pseudoscience? bad science, anyway

Here’s an interesting little press release, about a study that purports to show that women find the sound of fast cars (&, by extension, the men driving them) very exciting! Gosh, that’ll push up the sales of luxury cars…  (And thanks to Orac, where I originally saw the story.)

But does this study really show what’s claimed for it?

Well, let’s take a look at what was done in this ‘scientific’ study. A group of 40 volunteers, 20 men & 20 women, listened to recordings of the sounds of various cars:

Participants of the clinical study were exposed to a recording of various super-car engines being revved. They listened to the roaring engines of a Maserati, a Lamborghini and a Ferrari; and they were also exposed to a recording of a Volkswagen Polo, to ensure a fair comparison of arousal was measured with an every-day vehicle.

Twenty minutes after hearing each recording, the experimenters measured the levels of testosterone (yes, both sexes produce it) in the volunteers’ saliva, comparing these samples with others taken before the experiment. And what did they find?

  • The Maserati had the biggest impact on women with 100% of the female participants showing a significant increase in testosterone secretion

  • 100% of female participants showed a decrease in testosterone in reaction to the Polo

  • 50% of male participants showed an increase in testosterone in reaction to the Maserati

  • 60% of male participants showed an increase in testosterone in reaction to the Lamborghini

  • Better get rid of the VW Polo, guys!

    But hang on a minute – there’s not a lot of detail here. Was the trial blinded? Ideally, the volunteers should not have known in advance which car they were listening to. Even better, was it double-blinded? That is, the people testing the saliva samples should have been unaware of which person and treatment they came from. Alas, we don’t know, because that level of detail isn’t provided. Nonetheless, the psychologist who carried out the study was very definite that the findings were real: Testosterone is indicative of positive arousal in the human body so we can confidently conclude from the results out today that the roar of a luxury car engine actually does cause a primeval physiological response.

    Well, maybe. But were people actually asked how they felt about the sounds? It’s a fairly obvious question, surely, since responses to sounds can be quite subjective. I mean, I find the throaty roar of a souped-up engine more than a tad objectionable, especially when it’s at full revs. It may well raise my salivary testosterone levels, but does this reflect a ‘phwoar!!’ response – or a desire to go & shove something up the exhaust pipe? (After all, testosterone is linked to arousal – but also to aggression.)

    So, ‘science’ shows that girls are turned on by Maseratis (& their drivers)? Pseudoscience? Yes, I think so.


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