Social Justice (Part I): 7 reasons why every student should study psychology…

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We need to apply more critical thinking to social justice debates and studying psychology would help.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve found myself diving down the pretty deep internet rabbit hole of ideas, conflicts and controversies surrounding the social justice movement in North America, which also seems to also be spreading to Europe, Australia, NZ and other countries. Living in my Japanese-bubble I’ve been largely sheltered from the reality and severity of the discussions and debates raging on both sides of the political spectrum about all things “social justice” and it’s got me thinking, and lamenting, about the lack of critical thinking (from both sides) that’s so easy to identify from a (mostly) neutral outsider. I’ve also come to the conclusion that if more students studied psychology in high school, the debates would be far more productive.

Here are seven lessons from psychology that would help us have more productive discussions about social justice and how to progress towards solving the numerous complex problems we’re faced with today.

Lesson #1: Human behaviour is complex

It appears that the social justice movement is geared towards the admirable goal of creating social equality. However, from what I’ve seen it appears that these good intentions have been poorly applied. Let’s take the disparities in median income as our core example, as this seems to be used as evidence by both sides to support arguments.

To summarize what I perceive to be the social justice argument: women and minorities are paid less on average, which is evidence of discrimination and oppression. On the surface, this appears to be a valid argument. Our psychology students would be able to identify that the behaviour we’re measuring here is “financial success” and our metric is “income.”

But a good student of psychology wouldn’t stop here, they’d explore further and they’d ask questions. This is because as psychologists they know that human behaviour is anything but simple and for any behaviour studied, whether it be academic or financial success, intelligence, discrimination, etc., they realize that it won’t be the product of just one variable (e.g. discrimination), there will be multiple interacting variables. One of these might be discrimination, but it wouldn’t be the only one. So I keep wondering why this is the only factor being highlighted by the social justice advocates. It seems that discrimination and oppression are the only variables being considered, which is why I just can’t really take the arguments seriously. Yes they’re one facet and we can work towards eradicating this, but there are so many other variables that need equal, if not more, attention.

Bottom line: complex problems cannot be understood with reductionist explanations.

Therefore, in order to solve complex problems we can’t rely on overly simplistic and reductionist explanations – we need to search and research and search some more to understand the multiple interacting factors and work on those in order to provide more people with the opportunity to succeed in life.

Edit: Similarly, the conservative viewpoint is that income and success are products of individual choices, plain and simple. But it’s not that simple. Multiple factors are involved in the ability to make choices and decisions likely to lead to success. We wouldn’t blame an Alzheimer’s patient for not remembering something because we understand it’s a product of the disease eroding the memory centres of their brain. Similarly, can we expect the same people to have the ability to delay gratification, an important characteristic of successful people, if their neural networks responsible for that ability have been adversely affected through a combination of genes and environmental factors. Behaviour is anything but plain and simple.

Lesson #2: Cause and effect

You can’t understand cause by only looking at effect!

A psychology student would also identify that the above argument is identifying an effect (different income averages) and assuming cause (discrimination and oppression), with an apparent disregard for other evidence. This type of thinking is eradicated within the first few weeks of a good psychology course. We shouldn’t rule out a causal link and we might even develop some hypotheses that we want to test. But that would also require further research to test the hypotheses and applying the scientific method to a problem in order to fully understand it. Because, after all, in order to solve a problem you have to understand the problem.

I’ve also been amazed at both sides of the argument using median wage earnings as their primary source of evidence. For example, a social justice “warrior” would say: “whites earn on average more than blacks, so therefore discrimination.” And in retort, the counter-argument is “Nigerian-Americans earn more on average than white Americans and so therefore no discrimination.” The problem with both of these arguments, as a good psychologist would identify, is that they’re simplifying complex behaviours to individual causes. This won’t get us very far.

One of the most valuable lessons a psychology student learns is that in order to solve a problem, you have to understand the problem. 

