Would A Third of Male Students Commit Rape? – Methodological Flaws in New Study

Yesterday, the fine news source BuzzFeed posted the following article A Third Of Male Students Say They’d Rape A Woman If There Were No Consequences, A Study RevealsThe issues with BuzzFeed as a source aside, the article as well as the study it’s citing are flawed in more ways than one. Let’s talk about them!


The study cited by BuzzFeed was a study conducted, according to Robby Soave of Reason, at the University of North Dakota by three psychologists and is called Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among RespondersIt’s a short study and the results are shocking, but the methodology is very questionable. Reading through the study, one gets to the “Materials and Method” section and finds an interesting factoid, only 86 students were surveyed. In fact, according to the study that isn’t the only limiting factor,

Eighty-six male college students received extra credit for their participation. All participants were over 18 (M = 21, SD = 3.6) and most were juniors in college. The overwhelming majority of participants ( > 90%) identified as Caucasian, consistent with the general student make up at this university, and all identified as heterosexual, with prior sexual experiences (x).

The first issue is the sample size. 86 students, white Juniors no less, from the University of North Dakota are hardly indicative of the 10+ million undergraduate students in the United States. What’s more, the study ought to provide some more data on the age, race, and class makup of the students surveyed. Additionally, as Soave from Reason adds,

Actually, the final tally included even fewer participants, since researchers excluded incomplete survey results and tossed out one response that confused them. At the end of the day, the study considered the statements of just 73 guys (x).

In a world where the sample size is literally smaller than one fifth of the total number of members of my small liberal arts school’s Feminist club, it’s flawed to extrapolate these data to a larger body. Additionally, the fact that all the students surveyed came from the same school with no replication further complicates the issue.


The second issue, however, is the way the study was conducted. According to the “Materials and Method” section, the students were given an incentive to take the survey – namely, extra-credit. The introduction of an incentive further skews the data because there will be some demographics that will jump at extra-credit opportunities more than others. While admittedly I don’t have data on this, so take what I say with a grain of salt, I feel that this specific incentive is going to produce results the authors were looking for – that is, confirmation bias. Specifically, in my experience there are two kinds of students that desire extra-credit; the over-achievers, and the students who are barely passing (if passing at all). It is the latter group that I want to focus on. Students who are barely passing may be suffering from various issues be they mental health, physical well being, sports related, etc. But the fact is, this group represents a subgroup of students who, depending on the institution, may or may not be the most moral or most well guided.

The introduction of a prize, if you will, for them to take the survey draws out certain segments of the population whilst leaving other segments alone. I do not know, quantitatively, what effect this has, but I suspect that had all students been surveyed, the numbers would be different. What’s more, I suspect that had this incentive not been there, the researchers would have seen a wildly different turnout which would suggest confounding variables that cannot be accounted for or, at the very least, are not accounted for in the study itself.


The third issue with the study is one of seriousness and real world applicability. Specifically, as Ashe Schow from the Examiner notes,

Cosmo [referring to this headline] brings up an interesting point, surely unintentionally raising a question that is more ancient than universities themselves and appears in Plato’s Republic. How many people would break any law if they knew they could get away with it? How many seemingly just people could you get to say they would steal or even murder if there was no chance of being caught — if they were given a ring that made them invisible?

Which brings up another problem with the study: Saying you would do something bad if there are no consequences is not the same as doing those bad things. How many people say they’d love to tell off their boss but never do?

This is another case study in eye-catching, outrage-inducing headlines with no substance to back them up. The study’s note that this was “only a first exploration of this topic” and that future studies could further prove (or disprove) the findings indicates a possible desire for grant funding (x).


Ultimately, I am left not only unconvinced about the applicability of the study to the real world, but also skeptical about the data acquired given the methodology used.


BuzzFeed, however, has some issues as well which mainly stem from, what Schow calls, “eye-catching, outrage-inducing headlines”. The first issue ties into the methodology question from above – namely, BuzzFeed asserts that a third of male college students would commit rape. This, however, is taking a third of 86 (or 73) males at one university (with supporting data not well established) drawn from one pool and not replicated and then asserting that onto 10+ million other undergraduate students in the United States. When stated like that, the issues with this article become clear.

The second issue, however, is the assumption that the males know it’s rape and commit it regardless of that knowledge. The data, however, do not support this claim. Apart from the survey seemingly adding the word rape in after the fact, Soave notes that:

Some 32 percent (i.e., just 20-odd people) said they would force a woman to have sex with them if they knew they would get away with it. Many of those same respondents didn’t actually think this constituted rape, which might speak to the fact that men are poorly educated about what rape entails—but it’s hard to say for sure, since we’re actually talking about very, very few guys here (x).

This brings up an interesting issue – namely, if the respondents had known that their actions would be rape, would they still commit them? The study doesn’t seem to provide an answer and the BuzzFeed article simply fans the flames of paranoia by asserting they would no matter what. Ay, as the study concludes,

Because these men do not view their sexually aggressive intentions as rape, failing to attend to issues around beliefs about the stereotypical rapist and not identifying with them could weaken the effectiveness of the programming due to not receiving buy in from participants. This would ultimately likely leave the men who could benefit most from these prevention efforts disengaged (x).

In a word, the authors end on a “we need better education” note because the data seem to be incomplete.


If I am mistaken in any way, please let me know. If you think, like me, that the study is flawed, feel free to contact the researcher who’s info is at the bottom of the study, Dr. Sarah Edwards.

Address correspondence to:
Sarah R. Edwards, PhD
Counseling Psychology and Community Services
University of North Dakota
Education Building, Room 314
231 Centennial Dr. STOP 8255
Grand Forks, ND 58202-8255
E-mail: sarah.edwards@email.und.edu

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