The Patterns of Racial Bias in Psychological Research

Before going to graduate school, I spent four undergraduate years as a psychology major. Until just yesterday, I had never considered or questioned the presence of racial bias in psychology or psychological research.  In fact, I had coursework that specifically dealt with bias-researcher bias. I was a volunteer subject in various research studies. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, I was aware of something a little ‘off’ in the field because I pursued a graduate degree in Education, in counseling.  So, I didn’t completely abandon my career goal by moving away from psychology. I always knew that I wanted to become a Counselor. I simply found a different route. My shift was a little more complex than that, but you get the picture.

The entire premise of psychology as a behavioral science is grounded in a certain ‘universality‘ of mental health and well-being of humans.  Psychologists and other social scientists regularly propose explanations for human behavior. Research is at the foundation. It is about testing theories and applying them to real life situations to help us understand the world around us. Researchers want to not only describe behaviors, they want to explain why these behaviors occur. They want to influence mental processes, and predict and change behaviors.

Data was the ’empirical’ evidence that either confirmed hypotheses or debunked theories and if the research process was deemed valid and reliable, numbers do not lie. That’s what you’re told in school-in theory.  It is theory that guides practices, diagnoses, and perspectives, and there are many of them. Back then, it never dawned on me that psychological research which supported various theories of human behavior and the human mind was wrought with bias. We talked about the cultural bias of the standardized intelligence tests, but that pales in comparison with generalizing all human behaviors without exploring ‘race’.

We know that race plays a critical role in shaping the way we experience the world around us, which is particularly true in the United States. Therefore, it makes sense to expect a large body of research being  published regularly in mainstream psychological journals examining the impact of race on people’s thoughts, feelings and behavior.

The reality is that race is almost absent from top psychology journals and other publications related to the field. Published in Perspectives on Psychological Science,  a recent study, led by Steven O. Roberts, an assistant professor of psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, found that prominent psychological publications that highlight race are rare, and when race is discussed, it is authored mostly and edited almost entirely by white scholars.

Roberts’ team looked at more than 26,000 empirical articles published between 1974 and 2018, in top-tier academic journals, for three major areas of psychology: cognitive, developmental, and social. The journals the researchers focused on were CognitionCognitive PsychologyChild DevelopmentDevelopmental PsychologyThe Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.

Unlike newspapers and magazines that the general public read, academic journals are intended for a scholarly audience. They debate and discuss their research findings with other experts, and become informed on how the field is evolving. The person who oversees the entire publication process at a journal is the Editor-in-Chief. This person makes the final decisions as to what research is ‘fit’ to publish. The Editor-in-Chief can shape the ideas of an entire professional community. They are essentially ‘gatekeepers’.

Surveying editors and authors who get published in these peer reviewed journals, it was found that of the 60 editors in chief between 1974 and 2018, 83% were white, 5% were People of Color[POC], and 12% were unidentifiable for various reasons. Of the publications that highlighted race, 87% were edited by white editors. His data also revealed that race predicted the publication of research that highlighted race. With white editors, merely 4% of all publications highlighted race. When the editors were POC, the rate almost tripled to 11%.

From the 1970s to the 2010s, only 5 percent of publications in the top-tier psychological journals highlighted race. Here too, differences emerged in different areas of the discipline—in cognitive psychology fewer than 0.01 percent of publications in that sub-field looked at race, compared with 8 percent in developmental psychology and 5 percent in social psychology.

“It is impossible to be an American and not racialize how you feel”

(Cornel West)

A handful of studies published in top-tier cognitive journals make it clear that cognitive processes, such as auditory processing, categorization, and memorization, do indeed vary as a function of racialized experiences. To not acknowledge this, or to only study human thinking with white participants, is narrow-minded and a disservice to science.

Who is publishing research in the top-tier journals? 63% are white and 23% POC, with 14% unidentifiable. Is the disparity based on research quality? No. Comparable quality. Is it the number of qualified researchers? No. Actually, in lower-tier journals, white authors were underrepresented. The over-representation of white authors in top-tier psychology journals is not explained by the quality of the research or by the quantity of the researchers. It must be explained by structural racism. These journals are dominated by white psychologists, which has implications for what and who is excluded from the scientific record[similar to the recording and publication of U.S. history].

Psychology, an inherently inclusive discipline, is supposed to know how racism works. However, If we are to eradicate it from society, racism must be eradicated from this science. Yet, we are looking at a science that mirrors society. White men are the gatekeepers who control the content and determine who and what is allowed to be discussed. Even with the desire for universality of certain human patterns, one cannot  universally apply a theoretical construct to all when the participant subject pool is not representative of full diverse and random sampling.

The white scholars in the sub-field of psychological research remain strangely uncomfortable and still actively avoid materials that highlight race, similar to the white population in general. This informs us of the urgency with which change must take place. As can educators, through warmth, authentic positive regard, active listening, essential questions and positive feedback, psychologists can help facilitate statistically significant positive outcomes that improve life quality for all audiences. 

Anti-racist systems need to be in place.

  • Include diverse individuals across all levels of the publication process,
  • Evaluate the diversity of research participants in the peer review process,
  • Release diversity reports annually and
  • Establish a diversity task force.

Each journal needs to communicate a commitment to diversity, explicitly stating whether it publishes research that is sensitive to diversity and whether it values the writing, editing and participation of diverse scientists.

Start recognizing that diversity IS society— at its best. Examine and explore the impact that race has on the way people experience the world. Engage and invite open scholarly discussions that may confirm and enhance or challenge and refute theories and constructs. Moreover, embrace the existing body of research conducted by the diverse scientists in the field today. Highlight the conclusions drawn from the data, and the real life implications so practitioners can adopt and/or integrate new approaches to explain and influence human behavior.

It is extremely important for the scientific community to continue to develop new questions and broaden its knowledge base surrounding race and culture. There is strength in diversity-embrace multiculturalism in research and practice. Let’s first start with the assumptions of universality in mental health and race!

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