Discover more from Unsafe Science
DEALING WITH DIVERSITY IN PSYCHOLOGY: SCIENCE OR IDEOLOGY?
What appears below is the article by Bernhard Hommel that was denounced by almost 1400 academics as racist, and contributed to the Perspectives on Psych Science (PoPS) Debacle (go here, here, or here for more info on this). It is the first of the articles critical of Roberts et al (2020) that was accepted by former editor of PoPS, Klaus Fiedler, and which contributed to his defenestration at the hands of authorities who caved to the demands of an academic outrage mob. It is printed here with Professor Hommel’s permission.
Unsafe Science is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Department of Psychology, Shandong Normal University, Jinan, China
Faculty of Psychology, TU Dresden, Dresden, Germany
The increasing use of political activist arguments and reasoning in scientific communication about diversity is criticized. Based on an article of Roberts, Bareket-Shavit, Dollins, Goldie, and Mortenson (2020) on “Racial inequality in psychological research”, three hallmarks of activist thinking are described: (1) blindness to the multidimensional nature of diversity; (2) the failure to distinguish psychological mechanisms with the impact of moderators; and (3) a blindness to agency as an explanation for psychological observations.
One of the strongest arguments for diversity can be derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution: if we would all be the same, think the same, and do the same, our species would be extremely vulnerable. Every slight change in our environment might be a potential threat, as it might render our strategy to deal with life ineffective and useless overnight. Accordingly, it is important that we are different, we think differently, and we do things differently. Appreciating that is hard, because it is much easier to communicate and get along with people like us than with people who are different, and this also holds for science. Accordingly, it is important to keep emphasizing the importance of diversity, and so we all should welcome the recent increase in interest in diversity and its importance. Yet, discussions about the importance of diversity in science is often penetrated by ideology and activist thinking which is more interested in the benefit of one particular minority group than in diversity as such. An example in case is the recent article of Roberts, Bareket-Shavit, Dollins, Goldie, and Mortenson (2020) on “Racial inequality in psychological research”. As I will explain, this article shows three of the most frequent and most worrying signs of ideological thinking and social justice activism that has made its way into science. That this is no exception is witnessed by the fact that all three signs are favorably echoed in the comment on this article by Dupree and Kraus (2022).
Blindness to the multidimensional nature of diversity
Activist groups commonly focus on the one personal feature their members share, such as gender/sex, race, or sexual orientation, and try to attract societal attention to it. That seems effective and understandable, the more so as the same individual might be involved in different activist groups to attract societal attention to other possible features whenever needed. But if the same happens in science, justification is due. It is true that scientific research is always necessarily selective, and so one can always wonder whether that selectivity matters and perhaps limits possible theoretical insights and conclusions (Haeffel, Thiessen, Campbell, Kaschak & McNeil, 2009). But people, including potential participants in psychological studies, differ with respect to hundreds, if not thousands of features. Many of them have been demonstrated to affect human cognition and behavior: sex/gender, race, culture (Arnett, 2008), religion (Hommel & Colzato, 2017), socioeconomic background, political orientation (Duarte et al., 2015), intelligence, motivational structure and needs (McClelland, 1988), learning history, upbringing, educational style, experience, personality and traits, body size, body weight, handedness, various kinds of disabilities, cognitive styles, to name just a few. Some of them are likely to be interrelated in complex ways, such as race, economic background, and culture/country (e.g., racial differences correlate with economic differences in some countries more than others), while others may operate independently. Accordingly, it is important to consider the possibility that some of these features, or their interrelations, affect behavior in a way that is of theoretical relevance (Stroebe & Nijstad, 2009), perhaps even to a degree that would call for an adjustment or extension of theoretical models. Which has been done in many studies, even though the type of features seems to underlie some seasonal changes, if not fashions, such as the great interest in societal background in the 1960s, the increasing interest in gender/sex in the 1970s, the increasing interest in ecological conditions in the 1980s, with a strong emphasis on race since the 2010s. One could always do more, so that it makes sense to keep emphasizing further variables that might be interesting to study.
