Restrictive Research: Psychology’s ivory tower mentality

The first pages of an introductory psychology textbook will usually begin with something like ‘psychology is the qualitative and quantitative study of human cognition and behaviour’ - suggesting that information within its pages can be universally applied.

But upon learning about countless research papers and experiments, it quickly becomes apparent that psychology is study of Western cognition and behaviour. After all, the most groundbreaking discoveries seem to be conducted by North American researchers on North American subjects (e.g. the Stanford Prison experiment, the Milgram experiments, or the case study of “Little Albert").

Students learn that the study of “other” cultures is the exception, rather than the norm. 

Anyone who takes an undergraduate psychology class will notice that non-Western experiments and case studies fall under a short textbook chapter titled “cross-cultural psychology”. In that chapter, any notable conclusions are assumed to only apply to that specific group - they are seen as the exception to the norm, rather than something we can all learn from.

Cultural differences are only noteworthy when a specific group is being studied (e.g. the effects of television on rural Samoan populations). Otherwise, attempts to research other cultures mostly revolve around Asian communities and limits the societies to a ‘collective’ vs ‘individualistic’ lens - ignoring the nuances that are afforded to the West. Huge swaths of the population go un-researched, yet conclusions are drawn, published and circulated, often as ‘pop science’, to a public that doesn’t understand that aspects of the scientific process can be flawed.

Educated, relatively privileged, and (mostly) White kids are the basis of a “groundbreaking” research

Experimental psychologists stress the importance of sound scientific methodology, and in theory, researchers are careful to select a ‘random sample’ of subjects that are presumably representative of the human species. But more often than not, participants are selected simply from populations that are most available and most willing to participate in experiments, which means undergraduate psychology students.

Data suggests that a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4,000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West. So, forget the study of Western cognition and behaviour - one might as well define psychology as the study of Western youth - Western youth who can afford post-secondary education and who are available to participate in research studies.

The West is markedly different from other areas of the world - especially for post-secondary students who are in the midst of a very unique time in their lives. These are educated, relatively privileged, and (mostly) White kids from psychology lecture halls, yet findings from their surveys, questionnaires and computer simulations are assumed to apply to the world at large.

Since it’s been a few years since we, the bloggers of Intersectional Analyst, have finished our own undergraduate psychology degrees, we wondered if diversity in psychology research had improved since we last sat in a lecture hall.

Even the most prestigious journals have a sampling blindspot

We collected information about research participants in papers coming from prestigious journals in the field, focusing on general psychology, as well as developmental and social psychology - subfields where we would naturally expect behaviour to differ across cultures. We looked at papers from the most recent three issues (January, February, and March 2016) of each chosen journal and collected data on which countries participants were taken from for experiments*.

We started by looking at Psychological Science, one of the most well-regarded and 'prestigious' (i.e. high impact factor) journals among psychologists. Over its last three issues - roughly, 40 studies - almost 70% of participants came from North America - and these North American participants were drawn exclusively from the United States.  Less than 13% of participants were from somewhere other than North America or Europe.

The Journal of Experimental Psychology, another top journal in the field, did not fare much better. Almost 60% of participants over the last three issues come from North America - although they were not exclusively from the US (as was the case with Psychological Science).

In the journal Developmental Psychology, which focuses on the study of psychological processes across the lifespanwe found that there was slightly more variation in the location of the research participants compared to other journals. One study was conducted on a population in Mauritius, and two studies were conducted on populations in the Middle East.  Notably, however, these studies on non-Western populations were mostly conducted by Western researchers, and these populations were chosen specifically for particular research questions of interest to Western researchers.  

The Mauritian population was chosen to look at the 'impact of malnutrition on intelligence' in children, while the Iranian population was chosen to investigate the effects of religious exposure on children's ability to distinguish between fantastical and realistic characters.  Studies such as these reinforce the idea in psychological research that non-Western cultures are not to be considered the norm for human behaviour, but rather as 'different' behaviours that can help Western researchers contextualize 'normal' Western behaviour. 

Finally, we looked at social psychology - a subfield that lends itself to the study of different groups and group behaviour.   As with the other journals we examined, the studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology primarily comprised of North American research participants (65%), although they did have a number of multi-national and comparative cross-cultural studies in this journal.  Again, here the comparative cross-cultural studies were conducted with specific research questions in mind that aimed to draw comparisons between Western and non-Western behaviour. 

The lack of diversity is a symptom of a larger problem

So unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, not much has changed since we last sat in our introductory psychology classes. In all the journals we looked at - some of the most respected in the field - Western (and particularly, North American) people made up the majority of research samples.   It is clearly problematic to generalize theories about human behaviour with data drawn primarily from the West, but our observations call to attention another important question: who is conducting academic research?  

The bulk of studies here were led by Western researchers - including many of the studies on non-Western populations - suggesting that the lack of diversity in psychology research may be accounted for by a lack of inclusivity of the scholarly communication system.  There are serious barriers to participating in academic research: even being able to simply read the work of other scientists is too expensive for many researchers in non-Western institutions. One thing is certain: addressing the problem of diversity in psychology will require a critical examination of inclusivity in scientific research, more broadly. 

This post was co-written by TK and Lorraine. 


*Additional notes on Methodology: Meta-analyses were excluded and online-only articles were excluded. We considered participants drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website as American, given that data indicates that the majority of workers on Mechanical Turk come from the United States (about 80%). If the participant source was not specified explicitly, when possible, the source was inferred by looking at the Acknowledgements section and the author institutional affiliations.