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Ever Had a Bad Hair Day?

A researcher uses the scientific method to find out whether a Bad Hair Day affects your mood.

Ever wake up, steal a glance at yourself in the mirror, and get the queasy feeling you're in for a Bad Hair Day? Has your idea of bad hair--hair that's perhaps too frizzy, poofy, greasy, or mashed down--ever affected your mood or self-esteem? If so, you may want to check out what psychologist (scientist who studies human behavior) Marianne LaFrance discovered.

LaFrance, a Yale University professor, studies how physical appearance affects people's feelings. So like any scientist, LaFrance performs experiments. And the best way to ensure a successful experiment is to follow the scientific method, a step-by-step process for doing research. "The scientific method helps you properly link cause and effect," says LaFrance. "It's the framework for an experiment, and helps you guess right."

What's Up With Your Hair?

The first step in the scientific method is to notice something--make an observation. LaFrance noticed that if she suggested to a friend that she had bad hair --"your hair isn't looking as good as it usually does"--her friend's attitude changed dramatically. She became depressed and lost confidence. These observations led LaFrance to formulate a research question: How does the idea of having bad hair affect your attitude?

Before getting tangled up in knots, LaFrance did some background research on the psychological (mental and emotional) impact of appearance. Background research tells her if other scientists have asked and answered similar questions in the past. LaFrance combed through medical and psychological journals, but couldn't find an answer.

So it was time for LaFrance to formulate a hypothesis--an educated guess about what the answer to her question might be. Her hypothesis stated that both males and females would feel embarrassed or depressed when asked to remember a bad hair day, but she proposed that females would be more affected than males.

Hairy Experiment

LaFrance then set out to design an experiment, a study to test her hypothesis. An experiment must be carefully formulated to test the effect of one variable, or characteristic, at a time. Experiments are full of variables, but scientists alter only one variable at a time. This variable is called the independent or manipulated variable. LaFrance's independent variable was the memory of bad hair.

Changing the independent variable affects other variables. These variables are called dependent or responding variables. In LaFrance's experiment, the dependent variable was a change in attitude--whether the person felt less smart, less sociable, and embarrassed as a result of his or her own perception of having bad hair.

Hair-Raising Test

LaFrance began testing her variables with a step-by-step procedure, (see Make a Plan!) or plan. First she separated 120 volunteers into three groups randomly (in no specific order). In isolation, each group was primed, or prepared, with a pre-existing condition. Group 1 was asked to recall a bad hair day. Group 2 wasn't told anything (left unprimed); this group functioned as the control, a standard against which researchers compare primed groups. Group 3 was asked to recall a day in which they had difficulty opening a package. Why a package? "We wanted people to think about a bad experience that had nothing to do with their appearance," LaFrance says. This way she could test if their mood changes were due to the memory of the way they looked, or had nothing to do with appearance (like packaging).

After preparing the three groups, LaFrance asked all volunteers to take three written tests: a "state of self-esteem test," an "emotion scale test," and a "20-statements test." The self-esteem test asked questions to measure how volunteers felt about themselves at the moment. The emotion scale test listed a series of descriptive words (like "angry," "scared," and "bothered"), and asked participants to mark words that described how they felt right then. Finally, the 20-statements test listed the words "I am --" 20 times. Volunteers filled in the blanks with whatever words they felt best described them at the moment.

LaFrance kept all other experimental variables constant, or unchanged, so as not to interfere with volunteers' answers. The study was also blinded--volunteers didn't know the purpose of the experiment, nor were they told there were two other groups.

Experiment Results

After reviewing the volunteers' answers, LaFrance reached a conclusion, or summary of her results. "We found that both sexes in the group primed with the memory of bad hair suffered from much lower self-esteem," she says. "At first we thought females would be more impacted than males, but males were just as affected as females, or even more."

When comparing Group 1's answers to those of the other two groups, LaFrance found that males in Group 1 felt less smart and confident than males in the other groups by thinking they had bad hair; these males also felt unsociable and more nervous. Females reported feeling more bothered and embarrassed than males. When describing themselves for the 20-statements test, all Group 1 volunteers responded more negatively.

So, can bad hair really affect your attitude? Yes, claims LaFrance; but her hypothesis wasn't completely supported. Although both sexes were affected by the memory of bad hair, the males' confidence suffered most--females were merely embarrassed.

Use the scientific method to organize your experiment--as LaFrance did. It will certainly make a project less hairy.


1. Base your experiment idea on an observation.

2. State your purpose. Usually the purpose of an experiment is stated in the form of a research question: What is the effect of (your independent variable) on (your dependent variable)?

3. Do background research to find out what is already known about your topic.

4. State your hypothesis, an educated guess about what the results will be. (For example, people get depressed when asked to remember a bad hair day.)

5. Design a detailed procedure (see Make a Plan!).

6. Carry out your experiment and collect data.

7. Record your results. In many cases you can present your results in charts, pictures, or graphs (see Don't Blink!).

8. Draw a conclusion from your results. Did your hypothesis prove true?

9. Write down all the steps of your project.

10. Publish your report.

Shampoo: Bad Hair Day Cure-All?

How do researchers test hair products?

All shampoos, from the cheapest to the most expensive, contain two basic ingredients: water (75 to 90 percent) and surfactants, or cleaners. Surfactants flush out dirt trapped in your sebum (natural hair oil) and clean your hair. Ingredients like fragrance and thickeners vary among shampoo types and brands. So do costly shampoos work better than cheaper ones?

To answer this research question, Consumer Reports, a monthly product-rating magazine, had researchers study samples of normal hair (neither too oily nor dry). They washed samples with different brands and types of shampoos (independent variable). Then researchers combed through hair to see how readily the comb went through (dependent variable). Their findings: Cheaper shampoo brands work just a well as pricey ones!

How do shampoo makers test their products?

Procter & Gamble has just released Physique, its first hair care line in 20 years.

* The shampoos were tested on 10,000 samples of hair swatches before touching a human head.

* Scientists polled Americans to find out how hot they like their showers, then used the average temperature for shampoo tests.

* Volunteers tried the shampoo, then cut off hair swatches so scientists could perform in-depth lab analysis.


Variables: characteristics in an experiment that change or could be changed

Independent Variable: variable you change on purpose; also called manipulated variable

Dependent Variable: variable that responds to a change in the independent variable; also called responding variable

Hypothesis: educated guess about how changing the independent variable will affect the dependent variable

Constants: characteristics in an experiment that are kept unchanged in all trials

Control: standard for comparison in all experiment

Trials: number of times an experiment is repeated for each level, or value, of the independent variable. The more trials, the more reliable your results.

Bad Hair Day

Directions: Fill in the blanks with the correct words.

1. The first step in the scientific method is to make an --.

2. Psychologist Marianne LaFrance studies how physical appearance affects your -- or --.

3. LaFrance tested her hypothesis by designing and conducting an --.

4. In her study, she used a step-by-step --.

5. Her study was--volunteers didn't know the purpose of the study.


1. observation 2. mood, self esteem 3. experiment 4. procedure 5. blind
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:psychological impact of physical appearance
Publication:Science World
Date:Sep 18, 2000
Previous Article:SPEED RULES.
Next Article:YOUR Project YOUR Body.

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