Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D.

Life in the Intersection

Navel Gazing

Who has psychology research left behind?

Posted Dec 04, 2016

Stinkie Pinkie/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Stinkie Pinkie/Wikimedia Commons

The conclusions of most psychology research are based on White college students in the United States. This focus on White college students may be because 85% of psychology professors are White themselves. White psychologists studying other White people has been compared to navel gazing, or studying oneself. Yet, nearly 40% of the United States population is not White and the majority of children under the age of 5 are not White. So, over 120 million non-White Americans are left behind in most psychology research.

Many psychologists assume that the findings of research with White college students apply to everyone else. Why wouldn’t research with White college students apply to everyone else? Aren’t humans 99.9% alike genetically?

Some research findings may apply universally but two examples from psychology research show how one size does not fit all. The first example is from cultural neuroscience. Because everyone has the same brain structure, brain responses are often assumed to be the same from person to person. In a brain imaging study, researchers examined brain activity in an area associated with reward (mesolimbic pathway). Whites’ brains showed more mesolimbic brain response when receiving cash than when giving it to a family member. Latin@ Americans exhibited the opposite pattern, showing greater mesolimbic brain response when giving cash to a family member than when receiving it. Latin@ cultures emphasize family members more than the self, so giving is more rewarding than receiving. Brain responses in one culture may not apply in another.

The second example is from a study of culture and mental health. Standard psychological treatments for mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, have been developed with White college students. Psychologists assume these treatments to be effective for everyone. One popular standard treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which suggests that thoughts can influence feelings and that a person’s feelings about a situation come from their interpretation of it. My colleagues and I recently reviewed 78 psychological treatment studies of nearly 14,000 people worldwide. Ninety-five percent of these people were not White. We found that culturally-adapted treatments, which incorporated the client’s language and cultural beliefs, were more effective in reducing mental health problems than standard treatments that did not incorporate culture. Treatment that works in one culture may not be as effective in other cultures.

These examples demonstrate that the public should read reports of psychology research results with a critical eye. Here are some recommendations:

  • Check to see if the research involved only White college students
  • Don’t assume that the results apply to everyone, especially if the people in the research are not described
  • Look for research on diverse groups of people, such as that presented in this blog

Being better informed about how psychology research does and does not apply to diverse groups of people is a way of looking beyond our own navels. And it may be a step toward improving a political climate where racial and ethnic minorities are being left behind.

References

Hall, G. C. N., Ibaraki, A. Y., Huang, E. R., Marti, C. N., & Stice, E. (2016). A meta-analysis of cultural adaptations of psychological interventions. Behavior Therapy.

Hall, G. C. N., Yip, T., & Zárate, M. A. (2016). On becoming multicultural in a monocultural research world: A conceptual approach to studying ethnocultural diversity. American Psychologist, 71, 40-51.

Telzer, E. H., Masten, C. L., Berkman, E. T., Lieberman, M. D., & Fuligni, A. J. (2010). Gaining while giving: An fMRI study of the rewards of family assistance among White and Latino youth. Social Neuroscience, 5, 508–518.