Updated: 8 hours ago
Earlier this week I posted an article about how the cultural background of psychologists may have led them to a part of inquiry in their careers that they now question. In the lively discussion on LinkedIn, some questioned whether the ethnicity of a scientist or the research population matters when it comes to research topics like cognition. That conversation stuck with me, so I want to revisit the question of how representative psychology really is and what the consequences might be.
The W in WEIRD doesn't stand for White - but should it?
First, let's take a look at some data: a recent ranking of top psychologists in the world.
It's no surprise to me that over half of the scientists are in the United States, or that the rest of the list is also dominated by Anglo-Saxon countries*. American institutions make up 70% of the top ones, with rest from the UK.
When I look at the list of top 100 psychology researchers, every single one of them was white. If you are a white person reading this, you may be thinking to yourself... so what? Surely how our brains work is not influenced by the colour of our skin?
To even suggest it might may also feel politically incorrect for historical reasons, so let's use nationality as an alternative: if you are from one of the above mentioned countries that dominate the field of psychology, imagine the field was dominated by researchers from China and India. The populations of these two countries represent 2.4 billion inhabitants of Planet Earth whereas the combined populations of US, UK, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Germany total around 560 million.
How comfortable would you feel that you are being represented in the entire catalogue of knowledge about the human mind if most of it was based on people living in China and India?
Maybe it should be WEIRD-M?
Let's try another thought experiment: what if every single one of the psychology researchers on the list was a woman? Would that feel strange? Would you think it's a representative list? Or would you feel there is a bias?
Then consider that only 11 of the top 100 are women with 3 in the top 10. It's not hard to work out why that might be the case. Most of those on the list are relatively old - they're on the list because they've had a long career to publish the articles that put them there. That also means they started their careers 30-40 years ago, when academia was even more hostile to women than it is today and when gender roles were more skewed - it's not very controversial to speculate that the career of most of the men on the list has been facilitated by someone managing their household and family while they had the freedom to focus on their careers.
But... but... surely the way brains work isn't influenced by gender, and to even suggest it does is sexist - right?
Yes and no - it depends. But the lack of representation can have some real life consequences for real people.
As a northern European person with skin so white I need a warming filter for selfies so I don't look terminally ill, it's really not up for me to comment or even speculate whether or not the way our brains work could be influenced by the tone of our skin, because I only have my own life experience which is arguably tinted with many intersecting shades of privilege - one of them being considered some kind of "default" human:
Because white people are not racialised – they are seen as the default, and any other racial group is seen as “other” – their experiences are presented as those of individuals: race is not considered a factor in what they do. (The Conversation)
This "default human" assumption is also present in psychology - even though race, class, gender and other personal characteristics all shape how we perceive and process the world around us as different forms of "culture" and an emerging field of research on the psychology of social class suggests these factors matter.
But what about those real life consequences to real people?
When I was browsing the list, I was also curious what the fields of expertise were for these top 10 because I did not recognise all of them - most of them are not from judgment and decision-making because, believe it or not, there is much more to the "behavioural sciences" than we tend to think about in the practitioner world.
I noticed that 2 in the top 10 specialise in autism research and both of them are men - autism was the only specialist topic in the top 10 and it makes for a good comparison point for the original question about whether representativeness matters in psychology, when it comes to things that happen inside our brains. So I looked into it further: of the top 10 most active researchers in autism between 2005-2014, 3 were women and all 10 were white, from Anglo-Saxon countries.
It should probably then be no surprise that autism research has a significant sex/gender and race bias:
For years, the medical community has studied and treated autism as a “white person’s” disease, and, today, research and therapy remain geared toward affluent, white people and families — leaving people of color in the lurch. (Autism's Race Problem, Pacific Standard)
The race bias in autism research has some very real consequences if you happen to be black - especially in the United States - because the wrong response by a black boy or man could be deadly in interactions with the police. Behaviours that are seen as autism in white boys are seen as bad behaviour, which leads to a lifetime of negative feedback and its downstream effects.
Autism research has also historically included predominantly male samples, and decades of this kind of research (led by such shining white, male beacons of science as featured in the top 10 of the list) have led to an understanding of autism that is almost exclusively focused on the male expression.
Because autism is at least three times as common in boys as in girls, scientists routinely include only boys in their research. The result is that we know shockingly little about whether and how autism might be different in girls and boys. ("The Lost Girls", Spectrum News)
The reason this happens is that the diagnostic criteria have been designed based on boys: for example, girls’ restricted interests seem more socially acceptable (dolls or books rather than train schedules) and as such may go unnoticed. This contributes to errors and delays in diagnoses, and subsequently receiving support - often for decades thanks to the White Pale Male bias.
And despite decades of extensive research into autism, practically nothing is known about how it might express itself in girls once they reach adulthood after slipping through the net as a child. The consequences of this research bias have been devastating for generations of women who do not get access to support and suffer from mental health issues - often wrongly diagnosed and medicated for conditions they do not have.
The club feels inclusive if you've been a member from birth
Although I am most definitely a White Pale (fe)Male, this particular research bias affects me personally: in the years since my ADHD diagnosis which is similarly affected by the sex/gender bias, I have started to suspect I may also be autistic but there is little research and knowledge available about whether some of the things that have made me feel different in the wrong kind of way might actually be because my brain is simply wired differently.
In other words, people like me are not very well represented in autism research.
It's not hard to imagine why including girls and women has not occurred to some of the leading lights in this area of research: it's not their life experience, and they cannot even imagine how such a brain difference might present or express itself differently due to gender. So, they stuck with "default humans" - white males.
Our imaginations are typically constrained by our experiences - what we think is "normal" is only that because it's what we know. It really isn't up to me to speculate whether psychological science would find something significant if it were to consider race and ethnicity in how our brains work because I am privileged to have been born with the skin colour that grants immediate access to the club. It also shouldn't be the job of those who are standing outside the club's door to be calling for access - we need to open the door from the inside because nobody should be left out if we truly want to understand humans.
* Plus Netherlands which is also relatively individualistic from a cultural perspective.