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Is Psychological Research Racist?
Assessments,  Learning,  Pop Psychology,  Research

Can Psychology be Racist?

Everyone is amused by Psychology! We’ve learnt our basics of human emotion, behaviour and cognition with the help of different researches and experiments done in this very subject. We’ve been told, time and time again, that we could apply these theories universally because every human being feels, behaves and thinks the same way, but a new Stanford research tells us otherwise.

The research done under Roberts et al. (2020) states that Psychological Research is racist. The study tries to analyse psychology as a topic that is discussed completely by superior races, which means that our understanding of psychology is based on the completely privileged. They analysed more than 26,000 research journals published between 1974 and 2018 in three major areas of psychology: cognitive, developmental and social. According to the study, not only are the gatekeepers of Psychology white, the participants of most of the milestone research studies done, are also white. Therefore, this research conveys that the psychology we have studied all this time, has only taught us the basics of a privileged white human’s emotion, behaviour and cognition!

As psychologists, we learn to keep our societal biases aside and incorporate different aspects of society while doing research or practicing as a mental health professional. But the racial limitations of most research in the span of the last five decades indicates that, like most aspects of our lives, racism is deep rooted in psychology also. We use different assessments to test IQ, personality and aptitude, all of which may not be racially standardized. The Stanford Binet test of Intelligence (Fifth Edition) standardised their assessment on the basis of the 2001 USA census, but at the same time, has made an “other” category for Native Americans and minorities which signifies only 2.7% of the population.

Roberts’ data showed that from the 1970s to the 2010s, only 5 percent of publications in the top-tier psychological journals he examined highlighted race. Here too, differences emerged in different areas of the discipline – in cognitive psychology fewer than 0.01 percent of publications in that subfield looked at race, compared with 8 percent in developmental psychology and 5 percent in social psychology.

While the first edition of the Weschler’s Scale (used widely for IQ testing in India) only standardized their test on the basis of 100 ‘white’ boys and girls, the Indian adaptation – Malin’s Intelligence Scale for Indian Children, used a larger sample. Even though the sample was of more than 3000 children, there were no differences noted in terms of socio-cultural backgrounds of the children. A lot of this research helps us look at psychology from a new perspective.

India, as a country, has had a long-standing history of discrimination on many bases – gender, religion, and caste are the most visible. While some of us enjoy privileges, most of the Indian population does not. The exclusion of this majority in psychology can be very harmful. As individuals who do not get equal chances of education, nurturance or respect as others, different assessments might indicate less development or more problems in their case compared to others because of the exclusion in standardization of the tests. A lot of different problems that could be detrimental to their mental health, like intergenerational trauma, might not even be taken into consideration through therapy.

According to the Stanford study, there might be different reasons for excluding race in the research of psychology. Race might be ignored in order to study psychology and cognition in a ‘neutral’ manner and use a universal perspective. The avoidance could also be because the researchers are reluctant. They believe they are not as informed to talk about another race and therefore do not acknowledge it which, according to the Stanford research, is “a disservice to science”. The same could be applied for the Indian perspective – most researchers stay away from the topics of oppression because they believe they do not know enough to have a discourse about it.

“Either they don’t feel qualified enough on the issue to discuss it or they want to project an image of color-blindness.”

The next step to better the world of psychological research, would be to understand our biases and then unlearn it. As psychologists, our science is to understand human behaviour- which also means understanding deep rooted issues like racism and casteism and eradicating them from our practice. According to Roberts, it’s important to apply a diverse set of journal editors and employ diversity in research by stating race sensitivity in different topics. He believes that by editing, adding or compiling distinctive information in research, we allow psychological research to open its horizons further.

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