Thoughts on Psychology

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Posts Tagged ‘PY101

Drunkenness and racism

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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

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Psychology’s subjects

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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

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Discriminating by eye colour

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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

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The Gender Gap Myth

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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

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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

On Word Limits in Assignments

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It’s a commonly held belief that when you’re set an assignment with a particular word limit, you’re allowed to go over or under by 10%. So, for example, if the word limit is 2000 words then you’d be okay producing between 1800 and 2200 words. Outside of that range, you attract penalties for going over or under the limit. As is often the case, this belief is commonly held, but partially wrong 😉

Within the University regulations for assessment there’s no mechanism to penalise students for writing significantly less than the word limit. You can go under by as much as you want. On the other hand, there IS a set penalty for going more than 10% over the limit. If you go more than 10% over the limit then we’ll mark the work as normal and then apply the University’s standard penalty. This is that for every additional 10% above the allowance, inclusive, we take off 5 marks. In the case of an essay with a 2000 word limit, if you do 2190 words you’re fine; if you do 2230 words you lose 5 marks off the final mark; 2450 you lose ten marks, etc.

Having said that, word limits are there for a reason: it’s very difficult to produce a good answer in response to a given question in less words than the limit. While there’s no fixed penalty for going under the word limit, we set word limits in the expectation that students will need to write that many words, after selecting and rejecting appropriate material, to produce a good essay. If you find you’re well short of the word limit you will end up with a low mark because it’s a poor piece of work, in that you’ve probably left stuff out we expected to be included. The same actually holds true for going over the word limit also – if you write 2400 words for an essay with a 2000 word limit then you’re probably waffling a bit, and you’ll lose marks for that; and then lose more marks when we apply the penalty for breaching the word limit.

As a general guide, you should aim to write somewhat more than the word limit, but then identify the most relevant material to keep in to get down to the limit. Part of any assessment task is deciding what goes in and what doesn’t. If you find yourself short of the word limit think about what you might have left out that we were expecting you to include. Don’t though just pad out the essay to make up the words – the marker will notice irrelevant padding and you’ll lose marks for poor choice of material. If you find yourself well over the word limit, look for the least relevant material that you can remove. Remember we expect proper grammar, so just deleting every occurrence of “the” isn’t a good strategy!

Written by daijones

September 11, 2010 at 6:59 pm

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Rejecting over-simplistic views of mental health

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A couple of interesting articles from the Guardian about issues in mental health. As you might expect from me, the interest is not only in what they say about mental health per se, but also in what they say about wider issues in psychology.

In an article on schizophrenia in black britons, Kwame McKenzie talks about the increased incidence of schizophrenia in afro-caribbean groups in British society:
Particularly interesting is his observation that comparative rates of incidence of schizophrenia between black and white groups in Britain aren’t reflected in other cultural settings. I.e., in a predominantly white British culture, members of afro-caribbean groups are far more likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic than members of white groups; and this difference is specific to the British cultural setting, as opposed to say african or caribbean settings. This suggests that there’s something about British culture that leads to the difference in incidence rates, further suggesting both that simplistic claims for a causative biological basis for schizophrenia are misplaced; and that psychology as a discipline is wrong to ignore cultural factors in the illness. The author is a psychiatrist, and as such treats the diagnosis of mental health problems as unproblematic: there’s a whole separate debate as to the extent to which schizophrenia is a culturally specific diagnosis; and the extent to which predominantly white psychiatrists can unproblematically diagnose mental illness in other cultural groups. I’ll leave that for now though. (This is touched on in some of the comments on the article. In general though, the comments vary greatly in the extent to which they’re worth reading. I wouldn’t bother.)

The more interesting article, for me at least, discusses increasing rates of depression in Western society:
The take home messages here are about depression as a culturally caused illness; and about possible remedies that aren’t addressed by modern psychology. (Indeed, that are discounted as part of the medicalisation of psychological conditions in modern Western society.) There are very interesting insights about how psychological states in individuals arise from the organisations of cultures and societies. More to the point, again for those who’ve heard me banging on in the past, is the observation about the changing notion of the self from the 16th century onwards. See, it’s not just me 😉

Written by daijones

September 11, 2010 at 6:58 pm

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