Psychology and the Status Quo

On the previous page I argued that psychology, like all fields of social inquiry, is inherently political. I also noted that researchers in psychology and other academic disciplines tend to be politically progressive and I argued that this stems, in part, from the fact that the mission of the academy is itself politically progressive in certain respects.

In reality, however, the progressive character of academic disciplines is regularly vitiated and deflected by powerful forces from far beyond the academic world. One reason for this is that the consumers of academic knowledge are often powerful institutions. Psychological research, for example, is funded by grants from corporate foundations, direct institutional sponsors, industry groups, the military, and educational institutions and government agencies with complicated ties to all of the aforementioned sources. Not surprisingly, academic disciplines tend to tailor their missions to fit those of their benefactors. Thus, as the discipline of psychology has grown over the past 100 years, psychological research has often adjusted its goal to explore psychological issues in ways that will not be too troubling to persons and institutions that hold power. For example, Ian Lubek (1979, 1993) has pointed out that psychological research generally treats aggression as an individual pathology, despite the fact that the great majority and most severe kinds of violence are committed by socially sanctioned groups and institutions, including governments, in order to achieve publicly supported goals. When violence by marginalized individuals and groups occurs, it almost always does so, at least partly, as a direct or indirect response to unjust and intolerable conditions, a fact which is rarely acknowledged in the psychological literature. To illustrate this latter point, a few years ago I consulted a highly regarded introductory psychology textbook (Atkinson, et al., 2000) to see how it discussed the phenomenon of aggression. The section on aggression was far larger than that of any other textbook I could find. The authors devoted eight full pages to detailing psychological theories and findings on the causes of aggression, including the roles of natural selection, specific brain structures, hormones, social learning, imitation, positive reinforcement, psychodynamic processes, and the influence of television. In the entire review, however, social factors such as poverty and unjust treatment were alluded to in only a single sentence (p. 413).

Numerous other examples could be given, and I will mention just a few:

1. In the field of education, Kozol (1991) has detailed the staggering inequalities of educational resources between schools in wealthy White districts and those in poor minority districts, resulting in a system that lavishes the most affluent children with enriching educational experiences while severely undercutting the education of disadvantaged children. Yet psychologists who conduct research on learning virtually ignore this kind of discrepancy. A recent search of the psychological literature found over a million studies on various aspects of learning, including physiological, social, pedagogical, cognitive, and familial factors. When the search term “resource inequality” was added, the number of studies dropped to 38, less than 1/100th of 1 percent of the total.

2. Surveys of public opinion frequently suggest dissatisfaction and polarization among respondents on a number of contemporary issues. Yet psychologists generally do not attempt to explore the wishes, fears, and concerns of ordinary people in depth or detail – for example, by means of probing interviews. Instead, a vast number of studies have been conducted on attitude change – that is, on how public attitudes and preferences can be influenced by those with the power to do so – advertisers, politicians, consultants, and other persons interested in shaping opinion rather than responding to it.

3. Several large-scale surveys have documented the connection between psychological disorders and environmental stressors like unemployment, poverty, poor living conditions, and racial minority status. Yet researchers in clinical psychology overwhelmingly focus on individual factors in psychopathology. When they do look at social factors, clinical researchers focus on the immediate social environment, like friends and family, but rarely look at the role of larger social processes. Thus, a scan of research on the causes of various psychological disorders suggests that no more than about five percent focus on the influence of economics, race and social class. (See this page for an example of a therapy session in which failure to adequately assess a client’s employment context may have led to significant therapeutic errors by a highly esteemed psychotherapist, Aaron Beck.)

4. In the field of assessment, Alfred Binet’s original vision of psychological testing as a tool for providing remedial help for children was sidelined, almost immediately, by subsequent psychometric researchers who replaced Binet’s measures of academic progress with global IQ scores that facilitated ranking children from inferior to superior – a development which Binet himself had explicitly warned against. Anyone who has worked with children knows that global IQ scores have limited remedial value but carry significant dangers of routing students from different backgrounds into a relatively fixed hierarchy of educational and occupational tracks. To make matters worse, it quickly became obvious that the tracks of this hierarchy tended to divide along racial lines, creating an opportunity for some psychologists to formulate complicated and fallacious analyses purporting to demonstrate a biological White intellectual superiority. (I have reviewed, in detail, the flaws fallacies, and misrepresentations in several of these analyses here, here, here and here.)

5. The embrace of psychometrics and IQ testing also provided an opportunity for the field of psychology to align itself with powerful institutions that needed psychometric instruments to sort and categorize large numbers of individuals. These institutions included businesses, educational systems, and the U.S. government and military. Psychology’s relationships with intelligence agencies and the military were particularly problematic. This fact became clear after 2005, when it was gradually revealed that the American Psychological Association had quietly allowed its ties to the military and the CIA to influence its official ethics policies so as to permit some psychologists to formulate and conduct programs of torture (as summarized on this page).

The point here is not that psychologists should drop their current research programs and focus solely on issues of politics, economics, ethics, and social justice. Rather, it is that the institutional blindness of psychology to these and other issues is striking, as is its willingness to accommodate itself to the agendas of its funding agencies.

On the next page I will look at some of the steps that might be taken toward creating a more just and humane discipline of psychology.