Lesson #3: Validity of evidence

Psychology also teaches students to question their metrics and their measurement techniques. As I’ve been trying to understand both sides of the story, I’ve been quite amazed, surprised and actually quite bemused by why it is median income that is constantly being used as the marker for success. I find this especially surprising coming from people “on the left.” I’ve always been a liberal, Greenpeace fan, champion of the environment, skeptical about capitalism, etc., and these are (I think) traditional liberal values and so I’ve never measured success by money. It would make sense to me that conservatives and right-wingers would use money as a metric of success, but for liberals and leftists to do this seems bizarre since I think many would believe in the mantra that “money doesn’t make you happy.”

If you’re wondering, over the past two weeks I’ve done a Dave Rubin and now find myself floating in the middle of the political spectrum and am now more open to new ideas and perspectives than ever before.

So why is money always used as the metric for success? A psychology student might also wonder that perhaps a difference placed in the value of money could explain why people earn less than others. So I’d hope my psychology students would begin asking questions like “is income the best measure of equality? Why don’t we measure happiness or contentment as well?”

In my learning journey I’ve come across a few citations of studies that suggest as equality and income has been rising for women, happiness has been declining. But I’m hesitant to draw conclusions from this, which brings me to my next point…

Lesson #4: Correlation vs. Causation

This is another valuable lesson that psychology students learn and in listening to many debates I’ve found it quite comical (and alarming) how often correlation is used as evidence of causation. Similarly, some have pointed out this fallacy when arguing against an opponent’s point but they themselves fall into the same trap.

For example, conservatives argue that the correlation between race and income does not mean causation. In other words, just because black people earn less in the US it doesn’t mean that this is because they’re being oppressed because they’re black. They argue that there are many other factors, like parenting and values.

In the same breath, they argue that statistics show that the three keys to joining the middle class in the US are to finish school, get married before having kids and get a full-time-job. So therefore, if someone wants to succeed in life they just need to do these three things. But this also appears to be using a correlational statistic to deduce a causal argument. An obvious flaw that good psychologists can readily identify.

But once again I need to consider my next lesson…

Lesson #5: Conclusions are always tentative 

Psychology teaches us to always begin by asking questions and even when we have the answers, our conclusions need to be tentative because we’ve probably just raised more questions. I haven’t done the research into the three keys of joining the middle class, and I’m aware that while it appears to be correlational, it might be that regression analyses have been applied to the data and this does in fact suggest causation. So without looking further, I need to ask the question first and I’ll refrain my judgement until I learn more. This is a behaviour I wish more people caught up in social justice debates would adopt – don’t rush to judgement, but stop and ask questions first.

The social justice movement will not succeed by jumping to conclusions! 

And once again, I find myself critically reflecting on another psychological phenomena which every student should learn about…

Lesson #6: Cognitive biases

The common cognitive phenomena of focusing on details and ideas that are consistent with existing beliefs (a.k.a confirmation bias) seems to be plaguing both sides of the social justice argument. We find it much harder to accept evidence that contradicts our own beliefs, and in fact this evidence will only strengthen our original views, which is why I think some people are finding it so hard to have civil discourse and to try to understand the other’s perspective.

But this is why we learn about the origins of behaviour, including faulty thinking – so we can adjust it and adapt it. By learning about confirmation bias, our psychology students will be aware that they need to mindful of how objectively they’re viewing an argument and the extent to which they’re simply cherry-picking what they want to believe.

Similarly, motivated reasoning is another bias to be aware of, especially when debating emotional topics. Motivated reasoning is when individuals seek out information that reduces negative emotion and increases positive emotion. This can most often be seen when individuals will engage in intense scrutiny of the evidence that contradicts their views, while needing little more than a newspaper heading of a study to support their own.

By being aware of our own biases, we can take conscious steps to reduce their effects.

Lesson #7: Generalizability

I had a student of mine tell me the other day, “white people can’t experience racism.” I was quite shocked and worried, to be honest, because this student is about to graduate high school with an apparent misunderstanding of what racism is and a belief in a dangerous ideology that appears to simultaneously try to denounce racism while espousing racist ideologies.

