Issues and debates

Gender bias: Alpha bias

Gender bias: psychological thoery and research may not accurately represent the experience and behaviour of men and women

Alpha bias exaggerates differences

  • differences between sexes are usually presented as real, enduring, fixed and inevitable
  • these differences are more likely to devalue women in relation to males

example: Sociobiological theory of relationship formation

  • Wilson (1975) explained human sexual attraction through 'survival efficiency' - in the male's interests to impregnate as many females as possible to increase chances of his genes being passed on to next generation
  • female's best chance to preserve her genes to ensure survival of offspring she may produce
  • sexual promiscuity in males is naturally selected and genetically determined, but females who engage the same behaviour are seen as going against their 'nature' - exaggeration of difference between sexes (alpha bias)
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Gender bias: Beta bias

Beta bias minimises differences - often occurs when female ppts are not included in the sample and is assumed that research findings apply to both sexes

example: fight or flight response

  • early research was based on male animals (preferred for research bcos female hormones fluctuate) - the response was assumed to be a universal repsonse to threatening situation
  • Taylor et al (2000) suggest female biology has evolved to inhibit the fight or flight response, shifting attention towards caring for offspring (tending) and forming defensive networks with other females (befriending) - tend and befriend response is governed by oxytocin hormone

Consequence of beta bias = androcentrism

  • understanding of 'normal' behaviour comes from research involving all-male samples, then behaviour that deviates from this standard is seen as 'abnormal' or 'inferior'
  • leads to female behaviour being misunderstood and pathologised (taken as sign of illness)
  • eg. many feminists object to the category of PMS bcos is medicalises female emotions (eg. anger) by explaining these in hormonal terms, but male anger is often seen as a rational response to external pressures
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Culture bias: Universality + Ethnocentrism

Universality assumed for results of Western research: researchers wrongly assumed findings from studies in Western cultures can be applied universally, eg. studies of conformity (Asch) + studies of obedience (Milgram) revealed different results when replicated in other countires

Ethnocentrism = belief in the superiority of one's own culture group - in psychological research this may be communicated thru a view that nay behaviour that does not conform to the (Western) model is somehow deficient or underdeveloped

example of ethnocentrism = Strange Situation

  • identified key defining variable of attachment type as the child's anxiety on separation - suggested the ideal (secure) attachment = infant showing moderate distress when separated
  • led to misinterpretation of child-rearing practises in other countries which deviated from the American norm, eg. German mothers seen as cold and rejecting rather than encouraging independence in their children
  • Thus the ** revealed as inappropriate measurement of attachment type for non-US children
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Culture bias: Etic and Emic approach

Being able to recognise that findings may only make sense from the perspective of the culture within which they were discovered is one way of avoiding culture bias in research

Etic and Emic approaches are universal or culture-specific respectively

Berry (1969) argues that:

  • An etic approach looks at behaviour from outside a given culture and identifies behaviours that are universal
  • An emic approach functions from within certain cultures and identifies behaviours that are specific to that culture

Ainsworth's research illustrates an imposed etic - studies behaviours within a single culture (America) and then assumed her ideal attachment type could be applied universally

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Free will + determinism: Hard and soft

  • Free will is the idea that we are self-determining - free to choose their thoughts and actions
  • there are biological and environmental influences on our behaviour, but free will implies we can reject them (humanistic approach)
  • Strength: everyday experiences = making choices everyday - face validity
  • Strength: even if free will doesn't exist, if we think it does - may positively impact our mind and behaviour - Roberts et al: strong belief in fatalism = more at risk of depression
  • Limitation: brain studies of decision making have revealed evidence against free will - Libet and Soon found brain activity related to the decision to press a button with left or right hand occurs 10secs before ppts are consciously aware of making such decision
  • Hard determinism: all human action has a cause - it should be possible to identify these causes - compatible with the aims of science which assume that what we do is dictated by internal or external forces we cannot control
  • Limitation: offenders morally responsible for own actions 
  • Soft determinism: all human action has a cause but people have conscious mental control over behaviour - James (1980) thought scientists should explain the determining forces acting upon us, but we still have freedom to make choices
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F + D: types of determinism

Biological determinism

  • Physiological processes are not under conscious control (eg. autonomic NS on anxiety)
  • Genetic fators may determine behaviours and characteristics (eg. mental disorders)
  • Hormones may determine behaviour (eg. testerone in aggressoe behaviour)

Environmental determinism = determined by conditioning 

  • the behaviourist approach popularised the idea of environmental determinism - Skinner 'free will is an illusion', and argued all behaviour is the result of conditioning
  • our experience of 'choice' is the result of reinforncement contingencies throughout our lives - ie. our behaviour has been shaped by environmental events and agents of socialisation

Psychic determinsim = directed by unconscious conflicts

  • Freud also thought free will was an illusion, but placed emphasis on biological drives and instincts underpinning psychological responses, rather than conditioning - sees behaviour as determined by unconscious conflicts repressed in childhood
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F + D: Scientific emphasis and Evaluation

  • A basic principle of science is that every event has a cause and can be explained by general laws, eg. adding chemical (X) to a chemical (Y) = reaction (Z) within controlled environment (test tube) - Z is determined X and Y - inline with determinism 
  • In psychology, lab experiments let researchers simulate conditions of the test tube and remove all other extraneous variables to demonstrate a casual effect


Strength of determinism - the notion that human behaviour is orderly and obeys laws places psychology on equal footing with other more established sciences, increasing credibility

Strength of determinism - prediction and control of human behaviour has led to development of treatment and therapies (eg. drug treatments to manage SZ)

Strength of determinism - the experience of SZ (loss of control over thoughts and behaviour) suggests some behaviours are determined (ie. no one 'chooses' to have SZ)

