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In Dialogue with Professor Peter Hegarty about his Talk at the OPRC Launch Event

Re-Imagining Group Differences in Scientific Psychology

Eka: What’s this talk all about, Peter?

Peter: This talk is about the feeling of being marked as “other” and the ways in which that feeling is reproduced in the way that we write about social identities such as race, gender and sexuality in psychological science.

Eka: Interesting, that sounds like something a lot of people can relate to. How did you get interested in this topic?

Peter: You are right. I think we have all had those experiences and we have all been responsible for producing them in others as well, more often by being neglectful and unthinking rather than doing so deliberately. As I explain in the talk, some of the inspiration came from being an overseas student in the USA, people noticing my Irish accent and then suddenly being called upon to speak about the reality of some complex aspect of Irish culture, history or politics, or to say what all Irish people think about it.

Eka: Ok, I think we can all relate to experiences like that. So how do you research something like this, and specifically, how do you research it in relation to psychological science?

Peter: I focus on the question of who becomes “the effect to be explained” in psychological research.  So, when – for example – gender differences are found, are they attributed more to men’s difference from women or women’s difference from men. In which group, in whose psychology is “gender difference” located? By looking systematically at bodies of published explanations – and by asking students to write explanations for differences in their own words in randomized controlled experiment we can infer what factors make a group likely to become “the effect to be explained.” One answer to this question is status. Historically, lower status groups who tend to be “marked” in other ways become the effect to be explained. Gender differences are attributed to men less than 50% of the time. Race, culture and ethnicity differences are rarely attributed to White people. Sexual identity differences are rarely attributed to heterosexual people.

Eka: That’s great, but why are those results important?

Peter: Because we have an image of ourselves as neutral, value-free and as rising above cultural influence when we write in the scientific style in psychology. This research questions if we are achieving that ideal, or if it could ever be achieved.

Eka: So, what’s next in this line of research?

Peter: A side issue that came out of this interest was the question of how groups are arrayed in graphs and tables of gender differences. Again, there is a preference to graph data representing men ahead of data representing women, and both women and men show this preference in the lab and in published scientific articles. In response to my team’s earlier work on this, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association published in 2009  issued advice to authors to be mindful of graph order when arranging data representing social groups. The paper I am working on now investigates the question of whether that advice has had an impact on how psychological scientists graph their data now that we are more than a decade on from this advice.

Eka: Thank you Peter for this very thought provoking insights.

Please see below the original blog about Peter’s talk and the link to the recorded talk.

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