But this is not what Roberts et al. (2020) advocate. They instead focus on one single feature: race. They report data showing that this feature has been rarely addressed in developmental and social psychology, and almost neglected in cognitive psychology; that most publications were edited by White editors; that most publications highlighting race were authored by White scientists; and that these employed fewer participants of color. It must be said that most of these findings are trivial: given that the authors only consider journals from North American or European publishers with authors mainly stemming from North America and Europe, the observed percentage of Black editors and editorial board members either corresponded to the percentage of Black citizens in these areas or, in case of the board members, over-represented Black scientists. Moreover, given that White authors are more likely to come from countries with a very small percentage of Black citizens (<1% in Germany, 1.3% in Europe), it is not overly surprising that Black participants are rare in their studies. And yet, the authors conclude that strong efforts need to be made in order to increase racial diversity “in editing, writing, and participation”, so to achieve a more representative distributions of race with respect to editorial positions, reviewers, authors, and participants.
It is not so much the unfounded nature of this request (given that the distribution is representative already) that concerns me here, but the fact that the call for diversity was restricted to just one of more than 100 possible personal features of already demonstrated psychological relevance. If we are to report the race of editors, reviewers, authors, and participants, as Roberts et al. demand, should we not also report their cultural, religious, and economic background, their political orientation, intelligence, motivational structure, needs, learning history, experience, personality and traits, their body size, handedness, disabilities, and cognitive style? If not, why not? What is so special about race that does not apply to any of these other features? And if race is a social construct, as Roberts et al. assume, how can they be sure that this construct is comparable across cultures? How do we know that, say, a Black individual raised in the US is more similar to a Black individual raised in South Africa, Brazil, and China, say, then it is to a white individual raised in the US? Is there any evidence supporting this assumption? I’m afraid that a closer look does not leave any scientific justification for the exclusive focus on race.
Failure to distinguish mechanisms from effect moderators
Another flaw of the reasoning offered by Roberts et al. is the failure to distinguish between the mechanisms underlying a particular effect and the moderators of the size of this effect. While it is true that many features relating to individual differences were demonstrated to have an impact on human cognition and performance, including race, differences in effect sizes do not necessarily indicate different kinds of processes. For instance, there is evidence that religious faith has a systematic impact on the size of experimental effects in cognitive tasks that are considered to be indicative of basic processes: members of individualistic religions tend to show less distraction in tasks that rely on attentional focusing than members of collectivistic religions (Hommel et al., 2011), whereas tasks that require integration of information show the opposite pattern (Colzato, Hommel & Shapiro, 2010). On the one hand, this clearly shows that religion does impact cognitive performance, and it may well be that race can also be shown to have an impact of that kind. On the other hand, however, that does not necessarily imply that the mechanisms at work are any different. Indeed, current theorizing assumes that societal factors can systematically increase or decrease effect sizes in basic tasks without any impact on the actual cognitive mechanisms (Hommel & Colzato, 2017). Given that cognitive sciences are interested in the mechanisms, but not in absolute effect sizes or modulations thereof, it comes with little surprise that, as Roberts et al. observe, the cognitive sciences care less about social/ demographic diversity of the investigated participants. Even if they do, it is hard to see why and how that should limit the mechanistically relevant conclusions drawn from investigating participants without fully representative biographies. We do need to worry if there would be evidence that, say, Black and White participants differ systematically with respect to how they process distracting information, retrieve memories, and plan their actions. But not any such evidence is mentioned by Roberts et al.
Blindness to agency
A particularly salient feature of political activism in the recent years is the equation of non-representative statistical distributions of features over positions or resources on the one hand and social injustice on the other. If, thus, the distribution of race over editors, say, would really not match the distribution of race over the relevant societal reference group (which Roberts et al. fail to define), it is concluded that this reflects an inequality calling for societal worry. Interestingly, this does not apply to all possible positions or resources: few complain about the preponderance of females among hairdressers and of males among garbage disposers, but the more attractive, lucrative, and influential particular positions are, the more representativeness and participation becomes an issue. If then a particular position is particularly attractive, lucrative, and influential, and if the feature under discussion is not distributed representatively, the conclusion is that this must be due to structural societal obstacles, which need to be actively removed. This is indeed the idea that underlies the recommendations of Roberts et al., who (despite their data indicating racial representativeness) call for various kinds of actions to remove the assumed obstacles to Black researchers.
