Psychology’s bias

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)

Arnett Table 2
Taken from Arnett (2008; pg. 606).

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).

Is American Psychology Normal?
Source: Best Psychology Degrees

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.