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 23 2009

The trouble with pink – you’re being manipulated

I am a woman and I don’t like the colour pink.

Now, I know most of you will think that I am therefore some kind of mutant whose ovaries must have shriveled up and dropped off, but I’ve never been much of a fan of the colour.

And yet, we seem to be told regularly that females are in some way genetically programmed to prefer pink and that they would prefer that every inanimate object they come into contact with was in fact pink.

You may be aware of the stories a few years ago when scientists ‘proved’ that girls prefer pink. Except that’s not what they found, both males and females preferred blue but that hardly matters when you have gender stereotypes to uphold.

What was fascinating was the bullshit evolutionary biology/psychology (not sure which as the researchers involved were experts in neither) tacked on to this misreporting of a study’s findings. I forget who once likened evolutionary psychology to ‘Just So Stories’ but I wholeheartedly agree. The ‘girls prefer pink’ story was padded out with rather implausible assertions that female hunter-gatherers (yes that old chestnut again) needed to be able to differentiate red berries when foraging.

But the study wasn’t about female/male abilities to differentiate colours but about preference. And anyway, colour significance is entirely socially constructed. Pink was a boy’s colour and blue a girl’s as recently as 1914 (warning: includes pictures of highly spoilt children).

“But,” I can here you cry, “my daughter/niece/friend’s kid loves pink and her parents have not forced it on her at all.” My first reaction would be really? Really have they not bought her pink things, not accepted gifts from friends and family that were universally pink? Did they not when she was under 1 year old and therefore indistinguishable from any other baby male or female, dress her in pink clothes and put a bow in her hair so that strangers wouldn’t say “Oh, what a lovely little boy”. Did they really? Really? Really, did they?

If your answer is yes, then fine but the little cretin will still go to nursery with little pink fluffy Shirley Temples, be bombarded with pink advertising and be generally encouraged, corralled and forced into liking pink.

This blue/pink thing has been largely manufactured by the advertising industry as a way of enabling product differentiation.

Companies can sell more of their product and charge more for it if they put pink on it, say its ‘specially designed for women’ and point out that if women don’t buy it they will be fat, ugly and hairy.

Look at razors. Only a few years ago the only ones both men and women bought were the orange and white bic razors. Yeah so they hacked half your face/legs off but progress in razor innovation has included marketing essentially the exact same product differently towards men and women. It has also *become important* to shave more and more bits of you, whether women needing to trim their bush:

Or men wanting to make their ‘tree’ ‘look’ ‘bigger’ (quote from Gillette website: “If you wanna see a tree you shouldn’t have to blaze a trail to get there. Trees look taller when there’s no underbrush”)

But who cares? I hear you cry. Well, apart from me… more and more gender stereotypes are less being propagating by the old forces such as religion, and more by rampant consumerism. For the nutritionist-bashing constructive critics out there, this is reflected in Vitabiotics different vitamin supplements for women and men, the women’s one advertised with the slogan “We are of course very different from men in many ways – so why take the same general multivitamin as them?”

Why indeed?

Pink Stinks
is a campaign for real role models for girls.