A study in perception: Feelings cause…feelings

May 10, 2018 |  John E. Staddon

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A study in perception: Feelings cause…feelings

May 10, 2018 | 

John E. Staddon

The #MeToo movement has taken off and so have the bad effects attributed to anything from mildly disagreeable or misperceived ‘microaggressions’ to physical assault.  Naturally, there is a desire among concerned social scientists to study the issue. Unfortunately, it is tough to study the effects of a bad social environment. You can’t do experiments - vary the environment and look at the effect - and feelings are not the same thing as verifiable data. But the pressure to demonstrate scientifically what many ‘know’ to be true is irresistible. The result is a plethora of supposedly scientific studies, using methods that pretend to prove what they in fact cannot. Here is a recent example.

“Recent social movements such as the Women’s March, #MeToo, [etc.] draw attention to the broad spectrum gender-related violence that is pervasive in the United States and around the world”, the authors write in a May 5 op-ed in the Raleigh News and Observer. The title of their study is: “Discrimination, Harassment, and Gendered Health Inequalities: Do Perceptions of Workplace Mistreatment Contribute to the Gender Gap in Self-reported Health?”  It captures in one place some of the worst errors that have crept into social science in recent decades: correlations treated as causes, and subjective judgement treated as objective data.  This study even manages to combine the two: subjective judgments are treated as causes of…subjective judgments.

The article, in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, is based on reports from 5579 respondents collected in three surveys in 2006, 2010 and 2014. The report applies a battery of statistical tests (whose assumptions are never discussed) to people’s answers to questions about how they feel about mental and physical health, gender, age and racial discrimination, sexual and other harassment.  The large number of subjects just about guarantees that some ‘statistically significant’ correlations will be found.

The study looks at two sets of subjective variables - self-reports - and associates them in a way that will look like cause-effect to most readers.  But the link between these two sets is not a cause - no experiment was done or could be done - but a statistical correlation.

Did the authors check to see if self-reports (by “economically active respondents” healthy enough to answer a survey) are reliable predictors of actual, physical health? No, they did not. Their claim that self-reports give an accurate picture of health is inconsistent even with data they do report “In general, studies show that men report better self-rated health than women…[self-report] is nonetheless an important dimension of individuals’ well-being and is strongly correlated with more ‘objective’ indicators of health, including mortality.” Er, really, given that women live longer than men but (according to the authors) report more ill-health?  And why the ‘scare’ quotes around 'objective'?

The authors’ long, statistics-stuffed, report is full of statements like “Taken together, these studies suggest that perceptions of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and other forms [of] workplace mistreatment adversely affect multiple dimensions of women’s health.[my emphasis]” So, now perceptions (of gender discrimination) affect [i.e., cause] not mere perceptions but “multiple dimensions” of women’s health.  Unfortunately, these “multiple dimensions” include no actual, objective measures of health.  In other words, this study has found nothing - because finding a causal relation between one ‘perception’ and another is essentially impossible, and because a health study should be about reality, not perceived reality.

The main problem with this and countless similar studies is that although they usually avoid saying so directly, the authors treat a correlation between A and B as the same as A causes B.  Many, perhaps most, readers of the report will conclude that women’s bad experiences are a cause of their bad mental and physical health.  That may well be true, but not because of this study. We have absolutely no reason to believe either that people’s self-reports are accurate reflections of reality or, more importantly, that a correlation is guaranteed to be a cause. Even if these self-reports are accurate, it is impossible to conclude that one causes the other: either that feeling harassed causes sickness, or that feeling sick makes you feel harassed.

Studies like this are nothing but “noise” tuned to prevailing opinion. They overwhelm the reader with impressive-sounding statistics which are never discussed. They mislead and muddle.

The periodical The Week has a column called “Health Scare of the Week”; that is where items like this belong, not on the editorial pages - or in a scientific journal.


Image Credit: John Staddon/Duke

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