Thoughts on Psychology

Just another site

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

The Gender Gap Myth

leave a comment »

Remarkably, a sensible discussion of gender differences in the media:

Fine’s book, discussed in the article, sounds very good. Another good book making a  similar case is Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain Blue Brain. Both of these books run counter to the standard presentation in pop psychology of essential, biologically grounded, gender differences in psychological characteristics.

Written by daijones

September 11, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Beyond nature versus nurture

leave a comment »

An accessible discussion of the search for a genetic basis of psychological functions – and its futility – from the Guardian.

It concentrates on the interaction between environmental factors and genes of small effect, but doesn’t look at the effects of human agency on development. It also doesn’t really consider why such explanations are so popular, and particularly overlooks the political usefulness, from a certain perspective, of genetic explanations. It’s well worth a read though, to get beyond the false nature/nurture dichotomy.

Written by daijones

September 11, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Don’t trust the scientists

with one comment

A couple of years ago Channel 4 showed a programme that presented an alternative view of climate change, “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. In this, various scientists presented claims that global warming isn’t the result of human activity (“anthropogenic”), but rather the result of natural forces. The programme generated a fair bit of controversy, which is probably what Channel 4 wanted. I won’t address the claims of the programme directly, but rather on what the programme, and the controversy, teaches us about science, and about the way the media deals with science issues.

In another post I talk about the way in which knowledge is socially constructed, such that a given group in society will find some knowledge claims acceptable, and others unacceptable. What I didn’t talk about is where the knowledge claims come from in the first place. For many of the articles in Conservapedia (the subject of the other post) the knowledge claims come from faith. For most in modern society though, such claims have limited acceptability. Science is seen as a more acceptable way of producing knowledge claims. However, scientists can often be seen to disagree with one another, which makes us wonder why it is that science is regarded so highly. The kind of disagreement shown in the Channel 4 programme illustrate both the weaknesses, but also the strengths, of science as a way of knowing.

Simplistically put, science involves making observations of some phenomena; generating theories to explain those observations, which then lead to predictions; and then testing those predictions. If the predictions are supported, then we can have some confidence in the theory. So, climate scientists observe an increase in global warming, and at the same time an increase in levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Some then theorise that release of CO2 through human activity leads directly to the global warming. (Obviously the situation is more complex, but this will do for our purposes.) If this is true, then we might predict that continuing increases in CO2 levels will lead to continued warming. This has been modelled on computers, and seen to work. Most climate scientists now believe that CO2 levels influence global warming.

That all sounds fine, so why the disagreement? The problem is that there are other possible explanations for the association between CO2 levels and global temperature. For example, some claim that increased temperatures lead in some way to increased CO2 levels, rather than vice versa. The Channel 4 programme presented some of these alternative theories. The weakness of science is that we can’t actually prove any particular theory as being correct, we can only accumulate evidence for or against particular theories and at any given point, believe one theory to be more likely than the others. This is the position we’re in with regards to global warming, though as it happens the great majority of climate scientists now believe that the evidence points to global warming as being human induced.

The debate about global warming seems striking in comparison to the certainty of other scientific knowledge. However, some ideas that now seem well known facts themselves went through the same phase of disagreement. The best example is probably the theory of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth moves around the sun. This was first proposed in Ancient India, around 900-800BCE, and rediscovered repeatedly over the following 2000 years in different cultures. In European terms, the debate was re-ignited by Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th-17th Century CE, but took some time to be widely accepted: the Catholic Church first allowed heliocentric books to be printed in Rome in 1822CE. These days, you’d look foolish suggesting that the earth didn’t move around the sun, although that doesn’t stop some ( The important point is that the heliocentric view became accepted gradually on the basis of an accumulation of evidence: it’s seldom the case that scientific ideas are suddenly accepted outright.

The weakness of the scientific method is also its strength. When science is done well, then people present their evidence and their reasoning when presenting a theory: this evidence and reasoning can then be checked and tested by others, and found to be valid or wanting. Science can be seen as self-correcting, such that eventually a consensus position is found that most people can agree on. This checking process is illustrated in the case of one of the scientists represented in the Channel 4 programme, Dr Eigil Friis-Christensen. He published three papers purporting to show that global warming was caused by non-human factors: each was shown to be wrong. The second and third papers responded to observed errors in earlier papers in order to provide a new theory for the same underlying idea, that global warming isn’t caused by humans.

Clearly, Dr Friis-Christensen is committed to the idea that humans don’t cause global warming, and clearly he’s eager to find some theory, somewhere, to justify this idea. It’s impossible to know why he’s so committed, whether it be a heartfelt belief; a desire to let humans “off the hook” for economic or political reasons; the result of funding from oil companies; or whatever. This commitment isn’t unusual though, a similar determination can be seen in attempts to “prove” racial differences in intelligence, as discussed in Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man”. At the end of the day, scientists are human. They have pre-existing beliefs that they are committed to, and that they are reluctant to discard. They make mistakes, that can lead them to false conclusions. Most evidence scientists collect is ambiguous, and can’t be definitively interpreted. This is increasingly being recognised, particularly in the field of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (

The important point is that scientific knowledge claims aren’t purely empirical and rational, but are affected by social factors. When you see a single scientific claim, be sceptical. Look to see what the evidence is, and whether you find it believable. Look at the claims of other scientists in the same area, to see whether they’re compatible or competing, before deciding which claims you believe. And when you come to believe a claim, don’t over commit, because the claim may be disproved at some later date.

As an example of the above, think again about evolutionary theory. The ‘Theory of Evolution’ presented by Darwin in ‘On the Origin of Species’ is specifically a theory of evolution by natural selection. Evolutionary theories had been around since the ancient Greeks, and particularly in Europe since the mid 18th Century. Before Darwin, many believed in Lamarck’s theory of evolution through inheritance of acquired characteristics, because it was then the best explanation for variation in scientific terms. However this theory had weaknesses, like, um, being wrong. Darwin’s theory won out because over time it became clear that it was better supported by evidence.

So, don’t trust the scientists just because they’re scientists: you’ll usually find others who disagree with them, which is an entirely healthy state of affairs. This insight is lost on the media however, who are usually happy to pass on the claims of anyone who seems to have the aura of scientific authority without actually thinking about it. This is clear with “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, where Channel 4 found some scientists who disagreed with the vast majority of climate scientists without bothering to look to see whether their ideas had any foundation. The fact that the programme would likely prove controversial undoubtedly added to the appeal, but in general Channel 4 is crap at doing science. Just look at their continued support for “Dr” Gillian McKeith.

For a good rebuttal of the claims of the programme, read this Guardian article:
One of the scientists who appeared on the programme as a denier of anthropogenic climate change is considering legal action against Channel 4 for allegedly duping him, and describes the programme as “grossly distorted”. The two main scientists on the programme were Professor Paul Reiter, whose Annapolis Centre for Science-Based Public Policy had received $763,500 in funding from ExxonMobil, the huge oil company; and Professor Ian Clark, whose Fraser Institute has received $120,000, also from ExxonMobil.

Don’t think I’m only getting at Channel 4 though: in general, the media presents science in a way that will maximise sales/coverage/viewing figures, with little understanding of the issues involved and even less attempt at reasoned analysis. The state of scientific journalism in this country is scandalous, mainly because ‘science journalists’ are journalists first, and very rarely scientists at all. For a considerably better example of science journalism, check out Bad Science ( which includes a couple of pieces on the Channel 4 programme.

Written by daijones

September 11, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Posted in Full post

Tagged with