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The Washington Post says that "women rate the strongest men as the most attractive, study finds". Of course, that does not contradict the common sense, but it there enough evidence provided. Or, in other words, does the study have enough data to make a statistically reliable claim, or should the wording be changed rather?

Here are a few phrases (highlighted in bold) that a red-red flags to me, because they are usually appear in manipulative texts:

It's no secret that women like strong, muscular guys.”

...

There was no nuance to these results, he said. Zero of the 160 women surveyed showed a statistical preference for weaker men.

Are just 160 respondents really enough to generalize the idea and apply it to everyone in the world? Or should the article really say that the claim is definitely true for the heterosexual female population of the Griffith University?

The raters were students in their teens or early 20s enrolled at Oklahoma State University and Australia's Griffith University.

...

culture, not evolutionary history, has the stronger influence over what is physically desirable

closed as unclear what you're asking by Oddthinking Dec 14 '17 at 2:03

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    Let's clean up this question and re-open it. If your question is "Is 160 women a big enough sample size, to reflect the population of American college-aged women?" then this is a subtle question about sampling which should probably be asked on Cross Validated rather than here. – Oddthinking Dec 14 '17 at 2:06
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    If your question is "Can this study of American college-aged women by generalised to all women across the world?" then the answer is in the article/ No, they don't claim that. There is no notable claim that this is true. – Oddthinking Dec 14 '17 at 2:07
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    If your question is "Is this a universal rule, across all cultures?" we need a better notability example than this, which denies knowing whether it is true. – Oddthinking Dec 14 '17 at 2:08
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“Women rate the strongest men as the most attractive” …or is it always so?

No. We're done; move along.

More detail ...

The methodology is reasonably well laid out: the researchers objectively rated the men's strength based on physical exercises, they create a visual proxy for that strength by taking photos of their torsos and other people rated their strength and attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 7. The results are that they found "a linear relationship between a man's rated strength and his attractiveness". That is, when they plot the woman's assessment of strength versus attractiveness they are linearly related; from the abstract, the correlation was greater than 0.7. It is clear that they also rated "tallness" and "leanness" and when these three were used (presumably in a multi-regression) the correlation was 0.8.

The only definitive thing that can be said about any scientific study, particularly in the social sciences is: at this time, in this place, under these circumstances, this was the result. Now, statistical inferences can and should be drawn, however, the limits of statistics and scientific publication should always be borne in mind:

  1. Changing the circumstances may invalidate the statistical conclusions. As the article points out, the subjects were male college students (as the ratees) and female college/university students in one campus in the USA and one campus in Australia (as the raters). How far can the circumstances be changed before they are so different that the statistics are invalid?
  2. This is one study and random elements (a.k.a. luck) will play a much greater role than if this were a meta-study of 10 or 100 such studies. "Statistically significant" means "if we do this a lot of times then X% (usually 95%) of the times we do this the result will be the true result: for this one study we cannot say if this is one of the X% or one of the 100-X% of such studies."
  3. Journals overwhelmingly publish results that are statistically significant - this is known as the "file drawer problem" and "increas[es] the likelihood that published results are a reflection of Type 1 errors rather than true population parameters". That is, because of a selection bias in the way scientific journals work (even reputable ones like the Royal Society), the one investigation that shows a link is more likely to be published than the 10 that don't.

Specific Claims

“It's no secret that women like strong, muscular guys.”

This is not a claim being made about the findings - this is the researcher's anecdotal statement which presumably led her to conduct the study in the first place. This is how science is done: anecdotes are noticed that indicates that X goes along with Y and because of this, a researcher develops an experiment to test if X really does go along with Y.

There was no nuance to these results, he said. Zero of the 160 women surveyed showed a statistical preference for weaker men.

This is simply a statement that in the results, all of the woman had a positive correlation between strength ratings and attractiveness ratings and none of them had a negative correlation. That is, as one went up so did the other. We are not told in the article or the abstract the slope of this relationship which presumably varies for each respondent, that is, does a doubling of the strength rating double the attractiveness or is it flatter (50% more say) or steeper (150% more say).

Are just 160 respondents really enough to generalize the idea and apply it to everyone in the world? Or should the article really say that the claim is definitely true for the heterosexual female population of the Griffith University?

Aside from the limitations on the statistics and the publication bias described above, this is an argument over interpretation of the results.

The authors see the preference as having an evolutionary basis - woman like strong men because they are the descendants of people with a preference for strong men and that gave their ancestors an evolutionary advantage. If so, such a preference should be universal.

An alternative view that the article ventilates is that the preference is a cultural one and that our culture venerates strength and that these woman learned to do this too be growing up in this culture. If this is correct, then the preference is culture specific and not universalizable; across neither space nor time.

One study cannot determine who is right or if either hypothesis is.

Obvious issues

There are a number of issues that pop out at me with how the study is constructed which may introduce biases - I do not know if the authors' addressed these.

