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Evaluation of Bias in Academic Psychology

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Published: 18th May 2020 in Psychology

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Outline and evidence three different sources of bias in academic psychology and suggest what can be done to overcome them.

There are many biases that can be found within some psychological research. The term bias is given to research which has an inclination or prejudice towards something, whether it be a singular person or a group. Some examples of biases can be discriminatory (such as sexism) or self-delusional (such as egocentric). In this assignment I will present three biases that can be found in psychological research. The three biases presented include: ethnocentrism, androcentrism and racism. Ethnocentrism refers to a habit of using one’s own cultures as basis to judge and evaluate other cultures. Androcentrism describes human behaviours that have been viewed from a male perspective. Racism refers to a prejudice against someone who has a different race, based on an individual believing their personal race is superior.

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 The concept of ethnocentrism was established by Sumner (1906) who noted that there exists a strong tendency to view one’s own cultural group as the centre of everything and other cultures are seen as less significant. In previous psychological research, many studies have been criticised due to their ethnocentric bias. A very popular study conducted by Ainsworth et al. (1971) is one of many studies which have suffered from this bias. Ainsworth et al. (1971) conducted a study to test the nature of attachment and the types of attachments infants have with their mother using an experiment known as ‘the strange situation’. The sample used in Ainsworth et al.’s (1971) study were 100 infants aged between 12-18 months and all comprised from middle-class American families. From this study, Ainsworth et al. (1971) categorised the infant’s behaviour into 3 groups- Group A, B and C. Group A (insecure-avoidant) infants rarely cried when being separated from their mother and did not seek attention from their mother when being reunited. Group B (secure) infants used their mother as a secure base and thus when being separated from their mother they express high levels of distress. Group C (insecure-resistant) infants, similarly to group B infants, show signs of distress when being separated from their mother although when are reunited, these infants are ambivalent with their mother. From this study, Ainsworth et al. (1971) found that in these American infants the most common attachment type was group B, followed equally by group A and C.

Using Ainsworth et al.’s (1971) experiment of ‘the strange situation’, Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988) conducted a meta-analysis of almost 2,000 ‘strange situation’ experiments across 8 different countries. The meta-analysis was used to gain a wider perspective of the differences and similarities in classifying attachment types in countries such as: USA, UK, Holland, Germany, Japan, China, Israel and Sweden. The data analysed from Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988) suggests that attachment type A was more frequent in Western European countries, such as Germany and Holland, whilst type B was more common in Israel and Japan. Type A was found to be more common in Western cultures due to these cultures encouraging children to be more independent (individualistic culture), therefore the infants did not express much distress when being separated. However, collectivist cultures such as Japan and Israel form close and intimate relationships with their families and so, children are more attached to their mother and show high levels of distress (Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988). Ainsworth et al. (1971) did not account for these cultural differences, therefore her research that focuses on American culture alone is ethnocentric.

This comparison between Ainsworth et al.’s (1971) study and Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg’s (1988) meta-analysis show how the classification of attachment types is different across countries. ‘The strange situation’ test assumes that the behaviour shown by infants when separated and reunited with their mothers has the same meaning across all cultures, but through the meta-analysis conducted we find that cultural perception and understanding of behaviour differ greatly across cultures (Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988). Ainsworth et al.’s (1971) ‘strange situation’ test was created as well as tested in the USA on families that were all white and of a middle-class status. With the use of only one culture (similar to that of Ainsworth and her colleagues), this means that ‘the strange situation’ is subject to ethnocentric bias. Ainsworth et al. (1971) used the norms and values of American culture and used these as a basis to assume all behaviour shown by infants is the same for other cultures. As well as ethnocentrism, Ainsworth et al.’s (1971) study can also be described as an imposed etic, meaning that the theory of infant attachment type was created in one culture and then imposed on another culture. The effect of ethnocentric research has “the potential to lead to negative stereotypes, negative prejudice, and negative behaviours against ethnic/minority group members” (Dong, Day and Collaço, 2008, p.29).

