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The Still Head of the Staring Psychopath: On Click-y Headlines, Bad Science, and Approximations

Bad science / reporting + social media and the attention economy = click-baits, unseen approximations, and misunderstandings.

I got a notification with a link to an article, and I was naturally inclined to check it out:

How couldn’t I?

Breaking and important news… The headline itself is amazing :

Psychopaths don’t move their heads when talking

A new study found that people who scored high in certain psychopathic traits are more likely to limit head movements.

A ‘Psychopath’ staring (?) without moving his head

(there is also an image of tweety in front of a dark-red threatening background to show you how psychopaths stare)

As I went through the text, however, I couldn’t but think how this article is a typical (and great) example of bad science reporting (at least) and bad science (maybe).

So psychopaths don’t move their heads when they stare at you !

What is a psychopath anyway?

Psychopathy is a predictor (not a very good one, but one of the best we have) of criminal behavior.. but what is it exactly?

Try to look that out.

Good luck in trying to find a (reasonably) good definition. There is a mix of concepts and scales, and one article defined psychopathy by talking about how we measure it!

This is because it is not really a ‘thing’ but defined itself as a mix of scores on some measures for a few traits (like antisocial, low-empathy, bold, egotistical).

Check these out :

After a few webpages, I was neither interested nor calm enough to continue the exploration…

Not quite clear, but interesting + Big words –> The perfect breeding grounds for engaging in approximations that reflect our excitement (and ignorance). A psychopath can be many things to many readers… just fill in the blanks.

This is one of the hallmarks of ‘bad science’. The concept itself is not clearly defined, or defined in terms of a set of concepts (themselves not having exact measures). This kind of definition later causes interesting correlations (like the one here), because you can find relationships with one of the components, and start creating links and conclusions (which might not mean much).

Bad reporting takes that, and adds drama and grandeur to it.

Conclusions about Psychopaths, Heads, and Stares

Researchers have long noted that psychopathic individuals display certain behaviors during nonverbal communication, including the so-called psychopathic stare.

The study analyzed video interviews with 507 inmates, using tracking algorithms to measure head movements.

Inmates who scored high in antisocial traits — a facet of psychopathy — tended to keep their heads still.

So some study finds a correlation between a behavior (not moving the head) and a trait (antisocial)… Well, this is what a study finds: A correlation (?) between a behavior (not moving the head) and a partial variable (antisocial) based on *some* evaluation (here is the actual checklist of the evaluation used: Link) .

Next: attribute this correlation to a bigger and ‘more exciting’ trait : psychopathy (typically characterized developmental and antisocial traits, which include aggression, impulsiveness, and criminal behavior), instead of the less exciting ‘antisocial’…

You now have the world’s most dubious (and least useful) claim: Psychopaths (Who?) don’t move their heads (How?) as they stare at you!

Take that – science !

Attention and Clicks are all what matters !

The Psychopathic Stare does sound like a real and scary thing that will get people to pay attention to the article .. Unsuspecting people. The popular press always tries to use ‘scientific studies’ in some form or another to raise interest and drive traffic (clicks clicks clicks)… People, after all, trust scientists.

These ‘science reveals’ articles are usually among the most popular pieces of content that gets shared on social media. Many reasons can explain that, including trust, excitement, and the desirability of social currency (as we share ‘science-related’ articles, we prove – at least – that we read ‘smart’ things).

Unfortunately much of the reporting of science is overly dramatized, (purposefully) messes up the concepts, and surrounds everything in a veil of (not so creative) ambiguity.

To make research popular, writers have to be creative… but there should be some line somewhere. In the attention-economy, attention is scarce and very important, but this has unintended consequences on popular understanding of many concepts, and even behavior in general.

So how is this strange thing supposed to be useful and informing in general for people? I’m not sure. The words, however, shape future understanding by creating prejudices and connotations.

Because the concepts are messy and poorly explained, you can use these headlines to claim anything. I found the next image making fun of the trend and it is just too accurate !
A New Study Shows that “…” is good/bad for you

I also found another image satirizing some popular depictions of science in movies. Not directly related to the previous discussion, but still points to the reductionism surrounding science in popular culture.
Science in movies : The art of cliches

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