Journal editors are like science’s gatekeepers: they decide what gets published and what doesn’t, affecting the careers of other academics and influencing the direction that a field takes. You’d hope, then, that journals would do everything they can to establish a diverse editorial board, reflecting a variety of voices, experiences, and identities.
So a new study in Nature Neuroscience makes for disheartening reading. The team finds that the majority of editors in top psychology and neuroscience journals are male and based in the United States: a situation that may be amplifying existing gender inequalities in the field and influencing the kind of research gets published.
It’s tricky to investigate fear. An ethics panel would frown on shooting at people (even with pellet guns), or exposing them to simulated suffocation — or drowning. Though we know that scary situations trigger physiological arousal so that we can fight or flee, ethical and practical concerns have made it hard to get at just how that plays out in the real world. Enter a team from the California Institute of Technology, who left the lab in favour of an immersive scary prison attraction in nearby Orange County.
Research into first impressions is a well-established area. Hundreds of studies have been published with the goal of understanding how the subtleties of facial features cue assumptions about those we meet. Often, the stimuli used are tightly controlled, with some sets using faces whose features are digitally manipulated to be larger or smaller by tiny degrees; the effect of miniscule alterations to the wideness of eyes, for example, can be isolated and analysed without changing any other aspect of the face. By eliminating as many extraneous variables as possible, research teams hope to get a reading of exactly what specific features contribute to the first impressions we form.
While on the surface this sounds like a reasonable and solid scientific approach, it does tend to create one pressing problem in particular. If you’ve ever participated in or run a study using face stimuli, it’s likely that the faces used were exclusively White.
Authors typically give no explicit reasoning for this choice within their published work. Richard Cook of Birkbeck, University of London and Harriet Over of the University of York believe that there are four broad reasons for this common decision. In their recent paper in Royal Society Open Science, the two deconstruct the assumptions behind possible reasonings, and examine the limitations imposed on the field by avoiding non-White face stimuli.
This is Episode 23 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. Download here.
In this episode, Emily Reynolds, staff writer at Research Digest, explores modern psychology’s relationship with race and representation. It’s well-known that psychology has a generalisability problem, with studies overwhelmingly using so-called “WEIRD” participants: those who are Western and educated and from industrialised, rich and democratic societies. But how does that shape the assumptions we make about participants of different racial identities or cultures? And how can top-tier psychology journals improve diversity among not only participants but also authors and editors?
Our guests, in order of appearance, are Dr Bobby Cheon, Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Dr Steven O. Roberts, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.
Often when we discuss the replication crisis in psychology, the main focus is on what it means for the research community — how do research practices need to change, for instance, or which sub-disciplines are most affected? These are all important questions, of course. But there’s another that perhaps receives less attention: what do the general public think about the field of psychology when they hear that supposedly key findings are not reproducible?
As most observers of psychological science recognise, the field is in the midst of a replication crisis. Multiple high-profile efforts to replicate past findings have turned up some dismal results — in the 2015 Open Science Collaboration published in Science, for example, just 36% of the evaluated studies showed statistically significant effects the second time around. The results of Many Labs 2, published last year, weren’t quite as bad, but still pretty dismal: just 50% of studies replicated during that effort.
Some of these failed replications don’t come across as all that surprising, at least in retrospect, given the audacity of original claims. For example, a study published in Science in 2012 claimed that subjects who looked at an image of The Thinker had, on average, a 20-point lower belief in God on a 100-point scale than those who looked at a supposedly less analytical statue of a discus thrower, leading to the study’s headline finding that “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief.” It’s an astonishing and unlikely result given how tenaciously most people cling to (non)belief — it defies common sense to think simply looking at a statue could have such an effect. “In hindsight, our study was outright silly,” the lead author admitted to Vox after the study failed to replicate. Plenty of other psychological studies have made similarly bold claims.
In light of this, an interesting, obvious question is how much stock we should put into this sort of intuition: does it actually tell us something useful when a given psychological result seems unlikely on an intuitive level? After all, science is replete with real discoveries that seemed ridiculous at first glance.
In a world made for right-handed people, life can sometimes be frustrating if you are among the 10% or so who are “adextral” — that is, left-handed or ambidextrous. Now a new grievance can be added to the list. Brain imaging researchers are systematically excluding adextrals from participating in their studies, according to an analysis of recent research papers published in top neuroimaging journals. Yet there’s no good reason to exclude this population, say the authors — and in fact, the practice could be detrimental to research.
As father to an 18-month-old toddler, I would love to know exactly what my son is thinking. Along with many parents, one of the ways I try to find out is to ask him questions of the variety “Do you want X or Y?” But does his answer to this type of question actually reveal his preference or is it a more a reflection of a quirky cognitive bias that is more powerful in children than adults?
Two competing effects influence how adults respond to binary choices. The first is called “The Primary Effect” which describes the way that the first option we hear tends to stick in our minds. For example, one study found that adults are more likely to choose “heads” when asked if a coin toss is going to be “heads or tails”.The second effect, which sometimes contrasts with the Primary Effect, is called “The Recency Effect”. This captures the way that the last thing we hear or experience can also have more weight in our memory (this is why popstars end their concerts on their best songs, so that everyone leaves thinking the whole gig was great). In adults, neither the Primary Effect or the Recency Effect is always the more pronounced, with evidence suggesting that one’s personality type, familiarity of the information, and how controversial the topic is, all play a mediating role.
Keen to test if the same is true in young children, or if one of the effects is more dominant, a team led by Emily Sumner conducted two experiments and published their findings in a recent paper in PLOS One fantastically titled “Cake or Broccoli: Recency Biases Children’s Verbal Responses”.
You’ve been transported deep beneath the earth into a labyrinth of tunnels. You have a sword and a communications device, and your objective is to return to the surface. A figure appears in the dark ahead of you. Do you: (a) Use your communication device to say hello; (b) Formulate a contingency plan for escape and then approach the figure; or (c) Pause a moment to try to read its body language before stepping forward to approach the figure? [to interpret your preference, see end of post]
Personality traits are traits are traditionally assessed by asking people to rate how much various descriptive statements match their own personality, like “I enjoy talking to strangers”. This cheap and easy approach has enjoyed great success – people’s scores on such tests tend to be impressively consistent over time, and they predict important outcomes from health to career success. However, the questionnaires are far from perfect. Research volunteers might not properly engage out of boredom, for instance. Job candidates might deliberately fake their scores to give a favourable impression.
An exciting possibility for overcoming these issues, according to a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences is to use a “gamification” approach – present people with behavioural options in engaging game-like scenarios and deduce their personality traits from their choices.
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is an ongoing debate about the existence of differences between women’s and men’s brains, and the extent to which these might be linked to biological or to cultural factors. In this debate, a real game-changer of a study would involve the identification of clear-cut sex differences in foetal brains: that is, in brains that have not yet been exposed to all the different expectations and experiences that the world might offer. A recent open-access study published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience by Muriah Wheelock at the University of Washington and her colleagues, including senior researcher Moriah Thomason at New York University School of Medicine, claims to have done just that, hailed by the researchers themselves as “confirmation that sexual dimorphism in functional brain systems emerges during human gestation” and in various ways by the popular press as, for example, The Times of London’s headline: “Proof at last: women and men are born to be different”.
Does this study live up to the claims made by its authors and, more excitedly, those passing the message on? I think not.