As a result of previous studies having being criticised for having an ethnocentric bias, more recently, psychologists have recognised the need to improve and adapt these biases within research. One approach that helps to tackle ethnocentrism is cross-cultural psychology. Cross- cultural psychology sees culture as the key principle within research. This approach studies the similarities and differences in human behaviour across different cultures, to investigate which behaviours are culture bound and which are universal (Gross, 2001). Psychological research that does not suffer from ethnocentric bias will not view their own culture as superior and will use cross-cultural psychology to study, compare and evaluate human behaviour from various cultures. The use of this cross-cultural approach will emphasise the importance of culture and individual differences on human behaviour.

Since the late 19th century, psychology has mostly been male-dominated, with many psychologists being male and large amounts of research using male participants to represent a male world-view. This can be described as androcentrism, whereby theories are centered and focused on men while often neglecting or minimising women. A well-known that suffer from androcentric bias is the study conducted by Kohlberg (1963) on the stages of moral development. The aim of Kohlberg’s (1963) work into moral development was to identify young adolescents’ moral justifications when given hypothetical stories of moral conflict, and how their justifications developed as they grew older. Kohlberg’s (1963) cross-sectional study consisted of a sample of 72 boys between the ages of 10-16. Each boy was given ten dilemmas and Kohlberg (1963) was interested in how the boy’s justifications and reasoning for their decisions changed through the ages. In later years, Kohlberg (1969) identified three levels of moral thought and judgment: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

As a reflection of Kohlberg’s (1963, 1969) work into moral development, Gilligan (1977) highlighted the biased sample of Kohlberg (1963) as he only used a male sample and thus, his later proposed stages only reflected the moral reasoning and decision making of men. Gilligan (1977) identifies Kohlberg’s (1963) research as being androcentric, as Kohlberg (1963, 1969) assumed his stages were applicable to both men and women. In 1977, Gilligan conducted a study whereby she asked female college students and pregnant women to describe an experience they have encountered where a moral conflict was present. This work by Gilligan (1977) took a different approach than that of Kohlberg’s (1963), as the use of moral problems experienced in life can explore the relationship between the understanding of their moral conflict and their strategies used to resolve them. Kohlberg’s (1963) hypothetical moral conflict situations were not situations that had been experienced by the young male adolescents and therefore the answers they gave may not be a true representation of the choices they would make. Gilligan (1982) indicated that from Kohlberg’s (1963) research, male’s moral reasoning was seen as taking a more ‘justice perspective’. With the analysis of women’s moral reasoning, Gilligan (1982) proposed that women take more of a ‘care perspective’. Kohlberg (1969) described women as not being as morally developed as men and concluded that women could not pass the conventional stage of moral development. However, Gilligan (1982) argued that women were not inferior to men, but that women are different. Gilligan’s (1982) stages of moral development in women were similar to Kohlberg’s (1969), having the stages preconventional, conventional and post conventional, however the progression through the stages for women was achieved by changes in the sense of self rather than in changes of cognitive ability.

The Kohlberg (1963) stages of moral development were defined and empirically tested on a sample of young American males and thus the sample is not representative of the American society. The bias in Kohlberg’s (1963) research was not only a gender bias of androcentrism, but also culturally biased as his sample only consisted of American individuals (a western culture). Research that consists of gender bias, especially androcentrism, make the assumption that male behaviour is the ‘norm’ and when women differ from these ‘norms’ they are seen as inferior and inadequate. The problem with androcentrism in psychological theories is that it questions the universality of human behaviour when these theories are established from a male’s perspective. An approach to counter androcentrism is to take a feminist perspective- as Gilligan (1997) did. Feminist psychology centres on social constructs and gender. Feminist psychology critiques historical psychological research that take a male-perspective and define male behaviour as the ‘norm’. The feminist psychology approach aims to understand behaviour in terms of social processes and thus find a way to greater equality between the two genders. As this approach sees psychology as being a representative for social changes, the development of this feministic approach contrasts the idea of psychology as an objective science. Although this approach to tackle androcentrism focuses on the worthy study of women and improving the social situations of women, it is important to recognise that feminist psychology is not biased as it does not propose that one sex is more or less superior.

