A ‘woozle’ that has shaped post-separation father-infant relationships for too long

24 March 2014

Adrienne Burgess writes:

Remember Winnie the Pooh . . . the chapter where he and his friends become obsessed with the idea that they are being stalked by a frightening beast they call a woozle? In fact the ‘woozle’s’ footprints are their own . . .

‘Woozles’ exist in social science too. A social science ‘woozle’ is a belief or claim based on inaccurate, partial, or flawed data that is repeatedly misrepresented, misinterpreted or ‘woozled’ in ways that influence public opinion and public policy. One such ‘woozle’ is an Australian study (McIntosh et al, 2010 – see ref. 1). This has been proffered internationally, including in the UK, as ‘evidence’ that infants and toddlers in separated families who ‘overnight’ with their fathers suffer – and that their relationships with their mothers suffer too.

The Fatherhood Institute is not, as most people now understand, an organisation that fights for the rights of separated dads. We are not a membership organisation. Our brief on fatherhood is wide and located within a family systems perspective, and we generally keep clear of issues relating to separated families.

However, we cannot let this ‘woozling’ – the gross and damaging misrepresentation of data in the McIntosh paper – pass at this time. For on 22 April the changes to the law embodied in the Children and Families Act (given Royal Assent last week) come into force. Among other things, the Family Court is to “send a clear signal to separated parents that courts will take account of the principle that both should continue to be involved in their children’s lives where that is safe and consistent with the child’s welfare”.

All well and good. But if the Court and those who advise it believe that babies’ and toddlers’ ‘overnighting’ with their dads is inconsistent with their welfare (which, in fact, per se it is not), then poor directions will be given.

There have been grumblings by academics for some time about the quality and impact of the McIntosh paper. Now two heavy weight academics are tackling the issue head on. Last month Dr Richard Warshak of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, endorsed by 110 academics and practitioners, took McIntosh and her fellow authors to task (2). Now Dr Linda Nielsen of Wake Forest University, North Carolina, enters the fray with Woozles: Their role in custody law reform, parenting plans and family court (3).

Both point out that the small sample on which McIntosh’s claims are based is not representative of separated families in general: the parents’ relationships were particularly short-lived and tenuous. And both delineate gaps between the actual data and the woozles that have arisen from the study, including the alleged negative impact on the children and their relationships with their mothers.

Nielsen, for example, points to McIntosh’s ‘wheezing woozle’ – her claims that infant wheezing is a valid measure of stress caused by being away from the mother overnight. In fact wheezing is linked to many factors having nothing to do with stress. Likewise, McIntosh’s ‘whining woozle’ claims that overnighting with their dads causes infants to be more irritable and to exhibit ‘severely distressed behavior’ towards their mothers – when, in fact, the overnighting infants had exactly the same mean score on irritability as infants in intact families and their scores on the behavioral problems test were well within the normal range.

More disturbing still, the ‘anxiety/insecurity woozle’ was based on three questions taken from a validated test that assesses infants’ readiness to begin talking – a three item ‘scale’ the authors designed and interpreted as a measure of infant anxiety and insecurity. Because the overnighting infants tried to get their mother’s attention and gazed at her more often – which on the actual test is a positive sign of readiness to learn language – the study’s authors concluded that the overnighting infants were more watchful and wary about their mother’s whereabouts, indicating more anxiety and insecurity.

Nielsen’s paper then goes on to describe how the main author herself has mis-represented her own research and that of others, to make her case – a case which is not supported by other papers in this field. Finally, Nielsen charts the worrying influence of these woozles in debate and law reform in relation to child arrangements in various countries, including in the UK.

Both the Warshak and the Nielsen papers are ‘must reads’ for anyone who wants to understand how ‘bad science’ comes to influence policy. Most particularly they should be read by all who advise separating parents and contribute to decision-making in the Family Court.

Adrienne Burgess is Joint CEO and Head of Research at the Fatherhood Institute.


1. McIntosh, J., Smyth, B., Kelaher, M., & Wells, Y. L. C. (2010). Postseparation parenting arrangements: Outcomes for infants and children. Sydney: Australian Attorney General’s Office.

2. Warshak, R.A. (2014). Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20(1), pp. 46–67. Available at: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/law/20/1/46/ Email: doc@warshak.com

3. Nielsen, L. (2014). Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Available at: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2014-04670-001/ Email: nielsen@wfu.edu


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