Limitation - determinism as an approach is not falsifiable - based on the idea that causes of behaviour will always exist, even though they may not yet have been found - impossible to disprove - not as scientific as first appears

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Nature-nurture debate

Nature: innate and genetic influences, heritability of IQ = 0.5 - not 1.0 suggests genetics and environment are both important factors

Nurture: environmental influences

Lerner (1986) identified different levels of the environment:

  • Defined in prenatal terms (eg. mother's physical and psychological sate during pregnancy
  • Defined more generally thru postnatal experiences (eg. social conditions child grows up in)
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Nature-nurture debate: Interactionism

  • The nature-nurture debate is impossible to answer because envrionmental influences in a child's life begin as soon as it is conceived (perhaps even earlier)
  • interactionist approach suggests that practically and theoretically it makes little sense to try and separate nature and nurture, eg. twin studies it is difficult to tell whether high concordance rates are the result of shared genetic or shared upbringing - instead should study how they interact and influence eachother
  • Diathesis-stress model suggests mental disorders are caused by biological vulnerability (diathesis) which is only expressed when coupled with an environmental trigger (stressor)
  • eg. Tienari studied a group of Finnish adoptees and found that those most likely to develop SZ had biological relatives with a history of the disorder (diathesis) and had dysfunctional relationships with their adoptive families (stressor)
  • epigenetics is a change in genetic activity without changing genetic code
  • lifestyle and events we encounter (eg. smoking, diet, pollution) leave epigenetic marks on our DNA which tell our body which genes to use and which to ignore - may influence the genetic code of our children
  • epigenetics introduces third element into NN debate - experiences of previous generations
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Holism and reductionism

Holism = people and behaviour should be studied as a whole system

  • This view is shared by humanistic psychologists who see successful therapy as bringing together all aspects of the whole person          

Reductionism = breaking down behaviour into constituent parts 

  • this is based on scientific principle of parsimony - all phenomena should be explained using the most basic, lowest level and simplest principles (eg. behaviour of individual cells)

Levels of explanation = there are different ways of viewing the same phenomena in psychology, eg. OCD:

  • socio-cultural level - behaviour most people would find odd (eg. repetitive handwashing)
  • psychological level - individuals experience of having obessive thoughts
  • physical level - sequence of movements involved in washing hands
  • physiological level - hypersensitivity of the basal ganglia
  • neurochemical level - underproduction of serotonin
  • (each level is more reductionist than the one before it)
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Biological + environmental reductionism

Biological reductionism - physiological and neurochemical level

  • We are biological organisms made up of physiological structures and processes
  • all behavioue ia at some level biological - can be explained through neurochemical, neurophysiological, evolutionary and genetic influences
  • this assumption has been successfully applied to the explanation and treatment of mental illness

Environmental reductionism - physical level, behaviourist stimulus-response links

  • the behaviourist approach is built on environmental reductionism - behaviourists study observable behaviour and break complex learning up into simple stimulus-response links
  • so the key unit of analysis occurs at the physical level - the behaviourist approach is not concerned with cognitive processes at the psychological level - the mind is regarded as a 'black box' - irrelevant to our understanding of behaviour
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Idiographic approach

idiographic approach - aims to describe the nature of the individual 

  • people studied as unique entities with their own subjective experiences, motivations + values
  • there is no attempt to compare these to a larger group standard or norm
  • is associated with qualitative research methods eg. case studies, unstructured interviews, self report - reflects the approaches central aim = describe the richness of human experience and gain insight into the person's unique way of viewing the world

Humanistic psychology is the best example of the idiographic approach - Rogers and Maslow were only interested in documenting the conscious experience of the individual / 'self', rather than producing general laws of behaviour

Psychodynamic approach is often thought of as idiographic because of Freud's use of the case study method. But Freud also assumed he had identified universal laws of behaviour and personality development (nomothetic)

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Nomothetic approach

nomothetic approach = the production of general laws

  • these provide a benchmark against which people can be compared, classified and measured
  • future behaviour can then be predicted and controlled
  • closely associated with methods defined as reliable and scientific (eg. questionnaires)
  • involve the study of large numbers of people to establish how people are similar and different
  • behaviourist, cognitive and biological research would meet the criteria of the nomothetic approach
  • questionnaires that test characteristics such as personality or IQ are used to diagnose abnormality and predict behaviours
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Ethical implications

Ethical implications arise due to conflict between:

  • psychology's need for valid and valuable research
  • preserving the rights and dignity of ppts

Wider ethical implications of research are hard to predict: researchers can control the methods they use and how they treat ppts - they have less influence on how findings are presented in the media, how their work impacts public policy and how it affects perception of groups in society

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Socially sensitive research

examples of potential social implications; directly for ppts or class of individuals represented:

  • 1. research investigating genetic bias or criminality might have far-reaching consequences for those who take part or for the broader social groups the ppts represent
  • 2. studies that tackle socially sensitive 'taboo' topics such as race or sexuality attract attention from the public

Researchers shouldn't avoid socially sensitive research - importance of such research means psychologists have social responsibility to carry it out (Aronson 1999)

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Socially sensitive research

Sieber and Stanley identified concerns for socially sensitive research:

  • implications: some studies may give scientific status to prejudice and discrimination
  • uses/public policy: findings may be adopted by gov. - political ends or shape public policy
  • validity: some findings presented as objective in the past turned out to be fraudulent

Burt was inflencial in establishing the 11+ examination in the UK (grammar school exam) - he viewed intelligence as genetic, based on his studies of twins (1955) showing inheritability coeffiecient of +.77 - he was publically discreditied as discrepencies in data showed he made much of the data up but the 11+ exam still remained for many years - research had consequences for UK schoolchildren

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