Attractiveness, anger, and warrior princess blondes

Jan 20 2010 Published by under Behavioral Neuro

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
Suffice it to say that
(X + Y+ Z) * (A*B)= This
X = Sci
Y = Cold
Z = Migrain
A = cold medication
B = Migraine medication
This = Annnnnnd WHEEEEEEE!!!!!!
And you know, that's good. That's good because Sci had to go and see THIS first thing in the morning.
Ouchie. First off, Sci has to correct some major misconceptions here on behalf of teh blonde ladiez everywhere (though others have come before me, and verily, they are awesome). And then Sci has to go on a minor rant. Hopefully the cold medications will last that long.
So here we go. Sell, Tooby, and Cosmides. "Formidability and the logic of Human Anger". PNAS, 2009.
First, I'd like to talk about your feelings of anger.

So as we are all probably aware, anger is a perfectly natural phenomenon. All people get angry (though they might express it in different ways). There have been various hypotheses as to what purpose anger might serve in the field of evolutionary psychology, and the hypothesis that this paper addressed was the idea that anger is useful for winning conflict (no, really, how shocking). The idea is that the person who is angry is more likely to win the fight, through things like physical intimidation, threat of withholding resources, etc.
So the idea behind this study was to see how various factors in people influenced whether they got angry, how entitled they felt to be right, and whether they won the argument in question. Through a series of tests they found two major points which were extremely significant:
1) Men who are physically stronger (presumably this means bigger as well, they tested lifting strength and bicep circumference), and have a history of fighting are more prone to anger, and feel entitled to better treatment.
2) Women who believe themselves to be physically attractive (regardless of strength) are more prone to anger and feel entitled to better treatment.
Basically what this study found out what that people who think themselves attractive feel more entitled, and thus may be more likely to get angry in an attempt to get their own way. Like this:

So why does attractiveness (or perceived attractiveness) have a strong effect on entitlement and anger? The authors hypothesize that it has to do with social networks. Men who are strong and women who people to them, men because they can protect people and because you don't want to get in their way, and women because you want a piece of that. The attractive people can then draw on these social networks in the event of a fight, which might make them more likely to pick one, and therefore to get angry. Whether this is correct or not, I cannot say, but I do find it interesting that perceived attractiveness has a lot to do with a sense of entitlement (thought I also find it somewhat obvious).
But here's where Sci gets into a minor rant.
This study was interesting RIGHT THERE. Hot people might have a bigger sense of entitlement and get angry easier. The number of references to reality shows in the mainstream media could have been staggering. They could have devoted an entire article on this to the reality show "Bridezillas". This paper was headlines NO MATTER WHAT.
But what did they do? Observe the headline:
Blonde women born to be warrior princesses
...what now?
I mean, REALLY!?
Ok, let's just break down what the wrong assumptions were in this story.
1) The article assumes that blonde women are more aggressive. They apparently asked the study author to break down the results for women by hair color, he got no differences, so that's a right out lie right there. And also a rather nasty thing to say about those of the light-haired persuasion. Princesses? Thanks a lot. Warrior's not so bad, though.
2) The article assumes that blonde women are HOTTER. Or more attractive, or whatever feature might make them more aggressive. Let's do a little google image search for "most attractive woman":
Result number 1:

Result number 2:

Result number 3:

Blonde ladies aren't exactly winning out here. Now don't get me wrong, blonde women are lovely. Many of them are extremely gorgeous. But I don't think many people would say that blonde women are objectively more attractive than brunettes or redheads. The study CERTAINLY did not say so. Not only that, the study explicitly stated that it is people who found THEMSELVES more attractive that exhibited more anger. This doesn't necessarily mean that other people found them attractive (there are some delusional people out there, see reference to Jersey Shore above).
So do we mean that only blonde people find themselves attractive? Surely you jest. In fact blonde women do not in general feel more attractive than women with other hair colors (though I don't know about the effect of women who dye their hair, which I imagine might be excluded from this assessment).
3) The number of things this article claims the study found are...fantastic. It claims that the authors found that blondes had a "warlike" streak, and that those who dyed their hair would begin to exhibit it, as well. Umm...I do not recall the study saying any of these things.
Here, let's just go ahead and quote the abstract, why don't we:

Individuals with enhanced abilities to inflict costs (e.g., stronger individuals) or to confer benefits (e.g., attractive individuals) have a better bargaining position in conflicts; hence, it was predicted that such individuals will be more prone to anger, prevail more in conflicts of interest, and consider themselves entitled to better treatment. These predictions were confirmed. Consistent with an evolutionary analysis, the effect of strength on anger was greater for men and the effect of attractiveness on anger was greater for women.

