Debunking "Foodie Calls": Sloppy and Misleading Journalism
Over the past few days, you may have seen stories going around with headlines such as "Rise of 'foodie calls': A THIRD of women have gone on a romantic date just for a free meal, study finds" or "Foodie calls: scientists studied women who go on dates for free meals, and found one shared personality trait" or even "1 in 4 women go on date for a free meal." Others may have come across a video by Youtuber and self-proclaimed journalist Tim Pool titled "A Third Of Women Lie On Dates To Manipulate Men For Free Food."
The comment section under that video is packed with totally rational and not at all unhinged replies such as "I hate feminism. It killed romance, love, marriage, fatherhood, and the family. It is literally cancer", and "Liberal women are a disease. So glad they eventually end up alone, childless and depressed. They deserve it."
So why am I covering the story? Well because it's another example of statistics being used to mislead and get clicks and outrage.
Definitions and Background
Before we begin, it's important to define some terms. When these headlines use the words "foodie call" they mean the situation "when a woman purposefully misrepresents her romantic interest in a man to dine at his expense." This definition is drawn from the science paper the stories are based on.
The paper is titled "Foodie Calls: When Women Date Men for a Free Meal (Rather Than a Relationship)" and appeared in the peer-reviewed Social Psychological and Personality Science journal last Friday. The data inside the paper is based on two online surveys conducted exclusively on women using the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform - a crowdsourcing website owned by Amazon which remotely hires "crowdworkers" to perform simple (and often very dull) tasks that can't currently be automated.
Respondents to the surveys were paid US$0.26 to complete them. Answers from any self-identified homosexual or bisexual women were discarded. In the first of the two surveys, this meant that approximately 15% (11% bisexual, 4% homosexual) of the results were discarded while in the second study the number was 17% (15% bisexual, 2% homosexual). In the first survey, the women had a mean (average) age of 34.64 while in the second survey, the mean age was 33.79.
The principal aim of the study was to see if women who scored higher on the dark triad of personality traits (Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy) were more likely to make foodie calls or see them as more acceptable. They also sought to find out whether women who tend to have more traditional views of gender roles would be more likely to make or approve of foodie calls.
The Key Issue
Probably the most critical point to bear in mind is that the percentages in the news headlines are based on the absolute number of women who have ever performed a foodie call. Therefore, a woman who has gone on 100 dates with only one of those being a foodie call would be counted the same as a woman who went on 100 dates, 99 of which were foodie calls. This renders the headline figures somewhat meaningless. I'll get into the actual numbers in the following two sections.
5.75% of Women Make Up Approximately a Quarter of the Female Population (Apparently)
As mentioned above the headline claims are very misleading. The true numbers paint a very different picture, so let me get out my metaphorical paintbrush and clarify things.
The first survey found that the vast majority - or 77% of women - had never engaged in a foodie call. Furthermore, of the 23% of women who did engage in foodie calls, 27% did so occasionally while 47% did so rarely or very rarely. Finally, 25% of the women who engaged in foodie calls did so frequently or very frequently. That sounds like a lot but bear in mind that the 25% figure is based on the 23% of women who have ever engaged in a foodie call. Therefore, that 25% actually only represents 5.75% of women in total (25% of 23%). Or to put it more simply 5.75% of the women in this survey engaged in foodie calls frequently or very frequently.
Perhaps a chart will be useful to illustrate just how negligible this percentage is:
For those who are confused by the above explanation, perhaps this analogy will help:
Imagine you have a bottle of water. This bottle represents all the heterosexual women surveyed. You pour out 23% of that water into a glass. This 23% represents the women who have, at any point engaged in a foodie call. You then pour out a quarter (25%) of the water from the glass (which represented 23% of the total amount of water) into a shot glass. The water in the shot glass represents the percentage of women who frequently or very frequently engage in foodie calls. Now if you were to take this shot glass and pour its contents into a bottle with equal dimensions as the first (which represented the total number of women), it would take up 5.75% of the total space. Hopefully, that makes things clearer.
Wait No 6.93% of Women Make Up Approximately a Quarter of the Female Population
The second survey found a slightly different result. Of the women surveyed, 67% had never engaged in a foodie call compared to the 33% who had at least once. Once again reporting this as "one-third of women engage in foodie calls" is misleading. This is because it shows the total number of women who have engaged in a foodie call, not the number of dates on which a woman has engaged in a foodie call.
Of the women who admitted to engaging in a foodie call in this survey, only 21% indicated they had done so frequently or very frequently. 21% of 33% comes out to 6.93% of the total women surveyed. The average number of times women had engaged in foodie calls was 5.62 although one woman had claimed to have done so 233 times which would have driven up the average significantly (unless it was taken into account).
Ok But This is Still All the Feminist's Fault, Right?
Nope. Not even close, in fact, if anything, the study found the exact opposite. The authors found that women who had more traditional views on gender roles were more likely to have engaged in foodie calls and see them as more acceptable.
With that said, most women surveyed stated that they believed that foodie calls are extremely to moderately unacceptable.
This study was not about quantifying how many women engage in foodie calls it was about determining if there was a link between foodie calls and the dark triad of personality traits. In fact, the researchers make it quite clear in the paper that "the sample is not generalizable to the population. Future research should consider using a representative sample to gauge actual prevalence of foodie calls."
In the press release for the paper one of its authors explains that it is currently not possible to know the actual number of foodie calls in America and that "foodie calls could occur in many types of relationships, and could be perpetrated by all genders."
So what can we really know? Well, based on this data, we can say that it appears that it is possible that a small number of women may sometimes engage in foodie calls. Not exactly earth-shattering, is it?
Unfortunately, most of the media (with a couple notable exceptions) decided to ignore this nuance in its reporting. Their headlines (and in Tim Pools case his video title) were based on a misleading interpretation of the paper.
As a side note, Tim Pool may claim to be better than the mainstream media in his work, but in this case, he is just as bad if not worse. He simply regurgitates a press release and then rambles about a random Reddit post he read a while back. The headline of the press release agreed with his culture war narrative, so he covered it. Even when he introduced some nuance by reading the limitations in the studies press release, it is clear that his audience wasn't listening to him. At the time of writing the majority of the comments on his video are negative towards feminists, liberal women, or encouraging him to take a more extreme approach.
The Actual Results
For those who are curious as to what the paper actually found, it is summed up nicely in the press release:
"the social and personality psychology researchers found that women who scored high on the "dark triad" of personality traits (i.e., psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism), as well as expressed traditional gender role beliefs, were most likely to engage in a foodie call and find it acceptable."
Additionally, in the press release, the researchers hypothesise that the number of women who engage in foodie calls may be higher because women may be misremembering or lying; however, they do not have any evidence for this so, for now, that issue must remain moot.
This case offers a further illustration of why journalists and media organisations need to pay more careful attention to how they frame a story. The framing that was used here plays right into the hands of misogynists, incels, pick up artists, and the bad kind of men's rights activists who believe women are evil, manipulative, man-hating, and continuously motivated by ulterior motives. This is despite the fact that the actual paper had very little relevance to any of these issues.
The impact of sloppy journalism matters, and although I don't have all the answers, I was able to do the initial fact checking on this story in about five to ten minutes. If I can do it, then so can people with actual resources behind them. We owe it to our readers to present the truth and give them a better understanding of the world and their place in it rather than mislead and confuse them further.
If you spot any mistakes, omissions, or factual errors please don’t hesitate to get in touch either in the comments, on Twitter, or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.