Scary “Research”

There is a body of research that is trying to link physical characteristics to antisocial or violent behavior. If this could be done, as some fantasy writers have written, it could be used to classify people as “potential offenders” and subject them to corrective behavior before they ever commit a crime.

There’s a new study from Sam Houston State University linking a low resting heart rate with stalking behavior. The study involved a survey with 384 respondents among students at “a southern university.” The survey asked questions about stalking behavior and the researchers took measurements of heart rates.

This is fundamentally flawed for at least two reasons:

  • The fact that two things happen at the same time doesn’t prove they are related. The statistical phrase is “correlation isn’t causality.” Example: the Titanic and Lusitania were sister ships and both sank. Did the fact that they were built to the same blueprint have anything to do with one hitting an iceberg and the other a torpedo?
    • To establish causality, you need to have at least a good theory about how one item  might impact the other.  How could a low resting heart rate make someone violent? Any ideas?
  • The data aren’t reliable. Social norms effect how people answer questions. What’s curious is that someone would admit to stalking; the expectation is that people will lie and deny it. Perhaps the low resting heart rate simply effects the willingness of people to talk about this behavior?

To me, the study seems silly, but it provides an opportunity to talk about issues you should consider when you read anything, especially research. Are the findings plausible? Is there a simple, alternative theory that makes as much sense?


  1. Danielle Boisvert, Jessica Wells, Todd Armstrong, Richard H. Lewis, Matthias Woeckener, Matt R. Nobles. Low Resting Heart Rate and Stalking Perpetration. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2017; 088626051769882 DOI: 10.1177/0886260517698823

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