Tuesday, April 20, 2010

To Date Or To Hook Up?

You may have seen references to a new study about which heterosexual college students prefer and how gender enters into that. The conclusions of the study include:

Even though men initiated significantly more first dates than women, there was no gender difference in the number of first dates or number of hook-ups. For both men and women, the number of hook ups was nearly double the number of first dates.

Overall, both genders showed a preference for traditional dating over hooking up. However, of those students who strongly preferred traditional dating, there were significantly more women than men (41 percent versus 20 percent). Of those who showed a strong preference for hooking up, there were far fewer women than men (2 percent versus 17 percent). However, context mattered: when considering the possibility of a long-term relationship, both women and men preferred dating over hooking up; however, when the possibility of a relationship was not mentioned, men preferred hooking up and women preferred dating.

On the whole, men and women agreed on the benefits and risks of dating and hooking up.

However, there were some notable differences:

* Women more than men seem to want a relationship. They fear, both in dating and hooking up, that they will become emotionally attached to a partner who is not interested in them.
* Men more than women seem to value independence. They fear that even in hooking up relationships, which are supposed to be free of commitments, a woman might seek to establish a relationship.

That's not a bad summary of the findings, actually. Yup. I went and read the study! Before you run with its results, have a look at the following list of problems:

1. The study is based on a convenience sample. Convenience samples are just that: convenient. But they are not based on random sampling.

Why would this matter? Because:

Convenience sampling (sometimes known as grab or opportunity sampling) is a type of nonprobability sampling which involves the sample being drawn from that part of the population which is close to hand. That is, a sample population selected because it is readily available and convenient. The researcher using such a sample cannot scientifically make generalizations about the total population from this sample because it would not be representative enough.

It's unclear how the sample was selected, except that it consists of students who got course credit for their participation from the psychology department. This is probably also the reason why the study has twice as many female as male participants (women take more psychology courses). If you keep in mind that men and women of the chosen age group are roughly the same in numbers in the general population the unequal sample sizes come across as odd.

2. The sample consists of mostly first-year undergraduate students. The average age of the study subjects was 18.72 years. We are talking about very young men and women here. Teenagers, in fact. Teenagers may not have the same dating or hooking-up patterns as older college students.

3. The study defines dating as a traditional male-initiated process: The man invites the woman, he picks her up, he treats her, he takes her back home. He can ask for sex and she can refuse it. Hooking-up, on the other hand, is defined as a fairly egalitarian process about necking or kissing or intercourse or whatever. Either party can initiate it.

Note that there is no third alternative, such as some kind of egalitarian dating with going Dutch. It's important to keep that in mind in evaluating the study findings. We have no idea how the study participants would have ranked egalitarian dating.

4. The checklists of items the study used (for the subjects to agree or disagree about) were not identical for men and women. An example about the possible benefits of traditional dating:

For the benefits of traditional dating, we listed 36 possible benefits for men and 34 possible benefits for women. Twenty-seven of these benefits were identical for both genders (e.g., "Traditional dating is romantic"), with the remaining possible benefits gender specific (e.g., for men, "You can ask anyone you are interested in on a date"; for women, "You have the power to reject a date").

Similar gender differences were applied to the checklist covering the possible risks of traditional dating. The checklists for the benefits of hooking-up were identical for both sexes but the checklists for the risks of hooking-up were not:

Two items were gender specific. ("Risk getting pregnant" vs. "Risk of getting partner pregnant" and "Can get a bad reputation for being 'easy' or a whore" vs. "Can get a bad reputation of using women").

Why would such differences matter if they are not about the questions discussed in the above summary? Because the overall experience might affect the answers one gives. For instance, men get reminded about their responsibility in the concept of traditional dating this study used, and that reminder is different from the reminders women get.

That's why my point about the two choices is an important one. The study did not ask how students would have felt about egalitarian dating.