so you can see for yourself.

The rest below the fold…

To be clear, I have _never_ published any research about blonde women, nor have I ever conducted any research on blonde women, or about their supposed differences from other women. Yet I am quoted throughout Harlow’s article as having done research showing that blonde women are more aggressive, are more determined to get their own way, are more militaristic, are less likely to get into fights, are more prone to anger, are more confident, are more entitled, and feel more attractive. None of this is true. The article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he cites as establishing these claims has no data whatsoever about women with blonde versus non-blonde hair. You can confirm this in 15 seconds by searching on the word “blonde” in the .pdfs I have attached.

In the article cited, my colleagues and I advanced a new theory about the evolved function of anger, that it functions as a bargaining system that leverages threats to inflict costs or withdraw benefits in order to prevail in conflicts. We reported empirical eleven tests of this theory, including that men who are stronger and women who view themselves as more attractive are more prone to anger, and feel entitled to better treatment.

Drawn by our article on anger, Mr. Harlow called to ask me about blonde women in particular. He said he was writing an article about blondes, and that he knew of other research showing that blondes feel more entitled. _I told him that my research did not look at blondes at all._ At his request, and as a courtesy to him, I reanalyzed our unpublished data to see if there was any relationship between being blonde and any variable I measured. There was not, and I told him so. (Although we had not taken hair color in the studies, being uninterested in it, I was able to recode the data retroactively based on photographs.)

Specifically, I told him, based on our data:

Blonde women do _not_ feel more entitled.
Blonde women are _not_ more prone to anger
Blonde women do _not_ feel more attractive than other women.
Blonde women are _not_ more militaristic.

(This last analysis about militarism controls for ethnicity, a necessary control because political attitudes are correlated with ethnicity and social class. Moreover, women of European ancestry constitute essentially the only ethnic group in the sample whose members could be blonde or not, and there is _no_ relationship among them between blondeness and attitudes toward use of the military. Any analysis of “blondeness” that does not control for ethnicity on questions about political attitudes creates the possibility that one could find a spurious correlation, because women of Asian and African-American ancestry (e.g.) are never blonde. I explained this to Mr. Harlow, and explained that this means _there is no evidence in my data that blondeness causes militaristic attitudes._)

The data aside, Mr. Harlow attributes statements to me, in quotation marks, that I have never said:

I have never published, researched, thought about, or used the phrase, “Princess Effect.”
I did not refer to Southern California as the “homeland of the privileged blonde.”
I never speculated on why blondes would be less likely to be in fights (which is not true anyway).
I have no evidence whatsoever on the effects of dying one’s hair blonde.

More specifically, the following quotes from the article are not only fabricated, but they make false claims about what our unpublished data, analyzed as a favor to Mr. Harlow, in fact show:

“Women with fair hair are more aggressive [false] and determined to get their own way [false] ‘”

“Even those who dye their hair blonde quickly take on these attributes, experts found.” [false, if the word ‘expert’ is referring to us. I have no data and know of no research on the effect of dying one’s hair.]

” ‘We expected blondes to feel more entitled than other young women, this is southern California, the natural habitat of the privileged blonde,’ said Aaron Sell, who led the study which has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” [false: Our study was not about blondes at all, and contains no data about blonde women. Nor are we working on any such study. More importantly, my data show _no_ correlation between being blonde and feeling more entitled or privileged, and I told him that. Moreover, I never said that Southern California is “the natural habitat of privileged blondes,”an offensive statement.]

“It [Sell’s research] showed that blondes were more likely to be treated better than other women [false: we never measured that] and were more willing to ‘go to war’ “[false: we never asked women if they would be willing to go to war; more importantly, the data do not show a relationship between blondeness and endorsing military force; see above]

“However, they (blondes) were less likely than brunettes or redheads to get into a fight themselves, possibly to ensure they preserved their looks” [false: there was no difference in whether blonde women had been in fights. Obviously, I did not speculate about the cause of a relationship that does not exist.]

“Sell suspects that blondes exist in a ‘bubble’ where they have been treated better than other people for so long they do not realise that men, in particular, are more deferential towards them than other women. ‘They may not even realise they are treated like a princess,’ Sell said.” [false: I never said, nor do I believe, that blondes exist in any metaphorical ‘bubble’; I have no evidence that they have been treated better than others, let alone that they don’t realize this. Furthermore, I have never used the offensive word “princess” to refer to people who are treated well.]

Since most of his article consists of false statements attributed to me, or false claims about our research, very little remains.

I request that you please remedy the situation immediately by doing the following:

1. At a minimum, immediately remove all references to me from this article; and
2. immediately remove every claim about blonde women attributed to me and my colleagues in this article; all of them are false.
3. A better remedy would be to immediately remove the article from your website.
4. After you have investigated, please retract the article, and issue a correction.

You can see for yourselves what the original research article (appended) says. And as for the quotations, really, how likely is it that scientists would assert things that their own research shows to be false?

A summary of the article can be found here:

I will be making sure that newspapers, news services, and blogs that are picking up Mr Harlow’s article know that its claims are false.

Dr. Aaron Sell
Center for Evolutionary Psychology
University of California, Santa Barbara
Tel: 805-637-6720
[email protected]

Emphasis mine.

As of time of publication, the offending article is still available here.

Open letter from Dr. Sell to the Sunday Times of London
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