Thoughts on Psychology

Just another site

Archive for October 2010

Yet again the media uses brain science to denigrate women

leave a comment »

I love the Daily Mash, but it’s undoubtedly funnier when you know the story they’re satirising. Sadly, when I first saw this article I didn’t know the background, so couldn’t get full benefit…

Happily for me, Dr Petra Boynton has commented on the original research, focussing on the media’s reporting of it. This post is typically informative and illuminating, but also makes the Daily Mash post more fun:

Dr Petra’s post includes links to other blogs criticising methodological aspects of the study being reported on.

This kind of research is typical of the modern trend towards seeking brain based explanations, as if they were sufficient, and the media is happy to lap this up. But even if the study were methodologically sound, what would it tell us? The implication is that differences in brain state cause differences in libido, but then what causes the differences in brain state? From my point of view, the brain state is a reflection of the psychological condition, rather than the cause of it. The Daily Mash perhaps puts it best:

But Dr Logan’s wife, Emma, said: “My study suggests very strongly that it’s not me it’s you, you fat, bald, stinky little shit.

“If I don’t like sex, then what the fuck are all those tea lights doing in the bathroom?”


Written by daijones

October 29, 2010 at 12:23 am

Posted in Biological determinism, Media, Quick Link

Tagged with

Drunkenness and racism

leave a comment »

Good discussion on mindhacks about the increase in prejudice when we’re less able to control our thought processes

Written by daijones

October 12, 2010 at 2:17 am

Posted in Quick Link

Tagged with

Reducing stigma towards mental health?

leave a comment »

A good piece in today’s Bad Science following the media fuss about an alleged genetic basis for ADHD. It’s commonly assumed that ascribing a genetic explanation to a condition will reduce stigma towards it. However, in this piece Ben Goldacre presents copious evidence that bio-medical, rather than psycho-social, explanations of mental illness actually increases stigma rather than reduces it.

Written by daijones

October 9, 2010 at 12:27 am

Posted in Biological determinism, Quick Link

Tagged with

Psychology’s subjects

with one comment

Psychology is usually pursued as a science akin to the natural sciences, attempting to find universal laws of behaviour that explain all humans. Central to this view is the idea that it doesn’t matter what humans we study, since we all have the same fundamental psychological processes. However, for many phenomena in human psychology this isn’t necessarily true, and arguably much of our psychological function is a reflection of our cultural background. If this is the case, then it’s a problem that Western psychology tends to only investigate Western participants and Western concepts, and then tries to apply the resultant theories to all people. For example, Hwang (2005) describes the modernising approach to intervention in the developing world, which imposed Western notions of individualism on other societies as the “right” goal for development, while Watters (2010) describes how Western definitions of mental illness are being exported to other cultures to the detriment of members of those cultures.

As the references above suggest, there is some awareness of the problem of generating “universal” theories of human nature without paying regard to cultural differences, and specifically the problems posed by studying exclusively Western participants and assuming the results hold true for other peoples. A couple of good articles address this head issue head on.

Arnett (2008) analyses research published in APA journals and finds that participants are overwhelmingly drawn from the 5% of the world’s population who are from the USA. He analyses the problems this causes, and suggests some solutions. The abstract reads:

This article proposes that psychological research published in APA journals focuses too narrowly on Americans, who comprise less than 5% of the world’s population. The result is an understanding of psychology that is incomplete and does not adequately represent humanity. First, an analysis of articles published in six premier APA journals is presented, showing that the contributors, samples, and editorial leadership of the journals are predominantly American. Then, a demographic profile of the human population is presented to show that the majority of the world’s population lives in conditions vastly different from the conditions of Americans, underlining doubts of how well American psychological research can be said to represent humanity. The reasons for the narrowness of American psychological research are examined, with a focus on a philosophy of science that emphasizes fundamental processes and ignores or strips away cultural context. Finally, several suggestions for broadening the scope of American psychology are offered.

Henrich et al (2010) go further in identifying problems with relying on Western participants, arguing in depth that Westerners are importantly different from other peoples on important characteristics, and that these differences colour the results of psychology research. The abstract reads:

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers—often implicitly—assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior—hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.


Arnett, Jeffrey J. (2008) The Neglected 95%. American Psychologist, Vol 63(7), pp. 602-614.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol 33(2-3), pp. 61-83.

Hwang, K.-K. (2005). The indigenous movement. The Psychologist, 18(2), 80-83.

Watters, E. (2010). Crazy Like Us: The globalization of the American Psyche. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Written by daijones

October 8, 2010 at 2:01 am

Posted in Full post, Research methods

Tagged with

Discriminating by eye colour

leave a comment »

I mentioned in PY108 the other day that discriminating between groups on the basis of skin colour is no more valid than discriminating on the basis of eye colour. To show the endless capacity of humans to be nasty bastards, a US teacher did just that in a series of classroom exercises following the assassination of Martin Luther King. To bring the reality of discrimination alive to her children, she split the class into blue eyed and brown eyed groups, treating the groups differently – on different days, one group was treated as the superior, and the other as the inferior. The results are remarkable, especially in showing how treating people in a particular way can lead to changes in behaviour and other outcomes. So, students who were being treated as inferior – discriminated against – on a particular day performed more poorly in their work.

If this happens in the small microcosm of a short term school study, how likely is it that observed differences in IQ between “racial” groups in a society that remains discriminatory can similarly be explained as the results of discrimination? To my mind that’s a much more likely explanation of racial differences in IQ than any recall to genetics. Genetic explanations will appeal to those who would prefer not to confront such societal discrimination, or who even tacitly approve of it, while social explanations will appeal to those who believe in the potential of changing society to remove such discrimination. This difference reflects the difference between the managerialist and interventionist views of psychology’s role in society that we discussed.

Anyway, there’s a very good TV documentary in the PBS-funded FRONTLINE series now available on-line. It’s well worth watching, or at least reading the associated material. You can see it here:

Written by daijones

October 7, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Biological determinism, Full post

Tagged with