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Finally, the last bias outlined in this essay is racial bias in psychological research. Hoyt Jr. (2012, p.225) defines racism as “a particular form of prejudice defined by preconceived erroneous beliefs about race and members of racial groups”. One key study that was subject to racial bias in his research was Yerkes’ (1917) mental testing on army recruits. Yerkes (1917) wanted to give credibility to mental testing and wanted to apply a scientific approach to this type of intelligence test. Yerkes’ (1917) examination was originally undertaken with a group of army recruits who were required to read and write English, however there were a large quantity of men that were illiterate in English and therefore Yerkes introduced a new test that was non-linguistic. The examination for the literate soldiers was named the ‘alpha test’ and the test for the illiterates was named the ‘beta test’. The alpha test had multiple parts to it, such as arithmetical problems, unscrambling a sentence and analogies. However, the test for illiterate soldiers or those that failed the alpha test consisted of pictures and diagrams. Similar to the alpha test, the beta test also had multiple parts to it including a maze test, completing a picture, geometric construction and number work. Yerkes (1917) claimed that the tests measured “native intellectual ability” (Gould, 1982, p.349), meaning that intelligence was unaffected by different cultures or education that the army recruits had experienced. However, Gould (1982) stated that the level of cultural and educational knowledge required in these tests were knowledge of American culture. Illiterate army recruits that had spent less time in America were at a disadvantage to their fellow colleagues and as a result scored zero on the alpha test. Furthermore, some army recruits were immigrants and when they had to take the beta test which required a pencil to solve the numerical problems, many of these recruits had never held a pencil before. The results of these tests showed strong correlations between IQ scores and length of schooling and between IQ scores and length of period living within the USA. Although from the correlations found it is clear that environmental factors had an effect on scores, Yerkes (1971) claimed that his results provided evidence for racial differences in intelligence. Yerkes (1971) claimed level of intelligence were a result of racial differences as in his tests black men had lower scores on the alpha and beta tests.

In relation to the scientific racism shown in Yerkes’ (1917) research, Ruston (1990) argued the case of neoteny and argues that ethnic groups differ in how advanced they are. Neoteny is the idea that evolution has increased the period of childhood in humans in comparison to our ancestors. Ruston (1990) claimed that different races differ in the degree of neoteny they display. Races that have more neoteny, had a longer childhood, are seen as more evolutionarily advanced. Ruston (1990) uses this theory of neoteny to show how races differ in the length of their childhood, and thus explain how advanced they are. Ruston (1990) proposed three different types of ethnic groups: mongoloids, caucasoids and negroids. Mongoloids are people from east Asia and south east Asia, caucasoids are people predominantly from western Europe and negroids are those that are from central and southern Africa. Ruston (1991) summarised that there are racial differences in regard to brain size and cognitive performance. Mongoloids were found on average to have the largest brain size, followed by caucasoids and then negroids. This sequence of average brain size was the same for measures of cognitive ability. This finding from Ruston (1991) could possibly be used to explain the findings from Yerkes’ (1917) study of intelligence on army recruits.

Racism is a difficult bias to overcome in research as individuals, regardless of race, may hold a prejudice against someone who has a different race, based on an individual believing their personal race is superior. However, the use of different races and interracial groups of participants in research can reduce prejudice by weaken the categories that lead to stereotyped thinking.

In conclusion, many psychological theories throughout the decades have suffered from numerous types of biases. Studies such as Ainsworth et al.’s (1971) that take an ethnocentric view can be overcome by cross-cultural approaches to identify universal behaviours. Androcentric theories, such as Kohlberg’s (1963, 1969), can overcome this bias by taking a more social constructionist approach. Overcoming racism in any context is difficult due to human’s in-built stereotyped thoughts, although analysing as well as using various cultures and races in psychological research can provide us with information to diminish these prejudices which we as humans hold. The effects of bias in research can cause skewed or distorted results and can draw wrong conclusions, thus making the theories less creditable. In order to improve psychological theories and as a pathway for later research, psychologists should aim to resist bias in their research theories rather than minimise or ignore it.


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