Sexism and Other Biases in Social Psychology
An email conversation with Simine Vazire on biases in the field
Posted Mar 10, 2015
To those of you interested and following this blog: I have a special treat coming soon.
Over the last two weeks, Simine Vazire*, my collaborator in various scientific integrity/best practices research, and I had a very unusual email exchange about prejudice and discrimination within social psychology, and its scientific implications.
It was disturbing.
Simine is a big part of the solution to the scientific problems currently plaguing social psychology, and a major contributor to the field’s internal discussions about how to correct. So, it was very disturbing to me when I found myself disagreeing with her on the role of sexism as a problem within social psychology.
The trigger was a talk I saw at a major social psychology conference. It was a good talk on how social psychologists can do better. But it started out highlighting data indicating that such discussions have, so far, been largely dominated by men.
I heard this analysis as insinuating all sorts of things that I saw as untrue—that the merits of arguments hinge on the demographics of those making them, and that somehow women are disadvantaged within social psychological discussions of science.
I emailed several people about this experience, including Simine. She disagreed with almost every aspect of my analysis.
That disagreement manifested as a series of emails between us, on the role of sexism, political bias, and other real, potential, or imagined forms of prejudice and discrimination within the field. That disagreement addressed questions such as:
What does it mean when someone points out a lack of diversity of researchers on some topic? Does it insinuate that the research is invalid? Does it imply that some types of people are being actively excluded from certain areas of research? Does it reflect disadvantage and discrimination?
What is “disadvantage”? Is it anything a person says it is? Are you disadvantaged if you say you are? Are we all “disadvantaged?” What constitutes evidence of disadvantage? What constitutes evidence of bias or discrimination? When the distribution of people in some field does not correspond exactly to some ideal, is that evidence of discrimination? If so, why or why not? When is it and is it not discrimination? How can we ever know?
Such conversations are usually fraught with potential for intentional or unintentional threats, insults, and mutual accusations of bias, prejudice, and endorsement of discrimination. If you have any doubt, Google “Harvard President Larry Summers Ousted” or, more recently, “Anti-Semitic UCLA Student Council.”
But that did not happen between Simine and me. Instead, we had a thoughtful and respectful exchange on these issues. Even though neither of us changed the other’s mind, it seemed to both of us that the exchange was valuable both for helping think about out the issues, and also perhaps as an example of how to have such conversations, including some pretty deep differences, without insults and accusations.
My next post, therefore, will be a sort of “Special Issue” of Rabble Rouser. Simine and I agreed to publish the entire exchange, simultaneously, on our respective blogs. So, if you are interested in these issues, look for my next post (or her’s!), coming soon, most likely within a week or two.
* Simine is part of the vanguard of the second renaissance generation** of scholars to be studying accuracy in social perception. Simine has her own blog, Sometimes I’m Wrong, which is a terrific series of entries on scientific integrity and practices.
** Over the last 10 years or so, accuracy in social perception research, has become a respectable area of social psychology, with all sorts of young and up and coming social psychologists taking accuracy for granted as a reasonable and appropriate thing to study. Accuracy was not always a respectable area of research. My book (Jussim, 2012) reviews the sad confluence of statistical, methodological, theoretical and political arguments that, from about 1955 to about 1985, led accuracy to be a stigmatized and verboten topic within social psychology.
I count myself among the generation to have helped create a renaissance in the study of accuracy. That generation included David Funder, David Kenny, Bill Ickes, and Clark McCauley, all of whom forced open the previously locked and barred door to the scientific study of social perceptual accuracy, and, as such, helped correct a field that had gone off the rails with an almost single-minded emphasis on error and bias. If that sounds like an extreme and exaggerated characterization of social psychology, I suggest you read my book—and then get back to me about how extreme and exaggerated that is.
Jussim, L. (2012). Social perception and social reality: Why accuracy dominates bias and self-fulfilling prophecy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Note: This book is written to be interesting and engaging for both the intelligent layperson, as well as psychological researchers. It is, however, very expensive, about $65 – so if you are interested in these issues, and have neither great wealth nor a big grant to pay for it, I would suggest going to your library. Now, if they do not have one, then yes, I encourage you to ask them to get one! (or even 3).