Last week was a fascinating example of how fast a false story can spread across the Internet and make its way onto television. Specifically, there were dozens of reports citing a study that blonde women are more “warlike” due to a phenomenon known as the “princess effect.” However, according to Dr. Aaron Sell, the lead researcher of the study, no such study exists and most of the quotes about him were fabricated. To make matters worse, pundits subsequently attacked Sell based on these fictitious quotes. How could this have happened?
The actual study conducted by Sell and other researchers tested the evolved function of anger and its relationship to variables such as strength and attractiveness. The data demonstrated that anger is not simply a result of frustration, but an important social mechanism used for bargaining. The study also found that stronger men and more attractive women are more anger-prone, feel more entitled to better treatment, prevail more in conflicts of interest and more strongly endorse the use of force to resolve conflicts. Notably, the words “blonde” and “hair” never appear in the study.
The downfall began when Sell published his study and was later contacted by John Harlow of the Sunday Times of London. He was asked if the study found any relationship between blonde women and anger. Since the original study was not about blonde women, Sell went back to the data and told Harlow he found no correlation between the two variables. When asked whether or not he knew if the subjects dyed their hair, he replied that the subjects were not asked. However, Harlow still reported that there was a relationship, which ultimately led to dozens of other reports citing The Sunday Times.
For example, The Sunday Times wrote that, “Researchers claim that blondes are more likely to display a ‘warlike’ streak because they attract more attention than other women and are used to getting their own way — the so-called ‘princess effect.’” It also quoted Sell saying, “We expected blondes to feel more entitled than other young women — this is southern California, the natural habitat of the privileged blonde.” It further emphasized that, “Even those who dye their hair blonde quickly take on these attributes, experts found.”
Sell, who has spent most of this week attempting to correct the record, wrote The Sunday Times the following:
“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.”
After the Sunday Times falsely reported the study, the BBC, Gawker, Examiner.com, the UK tabloid the Sun, Fox News, the Herald Sun of Australia, Defamer, Yahoo News India, Pravda, the Queensland Times, the Australian, Express (UK) and dozens of other media outlets repeated the falsehoods.
To make matters worse for Sell, once the pundits began reporting the story, he was attacked despite the fact that no such study exists and despite what he claims to be false quotations.
For example, Gawker reported, “The lead researcher, Aaron Sell, who frankly sounds like he’s been recently dumped by a blonde, said:
“… he suspected that blondes existed in a ‘bubble,’ where they had been treated better than other people for so long they did not realize that men, in particular, were more deferential towards them than other women.”
Bill O’Reilly attacked the study claiming, “This is the University of California, this is our tax dollars at work.” He even questioned whether or not the study is demeaning to women.
Gretchen Carlson ironically liked the results of the study and joked with Margaret Hoover on Bill O’Reilly’s show. “Anytime we have a study about blondes that is positive, we just go with it,” she said. Little did she realize how true her statement was.
Meredith McKenna wrote on Examiner.com, “By ‘warlike,’ one can assume Aaron scientifically means, ‘conniving, bloodthirsty and cold-hearted.’” McKenna elaborated, “Both interesting and alarming, the study … discovered that women who dye their hair (unscientifically speaking, 99.987% of the blonde population) assumed the blonde identity, see: warlike and spoiled.” Evidently, McKenna did not realize that the actual study was not about blondes, nor was anything tested about dying one’s hair.
Since the false story broke, it appears that only Ryan Sager of Trueslant.com accurately reported the study. Although Gawker, the BBC, Defamer and a few other media outlets eventually got the story right, they all first falsely reported the fictitious study about warlike blondes. Despite a lengthy letter Sell wrote to the Sunday Times, it appears no correction has yet been made at the time of this article. After Sell learned that the fake story made its way onto television he said, “This is about to get much worse I suspect,” recognizing how easily false information can spread in today’s society.
Lee Doren is the Director of Bureaucrash at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and host of the HowTheWorldWorks channel on YouTube.