Anything about blondes in there? Anything??? No? Huh...could have sworn they were more warlike.
So really, Mainstream Media, let's you and I have a brief sit down:
WTF with the way you covered this paper. This paper was plenty interesting all on it's own, but you had to go and say some rather false things about it that in no way made the story more or less interesting. This is some truly massive reporting fail. It makes Sci sad that people will read this, and they might very well believe it. There are lots of people out there that believe silly things without adding another thing onto the pile, yes? So I want you to go away and sit in the corner, TimesOnline, and think about what you've done. And then I want you to report sensibly next time. Mkay? Be good, now. Sci is watching you.
Sell A, Tooby J, & Cosmides L (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (35), 15073-8 PMID: 19666613

25 responses so far

  • Pauliswhoiam says:

    So the authors claim that men who are strong and have a history of fighting are more prone to anger? That can't have been a great surprise. The self-styled 'attractive' women being more prone to anger is perhaps more interesting, but the logical leaps they make to attribute causation to these effects are quite something. Evopsych gets a bad rep for this kind of thing. As I take it the proposition is: 'it makes sense to be angry if you're strong' ("the effect of strength on anger" as it says in the abstract) ignores the self-evident 'it makes sense to be strong if you're angry'. Similarly, with women it makes sense to be angry if you feel entitlement (perhaps stemming from attractiveness). I would be more interested to know the solid neurochemistry about the heritability of anger and the hormonal influences. I guess the coevolution of anger and strength explains alot to do with testosterone.
    Forgive me if I'm getting the wrong conclusions about their paper, but PNAS is behind a dumb paywall... Which makes me angry. GRRrrr. Better get the weights out.

  • Thank you for this review of a review - you did an example how science blogging could help to improve scientific journalism. I think most would agree that media do have to condense scientific papers in interesting ways in order to catch attention of potential readers - but they should not start to misuse them. And if they do, we should be ready to say that aloud...
    Kudos & best wishes!

  • Veltyen says:

    While not being on topic, as an answer to your aside at the start:
    --from interview with Eric Bana just after the not-most recent Hulk film
    When the Hulk grows why does everything Bruce Banner is wearing burst apart at the seams, but his shorts?
    'I'm as fascinated as you about that,' Bana replies, straight-faced. 'Obviously it's got to do with the fact that otherwise we'd have a large green penis flopping around that diminish the chances of us opening in 4,000 cinemas across the country.

  • Greg Laden says:

    Thanks for writing this up.
    I know two of these authors, I am embarrassed to say, and I'm wondering if they've gotten old and senile or something. I do know one thing: The file drawer effect is a powerful thing, especially if you trip over an open file drawer on you way to water aerobics.
    (To be fair, I haven't read the paper yet. I may have to retract this comment and do battle with Sci to defend important and wonderful well done research. I'll let you know.)

  • Matt says:

    I wonder how this interacts with the idea that if you're weak and oppressed and low status then you have no options and feel like you have to resort to violence and zero sum behavior to get what you want, unlike privileged and fortunate people who can and do behave in a magnaminous fashion?

  • mpatter says:

    The Times is a Murdoch paper, hence part of the same media group as Fox News. I wouldn't expect them to care much about accurately representing science.
    But it also seems that somewhere along the line to the media, the description of the paper picked up some meme about hair colour such that even the BBC article was rubbish:
    See how they edited the story afterwards and added a footnote?

  • Jim Ramsey says:

    I think the Times author may have been refering to another study.
    Here's a link to the abstract --

  • Scicurious says:

    Razib: careful! You'll make blondes ANGRY!!!
    Veltyen: heeeheeehehehehehe.
    Greg: Sci would like to note that she doesn't blame the authors for this at ALL, and thinks they were probably massively misquoted. They acknowledged that they NEVER did a study like the one that ended up getting reported, and when they got interviewed, seemed pretty peeved. I think the paper and the findings were a testing of an evolutionary psychology hypothesis. I don't think it was mind blowing, but I think the results were fine. What kills me is the way this was reported. It would have been interesting media headlines anyway without going and screwing it up.
    Jim: you win the internet. 🙂

  • becca says:

    Alternatively, women who are viewed as attractive by strong men have to get angry to get the creeps to go away. And blondes in the ridiculous writers life get angry because he keeps stereotyping them.

  • Tracey says:

    I can't see teh funny linkses! (error message says the links at the top for your equation are broken"
    What would be really interesting would be to go through popular movies in which a woman is portrayed in a warlike or aggressive role and note hair color. That would say a lot about how our society thinks about hair color and personality. Most of the movies and TV shows I can think involving very militant female in a warlike situation. The ones I can remember mostly involve brunettes (but that may be my bias).

