Contrary to what some psychology textbooks will tell you, Eskimos do not have 100 words for snow.

That tale, occasionally used in psychology texts to demonstrate how different languages develop specialized vocabularies, has evolved like an urban legend. The truth is, the Inuits have just about as many words for snow as English-speakers, says psychologist Joseph Trimble, PhD.

It's just one example of the misinformation--and often dearth of information--on diversity found in today's introductory psychology texts.

"There's a rich body of information that is not being included in introductory psychology textbooks," says Trimble. "And, therefore, textbook authors are not representing the field comprehensively and accurately."

To address such gaps between what psychologists know about diverse people and what is typically covered in introductory textbooks, APA's Committee on Ethnic Minority Recruitment, Retention and Training has formed the Textbook Guidelines Initiative, a working group that is tapping the knowledge of textbook authors and publishers to provide guidelines on accurately incorporating diversity into introductory texts.

"Introductory textbooks and courses are especially important because that's not only where many of us working in the discipline start, it's also the course that represents what psychology is to most of the college-educated world," explains working group member Michael Stevenson, PhD.

The initiative, which is chaired by Trimble and includes psychologists with specialties in gender, sexual orientation, disability, multiculturalism and aging, is developing a brochure that will provide tips for accurately integrating diversity into the classroom.

Due out in early 2003, the brochure will suggest diversity content for each typical chapter in an introductory textbook, such as biological bases of behavior, sensation and perception, learning, memory, personality, health, social psychology and others. The working group also plans to create a Web site that will serve as a companion to the brochure and include additional resources for teachers and textbook writers.

Twelve points to ponder

While some textbooks have significantly improved the way they cover diversity issues, it's important for authors to continue the process of infusing diversity as new editions and books are released, say the working group members.

"When writing an introductory textbook, there's so much information to know that it's impossible to know everything, and it's very easy to ignore or omit information or include misinformation," explains psychology textbook author and working group member Judith Worell, PhD, who serves as co-chair with Trimble. "The brochure we are developing is aimed at being helpful rather than critical."

Among the advice the brochure will offer authors and publishers:

  • Integrate issues of diversity into the main text of every chapter, instead of highlighting it in special sections or boxes.

  • Consider sociocultural and sociopolitical contexts as well as the biological basis of human behavior.

  • Examine the ways in which individuals and society construct and interpret the meaning of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and disability as well as the roles of social power, privilege and disadvantage.

  • Avoid simplistic comparisons and emphasize intragroup and intergroup variability.

  • Avoid using a dominant population as the norm and seek to present research findings that cut across diverse populations.

  • Use people-first language (e.g., people with disabilities) as well as gender-neutral language.

  • Ensure that alternative formats, such as large print, Braille, disk and cassette, are available for both teachers and students with disabilities.

  • Depict people with disabilities and from other diverse populations as doers, leaders, sexual beings and active people in both pictures and text.

  • Avoid using stereotypical presentations of men and women in pictures and examples.

  • Be cautious about oversimplifying complex issues of gender, such as saying "women do this, and men do that."

  • Be responsive to the pervasiveness and durability of negative attitudes toward most diverse populations, the effects of stigma and the daily barriers these populations encounter.

  • Seek reviews of the textbook from experts in diversity.

"There's a lot to cover," acknowledges Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, another working group member. "I don't think any of us are saying to add length or depth, but if you need an example, why not think of an example of an older person or a person of color? You can infuse diversity throughout the course by weaving such an example into your existing lecture. Try to think of ways to broaden the material you bring into class."

Not only can psychology's extensive knowledge about aging, multiculturalism, disability, gender, sexual orientation and other issues enrich students' first experiences with psychology, says Trimble, but it can also attract more diverse people to the field.

"The majority of students want this information," he explains. "Students of distinct ethnic and cultural groups will feel included when they read something about their group or interest--and I can't help but believe that's going to enhance interest in psychology as well as retention in psychology."

Further Reading

For more information on the Textbook Guidelines Initiative, contact APA's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs at the APA address; (202) 336-6029; e-mail.