Comment »Posted on Friday 9 January 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

What with all the reviewing I’ve been doing, I’ve let a few new stories slip by uncommented on. I’ll probably try and catch up with a big Weekly Roundup on Sunday, but today I’d like to talk about a story that got me annoyed earlier in the week. You may have seen it; apparantly where you sit on a bus reveals your personality. It wasn’t just the Daily Mail who ran the story, but it was pretty much the same everywhere.

The basics: “leading psychologist” Dr Tom Fawcett found that people who sit at the front are forward-thinkers, passengers in the middle are independent-minded, and those lurking at the back are rebels who don’t like their personal space being invaded. In total, bus-goers can be split into seven distinct personality groups.

How were these Earth-shattering results discovered? Dr Fawcett explains:

“It was carried out as an observational survey – we noted people’s body language and whether there was any interaction with other passengers, if they were sociable or withdrawn or even anti-social.”

In other words, to determine the personality of passengers Dr Fawcett didn’t conduct any interviews or tests – he merely looked at people and made judgements. Can anything scream “confirmation bias” more than this? Dr Fawcett clearly didn’t try to falsify his hypothesis by looking for, say, rebels sitting at the front of the bus. Without conducting a decent personality test, the results are worthless anyway.

If you think about, there is one major factor in determining where you sit on a bus: whether or not there is a seat free! Obviously people do have their personal preferences as to where to sit, but often they just have to take the first available seat. It doesn’t sound like Dr Fawcett took that into consideration at all.

Honestly, with stories like this, I do wish journalists would turn around to the scientists involved and say “hang on…isn’t this a load of a old rubbish?” Because it is!

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