Dec 6 2009

We are all pretty WEIRD

I have written before about my disdain for a lot of the pop psychology reported in the press *cough Oliver James*. I am sure that this does not represent a lot of the real research that goes on within the discipline but there does seem to be some fundamental problems within psychology that a few academics are finally shining a light on.

These fundamental problems include the lack of empiricism within the discipline (OK, fancy way of saying you’re making it up) which then feeds into implicit universal assumptions about human behaviour.

The problem with the lack of empiricism in psychology has been approached by Boon and Gozna in an article in The Psychologist which is a broad take on the subject and compares the disciple to other sciences.

observation1But I was also struck by how much psychological research is based on WEIRD subjects.

And by weird, I mean Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). A fairly recent paper in Behavioural and Brain Sciences (pdf) looked at how behavioural scientists routinely publish broad claims about human behaviour and psychology based entirely on people called Dave and Sarah who live in places like Tufnell Park and Happy Harbor (OK, that one’s where the Justice League hang out) and then assume that they are “standard subjects”*.

*These assumptions are not always made explicit but are often implicitly implied in the article headings and are certainly routinely translated into universal truths by the mainstream media.

The paper compares datasets from different populations and finds that not only is there variation but that WEIRD subjects are also particularly unusual compared to the rest of the species and are frequent outliers.

This has huge implications for the bad science reporting on gender and race.

To be fair I do think the public have a responsibility to think for themselves once in a while and ask themselves one simple question when confronted with a headline such as “Shopping styles of men and women all down to evolution, claim scientists” (don’t worry I’m coming back to this little corker later) and that question should be:

“Is it likely that this is true for all or half of the world’s population?”

It’s a simple question, not that taxing. But if it seems abstract then lets break it down into manageable bite-size chunks:

a) Is this likely to be true for all** females/males that I know?

b) Is it likely to be true for all** females/males in this country regardless of age, ethnicity, education, intelligence, disability status, social class or background?

c) Is it likely to be true for all** females/males in all nations, cultures, environments, and geo-political regions regardless of age, ethnicity, education, intelligence, disability status, social class or background?

**I’ll even allow for a statistically significant majority here.

If your answer to these questions is ‘Yes, [X] is likely to be true for half the world’s population’ then I’m afraid you lack of the facility of rational thought. I suggest you become a homeopath.

Some interesting points from the Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan paper:

  • A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub-disciplines of Psychology from 2003-2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and 96% of subjects were from Western industrialised countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett, 2008) reflecting the academics country of residence.
  • This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population.
  • And a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

I was particularly interested in the section on spatial cognition because I mostly use my catchphrase ‘Oh, fuck off’, when reading about women not being able to read maps. The authors point to the variation in linguistic tools between societies:

Human societies vary in their linguistic tools for, and cultural practices associated with, representing and communicating (1) directions in physical space, (2) the color spectrum, and (3) integer amounts. There is some evidence that each of these differences in cultural content may influence some aspects of nonlinguistic cognitive processes (D’Andrade, 1995; Gordon, 2005; Kay, 2005; Levinson, 2003; Roberson, Davies, & Davidoff, 2000). Here we focus on spatial cognition, for which the evidence is most provocative. As above, it appears that industrialized societies are at the extreme end of the continuum in spatial cognition. Human populations show differences in how they think about spatial orientation and deal with directions, and these differences may be influenced by linguistically-based spatial reference systems.

So spatial cognition may be influenced by linguistic tools, or indeed may be influenced by other factors, but the fact that our research is using such a narrow and biased sample, the conclusions can at best be highly contextualised and at worst hugely flawed.

So if you come across an article saying women can’t read maps because of humans’ hunter-gatherer past (because of course it is always, always because of our hunter-gatherer past), it might be worth considering that other human populations don’t actually use A-Zs or EVEN Googlemaps and indeed wouldn’t describe directions in the same way as those in industrialised societies. So its unlikely that women, half the world’s population, are teh stupids and get themselves all in a tizzy when they have to get themselves somewhere.

I won’t go into the whole article, but it is fascinating so do check it out unfortunately some of their key references are behind a paywall. Grrrr.

Aug 3 2009

Rent-a-quote psychologists

Now Dr Petra Boynton is a professional, eminent in her field and because of that is bound by professionalism and, er, eminence to talk euphemistically about a celebrity psychologist that she calls ‘Psychologist A’ in her blog here.

I, on the other hand, have no such shame and so can fairly confidently say; “Come on, Dr Petra, we all know you’re talking about Dr Linda Papadopoulos.” This shameless rent-a-quote academic will put her name to anything when not embarrassingly fronting a government campaign on the sexualisation of girls in British society (blogged on previously) or seemlessly moving to comment on Big Brother or My Big Breasts and Me. (Believe me I am aching to divulge her government ‘research’ but its not public, bites lip)

Dr Petra’s blog was inspired by a great article by Martin Robbins on celebrity psychologists, so I thought I’d return to Dr Linda and share a few more gems from her academic-reputation-for-hire.

Dr Linda, Celebrity Psychiatrist (sic), is naturally concerned by our consumerist-obsessed society that is fueling dissatisfaction and alienation. Her remedy? Why Lacoste’s new perfume ‘Love of Pink’ for women of course. Just as Dr Linda says:

“The color pink is, in a lot of ways, the essence of what it means to be a young woman – love, romance, femininity and youth are all punctuated by this color. When a young woman wears LACOSTE Love of Pink, she wears the color of love.”

