How is psychology biased?
By biased we mean the researchers, participants and thinking behind a study tend to be taken from a specific group of people. Overwhelmingly this group is White and Western, though psychology also tends to be by and on male, straight, non-disabled and middle class people.
This website’s focus is on the White, Western bias specifically. This is a well established finding in psychology.
For example Arnett (2008) analysed articles in 6 popular psychology journals published between 2003 to 2007. He found, consistently across the journals, that 73% of first authors, 74% of other authors, and 68% of samples were European American, and the results were consistent across journals (see Table 2 from 2007 journal samples)
Henrich and colleagues (2010) also analysed articles in popular psychology journals. The authors found that not only were samples predominantly American (68%) but they were also Western (93%) with the authors concluding that as these participants are “members of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies, including young children, [they] are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans” (pg. 2).
Why is this bias a problem?
There are three obvious problems with psychology’s Whiteness:
1. First, psychology’s White bias has allowed psychology to focus on issues more relevant to White Westerners. So for example, one group of psychologists, body image researchers, will criticize the fashion industry for its too-thin models but not that the models are nearly always White or that the clothes the models are selling are made by BME people in sweatshops (Jankowski, 2016).
2. Second, psychology has sought to subdue Black people’s rational responses to racism as irrational. Drapetomania is the classic example, a mental disorder that Black slaves were proposed to have should they try to run away. Similarly Dysaesthesia aethiopica was a mental disorder proposed to cause laziness in slaves. Predictably and depressingly the ‘cures’ for both were not mental health support for those affected but harsh treatment including whipping. Another example is the diagnosis of schizophrenia and forced incarceration in asylums of Black civil rights activists. As Jonathan Metzl ‘s analysis shows of 800 patient records incarcerated at Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane during the 1960s. Metzl found that psychiatrists would describe Black men and women as “paranoid against [their] doctors and the police” and would often forcibly incarcerate them.
Martin Luther King Jr. commented upon this problem specifically when he addressed the American Psychological Association in 1967. In his speech he famously said:
There is a word in modern psychology which is now probably more familiar than any other word in psychology. It is the word: maladjusted…[But] there are some things in our social system that I’m proud to be maladjusted to…I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of lynch mobs; I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and discrimination; I never intend to become adjusted to the tragic inequalities of the economic system which will take necessity from the masses to give luxury to the classes….The salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.
3. The third problem with this bias is psychology’s explicit racism. Psychology has a long history of designing and conducting research on intelligence in order to show that Black people were less intelligent than White people. Indeed, as recently as 1990, the Psychologist (the official magazine of the British Psychological Society) published work by Phillippe Rushton who claimed that Black people or ‘Negroids’ were less intelligent, less mentally stable and more aggressive than White people or ‘Caucasoids’.
Following the #WhyIsMyCurriculumWhite movement, we acknowledge that psychology needs to diversify itself. This website aims to be a small step towards doing that. For an overview of BME psychology see here.
Why do you call psychological work by BME people: BME psychology? BME refers to Black Asian Minoritzed Ethnic and seeks to serve as a proxy to identify those disadvantaged by structural racism against those privileged by it (white people).
For many BME psychologists, there is no such thing as ‘BME psychology’. The psychology done by psychologists who happen to be BME does not necessarily differ to that done by a psychologist who is not. Both BME and white psychologists have done both good and bad psychological work. Therefore we do not mean to imply that a psychologists’ ethnicity should be the defining factor about their work or that their work will be inherently anti-racist or unique in any other way. There is a danger in ‘othering’ psychologists who happen to be BME. We must avoid this.
Standpoint theory by Sandra Harding, however, identifies that an individual’s social location gives them a perspective about the world (e.g., a oppression) that others of different social locations do not have. As Grey Passion writes:
Harding argues that marginalized people are in a privileged position to access “objective truth” (she writes about science), because marginalized groups learn the dominant viewpoint while experiencing its limitations, and hence are in the best position to see its limitations.
Therefore psychologists who are BME are more likely than white psychologists to know 1) the limitations of psychology including in explaining all people’s behaviour (and not just White, westerner’s), psychology’s historical and explicit racism and psychology’s current poor conceptualization of it and 2) the workings, breadth and depth of racism. Some BME psychologists agree with this (e.g., Association of Black Psychologists which was founded in 1968 (pg. 319): “Members of the Association have pledged themselves to the realization that they are Black people first and psychologists second”).
We believe this knowledge is not exclusive to BME people, nor is it necessarily the preserve of all BME people. Nonetheless we feel it is crucial to the progress of our discipline and fair that we attend more to BME psychological work.
On top of this, psychologists who are BME are under represented in the discipline of psychology. On a surface level this bias can be seen in the sheer predominance of white (and male) authors in our curriculum reading lists. More deeply, this bias manifests in a psychology that centers issues more relevant to Westerners over non-Westerners and eschews anti-racism.
Therefore we believe that psychology by BME people needs more attention in psychology. We believe this website is a small step in bringing this attention and that the shorthand ‘bme psychology’ is a necessary step to do this.
Why do you say Western/non-Western? Whilst we acknowledge that the Western/non-Western divide is problematic (for example in not acknowledging Australasia’s wealth) we reason it is a useful proxy to acknowledge the greater wealth and dominance of certain continents (in particular North America, parts of, but not all, of Europe etc) over others (especially Africa, South America, parts of Asia).
How can I help? We would be grateful for your help.
- If you know of a BME psychology or anti-racism work, please list in here in the archive.
- If you have teaching materials that can be used to diversify the curriculum (see examples here) which you are happy to share please email firstname.lastname@example.org
- If you know of any reports on anti racism in higher education or other resources you wish to share (that are not listed here) please email email@example.com