The Widening Trap of Clumsy Writing and Sloppy Thinking in Applied Behavioral Science
I came across a twit from Dan Ariely sharing a post from the blog of the Center for Advanced Hindsight: “A Surprising Way to Protect Yourself from This Year’s Nasty Flu”
In my view, unfortunately, the article resembles more quasi-tabloid style journalism than rigorous popularization of science.
The post’s main theme is that hugging (yes, hugging) can help protect against the flu. The author mentions a study in which it was found a negative correlation between hugging behavior and developing negative symptoms after being infected with a virus. The more hugs a person reported to have given, the less likely she was to become infected and develop severe symptoms.
Obviously, correlation doesn’t imply causality and the post’s author acknowledges this reality: “results are correlational – which means we can’t actually claim that more hugs causes less illness.”
However, I can’t help myself not noticing the contradiction between the title “A Surprising Way to Protect Yourself from This Year’s Nasty Flu” and the correct claim “we can’t actually claim that more hugs cause less illness.”
After acknowledging that correlation is not causality, the post’s author continues by formulating a possible explanation for the correlation between hugging behavior and illness resistance: “Perhaps it is the case that (…) huggers simply have stronger immune systems?”
Unfortunately, after only one paragraph, the author suggests that people should hug more anyway: “Given these caveats, I ask: Why not try, anyway? After all, hugging brings all kinds of other benefits.”
That sounds really nice, but it comes in conflict with the possible explanation that people who hug more have better immune systems.
My own hypothesis for the correlation between hugging frequency and illness resistance suggests a different causal link, opposite from that in the post’s title. I see the number of hugging as a measure of sociability (number of people one interacts with and closeness of interactions – including hugging).
It can be that reduced sociability (few hugs) is an unconscious disease-avoidance strategy for people with weaker immune systems. Simply put, people who are more likely to get an infection and/ or develop severe symptoms unconsciously avoid/ reduce the number of close contacts they have with other people.
High sociability, including lots of hugs, might be a manifestation of a strong immune system. An individual with high infection resistance can closely interact with others without the high risk of getting an infection.
I admit that this is an untested hypothesis. But if it is true, then the advice/ suggestion of trying to prevent illness by hugging more often is counter-productive, even dangerous because it encourages people with weak immune systems to go against their instincts and expose themselves to a higher risk of infection.
In recent years the quality of the discourse about applied behavioral science has been on a down-slope and that’s not exactly news. However, a research organization such as the “Center for Advanced Hindsight” who is headed by the behavioral science superstar Dan Ariely and is linked to Duke University should not fall into the trap of clumsy writing and sloppy thinking.