Yeah, Linda, you are totally right. And I realise now that you are the PERFECT person for the government to employ to look into gender stereotypes which are fueling inequality and violence against women.

But it doesn’t stop at perfume, oh no. Remember, this woman is a serious academic. She does SCIENCE. And by science I mean research. And by research I mean stuff that a company makes up to sell shoes. Stuff like, the FACT that women’s heart rate increases when they buy shoes:

“Shoes have a particular draw to women as they are emotionally evocative items to them and they bring out women’s socializing and nurturing instincts,” the Mirror quoted [Dr Linda], as saying.

You know she’s right. A cute pair of Jimmy Choo’s actually makes my womb ache (sorry, she was actually being paid by Brantano, er, who?). In fact there is a direct link between the shoe part of my brain and my genitalia because I’m a woman and therefore incapable of abstract thought.

OK now, what’s missing? I’ve got my shoes. I stink like the changing rooms in Top Shop on a Saturday afternoon. But I’m still not happy. Dr Linda knows why:

“There is evidence that people are malfunctioning because they are not enjoying enough pleasure on a regular basis to be healthy happy people”

It appears that I have ‘Pleasure Deficiency Syndrome’ which is something that only exists when drinks company Bailey’s pays for a survey from YouGov and then pays Dr Linda to endorse the findings of the survey, make up a ‘syndrome’ and get people to drink more Bailey’s. Now I am actually not getting enough pleasure on a regular basis but the one thing that will make this fact inexorably worse would be having to drink Bailey’s.

Seems Dr Linda is frequently hawking her academic wares around to the highest bidder, be they Boots the Chemist, Tate & Lyle (pdf) or The National Lottery. And of course her own line of psychological face creams.

To think of the women who sacrificed so much to break through the glass ceiling of academia, who were the first to be admitted to male-only universities and colleges. And all so that in years to come, a lady psychologist can sell shoes, perfume and a creamy vomit liqueur.

Does this increase the public’s understanding of psychology and is this ethical as Dr Petra asks? Well no, I would argue that this devalues science, makes the public suspicious that academics will say whatever they are paid to say and perpetuates embarrassingly shallow gender stereotypes. However, when the government buys into the academic-PR complex that is Dr Linda, we achieve new heights of incredulity.

Feb 19 2009

I Can Smell Your Brains

Now of course I’m the first to criticise men. Horrid, despicable men. And I agree that there is a huge problem with the sexual objectification of women which feeds inequality, discrimination and ultimately violence. Yawn, heard it.

However, even I’m not convinced that a brain scan can show that men think of women in the same way as “tools, like spanners and screwdrivers” (note confusion in above pic). Bad science, possibly but definitely badly reported.

Now I’ve criticised psychologists before. And we must remember that a psychologist is neither a radiologist nor a neuroscientist. But it does seem that they are making the fairly unremarkable claim that “When there are sexualised images in the workplace, it’s hard for people not to think about their female colleagues in those terms.”

So yes, girly calendars in the office are inappropriate and are a key signifier of a sexist culture. But there being a “screwdriver” part of a man’s brain? Even I wouldn’t go that far.

Aug 22 2008

Women to blame for own oppression – scientific FACT

More anti-woman propaganda from our friends at the Daily Mail, same story here (“Women are too shy to break through the glass ceiling, says female scientist”). The important word in the Daily Mail’s headline is “says female scientist”. It can’t be sexist or biased because a woman said it! And she’s a scientist! This is a regular trick by the Daily Mail, similar to a comment piece from a few years ago about India being rubbish since the British left – written by an Indian. So not racist at all then?

Despite this basic anti-intellectual point (women can indeed be misogynistic, people of colour can be racist, etc), what about the ‘scientist’ word. Hmmm, not a lot of evidence for that. Shannon Goodson proudly announces that she not only has a bachelors degree, but a Masters too! While still reeling from this academic achievement, I noticed that her Masters was in Organizational Psychology. Now, I’m not one to poo-poo psychology (well, OK I am) but I think it is a stretch to call her a ‘scientist’.

Her notable qualifications have included being a guest on The Dr Pat Show, and presenting her research to “professional associations all over the globe”. Again, the devil is in the detail. Goodson has presented to Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, European Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and both the Southwestern and Southeastern (of the USA) Psychological Associations.

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that this individual is a charlatan, I’m sure she is a very nice human being. Just that her scientific qualifications are limited and her book (non-peer reviewed) is being used to blame women for the structural discrimination they suffer – a point that she should not have been unaware of when writing it.

Psychology is an interesting and controversial discipline, which has historically had an anti-woman streak running through it. It has given us Freud and evolutionary psychology (not to mention the Bell Curve). So we should, at the very least, be demanding of the application of the scientific method when it comes to sweeping statements about half the World’s population.

Again, the book does refer to differences in female achievement between countries and is probably more rigourous than the papers present it. But researchers must be conscious of the way their research will be presented and communicated. This research has been presented in some of the UK press as ‘proof’ that women aren’t cut out for business. Obviously, journalists with their arts degrees are largely to blame, but so are the researchers for the misuse of their research.