  1. Scope. These are young woman rating young men - we cannot say how older woman rating older men or older woman rating young men or young woman rating older men would play out. This is a limitation of almost all social science studies - the people who are available and willing to be research subjects are almost exclusively college students and are therefore not representative of the wider community.
  2. Extraneous Variables. You can tell a lot more than strength from a photograph. Ethnicity is apparent, as are any surgical or injury scars: how were these controlled for?
  3. Anchoring bias - I rate strength on a 1 to 7 - this is going to anchor my assessment of attractiveness for this subject and my ratings of strength and attractiveness for all subsequent subjects.
  4. Correlation is not causation. Strength and attractiveness are correlated - this doesn't mean that being strong makes you more attractive. It certainly doesn't mean that being more attractive makes you stronger. It is entirely possible that there is something else driving both variables which leads us to ...
  5. Overreach in the conclusions. Really? Strong=attractive because evolution? Could we have some evidence for this massive cognitive leap please?
  • I really like this answer. A) it does cover the topic; B) provides a thorough review of the study details; and also C) supports my skepticism about the information in the article. – Igor Soloydenko Dec 14 '17 at 2:08
  • BTW, the article says culture, NOT evolutionary history, has the stronger influence over what is physically desirable ;) – Igor Soloydenko Dec 14 '17 at 2:10
  • @IgorSoloydenko the article says both – Dale M Dec 14 '17 at 2:13
  • In your obvious issues #2 is just flat out wrong. 61 of the men in the study were recruited at the gym. 131 of the men were "UC Santa Barbara students enrolled in psychology courses." – BobTheAverage Dec 14 '17 at 4:07
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The Washington post article accurately summarizes the findings of a real scientific paper. The paper was published in a respected journal and presumably passed peer review.

The paper reviews a lot of other scientific literature that comes to the same general conclusion; In general, heterosexual women like muscular men. However there is some room for nuance. There are competing explanations for why, and various explanations of exactly which muscular men women like.


Evidence that this is a real scientific paper.

The paper discussed by the Washington Post was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, a peer reviewed publication with a decently high impact factor. The authors of the paper have published on this general topic before, and those papers were cited by other scientists. In time, I expect this paper to garner citations of its own.

By contrast, fake scientific papers are published in predatory journals with no peer review. Those papers are not then cited by other scientists.


Examination of the claims in this question

In order to answer this question, read the paper in question and skimmed some of the scientific literature referenced by this paper.

“It's no secret that women like strong, muscular guys.”

...

There was no nuance to these results, he said. Zero of the 160 women surveyed showed a statistical preference for weaker men.

The researchers showed pictures of shirtless men with their faces obscured to a heterosexual women and asked the women to rate the men on both physical strength and attractiveness. The two quotes above were said by an author of this paper and accurately reflect their findings.

Are just 160 respondents really enough to generalize the idea and apply it to everyone in the world? Or should the article really say that the claim is definitely true for the heterosexual female population of the Griffith University?

The research paper presents data that are true for "student volunteers from Griffith University in Australia and Oklahoma State University students from the United States." (I just kind of assumed that the raters were heterosexual women, but I cant find that explicitly stated anywhere.)

The paper reviews the results of other studies about the same topic.

More directly on point with the hypotheses here, Franzoi & Herzog [39] surveyed women and asked them what features they were attracted to in men; the results showed that women particularly valued components of upper body strength, e.g. ‘muscular strength', ‘biceps'. Similarly, Jones and co-workers [40] showed that men whose bodies were rated as more ‘masculine' were preferred to men whose bodies were rated as ‘feminine', and a similar study using composite images confirmed that manipulating men's bodies to appear more masculine increased their attractiveness [41]. Similar work shows that women generally prefer figures representing mesomorphic body types (i.e. muscular bodies) [42,43]. However, based on the aforementioned hypothesis that highly formidable men are relatively unwilling to invest resources in offspring, some researchers have suggested an inverted-U effect such that women prefer moderately strong men but not very strong or weak men [13,44].

The general consensus from this appears to be that muscular men are more attractive. There is a competing hypotheses described here; extremely muscular men are not extremely attractive. This paper did not really examine that hypothesis.

I did not personally go looking for articles that explicitly contradict these findings. I relied on the paper's literature review.


What about that one quote from a different researcher?

Instead, [sociologist Dr. Lisa Wade] says that culture, not evolutionary history, has the stronger influence over what is physically desirable. “We value tall, lean men with strong upper bodies in American society,” she said. “We’re too quick to assume that it requires an evolutionary explanation.” Shredded abs, she said, are more for show than any practical function.

Everything I have discussed up to this point has been describing what types of men women find attractive. This quote changes gears and asks why? This is a whole new can of worms. The research paper has quite a lengthy discussion about evolutionary preferences and why women like what they like, however they don't back up their explanations with strong evidence. Neither does Dr. Wade. Why is MUCH harder to answer than what.

At the end of the Washington post article,

Lukaszewski says his team plans to examine physical attractiveness around the globe. “We have a cross-cultural study that’s underway right now,” he said, one that included more than a dozen sites around the world.

Maybe in a few years, this study will add ammunition to one side of Wade and Lukaszewski's debate.

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    I think, what I'm trying to argue about is this. If the attractiveness is a function of cultural bias, then 160 students from one single place can only be representative of their University, but further application of this conclusion to a wider population would not be valid. I'd say more. If we take 160 respondents in Australia, another 160 from Germany, and another 160 from the USA, it will still be by far less reliable data set than it should be for making a wide claim. – Igor Soloydenko Dec 13 '17 at 23:29
  • Having said that, I do not have any doubts about the conclusions themselves because they are intuitive to me. In my experience, women prefer stronger looking men. Yet, I'd like the studies with wide strong claims to have as reliable wide strong data sets, so to speak. I am not a statistician, so forgive me for not using the proper terms. – Igor Soloydenko Dec 13 '17 at 23:31

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