Interestingly, this kind of reasoning reflects a strong bias towards one of (at least) two possible factors that decide whether an individual will occupy a particular position or indeed carry out any kind of action: intent (s/he wants it) and circumstances (which can enable or block the agent)—factors that roughly correspond to Heider’s motivation and capacity (1958) and Kelley’s (1973) personal and circumstance attributions. Unfortunately, the racial distribution analysis of Roberts et al. considers only circumstances as possible factors for uneven or non-representative distributions, while intent is entirely dismissed. This seems to deny any possible impact of intent, any possible role of free choice. How do they know? Is it logically and empirically impossible that individuals growing up under special conditions, as members of a sizable minority in the US (the country/culture Roberts et al. focus on almost exclusively) that were discriminated by law until the mid-1960s, develop different needs and interests than studying task-switching or the automaticity of flanker processing in artificial laboratory experiments? Would that constitute a societal problem? Would that problem need to be resolved? Are there any data or observations that encourage Roberts et al. to question that the selective engagement of Black individuals in science, in psychology, and in the various psychological subdisciplines reflects anything but individual preferences? While such data may exist, the authors failed to present them, and yet jump from seemingly non-representative distributions to the assumption that there is something wrong with how psychological science is organized. Can that be considered a sufficiently balanced view?
It is important for science to be responsible and responsive to societal needs and developments. Therefore, studying political activism can be as useful as being stimulated by it (Conde, 2014), and by addressing questions that political activists are raising. And yet, uncritically accepting activist claims, demands, and reasoning, and translating them into scientific practice creates a potentially toxic mix of science and ideology that is likely to damage scientific freedom and independence.
Arnett, J. J. (2009). The neglected 95%, a challenge to psychology's philosophy of science. American Psychologist, 64(6), 571–574. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016723
Colzato, L.S., Hommel, B., & Shapiro, K. (2010). Religion and the Attentional Blink: Depth of faith predicts depth of the blink. Frontiers in Psychology, 1:147.
Conde, N. (2014). Activism mobilizing science. Ecological Economics, 105, 67-77.
Duarte, J. L., Crawford, J. T., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, e130. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X14000430.
Dupree, C. H., & Kraus, M. W. (2022). Psychological science is not race neutral. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(1), 270–275. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620979820.
Haeffel, G. J., Thiessen, E. D., Campbell, M. W., Kaschak, M. P., & McNeil, N. M. (2009). Theory, not cultural context, will advance American psychology. American Psychologist, 64(6), 570–571. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016191
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. John Wiley & Sons Inc. https://doi.org/10.1037/10628-000.
Hommel, B., & Colzato, L.S. (2017). The social transmission of metacontrol policies: Mechanisms underlying the interpersonal transfer of persistence and flexibility. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 81, 43-58.
Hommel, B., Colzato, L.S., Scorolli, C., Borghi, A.M., & van den Wildenberg, W.P.M. (2011). Religion and action control: Faith-specific modulation of the Simon effect but not stop-signal performance. Cognition, 120, 177-185.
Kelley, H.H. (1973). The process of causal attribution. American Psychologist, 28, 107–128.
McClelland, D. C. (1988). Human motivation. Cambridge University Press.
Roberts, S. O., Bareket-Shavit, C., Dollins, F. A., Goldie, P. D., & Mortenson, E. (2020). Racial inequality in psychological research: Trends of the past and recommendations for the future. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(6), 1295–1309. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620927709
Stroebe, W., & Nijstad, B. (2009). Do our psychological laws apply only to Americans? American Psychologist, 64(6), 569. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016090
This research was supported by a Double-100 Talent Grant of the Province of Shandong, China to the author.
Unsafe Science is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.