Thoughts on Psychology

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Archive for November 2011


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There’s a short review of Tyson, Jones and Elcock in this month’s issue of The Psychologist:

This introduction to critical psychology explores some of the key areas in the history and current practice of the discipline. It is an extremely well structured tour, aimed at psychology students, with each chapter bookended by learning outcomes, thinking points and further reading.
The authors identify the prejudices and assumptions that are the implicit basis of much of mainstream psychology. It is really brought alive by the historical illustrations, vividly illustrating the social context in which psychology operates.
I was disappointed that they did not go on to offer any alternatives; for example, any discussion of an explicitly black or feminist psychology, or ideas of how psychology could be used as a force for social change rather than yet another way of perpetuating social inequality. I also struggled with some of the subject choices, which seemed to be based on an assumption of a white, male mainstream even though in some areas of psychology, women are the mainstream; and sexual orientation is almost absent, except as a psychiatric diagnosis. It was surprising to see a whole chapter on parapsychology but no mention of religion, given the interesting ways in which it has been both the mainstream and the oppressed at different times.
These issues aside, this is a compelling and wide-ranging book that encourages the reader to look for the moral values and cultural assumptions at the heart of the apparently unbiased science that is psychology.

The book is available here.


Written by daijones

November 4, 2011 at 3:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Focus on a Media Storm

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In this article from the health section of the BBC News site, a study is reported that shows that the brains of women with low libido – “Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder” in the parlance of the drug companies pushing the concept for commercial purposes – show different patterns of activation when exposed to erotic imagery than the brains of women with “normal” libido. The conclusion pushed by the writer, despite some dissenting voices at the bottom of the article, is that HSDD is a “real” condition with a physical cause. This is a pretty common feature of poor reporting – a psychological “condition” is invented, some brain scans are done, and the presence of a difference between groups is used to both confirm the existence of the condition, and to explain its cause in brain operation. There’s been a bit of a media storm reporting this study, the Daily Telegraph for example going with the headline “Women with low libidos ‘have different brains'”.

Whenever you get this kind of (over) reaction to a piece of research or news, it’s worth looking to see what the Daily Mash website makes of it. More seriously though, there has been a gratifying slew of blog posts pointing out problems with the study itself, its conclusions, and the media’s reporting of it.

A good starting point on problems with the study is given at Neuroskeptic, but other issues are raised in the following posts.

There’s a very good piece on the problems of the conclusions drawn from the study on Bad Science. In this post, Ben Goldacre draws on an article on public responses to neuroscience. This article is well worth reading, to better understand the public’s reaction to psychological claims but also to better understand the limitations of neuroscientific claims in psychology generally. While on the Bad Science post, it’s worth looking at the links at the end on the medicalisation of psychological categories: this is a worrying trend in modern society, driven particularly by vested interests such as drug companies.

My favourite post about the study comes from Dr Petra’s blog, which talks about issues with the media reporting of the study itself, but more importantly draws conclusions about the quality of science journalism. These conclusions are quite pessimistic, but fairly so, and are worth bearing in mind whenever you read media reports about psychology.

Written by daijones

November 3, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Biological Determinism and Violence Against Women

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When I talk about biological determinism I usually discuss its impact on views of human nature and on social policy. Here are a couple of examples that.

I have talked about how biological determinism often suggests that sexual violence is an act of lust or desire, as opposed to seeing it as an act of psychopathic violence against, particularly, women. This reflects a general body of views of gender relations amongst some in society. Fortunately this has been changing as society changes, particularly in response to feminism. I fear the acceptance of strong biological determinist views will set back such changes, and more to the point that such claims are advanced specifically in order to set back those changes, in relation to views of class, gender, race, and other characteristics that distinguish between groups. It’s difficult in the modern day to appreciate quite how bad the position of women in society has been. Historically, the English legal system characterised women as the property of men, either fathers or husbands, and this was reflected in laws around property inheritance, divorce, and sexual violence: see for example the practice of wife selling, practiced in England from the late 17th century to the late 19th. As part of this constellation of views, in times past rape has been seen as a crime against the man who owns the woman, rather than against the woman herself, akin to theft. The still quite widespread view of sexual violence as a crime of lust is reflected in phrases such as “she was asking for it”, suggesting a degree of culpability on the part of women in arousing the passions of vulnerable men. This can have some quite devastating consequences, particularly around the difficulty in obtaining convictions for rape. Even when convictions are obtained, the view can have a chilling effect, and this is where we finally get to the example I promised in the opening paragraph. There was a notorious case in the 1980s of a convicted rapist being given a fine, because his victim had dressed provocatively and was therefore guilty of “contributory negligence” – the legal equivalent of “she was asking for it”. In other cases one judge described an 8 year old victim as “not entirely an angel”, and another suggested a 12 year old victim was “asking for trouble”. There are a number of examples of the outrageous views of the judiciary here:
The worst example to my mind is that of Sir Harold Cassel QC. I can’t bring myself to write about it.

My second example relates to the practice of forced sterilisation of the feeble minded, that I’ve mentioned several times. One of the most famous cases is that of Carrie Buck, mostly because a case was brought before the US Supreme Court seeking permission to sterilise her, which was given. It’s a tragic story, and I strongly recommend that you read about it here:
and here:
There are a number unpleasant comments to the second article, but it’s worth reading a few to get a feel for people’s views on the issue.

Written by daijones

November 3, 2011 at 11:47 pm