Is the job of introductory psychology textbooks to present students with a favourable and neat impression of psychology or to give them a warts and all account of the field? This is a key question raised by a new analysis of the treatment of controversial theories and recognised myths by 24 best-selling US introductory psychology texts.
Writing in Current Psychology, Christopher Ferguson at Stetson University and his colleagues at Texas A&M International University conclude that intro textbooks often have difficulty covering controversial topics with care, and that whether intentionally or not, they are frequently presenting students with a liberal-leaning, over-simplified perspective, as well propagating or failing to challenge myths and urban legends.
While acknowledging the daunting task that confronts textbook authors, Ferguson and his colleagues call on them to aspire to tell the full story. “That may mean telling our students about a psychology that is a little messy, muddled, and doesn’t always have definitive answers,” they write. “But, if that’s the truth, that’s what the psychology students are paying to learn about, not the fantasy we may like to believe is true.”
Ferguson and his team examined textbook coverage of seven areas of research consisting of findings which might be considered particularly appealing or unappealing to textbook authors with liberal leanings, and/or which could be prone to alarmist interpretation. This included research on whether media violence incites aggression; the stereotype threat (the notion that performance differences between groups are exaggerated by the fear of conforming to stereotypes); the narcissism epidemic (the idea that today’s youth are more narcissistic than youth in the past); that smacking/spanking children leads to aggression and other negative outcomes; that there are multiple intelligences; that human behaviour is explained by evolutionary theories related to mate selection and sexual competition (in this case, the authors assumed liberal authors would prefer not to cover this research); and controversy around antidepressant medication.
The researchers looked to see if textbook authors presented the evidence as more definitive than it is in these areas, or only presented one side of the arguments. They found that there was biased treatment of media violence and stereotype threat by half or more of the books, and of multiple intelligences and spanking by a third. A quarter of books failed to deal with controversy around antidepressants. Evolutionary theories were neglected by a fifth of the books and presented in biased fashion by one quarter. “We believe that these errors are consistent with an indoctrination, however intentional, into certain beliefs or hypotheses that may be ‘dear’ to a socio-politically homogenous psychological community,” Ferguson and his colleagues said.
They also looked at textbook treatment of various psychology myths and urban legends, including the frequently exaggerated story of the murder of Kitty Genovese, which is often cited as a perfect example of the “bystander effect”: our reduced likelihood of intervening to help when in the company of a greater number of other people who could help. Nearly half the books perpetuated the myth that 33 witnesses watched the killing of Genovese without doing anything to help her. Meanwhile, nearly three quarters of the books failed to challenge the popular misconception that we only use ten per cent of our brains, or that listening to Mozart makes us smarter. And 70 per cent of the books gave the French neurologist Paul Broca undue credit for localising speech function in the brain: the researchers say that the theory of the cortical localisation of speech was first put forward by Ernest Auburtin. “It is surprising to see so few textbooks addressing common misconceptions about psychology,” they said.
Ferguson and his co-authors acknowledged that some of the textbooks they examined were excellent, and they admitted that their selection of topics and myths to investigate was far from random: this subjectivity must surely weaken their claims that there is an ideological agenda influencing textbook coverage. It’s worth remembering too that the textbooks they examined were American, so the same biases and oversights may not be present in European and other texts. Also, they looked at editions available in 2012: it’s possible that textbook authors may have updated to a more balanced and considered approach in more recent additions, especially since the replication crisis in psychology has only intensified in recent years.
But despite these caveats, this new analysis is just the latest to suggest that some of our leading introductory texts may be presenting an oversimplified and sometimes error-prone version of psychology to our students. After all, in recent years, we’ve also covered research by Richard Griggs at Florida State University that’s found biased textbook treatment of Milgram’s classic studies on obedience, outdated accounts of the story of Phineas Gage, biased coverage of Asch’s studies of conformity, and of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. Psychology students: if you’re looking for a rounded and accurate introduction to the field , you could consider supplementing your textbook reading with regular visits to our Research Digest blog. Or maybe you do that already.
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