  • Scicurious says:

    Tracey: links should be fixed. Sry!
    Also, I have to say when I think of warrior princess, the first thing that leaps to mind is Avatar. Definitely not blonde, that one (can you imagine blonde with that blue skin?! She'd be positively washed out!). Xena also leaps to mind.

  • Tracey says:

    Ooooh! Also, if you dye your hair blonde wouldn't that mean that you were insecure with yourself and therefore less aggressive? Or would it mean that you perceived yourself as more attractive once you did dye your hair and then be SUPER aggressive.
    In short, the study was okay but the story was just sensationalist jibberish. The one good thing is I have seen a bunch of retractions of reports on it in even the frothiest and shallowest women's fashion and lifestyle blogs. So at least it's gettin' through.

  • Greg Laden says:

    Sci: Yea, I've really got to read the paper. What I find interesting about the reporting is not only that a given report is a bit hard to take, but that many of the different press reports are totally different from each other.
    At Scio11, there could be a whole session on just this one case as an object lesson. In something.

  • simba says:

    Clearly someone thinks Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a documentary or something.

  • Karen says:

    The assumption that blondes are angrier may be an observation based on the author's general treatment of blonde women.
    My natural hair colour is blonde, although for years now I've been dying it to purples and blues and bright reds instead. But on the occasions when I do let my hair go back to its natural state, I find that I am propositioned, accosted, and otherwise bothered by the opposite sex with much greater frequency. With my current dark purple hair, I get catcalled at perhaps once or twice a week. When it was last blonde, I couldn't go to the corner store without someone telling me I was beautiful, asking if I had a boyfriend -- I've even received marriage proposals from complete strangers on occasion.
    So yeah, when I'm blonde, I tend to be more blunt -- even insulting -- towards the men who treat me like an object. I'm naturally a pretty nice person, but when you're the third asshole today who's tried to hug me ... I'm probably going to hit you in the face.
    It's not that the blonde hair makes me angrier, really. But to the ignorant observer who hasn't seen the way my entire day has gone, it really might seem that way.

  • razib says:

    "careful! You'll make blondes ANGRY!!!"
    that has a personal valence for me 🙂

  • I've never seen Jersey Shore, but that picture brings this website to mind:
    Thanks for holding the authors' feet to the fire, Sci. I don't honestly understand why they had to tart up the abstract the way they did -- like you said, it was interesting enough in its conclusions without gross misinterpretation.

  • Scicurious says:

    Jason: your timing was serendipitous. You have NO idea how much Sci needed that laugh right now...

  • IrishMom says:

    Yellow journalism lives. Gack. Makes me want to roll up the newspaper/journal/magazine/monitor and whack the reporter upside the head. Oh wait...I can't do that. I'm not blonde.
    On second thought, yes I can. Three of my grandparents were born in Ireland. I come from a long line of hot-tempered, dark-haired Irish Catholics. Family gatherings can be quite interesting. My mother, bless her heart, thinks arguing is a sport and is of the opinion that she wins the discussion when she pisses off her opponent.
    I guess our entire clan must be outliers in the data set.

  • Huw Hepworth says:

    I can't read the full article because I don't have a subscription to PNAS, but I suspect those results depend on the sample. I mean, if the men are those who are stronger AND have a history of fighting, then that certainly points to an attitudinal response or cultural response rather than an evolutionary response. What about all the strong men without histories of fighting? Do they also get angry to get better treatment?
    In a similar case with the women who have perceptions that they are attractive - those reactions could certainly be more culturally oriented than anything out of evolution (because, to be pithy, the article suggests that attractive women will behave like spoiled princesses to get their way).
    Maybe it is clearer in the full text than in the abstract, but the article raises questions in my mind about the conclusions.

  • moiple the moop says:

    Are *all* blondes actually attractive? I mean, there are attractive and unattractive brunettes. The same applies to redheads, blondes, africans, asians,... The fact that blondes as a whole are often referred to as "hot" is a bit baffling to me.
    Also, I've met scrawny men who were very angry and aggressive. :/ Sometimes lack of attractiveness and the inability to acquire respect from others, creates a lot of aggressive behavior.
    I think the study could make a good point if it states that people who perceive themselves as attractive tend to feel more entitled, and therefore will be more willing to react strongly.

  • Aaron Sell says:

    Thanks for getting the story right.
    For those who want more information on the actual research you can get it here:

  • It freaks me out when Sci occasionally slips into first person voice. Please, watch out for that...Other than that, great article/rant, but after reading the comments at the original timesonline article, I am less worried about the bad reporting. Indeed, I think the readers over there simply got what the deserve 🙂
    No, seriously: Great job, as usual.

  • CJAB says:

    Another great example of shit media coverage of science here (my own personal experience) -

Leave a Reply