In this post, I continue my interview with Dr. Peter Hegarty, a social psychologist at the University of Surrey and one of the authors of " 'Lights on at the end of the party': Are lads' mags mainstreaming dangerous sexism?", which was published in The British Journal of Psychology in December. My detailed discussion of that paper is here. The last post presented part 1 of our interview, in which Dr. Hegarty answered questions about the methodology of this particular research, as well as about some of the broader methodological differences between research in psychology and in sciences that are focused on objects of study other than humans.
Janet Stemwedel: It's been pointed out that the university students that seem to be the most frequent subjects of psychological research are WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Is the WEIRDness of university students as subjects in this research something that should make us cautious about the strength of the conclusions we draw? Or are university students actually a reasonably appropriate subject pool from the point of view of exploring how lads' mags work?
Peter Hegarty: According to the historian Kurt Danziger in his book Constructing the Subject, students became an unmarked “normative” subject population for psychologists, at least in the United States, between the world wars. Since then, criticisms of over-reliance on student samples have been common (such as those of Quin McNemar in the 1940s, or David Sears in the 1980s). Within the history of this criticism, perhaps what is most distinct about the recent argument about WIERDness is that it draws on the developments in cultural psychology of the last 20 years or so. For this specific study, our rational for studying young people on a campus was not only convenience; they are also the target market for these magazines, by virtue of their age, and by virtue of possessing the disposable income to purchase them.
May I take the time to offer a slightly broader perspective on the problem of under- and over-representation of social groups in psychology? The issue is not simply one of who gets included, and who does not. This is because groups can be disempowered and science compromised by being erased (as the WIERD criticism presumes), and groups can be disempowered when they are consistently located within the psychologists’ gaze – as in Foucaultian disciplinary power. African-Americans are oversampled in the US literature on forensic psychology, but that literature is not anti-racist, it’s largely based on a “deficit” model of race (Carter & Forsythe, 2007). The issue is not simply one of inclusion or exclusion, but one of how inclusion happens, as sociologist Steven Epstein’s work on inclusive paradigms in medicine nicely shows.
In other experiments and content analyses, my colleagues and I have found that people spontaneously explain group differences by attending to lower power groups more of the time. In our own research we have observed this pattern in scientists publications and in explanations produced in the lab with regard to race, gender, and sexuality, for example (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006; Hegarty & Pratto, 2004). On the face of it, this might lead to greater stereotyping of the lower power “marked” group. Indeed, as Suzanne Bruckmueller’s work on linguistic framing subtly shows, once a group is positioned as “the effect to be explained” in an account of group differences, then people tend to infer that the group has less power (Bruckmüller & Abele, 2010). Our work suggests that to trouble the “normative” status that WIERD people occupy in our ontologies, that inclusion is necessary but not sufficient. It’s also important to reframe our questions about difference to think concretely about normative groups. In the case of our lads’ mags research, we were heartened that people were prompted to reframe questions about the widespread problem of violence against women away from the small category of convicted rapists, to ask broader questions about how such violence is normalized.
JS: A lot of scientists seem to have a love/hate relationship with mass media. They want the public to understand their research and why it's interesting and important, but media coverage sometimes gets the details badly wrong, or obliterates the nuance. And, given the subject matter of your research (which the average person might reasonably connect to his or her own concerns more easily than anything we might learn about the Higgs boson), it seems like misunderstandings of what the research means could get amplified pretty quickly. What has your experience been as far as the media coverage of your research? Are there particular kinds of issues you'd like the public to grasp better when they read or hear about this kind of research?
PH: Your question touches on the earlier point about the difference between the human and natural sciences. Our work is caught up in “looping effects” as people interpret it for themselves, but the Higgs boson doesn’t care if the folks in CERN discover it or not. (I think, I’m no expert on sub-atomic physics!) Although some research that I released last year on sexist language got good coverage in the media (Hegarty, Watson, Fletcher & McQueen, 2011), the speed and scale of the reaction to the Horvath et al. (2011) paper was a new experience for me, so I am learning about the media as I go.
There is no hard and fast boundary between “the media” and “the public” who are ‘influenced’ by that media anymore; I’m not sure there ever was one. The somewhat ‘viral’ reaction to this work on the social networking sites such as twitter was visibly self-correcting in ways that don’t fit with social scientists’ theories that blame the media for beguiling the public. Some journalists misunderstood the procedures of Experiment 1 in our study, and it was misdescribed in some media sources. But on Twitter, folk were re-directing those who were reproducing that factual error to the Surrey website. Overall, watching the Twitter feeds reminded me most of the experience of giving a class of students an article to discuss and watching a very useful conversation emerge about what the studies had hypothesized, what they had found, how much you might conclude from the results, and what the policy implications might be. I am somewhat more optimistic about the affordances of social media for education as a result of this experience.
JS: Given the connection between your research questions in this research and actual features of our world that might matter to us quite a lot (like how young men view and interact with the women with whom they share a world), it seems like ultimately we might want to *use* what we learn from the research to make things better, rather than just saying, "Huh, that's interesting." What are the challenges to moving from description to prescription here? Are there other "moving parts" of our social world you think we need to understand better to respond effectively to what we learn from studies like these?
Related to what I’ve said above, I would like people to see the research as a “red flag” about the range and character of media that young people now read, and which are considered “normal.” There are now numerous anecdotes on the web of people who have been prompted by this research to look at a lads’ mag for the first time – and been surprised or shocked by what they see. We are also in contact with some sex educators about how this work might be used to educate men for a world in which this range of media exists. Precisely because we think this research might have relevance for a broad range of people who care about the fact that people should have pleasure, intimacy, and sex without violence, bullying and hatred,
We have suggested that it should prompt investment in sex education rather than censorship. In so doing, we are adopting an ‘incrementalist’ approach to people’s intelligence about sex and sexual literacy. Carol Dweck’s work shows that children and young people who believe their intelligence to be a fixed ‘entity’ do not fare as well academically as those who believe their intelligence might be something ‘incremental’ that can be changed through effort. Censorship approaches seem to us to be based on fear, and to assume a rather fixed limit to the possibilities of public discourse about sex. We do not make those assumptions, but we fear that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
JS: How do you keep your prescriptive hunches from creeping into the descriptive project you're trying to do with your research?
I’m not sure that it is possible or desirable to exclude subjectivity from science; your last question obliged me to move from description to prescription. It is sometimes striking how much many scientists want to be ‘above politics’ and influence policy, to advocate and remain value-neutral, to change the world, but not to intervene etc. My thinking on this matter borrows more from Sandra Harding’s view of ‘strong objectivity,’ and particularly her idea that the science we get is affected by the range of people included in its production and the forms of social relationships in which they participate. I also think that Stephen Shapin’s book A Social History of Truth is a useful albeit distal explanation of why the question of subjectivity in science is often seen as an affront to honour and the opposite of reasoned dispassionate discussion. In the UK, there is now an obligation on scientists to engage non-academic publics by reporting’ impact summaries to the government as part of national exercises for documenting research excellence. However, this policy can overlook the importance of two-way dialogue between academic and non-academic audiences about how we create different kinds of knowledge for different kinds of purposes. For those reasons, I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in a more dialogical forum about science and ethics like this one.
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