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More of What Needs Fixing in Psychology

Part II: Further views of early career scholars.

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

This is the second entry in this three-part series. You can find the first entry here.

I invited early career scholars (ECRs) from accomplished undergraduates to recent Ph.D.s to write short essays about what they think are the worst problems in psychology, or the easiest solutions to problems, or some combination of the two. In this entry, I present a perspective from a recent Ph.D. who left the field of social psychology mainly due to suboptimal practices and political biases. She also has a guest post here explaining how she became disillusioned with the field.

Some people argue that ECRs get short shrift: No one pays attention to them because all the attention goes to high-profile professors at elite universities. I do not know if that is true, but if it is, this three-part series does some small part to rectify it.

Groupiness and Conformity: Social Psychology Has Become What it has Long Decried

Social psychologists have long warned of the dangers of conformity, obedience, and groupthink. In this essay, Kirsty Miller argues that social psychologists have met the enemy, and they are us.

As an escapee from the world of (European) social psychology, when asked to reflect on the biggest problem with the discipline, I found it hard to pinpoint just one specific issue. I believe there are many intertwining problems, problems that together have led me to disassociate from the field, and dismiss it as useless at best, and worryingly dangerous at worst. I certainly think many problems are exacerbated by the ‘groupiness’ of the discipline – a phenomenon that may have partly been fuelled by the historical dominance of Social Identity Theory in European social psychology.

Source: Walt Kelly, WIkimedia Commons
Source: Walt Kelly, WIkimedia Commons

Watching from the outside, it seems that group mentality has created a monster that controls the field (and who knows it does). This being, headed by the most prominent European social psychologists, regurgitates the group-think into the mouths of the blindly eager and ambitious ECRs (early career researchers), who in turn regurgitate it in their research outputs — outputs reviewed by those who fed them the ideas to begin with. Not only this, they also pass it on through their teaching, thus recruiting more suggestible minds, and increasing the power of the group even further.

The existence of such a group is probably not much of a surprise to any psychologist that was brought up with the thinking of Tajfel and Turner. Ultimately, groups are easy, and groups are powerful. Groups are good for one’s ego, they are good for safety and protection, and they are good for preventing one from thinking. Standing alone is tricky, but going along with the group is not.

However, groups need to maintain their power — and to do this, they need to resort to a number of tactics. For example, they need to prevent too many members from defecting to other groups. One way to do that is to stigmatize other viewpoints and perspectives. Members who deviate from the norms in terms of behaviour or, especially, their thinking, are held up for public disapproval and even shaming; and outgroups are presented as evil or dangerous, while the ingroup is the embodiment of virtue.

scrapbook dot net
Source: scrapbook dot net

As one can imagine, a large group dominating not only on what is published and disseminated, but also ‘what ideas are permissible versus stigmatized’, is not particularly good for the field – or the people in it. In science, no ideas, and no people, should be immune from challenge. The irony is of course, that the current group incarnation of ‘European social psychology’ does exactly what it criticises others for: trying to maintain positions of power, silencing certain groups, treating others badly in the name of ‘ingroup virtue’. In increasingly tribal times, we need groups such as this to be dissolved, not fed; we need free thinkers who can challenge, and learn, and evolve. Unless these changes take place, I believe that this group will keep modelling exactly the dangerous tribal, closed-minded thinking and behaviour that we are trying to prevent in the real world.

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