Garbage In, Garbage Out: Psychology’s Inability to Listen to Its Stakeholders

This is an idea I’m still gestating, but: psychology would serve the public interest 1000% better if psychologists focused on listening to and describing people’s experiences (in systematic and qualitative ways), rather than trying to establish top-down proof of how things work or how they should work.
We work too exclusively on establishing airtight proof of cause and effect relationships between variables, with no input from the populations actually being studied.

We never actually ask people about their inner lives and identities and struggles. It’s seen as nonscientific. And so we’re walking around with no understanding of the psychology of what it’s like to be poor, or trans, or black, or disabled, or marginalized in any other way. All we have are statistical associations between variables that we concocted very flawed ways of measuring.

Let me give you an example. A colleague of mine shared with me some research recently, showing that the average person in the U.S. views Muslims as more “primitive” and “less human” than Christians.

Here’s how the study was done. Each participant was presented with one of those corny “evolution of man” charts, kinda like this:

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And was asked to place different groups of people somewhere on this spectrum from ape to human. So basically participants would be asked “Where would you place Muslim people on this scale?” and then they would have to click on one of these silhouettes. Then they’d be taken to the next page and asked to place Christians on the same scale.

And everyone was so horrified and scandalized that the average participant placed Muslims farther on the left hand side of the scale than Christians. And this was taken as proof that non-Muslims in the U.S. dehumanize Muslims and see them as more primitive.

And everyone responding to this result with abject horror seems to forget the fucked-upness of a researcher giving people the option to do that in the first fucking place??? Like, they provided people with a full spectrum of non-human apes and then asked participants where they saw a group of people, actual humans, on that spectrum? They’re tacitly encouraging and facilitating an expression of horrific prejudice. All to demonstrate something that could have been far more easily revealed by, you know, LISTENING TO MUSLIM PEOPLE ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCES.

This is what I hate about my field. We act like it is more “scientific” to demonstrate the existence of racism using some cutesy-ass, contrived survey instrument we pulled out of our butts than by listening to, cataloging, and describing the qualitative experiences of people actually affected by that racism. And we do it in the most facile ways possible.

You can bet your ass the person who conceived of this research design was so so pleased with themselves. They pictured the headlines and salivated. “Study shows Americans see Muslims as less human”, with the evolution-of-man chart (which is evolutionarily inaccurate by the way) at the top of the page. So they did the study without ever considering the moral hazard of point-blank asking people to label Muslims as less human, without ever questioning whether the very asking of such a question actually facilitated more racism. And so, the no-duh research is done, and the accolades and publications and NPR interviews roll in, and every Muslim person who has known that to be true for, I don’t know, decades, can do nothing but roll their eyes.

Originally published at

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