No more guitar heroes? Questions over attractiveness study

Male guitarists may be disappointed to learn that a study showing they are more attractive to women may be unsound

August 22, 2019
Male guitarist with bare buttocks
Source: Getty

The irresistible appeal of the male guitarist to women is a familiar trope in rock’n’roll mythology.

But the scientific proof for the aphrodisiacal qualities of the instrument is not perhaps as strong as previously thought after questions were raised about the reliability of a widely cited study on this alleged phenomenon.

Since the Psychology of Music paper “Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context” was published in 2013, it has been cited numerous times, often approvingly in articles appearing in guitar magazines, but also in other peer-reviewed journals.

The study involved a young man approaching 300 women in the street and asking for their phone numbers. When he carried a guitar case, 31 per cent of respondents said “yes”, but this fell to 14 per cent when he was empty-handed. According to the paper’s conclusion, this suggests that “musical practice is associated with sexual selection”.

However, the paper recently caught the eye of cognitive scientist Samuel Mehr, who was struck by its “highly implausible” data collection procedure – namely, the ability of an individual to approach 300 women in a single afternoon.

Assuming that the research assistant worked for six hours without a break, he would have to test a participant every 72 seconds, estimated Dr Mehr, director of the Music Lab at Harvard University. He judged that this was unlikely given the description of how the research assistant operated: he was instructed to stop in the street only women who were approximately 18 to 22 years old and walking on their own, to make his request and then to note down phone numbers.

“It took all of five minutes to realise that the method is pretty much impossible, as reported,” Dr Mehr told Times Higher Education, who detailed his concerns to the journal, which is now investigating.

The paper’s lead author, Nicolas Guéguen, professor of social psychology at the University of South Brittany in France, specialises in investigations of factors that may influence sexual attraction. He did not respond to THE’s request for comment.

His previous studies have tested whether wearing red or putting hair in ponytails makes women more receptive to men, and whether standing outside a flower shop or bakery makes men more alluring, according to Nick Brown, a PhD candidate in health psychology at the University of Groningen, who, with research scientist James Heathers, has described Professor Guéguen’s work as “Benny Hill science”.

“Even if you took five afternoons to do this study, there are just not that many women in a town of 70,000 people for this study to be possible – they’d all have to go out at the right time, too,” said Mr Brown.

Given Professor Guéguen’s publication of more than 300 studies over his 20-year career, it was also likely that his study participants would have been involved in multiple studies, he added.

Jean Peeters, president of the University of South Brittany, said that an independent investigation had already been carried out into two papers authored by Professor Guéguen.

“I have decided to refer Professor Nicolas Guéguen to a disciplinary committee that is not Université Bretagne Sud’s so as to prevent any conflict of interest,” Professor Peeters told THE.

“I have applied to the National Council for Higher Education and Research and it has designated the University of Angers’ disciplinary committee. The matter is now in its hands.”


Print headline: Holes picked in guitar hero study

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