My student is very much on the side of social justice and we’ve been having some really interesting discussions as I try to understand the issue. From what I can gather, the idea seems to be that any judgement or discrimination aimed at a white person based on the colour of their skin is not racism since white people (i.e. white males) have historically held positions of power and have oppressed other groups of people. Frankly, I can’t understand the logic of the argument, so am happy to have someone explain it to me in the comments.

What this sentiment lacks is any understanding of context and generalizability, which are two fundamental concepts we deal with all the time when we’re teaching critical thinking in psychology. For starters, I’m going to give the argument the benefit of the doubt by saying that perhaps it’s suggesting that because white males are in positions of power and privilege based on historical injustices, they do not feel the effects of racism. There is actually some evidence to support this – that different people depending on their individual circumstances will react to racism differently. (But this doesn’t mean that treating someone different based only on the colour of their skin isn’t racist – it is).

Saying white people can’t experience racism is such a massive generalization that it is nothing less than absurd and reveals a serious lack of critical thinking – the fact that some people believe that others can be treated the same across all contexts based on such a superficial characteristic such as the colour of their skin is why we need to get better at teaching critical thinking, and psychology is excellent for this purpose.

FINAL LESSON: What can I do about it?

When I started ThemEd to write resources for students and teachers, I toyed with the idea of having units designed so we always looked at both sides of every story. For example, I thought, “…wouldn’t it be great to teach a history unit where we could try to look at history from both perspectives? Like the winners and the losers?” My journey down the social justice rabbit hole has only strengthened this desire.

At Themantic Education, we’re going to keep writing units for a range of subjects and year levels and we’ll endeavour to always look at both sides of the argument. Whether it be a Sex Ed unit on abortion, a Science unit on climate change, or even a History unit on the holocaust, we want to provide students with both sides of the story and allow them to make informed judgements based on the evidence provided and their own critical thinking skills that we’ll help develop.

Because even if the counter-arguments are ridiculous, well then let’s hold them up for ridicule; as Louis D. Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Comments welcomed…

Comments 0

  1. Pingback: Social Justice (Part II): What the f____ is MTV trying to teach our kids? – IB Psychology

  2. Context is everything, yet patterns of behavior systematically imposed by institutions and easily replicable and adaptive to other contexts, abound around this topic. In the United States institutionalized racism is a real, current and historical, documented reality that affects blacks and Latinos disproportionately every single day. It begins at birth and continues for the rest of their lives. It begins with the level of maternal care even offered to their mothers during pregnancy and places them at a specifically disadvantaged starting point on the social map. That some may “break through” this social placement in no way negates it’s existence for the vast majority of blacks, Latinos, and, yes, other disadvantaged groups like refugees and immigrants in this context of the United States. It also does not, of course, mean that race is the whole story. We have not even brought language discrimination into the conversation- and that is potentially bigger, and a much longer documented phenomenon across cultures and time periods. I believe we should take care to not negate the entirety of a phenomen simply because it does not explain every nuance or application. By analogy that might be like saying that because “lung cancer” does not explain every type of lung cancer, it isn’t real. Historically institutionalized racism, profiling, and discrimination is a very, very, very real phenomenon in the United States. And it continues to systematically disadvantage blacks and Latinos, then other groups, who live it and must deal with it every day of their real lives. It does in fact affect all of us and the underlying psychological and social effects are profound, disturbing, and which go far beyond race, which we know is genetically almost not even a real distinction anyway. But we know too that humans are the only species, through abstract cognitive-linguistic processes, capable of creating social realities that are not actually “real” but which drive social reality.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the comment, Catheryn.

      What I like hearing and seeing with the problems are the identification of specific injustices (and more importantly explanations of their origins) and then the equally specific proposal of practical solutions to try to address it. For example, I was quite shocked to hear that schools in the US are funded by property taxes. Is this the case? If so, this is an absolutely stupid idea because will only ensure an unfair distribution of resources for education which will exacerbate existing disparities. That would be a very real problem that could be actively addressed (although it wouldn’t be easy). I like the example of using blind auditions in orchestras to address the gender imbalance; this is a practical solution that has worked. This is how I think we create change – specific solutions for specific problems.

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