Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On Using Psychological Science Carefully

Is psychology science?

Certainly, but the people who consume it aren't, generally speaking. I know, I know: We're ALL scientists at some level. But at best we are naive scientists.

One of the lessons incumbent on ALL professors to teach, regardless of discipline, is critical thinking. Part of this is getting students to ask tough questions of research and researchers. Another part is teaching them to be careful consumers of reports from journalists who distill that research. I'd also say that a final piece is getting students to think about the implications and application of research.

Take this story that caught my eye:
New ‘doll test’ produces ugly results.

It presents a replication of an old 1950s study from Mamie Clark that found young black children had negative perceptions of black dolls and positive ones about white dolls. Her study found its way to the Supreme Court and ended up influencing their Brown v. Board of Education decision that school segregation is unconstitutional.

Catchy headline. Decently written story.
You might think this study is important. For one, it was conducted by a high school student to which I say that is not an automatic knock against it. Second, it touches on a really important topic. Third, it replicates a study that should really be replicated. But is it all that scientifically significant? Yes, if the findings warrant the conclusion (that young black children suffer low self-esteem because they don't meet the beauty standards doled out by the media). But, they don't.

Here's how the study apparently went:
[researcher] “Can you show me the doll that looks bad?”

The child, a preschool-aged Black girl, quickly picks up and shows the Black doll over a white one that is identical in every respect except complexion.

[researcher] “And why does that look bad?”

“Because she’s Black,” the little girl answers emphatically.

[researcher] “And why is this the nice doll?”

“Because she’s white.”

[researcher] “And can you give me the doll that looks like you?”

The little girl hesitates for a split second before handing over the Black doll that she has just designated as the uglier one.

15 of the 21 children preferred the white doll to the black one. In Clark's original study, out of 16 black children, 11 preferred the black doll and 9 said the white doll looked “nice."

71% vs 69% of the kids preferred the white doll. That's all fine and shocking and disturbing.

But what about sampling?
That's a very, very small sample size. If the study were replicated with a different sample, would we get the same results? Results from small samples are questionable because the sample might not reflect the population we wish to generalize to. How representative are these kids of the average black child?

What about experimenter effects?
Just as in physics when trying to observe the behavior of subatomic particles, simply by observing them we change their behavior. If the person who knows the hypothesis and who wants to confirm it (no one ever really wants to refute their predictions, do they?) is the same person who conducts the experiment, interview, or words the survey, that person can unconsciously elicit the very behavior they hope to find. It's called experimenter expectancy. One way to limit this is to make sure the person who collects the data is blind to the hypothesis and purpose of the study.

Another problem I have with this research is that choosing an "ugly" doll means the child has low self-esteem. Do girls really derive ALL of their self-esteem from their appearance? No. If they do, those girls aren't normal and therefore are not representative.

Is the media to blame for creating beauty standards?


Our wretched psychological biases are. We create the beauty standards and enforce and reinforce them by continuing to pay black women less than white women and by refusing to date and marry black women.

Psychologist David Buss -- who makes uninformed, ignorant feminists' heads spin and bodies convulse in paroxysms of spitting venom at him and anyone who is a card-carrying sociobiologist... I should write a manifesto on what a feminist sociobiologist is, but that's beside the point, as is a similar manifesto on how EP is not social Darwinism or eugenics -- says this ((I'll quote him at length because I think he makes a valid point on this topic of media driven beauty standards - emphasis mine)):

'The journalist Naomi Wolf has described the media advertisements as creating a false ideal, called the beauty myth, in order to subjugate women sexually, economically, and politically, and hence to turn back the clock on feminism. The beauty myth is presumed to have taken on causal properties, covertly undoing all the accomplishments of feminism in improved conditions for women. The surgical technologies of breast implants and face lifts are believed to be designed to institute medical control of women. The diet, cosmetics, and cosmetic surgery industries combined... are said to stem from the need to keep women in line. Standards of beauty, the argument goes, are arbitrary -- capriciously linked with age, highly variable across cultures, not universal in nature, and hence not a function of evolution. Myths, however, cannot have causal force - only the individuals who carry myths can. Power structures cannot have causal force - only the individuals who wield power can. The story depicted by this view of the beauty myth is therefore unflattering to women. It implies that women are unsuspecting dupes, passive receptacles, with no preferences and no individuality, buffeted and brainwashed by the powerful forces of entities like "power structures" and "myths" that seek to subjugate them. In contrast an evolutionary psychological approach shows that women have far more autonomy and choice in their deployment of attraction tactics than proponents of the beauty myth would have us believe.... Women purchase beauty products not because they have been brainwashed by the media, but rather because they determine that their power to get what they want will be increased." (Excerpted from The Evolution of Desire, 1994, p. 113)

And that is why Beyonce wears her hair blond and straightened.

If we really wish to become a colorblind society an awful lot has to change.

This high school student's research, despite the problems, suggests we need to have a ways to go.

Where should we begin?


Anonymous said...

Yeah, that sample size is a killer. Down here at the factory, we've had a heck of a time getting people to think about all those nitpicky parts of research - sample size, methodology and whatnots - instead of just looking at the results. The honcho is no help either. He thinks "statistics" is a synonym for "lie."

PG said...

My own belief would be somewhere between the two perspectives. Yes, women can choose these devices or paths to achieve beauty to attain power. But at the same time,as a woman, how much power can you wield within a system where women's power is determined by beauty standards?

My other thought was about the relevance of dolls to high school students. Using dolls on preschool age children seems age relevant. But I have a hard time imagining a a 16 year old taking an evaluation of a doll seriously.